Limits of Guilt By Association

It is a standard cry in some quarters that if a theologian is compared to a “heretical” theologian, then it is guilt by association, and therefore an invalid argument. However, this is not really what “guilt by association” means. A person’s theological statements do not constitute “association.” Therefore, comparison of one theologian’s statements to another does not and cannot constitute “guilt by association.” This is amply proven by the opposite example. The very people who complain about the “guilt by association” argument are often the very first ones to compare their own theology to orthodox theologians, saying in effect, “Look, I’m just saying what orthodox theologian X said, therefore I’m orthodox.” What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If it’s okay to compare one’s statements to an orthodox theologian, then it’s okay to compare one’s statements to a “heretical” theologian. The nature of that comparison, of course, is another question entirely. I’m not saying that it is always legitimate to compare someone’s theology with a “heretical” theologian. All I’m saying is that the “guilt by association” objection doesn’t fly.

I actually think that there is a limit on how far this kind of comparison can go. It’s not always legitimate to compare two different people’s theology, although sometimes it is. How one would go about deciding when it is and when it isn’t would go way beyond the scope of this post. Oftentimes, the question of comparison between two theologians is simply beside the point, especially when the question has to do with the orthodoxy of one of the theologians. Then, the only comparison that matters is the theologian in relationship to the standards of the church.



  1. rcjr said,

    January 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Can you give a real life example wherein someone cried “Guilt by association” wherein his actual written or spoken views were actually compared to someone else’s written or spoken views. Otherwise I will have to cry “Red herring.”

  2. Jim Cassidy said,

    January 13, 2011 at 5:57 am

    He’s an example of guilt by association (I think). Dr. Gaffin defended Norman Shepherd back in the 1980’s controversy at WTS. Therefore, Dr. Gaffin must hold to a Shepherdite view of justification. That’s a major guilt by association flub going around today.

  3. Alan D. Strange said,

    January 13, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Thanks, Jim. Your example is a particularly apt one in our circles: Dr. Gaffin’s alleged unsoundness is a canard, sadly, still making the rounds. As the vice-chairman of the OPC Committee on Justification that engaged these issues (not to mention as a former student of his), I can unhesitatingly affirm that Dr. Gaffin is competely sound on justification and does not make the errors that Norm Shepherd does; instead, he willingly refutes them (as can be seen in the report, in which he had a crucial hand).

  4. paigebritton said,

    January 13, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Though Dr. Gaffin’s situation is an example of mistaken “guilt by association,” is this quite what Lane is asking about? It would seem that the alleged guilt in his case came from defending a person; did it also come from comparing Dr. Gaffin’s writings with Norm Shepherd’s?

    How about this for a controversial example: Reading Pete Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation might lead a reader to embrace neo-orthodoxy re. the doctrine of Scripture, for since Enns is silent re. the concept of plenary verbal inspiration, his conclusions resemble Barth’s; so therefore he is promoting neo-orthodoxy.

    (Disclaimer: I got the neo-orthodoxy impression the first time I read I&I, whereupon I thought I must be crazy, and read it again a couple of times. I finally decided that it wasn’t heading in that direction on purpose, but if one didn’t fill in the enormous blanks left by Enns with orthodox ideas, one could probably fall down a slippery slope into something like Barth’s teaching. Others, of course, have reached more stern conclusions.)

  5. Reed Here said,

    January 13, 2011 at 10:07 am

    (comment truncated by author)

    Update: having just read the report from MO Presbytery, it appears that the issue of guilt by association followed from some informal comments made to the committee (?) in some unspecified contexts by some unspecified individuals. The report does not seem to tie the guilt by association issue to TE Meyers’ signing of the JFVP. In other words, the appearances reflected on in my comment do not specifically apply. As my comment then involves nothing more than hypothetical considerations, I don’t think it appropriate to leave it up.

  6. Jim Cassidy said,

    January 13, 2011 at 8:42 pm


    You can render one guilty by association or guilty by comparison. The former is illegitimate (even if the person is actually guilty!), the later is legit. If we compared Gaffin’s and Shepherd’s writings and found commonality, then we would say they taught the same (heretical?) doctrine. But we cannot simply render Gaffin guilty simply because he is associated with Shepherd in a certain way other than – or in addition to – theology.

    In the example of Enns, we would be wrong to say that Enns is a Barthian (a preferable term to neo-orthodoxy, in my opinion) because he is friends with Barthians (e.g., Bruce McCormack, John Franke). That would be guilt by association. But if we compared Enns’ writings to Barth or other Barthians and we were able to perceive commonalities, then that is legit and he would be “guilty” (assuming being a Barthian is to be guilty of some offense) by comparison.

    Now, for the record, I think pinning Barthianism on Enns is harder than one might think. His writing is very careful. And the problems are often not so much in what he says, as much as in what he doesn’t say. In fact, he is very good at covering up what he doesn’t say with saying things that sound very traditional, in my opinion.

  7. paigebritton said,

    January 14, 2011 at 5:43 am

    Hi, Jim,
    Thanks! I guess I was running with RC Jr’s question, about whether “guilt by association” and “guilt by comparison” were ever conflated, where a person’s writing was involved. (Not that those actual phrases cropped up re. Enns, but that example sprang to mind, since some of his critics did find troubling Barthian tendencies there. I agree with you that if they are there, they are in the things not said!)
    Paige B.

  8. Alan D. Strange said,

    January 14, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Just to clairfy. In 3, above, I was responding to 2, above. Jim had mentioned Gaffin with respect to Shepherd and as one who has particular knowledge and experience with Dick in this regard (serving on a special committee of the OPC to address this very issue), I wanted to affirm both that Dick had been the target of wrongheaded guilt by association and that, in fact, he had pointed out Shepherd’s errors. I realized that my point was tangential to the original post and to comment #1.

    It’s not that I failed to get the point of the discussion, however. It’s simply that that’s what I wanted to say at this point in the conversation. Lane is free to delete my comment, obviously , if he finds it so extraneous as to be distracting. I am not keen on being told I am off subject as if I am unaware of what the subject was. Sometimes one simply wants to jump in and make a point whether it’s the most on-topic or not. I did it because I deemed it a good opportunity to uphold Dr. Gaffin’s good name.

  9. greenbaggins said,

    January 14, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Alan, you’re not off topic at all. :-)

  10. paigebritton said,

    January 14, 2011 at 9:17 am

    And I didn’t mean to imply that either, Alan — it was a good comment. Just was wondering about examples closer to the question RC Jr. had asked.
    :) pb

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