No one likes being called a neatnik or a nitpick—especially a theological one. The nickname conjures an image of a guy sitting in his mom’s basement surrounded by Calvin’s Institutes, The Westminster Catechism, Systematic Theology (Horton’s, Berkhoff’s and Grudem’s) and dozens upon dozens of commentaries. Think a serious Star Wars fan—but sub in Jesus for Luke Skywalker.
Now to be sure, there are some folks who are definitely a bit too… intense about their preciseness and forget that misspeaking is different than being a heretic. Likewise, one can be so focused on the trees that they miss the forest (which a frustration I’ve got with a book I’m reading with my men’s group right now). But I wonder if sometimes we label some folks theological neatniks as a cover for our own sloppiness? That rather than own up to a mistake or do the hard work of making sure that what we’re saying is actually right in the first place, we allow our pride to take over and brush it off by saying, “Stop being such a nitpick!”
But as I’ve continued to read Excellence by Andreas Köstenberger, I’ve been wrestling more and more with whether or not this is the right attitude. In fact, in the second chapter, Köstenberger writes something completely blew my mind:
Far from being optional, excellence is in fact a divine mandate that applies to every aspect of our lives, for God himself is characterized by excellence. Mediocrity, sloppy workmanship, and a half-hearted effort do not bring glory to God or advance his kingdom.
If excellence is indeed a divine mandate (and it is, since Jesus declares that we are to “perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” in Matt. 5:48), then it would seem that we do not have the luxury of not striving to be as precise as possible in what we say, think and do—especially when it comes to our theology. Indeed, if Köstenberger is correct in his assertion, then one could go so far as to say that God is glorified by theological precision. By no means does this mean that we cannot and will not make mistakes—we can and we will as long as the presence of sin remains. Nor does it mean that we can ignore context—like when you really, really want to correct the person who says “expresso” instead of “espresso,” but you don’t because then you’d just be annoying. (Sometimes you just have to let something slide if you don’t want to get punched at Starbucks.) But what it does mean is that we should always strive to be as accurate as possible and to be quick to admit error whenever our mistakes are brought to light.
So here’s the question—what does our conduct say about us? Are we more likely to brush off critics—whether they’re our critics or those of people whose work we appreciate—by calling them neatniks and nitpicks or are we willing to listen and be corrected when needed? A so-called neatnik might be annoying, but he might also be an instrument of grace being used by God to sharpen our minds and bring glory to Him through theological precision.