I realized earlier today that there is a method of arguing that has been used widely throughout the church, but even so has gone unnoticed. Take the following bit of history as an example.
The Perfect Example
Throughout the history of the church there have been periods of time when different views on theology have thrived. In most recent church history, the previous prevailing argument was that we must strive in every possible way to do good works and separate ourselves from the world. This was during what we now call fundamentalism, and resulted in morality being pushed as the most important aspect of our faith.
I am not attempting here to argue with that viewpoint, but to show how it contrasts with what came next and is in fact what we have right now. The church realized that we had made a mistake in our theology. We decided that we needed to go back to the verses that talked about salvation “by faith alone”, that it’s not about anything we can do, and not about “works”. The result was a complete turning from the previous belief system. In an attempt to stay on the road of the faith, the church “over-steered”.
That is exactly the method of arguing that I am talking about. The idea is that if a viewpoint is so far off, we can fix it by doing a “pendulum swing” in the opposite direction to the same degree as the original swing so as to balance it out in the end. The result, however, does little to fix the problem.
What Really Happens
So why doesn’t this method work? It’s because an argument is not like a car. If it’s going off the road you don’t over-steer to correct it.
What I believe happens when someone “over-steers” is that first it appears to work. People realize that they have been believing the wrong thing, and they support the new viewpoint because it provides a solution to a major problem in their thinking. They don’t necessarily abandon the original viewpoint entirely, but now view it in relation to the new viewpoint. So, in a sense, it does balance out – for a short period of time.
What happens next ruins the original intent of the argument. People start to forget what they used to believe and only talk about the new belief or argument. The new belief then, when it stands by itself, becomes more than it was intended to be. Without the original viewpoint, it is a swing too far in the opposite direction.
The Right Way
Arguments do not work that way. They are built on premises and have a conclusion. No matter how far off a belief is, we must avoid the temptation to prove it wrong and must merely state the right argument or belief exactly as it is. If, for example, we think that older-style hymns have been wrongly believed to be the only valid songs to sing in church, and that we should learn to balance out the style of worship more, we do not say that hymns are wrong and should not be sung. We must rather make our argument that older and newer-style worship songs are equally usable so long as certain criteria are met. We do not think of it as a car that we must over-steer to prevent it running off the road. It’s a lot more like a gun. If you’re not shooting straight, you re-aim and fire again until you hit the target.