Last week I blogged here about the recent controversy over evangelical views of TV political commentator and culture warrior Glenn Beck, who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). The issue there was whether and in what sense one might speak of a Mormon such as Beck as a “Christian.” As something of a follow-up to that piece—this time approaching the subject from a somewhat different angle—I would like to comment here on some particularly interesting remarks about the unbiblical theology of Beck’s religion.
The remarks come from James L. Garlow in a guest column at One News Now, an evangelical Internet news outlet. Garlow, a Methodist pastor, author, and activist who sees himself as an advocate for the healing theology of the late John Wimber, came to national prominence earlier this year when Newt Gingrich named him to chair the nonprofit Renewing American Leadership. In his column defending his association with Beck and his “Restoring Honor” rally, Garlow offered the following argument:
Let me ask you a question. Is your theology “off” at all? Even one percent? Only the most arrogant would say, “Oh, my theological understanding is 100% perfect.” No, we all keep growing. God’s Word does not change. God’s truth does not change. But we grow in our understanding of spiritual, biblical truths.
I suspect my theology is off by 1% or 4% or 7%. And, I have news for you: yours is too.
Here is my question: if your theology is off slightly, but you still trust exclusively in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for your salvation, and in his resurrection, are you still saved? Going to heaven? Yes.
How far off might your theology be – and yet still trust exclusively in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for your salvation, and believe in his resurrection – and still be saved? Is it 10% or 15% or 20%? Or what?
My point is this: all of us are missing part of God’s full truth. He knows all truth. I don’t. I am striving to understand all truth, but it is a journey of maturing in the understanding of God’s Word.
Someone might truly trust in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for one’s salvation and believe in Jesus as Lord as demonstrated by the resurrection, yet be lacking in many points of doctrine.
This sounds like a plausible objection to thinking that if someone adheres to a heretical theology, such as Mormonism, that theology would not impede a saving faith relationship with Christ. Unfortunately, the argument is quite fallacious. The specific fallacy on exhibit here is popularly known as the fallacy of the beard. It gets its name from the conundrum that it is impossible to specify how many hairs must be on a man’s face before one may conclude definitively that he has a beard. How unshaven may a man’s face be and still not have a beard? Is it 10% or 15% or 20%? How long must the facial hair be before it’s a beard: 1/32 of an inch? 1/16? 1/4? No one can say. Does this mean, then, that we can never assert truthfully that a particular man has a beard? Of course not. When A. J. Jacobs grew his beard as part of his experiment recounted in The Year of Living Biblically, there was not some arbitrary point of time before which he did not have a beard and after which he did have a beard. Yet eventually there was no denying that he had a beard!
Likewise, we may admit that it is impossible to specify some mathematical measure of false doctrine, such that anyone accepting a greater degree of false doctrine cannot be saved. This admission, however, in no way entails the conclusion that a person can believe practically anything and still be saved. Such an argument is an instance of the fallacy of the beard. Underlying the fallacy is the assumption that what marks a person as spiritually lost is a certain amount of false doctrine. That isn’t the case. Heresy, like beardedness, is a qualitative matter, not a quantitative matter. It isn’t the number of erroneous doctrinal assertions to which one holds that constitutes heresy; it’s the nature of those erroneous doctrinal beliefs and of the whole belief system of which they are parts that results in heresy.
The relevance of understanding this particular fallacy for thinking about a contemporary controversial issue like the faith of Glenn Beck illustrates the great need of the church today for critical thinking skills and a deep, sound understanding of the principles of logic. I am very pleased and privileged to have the opportunity, starting tomorrow night, to teach an eight-week online elective course for the fall 2010 semester of The Theology Program on the subject of Critical Thinking. The course will not be a formal academic course on logic per se, although it will cover some fundamentals of logic. Rather, it will be an orientation to the subject of critical thinking that will include introductory (but not superficial) material regarding logic and the major methods of reasoning. Here are just some of the things we will be discussing in this course:
- Does the Bible discourage critical thinking or the use of logic? What about such texts as Proverbs 3:5-6 or Colossians 2:8?
- What exactly is critical thinking? Is it a covert form of relativism, always questioning everything and never arriving at settled conclusions?
- How do we identify and analyze real arguments “in the wild” of books, articles, and other media, as distinguished from simplistic textbook examples of arguments?
- What are legitimate, reasonable ways to challenge someone’s argument? How can we tell if a criticism of an argument is relevant or not?
- What are the values and limitations of deductive and inductive kinds of reasoning?
- What is “inference to the best explanation” and why is it so popular in evangelical apologetics?
- Logicians have identified a plethora of fallacies; how can we get a handle on this subject so we don’t get lost in a maze of technical terms (in Latin!) for all those fallacies?
- Are fallacies always poor reasoning, or can some fallacies be legitimate ways of reasoning in some contexts?
- How can we develop our Christian minds to be skilled in critical thinking without becoming hypercritical, fault-finding nitpickers?
Those who take this course will have access to some excellent Christian writing on subjects relating to critical thinking as well as the opportunity to work through some exercises to hone their skills in this area. The principles and methods studied in the course will be illustrated using examples from apologetics, theology, biblical studies, and ethics. I hope you’ll join me!