Maintaining Balanced Theology
“Everyone’s a theologian.” This common expression rightly conveys that all people think thoughts and express ideas that would be considered “theological.” Rather than theology being something that only occurs in academic institutions or during formal church services, anytime someone expresses an idea about God or his relationship to the world, that would be considered theology. This is why I believe that theology is best defined as “discourse concerning God.” According to this definition, any time an individual thinks about or discusses questions like “Does God exist?” or “What is God like?”, that person is assuming the role of a theologian.
But as we all inevitably practice theology in our daily lives, some characteristics should be present to guide our thoughts and discussions concerning God. In his book, Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem lists several characteristics one should have in approaching theology, including reason, humility, prayerfulness, a willingness to accept guidance from others, and rejoicing and praise for what God has made known about himself to us. I would expand this list to add one crucial characteristic: balance.
Approaching theology with a balanced mind is vital to maintaining a proper perspective on many important theological issues. In nearly every sub-category of theology, like the doctrines of humanity, salvation, the church, etc., certain paradoxes exist that require balance. A paradox is “a statement or situation that may be true but seems impossible or difficult to understand because it contains two opposite facts or characteristics.” Christian theology is full of paradoxical doctrines, and approaching these with a balanced mind is the best way to navigate them.
One does not have to spend long exploring Christian theology to discover a paradoxical doctrine. Perhaps the most important and defining doctrine in Christianity is the doctrine of the Trinity – that God is one but has eternally existed as three distinct persons with the same essence. This doctrine is a prime example of a paradox. The Bible is clear that only one God exists (Deut 6:4, 2 Sam 7:22), yet the Bible also refers to three different persons as God – the Father (Gen 1:1, 1 Cor 8:6), the Son (John 1:1, Heb 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4, 1 Cor 2:10-11). Another example of a paradox is found in God’s relationship to his creation. The Bible is clear that God is sovereign over all creation, including humanity and salvation (John 6:65, Rom 9:18-21), but the Bible also conveys the importance of humanity’s responsibility to accept the message of the gospel (Mark 4:20, Luke 11:10). It is easy for these paradoxical doctrines to be reduced to either/or questions, like “Is God one or three?” or “Is God sovereign or are humans responsible for their decisions?” A balanced answer to these questions would simply be “yes.” Rather than falling into the trap of thinking of a certain doctrine as an either/or, those approaching Christian theology must be content with a both/and kind of thinking when it comes to different paradoxical doctrines taught in the Bible.
While accepting seemingly contradictory statements as both true can seem illogical, I believe there is a comfort in thinking this way. If God does exist, and if he possesses the attributes that the Bible ascribes to him, like eternality, omniscience, omnipotence, etc., there are going to be things about God and his ways that are beyond human comprehension. The fact that there are things about God that we cannot fully understand or make sense of makes him more worthy of our worship and adoration. Put another way, if we could understand everything about God with our limited, finite minds, he would not be a God worth worshiping completely.
But since God is greater than we can imagine or comprehend, when we are studying or discussing his characteristics, we should expect to come across aspects of his nature that are confounding or paradoxical. Learning to embrace these paradoxes and affirm them in a balanced way is the only appropriate response to studying the nature of a transcendent, infinite God.
Unfortunately, church history is full of negative examples of individuals who have not held paradoxical doctrines with balance, thus distorting their theology in some way.
For example, the Arian controversy of the fourth century A.D. began because a bishop named Arius (A.D. 256-336) taught that Jesus was not of the same essence as God the Father. Not being able to rationalize how multiple persons could fully share God’s essence, Arius only affirmed the full divinity and eternality of the Father. As a result of this teaching, the Council of Nicaea was called in 325, and the council members overwhelmingly ruled against Arius and in favor of the clear teachings of the Bible – that Jesus was indeed of the same essence as the Father. Although the idea that God is one essence but multiple persons presents a paradox, the members of the council understood it was better to hold these paradoxical truths in balance with one another than trying to make sense of them by twisting clear teachings in the Bible as Arius had.
A more modern example of individuals seeking to resolve a theological paradox only to create significant doctrinal issues is found in the idea of open theism. Open theism is an attempt to reconcile God’s foreknowledge and human free will. This is a paradoxical doctrine because the Bible affirms that God is sovereign and knows all things but also affirms that humans are responsible for their decisions and make real choices with real consequences. In order to reconcile this paradox, open theists deny the complete foreknowledge of God, arguing that God does not fully know all things but learns as events take place. This idea does resolve the paradox of God’s foreknowledge and human freedom, but, similar to Arianism, does so at the expense of clear teachings in the Bible.
The Bible is clear that God not only knows all things (Rom 8:28-30, 1 John 3:20) but is sovereign over all things (Isa 45:7-9, Rom 11:33-37). Denying God’s foreknowledge is an example of holding paradoxical truths on this issue out of balance with one another. Theologian John Frame, articulates a more balanced understanding of this doctrine as he writes, “God is the cause of our free decisions… We do make free decisions in the compatibilist sense, in the sense that we do what we want to do. But that does not imply that any of our actions have no cause.” This idea that our free decisions and God’s foreknowledge are compatible with each other, even though paradoxical, is the best solution to this perplexing issue, as it balances biblical truths rather than denying them.
Many other doctrines within Christian theology fall in the category of a paradox.
The best approach when examining such doctrines is to affirm the clear teachings of Scripture, even if they are seemingly contradictory. This ability to hold seemingly contradictory statements in balance with one another is vital to any theological endeavors and is an important characteristic for any theologian to have. Because God is infinite and we are finite, there are things about God and his ways that we cannot fully comprehend or rationalize this side of eternity. Ultimately, this should lead us to a greater sense of awe and wonder at who God is. As God reveals about himself in Isaiah 55:9, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God’s complexity reveals his greatness to us. Learning to balance complex truths about God is important as we both learn about and worship him
This definition first appears in: John Miley, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Library of Biblical and Theological Literature, ed. George R. Crooks and John F. Hurst (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1898), 2. .
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 16-22.
This idea was popularized by Richard Rice’s book The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).
Rice, Openness of God, 15-16.
John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2015)
Sam Hitchcock (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) serves as the Director of Spiritual Formation at Oklahoma Christian School in Edmond, OK.