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Church and Controversy Quick-Takes

July 5, 2010
(This post is not about VanDrunen--can you believe it?)
I just returned from an immensely fruitful weekend in Aberdeen, attending the conference “Theology, the Church, and Controversy,” hosted by the wonderfully hospitable Francesca Murphy and featuring such luminaries in theology and ethics as John Webster, Robert Jenson, David Bentley Hart, Brian Brock, and the inimitable Peter Leithart.  The conference featured an excellent lineup of papers exploring how the Church ought to engage in controversy from historical, ethical, and theological angles, and a fantastic roundtable discussion at the end that wrestled its way through the question of how we ought to engage the homosexuality controversy today.  (Not to mention, of course, the “Church Controversy Charades” that featured such once-in-a-lifetime experiences as watching John Webster attempt to visually act out the heresy of universalism, or Peter Leithart reenacting the castration of Abelard.)
A recurrent question that seemed to go back and forth during the conference in an irresolvable tug-of-war was: is controversy a blessing for the Church or an aberration that should be avoided wherever possible?  

A couple months ago this question was highlighted by Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical a couple months back, who pointed to an article in Christianity Today comparing an N.T. Wright conference in Wheaton with a simultaneous neo-Reformed conference at Louisville.  For the neo-Reformed, 
“protecting disputed doctrines against heresy is where good theology is born. Clear thinking comes from friction and protestation, from Hegelian dialectics (R.C. Sproul spoke on this), but not from compromise. The Patristic Fathers got it right whenever they were ironing out disputed doctrines and fighting against heresy, said Ligon Duncan in his talk. But on matters that were not disputed, he said, their thought sometimes got muddled up.”  
This is a common sort of claim to make, especially in Reformed circles.  Controversy is necessary to bring truth to light; without it, we would grow dull and lose our grip on the Gospel.  Fighting, then, is a necessary and desirable part of the life of the Church, suggesting that, if we ever find ourselves without fights, we should perhaps stir some up to get ourselves back in shape.  
Although no one at the Aberdeen conference put things quite that combatively, there were certainly a few talks that sought to emphasize a bit more the positive side of theological controversy.  Robert Jenson, for instance, argued that “provocations” are an important part of the Church’s life, and although some of these will be wholly destructive, and some would have been destructive but for God overruling and bringing good out of evil, some are clearly constructive, despite painful side-effects, such as when some Christians began preaching against segregation in the 1960s.  Peter Leithart, too, despite being the gentle irenist that we all know and love, sounded a rather combative note in his defence of Athanasius, so much so that he was quickly type-cast by some who did not know him as the stereotypical pugnacious Presbyterian.  
Brian Brock, on the other hand, taking as his subjects Stanley Hauerwas and the French philosopher Michel Serres, argued that Hauerwas’s combative, intentionally provocative style stood at odds with his pacifistic convictions, and that Serres’s pursuit of peaceful discourse was a more consistent pacifism.  This was not to say that there was no legitimate place for Hauerwasian provocations, but it must be a very subordinate place.  The most powerful account of the negative role of controversy was given in a brilliant and sophisticated paper by John Webster, “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” which came first, and set the tone for much of the rest of the conference, culminating in a fascinating exchange between Leithart and Webster at the roundtable discussion at the end of the conference over the doctrine of God and theological method.
Intriguingly, the flamboyant and combative David Bentley Hart sounded, if anything, a more Websterian note, appearing before us as a public penitent for his own propensity to violent rhetorical outbursts against error.  (Needless to say, I hope that he does not overcome this vice too quickly, as it makes for jolly entertaining reading!)  
That’s just a little taste for now; I hope over the next few days to be posting reflections from each of these talks and a couple others, with particular attention to Webster and the discussions he engendered.


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