Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Defense Against the Dark Arts: Some questions to ask

Theological conflict is unavoidable.

Scripture warns us about the presence of heretics (2 Peter 2:1-3; Jude 4; 1 Cor. 11:19), the danger they present (Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Timothy 2:18; Titus 1:11), and tells us about the firm stand that elders and congregations must make against them (Romans 16:17-18; Titus 1:9, 11; 3:9-11; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 2:2).

Being a pacifist is not an option. At the same time the church does not need gung ho fighters who will shoot first and ask questions later.

It is always important that apologists and polemicists not only take great pains to understand the positions that they intend to respond to, but that they also give careful consideration to the strength of those positions.

It is all to easy to be hasty and sketchy, and to be dismissive. But no one who sets out to rebuke error and defend orthodoxy should allow their rhetoric to to run ahead of them. Opposing arguments should be carefully studied, analysed, and weighed.

Unless it is obviously the case we should be very cautious about treating an opposing view in an overtly cavalier fashion, piling in with rhetorical punches, making out as if only stupid people could ever believe it.

As with so much in the Christian life great wisdom is needed.

The other danger that lies close at hand is to give a position too much credence, and its holder too much deference, when his teaching should really receive a good belly laugh and he should be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the church. The question is, do you answer a fool according to his folly? Will it be Proverbs 26:4 or Proverbs 26:5?

It is critically important to ask what theological, moral, hermeneutical, epistemological, and pastoral reasonings underpin a commitment to the position that you are seeking to refute.

Put yourself in your opponents shoes. Why does their view seem plausible to them and better than yours? What attracts them to it? What problems does it seek to solve?

If you have not done this, in addition to your theological homework, then you've not begun to engage with error in a responsible way.

There are of course logical consequences to the errors of your opponent. You may see them better than he can, but be careful not to attribute convictions to him that he has not stated in his own position. You can point them out but don't assume that they are being argued for.

There are important questions to pose in seeking to understand an opposing viewpoint. The following are a sample of the theological, exegetical, hermeneutical and pastoral questions that I would want to ask:
  • Has this person properly understood the truth that they are rejecting, or does this rejection stem from a distorted perspective of this truth?
  • What theological and pastorals problems is this position being offered as a solution to?
  • What assumptions are being made about the being and attributes of God and how do these relate to the issues at hand?
  • What is their view of authority in general and of the nature and authority of Scripture in particular?
  • Where do they position themselves in relation to the Word of God written?
  • What interpretative methods are being used in handling the Bible?
  • Is there a reliable understanding of context (unit of thought, chapter, book, location in redemptive history etc.), and of the harmony of Scripture?
  • In the interpretation of Scripture how is the issueof genre handled?
  • Does this person show signs of a teachable spirit when criticisms of their position are being offered? How do they view correction?
  • How does this teaching impact upon other doctrines? How does it affect our understanding of the gospel?
  • How does this teaching affect one's relationship to God, assurance, and the living of the Christian life?
  • How does this person treat other believers, ministers and churches? How does he speak about them? How will the promotion of this belief impinge upon gospel and confessional unity?
  • Has anyone held this position previously in church history? If so why did they do so and what effects did it have?


Andrew Rennie said...

Absolutely top quality blog Martin. I always enjoy your blog postings and this one was very good. Good points and a gentle rebuke to people like myself, who, out of zeal for the true gospel, can often be guilty of speaking first and thinking later. Thank you.

Ian Wilson said...

Hi, I'm new here. This is a really important subject and I'm glad you've addressed it.

I'm interested to know you mean by heresy.

As I understand it, a heresy was historically an error concerning the nature of Christ, but it now has a much wider and less well-defined meaning.

Sometimes it's hard to know what labels to use. For example, I regard the prosperity gospel as a heresy, but I wonder if I should actually say it's a false teaching.

So I guess I'm wondering if you regard a heretic as someone who takes a differing view to you on any doctrinal matter, or you limit the term to someone who doesn't hold, for example, something covered in one of the historic creeds of the church.

Martin Downes said...


Thanks for your encouraging words.


I would want to differentiate between heresies which strike directly at fundamental doctrines and other errors which may be harmful but which do not leave the promoter of them under the apostolic anathema of Galatians 1.

Historically heresies have been seen as deviations from the doctrine of the trinity and the person of Christ.

The health and wealth movement would certainly include people who hold to heterodox views of the trinity and the person of Christ. But there will also be lots of folks caught up in it who have not embraced soul destroying error, even if the false teaching they have imbibed is seriously damaging their spiritual health.

I've found Mike Horton's defintion to be a helpful rule of thumb:

"Heresy is any teaching that directly contradicts the clear and direct witness of the Scriptures on a point of salvific importance."

Ian Wilson said...


Thanks for your helpful comments, which seems very sensible. I think I need to buy your book.

Would you say that most of the disputes in the contemporary church are therefore not of matters which could be called heresy? I'm thinking of things like women in leadership, ecumenism / separation, the cessationist / charismatic question, penal substitution, new perspective on Paul, calvinism / armianism.

Whilst some of these potentially could be described as of "salvific importance", I'm not sure that the scriptures present a "clear and direct witness" in these areas.

A reason for asking this is because I have a theory that most of the divisions amongst christians result from differences in secondary matters which then become the focus.

Chris Schroeder said...

I think some of the items on Ian's list could well be 1st order issues. Especially as they relate to the centrality of the atonement, the way one is saved (and Who does the saving) & the authority of Scripture (Christ would endure no distortion of nor addition to the Truth). All have important gospel/salvation implications.

Related see this article by Al Mohler on Theological Triage, setting out some 1st, 2nd & 3rd order issues:

Martin Downes said...


Thanks for your response. "Risking the Truth" does seek to engage with some of these issues in an accessible way.

I would say that all the issues that you have mentioned are important in themselves, and all have a bearing on the health and well being of believers and churches, but that some are more directly related to what Chris helpfullu referred to as first order issues. Chris' recommendation of reading Mohler on this is helpful.

With regard to atonement and justification I'd say that we are dealing with things of first importance that are either directly expressed in such terms in the NT (1 Cor. 15:1-3 for example) or are matters of controversy already in the NT (justification in Galatians). The consequences of error on these points are more significant and more far reaching than those connected with spiritual gifts and the role of women. Although with the latter it is possible to adopt an interpretative approach that reconfigures the authority of Scripture in a significant way.