Friday, February 4, 2011

How to Critique a Doctrine

Critiquing or evaluating a doctrine, argument, or teaching is a very important exercise. We need to be able to discern truth from error and do it appropriately. The following is just a few tips you may find helpful.

1. Make sure the argument or doctrine is represented accurately.

There’s nothing worse than evaluating a teaching that no one is making. In one sense, it makes the reviewer look ignorant, and in another sense, it makes the supposed teaching look like something it is not. This may have unintended consequences. In order for your audience to make an informed decision they must be informed correctly! A commitment to honesty must be one of our highest priorities (John 8:32).

2. Quote at least one source as a proponent of the teaching.

This ensures that (1) above is fulfilled. In addition, it provides perspective. Think of it this way: if you agree with the doctrine, you’ll want to quote a proponent. If you do not agree with it, then it stands to reason quoting the proponent should not hurt your case.

3. Strengthen the argument as much as possible.

If an argument given by a proponent is particularly weak, or could have been made stronger in some way, then do it. Find the most charitable interpretation of the teaching and construct a modified argument. Again, if yours is the correct position, then taking down the strongest argument you can come up with for the teaching will only help you. This also prevents one from merely beating a weak version of an argument and proclaiming his case proven.

4. Evaluate the argument by its logical form.

Is the argument supposed to be deductive or inductive? If deductive, one should be able to get a material conditional (an if-then statement) out of the argument. If X, then Y. X, Therefore Y. Or it could be If X, then Y. Not Y, Therefore not X. If it does not follow one of these two patterns and it is supposed to be a deductive argument, the argument is not valid. If the argument is valid, you must determine if you believe each premise in the argument to be more plausibly true than false. If not, you must show which premise(s) and why. If you do, then you are committed to the argument’s conclusion.

If it is supposed to be inductive, it means the conclusion is considered to be in some sense probably true. To defeat an inductive argument, you may show that the conclusion doesn’t even follow from the premises inductively (as is the case with “it is raining outside and I like Cheerios. Therefore, it will be sunny in five minutes.”) or you may disagree with the premises given. Another possibility is to develop a deductive argument that would render the conclusion of the inductive argument false.

5. Evaluate it Biblically.

Some may think (5) is at odds with (4). But if God is the source of truth, then it follows those truths which are biblical are also logical. What people tend to fail to realize is that biblical interpretation by its very nature demands inference (which is a form of logical reasoning). Don’t take given terms or words for granted. Make sure you understand their usage in Scripture as well as the particular passage. Also be sure that the terms used philosophically/theologically are unambiguous and fully-defined.

6. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

It’s always bad when someone who hasn’t a clue of what they’re talking about continues on as though he is an authority. If you don’t know, there’s no shame in admitting it. Simply work to find the answer! As a corollary of this, we should also be willing to admit when we’re wrong.

I hope these tips help focus your critiques of doctrines, prevent you from making mistakes, and allow you to rejoice that God has given us his Word!


  1. Great post, Randy. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks Luke! I took a look at your blog earlier and it looks like a great place for resources!

  3. Question: You wrote in #4 that "one should be able to get a material conditional (an if-then statement) out of the argument. . . . If it does not follow one of these two patterns and it is supposed to be a deductive argument, the argument is not valid."

    There are many more valid forms of argument available in deductive logic than the two you listed (MP and MT). For example, one might have made a disjunctive argument (X or Y, not-X, Y) for Calvinism: Either predestined or free, not free, therefore predestined. That is a valid argument as well. So I am wondering why only the hypothetical forms were considered to be valid?


  4. Hey Douglas, thanks for your input! You are correct. I was attempting a short article, and so focused on if-then conditionals. It's the most basic (in my opinion), and I believed it to be the best for evaluating common thought in theological writings. I appreciate your desire to be thorough!


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