How to disagree well about theology

What do you do when differences in interpretation come to a head?

Emily Coffey, Managing Editor

Biola is an epicenter of theological discussion and thought. A strong theological and communications-related staff and a student body who come from similar theological viewpoints and diverse experiences support Biola’s culture of theological discussion in and out of class. When many perspectives come together, disagreeing about theology can either help develop mindsets or cause harmful division. Here is how to deal with theological disputes well. 

ASK GOOD QUESTIONS 

Senior psychology major and Student Government Association vice president Andrew Cantelmi weighed in with his perspective, citing the importance of asking good questions. 

“I think it just starts with asking good questions and knowing that most people probably have information that you don’t and that information is a gift. It isn’t something to be afraid of,” said Cantelmi. 

Questions can help fully illuminate a person’s way of thinking, allowing for there to be clarity in the disagreement. He also mentioned the importance of letting go of fear, which can only happen when those questions are answered. A current theological debate that tends to get heated involves the difference of perspective on egalitarianism and complementarianism. 

One perspective tends to stem from a desire to follow the New Testament word for word; the other, from interpreting the texts that ban women from leading the church with historical context in mind, noting the lack of education for women during that time. The fallout at times leads to divisions within the church because this issue lies at the center of gender debates, equality and church trauma. One’s opinion may be coming from these incredibly valid experiences. 

PUT IT INTO CONTEXT 

On episode 47 of Dr. Muehlhoff’s Winsome Conviction podcast, guest Dr. Karen Swallow Prior mentioned the power of words and interpretation, the two key forces in theological disagreements today. 

“Words are a form of mediation, so we have to translate the words,” Prior said. “We have to interpret them in a way that we don’t have to interpret what comes to the eye. And so it’s that interpretive act that’s required of words that does something different to us. We’re interpretive creatures, and interpreting words just gets at something about us being made in the image of a God who is the Word, that seeing images doesn’t.”  

Unfortunately, the Bible does not offer pictorial suggestions of the stories and concepts documented. All the church has is words and historical context in which to work. Different interpretations will arise, given that everyone will interpret based on their experiences. Cantelmi talked about putting theological perspectives in line with respect for the history of theological debate.  

“We have to understand we’re participating in a historical argument,” Cantelmi said. “So this conversation isn’t new. I find it hard to talk to people who won’t admit that it isn’t a historical conversation.”

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