The “Ease” of Ambiguity
The hot rays of sun would pound down upon the concrete, as I would stand gun in hand, ready for the competition to begin. The 100-degree days of scorching heat with high humidity, not a cloud in the sky, and no wind at all are so intense that once a young man tragically dropped to the ground as we were all involved in the competition. You see, back in the years when I competed as a clay target shooter, I absolutely loved the heat of the summer months. Why, you ask, did I like such days? Was it because I totally lost my mind? The reason I liked such days was that the sun shone the brightest providing the most amount of clarity to see the target of any time of the year. It was uncomfortable, even grueling at times, but the ability to shoot in the prime season with phenomenal clarity was too much to pass up. Nearly all of my greatest wins came in such conditions as these, conditions where you would literally drink over a gallon of liquid in a day merely to try to stay hydrated.
You see, many shooters liked the days of Spring, others enjoyed the Fall. In a hobby like clay target shooting, I cannot say I blame them. But the ease of these conditions brought other issues. In the spring, the temperature would often be very comfortable, but the rainy and cloudy days, plus a little extra wind, could make shooting good scores difficult. Likewise in the fall, it was a beautiful time to be outdoors, but the howling wind gusts up to 50 mph in that time while shooting tournaments would leave even the professionals searching for answers. They were more comfortable seasons, much easier on the body, but way harder in terms of shooting. Likewise, in our day, many prefer the ease that unclarified theology affords them. It is an ease of ambiguity, an existence where they merely accept theological terms without ever seeking to define them. It feels very comfortable at first, but then all you see is the foggy cloud of uncertainty settle in around you. The bright light of theological precision has settled into the background to be replaced by the uncertain fog of ambiguity. What one thought would bring ease ended up in difficulty.
You’re Saying The Same Thing But Mean Something Different
Theological liberalism has always been known for using the same terms as historic Christianity, but infusing them with a different meaning. They speak of Christ, but reference someone other than the true biblical Jesus. In their sermons and books, they reference atonement and justification, while meaning something distinct from the biblical understanding. J. Gresham Machen caught onto this particular trend and said:
“Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”
-J. Gresham Machen (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 1)
Just like clay target shooting in the summer can be uncomfortable, in a more personal way, so can seeking to layout theology with great clarity. Yet, many prefer to live in the realm of ambiguity. They like to talk about atonement without defining what is meant, they enjoy discussing such ideas as fighting for justice without pausing to consider what is just in the first place. It is an easier path, but a treacherous one as you cannot see where you are going because the light of biblical theology is absent. Indeed, many preachers talk about Christ, but the Jesus the Mormons preach is not the true Lord. My point, it is not enough for us to simply hear traditional words and nod our heads in agreement, we must seek to go deeper into the actual meaning of those words to ensure what is said and what we ourselves believe aligns with Scripture.
A Perilous Danger
Machen put his finger right on an important target for us as Christians to understand when we survey the theological landscape of our era. We live in a day where information abounds and we cannot merely assume that when a certain term is used the speaker means the same thing we do in our vocabulary. One person may say they simply mean deconstruction is the process of evaluating what they believe, another may assert they want to undergo deconstruction to rid the world of what they assert is the “illusion” of absolute truth. Two people can use the same term to reference completely different ideas.
However, at the end of the day, words have definitions. So, what we must do is settle into the grinding work of digging up those precise definitions even if they have been buried 5-foot in the sand. Machen demonstrated that concept in his theological work against liberalism. Many conservative theologians today do as well. As they engage movements and ideas, they read the works of those main drivers promoting the movement they are seeking to address in order to give clarity to what is actually being said. It is an uncomfortable process at times. No doubt, it is much easier for us to sit back and merely assume we are on the same page with one another. But, we must lean into clarity. Transparency is beautiful in all realms including the realm of theology for it gives one the ability to see everything in the light. Therefore, let us follow Machen’s advice, and also learn to love the grind of shooting in the summer when the heat is hottest but the light of the sun provides penetrating clarity!