I probably don’t need to explain what knee-jerk theology is. We all know it and we all do it, to varying degrees. Somebody makes a comment or pontification on some doctrinal point or passage in Scripture that is an affront to how we’ve understood it. The knee-jerk response instantly rebuts, refutes and refuses to acknowledge any of the merits. After all, if that person saw things as we see it, they wouldn’t hold that position, right?
But the reality is that there is no such thing as two truths at the same time. Somebody is missing it. Somebody is wrong. I do believe that, in our human nature, we most likely will assign that blame on the other person and respond accordingly. But another reality is…we could be wrong.
So how do we overcome the knee-jerk reaction and treat each dissent fairly and objectively, with truth as the end goal? Here is a quick list that I think might help.
1. Ask yourself if the position can have any merit: There is the sine qua non of Christianity, those components without which Christianity would not exist. If a position proposes undermining what makes Christianity, Christianity, then it does not have merit. That shouldn’t mean that we don’t listen or understand the undermining position. In a quest to support and defend Christianity, we should at least be willing to understand arguments that attempt to refute it. Beyond the essentials (that can also differ), the certainty dial decreases; no matter how strong your convictions or how much evidence, that differing position can have some merit.
2. Recognize our filters: As I mentioned in my previous post on relative truth, we all have them. We have lenses of doctrine and experience, and through them is how you will see things. If you hold to an Arminian position regarding election or if you staunchly believe in YEC, understand that position is your filter. If you have a strong commitment to Calvinism or to Amillenialism or to non-cessationism of spiritual gifts, understand that is your filter. It may be that you arrived at your positions through careful, honest and exhaustive study, but that still results in a perspective that will most likely be imposed on any type of examination.
3. Examine the other position as if it were true: I think this is a tough one: I think our natural inclination is to examine the other position as if it weren’t true, mainly because we’ve already determined that it is not. But stepping into the other position, and examining Scripture from that perspective, I think can shed tremendous light not only on the differing view, but also on our own. This also requires reading works of the proponents of that position, rather than refutations (of those with whom you agree) of that position.
4. Be fair and objective: Examine the evidence. Try to understand where the other person is coming from. This does require a setting aside of the filter when examining Scripture— see #2.
5. Examine your own strawmen: I don’t think this needs any expounding. We build up strawmen based on our perspective of the differing position. But it does beg the question whether we have made every effort to understand that position based on #1, 3, and 4. Have we really taken the time to understand the other position based on how they understand it? I don’t think using the strawmen and less-informed rantings of opponents counts as understanding the position. See #3
6. Slow down the draw on the proof-texts: You know what those are: the arsenal we have ready to whip out at a moment’s notice. This is true especially against those positions we have strongly determined to be wrong, the ones that seem to raise the hackles on the back of our necks. I think this should also really clarify why we use the proof-texts we do. Learning is a continual process that requires continual re-examination of our arsenal and should also reduce the reactionary response to reach for them without reflection.
7. Correlate each position to the overall system of revelation: I love this quote by A.A. Hodge, :
“Since the revelation given in the Scriptures embraces a complete system of truth, every single department must sustain many obvious relations, logical and otherwise, to every other as the several parts of one whole. The imperfect development, and the defective or exaggerated conception of any one doctrine, must inevitably lead to confusion and error throughout the entire system”, (A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism and Augustianism, http://monergism.com).
How does the differing position, or your position, square with the overall system of revelation? Do the connections breakdown somewhere? Are you honest enough to admit that they do?
8. Don’t touch that dial: I recall a time when a couple of well-known radio personalities mentioned something that was such an affront to my beliefs as a then-Charismatic, that I actually stopped listening to them for awhile. I was convinced they knew nothing and if they really had the Spirit, they would not say such things. Ahem, see #1-5.
9. Be ready to admit that you could be wrong: Easier said than done. I do think this is a mark of humility. Pride does not concede. But remember that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). Truth should be our aim, not self-preservation.
10. Recognize that it is not about you anyway: I believe this is the most critical. Every system of doctrine and understanding of Scripture should have as its purpose a greater understanding of God and His revelation. It is not about how we square off with our favorite theologian or pet doctrines, but how we see God. He is the one that has condescended to reveal Himself to mankind and He desires nothing more than reconciliation with His creation. His revelation in Christ (Hebrews 1:2-3)—God the Son who humbled himself (Philippians 2:6-7), died on the cross for the payment of sins (Romans 3:24-25), sits at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) and final judge of sin—was for the express purpose of placing everything in subjection to Him (1 Corinthians 15:27-28) . It is about Him, and Him alone (Colossians 1:16-18), and everything should point to Him. (Colossians 1:28).
And if our knee-jerk theology is not about Him, then a thorough re-examination is definitely in order.
No, I have not mastered this list, not by a long shot. But I do think it’s a step in the right direction.