Volume 36 - Issue 1

Know Your Limits: The Key Secret of Theological Controversy

By Carl Trueman


In a conversation late in his life, Goethe commented that the secret of artistic genius lay in self-limitation. One might perhaps apply the same today to theological controversy. Indeed, while knowing one’s limits is important to making appropriate contributions to many areas, it is vital in theology.

In a conversation late in his life, Goethe commented that the secret of artistic genius lay in self-limitation. One might perhaps apply the same today to theological controversy. Indeed, while knowing one’s limits is important to making appropriate contributions to many areas, it is vital in theology. This is especially true at a time like this, when technology makes the possibility of excess an omnipresent reality.

As with most pieces of advice, this is, of course, more of a ‘do as I say’ matter rather than a ‘do as I have done.’ We all make mistakes; hopefully, as we age, their frequency—or at least their variety—decreases; but just because one does not always live up to one’s own stated standards does not mean that those standards cease to be valid.

Limitation is particularly important in theological controversy for three main reasons: time, calling, and competence. All three are closely connected. Our time is to be spent on the things to which we are called, and we are generally called to those things in which we exhibit a certain degree of competence. Thus, for me to spend considerable time each day between eight in the morning and six in the evening trying to master the steps of a foxtrot or tango would be time wasted: two left feet, no sense of rhythm, and a family dependent upon a salary based upon teaching and administration all indicate that my priorities should lie elsewhere.

In theological controversy, this means that we must always assess whether a particular controversy is one in which we should engage. Here are some basic rules to help us limit the battles which we are prepared to fight. The first question to ask oneself is this: Does this issue impact my local church or my denomination? Forget nebulous ideas of the church as some amorphous, worldwide conglomerate, and think concretely, locally, and denominationally. Often there is sufficient trouble on our own doorsteps to make home the priority.

The Internet can create the illusion that the world is smaller than it really is. Certainly, ideas, information, and news of events can be transmitted over vast distances in the twinkling of an eye. A blog posted in New York can be instantly read in Jakarta; an e-book launched in London is immediately ready for downloading in Cape Town. This means that things in one country can have implications elsewhere, but we need to use discernment before we decide to respond.

Rob Bell’s recent book on hell is a good example of this.1 The promotional video was available online. Within a short period of time there was also much web speculation about the book’s content.2 At the request of a friend, I critiqued Bell’s use of a quotation from Luther, but I did no more.3 Why? Well, despite the volume of discussion on the web, the book has had no impact as far as I can tell upon the people in my church. My calling is first and foremost to them; and in being a good local churchman, my time and emotional energy must be focused on that particular constituency. They are more concerned about making budget and about health issues, employment, and the myriad difficulties of real life than they are about the pop-theology of the latest mega-church sensation.

Some may respond that this indicates that I am delinquent in my duties to the wider church. Is this not a case of someone taking a rather isolationist, ostrich-like approach? What happens in the trendy mega-church today will happen in the untrendy tiny-church tomorrow, or so the argument goes.

I will concede that there is a certain power in this, but we need to remember two things. First, there is an awful lot of junk out there in the church-world, and therefore one must always use discernment in deciding which battles to fight. One simply cannot fight them all. One must have some criteria for selection, and whether or not it has an immediate impact upon one’s immediate constituency would seem to have a decent claim to being one of the most important.

Second, all Christians have a responsibility to help build up their local church. Part of that involves positive actions: for example, encouraging each other and bearing one another’s burdens. Part of it also involves refraining from certain actions which might lead others astray; and one such action would be introducing certain errors to people who would otherwise be blissfully unaware of them.

Thus, if nobody in my congregation is wrestling with open theism’s notion that God does not know the future, there is little good purpose served in me spending a great deal of time elaborating all of the arguments for open theism and then refuting them. Certainly, I may well address the question of God’s foreknowledge as I preach through the Bible. I will not be able to avoid it at some points; but I will address it only when the text demands it or somebody in the congregation raises it as an issue.

Someone may pose a further objection to my apparent isolationism at this point: yes, Trueman, you have local church and denominational responsibilities; but you are also a teacher at a seminary and someone whose words have an impact beyond the hundred or so people you see in church every Sunday.

Again, there is a certain force to this, but in response I would move to the second limiting factor in choosing which controversy to engage: competence. There is, of course, a place for generalism. Every Christian has to be a generalist at some level: we are all supposed to speak the gospel to each other and to those outside the church, for example. The commands to build up the body, to give a reason for the hope we have, and to carry forward the Great Commission do not apply only to those with an M.Div. They apply to all Christians.

Nevertheless, the Lord has provided the church with specialists. Just as many congregations enjoy the presence in their membership of a plumber who is able to deal expertly with issues of pipes and water supply and drains, so the church has people who specialize in theology, biblical studies and other divisions of the theological curriculum. Thus, the fact that I am not competent to engage certain issues at a certain level should cause me to limit the battles I fight. Just as I may be able to unblock a drain at the church but should leave the fitting of a new boiler to an expert, so I can engage most theological controversies at the level which a typical Christian might struggle with them; but I must realize that my ability to do so at a highly technical level is limited to my area of specialized training.

This leads to my final observation. I sometimes wonder if the reason so many theologians, amateur and professional, like to engage in online theological controversy has as much to do with them wanting a piece of the action as desiring to help the church. Like those people who stood around weeping and wailing after the death of Michael Jackson and yet who had no personal relationship with him at all, so I suspect many make themselves feel important by engaging in theological controversies which, by the criteria above, are none of their business. Once, for example, someone has written a good refutation of Rob Bell’s use of Scripture or historical sources, there is really no need for the rest of us to do anything but refer others to such. At least, that is the case until someone has exposed the refutations themselves as weak or inadequate.

Many find theological controversy to be a fun hobby. That is a very naïve view. For those who have been involved in such where reputations, livelihoods, and, at certain times and places, even lives have been on the line, it is a nightmare. We should engage in it only when it impacts the small patch of the kingdom in which we have responsibility, and only to the extent that our abilities allow us to do so with competence. Limitation in polemic, as for Goethe in art, is the secret of true greatness.

  1. ^Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011).
  2. ^Editor’s Note: For a helpful summary of the controversy, see Tony Reinke, “The Rob Bell Debate: A Reader’s Digest, with Suggested Resources,” C.J.’s View from the Cheap Seats (March 16, 2011),
  3. ^Carl Trueman, “Easy Virtues and Cruel Mistresses: Basic Advice on How to Interpret Luther,” Reformation 21 (March 9, 2011),

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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