Whatever Happened to the Pursuit of Truth?

Controversy and doctrinal disagreements are not new. They have been with us since the beginning, and will continue until that Day when all will be revealed. The Church’s understanding of the truth has greatly benefited from them, as only by opposition have we been driven to a greater understanding. Two beliefs are essential for continuing improvement in doctrinal understanding, to which the Church has held without compromise:

  1. Due to the depravity and imperfection of man, no believer this side of heaven can attain a flawless understanding of the truth of God’s Word;
  2. Although a perfect understanding is unattainable, a better understanding (at any point) is attainable, through a systematic, well-reasoned study of Scripture, illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

Have you noticed how the postmodernism of the world has affected the worldview of even the conservative Church? The trend is to deny that second belief, that a better understanding of the truth is attainable. This explains the current tendency to jump to being offended merely because one’s view is called “wrong.” On what grounds would any reasonable person object to you calling their view wrong? Their objection can only be grounded in the idea that there can be no valid basis for claiming that your view is closer to the truth than theirs. In short, they are offended at your critique because (in their assumed worldview) certainty in such matters is unattainable, and without certainty any view is as valid as any other—and no one has the right to claim that their view is superior.

It wasn’t always this way with doctrinal disputes. Not only did the Church view the truth as attainable, but the unending pursuit of a better grasp of the truth was held as an obligation on all. The attitude that, “No one can know for sure anyway, so I’ll just settle for whatever position suits me best,” is “relatively” new. The old way was to diligently compare opposing views side by side, weighing their reasoning and their support from Scripture, to see which view was the most consistent, reasonable, and most Scriptural. Such diligent comparison was first by personal study and then by reasonable debate. But the end goal was always to understand the truth better, and then to teach that better understanding to others.

However, today many people choose views based on very little study and objective weighing of opposing positions. The diligent study that should have prepared them to teach and debate the issue—as well as give them valid ground to do so—are missing, and so they lack full assurance that they are correct… but that doesn’t stop them from “choosing” a position. And since they have found little certainty in their own understanding, they will not afford you the benefit of the doubt in finding any certainty in your own position. So they are offended at the confidence of your assertion that they are wrong.

A further result of this new relativism in Christian theology is that theological movements, such as the “Traditionalists” in the SBC, seek the kind of power that comes through numbers, whether numbers of signatures on a doctrinal statement, or numbers of leaders/teachers in seminaries and authoring teaching materials, or numbers of speakers at conferences who agree with them. It used to be important to determine which view in a controversy had the best handle on the truth, through vigorous, reasonable debate and a close examination of Scripture. Theological influence went to the system or argument that could be shown to be more consistent, reasonable and Scripturally sound. But that has given way to the seeking of political influence. The gate of reason and Scripture is being bypassed as proponents openly seek to jump the fence through numbers. Rather than earning a seat at the table by demonstrating a worthy position, they simply demand one based on numbers alone.

But where is the well-reasoned argument? Where can we view the fruit of their labors in substantively and thoroughly pursuing the truth in the light of opposing positions? Is there any written evidence at all that the leaders of the Traditionalist movement care about the pursuit of truth, rather than merely being concerned with promoting their movement, advancing their cause, and increasing their numbers? By written evidence, I mean more than an affirmation. I mean the evidence of having dealt with these differences in an objective, honest, and thorough way, through the production of a rigorous, closely reasoned, systematic argument that establishes not merely that they have a significant group who hold their beliefs, but that those beliefs are to be taken seriously based on a demonstrated validity.

Ken Hamrick, 2012

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14 comments

  1. parsonsmike

    Once there was a king who took delight in numbers. God has chosen His way to not be by strength or political power but by His Spirit. God was displeased by David and pain and death followed the king’s display of pride. Those who trust in numbers and reject seeking truth from the Word of God will also find themselves against God, and God against them.

  2. parsonsmike

    Ken,
    Nope, unless I missed it as well.
    Their argument for legitimacy is not based on a sound Scriptural argument [although they may think it sound] but rather on the numbers they claim to represent.
    But even that is suspect since they have very few who signed their statement.
    I suspect they took it down because some who signed it looked a little closer at the beliefs in it and wanted to get their names off of it.
    And i also think that these [if] that did so were probably many of their best known adherents.
    Thus to save face, they took it down. Just a guess mind you.

  3. Jason Mahill

    I agree with your point about “Traditionalists.” Are you including the “Reformed” teachers and theologians in your point?

    Here’s why I ask my question. Almost all of my discussion with students and pastors who call themselves Calvinist, Arminian, Reformed, Amillenielist, etc. use the numbers arguments. Also, in the end, anyone who does not agree with them is “simplistic in their thinking” and “holding to doctrines only found among commoners.”

  4. Ken Hamrick

    Hello, Jason.

    While the Reformed/Calvinist may use the numbers argument, such an argument does not stand alone but stands on a body of theological works that is more massive than all other theological traditions combined—and is continually being added to. The common complaint, heard both today and going back to the 19th century, that young people who go to seminary as Arminians graduate as Calvinists, is a good indicator of the kind of thinking and studying that results in each view.

  5. Jason Mahill

    Hello Ken,

    Thanks for providing such a clear example of what I am talking about. The numbers argument, people or theological works, however is still only used when scripture fails to back it up.

    Also, my observation is that the students reflect the theology and terminology of the schools and professors who influence them. So yes, if an Arminian attends a Reformed/Calvinist seminary with an open mind… he or she will become a Calvinist.

    When you get to know students and pastors from several seminaries like Talbot, Masters, DTS, Southern, Southwestern, and Criswell… just to name a few… when you hear a sermon from a new pastor, you can usually pick out which seminary they came from based on their approach to Biblical interpretation, their terminology, and their particular doctrinal points.

    Sometimes, I do get it wrong. I thought my own pastor of the last 5 years graduated from Criswell…turns out he’s from Cal Baptist and Southwestern.

  6. Ken Hamrick

    Jason,

    It is frivolous to equate numbers of people with numbers of serious theological works, and pair that with the claim, “Scripture fails to back it up.” Every one of those theological works systematically establishes the Scriptural support for their system.

    I suppose that there are, in any group, both those who tend to follow and those who tend to lead. While I don’t doubt there are those seminarians who follow whatever they are taught, I don’t think the idea that most are that way is reasonable. Educating people to think critically, logically, and in a way that is grounded in Scripture, gives students the tools they need to think for themselves.

    • parsonsmike

      Ken,
      I don’t have any numbers, but it does seem to me that part of becoming the educated student who thinks critically for one’s self is partly rooted in the student and not all in the teacher [not that you implied that]. I also think that many who teach are not critically-think-for-themselves kind of guys and instead lead their students into becoming like themselves: sheep. Thus too much emphasis is put on past thinkers and not on thinking anew.

  7. Ken Hamrick

    Mike,

    You may be right. But I can’t imagine studying systematic theologies from any century without strengthening knowledge and critical thinking skills. I’ve read a few and I have never agreed with everything contained. It has been my experience that the more one studies, the more one understands how a system of theology needs to consistely fit together in a comprehensive way. As a result, one naturally begins to recognize and discard the error, keep the good, and develop one’s own systematic understanding.

  8. parsonsmike

    Ken,
    When doing a picture puzzle on the table, the kind where you have the picture on the box as a guide as to how it should look like when finished, most folks I know find the border or edge pieces and fit them together first. There is only one good way the pieces all fit together, even though some wrong pieces fit closely with others. When doing theology there is no clear picture to guide us, and there is not a complete set of pieces available, and many pieces seem to fit together when in fact they don’t.

    But the beauty of theology is that we are to work on the puzzle with others, using their input to help us fit the puzzle together even as they use our input to help in their endeavor. There are dangers and pitfalls along the way including but not limited to bad judgment, and pride. Thus we are admonished to seek good counsel which can include those who have gone before us as well as those who walk along with us.

  9. Ken Hamrick

    I agree, Mike.

    Another thought occurred to me. When students come to affirm a view that contradicts our own, we conclude that they must have been inappropriately swayed by biased teachers and were unable to think for themselves; but when they come to affirm what we believe, then they have been well-educated. It’s as if we are saying that no one could possibly be educated out of our position in an objective way as a result of critical, competent thinking.

  10. parsonsmike

    Ken,
    Exactly. So each of us must never allow ourselves to be puffed up with knowledge. We are unable to discern, at least at first, whether what we are confident in is a product of truth or a product of our own mind. The line between truth and error can be very very thin at times. Many times in the past I skipped past that understanding and was too arrogant… not properly humble. Even when we are in the right, humility is the way of the Lord. i think the key is much prayer, studying the Bible, and finding good counsel.

  11. Jason Mahill

    Ken,

    I do appreciate these forums even though I find I can only check in on it once or twice a month. On my last comment, I’ll clarify my “Scripture fails to back it up.”

    In my own experience with students and pastors, when I point to scripture that calls into question their theological views on the gospel, predestination, election, regeneration, etc… this happens.

    1. The go to defense is to state that “you should never base your theological views on one passage or verse.”
    2. When I point out other passages that call their interpretations into question in answer of number 1, the defense usually goes to the number of Christians who agree with them and then to the number of theological works written that agree with their particular point of view.

    It is on these 2 points with both Calvinists and Arminians that I love to argue. I have read through much of the theological works I have found that none of them establish Scriptural support for their systems. What they do establish is a defense for the writers’ approach to biblical interpretation. Eg. Luther defends his own just as much as Calvin defended his own methods of interpretation.

    In the end however, these approaches to scripture only serve to help us westerners make sense of sense of 2 seemingly contradictory teachings. God’s predestination/election and His requirement that we choose to accept his gift of slavation by faith.

    The problem I see is that in trying to make these things make sense, modern Arminians came to the conclusion that a person can loose their salvation and some have even gone as far as to ignore the Bible’s NT statements on predestination, election, the nature of God’s soverignty, and the promises that salvation is guranteed and sealed to all who believe in Jesus.

    On the other hand, modern Calvinist/reformed have drawn unbiblical conclusions by changing the definitions of regeneration and repentance to fit their partticular points of view and have chosen to ignore anything in scripture that might point to God’s foreknowledge playing any part in election.

    I’ve actually been told by some that “the Bible never states that a person is saved by or through faith in Jesus Christ.”

  12. Jason Mahill

    Ken and Mike,

    Thank you for this statement from Ken

    “Another thought occurred to me. When students come to affirm a view that contradicts our own, we conclude that they must have been inappropriately swayed by biased teachers and were unable to think for themselves; but when they come to affirm what we believe, then they have been well-educated. It’s as if we are saying that no one could possibly be educated out of our position in an objective way as a result of critical, competent thinking.”

    It has been a huge irritant for some time that after much study, pouring over scripture and examining different theological works… to draw a conclusion only to have a pastor or professor attribute your conclusions must be the result of growing up using and NIV, Ryrie, or MacArthur study Bible.

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