Confessing Theological Arrogance

Graceless about Grace

I read this article on this morning, and it set me to thinking. The gist of the article is that you can be self-righteous about not being self-righteous. You can be graceless about preaching grace. You can be arrogant about being gospel-centered. Even so, the blood of Christ is not only sufficient for this kind of sin, but the answer to our problems.

I have found that some of the most opinionated and often arrogant people are, for want of a better term, the theology geeks. I thought it would be cool to write a nice book on the beautiful grace and love which God has for us. I didn’t realize that it makes you a target. I have been accused of being too calvinist from the one side, and of being too arminian from the other side. This in some cases without the slightest dash of kindness or the tiniest attempt at irenicism. The critic assumes almost 100% authority and truth on their part and a virtually perfect perspective from which to judge the careful thought of others that differ from them. I find people combing through my correspondence with them looking for ammo to twist and use as accusations. I am told that I am a bad exegete and that I don’t compare scripture with scripture. It comes from friends and people you think would be your allies. I find it hurtful and it tempts me to despair of writing. I can only see this getting worse.

Two Glaring Examples

I want to look at a couple of authors whose theology I really strongly disagree with. They’re both atheists. One is Richard Dawkins. I have a couple of his books, and I’ve actually read “The God Delusion”. As a reader, I get the feeling that he hates me. He comes across as hating me. He thinks my beliefs are worse than delusional, they are destructive to human progress. From my perspective he seems to have no ethical incentive to give a balanced and fair shake at my beliefs before he trashes them. He doesn’t care if he has twisted and misrepresented my positions because my positions are wrong anyway, and apparently I am somewhat of a subhuman for holding them. That is the FEELING I get after reading his book. It puts me at an extremely adversarial position and does not have the effect of persuading me as to the truth of his position. His book is more of a cheer for the home team, but a very exclusionary and hostile cheer to those on the opposing team.

On the other hand we have another atheist, in fact one of my favorite writers, Allain de Botton. Mr. Botton has written a number of books which tangentially express his atheism, such as the book I’m currently reading called “Status Anxiety.” There’s hardly a word in the book I disagree with. He is quite amiable and truthful about the strengths of the Christian position, so when he also speaks amiably about the strengths of other positions and the weaknesses of my preferred position, though I disagree in with his assessment, I am able to be persuaded and instructed on many other salient points in the book. He has written a book called “Religion for Atheists” which I really must read. I am willing to be persuaded by Mr. Botton, not all the way but in important ways, because he is kind and respectful and irenic towards my position. He understands the importance of kindness and respect in the art of persuasion. Thank you Mr. Botton, I am a fan!

A Shining Christian Example

In the Christian world, I have had some personal contact with David Zahl and have been following Mockingbird Ministries for some time. No one understands the power of kindness and practices it consistently like the Zahl clan. Mockingbird is a fantastic example of how to respectfully and artfully persuade, and how to avoid making enemies through harsh and divisive statements. Many Christian leaders deride and criticize almost everything in our present culture. Mockingbird takes brilliant examples from creative work in the non-Christian world and uses them as touchstones to illustrate the inevitable human need for Christ. It is a far more effective and persuasive way to be “in the world” and not “of the world”.

My Confession

Here is my confession, my sin and my shame. I’ve done the same thing as Richard Dawkins, but to my own home team. I have been the arrogant theology geek. If I repent of anything these days, it is this. Now that I have become the brunt of this kind of thing, I understand the harm I’ve done. I repent, from my heart. There is a better way to do all of this. Our theology is always imperfect anyway, and kindness and patience and gentle persuasion and irenicism are absolutely required. We are not going to persuade anyone by harshly insisting on our own rightness and by characterizing opposing viewpoints as weak in a twisted and false way. If others are persuaded of an opposing truth, there must be something persuasive to it, and it is this persuasiveness we must address.

What Must We Do?

This does not mean that we abandon our positions and beliefs, but it does mean that we respect different positions and attempt to characterize them well. It means that we seek to persuade by kindness rather than by harsh arrogance. Jesus may have called the pharisees white-washed tombs, but only after He gave up heaven, incarnated, offered them the kingdom, and from extreme love for Israel tried anything in His power to pry them from their own arrogance. He is the same One who later died for them, whose blood cried out for their mercy. When we are willing to die for our adversaries, maybe we can start calling them names.

We have been invited by Christ to come into this place of perfect love, which persists beyond each other’s flawed theology and lack of diplomacy and general imperfection. It is the faithless way to respond to harsh criticism and arrogance in kind. Perfect love cries for forgiveness and persists in grace even when the other is in the very act of murdering it. We have to see our detractors and our friends with the eyes of faith, that they are the Lord’s beloved for whom He died. I can’t see any other way out of the trap of this endless circle of pharisaism. We can’t pretend we are not part of the problem. We are part of the problem, all of us. God hates our sins against each other enough to require the death of His Son, and He loves us enough to die for them. How ironic that we forget this in our theological discourse!

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  1. Please don’t stop writing… Your book is the best explanation of the workings of grace that I have ever read.

  2. My Pastor once told me something that has stuck with me and made me really think. It may have come from Paul Tripp… “You are never more dangerous than when you’re right.”

  3. Greetings Jim… I met you at the MB conference in Birmingham, again at Charlottesville… its been my intention to write for some time now. This is obviously the right time. I have read The Romance of Grace and will read it again soon. It powerfully meets me where I live. I have been working my way through 1 John beginning at the beginning with your study notes posted here. Freedom is found living in the LIGHT… in this “Land of Wrath and beyond. Thanks many times over for candidly pointing me to this light in the person and work of Jesus Christ… my Confidence.



    • Thanks Jim, what a wonderful encouragement! I am actually hoping to gather the 1 John study notes into a book to offer. The 1 John study has been a real breakthrough revelation for me, and I’m thrilled that you’re working through and getting all of that out of it! Blessings and grace and truth to you my friend.

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