Ambiguity is the Fortress of Heretics
Ambiguity, or we could say vagueness, is extremely unhelpful when interacting with ideas. When a professor presents a crucial idea to the course of study in vague terms, the students suffer. Not only is their knowledge limited, but the students will likely become bored or disinterested because it takes too much effort to clarify and define the terms of the idea on their own—especially with the time-constrained pressure of progressing in their studies. The same can be said for the preacher in the pulpit. When he does not define the terms he uses, the people suffer much the same. However, there is more at stake in the latter scenario, indeed eternally more.
I have often heard scholars and theologians bemoan the fact that if our terms and definitions were clearly defined, much of the debates over doctrine would cease. And according to those who participate in debates, much of the ongoing debate is due to failure in defining important words and phrases.
I wrote this article because I happened to come across a quote by John Calvin. Its conciseness in summarizing the importance of clarity stuck out to me, causing me to pause and ponder its meaning.
"Ambiguity is the fortress of heretics."
Let me attempt to explain the profundity of this statement. Heresy, or any teaching or idea at odds with orthodoxy, thrives when the terms are not defined. It thrives when a word or a verse of Scripture is given the green light to mean anything to anyone; it thrives in relativism. Heresy is damaging to a Christian’s communion with God, and it is damaging to the Christian witness in the world. Therefore, the fortress of ambiguity which guards heresy guards a ruthless army.
When Christians—pastors and teachers in particular—are ambiguous in what they teach and believe, there are numerous personal reasons for it. But it seems they can be summarized by three categories.
The first category is laziness or naïvety. This is the result of a lack of knowledge and the lack of desire to acquire knowledge. Without knowledge, there is no clear understanding of words and their meanings, and therefore no discernment of biblical truth. Those who are not knowledgeable or seeking knowledge are guided by whatever best suits their present situation. Or they are simply indifferent to doctrine and theology.
Many who fall into this category claim they are superior simply because they do stir up strife. At least, they do not see the strife they stir up. They are like a farmer on his tractor driving down a road with the plow down, ripping up the road. He is dumbfounded as to why everybody he sees is honking, waving, or yelling at him. He is just enjoying the nice day. And so it is with this group, they are not trying to be ambiguous, but they end up in ambiguity. Further, they fail to see how they could be wrong.
The second category is selfish intent. This is intentional ambiguity for the purpose of leading people astray. When it is carried out by an individual, the underlying purpose is most often for monetary gain. Maybe by paying the teacher or pastor or priest, your sin and the sins of loved ones will be forgiven. Perhaps the reward for payment is personal monetary blessings. However, this category most describes the times when the state influences the church to move according to a secular agenda. Especially in our modern times, relativism in the church explains away certain sins in ambiguous terms such as "orientation" and "preference" in order to walk in step with the culture.
The third, and possibly the most popular category, is the fear of failure. Perhaps a hint of this lies in every ambiguous use of words or passages of Scripture. We are prone to be fearful of clear, objective definitions of words because we might fail to live up to the standard they require. We fear because we might fail in our selfish pursuits. We fear we might fail if we actually try.
For example, one of the great ambiguities of our day and age is the popular trend to teach that the love of God is the only attribute of His that matters. What does it mean that God is love? If it means agape (unconditional), what is the meaning of conditions for us to meet to be pleasing to Him? Where does His love come from? Are there any distinctions in the ways He shows His love? Ambiguity will, in essence, answer these with the simple retort, "I don’t know, and I don’t care." With the ambiguous use of the term love, God's love can mean whatever your sentimental desires wish it to mean. And with this, the great heresies of universalism, I-got-my-ticket-to-heaven-punched-so-it-doesn’t-matter-what-I-do, etc., find refuge.
But there is an underlying fear to all this. God's sovereignty, holiness, and righteousness look scary to a world of sinners. It looks scary because it means that they are under the wrath of God. It looks scary because this God is in the heavens, and He does whatever He pleases (Psalms 115:3). And so many fear we might turn the world away if we believe in a God like that. Many other heresies, some worse than others, have been birthed in the church because of this fear of failure.
This is an interesting point because it means that many who have fallen into heresy have fallen because they did not wish to fail. They did not want to fail in the responsibility clarity brings so now they face greater a greater failure: condemnation for believing falsehood.
To combat heresy, we must speak clearly. We must define our terms in such a way that is consistent with the whole of Scripture. We must "buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding" (Proverbs 23:23). Inevitably, we must not be afraid of failure, of having to change the way we think, or of taking on the responsibility clear thought brings.