Physicians, alas, now face something new in the hist- ory 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
They use words such as “surely”
and “of course.” They use a lot of
rhetorical questions (letting them-
selves get away with not answering
them). And they embrace the reader
as “we” against the “them” who hold
the horrible, if traditional, views
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
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 this theological point the
experts are wrong?
More than an attractive blog post,
I hope. /FT
to help you
CHRIST & CULTURE IN CANADA
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR.
Beware theological malpractice
Why not accept that great new idea someone just shared with you?
John Stackhouse is professor of religious
studies at Crandall University. Find more of
these columns at www.Faith Today.ca/ChristAndCulture.