Two Rules of Theology

I learn it is one thing to think the truth, another to live it.

James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (Ethics, p. 43)

In McClendon’s systematic theology, he offers two rules at the end of the first chapter to guide the next three volumes. After reading and contemplating them for a few days, I thought you could benefit from them as I have. These two rules are called “the principle of fallibility” and “the liberty of trying.” The latter wasn’t specifically named, but it seems appropriate to me.

Before I get into the specifics of these two rules, it would be helpful for you to know a little about the author. James Wm. McClendon, Jr. was a baptist theologian, professor, author, ethicist, and participant in the narrative as theology movement. When I write that he is baptist, that may cause some of my readers trepidation, but I left the ‘b’ uncapitalized for a reason. McClendon came from an anabaptist tradition and was a proponent of what he called the baptist vision. He preferred the intentionally lowercased ‘b’ because the prefix ‘ana’ is superflous. Infant baptism, from the anabaptist standpoint, is no baptism at all, so believers weren’t baptized again; they were baptized for the first time.

Some popular baptists listed by McClendon in the opening pages of his first volume are Menno Simmons, Roger Williams, Alexander Campbell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hopefully that gives you enough background to appreciate these two rules.

The Principle of Fallibility

Even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation.

P. 44

This quotation should be especilaly meaningful to my fellow members of the American Reformation Movement, which later devolved into the Restoration Movement, as if there were no real Christians throughout 1800 years of Christian history. Our two major mottos, if there be any at all, are “where the Bible speaks, we speak, and where the Bible is silent, we are silent” and “no creed but Christ.” These two mottos seek to place the Bible as man’s sole authority for all things spiritual. No creed, convention, tradition, or alledged vision can usurp what the Scripture teaches. Thus any tradition, specifically infant baptism among anabaptists, can be challenged regardless of its popularity or longevity.

For those among this blog’s followers who take an unorthodox view of Revelation or of prophecy in general, this first rule will also ring true.

We may run into the pitfall of saying things like, “Now I have the Truth!” There is nothing wrong with claiming have truth or being confident in one’s beliefs; the problem arises when one is confident to the point of being unwilling to change, question, or challenge what they already believe.

As we study, pray, mature, and as the rest of the Christian community does the same, we must always be willing to admit our own fallibility regardless of how sure we were yesterday. If we aren’t genuinely willing to change our mind, why should we expect anyone else to do the same?

McClendon offers two consolations to the rule:

If that seems too hard a rule to accept, here are two consolations that go with it: one is that, of course, the principle applies also to itslef. And the other is that happily, it applies to one’s adversaries’ convictions as well!

p. 44

The Liberty of Trying

The second rule McClendon offers comes from Roger Williams of the sevententh century. Williams says of him that he was “briefly a Baptist, long a baptist” (p. 44). Williams was a product of Cambridge University and “spoke scornfully… of those who arrogated to themselves alone, on the basis of such an eductation, the title ‘scholar.'” He applied this term to all believers who are called disciples or scholars by Jesus Himself. He thought that any student of Christ should be addressed as “scholar.”

The second rule of theology concerns the liberty, even the necessity, of ‘trying’ (testing) anyone’s view, tradition, or doctrine.

It is the command of Christ Jesus to his scholars to try all things: and liberty of trying what a friend, yea what an (esteemed) enemy presents hath ever (in point of Christianity) proved one especial means of attaining to the truth of Christ.

p. 44 (from Williams, “The Bloody Tenet Yet More Bloody,” p.29)

The idea here is simple: if our goal is to attain truth, then discussing, debating, and considering various views and positions is necessary. Otherwise, one simply surrounds themselves with those who hold their same views, so they never have a reason to “try all things” except it be some charicature of what others beleive. Granted, certain styles of debating can bring about division and hostility among believers, but, done correctly, can be enlightining and even fun if there is mutual respect and a common desire for truth, not simply “winning” a debate.

These two rules, if we allow them to guide our study, will keep us humble, honest, and gracious towards those with whom we have differences.

2 Replies to “Two Rules of Theology

  1. Daniel, I thank you for sharing your findings. These are sound principles that every Christians should put into practice as he or she seeks to understand the Word of God more accurately. Keep up the good work. Dallas Burdette

  2. For years now I’ve considered McClendon’s fallibility principle. I was wanting to quote him just now but couldn’t find my book! Thanks for sharing these notes online!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *