How much does personality influence views on theology?

My last two posts cover the effect of personal stories on the positions we take in areas of controversy. One particular controversial area for our seminary has to do with “the missional turn” we are taking as an institution. For those not familiar with this idea, you can explore more by going to our president’s Missional Journal. But here’s the controversy in short. Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, theologians disagree about how the church should reach this generation and the next. Some see evangelicalism as highly deficient in its understanding of the Gospel, of community life and our purpose in the world, and our relationship to God. The system is broken and needs complete overall. Others acknowledge that much of the church is “me-driven” but that our theological systems are just fine even if we need to refine their application to everyday life.

Enter personality differences.

I wonder how much personality influences our beliefs about change. While I’m not reducing the debates to merely personality differences, personality does seem to play a significant role. How comfortable are you with change? How much do we seek to start over when we see trouble? How suspicious are we of either those who want to keep things the same or those who want to change everything?

Consider this example. Those in the “missional turn” tend to be more willing to cross old boundaries (e.g., Reformed/Arminian, Protestant/Catholic) to look for friends and dialog partners. Some, however, see this as a giving up of long-held truth positions. So, how comfortable you with divergent theological and ecclesial views? Is it really justabout the ideas or also about personality general outlook on life? Those who want to get their theology right and hesitate to see that there are multiple, good, and sometimes divergent doctrinal views has less to do with whether they are skeptics or that others are relativists and much, much more to do with one’s level of optimism/pessimism about humanity. The optimist views the plural nature of the church and sees the hand of God giving many insights into the majesty and mystery of our Great God. The optimist (idealist?) sees the Holy Spirit as leading Calvinists, Arminians, Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, and a host of other isms to capture parts of character of God. On the other hand, the pessimist (realist?) views the plurality of theology and the isms not as a good thing but a manifestation of the fallen nature of humanity. The pessimist is suspicious of the many ways we Christians can screw up the church and screw up our theology. This group may not think they have their theology “all right” but they haven’t given up trying nonetheless.

Another way to look at this is to consider whether we are more comfortable in staying in the paradigm or more comfortable operating outside the paradigm. This makes me remember Thomas Kuhn’s view of scientific paradigms. “Normal” science is mostly a mopping up affair. Most scientists then accept the dominant paradigm and fill in the missing pieces of data. Yes, there are missing pieces of data, but we know the big picture. But, discoveries are only revolutionary if they blow up a previously held paradigm and change the whole we look at all the data. And revolutionary discoveries usually come from individuals with revolutionary mindsets–folks willing to challenge commonly-held opinion. In the case of theologians, some people consider the eons of church history and see a fairly firm theological paradigm with some holes to be filled in. “We know who God is, the trinity, mankind, and we know how salvation works. Yes, we didn’t always have a very good view of justice, but that is now added in…” Yet others consider the theological paradigms of the day to be completely wrongheaded and find excitement in considering completely new paradigms and by calling other to their task by saying, “everything has to change.”

I’m left wondering how much our willingness to entertain new ideas is a result of thoughtful and careful study and how much is it from our personalities. This is not to say that these issues are only personality driven. They are not. But I do wonder what role it plays in our feelings about rightness about our intellectual positions.


Filed under Doctrine/Theology, missional, Missional Church, personality

2 responses to “How much does personality influence views on theology?

  1. Phil, I agree that personality is playing an important role in the missional/emerging conversation. I like your examples, although I’m not sure I agree with the idea of optimists being the idealists and pessimists being the realists. Can you unpack that further?

  2. Yes, I probably have unfairly labeled those two positions. I think I was thinking along the lines of the pessimist tending toward “depressive realism” or expecting the worst where the optimist would be more inclined to think about the best or ideal human capacities for truth.

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