I suspect many Reformed people will find it difficult to sympathize with my claim that theological perfectionism is a problem. Most Reformed people would argue that lack of concern for theological precision is a much bigger problem facing the church today. And when one looks at the state of modern evangelicalism it is hard to disagree. There is too much error, not merely on the finer points of theology, but with regard to the very foundations. How many evangelicals can articulate the gospel clearly and accurately? But without denying the dangers of theological imprecision, I have come to believe that theological perfectionism is another problem we should be concerned about, especially we who are Reformed.
I recall when I was in seminary (Westminster Seminary California, 1992-96) that many of the young men used to sit around and debate the fine points of Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics for hours. They would be incredibly critical of any other form of apologetics, even other Reformed apologists like Francis Schaeffer or R. C. Sproul. The interesting thing was that it was a debate about the theory of apologetics. But the time and effort spent on getting the theory right was not matched by an equal zeal to actually use the theory in evangelizing unbelievers. Why? Because they were more interested (and I am guilty of this myself) of being right than in seeing sinners come to Christ. In other words, theological perfectionism had become an idol, whether it was the baser idol of wanting to look smart in the eyes of other seminary students, or the more refined idol of craving philosophical certainty about Christianity rather than having child-like trust in Christ. (Again, I'm not accusing others without pleading guilty myself -- I've been guilty of both the base and the refined idols!)
Ultimately, the drive to get the theory right was not motivated by love of neighbor but love of self. If we were more concerned about love of our unbelieving neighbors, we would spend less time honing the theory and more time dialoguing with actual unbelievers, finding out what their objections to Christianity are and using whatever arguments seem helpful to them. In fact, I think you could argue that an obsession with apologetic theory can be a hindrance to evangelism, which, if it is to be genuine, must be built on engaging unbelievers in real relationships that demonstrate your concern for them as human beings made in the image of God. Putting a transcendental head-lock on the enemy isn't a terribly effective way of winning people for Christ.
There are many other examples which show the problems with theological perfectionism.
English versions of the Bible. It's easy to nit-pick at a translation of a particular verse. It's fun to mock someone else's Bible. Some scholars have even written whole books against particular versions, as if to save people from the damaging effects of a bad translation. But would to God that more evangelicals did in fact read and study their TNIVs or their New Living Translations. It would do more good than all the self-help books being cranked out by the evangelical publishing companies. Just as the Spirit can bring people to saving faith through imperfect presentations of the gospel, so he can use flawed translations of the Bible to help us grow in spiritual maturity.
The Sacraments. Do I enjoy the polemics of infant baptism a little too much, meanwhile neglecting to remember my own baptism and all that it proclaims to me about my union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6)? Am I more concerned about critiquing the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Zwinglian views of the Lord's Supper than I am in actually enjoying communion with Christ in the table, in all its mystery? I'm not suggesting that the differences within Christendom on the Lord's Supper are insignificant trifles; nevertheless, it is better to have an imperfect view in your head and to enjoy the reality of it, than to have a perfect view unaccompanied by the spiritual reality.
Millennial views. We get so bogged down in the charts and debates that we ignore the cardinal issue -- being spiritually awake and ready for the Master's return. Just reflect for a moment on the portions of the NT that deal with the second coming and future eschatology -- the Olivet Discourse; 1-2 Thessalonians; 2 Peter; and Revelation. What these passages have in come is that they all have an ethical thrust, calling us to keep awake and be sober, to watch our hearts so that we do not become weighed down with too deep an attachment to this passing world, calling us to suffer for Christ and live for the heavenly reward. But while we are arguing over whether there will be a future for national Israel, we fail to reflect on the future hope that we all agree on, the hope of the resurrection and being with the Lord forever. We must not strain out the gnat of Dispensational errors only to swallow the camel of being spiritually asleep.
In sum, what are the problems of theological perfectionism?
(1) It gives us the feeling that we are addressing spiritual realities when in fact we are engaging in a secondary, intellectual analysis of spiritual realities. This secondary activity is very important, but we must not think that engaging in it is a substitute for the primary activity of loving God and loving our neighbor.
(2) It causes us to think that everything hangs on getting it right intellectually, when we should be putting into practice what we already have come to understand by God's grace. If we have a clear understanding of the gospel and strong foundation for assurance grounded in the finished work of Christ, then sorting out the details of secondary theological issues need not be so pressing. As Paul said, the gospel is "of first importance" (1 Cor 15:3).
(3) Theological perfectionism promotes spiritual pride, rather than a sense of humility before God and awe at infinite mysteries that finite minds will never fully grasp. We must always make a clear distinction between the truth of God and our finite attempts to explain and formulate the truth of God. I don't want to sound too skeptical, for I believe that all things that are necessary for salvation are clearly taught in Scripture (the perspicuity of Scripture). But when it comes to matters that are less central, there are obscurities and mysteries.
(4) Theological perfectionism always causes disunity and dissension in the body of Christ. Of course, unity is founded on the truth of the gospel, and where the truth of the gospel is not agreed upon, there can be no true Christian unity. Nevertheless, there are matters not central to the truth of the gospel that have wrongly divided Christians. Often this happens because the two sides are afraid of the potential implications, theological or spiritual or practical, of some minor point. Instead of demonizing our opponents, we should try to believe that the Holy Spirit will restrain them from taking their error to what we fear to be its logical God-dishonoring conclusion.
"If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2 ESV).