I probably don’t need to explain what knee-jerk theology is.  We all know it and we all do it, to varying degrees.  Somebody makes a comment or pontification on some doctrinal point or passage in Scripture that is an affront to how we’ve understood it.  The knee-jerk response instantly rebuts, refutes and refuses to acknowledge any of the merits.  After all, if that person saw things as we see it, they wouldn’t hold that position, right?

But the reality is that there is no such thing as two truths at the same time.  Somebody is missing it.  Somebody is wrong.  I do believe that, in our human nature, we most likely will assign that blame on the other person and respond accordingly.  But another reality is…we could be wrong.

So how do we overcome the knee-jerk reaction and treat each dissent fairly and objectively, with truth as the end goal?  Here is a quick list that I think might help.

1.  Ask yourself if the position can have any merit: There is the sine qua non of Christianity, those components without which Christianity would not exist.  If a position proposes undermining what makes Christianity, Christianity, then it does not have merit.  That shouldn’t mean that we don’t listen or understand the undermining position.  In a quest to support and defend Christianity, we should at least be willing to understand arguments that attempt to refute it.   Beyond the essentials (that can also differ), the certainty dial decreases; no matter how strong your convictions or how much evidence, that differing position can have some merit.

2. Recognize our filters: As I mentioned in my previous post on relative truth, we all have them.  We have lenses of doctrine and experience, and through them is how you will see things.  If you hold to an Arminian position regarding election or if you staunchly believe in YEC, understand that position is your filter.  If you have a strong commitment to Calvinism or to Amillenialism or to non-cessationism of spiritual gifts, understand that is your filter.  It may be that you arrived at your positions through careful, honest and exhaustive study, but that still results in a perspective that will most likely be imposed on any type of examination.

3. Examine the other position as if it were true: I think this is a tough one: I think our natural inclination is to examine the other position as if it weren’t true, mainly because we’ve already determined that it is not.   But stepping into the other position, and examining Scripture from that perspective, I think can shed tremendous light not only on the differing view, but also on our own.  This also requires reading works of the proponents of that position, rather than refutations (of those with whom you agree) of that position.

4.  Be fair and objective: Examine the evidence.  Try to understand where the other person is coming from.  This does require a setting aside of the filter when examining Scripture— see #2.

5.  Examine your own strawmen: I don’t think this needs any expounding.  We build up strawmen based on our perspective of the differing position.  But it does beg the question whether we have made every effort to understand that position based on #1, 3, and 4.  Have we really taken the time to understand the other position based on how they understand it?  I don’t think using the strawmen and less-informed rantings of opponents counts as understanding the position.  See #3

6.  Slow down the draw on the proof-texts: You know what those are: the arsenal we have ready to whip out at a moment’s notice.  This is true especially against those positions we have strongly determined to be wrong, the ones that seem to raise the hackles on the back of our necks.  I think this should also really clarify why we use the proof-texts we do.  Learning is a continual process that requires continual re-examination of our arsenal and should also reduce the reactionary response to reach for them without reflection.

7.  Correlate each position to the overall system of revelation: I love this quote by A.A. Hodge, :

“Since the revelation given in the Scriptures embraces a complete system of truth, every single department must sustain many obvious relations, logical and otherwise, to every other as the several parts of one whole. The imperfect development, and the defective or exaggerated conception of any one doctrine, must inevitably lead to confusion and error throughout the entire system”, (A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism and Augustianism, http://monergism.com).

How does the differing position, or your position, square with the overall system of revelation?  Do the connections breakdown somewhere?  Are you honest enough to admit that they do?

8.  Don’t touch that dial: I recall a time when a couple of well-known radio personalities mentioned something that was such an affront to my beliefs as a then-Charismatic, that I actually stopped listening to them for awhile.  I was convinced they knew nothing and if they really had the Spirit, they would not say such things. Ahem, see #1-5.

9.  Be ready to admit that you could be wrong: Easier said than done.  I do think this is a mark of humility.  Pride does not concede.  But remember that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5).  Truth should be our aim, not self-preservation.

10. Recognize that it is not about you anyway: I believe this is the most critical.  Every system of doctrine and understanding of Scripture should have as its purpose a greater understanding of God and His revelation.  It is not about how we square off with our favorite theologian or pet doctrines, but how we see God.  He is the one that has condescended to reveal Himself to mankind and He desires nothing more than reconciliation with His creation.  His revelation in Christ (Hebrews 1:2-3)—God the Son who humbled himself (Philippians 2:6-7), died on the cross for the payment of sins (Romans 3:24-25), sits at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) and final judge of sin—was for the express purpose of placing everything in subjection to Him (1 Corinthians 15:27-28) .  It is about Him, and Him alone (Colossians 1:16-18), and everything should point to Him. (Colossians 1:28). 

And if our knee-jerk theology is not about Him, then a thorough re-examination is definitely in order.

No, I have not mastered this list, not by a long shot.  But I do think it’s a step in the right direction.

    20 replies to "Ten Steps to Avoiding Knee-Jerk Theology"

    • Alan Coughlin

      Very well said, Lisa.

    • […] Here’s an interesting article with some helpful guidelines in considering something – like historic Christianity – which might be outside of your current box: Ten Steps to Avoiding Knee-Jerk Theology. […]

    • John Slaton

      No. 1 should have been, “Know what the Bible teaches.”

    • Lisa Robinson


      Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? I might say the Bible teaches one thing and you may say it teaches something else. I might say the Bible teaches that there will be a future fulfillment of promises made specifically to Israel. Someone else may say the Bible teaches that Israel is fulfilled in the church. Look at the rabid debates between YEC/OEC/Theistic Evolution, all proclaiming what the Bible teaches. Every heresy is born out of people convinced of what the Bible teaches. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say at least know what the Bible says. What it says and what we believe it teaches may not necessarily be the same things.

    • John Slaton

      Really, Lisa?

      You seem to be implying that one can’t know what the Bible teaches.

      Surely you don’t believe THAT.

      Does the Bible teach that Jesus is God?

      Does the Bible teach monotheism?

      Does the Bible teach salvation by grace via faith?

      Or do we have to look to “theologians” for that info?

    • Daniel

      Really, really good stuff here! Thanks.

    • Lisa Robinson

      John, we seem to have a disconnect. If you look at #1, it does indicate there are absolute truths that the Bible reveals without which Christianity would not exist. And these have been tested through the course of history with the litmus test of orthodoxy. There is only one truth, which God revealed to us. We have to try as best as possible to understand what he has communicated.

      This post was really directed at what causes us NOT to understand it as best as possible. We have knee-jerk reactions to positions that differ from our own. In fact, what prompted me to write the post in the first place was my own knee jerk reaction to something I had read. Then I had to regroup and reflect. Rather than examine our own position, the tendency is to attack the other one.

      So my encouragement with this post hopefully is to encourage critical examination and objectivity.

    • John Slaton

      Lisa, I understand the point of your post.

      My point was that having a solid understanding on what the bible teaches should be the first and foremost defense against “knee jerk” or “bad” theology.

    • Greg

      Good post Lisa.

      I gotta say that I’ve learned all ten of these steps the hard way! But it was so worth it.

    • Lisa Robinson

      John, in re-reading this post, I think I see where there might be a disconnect. The assumption is that one knows what Scripture says and is used to persuade what is taught. I don’t think I brought that out very well, but it is a given. It is not that we don’t know what Scripture says. So to go back to your point about #1 being knowing what Scripture teaches, we can become convinced that Scripture teaches something it really doesn’t. So the list should raise the question of how we are reading it, i.e. what hermeneutic are we employing. After all, there was I time I would have told you the Bible taught that we can have what we say :-/

      There are essentials that are plain and non-negotiable and we should know what Scripture teaches in defense of our faith. So yes, know what Scripture teaches concerning our faith but also don’t be so convinced you have it pegged that there is no room for any error or misunderstanding on our part.

    • John Slaton

      Yes, I agree, Lisa, there are essentials to the Christian faith that plainly taught in the Scriptures.

      The diety of Christ, the physical resurrection of Jesus, salvation by grace via faith, and monotheism are all plainly taught and are non-negotiable.

      After those things I’m not convinced nor concerned of anything else.

    • Laurie M.

      This is wonderful. Thank you.
      This is an area in which I’ve been actively learning and growing over the last couple of years. It is not easy. I can be a difficult and bristly person. I found, though, that a knee jerking often ends up in someone getting hurt, often unnecessarily, and not out of love. Your guidelines are very, very helpful.
      Again, thank you.

    • […] steps to avoiding knee-jerk theology here. Posted in Theology | No Comments » Leave a […]

    • John

      ” If you look at #1, it does indicate there are absolute truths that the Bible reveals without which Christianity would not exist. And these have been tested through the course of history with the litmus test of orthodoxy.”

      That sounds pretty easy then. Perhaps you could give us a list of them. And they will be the same as the things people considered important… oh say fifteen hundred or a thousand years ago, right? Since they have been “tested through the course of history”?

    • Jack

      I’m looking forward to Lisa’s response to those questions!

    • Lisa Robinson

      Well John, I am thinking specifically about Christology – the work and person of Christ as refined in the Nicean Creed. I think that’s pretty simple.

    • Jack

      The Nicean Creed?

      Not a great choice but its workable, I suppose.

    • mbaker

      But is the Nicene Creed Fundamentalism, as some on this blog seem to understand it, because it underpins the historical underpinnings of our faith? Important question in my mind also.

    • Lisa Robinson

      I haven’t really followed that post. But from what I did read, it seems that it begs for sub-definitions of Fundamentalism – that which defines the fundamentals of the faith and the movement that sprang up against liberalism. I do think they are two separate animals. Nicea is a product of the former and focuses on Christology. The movement, which is the latter, focuses on the people. Big difference in my mind.

    • mbaker

      Then, as I think as you said, the differences would logically bear defining for all of the rest of is what and where specifically you consider the special areas of disagreements where the two depart in their modern day theology.

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