Some Christian Principles Regarding When and How to Study and Analyze Non-Christian Teachings as a Believer

 Posted here April 22, 2017 (Originally presented at the 2014 Annual ISCA Conference)

          I was sitting in my living room in my Topeka, KS apartment this morning listening to one of Charles H. Spurgeon’s lectures to his students at the Pastor’s College on audiobook, and the passage that the lecture was founded on struck me instantly, and thereby led me to believe that God was telling me to write on this topic for this conference. The passage was as follows: Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:16). Now to be sure this passage is primarily speaking to leaders in the church, but its message rings true for all believers nonetheless. You see, all too many people, especially young people these days, tend to pick up and read whatever interests them, without taking into account how that information might affect their mind, heart, and even their eternity. Many of them may even realize this but nevertheless assume the common lie of Satan that “I can handle it,” but can they? Statistics would tend to show that they, for the most part, cannot handle it, considering the number of young people leaving (or avoiding altogether) the Christian church in favor of other teachings, such as “postmodern Christianity,” Buddhism, Hinduism, or even Atheism or some other non-Christian belief system. So, since this is the case, what are we to do about it? Are we to teach our children and ourselves that we should never read or study any non-Christian teachings, so as to avoid this dilemma? Certainly not! After all, how are we to even attempt a sound apologetic defense, or for that matter a sound offense, regarding the Christian faith and message without properly understanding the “other side.” Therefore, in this paper we will first set out to establish a basis for the need to study non-Christian teachings, and then we will discuss some of the major Christian principles that can guide such an endeavor in a way that both glorifies God and strengthens and encourages our Christian walk.

Why Is It Appropriate and Even Necessary to Study Non-Christian Teachings?
            First, before diving into this most pertinent question, we need to make a few brief points about passages in the Bible that seem to teach against studying non-Christian teachings. For instance, 2 John 10-11 states “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.” Now this passage certainly seems to teach us not to even give the time of day to non-Christian teachings. However, we must keep this passage, and all others, in context. 2 John’s primary concern is the love that Christians have for one another, and so this is the light in which we must understand this passage. Also, this book is referring to people, rather than their teachings, to a large extent. The surrounding verses tell the believers to heed sound doctrine and avoid false teachers, not necessarily what they teach. This is because the purpose of 2 John is to exhort the believers to commune with other believers rather than welcoming non-Christians into their company, presumably because they are young in the faith (we will come back to this very prominent point in a while). John is telling the believers to grow together in the faith and to love one another first and foremost, that is, to love the faith and those that are part of the Church before considering any outside people or teachings.
            The above explanation of 2 John is supported by looking at the life and arguments of Paul the Apostle. In the book of Acts Paul is seen appealing to the teachings of the ancient philosophers (Acts 17:28), and also 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22, where the Scriptures say, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (ESV).” At first glance it seems here as though God is merely calling on us to test all prophecies, rather than everything in general (within reason of course), but this cannot be the case; the reason for this is that the Greek word used here for “prophecies,” προφητείας, which has the meaning of “An utterance inspired by God.”[1] So, if we are to view this passage in the proper theological and exegetical light, then we must necessarily concede that the second clause, which says “but test everything,” cannot possibly be referring back to the previous clause regarding the word “prophecies,” because if it was then the following clauses, which tell us to hold fast to what is good and abstain from what is evil would certainly seem to imply that God’s prophetic word could somehow possibly be evil, and that therefore we are to abstain from it, but this is clearly absurd to the highest degree, for as a perfect and holy Being God necessarily cannot be, do, or say anything that is evil. It follows naturally from all of this that the clause indicating that we are to “test everything” must actually be referring to everything. The Greek word used here for “everything” is πάντα, which means “the totality of any object, mass, collective, or extension—‘all, every, each, whole.’”[2] Now before we continue it needs to be amply stated that to test everything does not mean that we are to use every type of drug, drive every possible speed, or have sexual relations with as many people as possible, as for the Bible to teach such a thing would be completely contrary to what it teaches elsewhere. So what does “test everything” mean? Well, we must remember that to test something does not necessarily mean that we must participate in the use of it or in the action of doing it, for the best way to learn about ungodly things is no-doubt from the Bible or from the experiences of others, for this will inevitably save us countless moments of heartache. However, nowhere in the Bible does it teach that ideas themselves can send us to hell. True, it does teach in a sense that having a wrong disposition toward something, such as our spouse when we contemplate committing adultery, or against our fellow man when we hate them, but ideas in and of themselves are amoral, that is, that are outside the realm of morality in so far as they are merely the construction of language into the form of coherent (although not necessarily realistic) concepts. For instance, the ideas that “Truth is relative” or that “murder is good” in and of themselves are amoral, that is, they are merely ideas. It is instead the judgment that one makes regarding such statements that has moral value, for to determine that the statement “murder is good” is true and/or right would be immoral according to the Decalogue, but to merely contemplate the idea itself certainly does not include any sort of moral value, and of course this is to say nothing of the reason why one is contemplating such things, but rather merely the contemplation of, or even the mere “existing” of the ideas in and of themselves.
            What is the point of all this philosophizing? Well, quite simply it means that ideas in and of themselves are part of everything, and they are therefore to be tested per 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22. We must remember, going back for a brief moment to the 2 John passage discussed above, that in ancient times welcoming someone into your home did not mean what it does today. It did not merely mean that you let them into your house. Rather, by allowing them to enter your home you were being hospitable to both them as persons and also to their viewpoints. People rarely associated with those that they disagreed with, especially in their own homes. To allow someone into your home in ancient times knowing that they teach something contrary to the gospel message portrayed in the Scriptures would essentially have been to open yourself up to that teaching, and the potential truthfulness of it. One might mention that Jesus often ate with and went into the house of sinners teaching other doctrine, but we must remember that it was Jesus who was being invited in, and it is clear that those who were inviting him into their homes clearly were interested, or at least intrigued by His teachings, which only further validates the point that I am here making. So, 2 John is really telling us not to open ourselves up to false teachings in the sense that we are potentially opening ourselves up to accepting false teachings, and not just that we are to shun all false teachings out-rightly.
            Also, it is pertinent that we do not neglect the fact that Jesus and the apostles often scrutinized the deficiencies of opposing worldviews, such as the practice of idolatry, Judaism in its inappropriate forms, and even early forms of Gnosticism and other non-Christian religious practices. The point here is, how could they have legitimately scrutinized these other views without properly understanding them, and how could they properly understand them without studying them in their original/actual forms? The answer is clearly that they could not (this is to say nothing of the omniscience of Jesus, for that is a topic for another time and place).
            One more point on this issue, and then we will move on to four main and guiding principles of how to handle and analyze non-Christian teachings as a believer. My pastor pointed out to me this morning in an email that Proverbs 18:17, which says “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines it (ESV),” teaches us that it is wise to look at both sides of the argument before coming to an informed decision, and dare I say that it even teaches that one cannot come to a truly informed decision until he has viewed both sides of the argument.
            So, to wrap up this section, we see from the historical context of the 2 John passage, along with the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22 and Proverbs 18:17, and also from the lives and methods of the apostles and of Christ Himself, that it is not only appropriate, but critical to study opposing doctrine/teachings; but how can we do this without compromising, or at least potentially compromising our commitment to the Christian faith? After all, 50-80% of professing Christians walk away from their supposed faith for good after just one or two years of college at a secular school! Does this not show that it is dangerous to one’s faith and beliefs to take up the challenge of studying “the other side?” Well, yes and no. Yes if we do so blindly and without the proper precautions and methods. No if we do use the proper precautions and methods, and such precautions and methods is exactly what we now turn to.

Four Main Principles That Can Help Guide Our Study and Analysis of Non-Christian Teachings as Believers
            The purpose of this section is to bring to the forefront of believers’ minds the main principles, that is, the most overarching and rudimentary principles, that can help guide us in our endeavors to both study and analyze non-Christian teachings. The principles are as follows, and will be discussed below in like order: 1.) You must either be firmly grounded in your Christian faith or be heavily surrounded by wise, godly council to help guide your mind (not your thoughts themselves) as you study; 2.) You must also spend time in the Word whenever studying non-Christian teachings; 3.) You must compare the non-Christian teachings to what Scripture says; and 4.) Scripture must be the sole criteria by which the truthfulness and validity of the non-Christian teachings are assessed.
Being Firmly Grounded or Having Wise Council to Guide You
            The first of the four principles to be discussed here is vitally important as the starting point for a walk through the world of non-Christian teachings. Just look at the amount of students on college campuses around the country who lose their trust in the Scriptures and Christianity within just the first year or two of attending University (some 51-80%, as noted above). This is undoubtedly because they do not have a solid grounding for their faith. This is the reason for organizations like Ratio Christi, which I am a Chapter Director for at Kansas State University. We understand at Ratio Christi that it is necessary to have a firm foundation for one’s beliefs prior to entering into the arena of secularism, and when that fails, the next best thing is to equip students where they are at, hopefully before they decide to walk away from the faith altogether.
            It is important to be well grounded first, before diving into the realm of secular thought (in the manner of serious study, rather than of general exposure to secular society, as that is ultimately inevitable almost from birth), because if Christ is first and foremost in our lives, minds, and hearts, even if we don’t necessarily have all the reasons for it, we are at least well prepared in knowing what the Scriptures say about opposing thought and teaching. You see, it is one thing to be aware of the Bible and to have a basic knowledge of what it says, but it is quite another to be a believer who understands the fundamentals of the Christian faith at least well enough to be able to articulate them, even if he/she cannot state outstanding answers to questions raised about such issues at the time they begin to study secular teachings. What I mean by this is that if you are, say, an individual who knows that the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the truth and reality of the Holy Trinity, and things of the sort are vital to the truthfulness and reliability of the Christian religion, then you are more likely to hesitate when faced with whether or not to accept a teaching that calls into question one of these doctrines, but this still is not enough. You must also know and be willing to confront such questions with thoughtful study and pondering. This will, from my experience, lead you to the answers that you need to readily combat such questions and criticisms of the Bible and Christianity. This is essentially the purpose of apologetics.
            If, however, you are not so grounded in your faith to the point where you are able to think coherently and critically about the Christian faith and about opposing views, then you need to be surrounded by those who can help guide you in your study of non-Christian things. This is often the case, since many young people get into very serious secular studies these days, as do older people without the proper grounding of their faith. In such instances it is vitally necessary to have a pastor, strong Christian friend, or Christian scholar, or especially a godly and knowledgeable (about the Christian faith) individual there by your side to answer questions that you might have, and also to openly question you about what you read and guide you in how to go about thinking about such things (as opposed to telling you what specifically to think). This is the benefit and purpose of Christian mentorship/discipleship. Without this step those who are in this second category, namely those not firmly grounded and ready to think critically, are doomed to whatever nonsensical thoughts and beliefs that rise up from the depths of secularism as they study the views of this fallen world. To be sure some will still land on their feet and grow to believe the Truth as Scripture presents it, but we all know, or should know, that this is the rare case rather than the norm.


  

You see, while many people compare ideas and teachings these days, it is very popular in our postmodern society to do so and then simply sit back and say, “OK!” with no afterthought whatsoever, and then just go right on believing and thinking whatever one wants.

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You Must Spend Time in the Word
            This is one of those principles that most Christians are well aware of but rarely think about, or for that matter take seriously, but it is nevertheless one of the most important spiritual disciplines that there is in the Christian faith, namely spending time studying the Word of God. But why is this even more important, or rather particularly pertinent, when studying secular material? Well, quite simply it ties directly into the former principle just stated above, namely that we need to be firmly grounded in our faith to keep us from straying off the path of righteous thinking. Now, of course there is more to it than that, otherwise this would just be a sub-point under the previous principle.
            This principle is important because we must remember not to get too engulfed in secularism. Many a great minister of times past, such as Jonathan Edwards to name just one, spent many hours studying and critiquing secular thought, but at the same time they demanded of themselves that much more time be spent in the Word to combat the evil that necessarily comes along with coming into contact with secularism in any of its forms. Jonathan Edwards was the president of Princeton University in the early-mid 1700’s, and to this day he is still very well known as a philosopher, but to those of us who are believers and who know of him, we most assuredly know of him as a pastor and theologian first and foremost. This is because he made it a point of his to spend two or three hours in the Word for every hour he spent on anything else. This may seem a bit extreme, but we must admit that few are more, or even equally devoted to the cause of Christ today as Edwards was when he was in his days. It is very, very important that we remember that Christ and the Gospel message are our number one and two (respectively) priorities as believers, and as such we would do well to schedule and use our time accordingly. I myself fall ever so short of this standard most of the time, but even still I, along with the rest of us, must press on to do our best to serve Christ in a respectable and appropriate manner, and part of that entails spending an adequate amount of time in the Word, regardless of what else may fill the rest of our schedule.
Comparing the Non-Christian Teachings to What Scripture Says
            Again, this principle piggybacks naturally off of the previous two (hence the specific mode of succession), but is nevertheless more than and therefore worthy of separation from them. While it is, or at least should be painfully obvious that if you do not spend time in the Word then you will not know what it says, it is equally true and obvious that if one does not compare secular teachings to Christian teachings then there is an unnatural disconnect in their religious and philosophical, and henceforth their practical thinking that simply will not suffice if one is to be a devout and earnest believer in and follower of that One Holy God-man.
            It is therefore inevitable that anyone who wishes to remain true to the teachings of Scripture in their life and in the decisions that they make that they will necessarily compare what they read and study that contradicts the Bible with what exactly the Bible says. Why is this so pertinent though? Well, quite simply, how else will one know what to believe between the secular and the sacred, for if one does not understand and weigh the differences in the teachings, how can he/she truly tell one from the other, and if the teachings cannot rightfully be told apart, then how can one legitimately choose the one over the other, the right over the wrong, the truth from the falsity? The answer is that unless they just “get lucky,” then they can’t, and it is questionable at best whether “getting lucky” on such things can be rightfully said to be legitimate anyway.
            It is absolutely essential that we as believers critique all non-Christian teachings with what the Bible says, for as stated above, how can we know one from the other if we do not compare them. But it is not enough to simply compare them. There must be a standard chosen by which to evaluate such a comparison, which leads us now to our final principle.
Scripture Must Be the Standard of Measurement When Analyzing Non-Christian Teachings
            Finally, not only are the previous three principles fundamental to the acquisition of spiritual truth, but this final principle is that and so much more. You see, while many people compare ideas and teachings these days, it is very popular in our postmodern society to do so and then simply sit back and say, “OK!” with no afterthought whatsoever, and then just go right on believing and thinking whatever one wants. Well, this is one of the most dreadfully horrendous mistakes that a person could possibly make, especially regarding things pertaining to eternity!
            This is why (as alluded to above) it is not only necessary, but also utterly wise to have an objective standard of measurement when comparing various teachings. This is because teachings, and by connection ideas in general, when formulated into a formal pattern such as a particular teaching or doctrine or belief, represent what are known as truth propositions, and all truth propositions are necessarily either true or false. They cannot by definition be both, or neither for that matter, for the laws of logic demand such. So, if each teaching must be either true or false, then what is the appropriate objective reference for determining which teachings are truth and which teachings are false? The true Christians most honest and thoughtful response to this question will obviously be “The Bible!” Why is this? Quite simply it is because the Bible is the very Word of God, and since God cannot lie, everything in it must be truth! And so it follows then that it certainly seems that the Bible must be the standard of measurement for what teachings are truth and what teachings are false, but do we stop there? Certainly not!

What Do We Do after the Study and Analysis is Finished?
            In the grand scheme of things there is actually one final step, that is, one final guiding principle as to how to go about studying and analyzing non-Christian teachings, but it is more of a correlation and culmination of the four principles elaborated on above. This “final principle” is that we, after having been properly guided through our study and teachings, whether by ourselves (and the Holy Spirit) or by a mentor (and the Holy Spirit), and after spending an adequate amount of time in the Word, and after comparing the non-Christian teachings to the Bible and its teachings, and after holding that comparison up to the objective standard of the Bible to determine what is truth and what is not, we must necessarily throw away the bad and cling to the good, or rather avoid the false and cling to the true! We must remember the ending exhortation of 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22! We are to actively shun, rather than simply passively avoid the untrue teachings, that is, the ones that do not line up with the Word of God, and we must accept and embrace all teachings that do line up with the Word of God. This is the command of Scripture found in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-22. In following such a command we will inevitably do just what Spurgeon exhorted us to do, namely guard ourselves and our faith!

Bibliography
Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.

Notes
[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 440.
[2] Ibid, 596.