Is Being Right the Point of Christianity?

Yesterday in my Sunday school class, we continued a discussion that started last time, sparked by Hebrews 12, where it depicts God as one who disciplines – or more literally “whips” of “flogs” – his children for their benefit. There was general agreement that, while some ancient people may have viewed misfortunes that came their way as divine punishment, there are good scientific, moral, and even Biblical grounds for challenging that viewpoint.

That topic eventually led us to a discussion of the relationship between Christian faith and practice on the moderate to liberal end of the spectrum, and how it relates to what we find on the conservative to fundamentalist part of the spectrum. One member of the class mentioned feeling frustrated at not always having good responses for a friend who is conservative and likes debating theology. I said that, even if I myself could run circles around the friend theologically, doing that would in and of itself be counter-productive. I would much rather ask the friend in question why they are persuaded that being a Christian is about being right.

This cartoon that recently appeared on a mostly random blog illustrates the point:

What I took from this cartoon, in light of our discussion this morning, is that one will always lose if one allows the framework provided by one’s opponent to define the rules of interaction. If might is defined by soldiers, then the person with a pen will lose. But the whole meaning of “The pen is mightier than the sword” is not that the pen will win against the sword on the sword’s terms, but that the nature of might itself must be reconsidered.

If we allow conservatives to define the terms of interaction, then some of us may be able to outdo their theological acrobatics and their prooftexting. But actually playing that game is already surrendering what is most important to us: the belief that being right, having all the answers, is not what matters most.

Arni Zachariassen suggested in a recent post that creationists are not crazy, and that if you accept that inerrancy is the appropriate foundation, then their stance is logical. But I don’t think that creationists are actually consistently treating the Bible as inerrant, and to grant that they do so is to surrender very important ground unnecessarily. In practice they only take some parts of it as inerrant truth, not those too inconvenient to take literally, whether the dome in Genesis 1 or the call to give up all one’s possessions in Luke. (See too Tyler Francke’s recent treatment of young-earth creationists’ alleged literalism.)

I disagree with inerrancy because it doesn’t fit what we actually find in the Bible. But that isn’t the only reason. It is also a highly toxic teaching, in my opinion. Inerrancy is really about being able to say “I know I’m right.” An allegedly inerrant text, which one is confident one has interpreted correctly, allows one to avoid learning, sidestep challenging conversations, and practice an arrogance and pride that are ironically at odds with key teachings of that allegedly inerrant text.

The question of whether belief, practice, or some combination of the two should be paramount continues to confront Christians of different sorts, and I am sure it will come up again next Sunday, when my church has a lunchtime discussion about what our “bedrock beliefs” are.

For some conservative interpreters, Paul wrote using the method of a newspaper reporter. Everything important goes towards the beginning, and the exhortations and ethical teaching at the end are really just to fill space and can be cut if necessary. Those practical teachings are not central, the doctrine is. For liberals, Paul’s therefores are there for a reason. The point of the exegetical attention to Abraham is to provide a basis and inspiration for actually living out the bringing together of Jews and Gentiles in community. And the point of the focus on Jesus’ sacrifice is not to have focus on accepting another’s sacrifice on our behalf, but to get us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, willing to risk and even give our lives as we put into practice the prioritization of love, the boundary-transgression, and the inclusive fellowship that Jesus himself practiced and preached.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Fred Clark suggested that the question “Are Mormons Christians?” is unhelpful, and Morehead’s Musings mentioned Steve Webb’s new book on Mormon Christianity.


  • Keika

    What bugs me as much as inerrancy, are people who just love to second-guess (predict or anticipate) the behavior or intentions of everyone who interacts with them. However, I too was inclined to second-guess until I became a Christian, and no longer desire to play those mind games. I can put the judgement pen in my pocket even when someone stands before me with a sword. As a Christian I can wait until the saber is swung, or returned to its scabbard before I judge someone’s character or intentions. It really is a wonderful to sometimes be a sheep, and lay down with the hungry lions.

    • Toadacious

      Keika, excellent point. It’s a form of argument ad hominem in which, unable to answer what it is that makes them uncomfortable, they choose, instead, to attack the speaker. “Oh, I know why you’re saying _________.” Well, whether they do or not, that doesn’t speak to the veracity of what I was saying.

  • Brian P.

    I’m not sure the doctrines of Incarnation or theosis are centered in being right. In this context, I’m not sure Christology broadly conceived is for that matter either. As such, I’m personally not convinced that being right is the centrality of the way that Jesus of Nazareth offered as the means by which the Kingdom of God comes about. Yet, I recognize the possible unintended consequences of the Solas of the Reformation having their great effect today, further amplified by the cultural emphases of the methods and aims of the Enlightenment. “Being right” is most certainly an Evangelical emphasis, but that centers Evangelicalism at least as much in its cultural context that produced modern Western secularism as an ancient Hebrew Messiah’s understanding of who is blessed and blessing and will rule with YHWH inevitably over all. Oh well, I guess it is what it is.

  • Arni Zachariassen

    “But I don’t think that creationists are actually consistently treating the Bible as inerrant, and to grant that they do so is to surrender very important ground unnecessarily. In practice they only take some parts of it as inerrant truth, not those too inconvenient to take literally, whether the dome in Genesis 1 or the call to give up all one’s possessions in Luke.”

    That’s a really good and important point and one with which I agree. I wonder, though, *if* inerrantists were consistent – would they be creationists? It seems to me that they would. Even if inerrantists don’t apply their hermeneutical logic fully and consistently to all the Bible, they do apply it to Genesis 1-3 and 6. And that’s really all I was saying.

    • James F. McGrath

      They might not be young-earth creationists, since there is no clear age given to the earth. But they would certainly affirm the solidity of the firmament, the fixity of the Earth, the heart rather than the brain as the locus of human cognition, and would oppose godless secular meteorology’s attempt to supplant God as the one who sends the rains. So I still disagree with you. I don’t think the apply their hermeneutic fully even to the texts they claim are really important.

  • beau_quilter

    The real problems occur when Christians try to decide what is wrong or right for every one else.

  • Dan Martin

    The funniest part is that if inerrantists actually applied the “literal reading” hermaneutic to the whole scripture, they’d have to give up the very doctrine of inerrancy itself which is not found there. This topic is how I began my foray into blogging over five years ago: The Error of Inerrancy.

    • disqus_cfBevsr42L

      That is how I exited Fundamentalism: by deciding to read the Bible with consistent hermeneutics. I got to about Genesis 15 before my whole belief system collapsed. It was good. I now understand that God is bigger than a book or a doctrine. Possibly so big that he doesn’t and cant fit into one religion and certainly so big he cant fit into one brain. We are all like the story of the blind men describing the elephant, and I have come to a place where that is o.k.

  • newenglandsun

    It depends what one means about being “right” and about being “Christian”. Given, I do believe in a form of religious pluralism, specifically, the “he who is not with me is against me” variety but that does not mean that there isn’t a set of “right beliefs” in Christianity. So Christianity in full respect, if it is the truth, then it is about being right (at least from a theological/philosophical angle not a historic/scientific angle). So in a sense, Christianity is about being right and it has bounds but at the same time there is no black and white. We are leading cats to milk, not herding buffaloes in a pen (maybe that’s what “the pen being mightier than the sword” is about).

  • disqus_cfBevsr42L

    Yes! YES- so much yes. I came to this conclusion a few months back on my own. The beginning of my journey out of fundamentalism was a process of trying to be a better proof-texter than the fundamentalists who were bent on bringing me back into the fold. One day, I very suddenly realized that the proof-texting itself WAS THE PROBLEM, and that by engaging in that manner, I not only failed in my goal and weakened myself, but I was providing positive reinforcement for my “opponents” method of “USING” the Bible/God. I now refuse to engage in that way of thought. If a verse is brought up, it must be read in a context of usually several surrounding chapters and of course, the overarching themes of the Bible itself. That diffuses many problem texts.
    If someone invites you to a fight where the Bible is the weapon, you dont accept the invitation. They are not on God’s side, in fact, I question their belief in the power and presence of God. If you believe in God, why not let God do his own work? Do you think he cant influence the hearts and minds of men?

  • Toadacious

    Well, it appears that the alternative of “being right” is to be wrong. I find it unusual to think that someone, but especially one who takes their Christian faith seriously, would say: “Well, I’m probably ‘wrong’ but that’s still how I believe.” Or, to say, “Wrong, schrong! Just so I feel the gentle love of Jesus.”
    It may well be that some people can be obnoxious in proclaiming the rightness of their views, but that is no argument for saying, “Well, being right isn’t where it’s at.”
    When you here folks being urged to “Speak the truth in love,” but TRUTH and LOVE are the operative words. Whenever I hear someone marginalize the importance of truth, I know I’m dealing with a weasel.

    • James F. McGrath

      There is a third option you are ignoring, which is recognizing that there is much that we don’t know, that some of what we know is probable or possible rather than certain, and that even if there is absolute truth I may be wrong about what that absolute truth is.

      As Augustine said, “We are talking about God; so why be surprised if you cannot grasp it? I mean, if you can grasp it, it isn’t God. Let us rather make a devout confession of ignorance, instead of a brash profession of knowledge.”

      • Toadacious

        If you are talking about speculative, theoretical religious questions (about which I have little curiosity) you make an excellent point. But no one ever failed in their Christian faith over these types of questions. The failure always comes regarding the things that are crystal clear and mostly have to do with ethical and moral issues. To meet the needs of the poor, oppressed, sick and sojourners is a Biblical injunction that appears so often and with such clarity that you can either be “right” and follow the command, or pretend that there is some questionable aspect to it all (as some conservative Christians are wont to do.) Our problem is not whether “truth” is difficult to discern and problematical in any case, but whether we have the will to act on the truth that is so clear no honest person can doubt.