On the Importance of Doing and Debating Theology Theologically


One thing that I have noticed in my interactions and debates with people about the theological topics that I have been addressing on this blog is, in my view, a disconcerting lack of the ability to think theologically. What I mean is this: in order to support my argument, many times I will appeal to theological concepts or axioms (e.g. the Nicene homoousion or ‘there is no God behind the back of Christ’) which more often than not are embedded in and represented by the ecumenical creeds of Christianity, such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, that define the essential convictions of our faith. As we will see below, this approach is very much in line with how the church fathers argued.

I have observed, however, that this kind of argumentation seems sadly ineffectual with many people who simply want to volley back and forth biblical proof-texts (usually in isolation from their context) to support their own positions. Often I will respond that this approach is not helpful since it is usually just as easy to find proof-texts in support of contrasting views and that it is precisely the interpretation of said texts that is in question. The response that I frequently hear from these most likely well-meaning individuals, unfortunately, is that my appeal to creedal and orthodox theology effectively places ‘the word of man’ in authority over ‘the Word of God’. Furthermore, they often say, they have no interest in engaging in theological debate of this nature, preferring rather simply to continue the ping-pong battle of biblical references.

As I ponder this, I am somewhat disturbed and frustrated by it, for it seems ironic, if not a bit tragic, that many people seem to want to engage in theological debate without thinking theologically. That is to say, unless a particular theological point can be made from a specific verse or verses in Scripture, then it is immediately dismissed as invalid. To think and argue theologically, however, much more is needed. As any good historical account of the development of orthodox Christian theology (such as the doctrine of the Trinity) will attest, much of what we consider to be essential to our faith was not simply read off, so to speak, the face of Scripture. It was hammered out over the course of many years and through many difficult controversies.

The reason for this is, of course, that Scripture does not always lays out, in what would later become orthodox terms, the essential doctrines of our faith. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, did not receive full and nuanced expression until the fourth and fifth centuries. I am not saying, of course, that Scripture does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity; I am saying rather than it is not a doctrine that one can garner simply by linking a few verses together and thereby arrive at what the Cappadocians meant by ‘one ousia and three hypostases‘. The doctrine of the Trinity developed as the church read Scripture theologically, as it penetrated deeper and deeper into Scripture’s inner logic – the ‘theo-logic’ that binds together and renders coherent the various and occasional documents that make up the biblical canon. Ultimately, the church came to understand this theo-logic as grounded in and explicative of the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. It was upon and from this center – the regula fidei or ‘rule of faith’ –  that the early church believed that it could rightly interpret Scripture and formulate the doctrines of the faith.

This is how patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly helpfully explains, with reference to Tertullian and Irenaeus, the way in which this type of patristic argumentation operated and the reasoning behind it:

This unwritten tradition [Tertullian] considered to be virtually identical with ‘the rule of faith’ (regula fidei), which he preferred to Scripture as a standard when disputing with Gnostics. By this he did not mean, as scholars have sometimes imagined, a formal creed, but rather the intrinsic shape and pattern of the revelation itself. His citations from it show that, fully formulated, it made explicit the cardinal truths about God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus the regula was for him what ‘the canon of the truth’ was for Irenaeus, although he made more use of the concept. He states explicitly that the rule has been handed down by Christ through the apostles, and implies that it can be used to test whether a man is a Christian or not. Further, the regula points the way to the correct exegesis of Scripture. Like Irenaeus, Tertullian is convinced that Scripture is consonant in all its parts, and that its meaning should be clear if it is read as a whole. But where controversy with heretics breaks out, the right interpretation can be found only where the true Christian faith and discipline have been maintained, i.e. in the Church. The heretics, he complained, were able to make Scripture say what they liked because they disregarded the regula.

Not surprisingly, many students have deduced that Tertullian made tradition (i.e. the Church’s unwritten teaching as declared in the regula) a more ultimate norm than the Bible. His true position, however, was rather subtler and approximated closely to that of Irenaeus. He was certainly profoundly convinced of the futility of arguing with heretics merely on the basis of Scripture. The skill and success with which they twisted its plain meaning made it impossible to reach any decisive conclusion in that field. He was also satisfied, and made the point even more forcibly than Irenaeus, that the indispensable key to Scripture belonged exclusively to the Church, which in the regula had preserved the apostles’ testimony in its original shape. But these ideas, expounded in his De praescriptione, were not intended to imply that Scripture was in any way subordinate in authority or insufficient in content. His major premiss remained that of Irenaeus, viz. that the one divine revelation was contained in its fulness both in the Bible and in the Church’s continuous public witness. If he stressed the latter medium even more than Irenaeus, elaborating the argument that it was inconceivable that the churches could have made any mistake in transmitting the pure apostolic doctrine, his reason was that in discussion with heretics it possessed certain tactical advantages. Being by definition normative, the regula set out the purport of the gospel in a form about which there could be no debate.[1]

This type of theological engagement with Scripture is what I find seriously lacking in many of the theological debates in which I am sometimes involved. It seems that many are unable to, as did Irenaeus, Tertullian and the fourth century pro-Nicene theologians, penetrate so deeply into the text of Scripture that they understand the inner trinitarian, christological, and pneumatological theo-logic that binds together the entirety of the biblical witness. This is tragic when we remember that in those early controversies with the Gnostics and the Arians, both sides – the orthodox and the heretical – appealed to Scripture as the final authority for their own views. The impasse could not be broken simply by repeatedly asserting that the texts in question simply meant what each side thought that they meant.

Therefore, the church fathers came to understand the importance of making their case theologically, that is, on the basis of core theological truths that were universally acknowedged as central to the Christian faith. As such, they would argue on the basis not only of Scripture (to which even the heretics appealed) but also on the basis of the regula fidei which set forth the fundamental truths of the gospel that ‘regulated’ all biblical interpretation and further theologizing. As Kelly notes above, this regula fidei was not, at least initially, a creed such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, but rather “the intrinsic shape and pattern of the revelation” of God in Scripture. It was only in strict accordance with this regula fidei – the trinitarian, christological, and pneumatological theo-logic underpinning all of Scripture – that the church fathers could have confidence that they were interpreting Scripture and articulating the faith rightly. Not only that, but they also realized the futility of arguing with heretics on the basis of Scripture alone which, unfortunately, could always be twisted to support any number of deviant views. Rather, the regula fidei provided a virtually impregnable wall of defense inasmuch as it contradicted or undermined, whether explicitly or implicitly, all heretical attempts to distort the right understanding of Scripture. Thus, the patristic appeal to the regula fidei against the heretics did not supplant Scripture as the primary authority inasmuch as the regula simply summarized the essential content of the entirety of the biblical witness in a clear, succinct, and undeniable form.

I conclude this post, then, with an appeal to all who are engaged in theological debate. I agree that inasmuch as it is the instrument of God by which he speaks to us and encounters us in revelation and reconciliation, Scripture is the ultimate and final authority that governs all of our faith and practice. Yet as church history attests, we will likely not make very much progress in deepening our understanding of Scripture if, when we have opportunity to be mutually challenged and sharpened in theological debate, we rest content merely to volley back and forth proof-texts for our positions. Rather we must seek to determine whether our interpretation of those texts is correct, and we can do that ultimately when we assess the fidelity of our interpretations according to the underlying trinitarian, christological, and pneumatological theo-logic that binds Scripture together as a coherent witness to God’s self-revelation. Unless we do that, then as the church fathers would remind us, we will lose our bearings and become susceptible to every wind and wave of false doctrine that comes our way.


[1] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. pp.40-41.


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