The 1930s debate between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth has come to have iconic status in the history of Christian theology. It has been said that if you understand what’s at stake in that debate over natural theology, then you understand the situation of Christian theology in the first half of the twentieth century. Stanley Hauerwas recounts that when he was being interviewed for his first seminary field placement, he was only asked two questions: Do you have a car? And what side are you on in the Barth-Brunner debate? The debate had all the marks of a legendary duel, including Barth’s famous essay simply titled “Nein!” and its aptly-titled “Angry Introduction,” and so we are surprised to find Barth, toward the end of his life, saying of his old sparring partner, “the time when I thought I had to say ‘No’ to him is now long past, since we all live only by virtue of the fact that a great and merciful God says his gracious yes to all of us.”[1]

This remark unsettles the way we think about the debates and disagreements that shape the history of theology. As Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, “Traditions, when vital, embody communities of conflict,” and “A tradition is an argument extended through time.”[2] This ongoing debate, or rather this series of countless intertwining debates, has its winners and its losers, and students of theology think primarily, if not solely, in terms of the winners. We hear Augustine’s voice clearly but not Pelagius’s, Athanasius’s but not Arius’s, and so on through the centuries. The voices of the losers are heard only as foils, and many times their writings are only preserved in the polemics of the winners. This, I should note, is not just true of Montanus and Marcion and other ancient writers—think of all the authors whose works you have avoided because they have been summarized and demolished by theologians you trust. Think of all the voices you only hear after they’ve been selectively edited or paraphrased by the “good guys.” For my own part, just as I only hear the Donatists through Augustine’s retelling, I also only hear Schleiermacher as Barth retells him. I also only watch the parts of Fox News that appear on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

It’s nothing new to suggest that the victors write the history books. This is understandable, but it comes at a cost and it is worth our time to consider that cost. In the rest of this essay, I will make a plea for the losers. If tradition is a series of conflicts and disagreements, then we only hear one side of the story when we pay attention solely to the presumptive heroes, and we are liable to misunderstand them in the process. In making this plea, I draw heavily on the work of John Howard Yoder. Yoder is uniquely suited as a spokesman for the losers of church history, after all he wrote his dissertation on the history of the early Anabaptists. Christian thinkers have for centuries cast aside these Anabaptists, but Yoder nonetheless found deep theological meaning in their mundane lives of farming, shunning, and drowning. A life spent inviting other Christians and non-Christians to reconsider the maligned and misrepresented Anabaptists, persuaded Yoder that insight into the things of God might be found in other losers throughout the ages. Yoder’s historical work thus attempts to hear the majority witness of orthodox Christian tradition while simultaneously living out Jesus’s example of having friends in low places.

One way Yoder accomplishes this is by challenging what he calls a “monolinear” approach to tradition. Yoder’s example is the stock narrative of Mennonites, though a similar exclusive genealogy could be given by any denomination or theological group. He writes,

One of the temptations is to assume we have only one line. We start with the early church, and then the Montanists break off. Then you have the heresies with which the apostolic fathers dealt, and then the Arians go off. Then various people get lost in the Middle Ages, and then the Orthodox break off in 1054. The various medieval sects separate themselves, then the Catholics get lost and Protestants go on, then Lutherans get off and Mennonites go on… all the way there is only one line. Once each deviant group drops off its history is no longer noticed. As you read a text in historical theology, you will see the monolinear assumption being made, and it is never correct.[3]

Each of us could tell a similar story of church history and have our own monolinear tendencies brought to light. Yoder suggests that our view of the church is of a necklace stretching from Jesus to us, and the jewels on the necklace are those “heroes” who we take to be relevant to our development. Just as each interpreter of Scripture relies on an often implicit canon within the canon that he or she takes to be the most determinative, so too each interpreter of theological history defaults to one particular chain.

As Yoder notes, this monolinear tendency, while natural and to some degree inevitable, distorts our understanding of history; it misses the way history doubles back on itself like a vine and intertwines with other stands in unpredictable ways.[4] Within Yoder’s paradigm, the voices of the past, even those that had schisms and condemned one another, are not to be dismissed, even though some may be granted more consideration and authority than others. Admittedly, Yoder’s vision for a more inclusive historiography seems to flirt with relativism, and Yoder’s critics have observed that he seems a little too chummy with Nestorius and a little too leery of Nicaea. The question these critics raise is, how do we preserve the villains without relativizing the accomplishments of the heroes?

I think we can begin to answer this question—as well as the underlying question of why we should pay attention to the losers of history in the first place—by using a concept that was very important to Yoder, the concept of a concern.[5] To put it briefly, people feel compelled to theologize because they have a concern, or a “reasonable fear,” that something essential will be lost if people continue to think, act, and talk in a particular way. One’s concerns suffuse one’s theological writings the way a longing for the beloved suffuses a sad love poem. One’s concerns do not merely spark one to formulate a doctrinal position; they are the vitality that animates the position. To try to understand a thinker’s conclusions without understanding their concerns is like examining the fur without paying any heed to the bear. The task of understanding what someone actually said necessarily involves the task of imaginatively discerning why the person said it.

It is these concerns that we need to be attentive to when we read the losers of church history. More often than not, their concerns are ones we can be somewhat sympathetic to. Arius was concerned to hold onto monotheism and preserve the personhood of God against Neoplatonic encroachments; Pelagius was concerned about a Manichaean faith that demonized matter and a docetic faith that made Jesus inhuman. In fact, most of the early heretics formulated their theologies in opposition to other, earlier heresies. Eutyches was reacting against Nestorius, who was reacting against Apollinaris, who was reacting against Arius. So if you’re concerned about avoiding heresy, you’re in good company—so were almost all of the major heretics.

All this is to say, the exegetical posture we should take is one in which we do not simply dismiss wrong conclusions but first understand the concerns that animate those conclusions. Only trivial mistakes can be dismissed as wrong without this sort of charitable imagination. Even if the formulations that these figures propose are profoundly unsatisfactory, we ought to consider what inspired or unsettled them and relate it to what inspires or unsettles us. To put it in ways reminiscent of Barth, any no we say, even the strong no of condemnation, has to be enfolded in a greater yes to the concerns, or else we are treating the other person as less than human, as abjectly different from ourselves. There are many dangerous theological errors that are in need of rebuke, but none are more serious than the notion that we can silence someone without listening to them.

This vision is not relativistic, nor does it take away from the value of the heroes. In fact, it helps to account for what makes them so worthwhile: the heroes of orthodoxy were able to pay attention to the concerns that were expressed in their time and articulate a theological vision that more fruitfully addresses those concerns than their interlocutors. If we understand what problems motivated Arius to articulate his doctrines, then we can more fully appreciate how the theologians of Nicaea were able to formulate a theology that more adequately and faithfully addressed those problems. Similarly, knowing that Nazi-supporting Christians were concerned that Christianity was too permissive and facile enables us to more fully appreciate the achievement that is Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. What makes a great theological work great is that it is able to outdescribe its rivals; it is able to say “the good news is even better than what you have concluded.” To silence someone’s concerns is like telling them that they are not hungry, whereas to address their concerns is to nourish them.

So that is the first argument on behalf of the losers—when we listen to them, we gain more context for and appreciation of the fidelity and creativity of the winners. The members of our tradition we ought to cherish the most are the ones who were able to listen to the concerns of others in their age and show how the gospel speaks to those concerns in ways that those others had not seen. The second argument is related; only if we listen to those we are liable to dismiss can we have a sense of what is really at stake in the disagreement. We are often told what the right answer is without having a clear sense of why the question is being asked in the first place. Any seminarian who has had to blindly memorize “homoousios, not homoiousios” knows what I am talking about. (I had a mnemonic device for that one—“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Jesus’”) Hearing the conclusions of the great debates without getting caught up in the drama and uncertainty of the debates is one of the main reasons people find orthodoxy boring. If you check all of the football scores online but never watch any of the games, are you really a football fan? If you memorize and recite the conclusions without listening to the different parties debate, are you really learning theology? Thus listening to the losers not only gives us a framework for understanding the value of the winners, but attention to their interactions with the winners gives us insight into how theologizing as a process works.

Third, we ought to be open to the possibility that the losers had more to say than we give them credit for. We might actually be challenged and corrected by their concerns and the ways they expound upon them. Nietzsche put it best: “Never ignore, never refuse to see what may be thought against your own thought.”[6] This is advice Christians can take by paying attention to the theological writers we are inclined to dismiss. Those we dismiss are often the ones who are best positioned to point out our own blind spots, highlight flaws in our thinking, and emphasize aspects of the divine that we neglect. After all, the God we worship is simultaneously lamb and lion, physician and shepherd, rock and parent—do we really think that our monolinear narrative encompasses all the different facets, or is it possible that dissenting theological voices could remind us of aspects of God we have forgotten? Yoder notes that the threefold identification of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king names a delicate theological balance. When we overemphasize the prophetic role of Jesus, for example, we need to be reminded of the priestly and regal roles, and the losers of history can be powerful reminders even if their formulations are also problematic. These sorts of corrections are the warp and woof of the ongoing argument that MacIntyre calls tradition.

Finally, and most importantly, the practice of listening to the words and seeking to appreciate the concerns of past villains prepares us for addressing present-day interlocutors. Think for a second about the theologians, preachers, activists, and writers who you really wish would just shut up. If our imagination has been trained to charitably interpret past figures, identify their concerns, and show how their conclusions fall short of the gospel they claim to be preaching, then we are better equipped to do the same for those who are still living. A monolinear understanding of tradition that dismisses all other past voices forms people who respond dismissively to other present-day voices. The prevalence of the monolinear assumption may contribute to the apparent interminability of theological disputes. If, as MacIntyre says, tradition is an ongoing argument, there’s a certain irony when both sides in a theological debate claim to be the exclusive inheritors of the tradition. The real way to inherit the Christian tradition is not to weaponize the conclusions of past luminaries, but to emulate their practices of listening, charitable interpretation, and preaching good news to concerned people.

We have considered the costs of listening only to the winners who have gone on to write the history books. The question remains, what should we do about it? I do not have a direct answer, but I think a hint can be found in the US Supreme Court’s practice of preserving dissenting opinions. The presence of dissenting opinions testifies that the concerns and rationales of the losers are worth remembering, even when a firm and binding decision is needed. We ought to consider how we can teach and write about church history while maintaining these dissenting opinions and counteracting the effects of our monolinear tendencies. In doing this, we train ourselves to always remember that even the people we need to say no to are sustained by a great and merciful God’s gracious yes.


[1] See Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), 48; and Barth, quoted in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1976), 476–77.

[2] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 206; and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 12.

[3] Yoder, Preface to Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002), 388.

[4] Ibid., 176ff.

[5] Consider Yoder’s participation in the Concern Group in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The term recurs throughout his later writing, cf. Preface to Theology, 60.

[6] Nietzsche quoted in A. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, trans. Mary Ryan (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), xxv.