Eddie Fox, Candler’s Conundrum, And The Role Of Ambiguity In Theological Education

A couple of weeks ago, I offered some reflections on the furor at the Candler School Of Theology and the Distinguished Alumni Award it gave to Eddie Fox.  Called “The Intolerance Of The Tolerant” you can read the post here.

And tucked away in the online brouhaha over that award & the opposition it generated, I came across an intriguing essay by Matt Berryman, a Candler alum and executive director of the Reconciling Ministries Network.

These are the words from the essay that will not let me go:

I am so grateful for the Candler School of Theology.  I will never be able to repay this school for teaching me to acknowledge and celebrate ambiguity in human life and therefore in Christian theology.  

So: the essential legacy that seminary bequeathed to Rev. Berryman is . . . theological ambiguity.  The notion that words and phrases always have multiple meanings, truth is rarely universal, and people are inevitably a mix of the heroic and the cowardly.

Now:  I am a great fan of ambiguity in the arts.  It’s why Bruce Springsteen is rock’s best lyricist.  It’s why I did an undergraduate thesis on the fiction of Flannery O’Connor.  And it’s why movies with rounded characters are always more interesting than those with caricatures (or, more simply, why Sophie’s Choice is better than Rocky V.)

And Scripture itself contains ambiguity.  The book of Proverbs speaks a very different message than Ecclesiastes.  St. Peter is the most interesting character in Scripture precisely he is so admirable and so despicable (check Mark 8:27-34!).

However, I believe it’s one thing to celebrate and acknowledge artistic and Scriptural ambiguity and it’s an entirely different matter altogether to regard it as the hallmark of theological education.  Such an approach leads to indecision, uncertainty, and hesitation in Gospel proclamation.

I suggest that in the middle of the ambiguity that surrounds us, we are confronted with the assurance  and the boldness of the Gospel itself.

Imagine how different the New Testament would be if its writers were steeped in a tradition that celebrated ambiguity at the expense of confidence.

Jesus’ first words in Mark become:  “The kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news.  Unless it’s all a mirage.

Paul’s thesis statement for Romans becomes:  “For I am not sure of the gospel . . . “

Even Jesus’ summary in John 14:6 changes:  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” becomes “I Am A Way, Some Truth, the Hope of Life.”
Acts 4:31 undergoes the saddest change of them all:  “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God . . . hesitantly.”  

Thankfully, the concluding word of Acts 4:31 is not “hesitantly,” but “boldly.”

I’d say that’s because Peter, James, John, and the others — in spite of their internal ambiguities — knew they were carriers of a message with universal import and eternal significance.

Whatever seminary they attended, sign me up.