Volume 37 - Issue 2
The Beauty of Biblical BalanceBy D. A. Carson
When I was a young man in pastoral ministry, I wrote a book-length manuscript under the title shared with this editorial. I sent it to only one publisher. That publisher turned it down with more grace than the manuscript deserved. He gently pointed out major exegetical and logical flaws in one of the arguments. I could see he was right, and, suitably humbled and foolishly discouraged, I couldn’t bring myself to expend the time and energy to fix the problem. I moved on to other things.
Decades later, however, I remain convinced that, even if one particular error needed repair, the main thesis of the book was right: the Bible depicts the importance of balance along quite a few different axes, and it is important not to confuse them.
Before I list some of these different axes, I should acknowledge that balance is not always a virtue. For example, when Scripture commands us to love God with our whole being (Deut 6:4-5; Mark 12:29-30), it does not add, “Of course, all things in moderation: one must balance love for God with other priorities.” Applied in the wrong contexts, the appeal for balance may be a mask for moral indifference and spiritual compromise. But let me assume that we have heeded the warning and turn to some of the different axes around which we need to maintain balance.
1. Balance in the Use of Our Time, While We Attempt to Be Faithful to Scripture
The Bible exhorts us to discharge many responsibilities, all of them time-consuming: to work, love our neighbor, love our spouse, bring up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, pray, meditate on God’s Word, meet together with other believers for mutual edification and corporate praise, bear witness to the gospel with unbelievers, and much more. If we are elders/pastors/overseers, the work of teaching demands careful study, while the teaching itself extends indefinitely beyond Sunday morning sermons to include one-on-one Bible study, small group study, training others, and counsel of many kinds for the people in our flock, including the members of our own family. All of these are good things; all of them require time. The same Scriptures insist on proper cycles of rest: God gives his beloved sleep. Add to this pile the peculiar rush of duties that befall us in peculiar circumstances: a family member falls critically ill; two children are graduating from university about the same time that a third is getting married; the family business is on a knife-edge between a great leap forward and going belly-up-and all of these circumstances are under God’s providential arrangement.
The needed balance in the face of such demands turns on right priorities in using the time God has given us, along with refusing to feel like dismal failures because we cannot squeeze thirty hours of living into twenty-four. We have all the time that God has wisely allotted; there is no more. We can work away at making our use of time more efficient; above all, we can pursue godly priorities. And we can trust the wisdom of our good and wise heavenly Father.
2. Balance in Integrating Complementary Biblical Emphases
What I have in mind are such paired exhortations as the injunction to speak the truth, coupled with the injunction to do so in love. This kind of balance is quite different from the first kind. The first kind is what the gaming theorists call a zero-sum game: no matter how hard we hope otherwise, our daily distribution of time always sums up all the discrete blocks of time to achieve the same total: twenty-four hours. One cannot allot more time and energy to one responsibility without correspondingly diminishing one or more of the other blocks. But this second kind of balance is not a zero-sum game. One must not diminish the obligation to speak the truth by appealing to the priority of love; one must not diminish the obligation to speak in love by appealing to the priority of truth. There is no zero-sum game.
In the case of the claims of truth and love, these twin virtues have roughly parallel claims: God mandates both of them. Both “truth” and “love” carry slightly different overtones in different contexts, of course, but there is no intrinsic reason that we should think that either diminishes the other.
Other pairs in this category of balance are more complicated yet. For example, Christians must constantly recognize that they are saved by grace; Christians must perform the good deeds that God has created us to discharge (cf. Eph 2:8-10). In this case, although neither pole should diminish the other, they are not quite parallel and certainly not reciprocal. In many respects the good deeds are the necessary fruit and even the demonstration of the grace; the converse is not true.
It is easy to think of other polarities under this heading that sustain relationships that are more complex yet. For example, the Bible urges Christian unity (think John 17), and the Bible insists on the non-negotiability of sound doctrine (think Gal 1), even if this means the most fundamental disruption of unity, namely, excommunication. The two desiderata are not quite parallel: one, the truth of the gospel, is always non-negotiable; the other, the virtue of unity, is often presented as something eminently desirable, but sometimes as an act of compromise (e.g., the alliances of Jehoshaphat). In other words, to achieve balance in polarities of this sort, one must study how Scripture holds them up, if and how each relates to the other, whether both are equally non-negotiable, and so forth.
3. The Balance of a Healthy Biblical Diet
This could be cast as something important for almost all Christians, but I shall cast it in terms of the responsibility of pastors to feed the flock of God with the whole counsel of God. There are at least three components to this balanced diet:
First, pastors should be teaching and preaching from all parts of the Bible-from both the Old and the New Testaments, and from the different genres of the Bible: history, lament, chronicle, psalm, epistle, proverb, apocalyptic, wisdom, and so forth. Pastors should keep looking back over their shoulders to see what they have covered and what they have not covered recently.
Second , pastors should be checking up on themselves to see if they are covering all the major biblical themes. It is sadly possible for a preacher to choose texts from many different parts of the Bible and yet overlook major themes of the Bible. For example, it is possible to handle text after text with a tone and an application that are invariably denunciatory, even angry, sometimes self-righteous, and devoid of much grace; alternatively, it is possible to handle text after text in such a way that underscores God’s love and grace but without a word about God’s jealousy, wrath, and judgment. When I was in pastoral ministry, every six or nine months I’d skim the index of a systematic theology or two so as to alert me to themes I had not so much as touched on.
Third , because the Bible is not a collection of miscellaneous religious texts that the preacher is honor-bound to cover but a God-breathed collection that establishes trajectories-trajectories of both narrative and theme-the balanced preacher will so trace out these trajectories to demonstrate how rightly handling the word of truth follows inner-canonical lines that bring us to Jesus and the gospel. Failing to do this regularly is simply not faithful, balanced, biblical preaching. In other words, balanced biblical preaching does not take place where the preacher unpacks sentences in the narrow focus of the immediate context without keeping an eye peeled for the biblical-theological storyline, for the entire canonical context.
4. Balance as the Product of a Spiritual Diagnostician
I suppose I might have included this fourth point with the third. Yet there is a fundamental difference. The balance that the third point calls for gathers around the nature of Scripture itself; the balance that this fourth point calls for demands spiritual discernment so as to know which biblical emphases the lives of specific people most urgently need. Small wonder that the Puritans called their pastoral care “the cure of souls.” Like the medical doctor who must make an accurate diagnosis before prescribing something, so the pastor must make an accurate diagnosis before closely applying particular biblical truths and themes. The ministry of Jesus shows us that we should not treat the cocksure and the self-righteous the same way as the broken, the contrite, and the desperate.
5. Balance in Integrating Complementary Truths That Lie on the Edge of Great Mysteries, Not Least Complementary Truths about God
God is unfathomably loving, yet his wrath reflects his perfect justice. He is utterly sovereign, yet he personally interacts with other persons, not least the human beings he has made in his own image, such that he holds them accountable for what they say and do and feel and imagine; for sovereign though he is, he never treats them as insensate robots. God is one, yet he exists as three persons who interact with one another. Even to begin to make sense of these complementary truths, it is not long before one is wrestling with the relationships between time and eternity, with the nature of secondary causality, with the nature of the will and the nature of freedom, with the notions of person and substance. Part of the aim of biblical balance in these cases is to learn to state the complementary truths in such a way that one is not unwittingly undermining something else that Scripture says. One refuses to draw inferences from one facet of the truth that endangers some other facet of the truth. One learns to let each truth function in our lives and in our theology in the same ways they function in Scripture, and in no other ways.
It would be easy to add more axes where Christians need to achieve biblical balance. For example, the Bible itself establishes something of a hierarchy of truths, so part of maturity in pastoral ministry is tied up with maintaining a similar sense of proportion and priority, aligned with the Bible itself. Moreover, it would also be easy to expand each of the five points listed above into an entire chapter replete with examples and pastoral applications. What should be clear even from these short paragraphs, however, is that biblical balance requires thought, self-examination, ongoing study of Scripture, humility of mind, and a continuing resolution to bring every thought captive to Christ.
D. A. Carson
D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.