Rules for Theological Engagement

Last month I featured a blog post titled “What You Must Know about Engaging in Dialogue with Catholic Theologians” by Leonardo De Chirico. Leo offered practical insight into the sources of historical theology with which dialogue partners should approach the table.

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Since then, I have been reflecting on the requisite attitude for engaging such opportunities. The following list (adapted for Protestant consumption from the famous Principles of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin) covers the essential values and commitments that should attend our discussion. They apply broadly to all theological conversation, including the debates that we evangelicals have with one another.

  • We should recognize that no single group or viewpoint in the church has a complete monopoly on the truth.

  • We should not envision ourselves or any one part of the church a saving remnant.

  • We should test all proposals for their pastoral realism and potential impact on living individuals as well as for their theological truth. Pastoral effectiveness is a responsibility of leadership.

  • We should presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith. They deserve civility, charity, and a good faith effort to understand their concerns. We should not substitute labels, abstractions, or blanketing terms for living, complicated realities.

  • We should put the best possible construction on differing positions, addressing their strongest points rather than seizing upon the most vulnerable aspects in order to discredit them. We should detect the valid insights and legitimate worries that may underlie even questionable arguments.

  • We should be cautious in ascribing motives. We should not impugn another’s love of the church and loyalty to it. We should not rush to interpret disagreements as conflicts of starkly opposing principles rather than as differences in degree or in prudential pastoral judgements about the relevant facts.

  • We should bring the church to engage the realities of contemporary culture, not by simple defiance or by naive acquiescence, but acknowledging both our culture’s valid achievements and real dangers.

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