“If the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.”—Frederick Buechner
On a random weekend during my high school years, we had a trivia night at my youth pastor’s house. I liked trivia. However, I didn’t like being wrong and I really didn’t like looking stupid—two things that (perhaps providentially) are often coupled when playing a game that asks uncommon, trivial questions.
When the game was close and nearing the end, my team was lobbed a question about a U.S military reservation. I knew the answer was Fort Knox. Time was ticking; all I had to do was say those two little words. But what if I’m wrong? my mind raced. What if everyone thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about? I couldn’t risk it. Brimming with the paradoxical twins of pride and insecurity, I concluded that the stakes were too high and opted to say nothing.
My team ended up losing, since the answer was, in fact, Fort Knox. The rest of the night I berated myself, vexed that I couldn’t just say the words. Is omission really better than the risk of being wrong? I wondered. I couldn’t let that question go, because that decision was about much more than a silly trivia game. My life had actually been riddled by many “Fort Knox moments,” and I feared that one day my omissive silence might bring about terrible consequences.
In the following years, with the guidance of my youth pastor and other godly men, I became convinced the Lord was setting me apart for vocational ministry. As preparation, I completed a bachelor’s in biblical and theological studies. During those years, I had to ward off the temptation for my “Fort Knox moments” to become “inability to share the gospel moments” and “silence in the face of false doctrine moments.” In other words, now the stakes were actually high.
Is omission really better than the risk of being wrong?
It was obvious that my mindset needed to change. My situation, however, was confusing, overwhelming, and real: the more I learned about theology, the less I felt I knew. There was always one more theological concept I hadn’t heard of yet, one new argument from an opposing side, one more misconception or stereotype I had previously held, or one newly discovered verse I’d never truly considered. Unsurprisingly, this led me to the belief that I can sometimes be wrong, even when something made a great deal of sense to me previously. In other words, my concerns about being wrong were valid. This sort of realization can either bring theological paralysis or theological freedom.
By theological paralysis, I mean the inability to trust a theological conviction or ever come to one in the first place. Forming these convictions can be rightly intimidating, especially when there are giants of the faith with whom you might end up disagreeing. “Can I really disagree with Augustine and Calvin?” I’ve asked myself. “Can I disagree with my pastors, who have faithfully shepherded and guided me for years?” The answer is “Yes, and at times I must.” However, that doesn’t mean that I should be quick to do so—or that I should enjoy doing it.
Then why do it at all? Because to be a Christian is to be a follower of the truth; it does not mean being a follower of Augustine or Calvin or my local church pastor. Are all of them wiser than me? Yes. Do they all know the Scriptures better than I do? Yes. But Augustine, Calvin, and my pastor all disagree on a number things, and they can’t all be right. They do, however, all agree on the main and plain things; namely, the gospel and those things necessary to orthodox Christianity.
Augustine, Calvin, and my pastor all disagree on a number things, and they can’t all be right.
But even when we speak of Christian orthodoxy we must remember that Christian tradition must bow the knee to God’s Word, which is our ultimate authority. We’re all limited and we’re all learning, and that includes (or included) our favorite theologians. The church fathers, medievals, and reformers all knew this. Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther all made notable changes to their theology over time, showing they were less concerned with being perceived as knowledgeable and more compelled by love for Christ and faithfulness to Scripture.
By God’s grace, Scripture is most clear on what is most necessary to understand. The clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture is affirmed by the Westminster Confession of Faith:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Yet, those things that are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or another, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1:7)
This is wonderfully comforting and indeed freeing for the unlearned and others who, while studying theology, regularly whisper Paul’s weighty question, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16).
By God’s grace, Scripture is most clear on what is most necessary to understand.
However, just because an issue isn’t essential to the gospel doesn’t mean that it isn’t important or that we cannot or should not come to convictions about such things. It does mean we admit we could be wrong about them, convinced as we may be. We can hold firm our convictions, argue emphatically on their behalf, and still reserve the right to change our theology.
Reserving the Right to Change
Reserving the right to change your theology is not only about humility, it’s about reality. I’m a convinced credobaptist, but if I don’t reserve the right to change my theology, I forfeit the ability to truly listen to the arguments of my paedobaptist friends. This inability to listen usually stems from pride or fear rather than humility and a desire for the truth.
There is freedom in seeking after truth. It means you can follow wherever it leads, regardless of your tribal affiliations and preconceived notions. Reserving the right to change my theology is about my primary allegiance. My allegiance is to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Truth. So when my commitments try to stop me from changing my mind, if the truth leads me another way, I must change my theology. Even if it means everyone will know I was wrong and think of me as fool, I must change my theology.
This is what it looks like to do theology while looking through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). Today I know only in part; someday I will know in full. Until then I reserve the right to change my theology. If I don’t, then I forfeit my right to engage in theology at all.