Imagine having symptoms that could be signs of a serious underlying disease. You make an appointment to see a specialist who meets with you, listens to your concerns, and runs several tests that confirm the presence of malignant cancer. Now suppose that your follow-up conversation with the doctor plays out in one of the following ways:
- He refuses to give you statistics on the type of cancer or the dangers of the cancer and (with a grandfatherly smile on his face) gently says that it’s not really his place to tell you what to do with your own body, but he’s really happy to have met you and would love to have dinner sometime.
- He sternly lays out an aggressive game plan by which to fight the cancer including surgery, chemo, and radiation.
Which scenario would you prefer? Which doctor is more helpful? Which is more kind and loving? Which is more humble?
That last question might be a bit trickier. What does humility have to do with it?
When it comes to medicine, most of us would prefer scenario two. We don’t want to sugar coat the news. We want the truth, answers, and a strategy. We are much less concerned with tone, than with facts and truth. Though bedside manner is helpful, we’d all prefer a competent doctor with horrible personal skills to the nice and kind, but incompetent alternative.
Now imagine this scenario in the church, but replace doctors with pastors and theologians. This very situation plays out all the time, but unfortunately, most American evangelicals seem to prefer a pastor who is more like doctor 1 than 2. In particular, they find the second approach to be arrogant and proud as if confidence is a vice.
But is it? Is a doctor’s confidence a sure sign of hubris? Not necessarily. The “nice” doctor could be just as arrogant as the “stern” doctor or the second doctor could actually be a really humble guy who just happens to be really competent and thus pretty confident. So why would we think that a pastor’s confidence is necessarily arrogant?
And yet many do as evidenced by the fact that this seems to be a common critique in evangelical circles. Confidence is viewed as vice when tone is elevated over truth. Any dogmatic conviction is thus relegated to the realm of pride. The more certain the claim, the more arrogant it is viewed when this postmodern lens is applied in the church.
One of the reasons for this misguided critique of confidence involves a misguided understanding of “lifelong learning.” For example, lifelong learning is used as shorthand for a perverted form of epistemological humility in which the only thing we know is that we don’t really know anything. Christians before us have erred, sometimes even seriously. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church opposed justification by faith alone and many American Christians promoted chattel slavery. In light of this historic recognition of the fallibility of mankind, lifelong learning is used as a basis for not taking a position on certain topics (whether God’s election is the cause or effect of our faith, whether women can serve as pastors or otherwise teach Scripture in the church to men, gifts of the Spirit, baptism, etc.).
Therefore, apparently, any professed degree of certainty is a rejection of this principle. How can we know for sure what to think of predestination, gender, justice, sexuality, or some other topic du jure? Isn’t it awfully arrogant to assume that we can have any strong convictions on such controversial topics? Does not the virtue of lifelong learning demand an open mind that refuses to take firm positions on such complex matters?
This all sounds super spiritual to the spirit of the age, but is it actually biblical?
In fact, there are myriad insurmountable problems with this way of relating to confidence in convictions. For example,
- It often hides a form of hypocrisy. Dig deep enough and the man or woman who says that one shouldn’t be dogmatic about Calvinism or complementarianism, will nonetheless themselves have beliefs that are decidedly Arminian or egalitarian. In this case, what is opposed is not dogmatism, but instead particular beliefs that the other finds incompatible with their own. In other words, the charge of pride is actually a smokescreen to cover the real concern, which is that the person simply does not agree on that particular topic.
- Or even if the other truly remains undecided in some doctrinal dispute, they are nonetheless dogmatic about the impropriety of dogmatism. Again, this is a form of hypocrisy and irony. So it is arrogant to say that credobaptism is true and paedobaptism is unbiblical, but it is not arrogant to claim that dogmatism is arrogant? Again, this is inconsistent at best and dishonest at worst. As GK Chesterton writes, “There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic.”
- This is not how “lifelong learning” has been traditionally understood. By definition “lifelong learning” assumes that actual learning is taking place, but according to this new cultural usage, nothing is ever really learned. So the result is some linguistic sleight of tongue in which the concept of learning is completely reinterpreted as the mind remains perpetually open. As Chesterton again notes, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
- Most importantly, the Bible explicitly critiques this view of lifelong learning. For instance, in 2 Timothy 3:7, Paul throws shade at those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” Unlike the dominant view today, the Bible doesn’t just commend some sort of theological journey, but rather a certain doctrinal destination. The goal isn’t just that you seek and search for wisdom and knowledge (Proverbs 2), but that you actually find wisdom and get understanding (Proverbs 3).
- Lastly, it fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between confidence and arrogance. Let’s explore that a bit further by talking about dogmatism.
What to do with dogmatism?
American evangelicals today seemed scared of dogmas. To confess some belief as true and another as false is viewed as intolerant, arrogant, and exclusive. Dogma is divisive so we should be more inclusive and tolerant instead.
The only problem is that “inclusivity” and “tolerance” are themselves actually dogmas.
As implied before, dogmatism is inevitable. Everyone is dogmatic, even if only about the impropriety of dogmatism. There is no escaping. The only difference is the degree to which we acknowledge our dogmatism. In fact, as Chesterton noted above, those who are unconscious of their presuppositions and dogma are often the most biased and dogmatic.
When it comes to the question of dogmatism, we are left with an insurmountable philosophical problem. In particular, by suggesting that all epistemological confidence is wrong, we are either forced to say that we can be confident that all confidence is wrong or we have to admit that our confidence in the arrogance of confidence is itself wrong. This circularity seems unhelpful. Perhaps a better approach is necessary.
What is that better approach? It is recognizing that confidence, conviction and dogmatism are not inherently wrong. The question isn’t whether we should be confident, but in what we should be confident.
As for confidence itself, not all dogmatism is wrong. Therefore, confidence in and of itself is no sure sign of pride. In fact, confidence is often virtuous. The prophets were dogmatic about the folly of idols and the necessity of repentance. Jesus was dogmatic about His death and the glory of the Father and the gospel of the kingdom. Paul was dogmatic about the resurrection and the insufficiency of the Mosaic Law. Athanasius was dogmatic about Christ not being a created being. Augustine was dogmatic about man not being morally neutral. Luther was dogmatic about justification by faith and on and on we could go. So the problem is not dogmatism itself, but rather the abuse of it.
So what distinguishes dogmatism as a virtue from vice? Well, consider all of the various options for relating to dogmatism. In particular, one could be dogmatic about everything, nothing, or some things. Let’s look at each option in turn.
1. To be dogmatic about everything.
This is a hypothetical position that very few people probably actually inhabit. Whether it is the age of the earth, some tricky genealogical puzzle, or some finer point of eschatology, nearly everyone has beliefs that they hold with an open hand. Still, given that it is a possibility that someone could be dogmatic about everything, it is worth mentioning.
In such a case, dogmatism seems unwarranted. No one is an expert in everything and thus epistemological humility should lead everyone to acknowledge that there are certain doctrines that exist in more or less shades of grey. Nothing is grey to God, obviously, but given that we lack the attribute of omniscience, even the most learned scholars have holes in their understanding. As a pastor once said, “I always think that I am right, but I don’t think that I am always right.”
That being the case, most modern evangelical criticism isn’t actually directed at those who espouse confidence in everything. Thus when someone is criticized for being dogmatic about everything, it is often a straw man. The problem isn’t that the person is dogmatic about every single thing, but rather particular things that the critic thinks unworthy of dogmatism. So anyone who seems dogmatic about everything is perhaps arrogant (or just really smart and learned), but anyone who charges another with being dogmatic about everything is most likely exaggerating in order to avoid discussing particular doctrines that he or she finds difficult or offensive.
2. To be dogmatic about nothing.
We’ve already discussed why this position ends up defeating itself. “I am confident about nothing except the arrogance of confidence” is internally inconsistent. But even beyond the inherent irony, this failure to confess any confidence isn’t actually humble. It may sound humble to say that you are keeping an open mind, but surely there are things about which we can be confident. Does the fact that Arius, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all think that Jesus is a created being mean that we should keep an open mind about His deity? All Christians hold to the idea that we should be certain of some doctrines. We all confess that we should be confident in the resurrection of Christ and the trinity, but some simply think that in addition to these, we can have a great degree of confidence regarding a handful of other doctrines.
So the issue really isn’t about dogmatism and confidence at all, but rather which doctrines to be dogmatic about. And therefore the charge of arrogance or pride seems unfounded and unhelpful. If adding a particular view of baptism or sovereignty to the doctrines about which we can be confident is potentially arrogant, then is it not just as likely to be arrogant to say that those should not be added? Again, it becomes self-defeating and the charge of arrogance seems to deflect from the real issue which isn’t really about the character of the Christian making the argument so much as the arguments themselves.
3. To be dogmatic about some things.
So no one really operates under the assumption that we should be dogmatic about everything or nothing. We are all dogmatic about some things. And yet it is possible to be dogmatic about the wrong things. In particular, some might have a tendency to be too confident in a finer point of eschatology. Even then, however, that confidence is no sure sign of arrogance. Perhaps that person has simply studied the absolute best resources on the topic for decades and thus has a very strong conviction on the topic that isn’t rooted in pride, but rather in humble confidence.
But, arrogance can come into play where someone is dogmatic about what are called adiaphora issues, those that are morally neutral. For example, someone who says that Christians can’t play cards or that they must play cards, or that they can’t drink alcohol or must drink alcohol, or can’t dance or must dance, is violating the conscience of others and diluting the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. Typically, those who do so, and especially those who do so with a legalistic lens are acting out of a degree of arrogance, but again that is not always the case. To be dogmatic about the wrong things is always wrong, but is not always pride.
Within this category of dogmatism about some things is another unhelpful position as well. That is, to be dogmatic about the right doctrines, but with the wrong conclusions. On a large scale, all Christians would say that we should be dogmatic about the deity of Christ. But the cults are just as dogmatic about the deity of Christ, they simply dogmatically deny His deity. So it is not enough to simply differentiate which doctrines we should be confident in, we must also have our confidence aligned with the word of God.
A Calvinist is confident that God elects on the basis of His eternal counsel independent of man’s will while an Arminian is confident that God elects on the basis of His foresight into man’s free will. A complementarian is confident that men and women are equal in value, but distinct in roles while an egalitarian is equally confident that there should be no distinction in roles and responsibilities between men and women. Bear in mind also that those who say that sovereignty and gender roles (for example) are not the kinds of things we should be dogmatic about are themselves dogmatic about not being dogmatic about such things.
Should we be confident in these kinds of doctrines or should we not? If not, why not? Does Scripture truly not give us enough information to move forward with confidence? If so, which position is a better representation of revelation? What has the church historically believed? These are important questions, but notice that at no point did the charge of arrogance come into play. Why not? Because calling someone arrogant for holding to a conviction is just an ad hominem that is used to attack the character of the person rather than the content of the argument. It presumes that confidence is arrogance and mockingly points out the speck in another’s eye while its own is laden with logs.
Pride is a universal condition of the human heart. Every single human who has ever lived, Christ excluded, has struggled with pride. Thus, you will meet proud Calvinists and Arminians, complementarians and egalitarians, cessationists and continuationists, etc. But those positions are not judged on the basis of the degree of pride of those who uphold them, but rather on the degree to which each belief corresponds to God’s revelation. The problem with Arminianism is not the pride of many Arminians, but rather that it doesn’t best account for the full counsel of God. Similarly, simply meeting a proud Calvinist is no reason to discard Calvinism anymore than meeting a proud Christian discounts Christianity itself.
Something has happened recently that has distorted how Christians have historically spoken. In particular, confidence, certainty, and strong convictions are suddenly seen as vices. This is a symptom of the deadly disease of postmodernism and the transition from objective to subjective ideas of truth. But historically, confidence and convictions have been virtues. The prophets spoke truth with confidence, as did the apostles, and the church fathers and the reformers and most pastors and theologians who have ever lived. Oh yeah, and even Jesus Himself spoke with certainty and confidence.
Jesus Christ, the perfectly good and sinless godman, calls out people by name, states truth with absolute conviction, tells people they are wrong, and does myriad other things that many modern evangelicals would label arrogant. Yet this is the most humble man to ever live. If the most humble man is also the most confident man then maybe we need to rethink the way that we assume that confidence implies arrogance.
Perhaps, rather than attacking those who hold strongly to convictions, we should instead question our postmodern presuppositions and apply ourselves to all the more diligently study the doctrines of the faith that myriad men and women have expressed confidently for millennia. Maybe the real arrogance isn’t to be found in those who take a stand for truth, but rather in those who are unwilling to walk where others have gone before and instead choose to blaze their own paths. In this case, what is needed in Christian religion in general and American evangelicalism in particular is not less confidence in theological convictions, but more. The question is never whether we will be confident, but in what and why. Will we be driven by Scripture and millennia of tradition or by postmodern philosophical presuppositions?
In the end, who is more arrogant: the doctor who has studied a disease for years or the patient who has searched WebMD for a couple of hours and therefore concluded that the doctor must be wrong? Likewise, is it really the case that confidence is arrogance or is it instead ignorance that is really at the root of arrogance?
If we desire to heal, we need doctors who are candid, courageous, and confident. We don’t need physicians who simply coddle and comfort us with niceness. How much more when it comes to matters of the soul?