I want to propose a theory for Christians to fellow regarding when and how to be dogmatic. Christians like me don’t like too much dogmatism – and don’t like it at all when it comes in its extreme/absolute form. What do I mean by being dogmatic? An absolutely dogmatic person is one who believes he/she is always correct and can never be wrong.
When talking about dogmatism in relation to Christianity, we often hear many conservative Christians proclaiming that this or that is the biblical truth. We have to be careful here because even while we believe that the Bible is God’s truth, we have to remember that we are interpreters of the Bible. And I hope it’s not surprising to anyone who reads this for me to say that Christians interprete the Bible differently – that’s why there are so many denominations and so many disagreements between Christians on what the Bible says!
So eventhough we all agree that the Bible is God’s Word and true, we all have different interpretations of what the Bible is talking about! A little appreciation of the history of Christianity and even a slight awareness of the presence of the hundreds of different Christian denominations that exist in the world today would alert us to the fact that Christians differ greatly on their interpretation of what the Bible says!
If so, then why do we hear so many Christians speak with such authority? Sure, the Bible has authority as God’s word, but if we understand that we’re merely interpreters of God’s word, then we would be wrong to speak authoritatively. This is especially so when there are many different interpretations out there – e.g. as regards to baptism or faith or healing…etc. Get a charismatic and an anti-charismatic in one room to argue about healing or miracles or tongues and you’ll get a big disagreement. Yet both would swear that they are merely speaking biblical truth. They would insist their interpretation of Scripture is right. So what gives?
Surely, when you have two Christians disagreeing among themselves about what the Bible says, both can’t be correct! One has to be wrong and the other right. Or both are wrong and don’t have the full truth, but one side is closer to the truth than the other. Of course, who is right and wrong or who is closer to the truth is really something that we probably will never fully know in this age. If there’s a way to interprete the Bible infallibly, then we would all do so.
Does that mean no truth can be 100% known? Well, I think that’s the case because noone will be 100% right in their interpretation. The reason is because we’re fallible and not perfect. We’re not perfect in the way we conduct our lives. And we’re also not perfect in the way we use our minds to interprete Scripture. I think that’s easy to recognize. No one is perfect.
So does that mean we can believe in anything? No, that doesn’t mean we are free to believe in anything and everything! While we can never be 100% certain that our interpretation of Scripture is 100% correct, we still have a responsibility to seek the best understanding and interpretation of the Bible as possible. That is why studying theology and doing one’s research into this or that topic is important.
Of course there are people who would disagree with what I wrote in the above paragraphs. They would still insist that the Bible clearly states this or that. I would argue that the Bible clearly states this or that according to their perspective. I would question such people (who insist they know clearly what the Bible says) as to why there are so many disagreements among Christians about important doctrines if the Bible is so clear? Maybe they would argue that the person who holds to a different viewpoint from them are not as smart as them or have not done as much research as them and thus don’t have as good an understanding of Scripture as them. But this argument doesn’t really work because there are equally intelligent scholars and pastors who have all done years of research and study who differ on many important doctrines. So what gives?
How do we sort all this confusion out? I think that we ought to try as best as we can to get a good understanding of what Scripture is saying. We should expend effort in doing this. We should read as widely as possible on any given topic that is being debated or that we’re unsure about. We should read both sides of the issue. We should be familiar with the different and opposing interpretations. But ultimately, we should realize that we can never be 100% clear on many controversial issues. A big part of the reason why they are controversial in the first place is because Scripture is not clear. If Scripture were so clear, there would not be any controversy about it. (Now, I’m not saying that the only reason why there is controversy over some doctrines is because Scripture is not clear. I acknowledge that some Christians also twist their interpretation – consciously or subconsciously – so that it can suit them or their lifestyles better. However, this isn’t always the case. A lot of controversy does not stem from disobedience but from the fact that Scripture is not clear on certain issues.)
Here’s where my proposal comes in. I propose this:
Christians should be dogmatic in their interpretation of Scripture (regarding any doctrine) only in proportion to how familiar they are with the debate over that particular doctrine. However, no matter how familiar they are with the debate over a particular doctrine, they should never be absolutely dogmatic (100% sure) about their interpretation – as they are not perfect – but should always be open to listen to other interpretations and change their mind. The only exception to this would be regarding the essential fundamentals of the Christian faith – in which, I think, faith is ultimately required.
What do I mean by this? Let me explain. Just because we can never be 100% sure about our interpretation of Scripture doesn’t mean we can believe anything we want. Like I said, we ought to do our best to search out the most faithful interpretation of Scripture. And indeed, the more we’re familiar with the issue, the more dogmatically we should be able to argue for our view. Those who have not done much research into the issue should argue less dogmatically for their view. I think this is logical and makes sense. For example, a person who hasn’t read up on the view which is opposing of his shouldn’t really argue very dogmatically for his/her view. By all means, argue for his/her view and believe in it. But if you haven’t done much research, you should be really careful and even more open to listen to the opposing view. The person who has done quite a bit of research into both sides and yet comes up on one particular side can afford to argue for it a bit more dogmatically. However, in both cases, neither side should treat his/her view as though it’s THE only correct interpretation of Scripture. Two reasons for this. Firstly, no matter how neutral and objective we think we are in approaching Scripture and seeking to find the true interpretation of Scripture, very often there are biases and prejudices at work in how we think. Such biases often incline us to a particular viewpoint and we don’t see such biases at work in us. Therefore, we cannot be sure we’re 100% right. Secondly, even if we think we’re free from bias (which is a dangerous thought!), we still have to admit that we’re not perfect in our interpretation. This is true eventhough we’ve spent hundreds or thousands of hours in reading, praying, researching…etc. Just because one is more familiar with the issue and has done much more hard work in seeking to find the right interpretation of Scripture does not mean that he/she will ultimately get the right interpretation of Scripture.
So, I’m not arguing against having a viewpoint of taking a stand. Please do so. But please read up more and be familiar with both sides before taking a firm stand. And no matter how much research we’ve done and how firm our stand is, we must realize we ought never to be 100% sure or confident that our stand is 100% right. We can always be wrong and need to be humble to acknowledge that.
So to summarize: when should we be dogmatic? We should never be absolutely dogmatic on any interpretation. However, the more we’re familiar with the issue, the more dogmatic we can be. How should we be dogmatic? We should always be dogmatic in an open way. That is, no matter how dogmatic we are – no matter how familiar we are with the issue at hand – we should always be open to learn from others and change our view.
I wrote that the exception to all this is regarding the fundamental essentials of the Christian faith – e.g. the Virgin Birth of Christ, the literal resurrection…etc. I say all this because these are doctrines that are being debated, but have been accepted historically by all Christians. I think such doctrines go by different rules. We may never be fully 100% sure that Jesus rose again. That’s because we weren’t there. But I take it by faith. I’m 100% sure by faith. There can be no compromises regarding these essentials.
Going back to my argument about proportionality. If Christians accept my proposal, then we’d all be less dogmatic about controversial issues than we are. Fundamentalists won’t be so fundamentalistic in spirit, hunting for heresies at every turn of the corner! Non-Charismatics and Charismatics would start to listen to each other’s reasons for their beliefs on tongues, healing…etc. And they would start to learn from each other and be more balanced. Furthermore, Christians for or against certain hot topics (e.g. the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin) would start to speak less dogmatically about their view.
All this is hard to do, no doubt. When God changed my life in a Pentecostal Church, I read a lot of charismatic books. Naturally, I was for all this tongues and healing and prophecy and so on. For more than a decade of my life before this, I had been in non-charismatic Churches. I felt nothing at all. Was never touched like I was in the Pentecostal Church. When God changed my life there and I started to read about all these wonderful charismatic stuff, I was naturally awed and I became pro-charismatic. I would defend charismatism against attacks from non-charismatic Christians. I thought charismatism was the way to go and that non-charismatics were…. well… going to be swept away by charismatic churches eventually. I never understood what people saw in non-charismatic Christianity. I looked down upon non-charismatic Christianity from afar. But the thing is that I never really bothered to find out what attracted Christians to non-charismatic Christianity. I never tried to see things from their perspective and immerse myself in their culture. Therefore, it’s hardly a surprise that I adopted such an attitude towards non-charismatic Christianity.
Then I started to go the opposite direction (though I would say never in an extreme manner). I embraced the Reformed faith. I was against Arminian theology. I devoured Reformed books and looked up to Reformed authors. I made the same mistake as before by embracing wholeheartedly one particular tradition of Christianity without really seeking to understand the other side. Of course I knew there were many Arminains in the Christian world, but I never bothered reading them. To me it was simple: Arminians were plain wrong and unbiblical.
Really, we Christians love to belong to one tradition. And very often when we find our place in any particular one, we’ll defend it with our whole heart. And we do all this despite not being that familiar with the other side. If we know what the other side says and how they interprete Scripture, it’s through the writings of one of those on our side who is showing how wrong the other side is!
Simply put, many times we defend our side without being familiar with the other side. And that’s sad. Ask most Reformed Christian whether they’ve read much Arminian theology by Arminian authors? Ask Charismatics if they’ve read many non-charismatic or Reformed books? How about this: ask Christians who hold to a more theologically conservative position on the homosexual issue if they’ve read many scholarly books from the other side? I guarantee you most have not. And yet they are so outspoken and so dogmatic about their position. Why?
I long for the day that the principle of proportionality in dogmatism is put into practice. The Christian community would be filled with so much less division and hatred and would be such a nicer and loving community! Ultimately, we would be able to live out that popular (and I think very wise) phrase:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.