by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 16-23, 1997, p. 653, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
We can never be certain that we are not among the false prophets.
‘We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.”
The modern world has witnessed a once proud Christianity humiliatingly deprived of its former political clout and privilege and thus relieved of the temptation to abuse power. However, as evidence of the fact that Christianity has no monopoly on the abuse of power, our century has been checkered with instances of gross inhumanity perpetrated not just by post-Christian but by anti-Christian ideologues from the right and from the left. It would seem that the only belief system immune to the abuse of power is the belief system which has never been politically implemented.
Whenever Christians engage in coercion in the name of their faith and dogma, their actions somehow seem more reprehensible than those of other people doing the same thing. Christians should realize that whenever they engage in violence in the name of the persecuted Christ, they directly deny Christ. The world has every right to expect and to demand that Christians, who talk as good a love game as anyone, act in a manner consistent with their rhetoric. This is why anti-Christians get so much mileage out of the long history of Christian violence against its foes or its “heretics.”
These matters should always be before us when we consider the apostle Paul’s warning against permitting ourselves to be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” The last thing we need is a recovery of the spirit of theocracy and hyperorthodoxy. The last thing we need is self-righteous theological finger pointing.
Still, Paul seems to have our number. Just read the fliers advertising new releases of books of theology — or the book reviews in the CENTURY, for that matter. The multiplicity of theological opinions staggers the mind. Every theological stance has its advocates; often the theology in question is put forward as the only really Christian response to the contemporary situation. Alas, many of the allegedly relevant responses to the modern spirit are so opposed to one another that they cancel each other out. Even to make this observation is to add to the theological din.
At first glance it might seem appealing to argue that the mystery of God outstrips our capacity to delineate it, that every theology in its own way must fall so short of the truth that no position can, however seriously maintained, be markedly any more or less true than any other. As such our theologies do little more than itemize our various ignorances and self-interests before the mystery of the universe. Why torment ourselves and others over illusory quests for truth or falsity, right or wrong?
But however tempting such a position might appear, however weary we are before the onslaught of irreconcilable theological claims, we ought to be cautious about answering Paul’s warning against being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” with a refusal to believe much of anything. Some of the available options elicit from us, if not a rationally thought-out or instinctive sense of recognition, a sense that a given theological claim about the being and doings of Jesus Christ is more or less valid than another. As Christians, we might try to deny our theological predilections for the sake of our sanity, but we cannot escape them. Even the claim that no theology is any more true than any other is a theological claim. To wit: “I know as a theological truth worth insisting upon that there are no theological truths worth insisting upon.”
To deny that there is any theological truth is to deny the truth that will make us free. But to imperiously claim that anyone who reads the truth that was Jesus Christ differently than we do is thereby being tossed to and fro by heretical doctrinal winds seems arrogantly to ignore the frailty of human understanding. To do so also ignores the way in which our personalities and our social and economic self-interests affect the way we hear the Holy Spirit’s prompting. This is not to say there are no downright false prophets out there, but as Karl Barth reminded us, we can never be certain, particularly in our moments of greatest certainty, that we are not among them.
When we find ourselves relishing the prospect of issuing theological broadsides, we should examine our motives carefully. The truth that alone can redeem our theological certitudes, posturing and chatter from utter insignificance is finally not combative but conciliatory. If God is indeed agape, then we have reason to hope that God will look mercifully when viewing our woefully inadequate insights and self-interested truths and make far more of what we say and believe than we have any right to hope for.
Given the realities of human diversity, it is next to impossible for us to engage in intimate spiritual fellowship with people whose vision of Christianity we find skewed. This is a valid reason for expressing our faith in a variety of ecclesiastical formats. Yet beliefs and doctrines that appear to us to be mutually contradictory may in truth be evidence of the glorious diversity of the spiritual gifts flowing from God’s love in Jesus Christ.