The Lure of Pragmatic Theology

Pragmatism is the philosophy that basically states that anything that works is true; if not essentially, then at least functionally. It is the dominant philosophy of the modern age. This has had an adverse effect on theological thinking as well. For instance, one would argue that a particular man's teachings cannot be false since the results prove that the teachings work.

However, unless an essential connection between the fruit and the tree can be established, such embracement of theologies based on empirical results can be dangerous. Let's look at a few considerations now:

1. God's use of a practice in an exceptional case doesn't entail His acceptance of its theoretical backings. There are a number of instances in the Bible where God is seen to be using the very systems that He explicitly denounced. For instance, just because God used a medium to speak to Saul doesn't prove that God has finally accepted the practice of consulting the dead and the demonic doctrines associated with it. Similarly, just because God used a star to speak to the wise men, during Jesus' birth, doesn't prove that God commends astrology. Why He does that has its explanation within His own sovereign determinations. We only know this that Scripture is against sorcery, stargazing, and such occult arts. In the cases cited above, where God has communicated with people through the means He prohibited, we may understand that He communicated thus NOT BECAUSE of the practice, but DESPITE the practice; showing that He is in control of the world. His acts there only directly prove the falsity of those sciences that try to limit the world to just the natural. God's sign of the star shows that it is not the star that influences events; but that God used a star to signify an event that He is directly in control. Similarly, God sent Samuel to the amazement of the medium, evidently puzzling the expectations of her art, in order to act despite the falsehood of her system.

2. Any evidence (whether it is a prophetic prediction or a miraculous sign or wonder) on behalf of a doctrine that is explicitly opposed to the clear revelation of God is a deception. Sometimes the mind bypasses the evident fact of Scripture because of its craving for something else. This something else, the imagination powered by desire, becomes more real to the mind than reality. Then, deception is easy. Miracles or testimonies that try to teach a doctrine that is not clearly taught in the Scripture are not from God. In fact, God might have allowed them in order to test us to see if we will accumulate teachers according to our itching ears or listen to the true voice of the Spirit. Note the following verses in order:

"If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying,`Let us go after other gods'-- which you have not known--`and let us serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deu 13:1-3 NKJ)

But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (Mat 12:39 NKJ)

The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2Th 2:9-12 NKJ)

Many cults and occults are based on testimonies of supernatural happenings. Such testimonies try to substantiate a host of false teachings such as reincarnation, energy channelling, spiritism, etc. The testing point of the spirits is simple. The Bible specifies them. Few are stated below:
a. Any spirit that teaches false godliness is evil.

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1Ti 4:1-3 NKJ)

b. Any spirit that denies the divinity and humanity of Jesus (His incarnation, atoning death, and Lordship included) is evil.

"every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world." (1Jo 4:3 NKJ)

c. Any spirit that teaches any gospel other than that preached in the Bible is evil.

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8 NKJ)

Any claim to truthfulness of doctrine that is not based on the clear teaching of the Word of God, but on signs and wonders, testimonies of supernatural experiences, visitation by angels, dreams and visions, and the like is not biblical - it is not based on the Bible after all.

3. Just because many scriptural verses could be used to prove a system of doctrines (a dogmatic theology) doesn't entail that the system is true. There are some who are committed more to the systematic theology of a human teacher than to the Word of God. But, it is not necessary any systematic theology is perfect. God didn't invent systematic theology; it is man's invention; because, man desires to find a unity of understanding; but, moreover, he wants a system that could explain the hard sayings of scripture; within which every jot and tittle would find a sense. This is, in a sense, a form of scientific pragmatism. It is based on the observation-hypothesis-experimentation model. Scriptures are read, a hypothesis (theory) invented, and verses are sought to validate the hypothesis. However, like science, this inductive process might only help functionally in some areas. For instance, Newton's laws are functionally helpful to explain and construct things on the terrestrial level; however, Einstein's laws are used for predictions and constructions related to the greater extra-terrestrial sphere. Yet, it is possible that both of them are not true.

A system has the power of twisting any text to suit itself. The trick lies in the way of interpretation. Thus, whatever text seems to fall in line is taken in and whatever seems to counter it is disregarded or explained away, sometimes in a way that begs the question and/or is closed to verification. A system that is closed is the most dangerous, as it anchors on the interpretation of the maker of the system rather than on the Word of God. Thus, if one hears someone quoting the sayings of Aquinas or Calvin more than quoting the Bible, that person is system anchored. This DOESN'T MEAN that one must not do systematic theology. However, it is dangerous to idolize systematic theology and then use it to interpret Scripture; rather than allowing the Scripture to speak to us face to face. One must be open to the Truth or else one will not be set free.

Does this mean that there are no absolutes? Of course, not. One can't deny the existence of absolutes without making an absolute statement himself. Only an absolute statement can negate an absolute; and that is a contradiction in terms. What is denied here is the validity of the pragmatic method. Just because a system works (in the understanding of many scriptures and one's personal experiences) doesn't prove its authenticity.

There were systems in Jesus' days, the Pharisees and the Sadducees being prominent. They prided in their interpretation of Scriptures, that very diametrically opposed to each other. Jesus condemned both of them as false and man made.

4. Just because a doctrine makes sense doesn't prove that it is right. There are many false things that falsely make sense to people and so the world is filled with so many apologists, of contradictory systems to each other, who find absolute sense in the doctrines that they defend. For instance, it made sense to people earlier that the sun rose and set over the earth. The theory worked to a great extent. However, it was only phenomenally (in appearance) true; but, not absolutely so. That the earth was flat made absolute sense to the ancients; to us, it is nonsense. Why people believe may be a question that psychology would try to answer; however, what belief is justified falls under the domain of philosophy. And, the dividing line must not be confused. There are some who argue that because there are certain things that make sense to a person; a person is justified in holding those beliefs. If that could be allowed, philosophy of law and jurisprudence, ethics, and politics would go berserk. A person can read the Bible and find a particular sense out of it, subjectively very satisfying - for instance, the Sadducees were very satisfied with the belief that there were no spirits. However, personal satisfaction is a utilitarian experience; it is not the essential qualification of truth.

So, what is the best way of doing theology, then? We'll conclude this by answering this question by quoting excerpts from an article on the qualifications of learning the truth based on Paul's exhortation to Timothy in 2Timothy 3.

Essentialities of Truth Perception

1. Moral Commitment to Pursuit of Truth (vv. 1-5).
Those who wish to follow truth must make a commitment to obey it no matter what the consequences would appear to be. Only the ardent seeker will find. [This commitment is missing in these last days of pragmatism, relativism, skepticism, and libertinism]

2. Critical Mind-set (v. 6).
Gullibility is a dangerous evil. It usually follows a will-against-truth-towards-pleasure. The credulous are easily deceived. One must weigh things before submitting to them. [False teachers take advantage of the gullible]

3. Truth-Orientation (v. 7).
All learning must be with the goal to know the truth, and not to heighten skepticism. Questions must lead to knowledge; not end in doubt. Too much of learning without any earning of wisdom is a wild chase after the wind (Ecclesiastes).

4. Faith (v. 8).
All knowledge is founded on faith. Faith is the lock of assurance, the ground of knowledge. Unless one has faith, one can't know anything. [The natural man cannot accept the things of the Spirit, for they are spiritually discerned]

5. Action (v.9).
Truth is wisdom; wisdom, truth. To possess truth means to believe the truth and act it out. The time test will reveal what is wisdom and what is not. The fruit of truth is wisdom; the fruit of rebellion, folly.

[Jesus said in John 7:17: "If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority." Also in John 3:20-21, He says, "For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God."]

6. Example (vv. 10-13).
Following the example of truth in the lives of people. Truth is livable; not just some theoretical conjecture about reality. If you can't live it out; you can't hold it on either - practically speaking. Followers of falsehood exemplify a deceptive lifestyle; followers of truth, a godly one.

7. Continuation in the Word (vv. 14-17).
The Scripture of God, given by the inspiration of God, is the source of all divine truth. It is the authority in matters of doctrine and faith. It makes one wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (faith is important, v.15). It is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.