Positive Theology and Negative Rejection

Here is an interesting question to ask: is positive theology (I’m defining this simply as what one believes) sufficient for orthodoxy? Or does one need to reject error as well? I am going to argue that Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms that rejection of heresy is just as important, and indeed is of a piece with positive theology. They are the flip side of the very same coin. You cannot hold positive theology without also rejecting the corresponding error. This discussion is another question facing the PCA right now, but people aren’t talking about it. The assumption in non-confessional circles is that the only thing that is important for the purposes of orthodoxy is what one affirms. One need not be held accountable for whether he denies an error or not, either in his own system, or in someone else’s system. I intend to challenge this assumption.

The passage that comes to mind immediately in this regard is Galatians 1. There Paul is dealing with the Judaizers, those who want Gentile Christians to submit to the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law. For Paul, this is another gospel. He is not content to say that as long as they hold on to what Paul said (positive theology), they will be fine. He says that in also giving room to the Judaizers (not denying error), they are leaving the true Gospel (1:6). The system of error being perpetrated on the Galatians is antithetical to the system Paul gave them. Paul tells them in no uncertain terms (with anathemas, no less!) that they are to reject the Judaizers (1:9).

Jude is another example. The error there seems to be antinomianism (verse 4). Is it then important only to believe in the grace of God? It is equally important, Jude says, to guard carefully the meaning of grace, such that grace does not become a license for sin! Doing so, he says, is contending for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (verse 3). In the benediction, by analogy, it is just as important for God to keep us from falling as it is for Him to present us before His glorious presence (verse 24).

People will object at this point: just because someone is protecting someone else does not mean that they agree with that other person. But that is not the point. The point is that if someone is defending someone else, then the defender believes the defendee is within bounds. He has defined the boundaries to include the views of that other person. Take an example: person A believes that the Trinity is one God in three persons. But person A also believes that person B is perfectly orthodox to hold that God is three gods in one person. Does person A really have an orthodox view of the Trinity? Person A believes that the second formulation is orthodox, when it is clearly heretical. Does person A’s defense of person B say anything about the views of person A? Of course it does. It says that person A believes that person’s B’s views are perfectly okay and within the boundaries of orthodoxy, regardless of whether person A actually believes the same error. It is a redefinition of the fence!

Furthermore, the confessions of the church are also misunderstood at this point. The confessions are often understood as mere positive declarations. Are we to understand that the Westminster divines did not carefully frame their doctrines so as to exclude Arminianism, Catholicism, Socinianism, and Antinomianism? The historical work of Chad Van Dixhoorn proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Westminster divines agonized over how to phrase their positive theology in such a way as to exclude all these systems of error. Just look at chapter 11 on justification. Are we to believe that the phrase “not for any thing wrought in them” is not aimed at Catholicism? Or that the phrase “nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness” is not aimed at Arminianism? So, if someone were to come along and say that the Arminian is perfectly okay in saying that faith itself is what is imputed as righteousness, and is therefore within the boundaries of orthodoxy, it is a clear violation of the Confession.

I believe we need to pay much closer attention to this issue. It needs to be examined carefully in candidates and credentials committees. Asking questions like “Would you reject this or that error?” is vitally important. Even asking, “Would you vote against a candidate who believed error X?” would be helpful. It would show the Presbytery where the candidate believes the boundaries are. This would also have relevance to various cases in the PCA right now.