The Importance of Making Careful Distinctions

In conversations about a point of theology or biblical interpretation, I have often heard something along the lines of: “The Bible never says that.”  When pressed, the person will then follow-up, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say it explicitly,” or “the Bible doesn’t use those particular words.”  I have heard this used to deny a number of doctrinal formulations, and at its worst, I have heard it used to slander people by attributing views to them that they do not actually hold.  Their true views tend to be obscured or distorted due to lack of proper distinctions.

Theology is a distinction-making activity.  This is undeniable.  Every Christian must affirm the importance of making distinctions and should pray for wisdom and skill in doing so.  A most obvious example is the Christian view of God himself: God is “one” in one sense, and “three” in another sense.  (I.e., one in essence, three in person.)

Michael Horton’s new book, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples, has a much needed appendix entitled: “Making Necessary Distinctions: The Call to Discernment.”  The appendix is primarily an index containing the key distinctions made throughout the book, but Horton introduces it with this excellent paragraph:

Some distinctions are pedantic, part of that “craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” that Paul warned against (1 Ti 6:4).  On one hand, distinctions should not be endlessly multiplied.  On the other hand, there is a kind of “biblicism” that discourages making any distinctions that are not found explicitly in Scripture.  Of course, that would spell disaster for the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, and a host of other core Christian convictions.  Good distinctions are an act of discernment.  It is the wisdom to recognize things that are required by Scripture even when they are not directly expressed in Scripture.  While we must avoid “quarrels about words” (1 Ti 6:4), we must also “follow the pattern of sound words” (2 Ti 1:13).

Pilgrim Theology, Pg. 459

Oh that we might embrace wisdom through the proper making of distinctions, and reject the folly of flat and reductionist schemes of reading the Bible and doing theology, schemes often adhered to in the pious sounding name of “simple” or “straightforward” reading!

_________________________
Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

4 thoughts on “The Importance of Making Careful Distinctions”

  1. I learned the value of distinguishing from Francis Turretin – who frequently asked a theological question then answered it with “we distinguish.” Also, I think Herman Bavinck once wrote that to distinguish is to learn.

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    1. Nice! I like Horton’s note that we should avoid “quarrels over words,” but his additional emphasis on the importance of “the pattern of sound words.” Here again wisdom is so crucial. What some might think is an important distinction, others interpret as needless quarreling. Evaluating this just takes Spirit enabled skill and reasoned restraint.

      Turretin is, IMHO, the apex of care in distinction making. He’s not out to split hairs, but he is out to show how distinctions are crucial for answering some of the major objections to Reformed, biblical theology.

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  2. Some distinctions are pedantic, part of that “craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” that Paul warned against (1 Ti 6:4). On one hand, distinctions should not be endlessly multiplied. On the other hand, there is a kind of “biblicism” that discourages making any distinctions that are not found explicitly in Scripture.

    So he starts out a chapter on how to make distinctions! I love it! Classic Horton. Thanks for a great post.

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