Dangers of Theological Controversy

Debate in theological matters is necessary in a fallen world. God commands believers to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). We are to be zealous for the defense and propagation of the whole counsel of God for His own glory and the building up of His people. Ministers and local church members, in many Reformed churches, take vows to “study the peace and purity of the church.” This includes purity in doctrine. But, there are also wisdom principles that must accompany a desire to defend the truth. In every battle there is fallout. There are dangers that we need to seek to avoid when entering into theological debate.

In recent years, there has been a growing debate over the doctrine of sanctification. Some of the questions involved in this debate include: Does justification produce sanctification? Is sanctification “getting used to your justification?” What role does sanctification play in the subjective assurance of salvation in the life of a believer? Does justification make union with Christ possible, or does union make justification possible? In addition to these questions, a myriad of others have been–and ought to be–raised for the sake of clarity and the defense of truth. There are, however, several dangers that come with controversy.

The Danger of Infection

There is a danger of infecting others with false teaching–even while trying to refute it. 

Under their section titled “On the Preaching of the Word,” in The Directory for the Public Worship of God, the Scottish Divines give us a very short and very wise statement about the ministers’ responsibility to refute false teaching in the church. What is most captivating about this brief statement is that it gives us instruction concerning 1) the dangers of talking about false teaching, and 2) the necessity of refuting false teaching in the church. 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.1

Since 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 censorious, or to bury their heads in the sand. 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 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 getting closer to them and become more susceptible of being influenced by their beliefs. It is not guaranteed that this will happen, but it is certainly a very real danger. Tragically, in recent years, my friend embraced a sinful lifestyle due in part to the public discussions about, and approval of, it. I have also watched a minister of the Gospel walk away from Protestantism in the midst of engaging, on church court levels, with a man who was being tried for holding to aberrant theological views on the sacraments and soteriology. Whether his engagement with this man’s views were the cause of his departing from the truth or not, I cannot help but wonder what impact the aberrant teaching had on this man.

This danger must be highlighted within the realm of teaching in the church. There are some who thrive on debating theological issues. This can be harmful to the members of a church because a) some members already have misguided beliefs, and b) 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 time again, seen such individuals start to dabble with heresy because they already had misguided beliefs in their knowledge of Scripture. In the case of the latter group, introducing theological error–even if it is 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 bill so that you will be able to spot the counterfeit. A man may be defending a more biblical position than his opponent, and yet do harm to the cause of truth by the tone in which he contends. He may inadvertantly push someone to embrace falsehood by not modeling the humility and godly speech that ought to accompany debate within the church. The punishment must fit the crime. If a man pulls out an M-16 when he should use a ruler, he might help push those on the fence to the error he is seeking to combat. We will take this up in the last point of this post.

There is a danger of infecting believers with a hyper-critical spirit.

Additionally, we may inadvertently encourage a hyper-critical spirit among church members. Followers are usually worse (and almost always are more dangerous) than leaders. We have all seen churches that are full of theological heresy-hunters. While I don’t like to bandy that term around (since there is a right “heresy rejecting” to which all believers are called to engage), feeding on a “seeking out of error” is a highly toxic thing in the life of believers. The Scottish Divines were warning against these two dangers that might become a reality if an old heresy, or an unnecessary blasphemous opinion, is raised in a church. (Read more thoughts about the statement in the Directory here).

The Danger of Overreaction

There is a danger of overreaction to an error and falling into an opposite error.

Most of us have a tendency to overreact, or to rush to the opposite extreme in order to get as far away from an error as possible. This has lead many into an opposite error. James Henley Thornwell, reflecting on the natural and ever present danger of falling into the pit of Antinomianism, on the one hand, and Legalism, on the other, put it this way:

The natural vibration of the mind is from the extreme of legalism to that of licentiousness, and nothing but the grace of God can fix it in the proper medium of Divine truth. The Gospel, like its blessed Master, is always crucified between two thieves—legalists of all sorts on the one hand and Antinomians on the other; the former robbing the Savior of the glory of his work for us, and the other robbing him of the glory of his work within us.2

We, in the Reformed world today, tend to think that falling into Legalism is much more rare thing than falling into Antinomianism. But, Sinclair Ferguson has helpfully explained that we do not cure the error of legalism by sprinkling in a little antinomianism and we do not cure the error of antinomianism by sprinkling in a little legalism—no matter how much easier a corrective it may seem. There is a doctrinal Antinomianism and a practical Antinomianism, so there is a doctrinal Legalism and a practical Legalism. We are prone to falling into one of these two ditches practically on a daily basis. That’s why we need to be reminded, on a daily basis, of what Christ has done for us on the cross (Gal. 2:20-3:4). See this post for some descriptions of practical Antinomianism and practical Legalism. In his essay “The World’s Last Night,” C.S. Lewis left us some important thoughts about the tendencies of men to over-react to some right position because of exaggerations and imbalanced emphases in theological controversies:

For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left…A thing does not vanish—it is not even discredited—because someone has spoken of it with exaggeration. It remains exactly where it was. The only difference is that if it has recently been exaggerated, we must now take special care not to overlook it; for that is the side on which the drunk man is now most likely to fall off.3

The Danger of Dumbing-Down

There is a danger of dumbing-down the severity of error on the opposite side of the debate.

The Puritan Robert Traill made the following astute observation about the danger of being softer to error on one side of a controversy based on personal experience, background and temperament:

Men that are for middle ways in points of doctrine have a greater kindness for that extreme they go half-way to than for that which they go half-way from.4

He was essentially suggesting that while many position themselves between what they perceive to be two polarizing positions, many tend to be softer on a error on one end of the spectrum as over against error on the other end. Many tend to be more sympathetic to manifestations of error on one side of the extremes because of personal experiences or erroneous positions out of which they have been delivered. The pendulum tends to swing in one of two directions based on our upbringing, environment, experiences or personalities. This, in turn, puts us in danger of being more sympathetic with error on one extreme or the other on the spectrum. The pendulum never moves so fast as it does when it is right in the center (where it ought to rest). In the debates over Antinomianism and Legalism, the cross is the center. We get both justification and sanctification by virtue of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. The pendulum tends to move quickest from the cross based on our own sinful imbalance. This can come in reductionistic theological arguments or in highly refined theological explanations.

The Danger of Self-Righteousness

There is a danger of falling into a self-righteous spirit when combating an opponents position.

John Newton, writing a letter to a Calvinistic friend who wished to refute the errors of an influential Arminian, warned against the danger of self-righteousness–even in the act of defending truth. It is quite possible (and if we’re honest with ourselves we probably have known it to be true in our own lives) to self-righteously defend yourself and your own knowledge in the name of defense of truth. It is essentially, “justification by knowledge” or “justification by being right.” Newton wrote:

Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature, and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgements. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress this wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savour of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.5

If we would be faithful to our Lord we will prayerfully consider when, how and for what end we enter into controversies. Defending the truth is a necessary thing in a fallen world. When the people of God are threatened by error, the ministers of the Gospel have a responsibility to warn and instruct them. Above all, we must be prayerfully pouring over the Scriptures so that we will be able to better expose error and defend truth for our own hearts and the hearts of those in the body. However, “our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” We must always have our eyes open to our own sinful weaknesses–both to infecting others, overreacting, dumbing-down the severity of error on the other end of the spectrum and self-righteous, condescending and angry spirit in the name of defending truth. The glory of God is at stake.

1. Presbyterian Liturgies (Edinburgh: Myles MacPhail, 1858) p. 13

2. J.H. Thornwell, “Antinomianism” in The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871) p. 386

3.  C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (New York: Harcort, Brace and Co., 1959)  pp. 94-95

4. Robert Traill, The Works of Robert Traill (Glasgow: Printed and Sold by John Bryce, 1775) p. 281

5. John Newton The Works of the Rev. John Newton (London: J. Johnson, 1808) pp. 241 ff.

26 Responses

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  2. Paula

    I so appreciate your thoughts on this. Currently tossing some things around in my mind concerning a few sermons taught at my church and your article gave me some good guidance. Thank you.

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  5. Richard Weber

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I’ve had several good conversations with my students this past term about the role theological debate has in the life of the church. While there is clearly a benefit to the dialogue (assuming right motivation, manner, and milieu), there is also something unhealthy about the way we scramble to publish the latest “four views” book for every new controversy that arises, sometimes (*sometimes*) lending credibility and validation to aberrancies that have never been considered within the realm of historic orthodoxy.

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  7. Reed Here

    Exceptional Nick. I first got involved in a blog discussing a controversial issue due to the need to be better informed for some needs within the congregation I was helping to shepherd. I found very quickly that a contentious spirit (fondness for arguing for the sake of arguing) resides comfortably in my heart.

    It was not a great day for my pride.

    Over the years since I’ve learned most of the lessons you observe here, some through my own failure, some through observing them in others. I’m “ahaing” the ones you mention that while new to me, ring true in my ears.

    I’m growing particularly persuaded that a deep part of the problem in the reformed world is the idolatry of Solomon, thinking wisdom is the queen of virtues which will solve ALL our problems. The appeal of the consistency found in reformed doctrinal formulation, coupled with the latent pragmatism that is the birthright of (at least) Americans, seems to feed our self-dependence. “I’m better because I understand better,” is not of the essence of salvation.

    Anyway, good stuff. Thanks for the stimulation. So grateful for Christ who defeats these idols in my life.

  8. David Sugg

    Regarding the risk of infection, whenever I am dealing with studying heresies from the past, I make a point to daily read and reflect on relevant questions from the catechism, or in one of the creeds. I view these as needed vaccines to protect me from the contagion I am studying.

    Great post, lots to think about.

  9. Who then is sufficient for these things? After considering these dangers, who is left standing to contend for the faith?

    Great post, Nicholas. It drove me to trust Christ more deeply, for I’m not sure I could ever live up to this standard of avoiding all these dangers!

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  14. My church is subscribing to some of the contemporary theology that argues against traditional tenants of the faith.eg.The Apostles Creed.I am 81 years old and to leave would be difficult in our small village,and yet I find myself continually arguing in my head with the teaching/preaching.Needless to say it is difficult if not impossible to worship.I realize this is problematic for many of us who are believers in the atonement.I would appreciate any suggestions.God Bless….

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  17. gary

    Hi Nicholas,

    My name is Gary – I found your post through Trevin Wax. Your advice left me a bit confused. Theological controversy is inevitable. I often find that I am not quit in agreement with my reformed friends. We often sit down to a cup of coffee (or beer) to go over the word and search the scriptures for enlightenment. But first we pray. I have found that in order to walk together we must ask Holy Spirit for His presence in the process. Your article mentions several suggestions but no where do you mention asking Holy Spirit to partner with you. May I encourage you to include the guidance of the presence of the Most High in any theological discussion.

    Also, if I may be so presumptuous, the reason I will sit and ponder the realities of our faith with my brothers and sisters is that I love them. We are members of one another in King Jesus. There is no greater bond that I have experienced. May I suggest that you also consider love as a prerequisite to any theological engagement. Love is the one power (generated by the Spirit) that allows us to manifest the image of our Lord to the world. Without love our debates easily turn into a noisy percussion sections. There is no mention of love in your article.

    Finally, I am unsure how to handle your description of our hearts being “desperately wicked” when the scripture is quit clear in its insistence that in Christ we are born again. The stoney heart is replaced by a heart of flesh. We are now sons and daughters of the Father in King Jesus. We are joint heirs with Jesus. We are, in fact, new creation. I sometimes wonder why our identity in Christ is minimized when the cross was such an amazing cosmic event. We are more than conquerers through Him who loves us.

    If you have any time, I would love to hear from you – blessings gary

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