When we encounter theological differences from our own, how do we respond. Often there is an “all or nothing” approach. That is, we must avoid either accepting everything naively and uncritically or rejecting everything (or accepting nothing) critically and condemningly outside my own personal convictions.
J. A. O. Preus wrote an excellent article a number of years ago addressing this issue: “On Being a Seeker of the Truth: Sic et Non,” Modern Reformation 11/3 (May/June 2002), 52. Sic et Non was the Latin expression used by theologians meaning yes and no. It referred to a commitment to affirm that which was true, that which was good, and to say no to that which was untrue, that which was false, that which was bad.
This is the question Preus poses.
But what should we say when confronted by theological opinions different from our own?
In our assessment of contemporary theological or religious thinking, we too often demonstrate an undiscriminating approach. Either we reject every new way of thinking or speaking out of hand, or we embrace all new ideas with open, uncritical arms. Either way is wrong; we need a better way.
We must avoid the “all or nothing” approach. There is a better way: sic et non, yes and no.
Despite the “all or nothing” approach that seems to hold sway, I think we need to learn to say “yes” and “no” (sic et non, as the old Latin theologians used to say it) to the truth claims of others: “Yes” to what is good and right and true; “no” to what is bad and false and untrue.
Notice, I didn’t say “yes or no.” We need to say both as we assess the truth of what others are saying. We should learn to affirm what others are saying that is biblical and conforms to the truth of the gospel. But we also must reject what is unscriptural and contradicts the gospel. This is the only proper approach.
This means, first of all, that in our approach to contemporary claims we need to learn to say “yes.” We need to avoid an attitude of hyper-criticism, which assumes that if any idea is new (or, if we’ve never heard it said that way before) it is, ipso facto, false. No particular church body or theological tradition has all the truth. True, biblical ideas are also found, more often than we might think, outside our own circles.
Just as clearly as we must affirm the truths others hold, we must also reject their errors. Too many of us are extremely naive in our acceptance of the truth claims of others. Too often we allow ourselves to be misled by others’ false notions because we are convinced that their motives are pure, unaware of the damaging (and damning!) spiritual effects of every false doctrine or teaching.
This is not a milquetoast approach that results in no one holding a position strongly, but instead the only position that is acceptable is only an amalgamation of various perspectives of a theological position such that all feel theologically compromised. Instead we learn to say “’Yes’ to what is good and right. ‘No’ to what is bad and wrong.”
What I am suggesting is not that we should adopt a middle road, as if we prefer sitting on the fence and are unable to take a position on an issue. Truth is not found simply by merging two opposing positions and seeking the lowest common denominator. The truth is the truth wherever it is on the spectrum, and we only compromise it if we treat it as if it were merely a conflation of all viewpoints.
How do we do a better job of engaging the increasingly diverse religious opinions we are hearing today? By teaching our minds and our lips to say “yes and no.” “Yes” to what is good and right. “No” to what is bad and wrong. I am not pointing out an easy way or a shortcut. This will require that we use our critical facilities and actually listen to people as they speak. It will also require us to search the scriptures more carefully and fully to be in a better position to make a valid assessment of others’ truth claims. No, this is not a shortcut. It is the more difficult way-and the more excellent way. But, the truth demands it, if we truly wish to be seekers of the truth.
Instead of revealing one who is wishy-washy on theology, this response reveals the depth to which one understands a theological issue/position and the humility of the theologian who acknowledges that the full-orbed reality of the truth of a doctrine is often bigger/larger than my understanding of it.