Following my post on being generous to fundamentalists and not so generous with others, I’ve had some interesting conversations about its implications. A good friend asked me whether my suggested attitude towards non-evangelicals of ‘supping with a long spoon’ meant that certain authors should not be read. Should we have a book burning in the Moore College courtyard? And would my friend be a heretic by association if, for example, he found reading Karl Barth a stimulating and a positive experience, even though he disagreed with Barth at a number of points?
Another friend had questions about the extent of ‘generosity’ towards fundamentalist brothers. For example, if someone with a high view of Scripture were to read the Bible badly and end up with a distorted gospel, should we still smile and give him a free pass?
This is the problem with having friends who are smart.
The more I think about it, the more I think the problem is the abstract and contextless nature of the discussion. I had a particular kind of person in mind as I wrote that post—the kind of person who is somewhat dazzled by the world of theological enquiry, who favours the ‘big tent’, and who finds himself bending over backwards to be gracious to the liberal and quasi-evangelical sophisticates, while looking down his nose at good evangelical brothers who differ on secondaries.
However, I freely acknowledge that a different person with different tendencies may require different advice. So just as the latte-drinking sophisticate who loves dabbling with the latest trendy theologians may need to be encouraged to re-focus on the central truths of evangelicalism, so the hide-bound Reformed dogmatician who thinks that nothing of value was written after 1559 probably needs to go and read some challenging contemporary theology to expand his mind. Likewise, I wouldn’t be recommending Barth to Bible study leaders at church (and so I wouldn’t quote him approvingly in sermons), but if someone was in third year at theological college and had never read a scrap of Barth, I might suggest that he dip his toe in.
This is the nature of nearly all ethical discernments. There is only one truth and one demand from God—that we love and obey him, and love our neighbours as ourselves. However, I do not love my neighbour in abstract and in principle, but in the form in which he presents himself to me at one o’clock in the morning, asking for help with a burst pipe. Every situation I confront requires me to look carefully at what is front of me, to discern what the Bible-shaped good is that I should seek, and then to take faithful action. The apostle Paul was no relativist, and he would have been appalled at ‘situational ethics‘, but that didn’t stop him being all things to all men that he might save some.
It reminds me of one of my favourite pairs of Proverbs. It concerns what one should do when confronted with a prating fool:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
So what should we do—answer the fool, or not answer the fool? It seems there is a reason and a time for both.