In Praise of Theological Tensions

Photo by Vita Vilcina / Unsplash

My friend Curry isn’t the sort of person you’d expect to be named “Curry.” He’s a white guy from small-town Texas who had never tasted curry until I offered to cook it for him.

I call Curry my Favorite Reformed Friend. He’s the sort of person who has read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion cover to cover, keeps a copy on his bookshelf, and can quote it at length from memory. I’ve got plenty of other Reformed friends, but I don’t discuss the distinctives of Reformed theology with any of them nearly as much as I do with Curry.

Once, on our way home from a rhetoric conference in Portland, we spent an entire four-hour flight debating the nature of God’s foreknowledge and human will, throwing around words like soteriological and Pelagian. When we landed in Chicago, the woman sitting across the aisle from us leaned over and said, “Thanks for an enlightening ride.”

Like the rhetorical scholars of yore, Curry is an excellent preacher. Despite our theological differences—or perhaps because of them—Curry loves to hear my opinions on the topics of his upcoming sermons. “What would you say,” he’ll ask, “if you were giving a talk about Jesus as the word made flesh in John 1?” Or, “What would you tell a bunch of college students about why God created sex?” Or, “What passages would you reference if you were preaching to a Southern Baptist church about the necessity of forgiveness?”

I’ll sit in silence for 20 or 30 seconds after one of these inquiries, then start saying whatever pops into my head until I come up with something Curry either loves or hates. “I need to write that down,” he’ll say. Or perhaps, on the other end of the spectrum, “Those are some words I definitely won’t say in my sermon.”

One night, Curry asked what I thought about the Bible.

“I’m in favor,” I said.

Curry rolled his eyes. “Please elaborate.”

I had just finished reading N. T. Wright’s fabulous book Scripture and the Authority of God, so I offered a sloppy CliffsNotes version.

“If we treat the Bible primarily as a collection of correct facts to be believed or disbelieved,” I said, “we’re not handling it the way it asks to be handled. The Bible is God’s authoritative invitation for us to participate in his ongoing narrative of redemption. We’re supposed to join the Bible’s story, not spectate from a distance.”

Curry nodded. “But isn’t it still important that we believe the Bible’s facts about God correctly, so we can join the story properly? Doesn’t the Bible have to put restrictions and limitations on us in order to do its job?”

“Sure,” I agreed. “But I think a lot of Christians treat the Bible like it’s a leash tied to a stake in the ground, making sure we never go anywhere. I’d argue that the Bible ought to function more like a leash held in the hand of a God who’s taking us on a walk. It directs and limits us, not to keep us docile and motionless, but to guide us safely to the places we’re called to go. Trusting the Bible should make us bolder and more adventurous, not keep us confined to a seven-foot radius in the back yard.”

“Good metaphor,” said Curry. By the look on his face, I couldn’t tell if he was going to write it down, or if those were some words he definitely wouldn’t say in his sermon.

A few days later, after skimming Wright’s book again, I sent Curry a text message outlining the kind of sermon I would have wanted to preach if I were in his shoes: “One of the primary reasons we need the Bible is the ongoing discomfort and tension it creates for us, no matter when or where we believe or what doctrinal positions we ascribe to. To the degree that we manage to read the Bible as a reaffirmation of everything we already think and believe, it doesn’t have much impact on us. But to the degree that it continually startles and corrects us and places us in tension with itself, it serves as a bastion against the alluring pressures of cultural trend and religious groupthink and our own fleshly impulses.”

To the degree that we manage to read the Bible as a reaffirmation of everything we already think and believe, it doesn’t have much impact on us.

“Now you’re sounding Reformed!” Curry texted back gleefully.

Just to prove he and John Calvin hadn’t won me over yet, I replied with a quote from the fabulously un-Reformed N. T. Wright: “To affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions” (Scripture and the Authority of God, p. 92).

Loving the Bible means letting it take us on a journey, daring to discover something new, following its tugging leash even when that leash pulls us past the boundaries of our picket fences and out of our denominational comfort zones into the wide, wild world of the global and historic church.

I don’t think God is surprised by the existence of denominations. I don’t think he’s up in heaven wringing his hands, bemoaning the varied expressions of Christian faith among people reading the same Bible and seeking to follow the same Savior, outraged that so many of us have gotten him wrong and only one tiny church somewhere in Bolivia has gotten everything entirely right.

I think God knew we’d be different from one another. I think he expected that, among those seeking to follow him, there would be people better or worse equipped to see certain sides of the whole truth, people more or less willing to follow him in certain kinds of obedience, people more or less disposed to fall into certain kinds of errors.

The genius of Christian unity, of the body of Christ acting like a body composed of different parts, is that we become wiser and more whole in fellowship with each other. Our tensions, like tendons, make us able to reach in multiple directions without tearing apart. But if we keep ourselves sequestered in camps of identical theology and culture and practice, we risk devolving from a whole body into a pile of limbs.

Loving the Bible means letting it take us on a journey, daring to discover something new, following its tugging leash even when that leash pulls us past the boundaries of our picket fences and out of our denominational comfort zones into the wide, wild world of the global and historic church.

Piles of limbs, according to most scientific studies, accomplish very little.

I’m not suggesting that we all need to ditch our denominations and sink into a murky theological swamp together. I’m not saying we should act as if everyone is equally right, as if the truth doesn’t matter that much, as if picking a faith tradition were only as significant as picking a favorite holiday beverage or sports team. Rather, I’m proposing that some of the tensions that have torn us into denominations might be design features in the diverse body of Christ rather than flaws.

Some individuals and denominations tend toward emotion, others toward intellection. Some emphasize the redemption of unjust social systems, others the redemption of individual souls. Some prefer to dwell on what can be confidently known by our theology, others on the inevitable mystery we confront as finite minds grappling with infinite realities.

God is big enough to contain the totality of all these spectra within himself. He’s bigger than your denomination and mine. His Holy Spirit inhabits not just each individual limb, but also the tensions and tendons that hold us together as a body, as a capital-C Church spanning arguments and continents and millennia.

If we’re perturbed by the thought that the Spirit could work in those people—the people we’d like to forget about, the people whose theology we can’t stand—maybe it’s because we’ve tried to tame the Spirit into a calculus equation. But the Spirit doesn’t play by the rules of calculus (thank goodness) and has no patience for our taming. As Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3, the Spirit (pneuma in Greek) acts like wind (also pneuma in Greek). Both kinds of pneuma are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Sometimes choosing to be still in places we were convinced ought to catch the breeze. Sometimes blowing with hurricane force in places we were sure wind could never reach.

If we only ever look for God’s fingerprints in the places we expect to find them, we condemn ourselves to ignore some of his finest handiwork.

Gregory Coles is a tangle of identities: born in upstate New York, raised on the Indonesian island of Java, and now living in central Pennsylvania, where he recently completed a PhD in English. He has been in love with language since age 8, when he started learning his older brother’s SAT vocabulary words and reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He is the author of Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (2017) and No Longer Strangers: Finding Belonging in a World of Alienation, from which this article was excerpted (copyright 2021 by Gregory Coles, published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL). Read a review of this book here.


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