There’s a lot of talk in the Christian circles these days about the place of skepticism, criticism and controversy in the church. Many theological (and “maturity”) camps have found ways of justifying their positions and being comfortable in them. Those who criticize a given cultural practice are met with stern opposition and statements like “never criticize what God is blessing” or “do not touch the Lord’s anointed.” On the other hand, those who choose not to question anything are dismissed as irrelevant and docile, liberals at best, antinomian at worst. Ironically, it is the latter group that is often at the forefront of criticizing the critical. They are tolerant everyone except the intolerant. I’ve been thinking about all this mess, especially since I have found myself in the midst of it one too many times.
Today, however, I want to examine a common expression that is often used to dismiss criticism, the expression, “do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.” I find this statement interesting, predominantly because those who use it seldom take the time to distinguish between what the baby is and what the bathwater is in the discussion. This means that the discussion will more often than not, end up being a case of people speaking past each other as each camp tries to bring its point across without considering the opposition. Those who emphasize love come off as indifferent to the truth, while those who emphasize truth come off as unloving. To the former camp, love is the baby, while to the latter camp, the truth is the baby. What we often end up with is two camps pitting two babies against one another while totally disregarding the bathwater that got them into the mess in the first place.
In my personal experience, I have found that most of the time, what the “rightly critical” person is trying to do is simply distinguish between the baby and the bathwater. He is trying to show us that we shouldn’t get all excited and bet all our money on the bathwater. He is trying to warn us that our confidence is in the baby, not the bathwater, that the bath water is only being allowed to stay for the sake of the baby in it. That we don’t need the bath water, though that doesn’t mean we should throw it out – because the baby is still in it. In this fallen world, we have to admit that the bathwater is often a necessary evil. For the sake of the baby, we tolerate the bathwater, but we don’t condone, commend or even endorse it.
Roger E. Olson, Professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University and an author at Patheos.com, has some helpful insights regarding the Babies and the Bathwaters in most theological debates and controversies. I found the following list helpful. I pray that it will clarify your future conversations:
- We should not throw the baby of tradition out with the bathwater of traditionalism. Historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale said that “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living while tradition is the living faith of the dead.”
- We should not throw the baby of certitude out with the bathwater of certainty. Kierkegaard coined the term “certitude” as the replacement for Enlightenment certainty which is a myth. We finite and fallen human beings can’t have certainty—especially about answers to life’s ultimate questions. But we can have certitude which means, in Lesslie Newbigin’s words, “proper confidence.”
- We should not throw the baby of confession out with the bathwater of creedalism. I no longer will sign someone else’s creed or confessional statement, but if asked I will gladly tell my confession of faith in classical Christian doctrine.
- We should not throw the baby of faith out with the bathwater of anti-intellectualism or the baby of reason out with the bathwater of rationalism.
- We should not throw the baby of truth out with the bathwater of totalizing absolutism.
- We should not throw the baby of feeling out with the bathwater of emotionalism.
- We should not throw the baby of patriotism out with the bathwater of nationalism.
- We should not throw the baby of the God’s supernatural activity out with the bathwater of gullibility about miracles.
- We should not throw the baby of biblical authority out with the bathwater of wooden literalism and strict inerrancy.
- We should not throw the baby of accountability out with the bathwater of hierarchy.
And so I could go on. There are so many examples of ways in which disillusioned Christians throw the good out with the bad.
So how can we know which is the baby and which is the bathwater? Perhaps there’s no litmus test. I haven’t found one. It would be too simple just to say “Jesus.” But a Christ-centered consciousness is part of it.
But one thing I’m sure of. In our Christian communities, we should find ways to reward and not punish those courageous souls who dare to ask “Why?” because they do us a great service by making us ask about the difference between babies and bathwater.
“Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.” [1 Thessalonians 5:19-22]
For the fame of His name,