Tension in Theology:

The Value of Unity and Peace

Tension in Theology: The Value of Unity and Peace

Dr. Jason Barnhart

Tension in theology is a lot like centrifugal and centripetal forces in physics. For example, imagine we’re watching a car following a banked turn. If we’re watching from the outside, we can see centripetal force pushing the vehicle inward toward the center to keep the vehicle moving. However, if we’re riding inside the car, we feel a force pushing us away from the center of the circle — this is the centrifugal force.

Another word for the tension in theology is paradox. It can be challenging to grasp paradox. Something is either this or that. For example, how can a shape be both square and round? Then when we discover a squircle (an actual shape), our minds are blown!

A paradox is contrary to opinion or expectation, but it is not a logical contradiction. Instead, it is a new creation that interrupts logical thinking. In theology, paradox functions as a mystery–not a logical riddle but a new reality that finite reason cannot fully grasp. Ultimately in Christ, all contradictions are resolved. When we worship, we are invited into this mysterious reality.

Seminary is a time to face a variety of paradoxes. Like a squircle, differing perspectives introduce us to multiple streams of Christianity whereby we see our faith as the same as and different from others. Yet, amid disagreements, there looms an overarching question, how can two people encounter the same thing and come to different conclusions? 

More often than not, tensions expose differences in our lived theology. Our textbooks may be the same as others, but our applications reveal different stories, traditions, denominations and experiences. 

In seminary, centrifugal force equates to our differences. Without the centripetal force of the Spirit, the centrifugal force of differences spirals us into chaos. Yet, with the Spirit’s centripetal pull to Jesus, we remain unified in our relationship with Christ. 

For example, the earliest creeds of the Christian faith affirmed Jesus as 100% human and 100% divine. Yet, rather than being 200% of anything, Jesus is simply 100% the God-Man. He is the founding paradox, the grounding tension of our faith journey. Genuine theology must be paradoxical; it must embrace tension to embody Jesus. 

Christ as center allows us to encounter a robust, biblical faith through knowledge of God rooted in the paradoxical unity of Word and Spirit. It is a transcendent revelation that is immanently contextualized in the community of each classroom.

Because of our unity in Christ, our theological conversation shifts from who is “in” and “out” to who is nearer the center, Jesus Christ, and who is moving away. Locating Jesus at the center makes transformative theological education possible. While the cognitive study of theology is part of theological education, it is never the ultimate goal. Theological reflection entails a holistic journey or pilgrimage. If our core truth is Jesus Christ, then our pursuit in theology must be relational and nimble like that required on a pilgrimage—there is a plan of study, but there is an openness to mystery and new light along the way.

Ultimately Jesus, revealed by both the Bible and the Spirit, remains the only center of our faith. For our theology to be effective, it must be conversant with fresh ways of experiencing Him or devolves into ideology. When embodied, theology reveals an experiential truth that transforms our faith communities by the power of the Spirit. In addition–like the great pilgrimages of old–we hold communal respect for the broad tradition of Christianity. Those who have walked this road before us, often identified as the “Great Tradition” of the Christian faith, connect us to a spiritual community that transcends the modern era.

If we’re going to be a community of peace in a world at war, we must confront the world’s false peace, which is built on power rather than truth. We do this by naming our differences and reorienting ourselves to the Center. We know that when false peace is confronted, it becomes violent, yet we do not avoid confrontation because we desire authentic peace and unity, not a façade. The centrifugal force of our theological differences is held together by the centripetal pull of Christ Jesus through his Holy Spirit.

The ability to stay together amid our differences, the tension of our theology embodied by a forgiven people, helps us declare that peace is usually a shallow optimism. The peace of Jesus acknowledges that our differences (not uniformity) shape us to be truthful people who can tether ourselves to him together.

Word and Spirit, in harmony, focus us on the central revelation of Christ, which anchors us amid dialogue with the ideas of surrounding cultures. The antagonisms of the world will not mark our community. Tension in theology, unity amid diversity, is the only way to allow the Living Word of Jesus Christ to penetrate our hearts and minds and develop robust theology where the world only offers competing ideologies.

About the Author,
Dr. Jason Barnhart


Jason Barnhart is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology. Previously, he served as the Director of Brethren Research and Resourcing for the Brethren Church National Office in Ashland, Ohio. He has over a decade of pastoral experience in congregations in Ohio. He served for three years (2014-2017) as the University Chaplain at Ashland University in Ashland where he was also an adjunct instructor

Jason was co-editor of A Brethren Witness for the 21st Century (2014) and co-edited a primer for the work, A Brethren Witness Primer (2015), for youth and young adults. He also served as the editor of A Brethren Way: Rediscovering our Distinct Posture and Witness (2016). From 2017-2019, Jason worked on a DVD curriculum series to help viewers understand exactly who the Brethren are, and how they have practiced their faith since arriving in America. He has authored several articles many of which bring the theological witness of the Ashland Brethren into conversation with the larger world of American evangelicalism.

Jason serves on the Brethren Encyclopedia Board and the Brethren Journal Association, which oversees the publication, Brethren Life & Thought, and serves on the North Central Regional Leadership Team of the Brethren Church. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (2004) in Religion and Ethics from Ashland University, a Master of Divinity (2008) from Ashland Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Theology (2019) in Brethren historical theology from La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has a deep love and appreciation for Brethren historical theology and works to bring it into engagement with our present day. Alongside his love of Brethren thought, he has a deep interest in the theology of Karl Barth, Anabaptist thought, political theology, Thomas Merton and monasticism, and spiritual formation.

Jason resides in Ashland with his wife, Allison, two children, Miles and Clementine, and their rambunctious miniature dachshund, Golly. In his free time Jason enjoys readings, working outside and discussing theology.

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