The Search for Theological Balance
How are imbalances in doctrine and defects in faith and practice rightly to be addressed in the Church? One way that is often employed is that of reaction to the problem while another way is the way of reformation. These are not two equally valid and effective responses to problems of ecclesiastical faith and life. The way of reaction is often one of trying to fight fire with fire and of aiming for a conquest and vanquishing of those deemed to be in error. The way of reformation fights the fires of error and the tarnish of imbalanced doctrine with the water of God’s Word and with the aim of correcting and lovingly edifying those in error.
When I refer to the way of reaction I mean those courses that follow a specific pattern. According to this pattern, a doctrinal imbalance or defect in Christian living is met with a reaction that is opposite to the problem being addressed. Such movements may aim to restore doctrinal and practical balance in the Church, but because they are themselves reactionary they are laced with their own defects of imbalance. For example, the Charismatic movement arose as a reaction against the problem of dead orthodoxy and an overemphasis upon the rational apprehension and ministry of the gospel. But the reaction of this movement has with self-conscious determination placed an undue premium upon the emotions and those things that stimulate lethargic feelings. The result has been that where Charismatic teaching prevails, a balance between the facts of truth and the feelings of experience does not result, but instead the so-called new wine of the emotional imbalance simply gains ascendancy over the old imbalance of dead orthodoxy.
The same dynamic may be observed in all reactionary movements that have arisen in the Church in recent years. The Sonship movement openly proclaims to be a reaction against a loveless and impersonal theology that touts categories of systematic theology and principles of morality over a living, loving relationship with the Lord. But the reactionary teaching of Sonship has committed the error of trying to subsume all heads of doctrine under that of the believer’s adoption by God’s grace. This overemphasis of the personal has tended to overshadow other teachings of Scripture that have been given by our living God who is to be worshipped and adored as our loving, adopting Father.
The Federal Vision and New Perspective movements have also arisen as reactions against extreme individualism in faith and practice. But because these movements, too, are reacting against faults and defects in faith and practice, they fall into opposite extremes and errors of faith and practice, wherein corporate identity practically absorbs the individual.
The way of reformation is different. It is less simplistic and martial than reactionary movements; it is more balanced and, because its effects are less immediate, more patient and confident in its own right and ultimately effective power. The aim of reformation is not to counterbalance excesses, but to supply the needed fullness and depth that are lacking in all defective faith and practice as well as in all of the reactionary movements those defects have spawned.
Those who are reactionary arise armed with neglected elements of right faith and practice, and proceed to advance those elements with a martial zeal intended to achieve the unconditional surrender of all believers to the emerging excesses. In contrast, reformers lovingly embrace their erring brethren, grieving over their defects, but patiently and confidently endeavouring to apply the teaching of the whole counsel of God as the proper and only lastingly effective corrective to the defective faith and practice. What reactionaries attempt by their advocating certain neglected portions of dogma and accepted expressions of worship and devotion, reformers actually achieve by their own love for and knowing and making known the full range of revelation of the excellencies of the person and work of Christ as contained in Scripture. We do not correct a partial theology with another partial theology that is composed of the missing parts of the first theology. Only a theology composed of every jot of the Word of God that will outlast heaven and earth is a true and lasting theology. Only one’s grasp by faith of the Christ and his saving work fully portrayed in the Word of God and accurately presented in the proportions that are set out in Scripture will give genuine new life, new power, new love, and new hope to those languishing by their feeding on scraps of truth. When defects and imbalances arose in the days of God’s prophets and apostles, they did not devise partial theologies in reaction to the defects, but rather declared the need and their determination to resort to the Law and testimony of God in all of its fullness, knowing that if any speak not according to the whole counsel of God, it is because they have no light, no life, and no love that issue from the one thing and the totality of that one thing necessary (Isa. 8:20; Acts 20:27).
William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia
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