How to Practice Theological Criticism Responsibly

Suggestions for combatants

At the remove of many centuries after the apostolic era, we have not just competing voices stating what is true and false, we have whole choruses, antiphonally arrayed. The Reformation is, by some accounts, one of the most significant historical events for the Western world. It is not difficult to see how that is the case. Out of the Reformation came a surge of theologizing; believers who sifted and weighed the evidence of Scripture to find new explanations. The Middle Ages also contributed a massive intellectual heritage through Thomism, (Aristotelianism redux) and Ramist thought.

Quite often when believers today argue about theology, they are (wittingly or not) restating positions they have inherited. The temptation is to parrot these, without a full understanding of the context, the counterarguments, and the implications of these theological viewpoints. When we do this, it sometimes encourages us to excesses or unwarranted conclusions. To give a recent example I saw on social media. (And I pick this one because the two sides of this are a perennial disagreement.) Someone made the statement, “Consistent Arminianism leads to open theism.” Now, I should say that I do not hold to Arminian views in soteriology, so my motivation is not to defend my position, but I think it mischaracterizes the Arminian side to state that it will always lead to open theism, or that if one is a consistent Arminian, it yields open theism.

Consider the other side of this coin. “Consistent Calvinism leads to fatalism. If the reprobate are eternally so by a divine decree, they can never be saved. Faith is not given to them, and therefore any plea to repent and trust in Christ is wholly ineffective. Their destiny was fixed before the world was created. It’s nothing but fatalism, very much akin to what we find in Islam.” Would Calvinists consider this an accurate representation of their position?  I doubt any would, but it is the same sort of reasoning, the same kind of caricature as the person who says “Arminianism leads to open theism.”

What’s important is to engage the arguments of a theological tradition by their own words. It is very tempting to read a critique of a view by an opponent of that view—and to assume that you now understand it. But reading the proponent of a position is essential, because you will only then get a presentation that is a true portrayal.

One of the better examples of how to responsibly critique a position is in the anthology From Heaven He Came and Sought Here: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Practice. In the chapter dealing with the theology of Moises Amyraut, Amar Djaballah, who, while not holding to Amyraldianism, says the following:

“In all this, we should remember that Amyraut wrote as a professor of theology in a confessional Reformed academy and that he was cleared of accusations of heresy by a national synod and allowed to teach theology until his death. Hence, notwithstanding the Wirkungsgeschichte (reception history) of his theses in the history of Reformed thought, he should be studied as a member of the Reformed theological community, with whom one may differ, not as an adversary to reduce to silence.” [1]

This acknowledges differences, but seeks to understand the opponent in their context. Caricatures advance nothing. In issuing such cautions, I do not mean to say that this means we have benevolent tolerance for any/all theologies that differ from our own. In a local church, it is the responsibility of the elders to protect the sheep from falsehoods. Paul urged this of the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Thus if someone begins teaching against the deity of Christ, that is outside the bounds of orthodoxy, dangerous, and needs to be dealt with. What I’m referring to are not issues of this sort, but are matters of inference and conclusion, rather than direct revelation. Nor am I referring to the local church primarily, but mainly online, as is often the arena for these sort of discussions. I acknowledge that here is the Gordian knot: What some consider secondary issues, others consider of primary importance. Thus, there can be no fully agreed upon list of doctrinal points that we put in the one column or the other. This very much depends on our experience, our views and background.

However, over a number of years I’ve learned to read more, and withhold comment until I’ve done sufficient research. I am not urging believers to stand down from a vigorous defense of the truth. On the contrary, we are encouraged to do this. I am, however, urging careful research, and working out one’s own understanding of all side of a matter. The truth has nothing to fear from rigorous scholarship.

[1] Amar Djaballah, “Controversy on Universal Grace.” In From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective David Gibson, Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 167-168.

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