Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? –Galatians 3:3, ESV
In law, we understand that there are felonies and misdemeanors. There are majors and minors; and we consider the law to be just and fair when the punishments fit the magnitude of the crimes. Just as we would think it utterly absurd and abusive if a policeman were to hang a black man in 1950s Alabama for stealing a loaf of bread; or if a father beat his son with a belt 27 times for refusing to clean his plate at the dinner table. There is a sense of fairness and common sense that exists within all human beings, whether they are Christian or not. There are limits to what we will allow and disallow. When it comes to the subject of Christian theology, things are no different, or at least you would hope, that the subject would be approached with a degree of reasonableness and fairness to the Word of God, and also to the theologian.
There is theological orthodoxy, theological heresy, and then there are gray areas where the Bible is silent; and then there are minor issues in which theologians can simply make harmless theological mistakes; and which should be left open to the correction and clarification of other Christians down the road, whom might bring more clarity from the Word of God on that issue.
How can we distinguish all of these differences?
First, we need to read the whole Bible for ourselves, from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible is the inspired Word of God and has the supreme say so in all of these matters (2 Tim. 3:16).
Second, we should read the writings of respected theological leaders from church history; and see whether the things they interpreted and applied about the Word of God sound like they make sense to us; and in that sense you begin to “all speak the same thing” as the other saints in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 1:10).
Third, you should rely on your own spiritual experiences; and look for parallels in the Word of God and in the writings of other theologians and their biographies.
Fourth, you should use the intellect that God gave you and reason through the questions and answers that you are asking yourself. Does this theological view that you are entertaining make sense? Does it make any sense? If so, then it is probably more true than a view that doesn’t make any sense at all.
In my case, I turn to The Works of John Wesley as my primary aide to Bible study; and as a result of that, a lot of other secondary theologians that he related with, such as Richard Baxter, William Law, and Adam Clarke. This is not to say that I agree with 100% of what they say. But reading their material can help me to play catch up on a lot of things. Personally, I don’t think their views on entire sanctification, infant baptism, or teetotalism make any sense. Clarke held a view that the Second Person of the Trinity didn’t become the Son of God until the first century, but that he did exist in a different form B.C. I don’t know about such views, if maintaining them makes any sense. The Puritans and their descendants have a bunch of things too, that I don’t think make much of any sense at all, such as things relating to fate and predestination, or the cessation of miraculous gifts; and often an antinomianism comes through in their view of the Christian life: which I naturally knee-jerk to as a major heresy instead of a minor theological mistake.
Theology can be confusing. But as long as we are reverential toward the Bible, careful to live by its precepts; and also read the writings of other godly theologians from the past; and we use our common sense, then I can’t see why Jesus would harshly come down on us from making a little mistake here and there. Especially if the view we hold to does not discourage us from living a holy life (Heb. 12:14). But there will always be those theological perfectionists, who strain out a gnat, make a mountain out of a molehill, and miss the weightier matters of the law: “judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23). I mainly have in mind those who have a slavish if not blinding adherence to the Westminster Confession. Such men would either have perfect theology or no theology at all. Such men are the types to call men hypocrites unless they are entirely, scientifically perfect like a machine going to market. Perfectionists can’t comprehend the depth of human frailty or the necessity of paranormal interventions from God to assist us in our weaknesses. They can’t see the need for a compassionate God or a comforting Holy Spirit. They think life is like a math formula, coldly calculated to operate like a smoothly running engine. This hearkens back to the deist argument that the universe is like a finely tuned clock set to run on its own. No compassionate, personal interventions of the Holy Spirit’s presence are needed. Everything is just pure math and clockwork. Stay in that way for long enough, though, and you will be the cuckoo popping out of the cuckoo clock; and you won’t even know why you’re chirping; you just are, because that’s your programming. People aren’t like that. Lives aren’t like that! There’s emotion and will involved with our souls. We’re not programs, robots, or engines. We’re souls encased in fallen human flesh; and we need the comforting guiding presence of the Holy Spirit to help us in our lives (Rom. 7-8). The Bible is the product of such a view; and when we line ourselves up with that, then we’ll find clarification about lots of things eventually. But we need to have a fair view of our human condition before we can make any progress with God.