Great theologian turns out to be a legalistic heretic

It’s amazing how times haven’t changed.

Lots of talk and ruckus over the Internets about how some pastor in the US with some name that was vaguely familiar to me proclaimed how a large spectrum of the church were sub-christian. Something about a “strange fire” conference and so forth. It must be a big deal because at least three people posted or shared about it on my Facebook feed and that’s way above average for a theology post.  I was curious, so I clicked on a few links and found David Hayward’s rebuttal  and then some actual sermon from this John MacArthur person who caused all the fuss. However, I didn’t read or listen to either pages, so don’t expect a vigorous argument to start here.

That being said, I have been reading up on church history, and coincidence would have it that I’ve just finished the chapter on the teachers of the 3nd century church.  I couldn’t help but see a similarity between the crazy talk that some respected Christian leaders fall into, and how the great thinker Tertullian fell in with the Montanists.

Here is his story; Tertullian was a North African who converted to Christianity in Rome. According to the author that I’ve been reading, he seems to have had a legal training. He uses his legal mind to write persuasive documents against the roman persecution of Christians. He also writes other powerful arguments against other heresies in the church and is very influential. Then in 207, he goes off the deep end and joins a Christian influenced sect led by a former pagan priest and his two prophetesses. No one really knows why. His conversion is universally criticized. The church condemns the Montanists, the bishops reject the small movement and Turtullian is called a heretic, a legalist and probably other bad names by people within the church.

But the story doesn’t end there. As a legalistic heretic Turtullian continues to write. And God would have it that after becoming a legalistic heretic, he writes the first formal explanations of how the Trinity was to be understood. His explanation would be reused in the later debates about how we understand how God can be three and yet one.  He contributes to the foundation of Christian theology and yet at the time he made it many no longer considered him a Christian!

Here’s what I am getting at:  “Great theologian turns out to be a legalistic heretic” can just as easily become “legalistic heretic turns out to be a great theologian” . God doesn’t disqualify us from having a positive impact on the world when our brains go wonky. Of course we shouldn’t let our brains go wonky, but when they do we should hope and expect for grace from the church. And when others go off the deep end, we should extend that grace, no matter how disagreeable these opinionated Christians can be.  I hope that grace is what comes out of this most recent theological debate. There are enough obstacles to the church being a real community of believers that we shouldn’t add difference of opinion to the mix. Good theological debate should be like good sports talk radio; everyone has their favorite team, but above all everyone loves the sport.  And like the guys on Sportsnet and TSN, theologians make mistakes regularly and therefore shouldn’t take themselves too seriously.


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