Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church
James Calvin Davis. Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017, 240 pp. $25.00.
Reviewed by Naomi Ketchens
There are better and worse ways to disagree. Christians once regularly tortured non-believers, executed heretics, and went to war over theological disputes. Churches have since largely recognized that division is preferable to violence as a means of navigating controversy (5–6). In his book, titled Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, James Calvin Davis advises a better way for Christian communities to traverse theological disagreement. The fulcrum of Davis’s argument is forbearance, itself a virtue by being a commitment to other unifying virtues. Throughout his book, then, Davis constructs a robust account of forbearance for a church that wishes to be both confessor of unity and witness to the world.
Davis does not allow this theological emphasis to stray into pure abstraction, however. He acknowledges that disagreement is often an unavoidable event, one that can induce sharp pain and long-lasting frustration. Nor does he claim to have discovered a unifying solution fit for every ecclesial situation. Rather, he works from an explicitly Reformed tradition to recast Christian attitudes toward disagreement (x–xi). The entirety of Davis’s book asks what might be possible if Christians start viewing disagreement as an opportunity for growth.
Here, then, is Davis’s conviction regarding forbearance: “In the practice of forbearance, Christians do not create unity; we confess it” (12). It is not a solution to every problem, but “an 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). Providing an entry into his project, Davis describes forbearance accordingly in his first chapter. He justifies the necessity of forbearance by pointing to biblical passages in which Christians are exhorted to bear with one another as a reflection of God’s own forbearance with the church (10–14).
Grasping this description of forbearance is key; note that forbearance is not one virtue but several. Perhaps more accurately, it is not so much a singular characteristic as a locus of commitment within a constellation of virtues. Consequently, most of Davis’s chapters focus on different virtues; those chapters, in turn, branch off to explore additional virtues. For instance, in a chapter on wisdom, Davis also includes entire sections on intelligence, discernment, empathy, and imagination. The number of virtuous characteristics that forbearance commits believers to is ever multiplying.
Material in these chapters may be familiar to readers concerned with virtue ethics, as Davis dedicates chapters to humility, patience, hope, wisdom, faithfulness, and friendship. Still, it is to Davis’s credit that he manages to fuse so many elements into a coherent and linear account of what forbearance entails. He writes with the intent to reshape informed, theological discussions of disagreement in the church, making the book fitting for academic use. Yet, his commitment to introducing the texts and figures he uses as warrant for pursuing these virtues suggests that he anticipates a wider, popular-level audience as well.
Those texts and figures are his two primary types of evidence. The former is a series of scriptural passages, while the latter comes from church history, particularly within Reformed strains of Protestantism. Davis’s choice of figures is both logical and bewildering. His selections are consistent after his identification with a Protestant and largely Reformed tradition, yet seem to resist adhering to his own claim that “diversity… serves as a fruitful (if imperfect) antidote to the nearsightedness that our finite perspectives place on us” (39). Davis’s argument for the characteristics of forbearance, then, is one of admirable clarity, if not diversity.
One of the most distinctive points in Davis’s discussion of forbearing virtues is his characterization of love as friendship. Christian accounts often favor a purely disinterested love for all, a non-consequentialist love capable of propelling the Good Samaritan into action (114–16). Here, however, Davis argues that Christian theology provides material enough for love that is explicitly interested in what is mutually at stake (114). This is “not a nebulous love for humanity but the commitment to love-in-community,” meaning that Christian love ought to include an invested consideration of what is relationally beneficial (124).
Since something that is not beneficial to the community needs to be eschewed, Davis’s account indicates that exclusion is compatible with Christian love. This realization prepares his readers for the largest objections to forbearance: concerns over truth and justice. Sympathetic to both, Davis identifies the former as a generally conservative worry over sacrificing truth in pursuit of unity (132). The latter is a broadly liberal anxiety over slowing down pursuits of justice (156). Davis responds that forbearance actually allays both concerns. He states that division over truth claims is appropriate if excluding those who fail to be inclusive (148), which in turn enables concurrent implementations of justice (166). In other words, Davis does not allow any descriptions of forbearance that would make abuse permissible. Beliefs that are explicitly hateful and dehumanizing gain no traction in Davis’s account of forbearance (172).
Still, he provides little regarding parameters of forbearance beyond this exclude-the-exclusive mentality. He resists detailed and programmatic recommendations for individual communities struggling with disagreement. What of disputes where one view is not explicitly dehumanizing but is bluntly incompatible with another? Davis is often quick to note that forbearance does not dissolve disagreement, but forms a certain type of response, often shaping our beliefs in the process. He does not, in my reading, offer commentary on what happens when that process fails. Instead, Davis writes his closing chapter on the possibility of forbearance as a witness and model for civil society.
Even as someone who knows that easy answers to difficult questions are scarce, this lack of attention on the possibility of failure disappoints me. Yet, as one who often feels perplexed about the distinctiveness of Christian witness in contemporary society, I think that Davis’s work proves itself worthwhile for both personal and ecclesial betterment. Perhaps, much like Davis’s hopes for a church that habitually forbears, pursuing my own remaining questions will be not only remedial, but formative.
Naomi Ketchens, MDiv Middler, Princeton Theological Seminary