Tendentiously Tense

My brother was a gymnast, so my whole family was interested in the sport and watched it avidly, especially during the Olympics. I can keenly remember watching the Magnificent Seven win the gold in 1996 while we were on summer vacation. My favorite event, by far, is the balance beam. To execute any of those maneuvers on the floor seems challenging enough; to perform them on a four-inch-wide beam defies understanding. To undertake the sublime knowing that a small misstep will send you tumbling to one side or the other—that is remarkable.


It’s not much different in the Christian life.


Theologians, amateur and professional, attempt the sublime—to put into words the wonder of the incomprehensible God—knowing that a small misstep will send us crashing down into one error or another. The balance beam is an apt metaphor for theology because so much balance and precision are needed. I know of no heresy that isn’t simply an overemphasis on a truth that must instead be held in tension with other truths. So to synthesize the riches of God’s counsel on any issue feels like landing a complicated maneuver on a four-inch-wide beam.


Witness the great Trinitarian heresies of the first few centuries after Christ, which all either overemphasized the one-ness of God (as in modalism) or the three-ness of God (often by denying equality among the three persons, as in Arianism). Just a short while later, new heresies arose with regard to the two natures of Jesus—some overemphasizing his divinity, others his humanity. The great creeds of the historic church are great precisely because they embrace the tension.[1]


The problem remains today. While debates on the Trinity and Christ’s two natures persist to some extent—among Oneness Pentecostals and Mormons, for example—these debates have been largely settled within historic Christianity. But that doesn’t mean we are no longer in danger of falling off of any balance beams. Consider just a few issues today where overemphasizing one side will lead to an ignominious tumble.


  1. God’s Holiness and Love. There seems to be an overwhelming desire to reduce God to one of his attributes, or at least to elevate one to a position of primacy. The heart of God’s character is love, some might say, which has to inform our every discussion about him. Overemphasizing this leads to libertinism or universalism with alarming frequency (witness Rob Bell or Madeline L’Engle for the latter, and many discussions of same-sex marriage for the former). Others would point to God’s holiness as his primary characteristic (as in Islam), leading to a vision of God that is harsh and distant. God, however, reveals himself in Scripture to be both simultaneously. John the Elder can affirm with equal emphasis that God is light and God is love (cf. 1 John 1:5; 4:8). God does not act in holiness at some times and act in love at other times. When he acts, he acts in perfect holiness and love (and goodness and wisdom and power and knowledge etc.) always.
  2. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility. Does God sovereignly ordain every act in history—including the acts of humanity—so that nothing happens which he does not will to occur? Or do humans possess genuine freedom so that they can thwart the divine will by their choices? In other words, does human freedom limit God’s sovereignty or does God’s sovereignty limit human freedom? (Talk about a false dichotomy!) Pelagians, semi-Pelagians, and Open Theists would all affirm the latter, arguing that if humans do not possess “genuine” freedom (i.e., power of contrary choice), then they can bear no responsibility for their actions. Hyper-Calvinists and fatalists affirm the former, such that humans really do not have freedom (but who are we, o humanity, to talk back to God?). Scripture, however, affirms both divine sovereignty and human responsibility (cf. Acts 4:27-28). What Scripture affirms as compatible, we should also—even when it involves logical tension!
  3. Justification and Sanctification. Some prefer to emphasize God’s saving grace, whereby God justifies sinners, adopting them to sonship through the blood of his Son, offered freely in love. Others emphasize God’s sanctifying grace, whereby God transforms sinners into the likeness of his Son, so that they are holy even as he is holy. Both represent a truncated gospel. Emphasizing the former over against the latter leads to libertinism and passivity; emphasizing the latter over against the former leads to legalism and dead religion. Interestingly, almost every epistle is written to combat one or the other of these extremes. Jude and James come out strongly against the libertinism of emphasizing saving grace only, while Galatians and Colossians vehemently oppose the legalism of emphasizing sanctifying grace only. (Of course, the New Testament writers are wise enough to communicate both simultaneously: witness the transition from Galatians 4 to Galatians 5!) We should do likewise.


These are a few representative examples, but many more abound. One can easily discern the temptation to embrace tendentiousness instead of tension in issues as wide-ranging as women in ministry, charismatic gifts, end times, and even worship practices. (I will leave it to the reader to determine where overemphasis commonly occurs in each of these areas.)


Even this brief scan of some common, shall we say, unplanned dismounts would seem to counsel caution. We must consider the whole counsel of God and give due emphasis to everything Scripture says on an issue. If we are going to insist on any point, we should insist on maintaining the balance. In other, more alliterative words, we should strive to be tendentiously tense.

[1] Note especially how the Athanasian Creed expresses the tension inherent in both of these issues.

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