As an instructor in Systematic Theology I sometimes have conversations (whether formal or informal) over the merits of some point of theology or biblical application that end rather oddly with an appeal to “convictions.” The idea seems to be that if a person holds “personally” to some position or practice with less tenacity than he holds to an essential doctrine of the faith, and cannot provide adequate warrant for his position, then he can classify that point as a matter of “conviction” and honorably withdraw from a discussion without censure.
For instance, someone will ask a ministerial candidate in an ordination council to defend his position, say, on sign gifts or the extent of the atonement or drinking alcohol. The candidate will fail to make his case, but then add something like, “But it’s only a personal conviction of mine,” with the apparent expectation that the interrogator must withdraw his question: “Oh, that’s just a conviction? Well in that case, I’ll let it go. So sorry to have asked.”
The idea of “convictions” as a theological category rises, it seems, from the conflation of two key terms for “convict/convince” used in the NT Scriptures (there are other terms too, most notably πείθω/πιστόω—to persuade, but the two below seem to be our culprits):
- The most common and technical term for conviction (ἐλέγχω and its derivatives) appears 17 times in the NT (Matt 18:15; Luke 3:19; John 3:20; 8:46; 16:8; 1 Cor 14:24; Eph 5:11, 13; 1 Tim 5:20; 2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:15; Heb 12:5; Jas 2:9; Jude 15; Rev 3:19) and consistently means to convince someone of the objective truth of some claim or of the objective morality of some deed, usually in a negative sense (i.e., it communicates that a person has been convinced that he is wrong, and should change). The work of conviction is predicated of the Holy Spirit (esp. John 16:8, the locus classicus for the doctrine of conviction), but is usually mediated through another believer and/or the Christian Scriptures. But the idea is consistent: conviction, as communicated by this term, is an intensification of the objective, Christian warrant for some doctrinal or ethical reality.
- The second term for “conviction” that comes into play in our discussion derives from Paul’s puzzling use of the term πληροφορέω (which normally means to “fulfill”) in Romans 14:5. The context is one of believers who are “weak in faith,” and thus unwilling to believe what the Bible clearly teaches, viz., (1) that special holy days are no longer obligatory in view of the end of the Law, and (2) that eating meat is a wholesome activity in view of the highly publicized revelation received by the Apostle Peter in Acts 10:15. Paul pulls no punches in calling these believers “weak” and “faithless”; however, he also sees eating vegetables and observing holidays as innocuous of themselves and matters unworthy of schism. On this basis, he argues that each of his readers should be “fully convinced”(πληροφορείθω) in his own mind (v. 5) and act according to the dictates of his conscience—even, amazingly, if his conscience is demonstrably and objectively wrong (vv. 22–23).
Unfortunately, what Paul allows (and rather ambiguously) in this very narrow context has exploded into a whole separate category of theology: convictions. These elusive entities are somewhat hard to define, but usually carve out a shadowy existence between “doctrinal essentials” and “personal preferences.” They are non-essential beliefs and standards that I personally embrace and of which I have been personally convinced (1) by the Spirit (after all, he is the agent of conviction, so if I have a conviction it must be attributable to him) but (2) without sufficient warrant. As such, my “convictions” emerge as my own little block of personal truth (vis-à-vis public truth) comprised of things that matter a lot to me, but a defense for which is unnecessary and even impossible. And for this reason (harking back to my opening introduction), they are off limits in an ordination council.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I recognize that there are a great many “slots” into which one may insert doctrine and practice: essential doctrines/practices, important doctrines/practices, prudent doctrines/practices, disputed doctrines/practices, tentative doctrines/practices, dubious doctrines/practices, errant doctrines/practices, heretical doctrines/practices, blasphemous doctrines/practices, etc. Some are more defensible than others and some are more worthy of defense than others. We also have theological corollaries, theological applications, theological implications, theological principles, theological nuances, theological misgivings, theological concerns, theological hesitations, etc. But at the end of the day we have but two basic categories of Christian doctrine and practice: warranted Christian beliefs/practices and unwarranted Christian beliefs/practices. There is no valid tertium quid of “convictions” that get a free pass. This rogue set is unhelpful at best and more often a bit dangerous. It really has no meaningful place in theological discourse.