Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

The Practice of Theology, 2

If theology is a “science of convictions,” then we need to say more about what convictions are.  McClendon distinguishes them from opinions.  [See James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Wipf & Stock, 2002)–a revision and expansion of McClendon and Smith, Understanding Religious Convictions (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).] Opinions are easily formed and easily changed. Forming them may require investigation or logical reasoning, but they do not involve much more than the intellect. We often know exactly how and when we formed opinion X and when it changed to opinion Y.

By contrast, convictions are deeply a part of us. We are very emotionally invested in them. They are not formed easily and they are not changed easily.  They cannot be changed at all without the individual or the community holding them becoming a significantly different individual or community.  In a sense, we are our convictions and, thus, changing them leads to our becoming someone new (or a different community).

Consider some examples.  And here, just for fun, I will tease some prominent theology bloggers and bibliobloggers by using them in the examples.  Imagine, if you will, a Jim West giving up a Zwinglian “pure memorial” understanding of the Lord’s Supper for a Lutheran belief in eucharistic “consubstantiation,” or some other “real presence” sacramental view.  Such a change would not be simply an exegetical or theological change of mind, but a type of conversion and the results would give us a very different Jim West from the one we know (and love?)–but he’d probably still keep calling Chris Tilling “the devil.”

Or imagine D. W. Congdon rejecting universal salvation. Surely that would be a conversion! (Actually, considering that Congdon is a Wheaton alumnus come to Princeton, this would probably be a re-conversion to earlier convictions.) Or what would Guy Davies be like if he came to embrace Arminius’ or Wesley’s views on prevenient grace and free will?

Waxing more serious, I know that my rejection of the view that Christians could use lethal force and serve in national militaries, and my embrace of Christian pacifism (gospel nonviolence)  was not a simple change of opinion, but a conversion. Since I was in the U.S. military at the time, it involved me refusing to don my uniform or pick up my rifle and applying for a conscientious objector discharge. 

The same is true for communities:  Consider those churches in the 16th C. that, under the influence of Zwingli or Luther or Calvin, embraced the Reformation–and were no longer Catholic but Protestant churches.  Or consider those early followers of Zwingli–Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Georg Blaurock, etc. who followed the logic of Zwingli’s early teaching on baptism and then decided that Scripture had more authority than the Zurich city council and became the first Anabaptists.  Convictions are not changed easily–and they  cannot be changed at all without the individual or community holding those convictions becoming significantly different than before.

Therefore theology not only involves struggle for truth amidst error, but also the risk of conversion and change (not least from the theologian).

Now, all of us hold some beliefs, even some religious beliefs, at the opinion level rather than the convictional level.  Perhaps one definition of “fundamentalism” (whether conservative or liberal in orientation) is that all or nearly all beliefs are at the convictional level–nothing is adiaphora or even of secondary importance, everything is life or death, nothing is not a “test of fellowship,” that separates out true believers from heretics.

Next time: The branches of theology and how this relates to the practices of the Church and churches and the task(s) of theologians.

May 26, 2007 - Posted by | theology


  1. Michael,

    Nice post!! I will have to get a copy of the book, which I’ve not read. My own journey has been one of change, and yet I remain committed to the faith. Thus convictions are the anchor, not easily changed.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | May 26, 2007

  2. What would I be like as an Arminian? Perish the thought! 😉

    Comment by Guy Davies | May 26, 2007

  3. I’d with Guy… I can’t even imagine….

    Comment by Jim | May 26, 2007

  4. That’s “I’m”…. Long day…

    Comment by Jim | May 26, 2007

  5. I was trying to be amusing, but the fact that such changes are hard to even imagine demonstrates my very point about the nature of convictions. It explains why theologians so seldom change each others’ minds on major issues.

    But, you know, although I gave the example of David Congdon surrendering his universalism, an even greater change would be if THE NATURE of that universalism changed from his Barthian Christocentric soteriology to a Hick or Knitter type pluralism! Compared to that, the current Congdon has more in common with his non-universalist past than either would have with an imagined pluralist Congdon.

    The theologian holds up a mirror to the community in which it sees itself not only as it is, but as it should be/must be. The theologian not only discovers and interprets the convictions of the convictional community (in the Christian case the convictions of the Church), but seeks their normative transformation–and now we see how difficult the latter is.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 26, 2007

  6. Thanks for this. I look forward to what follows. [NB: No word from Nancey Murphy on the previous discussion. I printed the post and comments and slipped them under her office door with a little note. It’s the end of the quarter here so I am sure she is quite busy.]

    Comment by Chris | May 27, 2007

  7. […] James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and his sometime writing parter, philosopher James M. Smith, I argued here  that we should distinguish between those beliefs which are mere opinions and those which form our […]

    Pingback by Convictions and Moral Discernment, 1 « Levellers | April 15, 2009

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