Correct Error Without Radicalizing Doubt

The first time I got called a heretic, I think I was about 19. I had just started getting into theology, biblical studies, N.T. Wright, that sort of thing, and was slowly walking away from the default dispensationalism of Orange County Evangelicalism. Well, at the time I also happened to be in a Bible study at a Calvary Chapel church in Southern California and I told the guys, “Well, I actually don’t think I believe in the Rapture anymore.” Judging by the reactions, I might as well have questioned the Second Coming itself.

Things became very strained between myself and some of the guys. They started to doubt my “soundness,” and I started to wear the air of a sort of knowing, theological rebel. “Maybe I am a heretic. Maybe we are all heretics to some degree. Maybe a little heresy was necessary now and again.” No doubt, we were all being kind of dumb.

I was reminded about this by Thomas Schreiner’s piece over at TGC this morning on “Beware of Theological Dangers on both Left and Right.” After arguing against the Left on behalf of the propriety of warning against heresy and guarding the good deposit, he tacks to the Right. On that side, the issue is not doctrinal laxity, but doctrinal maximalism, that “draws lines on virtually everything.” Divergence on any issue from the age of the Earth, to the processions of the Trinity, to election, to the finer points of the ordo salutis are heightened the threat level to Defcon 1.

It’s tempting to charge someone we disagree with of being unbiblical and unfaithful when the debate we’re having is actually within the circle of evangelicalism—whether the matter is spiritual gifts, the doctrine of the Trinity, or counseling. All of us, of course, are unbiblical and unfaithful to some extent, unless we want to say that our doctrine is perfect. Beware of charging that someone is outside the bounds of orthodoxy when in fact the only issue is that they disagree with you.

In other words, we need to have a sense of doctrinal proportion. Al Mohler talks about “Theological Triage,” while Kevin Vanhoozer speaks of “dogmatic rank.” All this is sort of basic when you start studying the shape of Christian truth.

The couple of paragraphs that I found important to highlight, though, come right after this, and speak to the negative fallout of not having a sense of proportion. Many of us in conservative circles know that not combating heresy can lead to heresy, but we often forget the possibility that wrongly combating heresy can have the counter-productive effect of pushing people towards heresy:

Such zeal on the right can actually drive people away from the truth, because if we charge them with being unorthodox (when they aren’t), they may begin to find friends on the left who don’t caricature their views. Or, they might begin to think, Well, if that’s orthodoxy, then I guess I’m not orthodox. If the lines are drawn too rigidly, we might unwittingly throw friends into the arms of those who are truly unorthodox.

Now, we may want to say, “Well, that shouldn’t be their reaction. They should take things issue by issue to the Word of God, study church history, get a proper proportion for things and not just react their way into a theological position.” And that is all well and good, but that’s not always how people work. People tend to go where they are welcomed. They listen to those who listen to them. They are sympathetic to those who are sympathetic. And vice versa. All of this shades the way they think, often leading into error.

I’ve said it before, a few years ago when Gungor started to do some of his open questioning that provoked a lot of conservative furor:

I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if, at this point, Gungor continued to head down a more liberal trajectory. It’s something I’ve seen before, but it still deserves comment. I’ve often wondered how much the conservative (over)reaction adds to the advanced radicalization of questioners. Opening with “Hey, heretic, you’re the worst” probably isn’t a good way to draw someone back. How much of the theological drift by questioners, notable figures included, is fueled by a sense of rejection from the conservative theological community? “Well, I’m already a ‘heretic’ in their eyes, so why not be bold and keep exploring?” or something on that order. What’s more, creating martyrs of doubt doesn’t seem to do much to shore up the faith of the faltering.

Now, with Gungor, some folks might say, “Well, obviously he was already going down that road.” Maybe. Probably. But maybe not? That’s the thing with trajectory-thinking. When you react to the perceived trajectory of a decision and then treat someone according to the “logical” endpoint of where it can go, you can end up turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So instead of considering that your harsh, over-reaction to an error, a dispute, or disagreement is part of what contributed to someone’s liberalization, you just end up patting yourself on the back and saying, “See, I saw this coming.” This is especially the case if you like to consider yourself a courageous, culture-warrior, willing to “say the hard things that need to be said.”

Where am I going with this?

Well, for one thing, I’m not saying don’t correct error and heresy. Anybody who has read my blog for long knows that I’m not above polemics or a critical review or two. And I’ve offered my own defense of the proper place for defending against error and heresy, as well as naming some disputed questions real violations of orthodoxy and catholicity.

That said, I’ll just emphasize a few things.

First, just as some folks need to remember that there is such a thing as dangerous theological error, some folks need to recognize that a failure to correct error isn’t the only danger out there, or that there are relative rankings off errors.

Second, even when it comes to serious errors, it is good to have an eye on the way you react and correct. Especially for pastors. It is necessary to correct false teaching and false teachers. But it’s important to be mindful that you communicate to your folks in the pews that they can struggle with doubts about these issues nonetheless. They need to know that you are a safe person to come talk to about their problems with this or that doctrine.  There is a way of saying, “I get why someone might be tempted to believe this, but nevertheless, here’s why that’s wrong and harmful…”

This even applies to how we correct public errors online. I’m not saying we don’t call things out as foolishness when it ought to be, but it’s just worth considering what sort of person your congregants see online.

Third,  Schreiner makes a good point about “crying wolf.”

Also, if we regularly condemn as unorthodox those who are orthodox, we’re in danger of crying “wolf!” When the real wolf comes, no one pays attention to us anymore, because we’ve so often criticized others. If we’re negative about everything except our own views, people will begin to think we’re cranky and will ignore us when there’s a real problem.

To paraphrase the Incredibles, “when everything is a heresy, then nothing is.” If your folks get used to you sounding the alarm bell every week, they’re not going to know the difference between a drill and a real fire.

I suppose I’ll just end by suggesting some time spent reflecting on this wise counsel from Paul:

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:22-26)

Soli Deo Gloria

The Problem with Consequentialism in Thelogy (for Mere-O)

mdoesl of godBeware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-20)

Thus our Lord Christ on how to spot false prophets. Apple trees bear apples, and orange trees bear oranges. And rotten trees bear rotten fruits of any kind. The same is true of teachers—their lives bear out their character. Perennial wisdom for the Church in any age.

Of late, though, this dictum has been transformed into a criterion for judging not only teachers, but teachings. Or perhaps I’m only noticing it now. In either case, it’s become quite common for people to argue that we need to abandon doctrines (whether it’s our sex ethic or our soteriology) upon the judgment that it “bears bad fruit”; it leads to negative consequences of varied sorts whether historical, social, or psychological. Does a doctrine lead to positive, human flourishing (however that’s defined)? Then it’s good. If not, chuck it. In other words, it’s been transformed into consequentialist criterion for evaluating the truth of doctrine.

As with most forms of consequentialism, there’s something intuitive, straightforward, and simple about this. Sound doctrine, truth, is life-giving in Scripture. In the long run, doctrine matters for how we live. As Eugene Peterson noted a while back, “A lie about God is a lie about life,” that leads to visibly deformed ways of living.

I think this simplicity forms some of the appeal of the consequentialist move–at least on the popular level. For those who have become skeptical either of clarity of Scripture (progressive circles), or impatient with the typical modes of theological argumentation (the blogosphere), looking to “fruits” can cut through red-tape, the obfuscation, the “ivory tower speculation” of traditional doctrinal and ethical reflection. “You poindexters can trade verses and quotes from the Fathers all day, but I can see the fallout of bad doctrine with my own two eyes in the pain of my fellow parishioners, or in the godless, racist, militaristic culture of the church I grew up in.”

On the seemingly opposite end, you can find sophisticated forms of the same argument in books filled with historical footnotes, tracing theological idea A to bad consequence B. The charm of these accounts is that you get the comparative clarity of a the fruits test, with the intellectual satisfaction of being able to tell a plausible “just-so” story that isn’t easily challenged, since most folks don’t have the historical training to spot any flaws.

You can see I think there’s something problematic about the “fruits” test–at least as a primary criterion of truth and the truth of theology. The main reason is that measuring the “fruits” or consequences of a doctrine in history can be a quite ambiguous affair.

You can read the rest of my article here at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

“It’s Only a Metaphor”

“None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable , you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition.”

Thus Neil Gaiman opens one of the latter chapters in the novel, American Gods (p. 551). It’s clever as an ironic bit of storytelling in that it plays with a typical, modern approach to belief in the gods, as only so much metaphor, right before it launches into the rest of a narrative about a battle of the gods.

Of course, much of our popular view of metaphor and religious belief is confused as well. You find this both in popular and academic contexts. Often when someone says something like, “It’s a metaphor, don’t take it literally,” they don’t mean, “well, be careful misinterpreting that particular figure of speech.” What they end up meaning is something like, “it’s only a metaphor, don’t take it too seriously, or as reality.” To call something a metaphor is to say it is only a florid way of saying something that, if we really wanted to understand as it is, we ought to express in a more straightforward, literal fashion. Like, say that of the sciences.

LewisNow, the problem with that view is one C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” when dealing with the charge that much Christian Theology is only so much un-purified metaphor.

We are invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol. The reason we don’t is that we can’t. We can, if you like, say “God entered history” instead of saying “God came down to earth.” But, of course, “entered” is just as metaphorical as “came down.” You have only substituted horizontal or undefined movement for vertical movement. We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial.

Nor are we Christians alone in this disability. Here is a sentence from a celebrated anti-Christian writer, Dr. I. A. Richards.

“Only that part of the cause of a mental event which takes effect through incoming (sensory) impulses or through effects of past sensory impulses can be said to be thereby known. The reservation no doubt involves complications.”

Dr. Richards does not mean that the part of the cause “takes” effect in the literal sense of the word takes, nor that it does so through a sensory impulse as you could take a parcel through a doorway. In the second sentence “The reservation involves complications,” he does not mean that an act of defending, or a seat booked in a train, or an American park, really sets about rolling or folding or curling up a set of coilings or rollings up. In other words, all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.

We could dispute some of Lewis’s parsing, but the fact of the matter is the language of science is typically shot through with metaphor. Any good science writer who is paying attention to what’s going on will admit as much metaphor and analogy is involved in the models used to describe the more theoretical reaches of physics (think of the now-defunct String Theory) as there is in the doctrine of Eternal Generation.

What’s more, much of our “literal” language is littered with the detritus of metaphor that has died and been forgotten. For example, we speak straightforwardly about the “leg” of a chair on analogy with the “leg” on an animal or a human. What was once a notable metaphor has become “literal” by being lexicalized through regular use. Again, this happens in science: think of the language of an electrical “current” that “flows.”

This brings us to one of more important points Janet Martin Soskice makes in her work Metaphor and Religious Language. The use of metaphors has an important role to play in extending language, as one of the ways where we supply terms where one is lacking in our vocabulary. Metaphors can extend, not only our vocabulary, but our way of conceiving reality by suggesting “new categories of interpretation” which lead us to think of “new entities, states of affairs, and causal relations.” This is why metaphors are so useful, not only in the hard sciences, but in conceiving social, political, and, yes, even theological realities.

I’m barely scratching the surface of the discussion of metaphor, but my point has simply been to note that labeling some bit of language “metaphorical” is not say it is “less real,” or, “not referring to anything out there.” Yes, they can be terms of art, literary dressing, and so forth. But all the same, metaphors are useful in everyday language, the language of science, and in theology insofar as they are reality-depicting. Metaphors are not a distraction from clear thinking about a matter, or a way of distancing us from understanding the truth of the world. Instead, they can be a way of perceiving and understanding them in a more adequate way than we could otherwise.

In which case, when we hear the phrase, “God is our father,” it’s not so much a choice between deciding whether or not its true or only a metaphor. Rather, it’s about deciding whether the metaphor is a true and good one, and if it is, in just what way. And for Christians, this is where Scripture is our guide. Reading the Bible attentively allows us to see God’s own deployment of metaphorical language for himself, attuning us to the ways he wills to be understood and known.

Soli Deo Gloria