“If you play with fire, you’re bound to get burned,” is an adage that conveys both great wisdom and warning for would-be pyromaniacs. But the warning is equally apt for theologians in the church. Sometimes they find ideas that they believe are useful, especially in theological debate. But what they don’t realize is that they’re playing with intellectual fire. There’s a line in a song, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going,” which is true in many realms of life, even theology. During the Reformation humanist scholars rediscovered ancient philosophical texts that advocated skepticism as a way of life. In the simplest of terms, when one faces a difficult debated issue he shouldn’t choose a side. In fact, a virtue of skepticism is to argue both sides of an issue and refuse to choose either one. Erasmus employed skepticism about a number of doctrines in his debate with Luther over the question of the freedom of the will. But theologians on both sides of the isle soon used skepticism as an engine of war. Protestants employed the tools of the skeptic to question the authority of the church and conversely Roman Catholic theologians expressed their own doubts regarding the perspicuity of Scripture, which necessitated the authoritative interpretation of the church. At the time they didn’t realize it, but they unleashed a philosophical ghost that had been largely dormant for centuries but that would now wreak havoc for centuries to come.
After the Reformation skepticism took on various forms, but it spread like wildfire during the Enlightenment in the philosophies of Rene Descartes, John Locke, David, Hume, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many others. Descartes, for example, believed that radical doubt was the only sound method to eliminate former opinions in order to establish a new certain philosophy. Descartes famously doubted his sense perception and pitted his mind against his body. How could he trust his senses? While there is a lot of ground to cover between Descartes and the present day, his foundation of doubt and willingness to pit mind against body undergirds many of the arguments for the so-called gender-identity crisis that some people face. In other words, Descartes sows the seed of skepticism that flower in the claim that a man can be trapped in a woman’s body.
The church cannot turn back the clock and put the skepticism genie back in his bottle. But we need not despair either. Skepticism is certainly a powerful foe but the word of God is greater than the power of doubt. As Paul writes: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete” (2 Cor. 10:4-6). When we bring the word of God to bear against unbelief, the Spirit of God regenerates, convicts, and grants faith so that skeptics no longer doubt or question the claims of Scripture. At the same time, just because the Spirit of God can regenerate the most recalcitrant heart does not mean that we should be cavalier about the intellectual tools we use in our theological debates.
Even though skepticism may have been a useful debate tactic against Roman Catholics, Protestant theologians should have relied on the authority of God’s word rather than doubt. This means that in every endeavor, we should always careful examine the intellectual tools that we employ when we do theology. Some theologians believe they can use the weapons of our enemies against them, but the advantage you gain may not be worth the price you pay. You may win the argument but lose the war. We should always subject our ideas to the critique of Scripture, therefore, to ensure that we don’t play with fire and in the process get burned.
For further reading, consult:
Richard H. Popkin and José R. Maia Neto, eds., Skepticism: An Anthology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007).
Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). [sic on the spelling of skepticism in this title]