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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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  • « Bono the Covenant Theologian | Main | David Wells on "Churchless Christianity" »

    Learning from People with Bad Theology

    I don't know how many times I've heard something like this: "So-and-so believes such-and-such, so I'm not going to read any of his books!" The idea, I think, is that if someone believes something wrong in one area, then you shouldn't rely on what he or she has to say in other areas. Apparently the one bad area taints the rest of it all.

    So, for example, N. T. Wright's ideas about justification earn him a boycott from reformed Christians—or at least his books don't get a decent recommendation, even the ones that have nothing to do with justification. Or, for another example, Robert Capon gets quoted on a reformed website, and emails fly in demanding that the quote be removed because of Capon's views in an entirely different area than that which the quote addresses. Nevermind that the quote in itself was a brilliant illustration of the Gospel!

    [I wish I could write a whole book about this problem, but no one would read a blog entry of that length. So I'll keep what I have to say concise, knowing that much more explanation could be given in support.]

    This attitude is sinful.

    Each and every Christian has something wrong with his or her theology. That's true whether you actually believe it or just say you do out of false modesty. To say you can't learn from and respect someone who's got something wrong with his theology, someone just like you, is blind arrogance.

    It's also unbelief, and reformed Christians should know better. We're supposed to be the ones who have a big focus on the general revelation and common grace of God! If we can't see that even the most antagonistic heretics sometimes have something good to say, and take that for what it is—the gift of God—then we don't believe what Calvin believed, and we don't believe the Scriptures.

    It's also an attempt to justify or feel good about ourselves before God. When you reject a person because of something that person says, you're building a "holiness hedge." You don't want to be influenced by sinful ideas, because you figure if you have perfect ideas about everything, you'll be okay. You're saying, with Eve, "I'm not supposed to look at the tree," when God only said you can't eat from it.

    The solution lies in being willing and able to discern between good and evil in what someone has to say, to embrace the good and reject the evil. Also, we must not respond with hate, but goodwill and respect toward those with whom we disagree. The willingness and humility to do these things comes with believing the Gospel. God, out of sheer grace, did not completely destroy the reasoning faculty of mankind when humankind sinned against him in Adam and Eve. Non-Christians can think! Christians with imperfect theology have something to contribute!

    The fact is that we reformed Christians need our minds transformed by Christ every bit as much as a pagan sinner or as an almost-Orthodox Christian. Sometimes God even transforms our minds through the words of people with bad theology. That means that we don't get to say to anyone "I refuse to learn from you."

    Posted by Eric Costa on August 14, 2006 05:08 PM

    Comments

    Eric
    Excellent comment. If I had not read books from those who I believed had bad theology, I would never have read Spurgeon, Calvin, Edwards, Pink, and Luther. What I believed to be Bad Theology, has turned out to be VERY GOOD Theology.

    If we only read those whom we think have our point of view, then we might just fail to come to the truth.

    And even those who do have a different point of view from us, have other views which have been good for us to understand.

    Charles

    Eric

    A friend of mine was one of the writers of the recent book "Reinventing Jesus". He was sharing with me that when he had something positive to say about NTWs perspective on the resurrection (considered by many one of the best defences of it ever), there was a torrent of criticism, some extremely harsh. Rome and NTW are indeed wrong on justification and this is something that must be confronted. On the other hand Wright clearly demonstrates how theology can benefit from historical study and does have some important things to say that I have not seen much of elsewhere. I have personally benefitted from his books, of which I have read many. But at the same time I would want to really caution anyone when reading them because where there is error it is more pronounced and in more important areas than others who also have errors but not at such a critical juncture in theology (justification or the gospel). It is a delicate balance, one that I have to consider almost every day as I build monergism.com.

    A agree the spirit and letter of your post ...thanks for your thoughs.

    John: Absolutely, justification is a bigger deal than many other issues, and we must scrutinize thoroughly that which we read. We don't get to relax in life, but must always be on our guard, vigilant, etc.

    Thanks for your positive comments on NTW—I personally haven't read much of his work, but most of that which I have read has been good, in my estimation. It's good to be able to say that about someone whom a lot of people in our circles might consider taboo.

    I am having some problems accepting your thoughts as posted. I readily agree that nobody has a corner on the truth - we all are imperfect creatures. Never having read any book by N.T. Wright I may not be qualified to comment, but on the other hand I have read much on the New Perspective by authors I trust. I must admit I am very wary about reading anything by N.T. Wright when I know he is wrong on justification - probably the key issue in Christianity. I have piles of books I hope to read someday and only have a finite period of time to read them, therefore I choose to read books that come highly recommended by those whose judgement I trust or authors I know to be well respected and orthodox. My brother loves N.T. Wright and is frustrated that I haven't read any of his books, but as I said, once I finish off the one hundred or so I have piled around my bedroom that I know will be edifying to me I may consider picking up something by the likes of N.T. Wright.

    Eric, you made the comment that you'd like to write a whole book on this problem why don't you? If this blog post is an indication I am sure it would be a fascinating read.

    I guess one of the issues is that when you put someone's quote onto a website or something folks tend to think you endorse that person and not just the quote.

    Todd: I completely understand the need to prioritize reading according to time available and worthy content. And there's nothing wrong with being wary of reading Wright's stuff—we should be wary when we read anything aside from Scriptures! But fear shouldn't prevent us from learning from anyone, if we believe that the potentially good things they might have to offer are granted by God in his common grace.

    Theologian: A little more to the point is whether you're endorsing everything that person has to say by quoting from him in one area on which you agree. That's hardly ever intended, but unfortunately that's what people usually think when you quote from sources that seem questionable in their minds.

    Eric,

    Thank you for this post. I don't know how many times I have been castigated by well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ for reading someone who is not 100% Reformed.

    Given how many people today are floating in murky theological waters, not having grown up in any particular church and being very hesitant to lable anything "right" or "wrong" without giving a fair hearing to all sides...how can these people know that they should read certain authors before others? Someone who's read much Reformed, orthodox theology could benefit from NTW's historical perspectives while weeding out his "critical realistic" look at justification...but someone new to the faith might accept the whole NTW package, especially since he's such a clear, eloquent, and prolific writer.

    How are these people to know where to even begin? Or which recommendations are trustworthy?

    Bill

    That's a great point.

    Bill: That is a good question. How did it happen for you? I guess my advice would be the same way it happened for me—1) read the Bible, 2) go to a church where the Bible is important, 3) hang out with friends who read the Bible.

    God's Spirit uses his Word to transform our thinking enough to be able to discern between what is right and wrong in whatever else we might read. Interaction with church and friends helps also, as people read various things and start making suggestions to each other.

    If someone "floating in murky theological waters" were to begin doing this, and asking God's help, I wouldn't be too afraid of his or her growth in theological discernment, though obviously my advice isn't some magical way to perfection in this area. God has mercy on whom he has mercy, and that includes our ability to think about what we read.

    So how much New Age philosophy dressed up as Christian belief must we burden ourselves with before speaking out? Should we risk sounding arrogant, but point out error anyway? As in the days of Jesus followers are a soft target for those who have ideas about Christianity that are totally in error of Biblical teaching, and like Jesus himself, we are open to ridicule. The truth is in the Bible for all to read. That truth doesn't always suit everyone who reads it and thus they interpret it to suit. Timothy hits the nail on the head when he writes:

    2 Timothy 4:3-4 NIV.

    “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

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