Distinctions matter and too often preachers and teachers don’t respect the careful distinctions that need to be made. This kind of disregard is profoundly significant when it involves misrepresentations of the heart and ways of God. The divine rebuke spoken twice to Job’s three friends is a sober example for those who speak or write for God.
“After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).
Understanding the Bible correctly requires a willingness to make distinctions. Pushing one truth (or one side of a truth) without the necessary balancing truths can lead to careless or even presumptuous misrepresentations of God.
The root of this is sometimes a prideful determination to be right or to appear like you “know your stuff.” Sometimes loyalty to theological systems over biblical distinctions leads to misrepresentations. This surfaces repeatedly in discussions about the sovereignty of God and responsibility of humans.
But this form of neglect is more often the result of laziness. It’s a failure to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).
I am sure that in three decades of ministry, I ‘ve failed to make necessary distinctions more than a few times. To avoid this, I’ve tried to read as widely as possible — fearing no perspective, while being deeply grounded in Scripture. I especially appreciate authors who think deeply, carefully and compassionately about God’s word and ways. Leaders whom I have never met have ministered greatly to me in this area through their books.
Many years ago, I started listening to Mars Hill Audio with Ken Myers and purchased many of the books he featured in interviews with authors. This was a big help. I also tried to read the best available exegetical commentaries when studying Scripture.
This desire to respect careful study and distinctions is why I remain so appreciative of Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.’s book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. If you have never read it, please add it to your list. Frankly, I was aware of his brothers work before reading him. Alvin Plantinga is one of those careful authors who wrestles deeply with important distinctions. There was an unusual amount of brain distribution for that family!
An example of important distinctions
As a brief example of important distinctions, Plantinga (Cornelius) explored the differences between sin and evil. He suggested that “all sin is evil, but not all evil is sin.” This is a distinction that deserves compassionate consideration. Here’s a small run from Plantinga of how this distinction is respected in his book.
“Everybody knows there is something about human life that is out of line or out of whack … every day brings us fresh news of old evils—of nature ravaged, of God blasphemed, of people cheated, battered, terrorized. Every day brings us news of people whose misery is almost impossible to fathom.”
“Evil is what’s wrong with the world, and it includes trouble in nature as well as in human nature. It includes disease as well as theft, birth defects as well as character defects. We might define evil as any spoiling of shalom, any deviation from the way God wants things to be.”
“Thinking along these lines, we can see that sin is a subset of evil: it’s any evil for which somebody is to blame, whether as an individual or as a member of a group. All sin is evil, but not all evil is sin. A killing by a two-year-old who picks up a gun is a terrible evil, but not an actual sin, at least not by the two-year-old. But a premeditated killing by a drug dealer of a drug enforcement officer is both evil and sinful. So is willful ignorance and silence about the evils perpetrated by one’s own nation. In short, sin is culpable evil.”
Exploring the distinction:
Distinctions make us nervous. There is a feeling of security that comes with everything being a matter of right or wrong; truth or error. But sometimes life in a fallen world is not always easily categorized. If we’re honest about God’s assessment of humanity from our (new) beginning, we’ll be a little less surprised by the messiness. God said, “said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21).
Plantinga wrestles with distinctions that may be necessary when looking at the complexities of human behavior and how we label it. But thinking matters through truthfully and compassionately helps to clear things up.
“When one observes the rifts and scars of children whose parents took turns slapping, deriding, ignoring, bullying, or, sometimes worse, simply abandoning them; when one observes the wholesale life mismanagement of grown-ups who have lived for years in the shadow of their bereft childhood and who have attempted with one addictor after another to fill up those empty places where love should have settled, only to discover that their addictor keeps enlarging the very void it was meant to fill — when one knows people of this kind and observes their largely predictable character pathology, one hesitates to call all this chaos sin. The label sounds smug and impertinent. In such cases, we want to appeal to some broader category, perhaps the category of tragedy.”
“‘Tragedy’, however, “implies the fall of someone who is responsible and significant. It refers to someone whose significance has been ‘compromised and crushed by a mix of forces, including personal agency, that work together for evil in a way that seems simultaneously surprising and predictable, preventable and inevitable.’ A tragic figure is, in some intricate combination, both weak and willful, both foolish and guilty.”
“Remarkably enough, at the end of the day, it might not matter very much how we classify damaging behavior. Whether these behaviors amount to sin or symptom, the prescription for dealing with them may turn out to be just about the same. Nobody, for example, is more insistent than Alcoholics Anonymous that alcoholism is a disease; nobody is more insistent than A.A. on the need for the alcoholic to take full responsibility for his disease and deal with it in brutal candor” (quotes from: Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be).
Those who teach, preach and blog about God and His ways with the world and humanity must pause to think carefully about how they represent Him. Let us not be found as those who darken God’s counsel with words without knowledge lest the Almighty respond, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:2-3). “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
This determination to be diligent students of Scripture with compassion and wisdom should be pursued with deep humility to the glory of God. Recognizing our culpable belonging to the divine description of humanity in Genesis 8:21 will help us to pursue this great task with true greatness.
God, please give us grace to fulfill this calling and wisdom to see with your eyes.