Be Careful With Theology Shifts

(Lisa Robinson)

It happens to varying degrees.  You are chugging along in your Christian walk, learning and growing.  Mainly, your convictions grow and become firm.   But then something happens to make you rethink your presuppositions or methodology.  You begin an inquiry into a different perspective to test the validity.   The convictions you believed were firm are starting to loosen their grip.  Your investigation yields an overturning of what you had come to accept as accurate.

This can be a good or bad thing depending upon the nature and/or extremity of the shifts.  If the process leads to unraveling of orthodoxy such as no longer believing in the deity of Christ, dismantling of the authority of scripture, denial of the Trinity, etc, then it is not good.  But on the other hand, the fruit of this kind of disruption can yield a change in theological convictions that are more consistent with the biblical and historic witness of Christianity.  Then there is everything in between from bibliology, soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, etc.

The concern when these kinds of shifts happen, is when we reject one tenet of belief, the rest in the paradigm might follow.   I have noted this especially happens with advancements in scholarship that encourage the re-examination of previously existing paradigms.   With the backing of sound arguments, hefty research and biblical proof-texting, challengers articulate valid or seemly valid reasons why some tenets, doctrines or paradigms need re-examining and even discarding.  When concepts are popularized, what ends up happening is a wholesale endorsement of everything the proponent advocates.

Needless to say, it is easy to create false dichotomies with theology shifts.  If  L M and N become X Y and Z when we create false dichotomies, it is impossible to have a combination of lets, say L M and Z.  But careful examination might yield just that.  Yet the tendency for a shift would be to reject L M and N outright and especially when advocates of positions we are gravitating towards encourage that we should do just that. 

This supposes that one person or group of professors, scholars, theologians, etc have a corner on all doctrinal points.  One thing I have discovered in seminary is that I don’t necessarily agree with all of my professors on everything, even with agreement on the seven doctrinal points we have to affirm as students.  For me, this models the broader world of scholarship where the exchange of ideas lend themselves to upholding particular models over others.  We can gravitate towards our favorites who just make sense in what they advocate.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.  But when scholarship ends up with cult following, whatever is dismissed ends up getting treated as error, sometimes to the degree of dismissing wholesale what we once endorsed as legitimate tenets of Christian belief.

To this end, it kind of grieves me when I hear students support their position based on what so and so professor believes.  And this definitely happens outside of seminary as well when we believe X because so and so scholar advocates for it.  When our convictions are more rooted in the proposals of scholars, theologians, pastors, etc, the ground is ripe for getting carried away with every wind of doctrine, with the thought that everything that is sold, must be purchased.

On the flip side, rejection of previously held positions can become stringent and to the degree that everything gets treated with a stamp of illegitimacy.  I have experienced this myself when I went from fringe Charismatica to soft-cessationism.   Once I understood the error in my methodology that led to extreme Charismatic beliefs, I began to gravitate towards authors that endorsed the paradigm I was coming to embrace.  That meant not only creating false dichotomies, but disengaging from those with whom I was once aligned and even spurning everything they had to say as false.   I have seen this happen in other instances as well, where we throw the baby out with the bath water and deny that position any legitimacy.

But I have learned that the challenges that come with theology shifts do not need to result in wholesale rejection, the creation of false dichotomies or naive following of celebrity scholars or pastors.  I believe that careful examination of each component of belief is necessary.  Ideas have consequences and the implications must be thought through to the fullest.  What sounds plausible, may have some harmful ramifications.  On the flip side, we may discover that a different perspective yields a higher level of consistency with the biblical and historic witness.  We cannot be afraid of such analysis, even if that means mixing thoughts of competing paradigms.  In the end, our goal should be faithfulness to divine revelation and to legitimate Christian belief.

So if you find yourself in the middle of a paradigm shift, please be careful.  Don’t reject positions outright and recognize that there might be something else to consider through the fruit of careful analysis.


17 Responses to “Be Careful With Theology Shifts”

  1. Lisa,
    I understand well your caution. But it would help me if you could provide me with some solid examples. Through the “Why I am/not Charismatic” Discussions, I myself became “Charismatic” (as defined by Michael), and I have talked to many who have become Cessasionists recently. What are a few dangers I should be avoiding? What dangers from your own experience can you recommend for anyone becoming Cessasionist?

  2. Aaron,

    I intentionally avoided examples because I didn’t want the point of the post to get bogged down in disputes about particular points of theology. But to answer your question, all I can say is to be honest to scripture. That may not put you decidedly into one camp or the other. One pitfall that I fell into that I’ve seen others do as well, is to make superficial arguments based on a new understanding without realizing all the nuances or points of deviation. So what happens is you come to indicate your new perspective must be true with a selected group of proof-texts and maybe some scholar backing but without the full understanding. I think we should not be afraid of wrestling with deviating points for a while. There is no crime in not solidly deciding a position, especially in the area of cessationism vs. continuationism

  3. Lisa,
    I appreciate the answer. Thank you.

  4. Thanks, Lisa. You well elaborated on the point we talked about the other day. In fact, I am in the midst of such a shift, and I would do well to heed your advice to be careful.

  5. Thank you, Lisa. I am in the (sometimes grueling) process of a theology shift right now, in the same general direction you made. Do you tell the story of your shift online anywhere?

  6. Lisa, something I have wished to write on is the shift from one position to another when someone doesn’t understand his position.

    So let’s say he is A, but on reflection and study becomes X. This may be reasonable if he studied both A and X, but if you ask him about A he knows next to nothing, but can wax eloquent about X.

    I see this as illegitimate. Perhaps he was A because of the church, or childhood, or some scholar. This is common, and may be not too unreasonable. But what is not reasonable is to reject A when one does not actually know what A is. If you study something that challenges your beliefs, do so in the context of learning the best arguments for your beliefs.

  7. Any shift towards better understanding of the gospel and the freedom won there, is for the better.

    Away from ‘what WE DO’ and towards what He has done.

  8. Regarding Theological Shifts, I was raised a Methodist then a Charismatic. After 20 years of seeing excess and abuse in the Charismatic movement I went back to the only thing I knew and became a Methodist again. My adult son recently left the Charismatic church to become a 5-point Calvinist. After researching and studying Reformed Theology I have come to the conclusion that there is much good in Reformed Theology but I can not ascribe to the logic and belief systems of being a Calvinistic. Perhaps it has been decreed for me to stay an evangelical conservative. Too many theological shifts for me.

  9. See here Ms. Theologian Lady, I happen to have a handful of fantastic theologians who have done my thinking for me, thank you. I don’t need to shift unless they tell me to shift so I don’t have any of these so-called “shifting” problems.

    That’s what you get for going to “Semetary” in the first place. Do you think Jesus shifted? Hmmmm….? Right and he didn’t go to “Semetary” did he?

    Okay, so I jest, but the article is great. While we are to develop theological certainties and at some point our dogmatics must be developed, along the way (and always of course) we must constantly audit our views, challenge them and scrutinize them and benefit from that process.

    I do find that those who least movable but most quickly defensive with regard to their positions and highly antagonistic toward other voices, are those who have, early on, determined their certainties without the critical and necessary passage of time for their maturity (thereby explaining their defensiveness seeing that it is probably true they are standing in the wrong spot or really can’t explain, fully, why they are standing there) or are, as you described, those with a handful of voices of authority to which they become acolytes.

    It is a good day when independent judgment arrives and one is able to begin that path in their faith. And thus begins the guidelines for the inevitable shifts in one’s theology which can be unsettling at first but quite liberating once some mastery of its navigation is gained.

  10. Truth Unites... and Divides August 29, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    I appreciate former atheists denouncing atheism.

  11. Lisa..I whole heartedly agree. I align myself more with a continueist arminian position then I do a cessational cavinistic position…

    Yet, I do appreciate the theology that comes from many strands of Christendom. I think there is much to benefit from engaging with Eastern Orthodox theology, Catholicism, Reformed and Arminian, cessationist and charismatic and realise that there is a deep love for the Scriptures within those frameworks.

    The more I read and engage with others of differing theological beliefs – the more I appreciate God working through, in and over his people and that our belief systems are formed within a contextual environment – which is different for us all.

  12. Alex, too funny :D But raise a very important point about maturity. When shifts happen with premature conclusions, they are bound to neglect some important aspects. I’ve seen this over and over, especially with the disciples of their favorites.

    Craig, I couldn’t agree with your statement more. This is where myopic, extreme fundamentalism fails.

  13. Excellent post. I agree, although I see many people who change their theology because of some experience rather than teaching, exposure to another tradition, or their own study. After that, they seem to just go around looking for teachers who affirm their new theology. Would you agree?

  14. Nimrod, yes I absolutely agree. And the more support one can find for their position, the more confident they become in it to the point of dispelling other considerations.

  15. Lisa,
    You share some very important thoughts. The reality is that we buy into what people we trust say, and we need to do so as humans for the simple reason that it is impossible to thoroughly investigate every issue. There are some scholars I trust more than others because of how they have interacted with a few issues. Its unrealistic to be able to investigate every issue to the degree they merit, but when we are unable to do so we ought to approach our understanding of an issue with humility at the very least.

  16. Lisa, I enjoyed your article, and I share your concern for exercising care when it comes to theological shifts – but that said I also think that theological shifts so long as they are not too radical are an expected part of Christian growth. My walk with Christ started through the ministry of some charismatics, and later I began to question much of what I learned in that school of thought. I found my way home to the Reformed tradition, was awed by the majesty of the high view of God’s sovereignty I found but appalled by the pugnacity of some polemical Calvinists. I remain at home in the Reformed Tradition, but I digress.
    I find myself frustrated and irritated with some of my Christian friends of many years, because I see little evidence of growth or change in their Christian lives. They remain uncritically in exactly the same theological place they have been for decades. I see few or no signs of theological struggle or wrestling with their faith. I don’t doubt their sincerity, but such people seem to have found a theological comfort zone they are reticent to leave or even approach the periphery. They tend to read books from others in their own community and eschew any input from outside it, leading to theological parochialism.
    But I must also wonder if the stability of such folks is preferable to my own theological journey of fits and starts, doubts and struggles, and gradual changes. Like yourself I have swung between dogmatic poles on a number of peripheral issues and have come to live in the place called tension.
    In some ways I envy the stability of some of my fellow Christians, but at the same time I don’t find their comfort zone or what sometimes seems to be pop-Christian naivete and even fecklessness attractive. The cost is greater instability, no, that’s too strong; better to say variability, in my own journey of faith.
    Yes, we need to be careful with theology shifts. But we should not avoid them completely, as often they are necessary concomitants of the journey of faith.

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