Go to the crawdad, thou theologian; consider her ways and be warned.
Ever caught a crawdad before? I don’t mean with a trap or something; I mean the fun way, picking your way up the streambed with your jeans rolled up, catching them one at a time with your bare hands.
If not, you can meander over to YouTube for a quick tutorial. Pay particular attention to the ten seconds of explanation starting at 0:25. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
Yeah, it’s important. Go on, seriously. It’ll only take a minute.
And the preacher spake a parable unto them, saying,
“Hear then the Parable of the Crawdad:
Among the slow creatures of God’s earth is the lowly crawdad, but when danger threateneth, lo! it doth propel itself backward — only backward, mark ye well — with great speed. Behold now the genius of the lowly crawdad: that when the hungry bass doth menace it, the crawdad doth reach forth its claws and menace in turn its persecutor. If its persecutor be unafraid, and doth make to molest it further, the crawdad speweth forth a mighty surge of water, and thereby doth shoot itself right speedily backward from peril.
But this, the crawdad’s great strength, doth surely become a most grievous weakness when its hunter be a man, nay, even a stripling child. For the child doth cleverly place his hand behind the crawdad, and then doth menace it in front with aught he may desire, be it a stick, his hand, his foot, or aught else, and lo! the crawdad doth fly at once backward into the child’s waiting hand.
And though that crawdad may then punish the child severely with its claws, yet the determined child may work all his desire upon the crawdad.”
And the multitudes were astonished at his teaching, for though he counted himself among the theologians, he yet reckoned them as witless crawdads.
What does this have to do with theology?
History repeatedly demonstrates that theology often proceeds in the same way as the crawdad. Person A does something. Person B perceives it as a threat to orthodoxy, pepperoni pizza, and all things sacred and holy. Person B faces the threat and waves his claws menacingly, and if that doesn’t work, he shoots away backwards, putting as much ground between him and the threat as possible…paying no attention at all to where he’s going.
Take, for example, the fundamentalist/modernist controversies that plagued the American church in the early 20th century. The fundamentalists were right, yes? The Red Sea really did part, Elijah really was caught up into heaven in a fiery chariot, Jesus really was born to a virgin, really did die on the cross as a substitutionary atonement for our sins, really rose from the grave, and will return bodily to earth…all that.
When the modernists forsook the historic Christian faith, they had nothing left but Christian charity, and they proceeded to practice it with a vengeance. Salvation no longer came from the cross, resurrection, ascension and return of Jesus; now it came only from Christian action in the world. So they focused on what came to be known–at least pejoratively–as “social gospel” concerns.
The fundamentalists, recognizing that the liberals had hijacked Christian charity, swarmed into society in an outpouring of Christian influence not seen since the conversion of Constantine. They outdid the liberals in every good work, the better to adorn the gospel they so zealously defended.
Well, actually, no they didn’t. Mainly, they withdrew from the discussion, and gathered together in desolate places for the Prayer of Elijah and corporate sulking. In fact, in many quarters, feeding the poor became identified with liberalism, and woe betide the young fundamentalist pastor who tried to engage his congregation in the “social gospel” work of applying James 2:14-17. Although we have begun to recover, there are still significant portions of the church where James’ “pure and undefiled religion” has fallen on hard times, where doing good works for unbelievers outside the church walls brings down accusations of “social gospel” and “human good,” and a deep suspicion of doctrinal compromise.
What happened here is simple. The fundamentalists were afraid to touch anything tainted with liberalism. In their zeal to avoid error, they shot backwards crawdad-fashion, right into a whole new set of errors. Why did it happen? Because the fundamentalists were idol-worshippers. They were more devoted to not being liberal than they were devoted to humbly serving God. Even as they defended the inspiration of the Bible, they abandoned its clear teaching at key points. The resulting schisms, social impotence, and neglect of the poor became their bitter sacraments. To return to the Parable of the Crawdad, the mighty claws of doctrinal orthodusty were completely inadequate to rescue the church from its surrender to idolatry.
There are plenty more examples where this one came from. Martin Luther, so taken with the freeness of justification, abhorred James, as if the Bible would somehow steer him wrong. The ascetics, terrified of the corruption in the world around them, rejected God’s good gifts in favor of a life of self-torture. A number of modern Christian movements, desperate to avoid any hint of legalism, have embraced licentiousness, drunkenness and debauchery with a zeal that would make a Corinthian blush. In every case, this is the outworking of crawdad theology, the idolatrous worship of anything but that — whatever that might be in the particular case.
What should we do? Simple. Obey the Bible. All of it. All the time. Believe what it says, and do what it commands.
Sound easy? It’s not. Because we have a very hard time with this, there’s another key point. Humility. Lots of it. Occasionally our adversaries are entirely wrong about everything. But not very often; usually they reject our position because they see something that offends them — and far too often, there is legitimate cause for offense. But we don’t listen, because they’re wrong about something else, something more important to us. It takes humility for a fundamentalist to sit down at the table with a modernist and just listen to the man tell him, “You’re so concerned about people’s souls that you’ll let anyone do anything to their bodies. You think it doesn’t matter, as long as you can tell them about Jesus.” It takes more humility to overlook the obvious exaggeration and seek the grain of truth in the accusation. It takes still more to admit — even to ourselves — that it’s there. And the brutal truth is that it usually is.
It’s hard, messy work, and it requires eating generous helpings of crow, but that’s what God has called us to. Anyone who says different is the sort of person that Jude, 2 Peter and 3 John warn us about.