In this series I will be in conversation with a book written by Kevin Pendergrass entitled “A Different Kind of Poison: How Legalism Destroys Grace.” If you would like to purchase his book or read some of Kevin’s articles, you can do so here.
You can go back and read part 1 here:
There is an excellent chapter in the book entitled “Confirmation Bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency to process and analyze information in such a way that it reaffirms one’s preexisting ideas and convictions. Kevin observes:
The truth of the matter is we are all guilty of confirmation bias to an extent. Let me demonstrate this point.
When we study something that we already disagree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is wrong. When we study something we already agree with, we usually approach it from the perspective of why it is right. (P. 76)
Kevin is exactly right on this point. To be fair, it needs to be recognized that I was reading Kevin’s book from the perspective of figuring out where he was wrong.
Kevin describes confirmation bias as a “subconscious disadvantage”. And while this might be true at times, I believe that more often than not confirmation bias is actually a subconscious advantage. I believe that God designed us to have confirmation bias. That’s just how we think. It’s how we identify falsehoods. We process information through a paradigm built upon other supposed truths. When we hear an idea that doesn’t seem to fit within our paradigm, our first response is to examine the new idea extra critically to find it’s error. In other words, confirmation bias encourages us to be critical thinkers and to examine ideas very closely.
In Scripture we are encouraged to examine scripture to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17.11), “be wise in what is good and innocent and in what is evil” (Rom 16.19), “pass judgment” when we listen to teachers (1 Cor. 14.29); “examine everything carefully” (1 Thess. 5.21); and “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn. 4.1). Confirmation bias makes “red flags” go off in our minds when we come across an idea we suspect to be wrong. We are self-aware of our need to examine the new idea critically. In this sense, confirmation bias is a subconscious advantage.
This doesn’t mean we should automatically dismiss any new teaching that doesn’t fit neatly into our paradigm as being wrong. After “searching to scriptures to see if these things are so” we must have the humility to reexamine our preconceived understandings in light of our study and reflection. It is possible, after all, that we are the ones who were wrong. Kevin rightly observes,
Humility is the best friend of objectiveness. On the other hand, the more arrogant someone is, the more they tend to be subjective and closed-minded…
The road of pride leads to destruction and the road of humility leads to God (Prov. 16.18; Ja. 4.10). The arrogant are closed off to listening to others (Prov. 18.13; 15.22). Instead, they only wish to express their own hearts and beliefs (Prov. 18.22; 28.26). It doesn’t take any humility to admit when we are right, but it does take humility to admit when we are wrong. (p. 77)
It should be noted, however, that our natural tendency towards confirmation bias is not a subconscious disadvantage. The real subconscious disadvantage is pride, which refuses to admit when we are wrong.
With this in mind, there is a sense in which confirmation bias can be a disadvantage, but it’s not found when we critically examine the uninspired words of those we suspect to be wrong. The real disadvantage of confirmation bias is found when, we pridefully and uncritically accept the uninspired words of those we suspect to be right.
We are at a subconscious disadvantage when we are listening to preachers we trust and when we are reading books and articles (and book reviews) which argue a position we believe to be true. The very best preachers and authors among us are still uninspired people with the capacity to be wrong. We must not stop critically examining the teachings simply because we believe someone is probably right.
For this reason, I believe that those who are already frustrated with the church or already suspect the church is “too legalistic” are the ones with a subconscious disadvantage as they read Kevin’s book. It would be too easy for them to get entangled in the idea that neither they nor Kevin could be wrong, pull arguments out of Kevin’s book that they can use against “legalistic churches”, while failing to critically examine those arguments.
Whatever your bias might be towards Kevin as you approach his book, it is important to approach Kevin’s book with humility. We should strive to understand the real reasons why Kevin takes the position he does, and be careful not to misrepresent his arguments. For those who are bias against Kevin (like myself), I believe that if you approach Kevin’s book with humility, you will find that he raises some really important questions and makes some really important points; points which the church needs to carefully consider. For those who are bias in Kevin’s favor, I believe that if you will approach Kevin’s book critically, closely examining his arguments in light of scripture, you will find that his perspective has a few big flaws as well.
Continue reading part 3 here:
What I Appreciated the Most About Kevin Pendergrass’s Book on Legalism (Legalism, Part 3 of 14)