I’ve been getting asked this question a good bit recently. Due to some of my public writings, my views are typically not hard to find, and I have criticized certain ideas and positions which I once held. In fact, I’ve done this a few times in my short life, and so from time to time, I suppose, explanation is in order.
1) The first point to make is that my views on having views has changed. When I became “Reformed,” I was brought into a sort of “movement” mentality. I’m not even talking about the fringe folks here. I’m just talking about RUF, John Piper, and average conservative Presbyterian church kind of stuff. When I made the transition from generic Southern Baptist to Reformed Presbyterian, I underwent an entire personality change and “worldview” transfer. I was told that everything, or nearly everything, I had formerly believed was mostly wrong and that now, armed with the right intellectual and theological equipment, I could go out there and “change the world” and “transform” the culture for Jesus. The general idea was that there was a spectrum of intelligence, commitment, and effectiveness in Christianity. I had formerly been on the weak side of that spectrum, and now I was coming around to “the real deal.” The more extreme, the more consistent, or so I thought.
Now of course, this wasn’t everyone. There were always those calmer and wiser heads about, but as a young man, I wasn’t impressed by them. I was impressed by the big talkers, the booming voices, and the appeals to tradition and toughness. I needed to be Braveheart here! This meant that there was a sort of black hat/white hat treatment of folks, and I’m talking about within the church. I didn’t judge them as good vs. evil, but as authentic and unashamed vs. politically compromised. And when you’re dealing with those kinds of categories, the choice is obvious. And so I went on to judge folks, in these terms, based on their theological positions.
This continued until about my third year at RTS. There had been plenty of controversial theological disputes along the way to throw fuel on my fire, but what ended up happening was that I hit a sort of wall. Several of my friends had made very erratic and unhappy religious shifts, some of them leaving the faith altogether. I had also come to see many positions that I had held as no longer persuasive. And then finally, I began making all sorts of new friendships with folks coming from very different points of view. The most important of these was my friend and now-collaborator Peter Escalante, who gave me a sort of “crash course” in traditional magisterial Protestantism. It’s odd to say that I needed that, but I did. I had bounced from one pole to the other, and I really hadn’t ever just quietly studied great books. I had always gone to those books with a pre-arranged agenda, some bigger point that I was trying to make and thus looking to those various books for support.
Now I’ve framed this in such a way as to “explain myself” in terms of my environment. This was true and an important part of the story, but it isn’t the whole story. I had character deficiencies. I was a very proud person and, in a way, intellectually lazy. If I encountered someone who was coming at a question from the opposite point of view from myself, I didn’t really try to listen to them and understand where they were coming from. I explained them away in terms of my theo-political taxonomy and then moved on. I would even blame bad marks in school on the fact that my teachers held to a different sub-theology than I did. Never mind that they had many other students to deal with as well, and that they’d most likely heard it all before. I just ran all data through my pugilistic paradigm and went on about my life with little self-reflection. This was wrong. It was sinful, and I need to apologize for it. And so to those of you who I haven’t seen in real life lately, and until I do, please forgive me for this.
2) Having come to a sort of intellectual tipping point, Peter Escalante pointed me towards a sort of irenic Protestantism, starting with Calvin, then carefully gleaning from both “Puritan” and “non-Puritan” Reformed theologians of the 17th century, learning from Hodge, and then ultimately C S Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, I both got more “conservative” and more “big-tent” oriented at the same time. Now I still argued with people. Indeed, the temptation now was to argue with those folks who held all the views I used to hold. But I think the style of argument was different already. It wasn’t simply a fight about points of view, but rather a more confident conversation about what is objectively the case. And there was the feeling that the debate wasn’t really such a big deal. The pursuit of wisdom and the cultivation of meaningful relationships was more important.
And then, with this in-process outlook, I joined “the real world.” I had to get jobs, mostly teaching, and I had to learn to dialog with folks who not only weren’t familiar with all my theological hobby-horses, but didn’t care! I don’t mean to imply the tired bit about “theology” not being important. It was. It was foundational. I just now had to learn how to use it in my life and not be a total weirdo. I’ve worked at two and a half schools (I’ll explain that story one day), one deli, and a very amazing church. I’ve had to deal with my past failings, learn to listen to other people (a lesson still being learned), and to find my own personality and style throughout. And during all of this, I think I’ve even been able to teach a handful of other young adults and impart to them some of my own learning when it comes to faith and life.
3) And so then, for the theology wonks out there. What “big” theological shifts have come about through all of this. Well, I can list them in order. A) I stopped being a “theonomist” six years ago, at least. I don’t mean that I now simply accept a secular establishment (I’ve actually written against that), but I don’t think that the Mosaic law was ever intended as a timeless law-code for all peoples and all ages. Who convinced me? Well, it was a funny mix of people. N.T. Wright and Jim Jordan actually did as much work as anyone, as they have a very interesting “redemptive historical” understanding of the torah. But also my professors at RTS, along with visiting professors whose work I had followed for some time helped a great deal. And then finally the historical work gave me a sense of finality. The historical theonomists had actually been the more radical Puritans and Scots-Presbyterians, whereas Calvin, the Anglicans, even the American Presbyterians had never been such.
B) With that came a belief in natural law. It was probably C.S. Lewis who convinced me of this, but there were also those personal friends along the way. The significance of this shift was actually very practical. It took the urgency out of ethical and political questions. Yes, right is right and wrong is wrong, but it isn’t actually the case that every dilemma has a singular prescribed solution, and there might well be lots of gray area. Indeed, this is often the case. This kind of shift took the pressure off the particulars and opened up space to think about the long term and big picture.
C) And then, perhaps predictably, I also managed to move from a more hard-edged “presuppositionalist” approach to apologetics and philosophy to what I believe to be a more classical point of view. I would not sign off on the “evidentialist” namesake, mind you, but rather the older Protestant philosophy of Calvin, Hodge, and most-recently Bavinck and Lewis. While these big words might not mean much to most readers, it means that I have had to stop thinking in total “us” vs. “them” categories and, instead, start pursuing questions of knowledge from the point of view that the truth is out there, all truth is God’s truth, and it’s my responsibility to conform my mind to it. This requires patience, humility, and self-reflection. All of that sounds awfully self-righteous, and so I guess I have to admit that believing it doesn’t mean that I automatically do it. Those character flaws I’ve had didn’t just magically vanish. But at least now I’m preaching to myself as well as others.
D) Finally, I would say that my relationship to the visible church has grown more important and more central, even as I’ve adopted a more “moderate” or “balanced” point of view regarding its various emphases and commitments. I still have strong opinions, of course, but the most important thing any Christian can do is to hang on to Jesus, to keep the faith. If someone doesn’t have a settled opinion on any number of theological issues, but they are taking care of their family, coming to church regularly, and imparting joy to their community, then they are a strong Christian in my book. I have a lot to learn from them. Praying, especially at church events, singing loudly, encouraging fellow believers– these are essential features of the Christian life. These are what lead to outreach, growth, and progress in the kingdom. I still want to place a premium on teaching and theological formation, but the only kind of training that is worth a thing is the kind that actively and consistently encourages the fruit of the Spirit. And when it comes to this last and most important point, the principle influences have been 1) God, in bringing about challenges and changes to my life, 2) my wife, for both encouraging me and fixing me up in all sorts of ways, 3) my son, for softening me and giving all kinds of new responsibility, and 4) my Ruling Elder Bill Grete, for being a sort of inter-personal superman and teaching me more about serving people than I could have ever gotten in books.
My consolation on having changed these views is that I don’t think I was ever terribly nasty to anyone in particular, nor did I ever cause very much “damage.” Most of the world would consider these issues inside baseball and pretty insignificant. And so I’ll take that as a safety net, even though I think it has all been very significant. I’ll also say that I don’t mind having changed my mind. The process of correction needs to be real and pointed in order for it to become self-correction. This is the old Socratic way. “Know thyself!” And that means knowing when you’re wrong and learning from it.