Refuting Theological Error
June 10, 2016
There is a profoundly important section titled, "On the Preaching of the Word," in The Directory for the Public Worship of God, in which we find a very short and very wise statement about the minister's responsibility to refute false teaching in the church. What is most captivating about the brief statement found therein is that it instructs concerning, first, the dangers of talking about false teaching, and, second, the necessity of refuting false teaching in the church.
As the Divines unfolded their beliefs about how ministers should approach the aspect of refuting theological error in their preaching, they wrote:
In confutation of false doctrines, he [i.e. the minister] is neither to raise an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily: but, if the people be in danger of an error, he is to confute it soundly, and endeavor to satisfy their judgments and consciences against all objections.The rationale for this statement is dependent on understanding the nature of false teaching itself. In short, ideas can and often do have massive spiritual consequences. J. Gresham Machen made the important statement about the implications of false teachings and ideologies when he wrote:
False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel...What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassioned debate.1Since beliefs inevitably have consequences on our lives and actions, the Divines first warn against our "raising an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily." They do not say this to be necessarily or fearfully censorious, or to bury their heads in the sand rather than deal with difficult theological matters. Rather, they raise this warning because of the nature of false teaching.
When I was a young Christian, a friend taught me that "whenever false teaching is taught in a nuanced fashion there is always the danger that some who hear it will be drawn into it." He went on to explain that this is true within the realm of relationships, as well. Whenever we start to enter into debate with those with whom we disagree we are in danger of becoming more like them--as well as becoming more susceptible to being influenced by their beliefs. It is not guaranteed that this will happen, but it is certainly a very real and ever present danger. Tragically, years after sharing this thought with me, my friend went on to embrace a sinful lifestyle due in part to the public discussions about, and approval of, that particular sin. Additionally, I have watched--with great heaviness of heart--as a minister of the Gospel walked away from Protestantism in the midst of engaging, on church court levels, with men who were being tried for holding to aberrant theological views on the sacraments and soteriology. Whether engagement with sacramentalist views were the cause of his departing from the truth or not, I cannot help but wonder what impact interacting with aberrant teaching had on this particular individual.
This danger must be highlighted within the realm of pastoral ministry in the church. There are some who thrive on debating theological issues. This can be harmful to the members of a church because some members already have misguided beliefs, and some have a very small knowledge of doctrine. In the case of the first group, introducing old heresies can encourage more confusion. I have, time and again, seen individuals start to dabble with heresy because they already had misguided beliefs based on their erroneous knowledge of Scripture. In the case of the latter group, introducing theological error--even in the name of "discernment"--can end in filling the minds of God's people with falsehood when they ought to be filling their minds with the truth. Far better to teach them the nuances of the truth of Scripture so that they will be able to discern falsehood when confronted with it. You don't study a counterfeit dollar bill to spot a counterfeit; you study the real dollar currency so that you will be better suited to spot the counterfeit. Additionally, pastors may inadvertently encourage a hyper-critical spirit among church members. We have all seen churches that are full of theological "heresy-hunters." While I don't like to bandy about that term--since there is a "heresy spotting" and "heresy rejecting" to which all believers are called--the love of seeking out error can be a highly toxic thing. The Divines were certainly warning against these two dangers when they insisted that ministers should be slow to raise an old heresy, or an unnecessary blasphemous opinion, among the members of a church. In a day when most professing believers would be more than happy to emphasize the first half of the statement about heresy in the Directory, it is important for us to understand the significance of what they say in the latter part. There are three parts to what is said about confuting error in the church. The first is that it is incumbent on the minister(s) of the church to refute error "if the people be in danger of an error." The shepherds are appointed by God to feed the sheep, to go after them when they stray and to guard them against all dangers that threaten to harm them. Certainly, if theological error is creeping into our churches or denominations, we must confute it out of love for, and protection of, the sheep. Years ago, when theological error started creeping into some of our Reformed denominations, prominent voices were insinuating that we have Mormonism, atheism, Islam, paganism, etc. to deal with--attacking Christians from outside the church--and that we should not be squabbling over theological nuances within. While this sounds pious, it actually does not stand the test of what the Apostle Paul demonstrated in Galatia with the Judaizers who were coming into the church stealthily. In fact, it has been said that we wouldn't have a New Testament if it weren't for all the internal theological and moral errors that needed to be refuted.Out of love for God and the truth of the Gospel, as well as for the salvation His people, ministers are called to refute error. The second thing that the Divines noted was that the minister is "to confute [false doctrine] soundly." There should be an appropriate force with which error is confuted. The intensity of the confutation must fit the doctrinal error being propagated. This takes great wisdom. It is possible for a minister to tackle a theological error that surfaces in the church, but not to do it with the intensity with which it ought to be confuted. If justification by faith alone, the nature of soteriology, the necessity of holiness in the Christian life, the Person and work of Christ, the Trinity, etc. are under attack, the minister must confute these with the strongest intensity and with the most comprehensive treatment. If the error be some thing of lesser significance, it should be confuted with less intensity and perhaps less comprehensiveness. The third thing that the Divines say is that the minister is to "endeavor to satisfy their [i.e. the congregants] judgments and consciences against all objections." We have all seen or heard of ministers who give the sense that, when they are seeking to refute error, they just want people to agree with their warnings without doing the hard work of studying theological nuances and taking the time to walk their people through the issues involved with care and patience. It will be impossible to satisfy all the judgments and consciences of all involved against all objections; nevertheless, that should be the goal and desire of the minister. This means that ministers should not simply parrot a criticism of a theological error. Too many have heard a respected professor, theologian or pastor raise warnings about a pressing theological danger only to go and parrot what they have heard. When objections fall within the "razor's edge" of the erroneous doctrines, such ministers fail to satisfy the consciences of their hearers against all objections. We must (with prayerful caution) engage with first sources and with specialized volumes that take on the oftentimes highly academic and theologically nuanced errors that arise so that we will be prepared to "endeavor to satisfy their [i.e. the congregants] judgments and consciences against all objections." One final warning needs to be raised. The minister must guard his own heart and mind from theological error as well. We do this by keeping ourselves in the Scriptures and in the love of God. We do this by putting sin to death in our lives. We do this by crying out to God to keep us from falling. Somehow, many convince themselves that drugs, sexual immorality, etc.--but not reading theological error--will most certainly have a negative effect on them. Ideas have consequences. All theological error originates from the evil one. He is more cunningly skillful than we could ever know at leading people astray through academic and highly nuanced theological error. As is true with every other danger that we face, when we come to study theological error we must remember the words of the Apostle Paul: "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." 1. J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," Princeton Theological Review 11 (1913)