In the midst of the Rob Bell fiasco (see Tim Challies, Justin Taylor, and Kevin DeYoung for the details), my reflections on various patterns of spiritual growth in different traditions, and the numbers of other books that I read, I’ve been considering a series of difficult questions: should we read the writings of those who have serious theological problems (and by serious I don’t mean that they disagree on the number of angels who can dance on the head of that famed pin)? If so, why? What guidelines should we follow in doing so? Are there any writers that we should just reject all together? Should we values books that may have some helpful things to say, even if they have other serious problems? In other words, when it comes to babies and bath water, can and should we always avoid tossing them out together?
Bath Water and Human Nature
The nature of humanity since the Fall is, surprise, surprise, fallen. Accordingly, there is no such thing as a perfect piece of writing (speaking theologically, that is). No author will get it all right. There’s always going to be some nasty bath water in with that baby. So when we consider authors like Rob Bell, for example, the issues is not simply that there is something wrong in what he’s written, because to pretend that anything measures up to a perfect standard is to forget about the bath water altogether.
Bath Water and Qualitative/Quantitative Analysis
Given that there’s a little bit of dirty bath water in every theological bath, determining whether or not to chuck that baby depends not only on quality of water dirtiness, but also on quantity. In other words, the dirty bit is there, but there’s a point at which the dirt is so injurious to health, and there’s so much of it, that a bath is no longer taking place. What you have instead is something more akin rolling around in a mud pit (though the consistency might be closer to that of a bath).
What does that mean for theology? In other words, not all errors are of the same degree. Denying who Jesus is means that one’s view is so fundamentally skewed that the whole theological enterprise of that writing is rendered useless. The issue is both one of quality (the seriousness of the error) and quantity (that error pervades every other area). How then does one determine the quality of the error? Obviously, that is where the rub is. I can’t explore that question in this post, but I would argue what various confessional statements of the church help us a great deal in this, and in particular, anything that strikes at the heart of the Christian faith, such that the gospel is in jeopardy, is of particularly guilty of the dirty water label.
What then should we do with the water?
My question here is this: when you’ve determined that a work has serious errors (in quality and quantity), then what? As I’ve been thinking through this, I’ve thought of several guidelines for how to approach such works.
(1) Read such works only if you are around those who accept their message, and you need to be able to respond to them. Thus a literal, “throw out that baby” approach might not literally be applicable, even when they are worth of the terrible label.
(2) Do not seek to find spiritual benefit in those things which are quantitatively and qualitatively polluted. While one might read them to gain understanding in how to respond to serious errors, trying to gain spiritual insight from them, seems a bit like drying to drink that horribly dirty water.
(3) Do not encourage works by an author who has put out such damaging material, unless it is to someone who also needs to know how to respond to them, and not without serious qualification. E.g., showing Rob Bell Nooma videos is probably a bad idea, given what someone would inculcate if they actually started reading him.
(4) Stay immersed in Scripture. Sometimes we have to read works that are bath water kind of cases. But if we do, we need to make sure that we don’t just immerse ourselves in that tub and forget about the living water given to us by Christ in his word. It can go a long way to making sure that we stay grounded in the midst of false teaching.
What about the mildly dirty cases?
Unfortunately, those guidelines don’t really solve the problem, because what we find are not always (or perhaps even not most of the time) the always-the-case mildly polluted works or the so-polluted-we-should-probably-throw-it-out ones. We usually find much more of a mix, and sometimes, we’re not even sure of what’s really going on in the bath water.
What I offer below are not hard and fast rules, but some things to think through regarding such possibly-theologically-dirtied authors:
(1) Read carefully and with a Bible in hand. If the Bereans searched the Scriptures on hearing Paul, we ought to do the same with all the authors out there today, and having some paper to note down things that are questionable is a good idea.
(2) Think through the implications of a book’s teaching in real life. While there might be something that could be incredibly helpful to you personally, would there be other things that could be damaging to yourself or others if adopted? Don’t just focus on the negative, but don’t just focus on the positive either. Think through both.
(3) Once the implications have been thought through, recommend only with qualifications. Simply citing someone as having given a helpful insight might easily communicate to those who listen to you that they should just bring in all the bath water with the baby. If there are things that could be harmful, you wouldn’t want uncritical readers to just accept them because you uncritically acclaimed them.
(4) Do not become so comfortable with an author that you cease to be critical. This can happen with the best of authors and readers. We can be very helped by good material from an author (or speaker), and then, because of that connection, forget to keep going back to Scripture, to keep evaluating. If we do this, we may start to lose the ability to determine what’s the baby and what’s the dirty water.
(5) Similarly to what I wrote above, stay in the Scriptures, and stay in works that have stood the test of time. There is wisdom in the past, and when we avoid them, we will stop to realize that not only is some of the bath water sitting around these days a little dirty, but we’ll realize that it’s been sitting around there for centuries. If it’s had that long to mature, chances are it’s pretty rank by now.
So to sum up: some works should not be approached for spiritual benefit at all due to the nature of the error, while others can be approached looking for some positive things while sifting that dirty water through Scripture and centuries of Christian reflection on its teaching. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, but be ready to recognize that sometimes, there’s not even a bath going on even more, unless it’s a mud bath.