Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Usual Suspects

Error comes in more than one form. We would like, at times, to simplfy this and reduce Church history to the tales of heroes and heretics. But in order to deal with error from a biblical standpoint we need to recognise that there are different kinds of error, and that there ought to be measured responses to those who hold to aberrant views. Treating theological diseases is a matter of rightly diagnosing the cause and providing the cure, patient by patient.

How can we discern the differences? The late Bob Sheehan offered a helpful framework for this in a paper that he gave at a British Evangelical Council conference (the BEC is now renamed Affinity). The paper was entitled "Dealing With False Teaching" and, to my knowledge, is still unpublished.

Here is a short extract:

"The reasons why churches and individuals become ensnared in error are varied. The apostolic approach to error was not simplistic, enabling us to set out slick formula and rules of thumb. The apostolic approach to error was complex because it took all error seriously, but also took into account the nature of the error and the reasons why error had arisen.

The apostles recognised that not everyone who is in error is in a state of open rebellion against the truth. Not everyone in error is seeking to pervert the gospel and overthrow the faith. Other factors have to be taken into consideration when assessing why error occurs in any particular situation."

The only caveat to add to the second paragraph is that the gospel can be perverted and overthrown by someone who is not "seeking" to do so intentionally. Perverting the gospel is an objective act, and the result is a new doctrinal position that can be described, analysed and critiqued. The cause of that perversion, whether it is intentional wide eyed deception, or unintentional (done by sincerely deceived people) is another matter.

In the paper Sheehan describes five kinds of errorists. I would like to call them "The Usual Suspects":

1. The Sincerely Ignorant (Apollos in Acts 18)

2. The Sincere Misinterpreter (the Corinthian monastics? 1 Cor. 5)

3. The Temporarily Inconsistent (Peter in Galatians 2)

4. The Deceived

5. The Fundamentally Unsubmissive (to apostolic teaching)

There will be more to come on these categories, and on Sheehan's explanation of the apostolic response to each group.


thebluefish said...

looking forward to your further thoughts on these... the distinctions between different kinds of error are vital aren't they and must effect the way we respond differently.

Backwoods Presbyterian said...

I am also looking forward to your explanation. Unfortunately the majority of people in error fall into the 5th category.

Martin Downes said...

My plan is to work with Sheehan's framework and explanations and then to do some more work with it.

As you can see some of the categories are quite fluid. There are several possible combinations between 1-4. The hard line seems to be between 1-4 and 5, those who are submissive to apostolic doctrine and authority and those who are not.

Various amounts and levels of damage can be done by positions 1-4, but the fifth and final one would lead to eternal destruction.

thebluefish said...

Backwoods, that's interesting - I would have thought most people are in 1-4... and probably in 1.