I began taking theology seriously around 2008, in the height of the Young, Restless, Reformed (YRR) movement in evangelicalism. At the time I was being discipled by a Methodist pastor, who trained me in the ways of “five-point” Arminianism while I served under him as a youth pastor. I knew all the takedowns of “five-point” Calvinist soteriology—and wielded them with abandon any chance I could.
But growing up in Dallas–Fort Worth, the YRR movement was close to home, with figures such as Matt Chandler drawing a huge crowd down the road. Sure enough, I began attending The Village Church in the evenings and was soon converted to the ways of Calvinism. As one can imagine, I became skilled at wielding new arguments against my old ones.
Many have called this “cage stage” Calvinism, and I was a willing combatant. Looking back, the most negative consequence of my time in the cage was how it (for only a time, praise God) soured my relationship with my mentor. I went from deeply respecting him as a pastor and theologian to doubting his intelligence and sincerity.
But he hadn’t changed—I had.
Diagnosing the Cage Stage
The cage-stage mentality is prevalent in a variety of circles. It almost seems to be a necessary consequence of theological discovery. I see it now in those who, like me, are concerned about theological retrieval. But I hope the next generation will avoid cage-stage theological retrieval—and avoid some of my generation’s mistakes.
Here are four signs of cage-stage theology from a former practitioner.
1. You disdain your spiritual and theological forebears, heroes, or mentors.
We’re quick to critique or even slander those who came before us—those who taught us!—because we now feel we’ve moved beyond them. We become cynical of their abilities while tending to lionize our newfound intelligence, oddly insulting our former selves who once held such beliefs.
I wish I could track it down, but I once saw a tweet that essentially said, “I disagree with [X theologian] now, but I’m only able to disagree because he made me love theology in the first place.” This seems like the right way to honor those who came before us. Like adult children, we shouldn’t allow pride to dishonor our (theological) parents just because we’ve moved on from them in some ways. They still gave us the passion and the tools to care about theology.
Like children who come into their own as adults, we shouldn’t allow pride to dishonor our (theological) parents just because we’ve moved on from them in some ways.
Frankly, a twenty-something seminarian railing against someone whose major work published before the student was born may be right about a few facts, but he’s rarely right in his disposition. Those of us who’ve been there recognize how hard it is to see that blind spot in youth—but it’s crucial those around him point it out. Wisdom allows for humility and graciousness, especially in disagreement.
2. You create disciples who are cynical of their forebears, heroes, or mentors.
As a professor, I often see students go through the whiplash of realizing their parents, pastors, or favorite authors are apparently wrong about something. In the cage stage, it’s tempting to think decades of faithful ministry are now (or always have been) worthless and of little benefit to the academy or church. These students begin to question their mentors or friends for being too “shallow.”
For those of us in positions of influence, let’s not fan the flames of the cage stage. In part, this requires us to correct someone when it happens. For example, I rarely allow a student to criticize her parents or pastors to me. She might think I’ll understand the silliness of her pastor’s view because she heard me disagree with it, but I usually shut that conversation down.
We also need to model this type of theological generosity. Whenever we teach, we should represent interlocutors fairly and substantially. If we don’t exit the cage stage as leaders, we’ll keep breeding prideful students who don’t learn to recognize how little they know—and how they might disagree with themselves down the road.
3. You narrow orthodoxy to a neatly defined set of categories.
The cage stage can create a type of fundamentalism that eschews generous orthodoxy for a select “in” crowd reminiscent of a high school clique. It’s easy to simply cut someone out of our theological friend group if he challenges or questions us. But if you’re truly confident in your convictions, they can be challenged by the best of the other side. Humility allows you to hold your convictions while being open to changing your mind.
You don’t have to protect your own platform or prestige. You’re not jockeying for prom king. I can’t count the number of times I regurgitated that Arminians are “works-based” and “don’t appreciate the sovereignty of God.” I’d even read Wesley’s corpus and knew better—but in the cage, you have to punch, not hug.
4. You tend toward personal brand building that makes you a self-appointed savior of orthodoxy.
We feel the need to protect our brand; after all, it’s what got us whatever influence we have. At its worst, the cage stage pushes us to conveniently interpret deceased theologians as if they basically agree with us. This is a great way to win cheap points in a debate, but not to do theology or history.
Humility allows you to hold your convictions while being open to changing your mind.
It’s tempting to create history in our own image—anachronistically or shallowly arguing that past theologians agree with all of our little pet nuances. Critiquing them becomes a direct critique of us.
We all have a long way to go. Sin is always creeping. But beware of “us vs. them” theologians who frame all discourse around their role in saving you from an enemy (whether a person or a generic “them”). Paul directly warns the Corinthians against an “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” mentality (1 Cor. 3:4). Instead, he later says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (13:7).
It’s basic neighbor-love to ask clarifying questions of those with whom you disagree. I imagine Satan loves it when we assume bad motives, judge a person’s theology or character based on one tweet or article, or use others’ failures as a prop for our own platforms.
It’s tragic, then, that Christians are sometimes the most vicious to one another. When we’re in the cage, we’re unable to see outside it—lacking the wisdom to judge between biblical discernment and church-destroying divisiveness.
What if we modeled eschatological unity rather than myopic division?
Instead, we can all pray that God would break our pride, soften our hearts, and give us the wisdom to balance conviction with neighbor-love. Thinking back to the church in Corinth, Paul seems willing to allow them to disagree about a whole host of issues—so long as they unite around the gospel. This unity must include generosity toward our forebears and introspection about our own convictions and abilities.
The reality is that all the senseless division between brothers and sisters in Christ will be eradicated in the new creation. We’ll live in a fellowship of unity and forgiveness for all eternity, thanks to the One who overcomes our rivalries. In the meantime, what if we modeled eschatological unity rather than myopic division? What if we try harder, by the power of the Spirit, to treat each other as we will in the new creation?
The Gospel Coalition