Theological Fallacies (3) – System-Related Fallacies7 min read
Humans are, by nature, peer-persuaded. In other words, they like to have the approval of a group, regardless of how right the group is. Thus cliches exist like “go with the flow,” “peer pressure,” and “mob mentality.” However, groups in and of themselves are not always bad. A country is a group. A family is a group. A business is a group. There are both negative and positive connotations to these entities, depending on what person is assessing them. At times these are things we can appreciate. At other times, these are things we need to be cautious of. What makes the difference? Truth, character, and consistency on the part of the entities. This is the same with religious systems. We do need a community of Christians to gather and associate with; some would wrongly deny the centrality of this. On the other hand, any community we associate with is not infallible; some would rely on it too heavily, as if it were. So then, we need to be aware of these things and avoid false approaches that come with Christian systems and influences.
Detached-from-History. A common error we see in approaching doctrine is doing so without any historical attachment whatsoever. In other words, they care nothing for the contributions of a past generation, even though Psalm 78 shows the clear value of older generations in their value to rising generations. The “wheel” of Biblical orthodoxy needs to be reinvented, in this case, every forty or so years, instead of being built upon already-established conservative doctrine. In one way, 21st Century Christianity is not unique: we are not more spiritual or insightful into Scripture than previous believers were. We have the same Bible and the same doctrine to uphold as they did. In another way, today’s Christianity is unique in that we have the advantage of foresight into theological controversies. With both of these factors, we find that history is absolutely essential to consider, or at least moderately be aware of, when studying theology. Paul was a man with a vision for the future. He told Timothy, “What you have heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2) Doctrine is not a discovery; it is a responsibility to be passed on from generation to generation. We cannot disregard our heritage; we cannot afford ignorance of who or what we are learning from.
Detached-from-Teaching. Similarly, some would also detach themselves from teaching, whether oral or written. “It’s just me and my Bible under a tree” as it were. But notice the emphasis on teaching which the author of Hebrews brings out: “For when for the time you ought to be teachers, you 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.” (Heb. 5:12). If the Christians were unlearned, they were to be taught. If they were learned, they were to be teachers. The local assembly is by design a “pillar and ground of the truth.” Scripture is not simply for personal inspiration; it is for collective upholding by the people of God. Being Biblical transcends a daily reading plan; it entails a concerted effort, centering around teaching, to uphold a collective standard. To be part of that standard and fulfill our responsibility, we need to surround ourselves with solid teaching as well as contribute to it any way we can.
Theological Intimidation. The above errors are formed around having too little system or community in theology. But there are also deadly errors that come by having too much regard for a system. One error could be rightly entitled “theological intimidation,” that is, seeing an error popularized and being drawn to it on account of its popularity, who holds it, or the consequences of rejecting it. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses have this problem in their cult: they fear being ostracized should they reject or even question the Watchtower’s teachings. This is probably something we are all guilty of at some point; after all, isn’t it easier to believe what the “smart Bible students” are saying than to critically assess their message? And we also ask ourselves “How can they be wrong, since they have the same Bible?” These are real issues. However, we cannot subscribe to a teaching because we are intimidated by its teachers or the number of its followers. Peter said, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.” (1 Peter 2:1-2). Error exists; sometimes smart people and large systems subscribe to it. Regardless, today it is the truth that holds authority, not systems or teachers. Paul acknowledged this in Galatians 1: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than what we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” It is the truth that matters, not the prominence of its advocates.
Positional Theology. Another error which makes too much of a system could be called “positional theology.” For instance (and this is not a promotion of Reformed Theology, it is only an example from it), one could call himself “Reformed,” because he was born as a Presbyterian, but not care about any of the Reformation doctrines such as Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, etc. He would be part of a system nominally, but not in heart. In these cases, there is no concern for Scripture, but only surface participation in a system. People feel good when part of a group effort, even without actually caring for the effort. Such is too often the case in Christendom. Paul warned Timothy of these kinds of people when he said “Men shall be lovers of their own selves… having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof; from such turn away.” (2 Tim. 3:1,5). The difference here is between nominal Christianity and convicted Christianity. Truth matters, and we must respond to it, not with nominal adherence, but deliberate conviction.
The Traditionalist Approach. Apostolic traditions are necessary to uphold. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul says, “Now I praise you brethren that you keep the traditions as I delivered them unto you.” But there are other traditions that are man-made. The Pharisees rejected “the commandment of God, that [they could] keep [their] own tradition.” (Mark 7:9). These were unfounded religious traditions. But traditions can also be philosophical: Paul warned the Colossians to “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the first principles of the world, and not after Christ.” (Col. 2:8).
When one is a traditionalist, he holds his convictions higher than or on par with Scripture. He doesn’t necessarily have a reason for believing them; he just believes what his teachers believe, without checking their claims. “It’s the clergyman and his Bible under a tree, and I just listen to what he says about the Bible.” This is a dangerous, yet all too common, mentality. Such is seen in Roman Catholicism and even in Reformed theology with the antagonism many have toward “four-point Calvinists” as if the TULIP acronym was inspired. Believers are called to discern all traditions by Scripture. In fact, this is a noble thing. “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11) Do we actively search the Scriptures, or passively accept our traditions?
There are many ways to wrongly approach Bible doctrine, and admittedly it is difficult to avoid these wrong approaches. Most of them stem from human nature: certainly it is difficult to avoid that! But we must be diligent in these things. Scripture calls us to “Buy the truth and sell it not.” Sometimes truth comes at a cost to ourselves, yet that makes it all the more valuable to search out. Let us be competent in our doctrine. “Take heed unto yourself and unto your doctrine.”