Regarding humility in disagreement and debate


Another polemic, this time attacking first various problems in the way we deal with error, then three ways we can foolishly and arrogantly follow error ourselves

Table of Contents

This is a long comment I made on Facebook the other day, with an addendum. It continues my series of polemics; please read the earlier post for a explanation of this tack. The original comment was made to a request for an evaluation of the heretical nature of some millennial views.

1. The original comment

“Heresy” is really the wrong word; it’s got the wrong flavour entirely. We can’t go out hunting for ‘heresy’ like we’re rooting out vile evil or something. It just feels wrong to me to go around denouncing random links on the Internet when we’ve not even met the guys. They have a very slender view of the end times based on a very meagre understanding of how we read and write; they wouldn’t be able to enjoy a novel or history book like we might if they approached it with the same understanding of words as they do the bible. But, so what? I’d disagree, and we’d all think it clear that their specific views on things like this are simply not in the bible, relating a few hundred cow deaths to the end of the world. And yet, so what? It’s not deeply insulting to Christ, or necessarily strongly damaging to the church in anything beyond its reputation, so it’s not some sort of a wicked heresy. It’s just an attitude and thinking which we don’t agree with. I’d hesitate to even judge the people involved enough to call it silly—the views are silly, and I guess the guys involved are somewhat, but they’re really just part of their surrounding redneck culture with all its trends.

Either we fall off end of the denouncing scale by picking on people and calling them stupid when what they’ve done isn’t bad or degrading, just perhaps incorrect. Or, we get all culturally snobbish and start laughing at people and blaming them because they fit in with pop culture, or low culture, and we’re more high and refined. So, we like refined things, and think a bit more clearly, but so what? We’re not better people than the bottom 90% of the population because we like Tudor music or have academically credible views on theology.

As far as heresy goes, we can only go as far as denouncing it when it’s wrong in a hurtful way, and certainly there a lot of goodness and richness in life that Christians miss out on when they read the bible like that, but the end times per se are not a primary issue to get up in arms about. As far as culture goes, the church’s aim isn’t to smash through all the inferior cultures of the world and convert them to Cantabrigiensism, or whatever we think is ‘better’, but to reform cultures. The bible should altering our cultural expression with on love, grace, meekness, humility, self-control, and so on, not replacing one culture with another, but redeeming it. Some of their ‘American’ attitudes will have to change, but we have in our own culture the same sins just as deeply entrenched, and we can’t set ourselves above these guys even though we might by dint of more careful thinking have a few more facts here and there worked out. The challenge to Christians culturally isn’t to be looking for heresy and going out on a crusade to make people correct, but to engage together on making our hearts right, which is much stronger than being correct.

Finally, if we look at the way these way out guys in America act, at the end of the day we have to make what might be a very uncomfortable association. Calling out heretics, whether we do it ourselves or get goaded into it, is an act of separating ourselves off from other people, and we love to do that to avoid being embarrassed. We look at the creationism in schools mess and thank God we aren’t stupid or otherwise like that, and distance ourselves from all these far out crazy people. We must not, and simply cannot, approach it this way though. At the end of the day, the uncomfortable association is that the I and the students and priests in Cambridge count ourselves alongside those people more than most of the ones we swill port with, however much we disagree. We are with these guys if they follow Jesus, even if they do it so differently to us. The people we look like on our staircases, if they are not with us on the real basics, are counting themselves out of the church. Tough stuff. The plus side is that if we can’t scorn or disown even the crazy nutters in our family, we should be pretty able to strive towards living generously and kindly alongside our friends. We mess up, just like the apocalyptic Americans, and Jesus’ grace has to be enough to justify them and us. We can only hope our friends will forgive us and see that the church is full of Christians committed to changing and growing into the new lives we are being given, and that as we stand alongside the people who embarrass us the most, we won’t reject them either.

2. How qualified are we to comment, in any case?

This is the biting criticism for some of my friends. Brothers, you are simply not qualified to make the evaluations you are bent on making. I would not speak out so certainly on secondary issues which are complex, nor should you presume to have enough understanding to set yourselves over and above the word of God, and thirdly, you must concentrate your reading and learning on the essential discipleship you need and are lacking.

Firstly, I will illustrate this if I may with a poorly disguised anecdote. May my silly conversations be so used against me if I don’t turn from them. Imagine the scene in a Peterhouse room, discussing some fiddly point regarding the interpretation of language, the bible in particular, and the doctrines of how exactly God can be speaking to us through it. I draw the debate back to the point that God who desires our sanctification does lead us into truth. Slightly awkwardly (and kudos for doing so), I am asked what sanctification is. This is just extraordinary, and rather than picking on one person, I’d like to round on the entire Peterhouse culture of academic arrogance. Does reading one book qualify us to be dogmatically set in our ways? May we all discuss things more cautiously at the very least until we have convinced ourselves that we have pursued with due diligence everything we need to be confident that we have understood God’s word correctly. I’m not going to pull any punches: this guy was making it entirely clear he hadn’t read a single introduction to theology, or more than a couple of the sort of basics-of-the-Christian-life books that IVP publishes, many of which must use the word, not to mention that it crops up in five of the New Testament books.

I can’t make it any clearer: no more than we can set ourselves apart from one group as ‘misguided’ or ‘heretics’ can we attach ourselves firmly to a doctrine until we understand it, which we simply cannot evaluate until we have the basics. Most of all, read the New Testament.

As a side note regarding debating, I’ll make a side-remark on actually listening, which I mentioned in the last post as a motivation for these polemics. I am so often confronted with people who say almost deliberately stupid things to me (a couple of friends in particular). For example, the other night, I heard something pretty much on the level of, ‘Oh, but that’s ridiculous; you can’t be asking us all to wear pink trousers like are’. If you are going to have an argument, please, please, please spend a second or two before blurting out a nonsense to consider what the person you are talking to is actually saying. It’s patently obvious that my statement was being ludicrously misinterpreted because the interpretation totally failed to line up in a basic way with the way I actually do things. Stop and think, because stupid theological positions are made worse when backed up by a total, almost malicious, and certainly insulting refusal to properly consider what your opponent is saying. I am sometimes wrong in my assessments, but we have to open and not dissimulative of our feelings and motivations, and watch lovingly to try and understand what is really going on in someone’s mind. (I don’t hear this complaint against me very often; if I’m deaf comment or drop me an anonymous note in my pidge. I am keen to correct any misunderstanding I have of people’s hearts so I can engage with the real people I am trying to love.)

This leads us to the second point really, one of authority. Not only should we not presume to hold ill-informed positions, but we should utterly afraid of incautiously criticising scripture. In the most direct case, I have some friends who call themselves Christians who simply outright disagree with some of the bible authors. He says something, they don’t like it, and say he’s wrong. This is a supreme arrogance, and we have to call it out when we see it. I think it’s theologically indefensible, but we don’t even need to go there right now. My discussion here is about the moral stature and understanding we would need to claim to be able to get to that point. I was talking once to another friend about sanctification (it’s my favourite topic, after all), and the friend simply did not like what the many passages were saying. He’s hazy on the basics, I’ve never heard even clearly articulate the gospel, and he says pretty directly to me, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m uncomfortable with this so I don’t buy it’. To hold a position against someone else in a debate (and really mean it) demands a certain assessment of our position; to actually ponce around with scripture is extraordinary.

The obvious application again is that even the most liberal of us should demand a very clear understanding of what’s going on beyond our impressions or inclinations if we are to disagree with the bible. Study it, and conduct yourself with all due effort and all available tools, to a degree appropriate to the strength of the position you are trying to hold. At the least, you’re going to have to actually read and few books on theology before presuming to wriggle out of the bible’s teaching on anything (and I mean ‘real books’, which talk seriously about the scriptures, rather than summaries, digests, or other books about books). I know I fall into some difficulties here, because I have only extracts from the church fathers and the mediaeval theologians which Peterhouse chaps seem to like so much. So, please correct me if I claim more expertise than I have. I know what I know, the ABC of the bible’s teaching, but I try not to hold strong positions on whether, for example, I agree with Aquinas.

I have only down-to-earth, factual argument to make (rather than moral), to those who would rather learn from the church than God’s word. To those who say the bible is too hard to understand, that the difficulties in bringing together tricky passages are too great, or that its doctrine is too deep or expressed too deeply for comprehension: If you claim that the squillion disagreements theologians have had, the conflicting church councils, the vastness of the different directions authors take in each century; if you claim that these are necessarily easier to understand, you are off your rocker. If you think that whatever the last church council said was right, you’re naïve to think that novelty makes something right. Perhaps the next council will fix something up with a different emphasis. You’re going from one untrustworthy source to another. Or, perhaps you look back at the great theologians of the past and use some other criterion to show that one council, pope, or writer was the best, or some mishmash of your own. If you think that the language they use is qualitatively more understandable than that of the bible, or that synthesising their writings is easier than that doing the same for the bible authors, you’re having a laugh. Defending something as ‘the bible’s teaching’ is orders of magnitude easier than defending it as ‘the church’s teaching’, and defend it you must, because unless you have some reason to think that someone in particular was (or is) the be-all and end-all of theology, you’ll have to be doing the tricky work of assembling and defending your theology yourself. Sometimes I’m touchy-feely about it, other times I feel I just have to join in Paul’s mocking in 1 Cor. 1, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” At the end of the day, when we have to choose between one theologian and another, based on the writings of yet another theologian, and another, we have to admit that we can’t delegate our brain to some confused, brainless, amorphous body, but need to evaluate things for ourselves, and when we trace the thread back, we always come to scripture. It is hard, but not too hard, because God promises his Spirit. Together, as a church, it is the scriptures we study, not each other’s ideas. Sharing our insights and reflections on the scriptures together, we do not scorn their ability to communicate, but turn to them together with trust, unmediated, each one personally meeting Christ our wisdom, together.

The third point is the toughest of all. Where are you applying your efforts? I remember a conversation with a friend who said he was a firm believer in consubstantiation. What! This from a guy who wasn’t sure whether Paul was really teaching in Philippians that sanctification was for all believers? He takes a stand on a comparatively tiny historical blip, a minority doctrine in vogue among subsets of a few denominations, over and against the Catholics, the Anglicans, and most other protestants. We need to grasp hold of the time we have, and spend it reading and studying what is good for us. Fixing up little philosophical niggles by aligning ourselves with something we have seen mentioned in a couple of history books without ever properly examining ourselves is not an acceptable use of time.

Life is not an essay, to skim through a few books, form an opinion, defend it for an hour in a supervision, and move on. We aren’t filling in the gaps. We have to take hold of the central questions of what it is that God does for us, how his reign permeates ever sphere of our lives, how our hearts, minds, wills are going to shaped. What do we expect from life, and what are our real goals? Christ urges us to aim higher: to come before the living God with our sins forgiven, and glory in service which is pleasing to him. He can and will develop every flaw in us to an asset and testimony to his power. Will you set your heart on that, and leave behind foolish controversy? Before walking away from this with the pre-formed conclusion that I am wrong, stop, and soften your heart. Read Philippians, or Colossians, and be struck by the magnificence of God’s grace, and re-affirm that as the centre of our lives, and be determined to see that change brought about in us as we pursue the way of salvation, the newness of life. If we question even these comments, what right do we have to call ourselves followers of Christ? We are all called to lives of repentance and commitment to seeing glory at the end of our transformation, sealed and guaranteed by the cross and the Spirit, so be united with Christ, rather than pursuing fruitless debate, questioning God’s word or faithfulness, and wasting your efforts on that which does not fill your deep and every need with nourishment.