by C Michael PattonFebruary 14th, 2013 57 Comments
Theological opinions are hard to change. Once they have set in, they are usually there to stay. The theological glue that makes ideas stick early in your studies is, for better or worse, rock solid. It must be that same stuff they use on your teeth. I have one fake tooth glued to the root of the old tooth. I can’t believe that sucker is still holding. Strong stuff.
Ironically, I am in the business of changing theological opinions. Well, that is not entirely accurate. Sometimes – a lot of times – it is just solidifying opinions, rather than changing them. However, I don’t change my own opinions too much. In terms of my basic theological confession, I am pretty much the same person I was twenty years ago. I can still sign the same confessions (even though some of them cause me to raise an eyebrow or two). I am still Protestant, Evangelical, Calvinist, dispensationalist. I believe in inerrancy, I hold to a pre-tribulational view of the end times, and I believe in dunking rather than sprinkling. I am a complementarian, a traducianist, and a memorialist with regard to the Lord’s supper. Heck, I even believe in a young earth! The point is that I rarely change my positions. Life is just more comfortable that way.
Don’t get me wrong. I have actually tried to change some of these opinions. I really want to change some of these opinions. What I mean is that many times, I find the view that I don’t hold to be more palatable or, for lack of a better word, more likable than the one I do. For example, I really want to be a charismatic. I desire so deeply to believe in and experience that miraculous divine intervention the way that charismatics do. I salivate as I look at their worship, hope, and engagement with God. However, though I have studied, argued, prayed, talked to the right people, and prayed some more, I am still not a charismatic (and doubt I will ever be).
The funny thing is that I know I am wrong about so much. When I stand before God, I expect to be surprised at how many of the things I taught, preached on, blogged about, wrote books about, and shouted from mountain tops were wrong. Obviously, I don’t know which ones these are or I would change them now. However, for the most part, I don’t think I will be in too much trouble. The best I can do is believe that those things I will be wrong about were sincere. In other words, I believe that the things I might end up being wrong about are difficult issues that “could go either way.”
Therefore, with so much of my theology, while I still hold to particular positions, I try my best to figure out what things I should hold on to loosely and which I should hold on to tightly. For those of you who know me, you have probably guessed that the things I hold on to most tightly are those of the consensus fidelium - those things that Christians of all time and in all places have believed.
There are some things that I have changed my views on. Most recently, I have changed my view on the Crusades. I no longer see them as a black eye to Christianity. Also, I became a Calvinist (after all, who starts out as a Calvinist?!). But, most of the things I change on are not too dramatic. Normally, once I have studied something somewhat extensively, the view I come to is the view I stay with. With the Crusades, this is the first time I have really studied them. It was the same thing with my Calvinism back in 1995. I had not really studied it before then.
Of course I have nuanced my views quite a bit. I no longer believe that all Catholics are going to hell, that those who speak in tongues are demon possessed, that one cannot be a Christian evolutionist, or that a believer has to be right on all theological issues. This is a big change in a lot of ways, but it does not represent any particular theological issue I have changed on.
But I need to be ready and have the courage to change. In 2009, New Testament scholar Tomas Schreiner changed his opinion about the millennium. He went from being an amillennialist to a premellennialist. This change was very instructive to me. Not because he changed to my position, but because he changed at all. Surely, it took a scholar such as Schreiner a lot of courage to change. How did that glue break? I don’t know. But I glad it did just for the sake of what the change represents. I can think of many other changes that are visible. J. P. Moreland and Sam Storms both changed from being ardent cessationists (umm . . . they did not believe in modern day prophets or the gift of tongues) to being charismatics. Scot McKnight changed from being a complementarian to an egalitarian (which is very common these days). More dramatically, Francis Beckwith changed from being a Protestant to a Catholic.
We all need to be ready and have the courage to change. Now I know, I know . . . we all like stability. We like this virtue in ourselves and in others. “Flip-flopping” is not a good thing in any area, especially theology. So I am not talking about changing every two to three years just for the sake of change. If you are like that, I don’t think I could follow you. I would not trust you. I need you to be stable. However, as fearful as it may be, we need to be ready to change our positions when that change is truly warranted. We need to have the ability to break that glue, let go of that rope, and submit our emotional attachment to a position to what is true, not what is comfortable.
I have tried to do so with regard to the charismatic issue. It was easy for me to change on my view of the Crusades. Most Christians actually like it and are intrigued. They don’t have much emotional or intellectual investment on the issue. They are willing to follow me there, so I won’t lose any friends. However, were I to become a charismatic, I think I would lose some friends. Invites to speak at certain places I love would cease to come. Fellowship with others would not be so sweet. I can think of one person that I would not even be able to look in the eye if I changed my position. Therefore, I have relinquished my concern for these things. So what? Who do I follow? The Lord or the acceptance of man? At least this is how I do my best to think. So, when it comes to the charismatic issue, I don’t think my fear of man is dictating the lack of change.
But I don’t want my desire to become charismatic to dictate things either. Just because I want to see the hand of God in a more evident way should not make me theologically mobile. My emotional desire does not have a vote in truth, so I need to be careful.
However, (just thinking out loud here), I often wonder if my desire to become charismatic is influenced by didactics. In other words, maybe I want to change in some significant area just to say I have. Isn’t that a crazy spin? I teach about change, integrity, and following the Lord rather than people, yet I have not changed in any significant area. Maybe I want to change for the purpose of legitimacy. After all, being a “convert” has a certain feeling of authenticity.
Obviously, there are a lot of reasons for my journey to become charismatic not panning out. I believe these reasons warrant my current non-charismatic position. But (if you have made it this far), you probably know that this post is not really about my journey to become charismatic. It is about our ability, need, and desire (or lack thereof) to change theological positions. It is about how complicated changing really is. It is normally not as simple as having the right intel on the subject under scrutiny. There are a lot of nuances that factor in.
Are there any theological positions you have changed?
What were/are the road blocks for your to change your position?
- Finding Trustworthy Scholars
- How I Find Scholars I Can Trust
- Overcoming Theological Preservation
- Engaging Postmodernism (4): Changing the Rope
- Exercise and Theology