Trinitarian Relating

Guest post by Theologian Dr Rob Knowles, responding to questions in a Theology Group from 2014. This post explores the problem of polarized debates and how to avoid them.

First, regarding the description of your stance within the church, then it is clear that you rightly wish to avoid the problem of polarized debates and “positions” whereby partisan factions develop that a priori reject one another’s points of view out of hand in the name of often unexamined interests and agendas that are often more political than doctrinal; in such scenarios, “right relating” typically degenerates into “clique relating” whereby opposing cliques “speak past” one another without listening to each other and where, in any case, a sophist rhetoric of false labelling of the other has replaced any “Roman rhetoric” that seeks a true appreciation of what the other is saying so that debate can be genuinely advanced. We could tabulate some contrasts here, as follows:

Right Relating (“Trinitarian” Relating)Distorted Relating (“Clique” Relating)
Authentic Intimacy of Shared Positives that Seeks to Include Outsiders in CommunityCounterfeit Intimacy of Shared Negatives that Seeks to Exclude Outsiders from Community
Preserves Unity of the SpiritDegenerates Into Factions
Roman Rhetoric that Seeks Truth through Interrogation of Self and OthersSophist Rhetoric that Falsely But Cleverly Attacks Opposing Factions
True Redemptive Understanding of OthersInauthentic Defamatory Labelling of Others
Dissolves Acids of Suspicion/HostilityCreates Ever-Increasing Suspicion/Hostility
Genuine Expanding Dialogue Between Multiple Traditions with Genuine ListeningInauthentic Polarized “Debates” in Which Opponents Shout-Over/Speak-Past Each Other

Second, it seems that there is a point that you make that has to do with right relating to tradition as opposed to right relating to other people. No person or church yet thinks or acts like Jesus thinks or acts. Therefore, none of us are perfectly biblical yet in our thinking or acting. Thus, nobody can say “I have fully arrived at Scripture in my thinking or acting”. Therefore, what individuals and churches have are actually developing traditions that should be moving towards the biblical. If this is so, then there are right and wrong ways to relate to our traditions.

On the one hand, the traditionalist or institutionalist succumbs to an authoritarianism of “line-toeing” that admits no challenge from beyond the horizons of existing tradition. This is idolatrous, however, for it is like saying “our tradition has already arrived – we have nothing more to learn on our journey unto Christ-likeness”.

On the other hand, the iconoclast succumbs to an opposing authoritarianism that wholesale rejects a tradition. Again, though, this is idolatrous, since it arrogates individuals in the present over centuries of accumulated wisdom from the past, as though only persons alive now had any true wisdom.

Thus, the correct attitude to tradition is to be a tradition-modifier – one who respects that tradition transmits much that is good from the past, but who also acknowledges that traditions can also transmit error. The tradition-modifier seeks to retrieve from tradition what is good but also to suspect both himself and tradition as capable of transmitting error also.

But how can any individual ever critique a tradition at all without falling into arrogance? The answer is that the critic compares and contrasts tradition not with his own idiosyncratic innovations, but with traditions’ own “foundation texts” – namely the Scriptures – and with other traditions that see other emphases in Scripture that any single tradition may have missed.

Thus, the tradition-modifier is immersed both in the Scriptures and in its reception history through the ages – that is in multiple traditions of historical biblical interpretation. We could tabulate these points also, as follows:

“Toes the Line” UnthinkinglyRespects Tradition CriticallyRejects a Tradition Unthinkingly
Pro-Tradition AuthoritarianismSees Tradition as Transmitting Truth and ErrorAnti-Tradition Authoritarianism
Closed to Outside ChallengeOpen to Outside Challenge: From Scriptures and from Other TraditionsClosed to Outside Challenge
AbsolutismSuspicion and RetrievalAbsolutism

Third, there also seems to be a desire on your part to move beyond the over-simplified “cartographic distinctions” and false labelling that follow from not being immersed in the traditions. Immersion in multiple traditions of biblical interpretation gives the one so immersed a knowledge of where scholarly debate is actually at on numerous issues pertaining to the understanding of Scripture. This leads the person so immersed into sophisticated networks of inter-related concepts and categories that they didn’t have before.

The alternative is “fast-food-thinking” – a premature and over-simplified pattern of categories and pigeon-holes that is often unrelated to scholarly debate and that has more to do with popular speech-habits, sloganeering and labelling. Thus, for example, the distinctions between “Word” and “Spirit”, “Reformed” and “Charismatic”, are really generalizations that can only be spoken of in relation to broad emphases at the level of church cultures, and are always unfair when applied to specific individuals and specific churches.

We could tabulate this set of points as follows:

Developed Education/Thinking/Speaking“Fast-Food” Popular Habits of Thought/Speech
Immersion in Multiple Traditions/Actual DebatesUninitiated in Multiple Actual Traditions/Debates
Sophisticated Systems of Categories/ConceptsOver-Simplified Cartography of Categories/Concepts
Developed Doctrines of Word and Spirit“Word versus Spirit” False Dichotomy
Developed History of the Church“Reformed versus Charismatic” False Dichotomy
Proper Use of WordsFalse Labelling and “Sloganeering”

Fourth, another emphasis that you seek to develop seems to have to do with how to best correct distorted emphases on “Spirit” and “Word”. The issue here is “What do we do about this situation?” or “How do we address the churches on this matter?”

            To my mind, the way forward seems to be to attack the above three roots of the problem: (a) the falsehood of “clique-relating” that leads to factions; (b) the falsehoods of traditionalism and of iconoclasm that both relate to tradition in a wrong idolatrous manner; (c) the falsehood of anti-intellectualism that desires over-simplified categories and slogans. Once both sides of the polarized debate have realized these errors, then there is a chance of fruitful dialogue, further reformation of tradition, and of the proper use of theological categories.

            In my book, I identify not two but five problematic church cultures that have arisen in Britain, and I have critiqued all five. There is no way past this “a plague on all your houses” approach since no church culture has yet arrived and so, therefore, all must be in error!

            The alternative is to be seen to affirm an existing faction, which will then lead opposing factions to reject what you say outright. So, I think you have to present a critique of all positions, but also an entirely different set of conceptual distinctions that is unfamiliar. Certain words are so hijacked by opposing sloganeering trends – e.g. “Word” and “Spirit” – that whatever you say, such words will always be heard a certain way.

            So, certain rhetorical approaches are out, in my view. One such approach is the rhetoric of “balance”. Thus, for example, you could say: “one side says “Spirit”, the other side says “Word”, but I say we need a balance between the two, such that we say, “Word-Spirit””. The problem with this is that it implicitly affirms the categories already in use – i.e. a bad cartography. Both sides already think that they affirm both Word and Spirit, and so any approach that does this will be seen as patronizing both parties.

            So, my approach would be the unfamiliar angle – i.e. to deliberately disorient so as to force a re-appraisal – of stressing the above three points (i.e. (a) the falsehood of “clique-relating” that leads to factions; (b) the falsehoods of traditionalism and of iconoclasm that both relate to tradition in a wrong idolatrous manner; (c) the falsehood of anti-intellectualism that desires over-simplified categories and slogans).

I would then make the point that anybody who has not familiarized themselves with the actual scholarly debates should not prematurely take any kind of dogmatic stand on the matters at hand, since they would not know as much as they were pretending to know. Finally, I would seek to spell out adequate doctrines of the Bible and of the Spirit.

We could tabulate the kinds of issues at stake here as follows:

Ineffective “Plague On All Your Houses” ApproachEffective “Plague On All Your Houses” Approach
“Balancing” “Both-And” ApproachDefamiliarizing Excursion into Right-Relating, Tradition-Modification, Right Use of Intellect
Tacitly Affirms Over-Simplistic CartographySet Out a Different Set of Categories
Tacitly Affirms Anti-IntellectualismWarn Against Uninformed Dogmatism

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