(by Lisa Robinson)

I was reading Sam Storm’s personal doctrinal statement the other day.  I had seen it before, but this time I was most impressed with the diversity of varying theological positions.  He readily admits to the eclectic position and has no qualms of not fitting in squarely to any one camp.  What I found most refreshing about this statement was that although certain theological conclusions were solidified, there did not seem to be the need to preserve a particular system of thought.  In his apparent quest to be true to what he believed scripture taught, he did not seem interested in theological preservation.

What is theological preservation?  It is drawing theological conclusions and maintaining thought within those parameters.  Typically, our theology is shaped by a variety of factors including personality, church tradition, etc.  While we might maintain particular conclusions are born out of extensive and fruitful study, the greater reality is that the product of study often places our theology squarely within a defined system of thought. We become convinced through study and affirmation of the proponents of whatever theological positions are embraced, that our position is the most consistent with the complete witness of scripture.  Our theology then hinges upon those conclusions.

Once a particular theological position is derived, I believe it is natural to want to preserve the parameters.  Deviations are acceptable as long as points are not conceded to competing viewpoints.  In other words, what typically might happen in a discourse about competing positions is that we might make allowances for some acceptable mid-way point, but not so much that agreement might align us with the viewpoint that we are opposed to.   We will want to preserve the position we have come to accept as the one we believe is most consistent with scripture.

Often it comes down to particular terms that are affiliated with doctrinal or theological position.  In the course of competing positions, we might not want to use certain terms to avoid the affiliation and guilt by association, so to speak.  This is why I believe defining terms is more important than the term itself, since there can be varying interpretations.  Don’t get me wrong, terms are important.  I don’t see them as labels but definitions that provide a greater clarity.  Therefore, I reject the idea that we should eliminate labels or terms but do insist the need for articulation on what exactly is meant.  But at the same time, we can allow the terms or labels to deter acceptance of valid points.

I have seen this in a number of exchanges of competing viewpoints and will admit to my transgressions in this regard.  As I’ve written about previously and was noted in my last post,  I have swung the pendulum with respect to spiritual gifts and pneumatology, going from a pretty radical Charismatic position to a soft-cessationist.   Lately, I have questioned if that soft-cessationist label is accurate since I don’t believe there is scriptural evidence that gifts have ceased but based on completed revelation and the foundation laid by apostles and prophets, not all gifts are needed in 21st century evangelicalism.   Does that negate the existence of prophetic utterances or words of wisdom or knowledge today?  I don’t think it does.  Again, it depends on how you define them.  The cessationist inside me would say  “don’t go there, otherwise…”  Well, you know the rest.  Does my position make me quasi-Charismatic?  Maybe and I’m fine with that.  Because I don’t see the sense in forcing terms to preserve a position upholding completed revelation while denying the full ramification of the role of the Holy Spirit.  But preservation will disable will such honesty and enforce an abolition of certain terms.

By now I can hear the gasps.  What is important to note is that my theology concerning cessation of gifts has not really changed and becomes more refined with further investigation.   But I think its dishonest to hold to a term and not concede legitimate points based on the complete witness of scripture just so we won’t get confused as being supporters of the competing positions.  If fact, I find it quite honorable for those that can accept certain tenets of competing positions, even from other Christian traditions, at the risk of being mischaracterized as being warm to positions they should naturally refute.  But such cases demonstrate that with the bounds of orthodox Christianity, there is need to find common ground and not throw the baby out with the bath water.

So how do we overcome theological preservation?  That is a good question.  I think it starts with the premise that scripture precedes theological systems.  Yes, the systems are born out of scripture but can’t then be imposed on a reverse treatment.  I’m afraid that is dishonest.  I also believe we have to respect legitimate points made by proponents of competing positions.  I think our natural tendency would be to conclude that since they uphold to a position we are opposed to, they must be wrong about everything.  That is unfair.  Lastly, I believe we have to challenge our own theological positions with equal or greater scrutiny of those we refute, taking account of the charges made by the other side to ask ‘is that true’?  And that doesn’t mean build up a strawman to prove our legitimacy but to take a critical look at our own theology in light of allegations that are opposed to it. Our understanding will never be exhaustive and we just might discover some things we missed.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    19 replies to "Overcoming Theological Preservation"

    • Ed Kratz

      Joe’s comment has been removed since it is irrelevant to the post and promotes disrespect.

      Joe please go play games somewhere else. Here is not the place. Thanks.

    • Joe

      Looks as if your post is advocating a seemingly
      Incoherant theological message.
      Such things will not save your post from illogic.
      Anyone can see that.
      Look, it was obviuosly well intended
      In so much as anything can be
      Equivocation nevertheless is never a good thing.
      Decipherability is.

    • Ed Kratz

      Sorry Joe, not taking the bait. Rest assured, your t-shirt is well on its way 😉

    • mbaker

      “But I think its dishonest to hold to a term and not concede legitimate points based on the complete witness of scripture just so we won’t get confused as being supporters of the competing positions. ”

      This an astute observation, and one where we most often see a good discussion crumble, especially when we are pushed to defend our own theology. The things which can be made a scriptural case for either way are often the most heatedly debated, and studied. It sometimes seems the longer the discussion goes on the more it becomes about making our own personal point of view superior to another’s.

      In fact, I agree when our personal beliefs regarding non-essential things becomes a personal crusade in and of itself, we need to question whether our own point of view is pushing the parameters to the point of hard core legalism, or even theological egotism. Certainly the reverse is true as well. We can just as sincerely be deceived if we disregard any theological preservation…

    • From The Balcony

      Hi Lisa
      I’m not sure some of us would agree that we need to “overcome theological preservation.” I think it depends on so many factors — too many to make such a blanket statement. As you know, I am reformed — and I love that our theology has been preserved. Yes, it is continually tested and reforming continues, but in some “traditions” there is great assurance that each and every “new” thing that comes around will not further dilute what some of us consider to be sound doctrine.

      I realize that not every “tradition” will have this kind of historicity to draw on, but for some of us who have traveled in just about every theological circle imaginable, I love resting in the theology that has been preserved for us in the reformed tradition.

      I also think it is wise not to automatically assume that those who appreciate the preservation of our theology are legalistic. Just haven’t seen that in our circle…I’ve seen more of a conscious effort to adher to God’s word…

    • Craig Bennett

      One area of concern I have with any cessationist position whether it be soft or hard is in regards to the reading of Scripture.

      A lot of the NT was written through an experiential basis as its foundation; with a continuing expectation of it being normal….whereas it seems the approach of the cessationist position is to believe and treat any experiential truth as propositional truth.

    • Ed Kratz


      I’m not sure where you see that I’ve said those who sit comfortably in their own theology are legalistic. However, I do believe that when we are so assured our theology does not need challenging, it might produce a I’m-right-everyone-else-is-wrong attitude, which is bound to come out in discourse. I’m also not saying that we change our theology only that we test it in the quest to be honest to scripture. That may or may not result in change. I personally think that is a humble thing to do since we can be flawed in our understanding. I do think there is value to listening to what competing positions have to say and testing merit. Maybe its just me, but it is a personal practice of mine.

    • Ed Kratz

      “but in some “traditions” there is great assurance that each and every “new” thing that comes around will not further dilute what some of us consider to be sound doctrine.”

      Catholics and Lutherans can say the same thing.

    • Greg

      I’ve always considered it natural to always be testing the merits of my current beliefs against whatever new evidence or information comes to my ears.

      Not that I like to be moved to and fro with various doctrines that come and go, but simply because the one thing I do know is that I don’t know all there is to know. The same may be true for any tradition that I’ve been brought into that contributes to my theological thinking.

      When new information comes to light, it necessarily requires a new assessment of the older position. This basic idea has been used very successfully in the sciences, where old theories are reevaluated in light of new evidence, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be applied to one’s theological positions.

      My theology is an added layer onto scripture, so it’s not sacred and untouchable. Much of the new evidence I open myself up to confirms my old beliefs, which is great! But sometimes previous errors in my thinking are exposed and I’m able to correct them.

    • ScottL

      I believe the church has generally been afraid to consider change (me too). Of course, with postmodernism (which is not an evil word in & of itself) the pendulum has swung quite a ways away from being unwilling to embrace change. I am quite glad today that, if we consider changing a specific belief (or practise), things are not handled like they were in the days of Martin Luther, or even prior to that.

      At times, I think we must realise that not just control (keeping people in the ‘correct’ beliefs & practises) but also fear dictates an unwillingness to change. There are still possibilities of being ostracised if we go through a change. What if we accept the non-reformed, new perspective on justification? What if we accept full egalitarianism? What if we accept that God still gives revelation and speaks today? And on and on we could go.

      We need to create local church bodies where there is the willingness to discuss our beliefs & practises, even the possibility of those being…

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      “I had seen it before, but this time I was most impressed with the diversity of varying theological positions. He readily admits to the eclectic position and has no qualms of not fitting in squarely to any one camp.”

      I have seen Catholics inform non-Catholic Christians that the non-Catholic Christian is acting like their own pope when they select their own theological beliefs. This is not a compliment being handed out by the Catholic.

    • Rick C.

      Unquestioned answers are far more dangerous than unanswered questions – Anonymous. Since I saw this very valuable quote, I’ve retained it for hermeneutics. With it in mind, I always try to ask if the Bible is asking what I/we ask, if our questions and/or issues were represented in the Bible. I’ve determined that in many cases, positions we take (say, A or B, e.g.) aren’t biblical issues. Does the Bible address A or B? Often times, not! ‘Prooftexts’ people cite all too often have nothing to do with what the biblical authors were really saying! Put another way, let’s say we are debating if A or B are true. Problem: the internal biblical evidence support neither. Texts ‘quoted’ to support A or B might be completely irrelevant to the Bible’s actual narrative!

      My theology is a lot more eclectic than Sam Storms’. E.g., I don’t feel ‘Calvinism’ existed before Augustine. It’s not argued for, nor against, in biblical times, imo.

    • Rick C.

      I should add I once thought I ‘had’ to be Arminian or Calvinist…another Protestant ‘assumption’, I suppose (and I’m neither). And to be fair: There’s some possible evidence that Jews in the 1st century were ‘like’ post-apostolic theological camps: Arminians seem ‘similar’ to Pharisees, Calvinists are ‘like’ Essenes.
      Back to doctrinal/beliefs ‘preservation’. We all experience some level of ‘tension’ along these lines. But generally speaking, I WANT to know if I’m wrong! And, as Lisa mentioned, we should be aware of our presuppositions, that we might be wrong. I take this a step further, maybe(?). I have come to (something like) ‘detest’ what I’ve been taught, and try to keep a certain ‘pessimism’ about that. Why? Simply for: The Truth! An e.g. of ‘detesting’: It took me about 20 years to be able to ‘read’ the Olivet Discourse objectively (I kept ‘hearing’ what I was ‘taught’).

    • Rick C.

      (Relevant to this blog). Last month, N.T. Wright spoke on: “Putting the Gospels Back Together: How We’ve All Misread Our Central Story” (on mp3 here). In his closing remarks he said, “You may recall that, faced with the heightened Papal claims of the 19th century, Cardinal Newman declared that he would ‘drink’ to the Pope, but to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards. Faced with today’s heightened claims about the Church’s great tradition, I will ‘drink’ to tradition, but to canon first, and to tradition–including the creeds–afterwards. And to Jesus Himself, first of all. Thank you.”

      Amen! (I had to type that out myself. A *Five-Stars* talk, highly recommended for a listen). Thanks!

    • Daniel

      “He readily admits to the eclectic position and has no qualms of not fitting in squarely to any one camp. What I found most refreshing about this statement was that although certain theological conclusions were solidified, there did not seem to be the need to preserve a particular system of thought.” I use to think I had to subscribe to a given system as a whole, but have since discovered what you share here about Sam Storm’s position. It is refreshing! It seems that by not belonging to any one camp, one is able to foster more unity among the brothers/sisters in Christ also.

    • Rick C.

      Daniel: Sam Storms is committed to Calvinism. He “fits squarely” in that theological camp, and seems interested in not only its ‘preservation’, but spreading its message (as with 3 Theology Unplugged sessions so far). He’s also charismatic, which, isn’t something that Calvinism specifically addresses. However, it seems I read some stuff from Augustine about gifts’ continuation. Augustine could possibly be classified as some kind of ‘continuationist'(?). I’m not sure if the gifts’ ‘continuation’ were being debated when he lived (as they are today).

      I’m not a Calvinist. But I’m ‘like’ Sam Storms in that I’m both charismatic and amillennial. I became amillennial from Bible study alone and don’t know if Sam Storm did that way too, or if he just basically went along with Augustine on it.

      Sometimes I fellowship with Calvinists (locally), though I couldn’t ‘support’ a Calvinist church. I have Calvinist family members: We focus/major-on similarities in Christ!

    • Rick C.

      (Add-On): In re-reading Sam Storms’ What’s Your Theology? – it appears he’s amillennial because he believes the Bible teaches it. Augustine, if I’m not mistaken, was amillennial because he felt a ‘literalistic reading’ of Rev 20 didn’t make sense. Thus, he interpreted it ‘alleghorically’. Btw, Sam Storms’ eschatology articles contain lots of info! (I use them as references).

    • Daniel

      Rick, thanks for sharing some of that about Sam. I knew he was a Calvinist. I don’t think that not having to subscribe to a given system as a whole means we never should or never do. It’s just that we don’t have to accept a thing because it is part of the system and must be correct by default. I’m glad you fellowship with Calvinists as well as non-Calvinists. That is a huge problem for some of my friends. I believe both sides are children of God and there should be fellowship (along with much discussion) between the two.
      PS. I think I’m amill for the most part… I’m still developing my perspective of eschatology. =) I know I am most definitely NOT pretribulational premillennial.

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