Skepticism, Criticism, or Idolatry?

I recently started reading Luther’s The Bondage of the Will for my Reformation History class this fall and was startled by my distaste for it. It may be that people of Luther’s personality rub me the wrong way (i.e., his insistence that the reason Erasmus doesn’t agree with him is because he is from Satan and a sign of being of God is that one agrees with him), but this would not have been the case a few years ago. At that point in my theological life, I would swallowed whole anything and everything that Luther (or any Reformer) said. Faithfulness to the Gospel didn’t come through reading the Bible, but from the Reformers. Yet as my theological palette expanded and I began finding the Early Church to be not only more rewarding but also enjoyable to study. Thus, it appeared, the correlative of studying the Early (or Medieval) Church was an unreasoned disdain for the Reformation.

Back to Luther. As I began reading The Bondage of the Will, I realized that I wanted to criticize every sentence that Luther wrote and tried my best to note his logical fallacies and inconsistencies. I am not going to say that I realized the futility of my ways and once again saw the genius of Luther–he still bugs me. Instead, I realized that my criticism wasn’t criticism at all, it was skepticism. Skepticism assumes that every proposition is false and must be proved true in order to be believed. The opposite of skepticism is idolatry, which assumes every proposition (from a specific author[s]) to be true and it must be proved false in order for it to be disbelieved. The medium for which I must strive is criticism. To be critical is to read the text rigorously read the text. It is to determine and analyze the argument for internal and external inconsistencies and accept what is true and reject what is false.

My attitude toward the Reformers was one of idolatry where I would be hard pressed to admit that Luther theology was developed from a nominalist philosophy which has implications elsewhere that are often ignored (okay, I just threw that one in there because I don’t think it is discussed enough in theologically conservative circles and I want to learn more about it). Now I am a skeptic on his way to becoming (hopefully) a critic. This also applies to my study of the Early Church and C. S. Lewis. For example, I recently read the chapter “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” in The Weight of Glory and found myself torn. I have pacifistic leanings (though I have reservations), but Lewis has also been profoundly influential on my thought. I can’t look idolatrously at both, so I am left to critically engage the arguments and determine as best as I can with a little help from my friends (peers, mentors, etc…) what is true. I can do nothing more and am responsible for doing nothing less.

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2 thoughts on “Skepticism, Criticism, or Idolatry?

  1. I like your continuum of responses to authors. The word criticism bothers me a little, and not because it’s negative, but because I think of biblical criticism and how it has been misused (or maybe it is just inherently flawed in a way that is harmful, I don’t know, it probably depends on the type of criticism and how it is handled). Segue: Does reading the Scriptures critically (using your definition and connotations) do damage to faith? to Theology? to Tradition? Or, should the Scriptures be considered on a different level? (I am begging the question a little, but I’m interested in your thoughts!)

    • Criticism usually carries negative overtones in my thought as well. It was the only word that I could think of that mediated between the polar opposites of skepticism and idolatry. As I see (and want to use) it, criticism gives the author the benefit of the doubt while being realistic as to the human propensities for shortsightedness and error. Now, your question as to Scripture gets a little more difficult and I think this is a major part of the current debate concerning inspiration. McGowan attempts to offer a more critical evangelical view that there can be “mistakes,” but the point is to see the unified message of Jesus being spoken by the Holy Spirit through humans. Just think of Peter Enns book “Inspiration and Incarnation” and I think you’ll get what I’m saying. As to whether or not such a view does damage to the faith–I’ll have to think about that one. 🙂

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