My bad: on making theological retractions

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“My bad,” is a pretty common expression when playing pick-up basketball. If you make an errant pass or let your man drive around you or lose the ball off the dribble, the standard way to acknowledge your error is simply to say to your teammates, “my bad.”

Contrary to Erich Segal, marriage means always having to say you’re sorry. Segal wrote this inanity because, as Sir Elton John puts it, "'sorry seems to be the hardest word." To say "my bad" to my wife is hard, but repentance is the privilege of the Christian and God has set things up so that "my bad" and "sorry" are a necessary part of the grease that keeps a marriage running smoothly.

In marriage, "sorry” can cover a whole multitude of issues, all the way from putting the wrong piece of clothing in the dryer to dropping a plate to an angry outburst.  But … How does a pastor or theologian say "sorry" or "I was wrong?" And if you’re a published author, it gets even more complicated.

I remember one time hearing a pastor … 

… begin his sermon by apologizing for an error he had made the previous Sunday. As he explained it, and if I understood him correctly, his error was so miniscule and the topic was so obscure, that I wondered, “why did he even say that?” I certainly hadn’t caught it and I can be rather picky about theology. Was that the best way to handle things?

Years ago, I read a book by one of my revered seminary professors. Exegetical Fallacies by Don Carson is a catalog of errors that people can make (and have made) while exegeting the Scriptures. I remember people praising Dr. Carson for acknowledging two of his own errors that had made it into print (see pages 41-43). However, as you read his comments on his own errors, you get the impression this is a man who has a pretty high view of his own abilities and that it’s pretty hard for him to admit to mistakes. He almost says, “when I took this position, not much research had been done on this topic and even my cautious statement now seems to have been in error, as shown by one of my former students …”

Such a statement makes me want to quote Luther and say, “sin boldly,” please. Take a real position and if you discover you were wrong, say so and don’t hedge it in with all kinds of scholarly “nuance.” It just makes you look proud in the midst of your attempt to appear humble.

A better way comes from the pen of Christendom’s greatest early theologian, St. Augustine (354-430). Toward the end of his life (426-427, though he had begun work on it earlier), he wrote a book called The Retractations. In this work he sat down and reviewed his 93 books, chapter by chapter, to see how his convictions had changed.

One Catholic scholar has commented, The Retractions is an invaluable book. In it, Augustine offers a retrospective re-reading and review of all of his written works, one at a time. He re-read his words so as to see what progress he had made in the truth, and to correct whatever he thought required changing so as to be of better clarity and use for his many readers, present and future … It is a revision of his works in chronological order, and explains the occasion and dominant idea of each …” Such a book was “unique among Classical authors up to his era …” It is “of inestimable worth for seeing the progress of his thought,” and “has been called ‘the history of the mind of Augustine.’” 1

For example, one of his early books written between 387 and 395 was on the freedom of the will. He wrote it before he became deeply engaged in the Pelagian controversy. As he became involved in that controversy, though, Augustine saw the need to change and correct some of his affirmations in that earlier work. This is yet another example where heresy and false teaching helped the church advance in its understanding of Scripture.

Controversy has a way of helping us see things more clearly, just as it did with Augustine. The rise of evangelical feminism has helped many to see their careless statements made before the advent of this avalanche of error came crashing down upon us. In the sixties some evangelical leaders were very wishy-washy in their comments about abortion. Roe v. Wade showed us the tragedy of their writings. In the same way, the New Perspective on Paul as well as Federal Vision theology have shown with great clarity that we abandon the Reformers view on justification at our peril, and that it will be even worse for our children.

Time helps us see how theology gets worked out in experience. This will cause us to modify some of the things we said or wrote earlier, as we see the results in our own lives and the lives of our fellow church members.

Years ago, the chairman of the board of a Christian school where I taught appeared before the staff of the school in order to apologize. I was sitting near him when he made his apology for some of the problems that the mistakes/errors/sins the board had brought upon the staff and I could see that he was shaking. His trembling was due to his fear that we would no longer respect him or his (and the board’s) authority. The exact opposite was the case. When the staff was given a chance to respond, amidst the many “thank yous," I said, “I can’t tell you how much this makes me respect you.” The errors and sins of the board were real, but so was the apology. Clear. Simple. Short and so very sweet.

Pastors and teachers, authors of many books or just one article, let’s man up. When we’ve gotten it wrong, let’s say so. Let’s be pace-setters, not only in our zeal for souls and for the truth, but also in our repentance.

  • 1. Quoted from http://augnet.org/default.asp?ipageid=272, accessed on 6 August 2014.
David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. Formerly serving in theological education in Africa with Mission to the World, he and his wife currently live in their hometown of Bloomington, IN.