5 Tips for Finding Your Theological Balance

If you asked me to name my theological pet peeves, right near the top would be what I call pendulum-swing theology. This process usually occurs when you grow up hearing one particular view of something, get sick of it, and then swing to the opposite extreme. For example, you grow up a hyper-Calvinist, something happens, and you swing to open theism. You see this swing a lot in atonement theology, too. Sometimes, when evangelicals who’ve grown up on a steady diet of penal substitutionary atonement discover Jesus actually did some other things, too—like defeat the powers, demonstrate God’s love, and so forth—they end up chucking penal substitution altogether instead of carefully integrating each truth into a holistic doctrine of reconciliation. Martin Luther described the history of theology as a drunk man getting on his horse only to fall off the other side—and then repeating the process. This problem irks me.

So finding evenhanded treatments of just about any subject is one of my greatest delights. A sense for balance is one of the highest virtues a theologian can possess, while a lack of balance is a serious vice. In trinitarian theology, for example, focusing on God’s oneness over his threeness, or vice versa, leads to either modalism or tritheism—neither of which works with the gospel. In fact, they both destroy it. In Christology, too, the Chalcedonian definition keeps us from tipping into an overemphasis on the Son’s divinity or humanity to the exclusion and distortion of the other. Again, lose your balance, you lose the gospel. God is both immanent and transcendent; tip one way or the other and you end up with either a soggy pantheism or a cold deism—neither of which works well with the gospel. You see how this works?

That said, it’s important to be balanced even with our love for balance in theology. Bruce Ware explains this point in his foreword to Rob Lister’s excellent, balanced book on the doctrine of impassibility:

Theological balance, like physical balance, is normally a sign of health and well-being. The reason such balance is “normally” but not exclusively best is simply that, in some situations, imbalance is clearly required. So physically, balancing equally on both legs with sustained upright posture is normally best, yet if one wishes to dive into a swimming pool, one must embrace the imbalance of leaning altogether forward—a position that if done “normally” would result in endless bloody noses and skull fractures. (16)

In all sorts of areas, balance is good, but sometimes there’s no balance to be had. Ware reminds us specifically of the Reformation solas. Christ is not one among many mediators, or else he isn’t Savior. We aren’t saved by God’s grace and our merit. It can’t be God’s glory and ours. And, of course, as soon as we elevate other authorities alongside Scripture, we begin to lose sight of biblical proportion.

Indeed, there are times when balance is no virtue, but a gospel-destroying vice. The gospel requires a few headlong plunges. In other words, a true sense of balance will recognize that there are times for both/ands along with times for either/ors. Knowing the difference between the two is crucial to avoiding heresy and preserving the gospel.

Finding your theological balance indeed can be difficult, so here are five tips for those of us still in process.

1. Read your Bible like crazy.

You can’t know the Scriptures too well. And by “knowing the Scriptures” I don’t just mean the canon-within-a-canon you’ve chosen for yourself out of three Pauline epistles and a Gospel, or from the books of Matthew and James. Get a few prophets, Old Testament narratives, and even some Torah in there. God gave us 66 books to reveal himself, so ignoring bits will inevitably leave you off-balance. Get this one wrong and the rest won’t matter.

2. Read more than one theologian.

Focusing on that one pastor or thinker to the exclusion of others is a recipe for imbalance. As a limited, fallible human, your hero will be myopic somewhere. Expand your horizons. Read outside your tradition a bit. Wander outside your century. Who knows what gems you’ll find?

3. Read the key irenic, broadly focused theologians.

Every theologian has hobby-horses and pet issues, but some are well known for their controversies and others for their broad, even-keeled treatments of issues. Look for those theologians who are widely consulted even across traditional boundaries. If there’s a Methodist or Catholic being quoted by a Reformed theologian, like Thomas Oden, go ahead and pick him up.

4. Read the key polemical theologians.

I’ve recently set myself the task of reading some key theologians in the early church controversies: Ireneaus against the Gnostics, Athanasius against the Arians, Cyril against the Nestorians, Augustine against the Pelagians, and so forth. These teachers demonstrated an ability to defend or preserve some necessary tension—some holy imbalance—in the faith. The ability to defend one issue clearly is often a sign of a good grasp on the whole.

5. Read about more than one subject.

This one should be obvious, but if you fixate on one issue, no matter how central it is, you’ll have balance issues. It’s okay to give sustained attention to interesting or key subjects, but if I’ve only ever read about the cross and never the resurrection or the ascension, I’ll have a skewed view of Christ’s person and work. What’s more, narrow reading usually obscures a fuller understanding of the couple of subjects I do study since every doctrine is only meaningful within the framework of the whole.

I could easily list more, but the point is, don’t be that drunk guy falling off his horse. Study widely, read deeply, and constantly check yourself against the whole of Scripture. Do that, and you may just begin to find your balance.

  • Jon

    Roman Catholics? Could you elaborate on that a little?

    Otherwise, good points.

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

      Hey Jon,
      Roman Catholics: there are smart Roman Catholics that I’ve learned good Christian theology from. Thomas Weinandy, for instance, wrote an excellent work on the doctrine of Impassibility. He purposes wrote it for a broader audience so a Protestant like myself could appreciate it more, but it was solid. I would say that on, at least, things like Christology, the Trinity, (the orthodox core) Protestants can benefit from good Catholic theologians and such. Even in other areas, if all you ever read a Protestants, you wont’ actually know what our Catholic brothers think.

      So, that is kinda what I mean by reading Roman Catholics.

      Hope that helps!

  • Seth

    Bravo Derek. I resonate with this having done a bit of swinging myself years ago at Bible College (much of which I think was a reaction against my evangelical upbringing – for the record I am still an evangelical having swung back post college).

    I appreciate the balance we see in people such as John Stott. For example, I have sometimes seen Christus Victor put up against Penal Subsitutionary Atonement. I appreciate Stott’s approach in the Cross of Christ where he went Both / And with Christus Victor + Penal Subsitutionary Atonement instead of Either / Or. Discernment is necessary (as you have ably pointed out) and it is important not to be reactionary (easy to do).

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

      Ha! Stott is a great model that I usually think of on this score. I read that book really early, which saved me from thinking I had to pit things against each other that never ought to be. On the same, I also suggest Graham Cole, Robert Sherman, and Hans Boersma.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • David Grubbs

    Good points, especially 3 and 4. To 4, I would add Bernard of Clairvaux’s treatise against Abelard, especially from chapter 4 to the end.

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  • EMSoliDeoGloria

    Well said!
    I too appreciate balance on often controversial issues of Scripture. I reacted strongly against what I perceived as a lack of balance by one youthful preacher in my former church. I think he was wrong about many things (and right about many too) but the areas where I disagreed w/ him pushed me to study more for myself. One example would be that area of doctrine of the atonement, where I would say that penal substitution is probably the primary way God acted in the atonement but not the only way – our God being capable of doing more than one thing at one time!

  • Andrew

    This is really helpful. May I suggest a sixth point: 6. Read critics of Christianity on occasion. I’ve found that thinking through the critiques of Nietzsche, for example, directly from his writings (as opposed to merely reading a summary of his critiques as presented by someone who is about to refute them) has really helped me get a better grip on what the Bible actually teaches and promotes.

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy


      That’s an excellent comment. I’ve felt much the same about Nietzsche and a few others. Actually, Vanhoozer’s recent theology profits much from heeding the criticisms of Feuerbach to avoid the types of projection theology that’s so popular.

    • Seth

      I have seen a tendency where some in the evangelical spectrum seem to run to the feet of Marx, Frued, and Nietzsche (we’ll add Feuerbach too) to be critiqued and learn how we have failed to be “Christian” in our theology and practice. My fear is that this seems to privilege these thinkers at the expense of of the same critiques already leveled within Scripture itself (I am taking this from Plantinga).

      Then again I read in the journal of Jim Elliott how he wanted to be “saved” from being the kind of “Christian” that Nietzsche was attacking when he (Elliot) encounted his (Nietzsche’s) works. Is there a balance here to be struck between the authority of Scripture’s critique vs the critique of an anti-christian philosopher such as Nietzsche?

      • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

        I don’t meant to give the impression that Vanhoozer cedes too much to Feuerbach. I think he uses him to sharpen Scripture’s own warnings against idolatry and so forth. As for the rest, Merold Westphal’s book ‘Suspicion and Faith’ does a good job correlating to the two critiques in a critical, but open way. I’d commend that as one model.

  • http://www.pastordaveonline.org Dave


    I know you’ll agree (especially since we already had this conversation)but I might add another point to your list: read from perspectives other than white middle class males.

    Great post, brother.

  • Rafael Alcantara

    I think is important to read from different theologians. I am agree whith you. But, can i speak about catholics as brother in Christ when the Roman Catholic Church teach justification by faith and works; mass, pray to Mary and saints; indulgence, papal infability, etc. I am not argwing that there are catholics saves. But that is very diferent than to speak of the catholics as brothers. It is not that doctrine a prevertion of the gospel?

  • http://www.everybodyelse.etsy.com Melody

    Great list. And I loved Lister’s illustration about balancing how we see balance.

  • Lee Furney

    I think it is G.K. Chesterton who said, “Orthodoxy is like walking along a narrow ridge, almost like a knife-edge. One step to either side was a step to disaster. Jesus is God and man; God is love and holiness; Christianity is grace and morality; the Christian lives in this world and in the world of eternity. Overstress either side of these great truths, and at once destructive heresy emerges.” The task is not to discover which of these truths we prefer but how they fit together.

  • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com Michael Snow

    The Chesterton quote points to what D. Elton Trueblood called “the holy conjuntion”…”and.” So many false divisions are cause by ignoring it. Surgeon faithfully illustrates that here: http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/holy-living-spurgeon-precepts-war-chritistians/

  • mariep

    A helpful thing for me is to avoid false dichotomies. This goes along with what Seth said about Christus Victor and Penal Substitution.

    And speaking of reading the Bible like crazy, I’ve found that letting my biblical theology inform my systematic theology is most helpful, rather than the other way around. To do the opposite often robs the text of its voice. Not the context isn’t king as well!

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