Biblical Tension

“It seems easier to go to a consistent extreme than to stay at the center of biblical tension.”
Robertson McQuilkin

Scaling El Capitan, photo by Bronson Taylor Hovnanian, 2011

A sagacious Veracity reader recently served up the above quote while discussing perspectives on the role of women in church leadership.  I hadn’t heard it before, but it sounded profound and worthy of some quiet-time bird dogging.  I quickly traced it to Robertson McQuilkin, a man of great integrity.

The Christian faith inherently involves biblical hermeneutics—simply put, we have to interpret the text in the Bible.  In wrestling with our different interpretations there seems to be no limit to the chasms we create over issues large and small.

So this new quote from Robertson McQuilkin seemed to hold potential as a way to work though our differences.  Jesus was the master of big thinking, never getting lost in the details.  When we disagree, one tact is to find a higher principle, teaching, or value upon which we can agree.  We can use tension to elevate to a higher common ground.  Lots of things don’t work without tension.  Maybe biblical tension is prescribed for our health and well being.  The left versus the right, with peace in the middle.  No more getting stuck in the parking lots of our own arguments.

No so fast.  It turns out Robertson McQuilkin’s statement is not a principle for addressing our differences, nor is it about resolving differences through compromise or tolerance.  (So much for my ability to build the elephant from a single sentence.)  Here’s the quote in context:

Contrasting Ideas

Many times a passage cannot be fully understood until the teaching has been contrasted with teaching in other passages. Since commitment to the trustworthiness of Scripture means that there can be no ultimate conflict, an attempt must be made to resolve apparent conflicts between passages.

Guidelines for doing that will be considered in greater detail in the following chapter, when we study a method for building a systematic theology. However, at this point we should mention that there are many teachings in the Bible that do not stand alone. A. W. Tozer, ever the incisive critic of sloppy thinking, has stated it well:  “Truths that are compelled to stand alone never stand straight and are not likely to stand long. Truth is one but truths are many. Scriptural truths are interlocking and interdependent. A truth is rarely valid in isolation. A statement may be true in its relationship to other truths and less than true when separated from them.” 

Christ said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matt. 7:1). Paul emphasized the same truth: “Who are you to judge the servant of another?” (Rom. 14:4). Many have taken that as an absolute norm for Christian conduct, insisting that no Christian may ever judge another human being. However, there are contrasting passages, one of which is also in the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of the false prophets. . . . you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-16). In fact, Christ said directly, “Judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24), and John reinforces that: “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God. . . . By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:1, 6). To understand all God would teach us concerning judging and refraining from judging others, a systematic study must be made of all biblical teaching on the subject. However, at this point, it is important to note that neither of those teachings can be rightly understood without reference to contrasting passages.

The classic example is the controversy concerning God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. When interpreting verses that seem to teach one of those truths rather than the other, it is necessary to consider the contrasting passages for a balanced and full-orbed understanding of biblical truth. In other words, a person might study God’s sovereignty in Ephesians 1, John 6, and Romans 9 and come to conclusions that would relax a person’s responsibility for his own choices. To do so would be to misunderstand the full truth. Since all of Scripture is true, the student committed to seeking the unity of Scripture must be diligent and study also what the Bible says of man’s responsibility. But he should not study it in isolation or he will distort the balanced truth of God. Sadly, it seems easier to go to a consistent extreme than to stay at the center of biblical tension.

Robertson McQuilkin (2009-06-24). Understanding and Applying the Bible: Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 3682-3704). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

So the quote turned out to have more behind it than I had hoped, but in a very different context.  It’s about considering “contrasting passages for a balanced and full-orbed understanding of biblical truth,” with the idea of working to avoid sloppy thinking through diligent study.

As for engaging in debates over biblical hermeneutics, it may not be our position or the sway of our argument that people remember, but the attitude of our hearts.

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.John 13:35, NIV

“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” 1 Peter 3:15, NIV

HT: David the Older, Bronson Taylor Hovnanian

About John Paine

This blog is topical and devotional--we post whatever interests us, whenever. If you want to follow in an orderly fashion, please see our Kaqexeß page. View all posts by John Paine

3 responses to “Biblical Tension

  • dwwork

    Amen, without love for those around us we will accomplish nothing.


  • David Aaron Bowers

    I know this is very late, but I do think that quote may have been from Robert C McQuilkin originally, my Uncle Robertson was quoting his dad. I may be wrong, but when the members of my family quote it, they always ascribe it to Robert C McQuilkin. Nevertheless, I am proud to see this here. 🙂


    • John Paine


      There are many references to your uncle using that quote in his teaching. People still reflect upon it and value it. What impresses me is the values he demonstrated through his dedication to his wife, as chronicled by the Day of Discovery folks and others. Dick Woodward, one of my mentors, knew them both well and spoke very highly of them. They were quite an example for all of us. Your clarification on the source of Robertson’s famous quote shows that values are indeed caught.

      Thanks for commenting.



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