Friday, December 5, 2008

Approaching Theological Difficulties

Good theology is a difficult endeavor. After all, it is the assimilation of inferences from occasioned documents, (not to mention the historical distance involved). The authors themselves make a lot of assumptions about the knowledge of their respective audiences. It is understandable then that there are several important “tensions” that arise in theology between the various emphasizes of authors.

Today, I want to reflect on thinking more seriously about these tensions in our formulation of theology.

One great and classic example is our doctrine of the Trinity. Scripture is strongly monotheistic, and there is little evidence that the early church saw themselves diverting from this core Jewish belief. Yet, in the New Testament there is a clear distinction between the members of the Godhead, both in their action and in how they relate to one another. Another good example is the relationship of Christ’s humanity and divinity. The church recognized these as tensions early on, (as can be seen by the numerous councils and debates). With such central definition about the nature of God, the church took great care to preserve both “poles” of such tensions. In fact, whenever a particular theology would loose sight of this balance, it was quickly refuted as heresy.

Despite the countless pages of thinking recorded on these questions, no real solution is ever offered. No theological grid is able to be imposed on the poles of the doctrine of the trinity. The truths of scripture are taken at face value, and using principles of logic and reason within the context of scripture, boundaries are placed around these truths. The only theological “structure” that works seems to be the one that doesn’t actually solve how God can be both three and one, but only defines as closely as possible the barriers around those two truths that scripture allows. This isn’t an elegant process, but it really is all we have to work on.

The reality is that most doctrines about the nature of God fall short, because a finite being is attempting to define the infinite. God is beyond our perceptible logic. This does not mean he defies logic, because I believe that our notion of reason and logic are derived from the existence of God. After all, God did choose to reveal himself through scripture so that we might at least taste the smallest portion of his infinite nature, certainly enough to know Him and worship Him.

But what bugs me is this whole methodology seems to fall apart when we approach the sovereignty vs. responsibility question. Instead of taking the truths of scripture and trying to zero in and build boundaries around those truths, we try to contort those truths into one of several structures. What should remain “mystery” is fitted into something that is thoroughly logical (to a finite mind). These aren’t arbitrary (though sometimes they seem to be), but rather start with one set of propositions in scripture (such as God’s sovereignty) and work outward.

The reality is that just like the modalist or the docetist, the Calvinist has to redefine freedom in order to preserve his notion of sovereignty. Freedom is more an illusion created in order to meet their interpretation of several key passages about God’s sovereignty. Likewise, the Arminian tries to follow an interpretation of several key passages about the consequences of man’s free choices, but often has little to say about God’s sovereignty, and certainly there is not always a clear distinction made between actualized responsibility and merit.

This is a bit of a different question than the nature of the trinity, because it is inherently personal. It defines our relationship with God, and has far reaching implications. The doctrine of the trinity or the nature of Christ, while very important to our faith, do not have such radical personal effects. They are abstracted, only insofar as they deal with God himself and not specifically us, (though certainly they can affect how we view God and how we approach him).

The problem is further complicated by the fact that a lot of the discussion concerning sovereignty vs. responsibility includes a lot of basic questions to humanity: what is the nature of freedom, i.e. do we really make free choices, and to what degree to outside causes influence us? Even questions such as purpose and existence come into play here.

Here is my thought: is it possible to discard a lot of these structures and instead approach the issue in a similar way to that of the trinity and the nature of Christ? Can we take at face value the fact that God is fully sovereign over creation, but humans remain responsible for their free choices? Carson made the point that any Bible believing Christian must be a compatibalist, and in one sense I agree. If we define compatibalism as that God’s sovereignty is compatible with human freedom then absolutely, (this is not the philosophical definition of compatibalism).

But is it possible to operate this way? Can we begin the same way we begin with the Trinity: take the “basic” assumption of sovereignty being compatible with responsibility (after all both are assumed in scripture) and proceed to narrow in on how scripture limits these two? As attractive as this sounds to me, I seriously wonder if this is even possible with the issue of sovereignty and responsibility for several reasons.

First, there is just so much history of thought influencing our categories. It seems many inherently fall into one of the two camps in their thinking, in how they approach God, and in how they read scripture. This issue affects so much of what we understand in scripture that it can be difficult (if not dangerous) to radically rework the whole system. Great care must be taken to evaluate our own presuppositions, but also to make sure we aren’t throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Second, this is dealing with a question of degrees of emphasis, whereas the doctrine of the Trinity was usually polarizing (at least in my understanding of things). I am not certain if this distinction changes the methodology, but it is certainly worth noting.

Third, such a method would be very hard to teach. People need answers that are relatively straightforward, but this method ends up asking more questions and avoiding neat distinctions. This is the greatest appeal of the Calvinist system of theology: it is relatively comprehensive, and it is very neat and organized.

Finally, it might be easy to end up with no real theology, just a collection of unconnected propositions. In an age when logical coherence is already a low priority for most people, this might just foster another grab bag of theological ideas from which people can pick and choose as they please. The reality is that there is no such thing as a Calminian, because both systems have directly opposed propositions. I heard one professor say once he thought that some biblical writers were more Calvinist and others more Arminian. This certainly is attractive, that both systems in some way describe God, but it is also disturbing because it certainly redefines (if not undermines) our understanding of Scripture’s unity.

All these problems are important, but I still wonder if such a method could ever work. Certainly there are important questions that would have to be resolved for it to work, and it would take a lot of work to resolve the implications of any results. But I think what is most important is that in however we do our theology, we always allow scripture to refine us. If even a few verses clearly teach something outside of our theology, then we must rework things. After all, all scripture is inspired and authoritative, and whatever theology we come up with should do the best justice to all of it, not as much as our system allows.


Jay Smorey said...

My thoughts could be as long as your blog, so I’ll try to hit the highlights.

First, part of the difficult arises as a result of how we teach interpretation. Prescriptive rules for interpreting a text is too wooden and results in pigeon-holing…or “whack-a-mole” theology. The goal is really to describe what is being said. However, to teach descriptively would be a nightmare, so we result to prescriptive rules as a starting point. Though innocent and well-intentioned, it can be dangerous because it often becomes the first time we consider interacting with a text in such a manner, therefore forming a very important “first experience.”

Second, and really a continuation of the first, whether in a church context or more likely a college/seminary context, we feel compelled introduce instruction on interpretation in very condensed time periods. It has to fit into 3 hours per week, or maybe a church quarter, or whatever. But it really becomes a matter of being immersed in the text itself, which takes a lifetime. But more practically, it does minimally take several years of intentional careful-eyed study. More on this later.

Third, as you’ve mentioned, I think we’ve certainly allowed too much external influence in textual interpretation. I truly appreciate the James Barr types who say, to paraphrase, “The text says this, but I disagree with it” more than I do those who make the text fit their influences.

I think part of the solution is this: we need to make more of an active effort to teach hermeneutics, exegesis, and theology in such a way that it becomes part of the actual process of teaching, say, Isaiah or Matthew or Soteriology, etc. Instead, we take the same logically divided or partitioned thinking we use for the Trinity and determine that we must divide class material the same way.

In churches we need to teach and preach more intentionally in such a way that not only teaches the text, but also teaches the process of understanding the text. When I interviewed for my teaching position, I remembered saying, “Anyone can teach the material. However, my goal is to teach the students how to learn.”

The intriguing thing about western thinking is that we often focus so much on the categorical boxes in which we gather and organize the fruit that neglect the fact that it is all still fruit.

Marcy said...

I like the idea of treating it more like something like the Trinity... interesting thoughts and objections.