Reactive theology and the importance of thinking biblically

We can all be a bit reactive at time, can’t we?

There is an assumption that being reactive is always negative, as in always reacting in an aggressive and not very pleasant way, and that’s not necessarily true. One can either react against someone or something, or can react to someone or something. It’s not that our response is necessarily aggressively anti the thing we to which we are reacting, it’s that our response is entirely dependent upon the stimulus of the thing itself.

For example, when I was a History & Politics student, there were quite a few folks on the politics course who were clearly politically minded. And many of them wanted to be seen as left-wing (whatever that meant back then). But rather than working out what they thought about various things and then owning a political label depending on where that placed them on the political spectrum, they instead tried to work out what the ‘left-wing position’ happened to be and then insisted that was what they thought all along. In other words, they placed themselves on the political spectrum, attempted to work out what views would keep them there and then adopted them.

How did they work out what these views were? They either had discussions with people on the course about views on things and – as their mates whom they wanted to emulate expressed opinions on certain issues – they began to fashion their views accordingly. Otherwise, when political issues cropped up in the news, they didn’t form an opinion on what they thought to be right but waited until the Tories said something and then opposed that or Labour said something else and supported it. But it was always quite reactive. The people they respected, or liked, said it so they adopted the view. The people they didn’t respect, or like, said something they opposed it. Rarely did their actual views come into the matter at all.

It is, interestingly, a similar thing we see around woke culture. The goal is not to hold views that one necessarily holds. The goal is to ensure that you hold all the appropriate views and are evidently woke as a result. And so people wait to react rather than think through issues and come to a conclusion. One’s personal views are immaterial, what matters is holding the ‘right’ views.

I mentioned left-wingers above because – being generally labelled among them – I don’t want to be accused of bias. But I have seen it among right-wingers too. What is the right-wing position? What might Mrs Thatcher have said about this? The same implicit reactive approach exists across the board.

But I wonder whether you have seen this sort of thing in the church too? I certainly have. Few, it seems, are willing to be properly Berean about things. Instead, we form our theology based on whoever we happen to like the most. In the more extreme cases I have seen, if someone respects or likes a person – whoever they happen to be and whatever their qualification – their views are almost immediately adopted. If someone has little or no respect for someone, it doesn’t matter how cogently they argue or how biblically faithful their position, they’re definitely wrong all of the time.

Whilst we might all recognise this reactive tendency in the more extreme cases, I wonder whether we recognise it in ourselves so easily? It’s often a bit more subtle than all that at any rate. It doesn’t necessarily work its way out as John at church, who I really like, said it so it’s true whilst Bob, who I don’t like so much, said something and he must be wrong. We’re normally a bit more sensible than that. But not much.

We can very quickly let big name speakers take on that kind of role. We may replace Bob from church for John Piper or RC Sproul (or, pick your preferred well-known Christian), and our chosen oracle might have a bit more knowledge and a few more qualifications than Bob making it seem a bit more credible, but it still amounts to the same reactive tendency. We don’t necessarily argue our case from scripture, we quickly argue that ‘Carson says…’ or ‘Keller argues…’ And, of course, we do it in inverse too. If our theological bogeyman speaks (whoever that might be) nothing they say could possibly be right. Which is unfortunate because even a broken clock is right twice a day and, whilst we might not want to recommend [insert problematic name] it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong about everything they say.

But even if we’re not drawn in on the big name speaker, we do it with commentaries all the time. Our favourite commentator said it so it’s definitely right. Our less favoured commentators – maybe even commentators from outside our theological tribe – has said something, we automatically dismiss it without even considering whether it might be valid (recognising it still might not be). We can so quickly jump to the tune of the right voices from the right commentaries and dismiss the ‘wrong’ ones.

And, to be really provocative, even if we manage to guard ourselves in respect to commentaries, we might well find ourselves reactive when it comes to confessions and creeds. We’ve got the confessions and creeds we’re all over and we’ve got those we’re less inclined to hear. Hardly a presbyterian alive will find fault with the Westminster Confession of Faith and few Reformed Baptists deny any part of the 1689 Confession. And that, to some degree, is perfectly natural and to be expected. We are, after all, what we are because of that to which we hold. But I have noted a troubling tendency among some not so much to argue a case from the Bible, but to argue it with reference to their favoured confession (and to reject the ones they aren’t so keen on without due consideration).

I appreciate that those who argue in this way would want to say that their preferred creed or confession is an accurate statement of what is in the Bible. And they may well be right. But unless they are showing those who are less convinced their position from the Bible, it is going to look an awful lot like the kind of theology by reaction that we often dismiss under other circumstances.

I’m not saying that we should never make our arguments without reference to authorities, commentaries, creeds and confessions. These can all helpfully summarise what we understand the Bible to say. They can all help us in forming our view on any given issue. But ultimately, they are not the Bible. These things are only valuable such as they are an accurate statement of what the Bible says. And we can only know that with reference to the Bible itself.

If you can’t defend your theological positions from the Bible itself, or you assume anything you’ve not heard before is necessarily novel and not in the Bible so immediately oppose it (because you’ve obviously read every book in the world and know every argument, don’t you?) we are just doing theology by reaction. And it is not the Bible we are reacting to but, at the end of the day, to a bloke (or group of blokes). They may well be very well read blokes. They might be blokes with lots of qualifications. They may even be very widely respected blokes whose theology has been upheld by quite a few folks historically. But they are just blokes nonetheless.

If we believe in sola scriptura we need to defend our theology sola scriptura. It’s not good enough to even defend sola scriptura because John Calvin or Martin Luther did and I happen to be reformed. I need to be able to defend sola scriptura – all the solas really – with reference to the Bible, not to the reformers. If the reformers were right, it’s because it’s in the Bible. Now, I happen to think it is in the Bible and so they were right. But to prove that to anyone who isn’t reformed will take us pointing to the Bible, not to the reformers.

If our dial is always set to angry whenever we hear something we’ve not heard before, it is entirely likely we are reactive theologians. If we’re only swayed when the right authorities happen to say what we want to believe, then we might be reactive theologians. Let’s try and make sure we’re Biblical theologians and we are prepared to search the scriptures to determine whether a view is right or not. It may well be that certain theologians we find are often right, typically explaining precisely what we read in scripture. That’s all well and good. But let’s make sure it’s because we’ve read it in scripture, not because we’re swayed unduly because we happen to like Bob from the back of church (or anyone else with potentially better qualification).