Wednesday, August 21, 2013

“Not Everyone Agrees” – A Bad Argument

There’s an argument that I hear or read more often than not. It’s used typically by people who have a theological view that differs from the predominant view. A discussion will arise about some point regarding the predominant view and someone will step in with a view that disagrees with the predominant view. After a couple of arguments or explanations are bandied back and forth, if the person lobbying the opposing view senses that the argument is going badly for them, then they make this argument to give some sense of legitimacy to their position.

Now they don’t typically state the argument as a dry proposition.  Usually it will be worded something like this:

“All I’m trying to say is that there are people who disagree that this biblical passage means what you say that it means.”


“My point is that not everyone agrees on this theological issue.”

The argument that is insinuated is that the case for the legitimacy of a position is made by trading on the fact that people don’t agree. This argument assumes that the disagreement doesn’t include heresy. It also fails to make the observation that only one mutually exclusive truth is possible. Therefore, only one view can actually be true.

Now there are areas of theological disagreement that are legitimately subject to uncertainty based on different hermeneutical presuppositional structures. That’s a mouthful for most of you so I’ll break it down. Hermeneutics is the area of theological discovery that applies principles for understanding written text. This is where you investigate the writer and the audience, the sentence structures, the cultural context, figures of speech and idiomatic expressions, etc. When using these kinds of principles you often find a variety of possible meanings depending on how you apply the principles. Some passages are simply clearer than others. In order to understand more difficult passages, it helps to use facts learned in clearer passages to shed light on which meaning is most possible. As the Bible is studied and various facts understood, it helps to arrange these facts in logical associations to see the larger truth. Some facts depend on other facts and ultimately a small set of related facts will form that foundational truth for how you understand the rest of the Bible. This is your presuppositional structure.

Ideally, a presuppositional structure is formed by hermeneutical principles consistently applied to the scriptures. Unfortunately, most people will have a set of ideas already in place as their initial presuppositional structure and they will apply hermeneutical principles in such a way as to reinforce it rather than to change their presuppositional structure as consistently applied hermeneutical principles contradict their presuppositional structure. So where one presuppositional structure is suggested by the Bible, many people end up with different presuppositional structures.

Let me pick one of the less-controversial conflicts to use as an example. The Bible doesn’t say that the pets we have here in this world will be resurrected in the next. In fact, as far as the Bible is concerned only humans will be resurrected. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be animals of some sort in the hereafter. The Bible simply doesn’t focus on this. It’s not important. This is a consistent way of approaching the Bible. I’m looking at what the Bible views as important. I have pets that I enjoy as companions but I don’t expect to have them with me for all time and it’s not important to me because it’s not important in the Bible.

However, it is important to some people. They are particularly attached to their pets. Instead of letting the Bible guide their thinking on this, they import ideas that are foundational to understanding the Bible so that the Bible ends up meaning what the Bible never teaches. These ideas are things like, “God just wants me to be happy,” “Fluffy and Fido make me happy,” and “God gave me Fluffy and Fido to make me happy.” Therefore, they conclude, “God will give me Fluffy and Fido in heaven to make me happy.” So they read the Bible with this logic in mind as to how they should apply hermeneutical principles to understand the Bible. Since they don’t see a passage that specifically says that pets won’t be in heaven, they dismiss the passages that when taken together logically won’t allow that conclusion.

So let’s say there’s a discussion about animals in heaven. These passages are brought up. But the person who holds the pet-friendly hermeneutic is upset because people are saying that pets we have today like Fluffy and Fido won’t join us in the resurrection and be our companions for all time. They jump in with a contention against this. When the consistent hermeneutic is explained, they retreat to the argument I spelled out in the beginning of this article.

Believing that Fluffy and Fido will be resurrected isn’t specifically a heretical idea. It’s a bad one and an erroneous one, but we know that we have some church members who insist on these kinds of errors for their own reasons.

But there are people who espouse heresy who resort to that same argument. That’s why it’s important to point out that it’s a bad argument. Just because people disagree within the realm of orthodox Christianity doesn’t mean that both are true. Only one is true. The other is in error although not in a bad way. Dr. Al Mohler has developed his theological triage and wrote about it 8 years ago. It’s an extremely helpful tool for analyzing theological error.

Just because people can disagree on one level that carries some legitimate uncertainty doesn’t mean that people can disagree on another level with the same legitimate uncertainty. If the Bible is clear about a matter, it’s not open for debate within orthodox circles. It’s clear heresy. Today orthodox Christians have the sensibility that no one is going to be killed for being a heretic. That unfortunate historical approach in itself should be considered heretical. However, it is academically and pastorally necessary to point out mistaken beliefs among people who profess to be Christians. That includes pointing out the error in this kind of an argument.