Magazines 2016 Nov - Dec Beware theological malpractice

Beware theological malpractice

30 November 2016 By John G. Stackhouse Jr.

Why not accept that great new idea someone just shared with you?

Physicians, alas, now face something new in the history of their profession – patients who think they know more about their ailments than their doctors do – because the patients have gone on the Internet.

Forget medical school, interning under trained supervisors and years of clinical practice. Click on WebMD or the like, and you can confidently insist your physician treats you for an exotic and dangerous disease instead of, well, a wart.

Or maybe you’re tempted to laugh off a grim diagnosis because you’ve googled and found some other people somewhere disagree. They promise you’re actually just fine – or at least you will be once you buy their special product, available only online.

True, the Internet does sometimes help patients catch things their doctors miss. But would we want our children to routinely decide against medical counsel on the basis of what they find on the Internet?

Such medical dangers are, sadly, paralleled by dangers in the world of theology. Anyone can have a blog, anyone can offer a theological opinion, and anyone can read what anyone else writes.

Some of that free theological expression is healthy. Great theology has been written by people without formal academic qualifications – Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther had them, while John Calvin and John Wesley didn’t.

But there’s so much quack theology online, we can all use a few guidelines to spot it. Here’s a start.

If it seems too good to be true. In theology this usually arises as "A Bad Thing You Don’t Have to Believe Anymore." There is no hell. God isn’t responsible for evil. Because of grace it doesn’t matter what you do. All love is love. God doesn’t want you to be poor or struggle in any way.

Strangely the purveyors of these pleasant poisons never give a plausible answer as to why most Christians have believed those Bad Things for so long. Sure, some Christians have used certain teachings to dominate other people, some Christians have been perverse enough to enjoy dark ideas, and some Christians have been dunderheads – but all of them, throughout the ages?

If it appeals to anti-intellectualism and denounces the "experts." A giveaway, in fact, is the use of scare quotes around the word "experts." No one doubts there are actual experts in, say, nuclear physics or French literature. Why doubt there are experts in theology?

Ah, but theology affects our core beliefs and favourite practices, especially those to do with time, money, sex and relationships. Who wants to submit to an authority in those elements of life?

Better to listen to our own choice of, well, experts who will tell us what we prefer to hear.

If it trades in intuitive appeal rather than adequate argument. Instead of laying out the appropriate evidence drawn carefully from extensive biblical, historical and theological study, quack theologians appeal immediately to the reader’s opinions.

They use words such as "surely" and "of course." They use a lot of rhetorical questions (letting themselves get away with not answering them). And they embrace the reader as "we" against the "them" who hold the horrible, if traditional, views under attack.

If a physician were to say, "Now, surely we’d agree that what you’re experiencing are the symptoms of X," a sensible person would think, "What kind of a question is that? How should I know? You’re the doctor!" Theological frauds often cozy up to us likewise.

If it focuses on a single Bible passage or theme.Theological incompetents often offer us a startling reinterpretation – but without referring to the many Bible passages that would rule out such an interpretation.

Or they’ll promote a single theme of Scripture (e.g., "God is love" or "God created everything good" or "God is not willing that any should perish") and ignore every other idea that ought to be considered alongside it (e.g., "God is light" or "The world fell" or "Jesus warns us against the dangers of hell").

Yes, in theology as in medicine, certain basic ideas can be put simply and well – "God loves you" and "Don’t smoke." But when it comes to controversial and complicated ideas, why think the consensus of genuine experts is wrong and somebody with questionable expertise, simplistic argumentation and overheated rhetoric is right?

Yes, the consensus of experts has sometimes been wrong in the history of every science. But how much proof should be enough to convince us that on thistheological point the experts are wrong?

More than an attractive blog post, I hope.

John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at