Doctrinal Humility

December 4, 2008

This week Jay Guin has started a discussion on how we use the scriptures.

Regardless of our doctrinal background, each of us has to deal with certain “blue parakeets” — things that just don’t seem to fit our model. In these cases, we tend to come up with some plausible way to reconcile the difficulty which allows us to hold onto our preferred doctrinal positions. There is a strong tendency against changing our views based on new evidence. That is not entirely a bad thing — if you start out with the right basis, you will tend to remain right — but if you are wrong, you will tend to remain wrong.

Typically I think people grow up trusting what their church, their parents and grandparents have believed and have taught them. Occasionally a conversion happens, and a person transfers that trust to a new value system. Those conversions happen infrequently if at all in an individual’s life. They are emotionally expensive because they require changing fundamental premises on which our entire system of values is built. It takes a long time to work through all the implications of such a conversion, and often that process never approaches completion. Often people end up with an internally contradictory set of beliefs that produces instability and anxiety.

Whether or not we have experienced such a conversion, our underlying values color how we read scripture. We relate what we read to what we have already accepted, which might or might not be completely accurate. Our understanding is therefore colored by our presumptions. So our reading is fallible. We generally are not even be aware of all the factors affecting what we see in scripture.

Knowing this, how should we read scripture? Humbly!

There are some passages that are unmistakably clear. Those should form the foundation for our understanding. The less clear passages should be understood in relation to the clearer ones.

The passages of scripture that create difficulties — the “blue parakeets” — in each of our doctrinal models should be treated with great respect, as the very words from God. They are the passages that can teach us the most. They might reveal the most significant errors in our belief systems. Rather than diminishing them, we should wrestle with them alongside the related passages that are more comfortable to our way of thinking. We should seek an understanding that honors both passages equally. And when we think we have come to a plausible conclusion about how the two fit, we should humbly admit that we might be wrong.


  1. I like how you call us to treat the scriptures that we least understand with special honor, that they are the ones which can teach us the most. Our tendency is to brush over them as unimportant or trivial because they are difficult and don’t seem to fit.

  2. I have been thinking what the blue parakeet has been for me lately.Its probably women speaking in church.1 Cor 14:34″women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.”Since I am trying to adhere (for a while at least) to the headcovering, I am also thinking about speaking in church. So saying loudly AMEN or Come On (Insert preacher’s name here) is speaking in church. And in regards to how our original value system is always with us, I think back upon my catholic upbringing. Upon getting bapitized as a adult I threw out all that I knew. However as time goes on, I do see how the catholics could derive certain things from scripture (purgatory, original sin to name two) whereas in the beginning I thought the Catholics just made it up as they went along (or rather officially they say that as time goes on things are revealed). Does this cause instability in me now because I can see some scriptural crossroads meeting? I don’t think so if anything it makes me more careful to be loving and patient in my occasional conversations with my family, because hey some scripture might come along and show me differently.Anywho interesting stuff. PS Next time you discuss separatism , I have some input I am reading a book “The Lesson of St. Francis, How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality into your Daily Life”.

  3. Great thoughts! We often speak these things about coming to the scripture with an open heart and an open mind, but I wonder how many of us are really ready to admit that they may be wrong about certain beliefs? Also, we appeal for an honest discussion about differences but as soon as someone hints that they might think differently they are labeled a false teacher. Sad! For us to truly approach the scripture to find what the scripture says we must be allowed by our brethren to be different yet still “sound.” If we don’t have that then fear will suppress most alternate thinking. I respect your desire and fortitude in being “different.”

  4. I thought of another blue parakeet.Christian military….

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