I have been making the case that healthy Christian disciples hold firm beliefs with kindness and charitability toward others. We often equate firm, bounded beliefs with being close-minded, arrogant, and legalistic. At the same time, we often mistake loose, unbounded beliefs with kindness, winsomeness, and curiosity.
The argument I am building here is meant to cut across (or, in a way, diagonalize) these two simplistic notions. We are being kindest to others when we are clear about what we really believe. More than that, true kindness and charitability will only come when we have the greatest confidence in what we believe. Only then can I truly respect and consider what you believe, no matter how different it may be from me, without feeling threatened or fearful.
David Brooks recently wrote a great piece for the Atlantic where he argued that the reason our society has become so mean is because “[w]e inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration.” The loss of moral formation means we are no longer trained to hold up any set of ideals. Without this common formation, we cannot answer questions like, How do we keep our evolutionarily conferred egotism under control? How do you welcome a neighbor into your community? How do you disagree with someone constructively? How do we find purpose or meaning in life?
In other words, without firm beliefs concerning what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8), we lose the ability to be truly kind and considerate toward our neighbors.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, a historic theological document of the Reformation, is a set of firm beliefs concerning what the Bible teaches across several major doctrines and topics. Confessionally Reformed Christians who follow this historic tradition have great reason to be those who can hold firm convictions with kindness and charitability. This time-tested Christian tradition is more than sufficient to create bonds of unity and train its followers to be trust-giving, best-believing followers of Jesus.
In my previous piece, I argued that the Confession conditions us not to react to others with fear. Instead, it trains us to trust and believe the best in others, whether they are Christian or not. Building on those thoughts, I will suggest below that confessional faith also deals with the fear we have for ourselves, which then allows us to be more charitable to varying beliefs of others. Following the terminology I’ve been using in this series, confessionalism gives us both a healthy bounded and centered faith.
Fear of Self
Growing up, I always rejected the idea of Star Trek thinking it was a show for middle-aged nerds. From what little I’d seen of it, the show always seemed slow-paced without much exciting happening.
Now that I am a middle-aged nerd myself, I have taken to Star Trek faster than you could say, “Beam me up, Scotty!” I often feel inspired by the ideals portrayed in the show, which not only encourage imaginative awe at what could be in our universe, but also challenge me to treat all that is created with dignity and respect.
In this fictious universe, the members of the Federation regularly find themselves in ethically challenging situations. Sometimes, resources are scarce, and it seems impractical to give everyone they meet a fair shake. Other times, the crew feels they will have to choose saving some lives over others. Often, the temptation to turn to violence or exploitation as an answer to their challenges is strong.
What keeps the crews of the Federation from giving into fear or violence isn’t some loose ideal of being kind and compassionate. Instead, the Federation operates from a bounded set of rules, codes, and directives which keep its members committed to the ideals of compassion, kindness, and dignity.
So, for example, Directive 010 instructs members of the Federation to first attempt every possible nonmilitary solution before engaging an alien species in battle. The Prime Directive instructs members of the Federation to show dignity to primitive species and allow them to develop on their own.
With these bounded rules and beliefs, the Federation can “boldly go” into any new situation and remain committed to their ideals.
Jesus warns us through his Apostle not to be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14). Such teaching is often interpreted in Christian circles as if we should stay away from the winds and waves entirely. So, we are often told, stay away from the “ungodly” ideas of modernism, secularism, humanism, science, and so on. Such ideas will only take us away from Jesus and cause us to abandon our faith. Those who hold these positions want us to be defensive, combative, and triumphant over any other ideology which is labeled a threat.
What proponents of this position often miss is that we are never told to avoid the winds and waves entirely; we are instructed not to be tossed about by them. Indeed, Jesus did not pray for us to be taken out of the world, but that we would be kept from evil in the world (John17:14-15). The Apostle rightly teaches that it is only through many trials that we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22); it is through challenges and trials that we learn endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-5).
The image of a boat at sea is fitting. Many of us have been taught to fear ourselves, as if our figurative boats are too small and helpless for a journey at sea. We have been led to believe that our faith is too weak to stand up to threats and challenges. We have been taught that the danger is too great, so we ought never to set sail at all through potential storms at all.
But this is not the life of faith that Jesus has tasked for us. We are not meant to stay safely on shore and avoid a life at sea. We are meant to strengthen our faith and take what we need to be equipped so that, when the wind and waves come, we can stay faithful and keep moving forward.
Our fear of the self – fear that we will lose our faith, fear that we won’t have good answers, fear that “secular” or “non-Christian” ideas will pull us away from Jesus – these are not what we need for a life of faithfulness. Such fears cause us to retreat and react to perceived threats like a caged and wounded animal.
What we need is an anchor that keeps us connected to Jesus so that, when the winds and waves come, we can stay faithful disciples who “boldly go” where Jesus takes us.
Grace for Others
The Confession is such an anchor which equips us to stay connected to Jesus even when the winds and waves come crashing over us. It not only teaches us to be more trusting of others, as we’ve previously seen, but it also equips us to have greater confidence in our faith and beliefs. The Confession addresses our fears, calms our anxieties, and lessens our anger. As a result, we can have grace for others across our differences and divides.
In fact, when the Confession is shaping us as it should, we’re even willing to respectfully and humbly learn from those whom we disagree with.
The Dutch Theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a great example of this. His deeply held Reformed and confessional beliefs led him to the conviction that this tradition provides an all-encompassing view which brings unity to all of life. As a result, Bavinck is known for graciously examining a wide perspective of views in his Reformed Dogmatics and Reformed Ethics. Students familiar with his work know that he will take the time to examine differing views on a wide variety of subjects; be they modern, Catholic, or differing protestant positions. In fact, new readers of Bavinck often have a hard time discerning which views belong to Bavinck, and which were the views he was trying to fairly represent and examine.
Dr. Nathaniel Gray Sutanto has written an excellent analysis of Bavinck’s Christian Worldview. Dr. Sutanto closes the article with three great points, two of which are relevant to my argument here. First, Bavinck demonstrates a posture that is patiently inductive. “[Bavinck had] this profound sense of a patient confidence in God even as he was detailing the arguments that stem from opposing worldviews and thinkers. He was able to describe the yields of the newest research in his own day, before showing in very particular and specific ways how Christianity offers aid and a more holistic alternative.” Bavinck’s bounded, Reformed beliefs made him more, not less, patient with others.
Second, Bavinck demonstrates how the Reformed faith ought to deepen understanding, not simplify it. “Worldview thinking in our day often times simplifies thinkers by categorizing them together under an “ism” and then dismissing them… Bavinck pushes us to explore particular thinkers deeply and to seek to find out their first principles, that which is behind what they are saying, their foundations and assumptions. He treated each thinker with the appropriate care required before he adjudicates on their worldview. We do well, then, to emulate this desire to treat each thinker with patience and care, rather than boxing them into an “ism” that we can dismiss beforehand.” Confessionally Reformed disciples show dignity to others by not reducing them to a strawman or a villain.
In summary, Bavinck demonstrates for us how bounded Reformed beliefs fuels a kind of centered posture which treats other views with respect, patience, care, and grace.
Bounded and Centered
I previously defined bounded beliefs as those which set strong, clearly defined boundaries for people to adhere to. Centered beliefs, in contrast, are less concerned with clear boundaries as they are the direction you’re headed in. What, or who, is your center that is shaping you and pulling you in? Bavinck demonstrates for us how bounded beliefs at their best also make us centered in our pursuit of truth and Christlikeness.
Being firmly rooted in a robust theological tradition, such as the one the Westminster Confession gives to us, allows us to do the same. Two modern examples demonstrate what it looks like for us to have both bounded and centered postures of belief.
When the Evangelical world was (and still is) in turmoil over the (supposed) prominence of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in social discourse, Dr. Anthony Bradley wrote a compelling and insightful piece titled “Critical Race Theory Isn’t a Threat for Presbyterians.” The title summarizes his point: confessionally Reformed Christians need not buy into any discourse which teaches us to be threatened by differing points of view. Bradley writes,
However, if you are Presbyterian, believe in the authority of Scripture, and have a theology that summarizes the Bible’s teachings in the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and understands covenant theology, one could easily see the strengths and limitations of CRT and propose something even better to account for what we see in the world today on the intersection of America’s racial history with contemporary culture…
Do not pledge allegiance to the secular conservative hysteria over CRT. Eat the meat, spit out the bones, use the resources of the Christian and Presbyterian traditions for analysis and proposals for solutions, and pray. With that foundation in our own tradition and our own resources, we can then approach other schools of thought in a careful, wise way that discerns true insights and rejects false claims. CRT can be and is useful in some limited contexts for identifying where race may be a variable just as other forms of secular theories (including much classical philosophy!) can be useful as tools for analysis.
Dr. Bradley even exhorts us to incorporate the best insights from CRT to build a better, more comprehensive narrative for racism and injustice in our society. Such respect for diverse views is only possible when we are anchored in a robust Christian tradition.
The late Dr. Timothy Keller modeled this bounded and centered posture well in his ministry. One does not need to listen to many of his sermons, or read many of his writings, to discern that Dr. Keller held firm, bounded, Reformed beliefs. At the same time, Keller often pulled insights from a wide variety of differing sources, often non-Christian, if they served instruction and discipleship.
It was this duality which gave Dr. Keller great dignity, respect, and charitability toward other views. He championed a Christian engagement with culture which might look something like this:
It would be a place where people who deeply differ nonetheless listen long and carefully before speaking. There people would avoid all strawmen and treat each other’s objections and doubts with respect and seriousness. They would stretch to understand the other side so well that their opponents could say, “You represent my position in a better and more compelling way than I can myself.” (Making Sense of God, p. 4).
Bounded beliefs then, at least the right kind of bounded beliefs, fuel kindness and charitability. Any attempt to represent orthodox Christian faith apart from kindness is reductionistic and misguided.
Bavinck, Bradley, and Keller all demonstrate the case I am endeavoring to build here: Reformed, confessional Christians ought to be the most gracious in disagreements, highly flexible on secondary issues, nonreactive, willing to learn from differing viewpoints, remarkably patient toward non-Christians, holding beliefs with conviction while still celebrating unity and agreement wherever it is found.
Such Christians bear the frujt of the Spirit in abundance, being drawn and shaped more and more into the image of Christ.