A Theology of Attitude
It is tempting to think theology is about articulating Bible truths accurately. But, while this is very much at the heart of the theologian’s task, it cannot be divorced from the attitude with which God’s truth is presented.
There is, I believe, good reason for raising this detail – especially in relation to those who claim to be Reformed in their theology. Because there are some who profess their Reformed credentials most loudly, who do most arrogantly and, at times, in a way that is little short of obnoxious.
Paul raises the link between attitude and articulated truth in several places. In Titus he tells those who are slaves they should behave towards their masters in a manner that is respectful and which will ‘make the teaching about [doctrine of] God our Saviour attractive’ (Tit 2.9). Regardless how those masters may have treated them, they were to hold and express their beliefs in a way that made a difference to their behaviour. He makes it clear, in particular, that the spirit in which they relate what they believe will not merely reflect upon them; but ultimately on God as the one from whom they have derived their beliefs.
He also raises the issue of attitude in the counsel he offers to his young friend and protégé, Timothy. Speaking in the context of how a minister of the gospel should conduct himself in the face of controversy and provocation, he says,
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth (2Ti 2.23-25).
Even under pressure and even with the duty to defend truth against error, ministers must fight these battles and uphold sound teaching with grace, humility and gentleness. The spirit they display within the family of God – with all its theological breadth – will reflect on the character of the God whose truth it is in the first place.
Peter says something similar. Again writing to Christians who had been ill-treated and who may have been tempted to display some ‘attitude’ to those who were responsible for their ill-treatment. As he exhorts them to be in a permanent state of readiness ‘to give an answer to everyone who asks [them] to give the reason for the hope that [they] have’, he tells them to do so ‘with gentleness and respect’ and ‘good behaviour’ (1Pe 3.15-16). The truth of the gospel is deeply connected to the character it produces in the lives of those who claim to believe it.
Luke also records an example of this principle being worked out in practice when Priscilla and Aquila find they need to put Apollos straight on the content of his preaching. Luke tells us they did so in the privacy of their home and in a positive, rather than adversarial tone: ‘they explained to him the way of God more adequately’ (Ac 18.26).
What is interesting in the New Testament record is how and when this pattern of grace and gentleness in the way sound doctrine is taught and defended is broken. It happens when those who are challenging the truth are people who ought to know better.
So, Paul was forced to ‘oppose Peter to his face’ over the issue of table fellowship with Gentile believers (Ga 2.11). Because even though he had been the first apostle to ‘cross the line’ between Jew and Gentile when he visited Cornelius and accept his hospitality in response to God’s clear direction in a vision (Ac 10.1-48), he had had a change of heart and ‘drew back’ from his Gentile brothers and sisters because he was ‘afraid’ of the ‘circumcision group’ (Ga 2.13).
However, it is our Lord himself who reserves his sharpest words for those who claimed to be the guardians of truth, but who had distorted it – not just by failing to handle it correctly, but through the arrogant and self-serving spirit in which they held it. The Pharisees, Sadducees and Teachers of the Law were the three main parties who ostensibly ‘in the name of truth’ repeatedly challenged Jesus and harassed those who showed any interest in becoming his followers. So it is for them that Jesus reserves his most stinging words and upon them that he pronounces a litany of ‘woes’ (Mt 23.1-39).
The words of the hymn attributed to John Calvin, ‘I greet thee who my sure redeemer art’, capture well why this matters so much. It is to and of Christ he sings,
Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness, No harshness hast thou and no bitterness: Make us to taste the sweet grace found in thee And ever stay in thy sweet unity.
Since the One who is the embodiment of truth in its absolute purity and perfection is gentle and neither harsh, nor bitter in the way he relates it to his children, so too should we. Indeed, it is as that Christ-like attitude shines through as we handle his truth – whether in private conversation, public controversy, or from the pulpit – that its power and beauty is seen most clearly and will work in people’s lives most effectively.