A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church

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James Calvin Davis
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , August
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Forbearance is James Calvin Davis’s most recent publication in a career devoted to the themes of virtue and civil discourse. Previously, Davis argued that religious communities have the ability to introduce civility into public discourse because they reflect traditions of moral reflection. Now, he turns his attention specifically to the Christian church. Davis worries Christians cannot serve the public unless they learn civility within their own communities. Particularly, this means practicing the theological virtue of forbearance.

For Davis, forbearance is “the active commitment to maintain Christian community through disagreement, as an extension of virtue and as a reflection of the unity in Christ that binds the church together” (9). Davis argues that forbearance is actually one of the main points that Paul raises when writing to churches facing division. He exhorts the Ephesians “to bear with” [Greek: anecho] one another in love for the sake of maintaining “the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:1-3). We see similar appeals in Colossians; however, we learn the most about forbearance from the epistle to the Romans. There, Paul grounds forbearance in divine action, teaching the Roman Christians that God practices forbearance insofar that he defers judgment on human sinfulness (Rom. 2:2-4, 3:22-25). To practice forbearance, then, is to extend the grace of God to the people of God.

Forbearance is unpopular today because it is misunderstood as relativism or passivity. On these terms, disagreement becomes a zero-sum game with winners and losers. A rehabilitated concept of forbearance changes the way we think about disagreement. If Christians can bear with each other in the face of disagreement, then they can bear witness to reconciliation in the public sphere. For this to happen, Davis argues, Christians must develop the character necessary to practice forbearance. This means attending to the virtues of humility, patience, wisdom, faithfulness, and friendship.

Davis orders these virtues in proximity to the theological virtues of hope, faith, and love. First, forbearance is a supremely hopeful act. In the face of disagreement, Christians exercise forbearance with each other because they are formed by the hopeful virtues of humility, patience, and wisdom. The virtue of humility trains Christians to remember that God is God and we are not. Patience is the active expression of humility with regards to the unity of the church while wisdom exercises humility with regards to our certainty about our theological knowledge and the manner in which we appeal to it. Humility, patience and wisdom are not merely directed towards the clearest articulation of the truth; instead, they are directed towards living truthful lives.

Next, Davis proposes that the theological virtue of faith ought to be considered just that: a virtue. Divisions in the church often arise from the common conception that faith is assent to a list of propositional truths. In scripture, however, faith is always portrayed as a disposition of trust we have towards God and each other. To proclaim faith is to proclaim our trust in God and in the future that he will provide for us. What unifies the church is not assent to the same truth-claims, but a common commitment to trust God. This trust, in turn, means we must trust each other to have the same trust in God. Even when we disagree with each other, we can trust each other to pursue the same goal.

The final theological virtue, love, appears in Davis’s work in the context of friendship. Against Protestant objections, Davis argues that friendship is the best expression of Christian love. Friendship, in Aristotelian terms, is “a relationship of mutuality and intimacy rooted in shared interests, loves, or goals and characterized by genuine interest in the other person” (124). In the church, this means people united by “their allegiance to Christ, their trust in God, and their common experience of the life of the Spirit in their midst” (124). The church becomes a “school for friendship”, teaching Christians to “extend the circle of friends” to those outside the immediate community (128).

The final two chapters anticipate objections to forbearance. First, Davis takes up the question of truth. Conservatives and traditionalists will hear his call to forbearance as a call to compromise truth for the sake of unity. To them, he concedes that progressive and liberal Protestantism has done exactly that in the past. What he wants, instead, is a deep theological commitment to the preservation of truth that closely follows the Calvinist distinction between “essentials” and “non-essentials.” What is truly essential for Calvin is “adherence to the God recognized and worshiped in Jesus Christ” (141). Forbearance means a willingness to live with people who hold that essential tenet of the faith even as we disagree on other concerns.

Second, Davis addresses justice. Progressivists might hear his call to forbearance as a coded plea for gradualism. Against these concerns, Davis appeals to Martin Luther King Jr.’s image of the “transformed nonconformist.” In this case the “nonconformist” impulse to the status quo is “‘controlled and directed by a transformed life’ rooted in Christ” (167). Thus, King’s vision of justice includes and anticipates reconciliation between those who struggle for justice and their foe.

Davis’s argument for forbearance is a welcome contribution to theological discussions in ecclesiology and ethics. Because he writes from a Reformed and Protestant perspective, I want to press him on two points. First, Davis argues that faith is a theological virtue instead of set of confessional claims. His appeal to scripture is compelling on this point; however, some of the great theological texts of Protestantism tend to associate virtue with work and place it in opposition to faith (e.g., Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian). Davis argues that forbearance requires having “faith in one another”; and, although he is careful to state that this is predicated upon and reflects our faith in God, this move will cause some discomfort to Protestants who worry that Davis switches the object of faith from God to the church.

Second, by arguing that friendship is the best expression of Christian love, Davis intentionally places himself at odds with the Protestant tradition. Particularly, he argues that Kierkegaard’s distinction between Christian love (agape) and preferential love (eros) is over-determined and fails to account for the manner in which Jesus befriends his disciples and calls for them to befriend others in imitation of him. This argument fails to address two key aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. First, Kierkegaard emphasizes that the real problem with preferential love is not that we prefer some relationships to others but that the preference we show in those relationships reflects self-love. Second, Davis’s argument that friendship is a type of imitatio Christi whereby we develop a community of friendship in the church does not actually contradict Kierkegaard. To the contrary, it is a less precise way of making Kierkegaard’s point that in any truly loving relationship God has to become the middle term.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Hunsicker is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Azusa Pacific University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Calvin Davis is professor of religion at Middlebury College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. He is also the author of In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us.


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