Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Errors of Good Men

I have not been able to trace the statement, but it has been said, in regard to theology, that it is the errors of good men that are the most dangerous. The reason for this is that once a man comes to be considered a significant and valuable theologian, there is a tendency to accept everything he says, without evaluating whether he might be right in one area but wrong in another. While there is also a tendency to reject certain individuals across the board, thus limiting their influence. But  once a theologian is regarded as a good guy, there is a tendency to embrace all he says, without being careful to examine the arguments on both sides. That is not to say that we should not value the opinions of believers of the past. But we need to nonetheless look carefully at their position.

Now part of the problem with giving examples of this is that there are differences of opinion on who are the good men and what opinions are errors. But I will give a few examples from my own perspective. Ireneaus and Tertullian were thoughtful teachers, who wanted to protect the unlearned from false teaching. But by telling them to use whether someone could trace his descent from the apostles as a final criterion for judging his opinions, they laid the groundwork for apostolic succession. Martin Luther was a strong voice for the grace of God and an opponent to mindlessly following authority. But his idea that Christian doctrine was a round ring and that to be mistaken on any point was to be mistaken on all laid the foundation for the present divided state of the church. John Wesley was a great evangelist and an advocate of personal responsibility. But his teaching of perfectionism held out an unrealistic expectation for the Christian life, making it a serious struggle to try live up to it.

Now what I am arguing is not that we should ignore the teachings of the great leaders of the past. They can provide us with many useful ideas and the reasons for them. But we need to carefully examine their teachings and try to study out the issues for ourselves. We can and should use  listen to what they have to say. But we need to look at the basis of their positions and ask if they are true. So we do not simply repeat the errors of good men.

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