Of Accuracy and Precision

Last week I wrote about the need for Christians to SAY something rather than to rely on strategic ambiguity or opposition to other viewpoints. The Christian worldview depends on certain truths about the gospel, but also on the concept of truth as objective reality. Apart from the truth as correspondence to objective reality, the truth of the gospel doesn’t make sense. It certainly isn’t persuasive to unbelievers. 

There is great opportunity in the act of introducing others to the truth of God’s Word AND the truth of objective reality. The crazier a society gets the greater that opportunity, even if that society doesn’t appreciate that introduction. One example is the LGBTQIA+ complex. Many who have seared consciences toward homosexuality have been shaken back to reality by the concept of transgenderism, and many of those have been shaken by how transgenderism has destroyed feminism and harmed women.  

What I just described is not precisely the gospel. It is not “special revelation,” that is, truth revealed to us by God through His Word, but “natural revelation,” that which can be observed apart from the supernatural work of God. Romans 1 talks about this. There are severe limitations to this line of thinking, the most dangerous of which is confusing “getting someone to think rightly about the world” with “leading someone to faith in Christ.” Thinking rightly is helpful as one considers Christ, but “thinking rightly about the world” does not mean that one is right with God through Christ. 

All truth is God’s truth, and all truth is important, but not every kind of truth bears the same importance. At one level this is a consideration of relative importance: “How to hit a golf ball properly” is important, but not in the same way as “how you can be right with God” is important (though both elude my natural abilities). At another level, the difference we are talking about is accuracy vs. precision. 

Accuracy and precision are related concepts. To illustrate, a dart that hits the dart board is accurate, but not if you were aiming for the bullseye. If all you needed to do was hit the board, you did fine. If you needed to hit a certain spot on the board, you missed. You were accurate, but not precisely so. 

In theological discussion improper levels of precision can frustrate. If someone tells their pastor enthusiastically that “my son asked Jesus into his heart last night,” the right answer isn’t “he did no such thing!” That is a time to rejoice with those who rejoice, not teach on the bondage of the will and the Lutheran doctrine of election. Demanding a level of precision unintended by your friends or congregants just shuts them down, making them feel stupid or uneducated rather than celebrated and valued. The time for greater precision will come, usually naturally. 

Various kinds of theological truth demand various levels of theological precision. In the arena of systematic theology (the study of Christian doctrine teaching by teaching rather than verse by verse) there are (at least) three distinct levels of instruction: 

*Ethics– the “ought” of life, or the pursuit of virtue and eschewing of vice 

*Apologetics– reasons and answers re: the Christian faith and life 

*Dogmatics– detailed teaching about what Scripture says through creeds/confessions/formulas 

Each of these realms demand accuracy but require various levels of precision. Christians, Muslims, theists, and atheists can all agree on ethics, though their various foundations lead them to frequent disagreements.* While I desire the salvation of my fellow man, I’m also very interested in them not killing each other or stealing my belongings. Similarly, I want parents to bear and raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, but I’m desperately desirous of them not killing their child in the womb. These are ethical considerations, and nobody was ever saved by their ethical behavior. Ethical considerations need accuracy, but less precision. 

Apologetics demands more precision than ethics and less precision than dogmatics. The first use of apologetics is to make the Christian more confident in the truth he embraces. The second is to enable that Christian to give cogent reasons and answers for why he finds the gospel so precious. This is a kind of “pre-evangelism” that can help a non-believer encounter scripture, even if that non-believer doesn’t agree with me about the nature of that written word. I agree to a large extent with Roman Catholic apologetics, to a greater extent early 20th century Reformed apologists, and more/less with other kinds of apologists, too.** Some of the strongest indications of God’s existence lead us to faith in a monotheistic god more than the specific triune God of the Bible. Apologists of various stripes can agree broadly but don’t necessarily share the same creed.  

Dogmatics, though, is an examination of those creeds. As such, dogmatics demands much more precision than ethics or apologetics. That precision is the source of the “edgy” connotation of the adjective dogmatic. You would anticipate a high level of precision when discussing baptism in a Lutheran seminary– you would expect nothing less. And this is where genuine, sincere, Bible-believing Christians have their disagreements. It’s the way it works, and if we keep things in perspective, it really does work.  

I don’t agree with my Baptist friends about the nature of baptism (among other things). But accurately discussing our differences while understanding necessary levels of precision emphasizes our areas of agreement. If we are talking in a coffee shop about the nature of the Lord’s Supper, our precise reasoning will be set aside when an atheist walks up to ask us why we both have Bibles open on our laps. It’s not that our differences don’t matter; it’s just that our differences matter less at the level of precision needed when introducing someone to the Christian faith.  

One word of caution: I have heard many well-intentioned souls place theological precision and zeal for souls in negative correlation– a zero sum game of sorts. This is neither accurate nor precise. If your “good theology” does not lead to zeal for souls, perhaps it is not so good after all. And if your “zeal for souls” treats truths about God lightly, perhaps you are zealously leading souls astray. There is nothing spiritual about sloppy theology or error. But neither does a lack of precision necessarily indicate sloppy theology or error.  

Get the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ right. The gospel always demands accuracy. While you get the gospel right, keep precision in perspective. Keep learning, loving, and growing. Be slow to anger, quick to repent, and quick to forgive. Tell others about Jesus, freely and confidently.  

*An atheist “free thinker” society once asked me (repeatedly) to do a service project together with our church so we could show people that even though we disagreed we could do “good deeds” together. I told him we were in if he could tell me what “good” was and why. 

**Curiously, I didn’t mention Lutheran apologetics here. Lutherans are late to the apologetics game for a variety of reasons. First, Lutheran theology was formed during a time when we agreed with our opponents about most worldview issues. Reformation disputation was about justification (how to be right with God) and authority (who says so), not the existence of God, his ability to speak through the written word, or the existence of the supernatural. Second, Lutherans emphasize the necessary ministry of the preached word and the sacraments rightly administered in a way that de-emphasizes the persuasion often associated with apologetics. I think apologetics is both helpful and necessary when rightly ordered and used appropriately.

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