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

3 thoughts on “Correct Error Without Radicalizing Doubt

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