Know your limits: not all opinions should have equal weight

I want to go on the record: all views and opinions are not equal. We do not have to take each opinion and viewpoint as equally valid. We should afford people the right to voice and hold their opinions and views, for sure. But that right is not the same as acknowledging every view is equally valid.

In fact, some views are incoherent and, therefore, invalid. Whilst I believe people should be entitled to hold them, I am not as a consequence bound to treat that position as though it has been articulated by an intellectual colossus. We need to be clear on this. All views can be held by rights; not all views are equally valid.

For instance, my Dad’s pronouncements on heating and ventilation engineering carry far more weight than mine. I have no scientific background, no engineering knowledge and am not particularly mechanically minded. My Dad, on the other hand, has 30 years experience in this area and is recognised nationally as a leading expert in his field. On issues pertaining to heating and ventilation, our views are clearly not equal and only a chronic fool would believe otherwise.

At the risk of upsetting some of my very clever scientist friends, it is a problem I have noticed emanating from their quarters with frequency [1]. Not many people who have studied philosophy, theology, politics, religious studies or history (the areas in which I have trained to one degree or another) pretend to know a vast amount about physics, biology, chemistry and the like. Whilst we may have a smattering of layman’s knowledge, we recognise the limits of our training. Yet I am continually astounded by the number of folks from scientific fields who refuse to return the compliment. Apparently, vast swathes of them manage to excel as experts in politics, philosophy, theology and world religions despite never having studied any of it.

It is possible, of course, that the arts are simply much easier to grasp than the sciences; those with greater minds go into science and manage to masterfully handle all other inferior subjects without the need to study them. Of course, it might just be possible that where they think they excel and gladly make pronouncements on subjects outside their field they do, in point of fact, make themselves appear a little foolish. Richard Dawkins’ foray into the world of philosophy rather springs to mind. Academic Atheistic philosophers such as Michael Ruse and Daniel Came find his efforts less than helpful. Ruse, for example, said ‘The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist’ while Came gave Dawkins some public advice on some of the more obvious deficiencies in his philosophical arguments (see particularly his final paragraph in the letter here).

The point here is not that individuals cannot take an interest in fields other than the one(s) in which they trained. It is simply that we all need to recognise the limits of our knowledge. Similarly, it is to acknowledge that sometimes, despite our own pride, we must accept there are others whose views on an issue should take precedence over our own because they are better placed than us to know about it. We must give those who know their field the authority that their background and training deserves. In the end, not all views, opinions and beliefs are equally valid.

This does have real implications for the church. Let me touch on just a few.

First, it strikes me as unbecoming for those of us without scientific training to make scientific pronouncements based on our reading of scripture. I want to stress, there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading the text and determining the boundaries of what the text itself could possibly be saying. I am, however, not massively inclined to make scientific pronouncements based on Genesis 1 & 2 when (a) everybody accepts – regardless of one’s view on the text – this was not written as a science textbook to answer 21st Century scientific questions; and, (2) I do not have the scientific training to credibly stand in a pulpit and apply science to the text.

Likewise, it is not becoming when scientists land on Genesis 1 & 2 and read their knowledge back into what is ostensibly a theological text making theological points. This is the mistake of concordism. The point here is that we should not try to bolster our arguments as ministers with stuff from outside the text that we (by which I certainly mean ‘I’) are not qualified to handle. Likewise, we should not allow those with scientific background to read into a text their modern scientific knowledge. That is concordism and eisegesis. We need to let the text speak for itself not try to embellish it by speaking outside of our, or the text’s, purview.

Second, as teachers of scripture, we need to be careful not to infer that all views on a text are equally valid. The view that the Son was a created being is not a different take on the same text. When somebody voices something like that, it is not the most helpful to give a thoughtful ‘hmmmmm’ and let it hang in the air as though something profound has been uttered.

Generally speaking, people are not quite so blatant in their heresy. Nor are most bible study groups exactly heresy-laden; rather, they are riddled with, typically minor, errant suggestions on the passage. All too often, we don’t want to voice the fact that the suggestion is so off-beam it cannot be right. We want to uphold the pretence that all views are equally valid. Frankly, some views are incoherent and need to be dealt with as such so that they don’t lead astray those who know no better.

Third, it requires a level of respect from those in the congregation for those in teaching roles. If we have appointed men to the eldership that meet the set criteria, we have appointed men who are able to defend the truth and weed out error. They are the men we are recognising as qualified to teach. We should all rightly be Berean in our attitude to teaching (cf. Acts 17:11) whilst, at the same time, having a sense of our own limitations and the gifts God has given to others in the church.

Although we believe in the perspicuity of scripture, there are qualifications (cf. Wayne Grudem in Themelios on this issue). It means there needs to be a right recognition that those set aside to teach have the advantage of training, time in the passage and a level of understanding that may not yet have been granted to you. We do not believe in clericalism or priestcraft but that does not negate the fact that certain views in the room should carry more weight because they come from those who have been gifted by God for the task, trained for the job and given more time to devote to the scriptures. This doesn’t mean leaders are infallible but it should lend a level of weight to their views on scripture that is perhaps not extended to the guy who just became a Christian last week.

Ultimately, all views and opinions ought to be weighed by scripture alone. It is our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. But that does not mean all parts of scripture are equally easy to understand nor that all views and interpretations of scripture are equally valid. At some point, we have to give due weight to those who have enough training to teach. It doesn’t mean they can never be wrong, and we take scripture as our guide, but we’ve got to know our limits and accept that others may know what we have yet to learn.

Notes

  1. I am not saying all (or even most) scientists necessarily believe this or do this.

One comment

  1. Excellent article, thank you. I definitely need to be more Berean, and also pay more attention to my own presentation.

    One thing I love about my church is that everyone from the senior pastor to small group leaders agree with and will state without hesitation to check what is taught against the Bible. (Just don’t be a snarky jerk if/when we do make a mistake!)

    Like

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