Sorting Through Theological Claims – Part 16 min read
When studying theology, there will always be a level of interaction with differences of opinion, to say the least. There are two false approaches to this fact. One is open-mindedness, that is, treating all theological claims as equally meritorious and worthy of consideration. This is what academia fails in, as well as ecumenism. The other false approach is to practically deny the existence of controversy and blindly uphold the tradition one has been raised with, because the approach is less threatening. This is what the religious cults fail in, as well as many self-acclaimed “laypeople.”
The Biblical approach is what we could call “competent close-minded interaction.” The Christian’s approach should be close-minded in that there is only one body of truth to defend, and it must be defended thoroughly. But there should also be competent interaction so that three goals can be accomplished: (1) we do not misrepresent error when addressing it, (2) we do not mindlessly believe what we do, (3) we can account for both the existence and the falseness of erring systems so they do not serve as a threat or intimidation to our convictions.
This approach is supported in Scripture. Acts 19 records the apostle Paul’s disputing with both Jews and Gentiles, the religious and the pagan: evidently, he was competent when interacting with both. The same is confirmed in Jude, when he calls every believer to “earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered unto the saints”: one cannot contend either with an open mind or incompetence. Or with John, we find a call to believe only “that which was from the beginning” and never to bid false teachers “Godspeed.” As well, we find these words in Titus:
“An overseer must be blameless… holding fast the faithful word according to the teaching, that he may be able to encourage with sound teaching and refute those who contradict… whose mouths must be stopped… teaching things which they ought not… Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith…”
This is our obligation. To equip ourselves in this, we will look at some tools that will both simplify the process of filtering different views and make us competent in dealing with them.
Some Helpful Approaches
When dealing with different views, the question often comes to mind, “How can so many people believe so many different things? And am I really to believe the majority is wrong, while I am right?” On the surface, it seems arrogant to claim possession of the truth. But that actually isn’t an issue for two reasons: (1) It is a simple fact of logic that to believe truth X, one must disbelieve everything that contradicts X. Everyone believes something, and that means deep down they don’t believe everything else. To believe something is to declare it as true and everything else false. So then, arrogance in claiming to have truth is not the issue. Everyone does this. (2) It is not our truth we are called to believe: it is God’s. Thus, it is arrogant not to claim possession of the truth when we have His Word. God has spoken, and when He speaks it matters nothing that there are a billion contradicting voices. Truth is of God, separate from ourselves. Therefore, it is absolute and necessary to be believed.
Only on this basis can we come to proper conviction. But having laid that foundation, there are three practical tools we can use in filtering through theological claims, whether those claims be inside or outside of Christianity. (As a disclaimer, these are tools for confirming personal conviction; they are not apologetic tools.)
Firstly, we must establish broader truth in our minds before we approach the specifics. Learning to tackle the broadest issues first will dramatically decrease the number of sub-issues to deal with, making our interaction with different views far less complicated. Suppose you were given the task of destroying a skyscraper. You could approach that task many different ways. You could destroy each room individually with a sledge hammer. It would take years to destroy the whole building, but it could be done. Or you could destroy each level with a wrecking ball. Or you could, with one effort, obliterate the foundation with explosives and watch the whole building crumble. Similarly, we can waste much time opposing specific errors, when we could attack the foundation and be done with the whole system and all the errors it includes. If we can tackle the foundational claims of a system first, dependent claims will no longer be a threat. For example, with world religions, rather than face all religions head on, establish monotheism in your mind; then, the number of religions to deal with shrinks to less than five. This same idea can be used for groups within Christendom and the cults as well.
Secondly, it is helpful to think in categories of two, because literally everything can be divided into two categories. So then, when filtering through different beliefs, instead of being intimidated by millions of intricate differences, deal with them in main sets of two, based on their overarching foundational tenet (what they rise or fall on). Here is an example that might help. Suppose that currently there are 6 billion people in the world who contradict Christian belief structure. We could approach that as 6 billion different beliefs to deal with, or we could use categories to quickly establish in our minds a ground for our beliefs. How? Take the following four steps:
- Two options: Atheism/Agnosticism or Theism. Choose Theism.
- Two options under Theism: Polytheism or Monotheism. Choose Monotheism.
- Two options under Monotheism: Yahweh as God or Allah as God. Choose Yahweh.
- Now we are faced with Judaism and Christianity after only three steps. We have successfully dealt with 6 billion different individual beliefs by rejecting their overall categories first.
Now, when interacting with people from specific religions, we will need to be well-versed in their beliefs and not just “categorize them to death” (although, we can never go wrong with attacking foundations first). But when arriving at personal conviction of the truth, these category tools can be very helpful.
Finally, in handling different views (specifically within Christianity), we must understand the different levels of error. Not every disagreement is as severe as another. When there is a Christian liberty issue, we don’t need to feel threatened by another believer’s conviction. When there is a heresy being promulgated, then we should be much more defensive. We would create disaster if we treated every disagreement the same. On the one hand, we could downplay the severity of heresy. On the other hand, we could divide God’s people over small differences of opinion. Wisdom in handling disagreement and error is essential when sorting through theological claims.
[Part two will be posted tomorrow in the will of the Lord… the last part of the article will contain the file attachments]