Balance or Extremes

October 1, 2014

Pastors and scholars try their best to be “balanced” as they work through different aspects of theology. Balance is a worthy goal, of course, since imbalance tilts us toward extremes, which drop off into heresies.

Not long before he died, John Stott included “balance” as one of the eight aspects of radical discipleship most needed in today’s church. He focused on balance between individual discipleship and corporate fellowship, balance between worship and work, and balance between pilgrimage and citizenship.

Balance is a worthy pursuit, but there are times this pursuit can hinder us from hearing something that may come from “out of the blue.” We are tempted to dismiss someone who continually harps on one subject as being “imbalanced; we ignore the person who seems to direct inordinate attention in one direction, when it may be that we need to hear this voice in order that we ourselves can maintain a proper balance.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to point out a quote from Jurgen Moltmann, an influential theologian of the past century. Moltmann is well known for his emphasis on a theology of “hope” – the attempt to see and interpret Christianity through an eschatological lens, which unfortunately led him into process and liberation theology. Still, I believe he is instructive when he explains why a singular focus can be helpful at times:

“To draw theology together to a single point like this, illuminating it from a single focus, of course leads to one-sidedness. But the person who is caught up in a discussion, who wants to speak to a particular situation, cannot be complete and harmoniously balanced. In standing up for one’s own concern one must over-emphasize, putting one’s viewpoint over against others, if need be polemically. . . . No theology can escape a degree of passionate extremism.”

Is Moltmann’s emphasis on eschatology imbalanced? Of course it is, which he readily admits. But the benefit of his focus is that, taken with other theologians who may downplay or neglect the eschatological aspect of discipleship, it can serve to balance us out.

Martin Luther tended to interpret everything through the lens of justification by faith and a strong Law/Gospel dichotomy. Was he imbalanced in some of his exegesis? Most scholars today would probably say, “Yes. At times, Luther was unbalanced.” But thank God he was! In recovering a central New Testament insight that was in danger of being lost, Luther’s theology sometimes leaned toward passionate extremism, but God used his passion to preserve the gospel of grace.

We could multiply examples.

Take Calvin’s emphasis on finding comfort in God’s inscrutable sovereignty.
Or Jonathan Edwards’ desire to connect everything to God’s glory.
Consider Barth’s allergic reaction to anything that smelled like natural theology (because of the liberal excesses he had witnessed).
Or N.T. Wright’s interpretation of the New Testament from within the systematic framework of “the end of exile.”
The list could go on and on. Different theologians and church traditions put forth their insights vigorously, all with a degree of passionate extremism.

Some evangelicals engage the theological task looking for what is either totally true or totally in error. But much of our theological study should instead be seen more as a balancing of emphases – a tapestry where different streams throughout Christian history and different theologians with varying degrees of insight into important subjects are weaved together to help us get a better glimpse of the whole.

It’s because some theologians are unbalanced that the church is able to stay steady. The Church is the better for it.

Trevin Wax

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