The Orthodoxy of Error

It occurs to me that there is often a strange juxtaposition in the church with regard to human error. On the one hand the people who carry the strongest call for orthodoxy and (rightly so) a high view of God’s sovereignty are also the most rigid when it comes to error in regard to doctrine. On the other hand we have people who are soft on orthodoxy, handling (wrongly so) the word of God in a cavalier way, sometimes holding views that weaken the work and person of God (open theology for instance) but who are in turn much more gracious about doctrinal error.

On the surface this makes some sense. The people who don’t take the bible seriously are fine with error and the people who are serious about the bible aren’t; but a deeper look reveals a pernicious hypocrisy and a more profound contradiction.

To believe in the perfection of scripture and to hold a view that above all human endeavors God acts and leads as the sovereign of the universe, is to also hold a view that human beings are infinitely distant from that standard of power, wisdom and goodness. We who hold such a view should carry a deep, enduring, and endearing humility because we worship and revere a transcendent God who has, in his mercy, shown us unfathomable love through the grace of his incarnation and cross. For as tightly as we hold the perfection of his word we must also hold the fallibility of our reading and obedience to it. The highest view of God should lead to the most gracious view of men. Shouldn’t the doctrine of depravity lead us to the conclusion that we make mistakes? And when it comes to something of high importance like say teaching the bible, shouldn’t we understand that human beings will consistently fail at it? And shouldn’t our faith in a sovereign God simultaneously protect us from the fear of error? In other words, shouldn’t we expect that our teachers will occasionally miss the mark and shouldn’t that not overly worry us because we know that people are sinners and God is greater than our sin?

Last week I received an email from a leader who had been confronted by one of their people who disagreed with some things I had said in a recent series of Crucible talks. This leader was unsure what to do and how to respond. Wanting to be loyal to me and if necessary challenge their friend, he was asking for advice. I read the objections which were enumerated in the email string and I had a curious response. I agreed.

Just because I was the one talking doesn’t mean I think I couldn’t be making a mistake. Among his objections were that I “couldn’t be sure” and that there are “dangers of over emphasis”. Totally. I agree. I am NOT sure. And I may very well be over emphasizing. And that is a very real danger. Amen. He might be right.

I have said publicly and often, that I could be wrong. I certainly hope and pray that my teaching is not riddled with errors. If that is the case then I should not really be teaching at all. But I expect that my conclusions will sometimes be inadequate or even mistaken. I sometimes wonder out loud about the meaning of a text, wading into the deep waters of the mind of God and I expect that my conclusions are often wrong. Having said that, maybe one definition of a teacher is that while still human, they are wrong less than the rest of us.

But for me hearing that I am an imperfect teacher is not a problem. Of course I am. And the feedback is welcome. Of course I want to get better. And I wish I could of course eliminate all error from all the things I say. But is that realistic? Do we really believe that is possible? And perhaps more importantly, is the notion, whether spoken or unspoken that it is possible to eliminate all error from our teaching itself an orthodox position? Teachers who act incredulous when they note an error in one of their colleagues are themselves denying the core doctrines of the Christian faith. ”If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

Where is the mercy from the people who have made the most compelling argument that the human race needs mercy? For those of us who love and revere the gospel above all other words where is the gospel truth in the unspoken projection that our own teaching is perfect. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…”

On a personal note, I don’t mind if people disagree with me or with a take I have on a text or a choice I make to emphasize one thing over another. I think that kind of disagreement can be good and if handled with respect and love for the teacher it can stimulate deeper conversation, driving us closer to God and each other. If, whether through agreement or questioning, I can provoke you to pray, talk and wonder more; then I have served a noble purpose.

Ironically, it is the more loose interpreters of scripture who are kinder with teachers who make mistakes. The people that don’t regard the truth of scripture with the same kind of zeal often are more gracious with a teachers inadequacies. These interpreters can seemingly learn from anyone, looking for slivers of truth wherever it can be found (even outside the church). But that too is inconsistent. Because their faith in humanity should produce a higher expectation for truth from human teachers. People who think they are smart enough to pick and choose the parts of Holy Scripture they think don’t apply anymore must also be smart enough to teach without error.

The lower the view of God and his word, the higher the implicit view of the people reading and interpreting it. In that sense the less orthodox a person is the more they believe they can trust their own view of God and the world. If I think that Jesus was incorrect when he said for instance that he was the way the truth and the life and that no one comes to the father except through him, am I not elevating myself (as my own teacher and measure of truth) above Jesus? If I believe that Paul and John were simply wrong when they said that Jesus was the Lamb of God and the atoning sacrifice for sins, am I not elevating myself above them? And if I have that much confidence in my own judgment that I would discredit inspired authors then why would I suffer flawed teaching from my contemporaries?

We have it backwards. The orthodox should be the most gracious, because human depravity and God’s grace and sovereignty in the midst of it, are the cornerstones of orthodoxy.

We need to include in our passion for orthodoxy a doctrine of human error. We are listening to and learning from human beings. They are not God. And therefore cannot be expected to be perfect or without error. We can only expect them to be faithful, honest and (more often than not) reflecting  or relaying the deepest truths of God’s word. This is not something we assess by comparing their sermons to the Westminster Confession but rather by watching the life they lead the fruit they bear and most importantly by listening for the echo of the voice of God in theirs. If I listen to a teacher and hear something I don’t agree with (something that happens a lot) I don’t discount the whole talk and certainly not the person. I accept that we don’t agree on the particular point (because either they are wrong or possibly I am) and I move on to listen to the rest. I test what they are saying with Scripture but I know that at times my reading of Scripture is wrong. The same is true of conversations with friends or the advice of counselors. We listen for God in the whole of the conversation feeling no compulsion to agree with or sit in some kind of theological judgment over each word. Perhaps because we know that we are dealing with a human being. Something happens to us when we put someone on stage and in front. We regard them differently either giving them too much authority over us or expecting perfection from them before we will listen. In both cases we are asking them to be God, something they both cannot and should not do.

Of course there are some errors (denying the deity of Christ, the atonement of the cross or the historicity of the resurrection for example) that we must not endure. We cannot allow the foundations to be shaken or eroded. But in debatable matters {romans 14} we have to be more gracious and more grounded in our view. We have to allow flawed human beings to lead us as we listen for the voice of God in theirs. It does happen. And that too is an orthodox position. God uses flawed people to accomplish his great work.

Perhaps the more important measure of a teacher (which is often neglected) is how they love. The teaching that should be categorically rejected is the teaching that is not done in love. Even correction and challenge (perhaps even more so) must be done in love. And when we know the heart of a leader or teacher is rooted and grounded in love for Jesus and love for his people then we can trust them to lead. Never perfectly, but as one who is submitted to the leadership of a sovereign God. We need a doctrine of error that elevates God, offers grace to sinners and reflects the light of enduring love.

Brian Sanders