Theological Fallacies (1) – Fallacies of Approach9 min read
Bad doctrine arises from bad foundations. This is true of every belief system, really, whether connected to theology or not. But it is especially important to recognize this in theology, because it concerns the Word of God. This deserves a quality consideration for how we will approach it. Sadly, most have failed to examine their approach, because consistence and self-discipline in thought have lost significance in 21st Century Western culture. We need to understand not only where people go wrong in their doctrine but why. This will help us in two ways: (1) It will help us to avoid the same mistake. (2) It will help us to identify the deeper issues of different beliefs, even when the surface claim seems legitimate.
Fallacies of Approach
Emotionalistic Approaches. One main error we find in Christianity today is what can be called emotionalism. This is the formation of one’s belief based on what is emotionally appealing, rather than what is consistent with Scripture and logic. Humans are creatures of sense experience, driven by what satisfies flesh-based inclinations. Therefore, to the carnal mind, what feels good is right, and what offends is wrong. One could also call this error subjectivism.
How do we see it today? In many ways this is the very battle cry of the Charismatic movement; the more experiences one can have of God, no matter how ridiculous they may be, the better. The idea of being “drunk in the Spirit” is obviously Satanic, but it sells, because it brings euphoria. But this mentality has also crept into how people view the local church. Does Scripture have clear parameters for how it should look? Absolutely. Yet in spite of the clear lack of warrant in Scripture, Evangelicals have no problem introducing a “worship” band as one of its main attractions, because it fits preference and makes “church” more of a welcoming concept. Furthermore, emotionalism can be seen in most heretical movements today, such as those who subscribe to universalism, the “Prosperity Gospel,” and annihilation. Paul obviously foresaw these kinds of errors when he said to Timothy, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, wanting their ears tickled…” (2 Tim. 4:3). Do we want our ears tickled, like most today? Or do we want truth?
Unbalanced Extremism. Another approach that will lead to error is what we might call unbalanced extremism. In this, one may hold a certain doctrine tenaciously without any proper regard for its balancing counterpart, (i.e. election and responsibility, Christian Liberty and Christian obligation, truth in love and love in truth, etc.). One of the worst things a theologian can do is develop a “pet doctrine.” This practice has the tendency to obscure equally beautiful truths in Scripture. And if it is handled badly, then perhaps another extreme will be developed from opposition which overemphasizes the counterpart. For instance, too often in battling compromise, people drift into legalism. But often people facing legalism often slip into compromise. Whatever area the theologian deals with, he must “turn not to the right hand or to the left.”
The Lord Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees for only emphasizing their “pet doctrine,” which evidenced their hypocrisy. He said in Matthew 23, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these you ought to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Similarly, we find in Galatians 5 these words “For, brethren, you have been called unto liberty; [one aspect of the truth] only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another [Its balancing counterpart].” Sometimes we will not be able to find the correlation between two doctrines which seemingly oppose each other; but this is a fault on our side, not God’s. In this situation, we must research two things: (1) what specific areas each doctrine is emphasized in and applied to, (2) whether we have the right understanding of what the doctrine really means.
The Merely Academic Approach. While we have seen that some can be extreme or overly emotional in some approaches to theology, there is also the danger of doing theology merely for the sake of academics. Theology is about knowledge, yes, but not stagnate knowledge. We want to know God! When theology is approached as a science rather than divine revelation, error is sympathized with and truth taught less emphatically. But when we see it as being from God, we are burdened for it, and it becomes a living reality in our lives. We must understand the difference between textbook theology and Scriptural theology. God’s Word must be central in everything. Sadly, in academic circles this is frowned upon. Liberals who reject the infallibility of Scripture are still, for some reason, called “theologians.” Ecumenists who associate with and tolerate Roman Catholicism, even in its denial of Biblical justification, are still given credibility. This is what happens when we approach theology as if it were about academics or philosophy. But it is really about the glory of God; thus it must be done with passion and pursuit toward Him. This may mean sacrificing some credibility in the liberal academic circles and separating from dead orthodoxy (or dead zeal), but it is necessary. As Paul could say, “My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God… But we speak the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 2:4-7).
Incompetence. The opposite error to mere academics would be approaching Scripture with incompetence, that is, having no academic discipline at all in studying Scripture – only using it for inspiration, not doctrine. For example, in Christian book stores today, it is the “inspirational” book that sells: people want to better their lives and self esteem with ten easy steps. This is also exemplified in surface-level Bible reading, seen in a few examples, like reading plans followed only for maintaining status quo and not for spiritual food, or Bible journaling which focuses more on the art than the text, or the underlining of a verse without care for its context. It is wonderful to read daily and find ways to meditate upon Scripture, but we must do so with thought. Anyone knows how to find an inspirational quote, but only God’s people know how to find the true meaning of a passage as the Spirit of God directs them. Other examples could include one-minute devotionals as a substitution for true Bible study, programs to “Know the Bible in 10 Days” when it takes far more than that, as well as reversion to loose Bible translations in which the actual words of God are not maintained (e.g. the Message, the NLT, or even the NIV in many cases).
In 2 Timothy 2, Paul tells Timothy to “Be diligent to shew yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Timothy was called to be competent with the Scriptures. As well, in Hebrews we find these words,
“For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that uses milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
All of us start out on our spiritual journey with little capacity to understand the great themes of the Bible, but let us not expect this stage to last long. Let us move into “solid foods” like adults and be diligent in our handling of Scripture. Bible study is hard work, but it is certainly doable work.
Unreasonable Approaches. Then there are just plain silly approaches to Scripture that are unreasonable at their core, such as trying to determine a date for the Rapture. When one lacks logical consistency in forming his beliefs, not only does he hurt his own reputation, but sadly the reputation of theology as a whole. Proverbs 3:21 calls us to “Keep sound wisdom and discretion” and “Let them not depart from [our] eyes.” Sometimes it doesn’t take a long theological treatise to disprove a theory. God has given us minds to reason with, especially when we are saved; thus we must use them.
Experiential Approaches. Finally, this approach says, “The Bible says [something], but my experience tells me otherwise. I will believe what I have experienced.” While one may not say this with his mouth, often it is said with the heart. For instance, many Christians have fallen into the trap of thinking that people are generally reasonable and good, even in their unconverted state. Why? Not because Scripture tells them, but because they have experienced traces of kindness amongst the world. But Romans 3 clearly describes unregenerate man as being wicked to the very core. While all may not exhibit this wickedness as much as some, the fact that fallen man is wholly depraved cannot be compromised. Isaiah 64 says even the righteousness of wicked people is like filthy rags. We might not see this visibly, since the Devil wants to make the world look appealing; but does God’s Word stand less true on account of our own deception? A Christian who does theology well is a Christian who is thoroughly Biblical in his beliefs. Experiences may deceive us; but His Word stands forever true and unquestionable. “And this voice which came from heaven we heard [they had an experience], when we were with him in the holy mount. We have also a more sure word of prophecy [Scripture was more sure than their experience]; whereunto you do well that you take heed, as unto a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:18-19). Thorough spirituality and thorough Biblical literacy are the only cures to these false approaches. We must thoroughly be people of the book!