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Guarding Doctrine from Pragmatism

This article is part four of our five-part "Doctrinally Faithful" Text-Driven Podcast and article series throughout the month of October.

Guarding doctrine is an essential responsibility of every Christian and church. Satan’s desire is to destroy, distort, and disrupt the clear doctrine of Scripture. He has many tools at his disposal for bringing about havoc upon God’s church. Two of these tools have already been discussed in previous articles. One tool that Satan uses regularly is pride. An inflated view of self is the catalyst for many of the attacks brought against orthodoxy in the church. When we view ourselves as an authority of doctrine, we have succumbed to Satan’s tactics. The second tool that we discussed is the consumerism. Consumerism is the offspring of pride. With consumerism, man begins to capitulate to the whims and wishes of people. Therefore, the doctrines of Christianity are adjusted in order to accommodate the depravity of mankind.

In this article, we are going to look at another close relative to pride and that is pragmatism. Pragmatism is a sinister tool in Satan’s artillery and can cause great trouble to God’s church if we are not on guard. This article will answer three pertinent questions concerning the danger of pragmatism: 1) What is pragmatism? 2) Why is pragmatism dangerous for doctrine? 3) How do you avoid pragmatism?

What is Pragmatism?

I was first introduced to the philosophy of pragmatism while attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I was a student in the college at Southwestern and we were reading the philosophers of Western Civilization. In this particular class, we had to read the founder of pragmatism, William James. What I want to do in this section is provide you with the argument that William James makes for pragmatism being a good philosophical system.

William James is an American philosopher who lived from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century (1842-1910). His greatest contribution to philosophy is what has been termed pragmatism. He was raised in New York and studied in both America and Europe. James’s education led him to spend the majority of his career in academia. He taught at Harvard University. His academic interests were typically in the hard sciences such as medicine and biology. However, James would later become interested in the soft sciences like psychology. Some have even deemed James with the title, Father of Psychology. While teaching at Harvard University, James taught some brilliant students like Theodore Roosevelt and W.E. Du Bois.

Three prior to his death in 1910, James retired from Harvard. His retirement was not one of leisure and rest. He continued to make contributions to academia and Western thought. In 1907, James wrote three important books, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, and The Meaning of Truth. For our purposes, we will look at James’s argument in his book Pragmatism.

James begins his argument in Pragmatism by explaining that the origin of the term “pragmatism” means action. At the root of pragmatism is the action done by a person. Later in 1878, Charles Peirce addressed pragmatism from the perspective of value and meaning. Therefore, actions were given meaning based on their outcome (26). Peirce’s ideas laid dormant for close to twenty years until James referenced them in an 1898 lecture. James applied Peirce’s view that one’s actions and outcomes determine meaning to the field of religion. Therefore, a religion’s truthfulness is not determined based on its propositional claims of truth, but rather upon the outcome of its practices. This idea that truth is not based upon propositional claims but desired outcomes is what James termed, “instrumental truth” (30).

Why is Pragmatism Dangerous for Doctrine?

Actions are the instruments that bring about truth as long as the outcome is favorable. James said, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons” (37). Let’s think critically about this definition that James provides for truth. Through our critical analysis, we will see the dangers of pragmatism for doctrine.

First, let’s consider the phrase, “whatever proves itself to be good.” This phrase is problematic at best and insufficient at worst. The trouble with this particular phrase is that truth has been removed from the equation of determining what is good. Within a biblical worldview, we maintain that truth and goodness go together. The reason why we maintain this proposition is because that which is good must be rooted in an objective reality. For Christians, the only objective reality is God; He alone is the only qualified agent who can define what is good. If what is good becomes a construct of someone or something other than God, then we have descended into the abyss of moral relativism. For what is good is whatever the person in control or influence makes defacto.

Let’s consider the practical dangers of this first statement for just a moment. If what is good is not set objectively by what is true and if what is true is not rooted in the objective authority of God, then marriage can be defined by whomever. Doctrinally, Christianity teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24). The Christian doctrine of family and marriage is not a social construct or a cultural construct. Instead, the doctrine of family and marriage is a divine construct. God set forth His definition of marriage. That definition provided by God in Genesis is objective truth. Therefore, on the basis of it being objective truth, it is also good due to the one who designed it (Genesis 1:31).

Another practical danger that James’s definition of truth brings to doctrine is with gender. Utilizing the same argumentation concerning marriage, we as Christians believe that gender is a God-assigned truth validated by the unalterable truth of chromosomes. Human beings with a XX chromosome are female and human beings with XY chromosomes are male. This truth reality is unquestionable. However, if you adopt James’s definition of truth, then gender is not determined by objective truth. Instead, gender is determined by the subjective means of culture and secular ideologies.

Second, let's consider another phrase from James’s definition of truth. James claims that truth is only good if it meets the criteria of the “assignable reasons.” What James means by “assignable reasons” are the favorable outcomes for the action. An incredibly serious question arises–who determines the assignable reasons? James would answer that question by claiming anyone can assign reasons. Think of how absurd it would be to allow anyone to assign reasons for what one determines as truth. For instance, if truth was determined by human reason, then anyone could justify a behavior. Utter chaos would ensue because of there is no fixed standard for determining right and wrong, truth and falsehood.

Let’s consider James’s view of “assignable reasons” in light of our discussion on doctrine. To help us think clearly, I want to tell you a story from my time at Southwestern Seminary. I had just begun working at Southwestern in the office of the dean for the School of Education. The dean at that time was Dr. Waylon Owens. Dr. Owens, during my first week, called me into his office. He had overheard me discussing how my goal as a student pastor was to attract as many students as possible to Wednesday night Worship Service so that they could hear the gospel. When I walked into his office, he asked me a life-changing question. He said, “What biblical justification do you have for attracting kids to church by serving them pizza?” Without a moment's hesitation, I said, “Jesus fed the five thousand, didn’t he?” Then for the next several hours, Dr. Owens introduced me to how my “assignable reason” for getting teenagers to church was to the detriment of the gospel I wanted them to receive.

What Dr. Owens taught me was that we are not free to assign our own reasons. Instead, God has written to us sufficiently by His Word the assignable reasons. God’s Word tells us what we are to do. God’s Word tells us how we ought to do it. And God’s Word tells us why we ought to do it. God’s Word is perfectly sufficient for assigning the reasons for our actions.

How Do We Avoid Pragmatism?

Having recognized what pragmatism is and why pragmatism is dangerous, we need to turn our attention to the most important question–how do we avoid pragmatism? To answer that question, I remind you again of Dr. Owens’s question to me, “What biblical justification do you have?” As Christians, we have to be text-driven. The Bible has to provide us with the biblical justification for all actions that we make. Every aspect of our lives must come under the authority of God as He has revealed His will to us through His Word. It will only be once we have surrendered to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture that we will avoid pragmatism.

How do we surrender to Scripture? First, you cannot surrender and follow that which you do not know. You have to be absorbing Scripture. The Psalmist encourages us to meditate on the Law of God day and night (Psalm 1:2). Second, you have to delight in Scripture. Having large crowds or big churches is not our delight. The delight that God’s people need to have is the Word of God. We should find joy and fulfillment through spending time with God as we read and study the Word. Third, you have to live by faith that God’s Word is true. So many temptations come to lure you away from building your life on Scripture. However, you have to consciously remind yourself that the Bible is true. You can trust Scripture!

If you become absorbed in Scripture, delight in Scripture, and trust by faith in what God says, then I am confident that you will avoid the pitfalls of pragmatism and guard doctrine in your life and church life from the dangers of pragmatism.

To learn more in this series entitled "Doctrinally Faithful," listen to the Text-Driven Podcast at


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