11 January 2012

Answering Questions #14- The Law of Non-Contradiction and its theological results

Some time ago I was in a discussion on another site and made this comment:

Like I said I'm uncomfortable with these laws being employed because through syllogistic formation, deduction and inductive theological construction. We can quickly get far away from the text. I can think of quite a few issues where Reformed theology has done this, and gotten into tangles due to questions that shouldn't have been asked." 

 I received this response just recently from another party:

Will you please give me some examples of this?  As far as the noncontradiction issue goes, I wonder if Jesus is God, and God is all knowing yet Jesus did not know the time or the hour of His return then isn't it true that Jesus was not omnipotent.  I have a really hard time saying Jesus didn't have any characteristic that God would have if He (which I do believe) he was God.  Will you please share your thoughts on this issue with me please?

To which I replied:


Thanks again for writing.

There are a lot of theological issues that arise as a result of system…the thinking and questions produced by imposing and/or applying a systematic grid on the text.

One well known example is the whole question of Limited Atonement. Let me first say, I believe in the doctrine. That said, you’re pretty hard pressed to find the doctrine explicitly taught in the Scriptures. There are a few verses which sort of allude to it, but largely the doctrine is derived from taking the principle of election and then logically deducing its implications.

People like me, and I’m not alone, argue that we get into trouble when we start using that method in our reading of the Bible. We are in danger of making the Bible say things it doesn’t actually say and we’re also in danger of restricting what the Bible says…constraining it to fit within our formulations, our grid.

So while I can agree with Limited Atonement, I don’t think the Bible presents that truth or uses that truth in the way it is presented and employed in the Calvinistic 5 points. They’re true enough, but by presenting the teaching of the Bible in that way…it’s actually restricting what the Bible says as well as imposing a grid, a lens to look through….that isn’t quite in line with how the Bible presents those particular theological issues.

Other examples would be the whole debate over supra- and infralapsarianism. The question itself, the ordering of the decrees, is not something you’re going to get from the text. It’s taking certain portions of the Bible and logically working back to the starting point. At this point there’s a divide on the Doctrine of God. I don’t think God is restricted to Aristotelian type logic. It’s fine for the temporal and physical, but in the realm of metaphysics, in eternity, those laws cannot be applied in the same way. So to take something like…Election, and then essentially work out the math of it via syllogisms, working back to the source or initial causes, I think is a mistake. All the more when you now use your conclusions to affect other doctrines, which is exactly what happens. You start talking about whether or not the Gospel Offer is free and that sort of thing. You end up with lots of ‘problem texts’ and when that happens you’re on the wrong track.

The whole lapsarian question, I think, is a mistake stemming from a wrong way of thinking about the Bible and theology. It’s no surprise much of Reformed Scholasticism found itself Supra-lapsarian, and most Hyper-Calvinists tend that way as well. It’s logical, but I don’t think it’s Biblical. And to be fair, they would say that statement is erroneous. Logical=Biblical to many of them.  Again, we divide over what the Bible is and to some extent who God is.

Another example would be the origin of the soul question and how it pertains to Original Sin…the two camps being the Traducean and Creationist. Not to be confused with the Earth Creationist issue…something entirely different.

Does the sin nature translate to a new soul via natural generation…the pollution passes on through the parent’s genes as it were? Or is each individual soul created anew…in innocence and the Original Sin of Adam is applied to it?

The issue is really about the sin of Adam and how it affects us today….are we guilty of Adam’s actual sin because he was our Federal Head? Or do we merely receive the pollution from his sin, being born with a sin nature? This can affect how you view the 2nd Adam, but again, is this something really derived from the text? Certainly Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 deal with the 1st and 2nd Adam, and we can't ignore or downplay the issue.

It’s terribly important, but some of these questions go far beyond what we can actually derive from the text. They’re driven by system, and if our whole understanding of system is derived from extra-scriptural philosophical forces…we can end up far away from what the text was meant to communicate. I think this has happened in general with the whole question of Election. It’s absolutely true and plainly taught in the Bible, but it has been abused and misplaced by many…and others due to their system commitments end up explaining it away.

Perhaps you can see how one might get into trouble when you start down these roads? Rationalism applied to the text won’t allow for some questions to be left unresolved…or I would argue in many cases it’s not a matter of the question being unresolved as much as it is asking the wrong question to begin with.

The New England Puritans were caught in the Rationalist trap and it’s no surprise (at least to me) their grandchildren ended up Unitarians. The same can be said of the Higher Critical movement in Germany. The earlier generations through the theological method they adapted….essentially cut their own throats. The Trinity ends up being picked apart, and the irresolvable tensions are forced to the point of resolution…ultimately destroying the concept.

And to deal with your last set of questions….the whole issue of the Incarnation also is very much subject to these same theological dangers. In fact this has often proved an entry point to the larger issue, the umbrella issue of the Trinity.

There are a myriad of mind boggling questions regarding the Person of Christ. And I think you’ll find the average Western-default thinking Evangelical actually holds to what historically would be known as a Christological heresy. Most are Apollinarian.

 The early Church wrestled with just about every variation and possibility in understanding the Incarnation. There is an orthodox formula….2 Natures in 1 Person. And yet if you start digging you’ll find that many issues are not really resolved. Same with the Trinity. The Latin and Greek camps were often holding to different ideas and Latin struggled to translate some of the Greek concepts…leading to sometimes divergent understandings.

I’m quite content with this and with the same types of unresolved issues we find with the Trinity. Many however are not….and since the Reformed have often been and continue to be perhaps the most intellectually vigorous Protestant faction…it’s there that you’ll find a lot of the continuing work being done. Frankly I’m more than a little uncomfortable with a good deal of it. The whole present line of Trinitarian investigation I find to be more than a little troubling…dangerous and presumptuous speculation.

How do we reconcile Christ’s human limitedness with his omniscience and omnipotence? We can’t and I don’t think we need to. The Incarnation…this Person, both God and Man is unique and frankly beyond our understanding. I think we need to just submit to the text itself. What are we left with? We need to acknowledge that in some sense He limited Himself (Philippians 2) and yet even while a babe in the manger He was the Almighty God holding up the universe by the word of his power.

We get into trouble when we start asking all the questions like….if Christ is God, did God die on the cross? If God didn’t die, what happened to his Divine nature when His human body was killed? Can the natures separate if there’s but one person? Are there two persons?

If Christ is impeccable…unable to sin…were his temptations real? If He CAN’T sin, then how could he really be tempted as we are, as the text says? If he was ABLE to sin, then what does that say about God?

It’s kind of like when people try to trip us up by asking the…can God make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it question. It frustrates us because it’s the wrong question. God can’t deny Himself….the question poses a problem…the problem is the question.

These speculative system driven theological questions are all wrong….they’re probing into the wrong areas. It’s not a matter of it being forbidden knowledge. It’s simply, we don’t have the tools to ask the questions or understand the answers. We’re using a sledgehammer to build microchips. If God wanted us to know, He would have told us. I must confess pride finds that a bit hard to take. We want to know…we want all the answers. I think we have more than enough with what we’ve been given.

I think these tensions, between Time and Eternity, the Temporal and the Eschatological are almost omnipresent throughout the entire Biblical Theology. Systematics, Scholasticism, seek to eliminate these tensions or dualisms. It seeks to eliminate one side or to synthesize the two. I’m arguing against that. Yes it does mean a theology text-book might end up being quite a bit slimmer…but it in no way lessens the wonder and majesty of God. In fact as I listen to much of the modern Trinitarian discussion I find it really quite demeaning to God, putting Him under the microscope as it were.

Also, I would argue the Scholastic method has led to a sort of hyper-Creedalism. You end up with documents like the Westminster Confession, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt which in many areas (I argue) extend far beyond Scriptural bounds. But here’s where on a practical level it becomes most unfortunate….these documents end up promoting schism. Because now unless you subscribe to the Creed and thus the whole systemized way of thinking, all their presuppositions which drive the system….they will exclude you from their fellowship.


Cal said...

A comment and a disagreement:

I think you're very right about allowing the tensions but I think we need to tread very lightly. It opens the floodgates to all sorts of "tensions" that do not exist but are stated to allow for a certain doctrine to slip through.

Which follows to the disagreement: I'm unconvinced at Calvinistic understanding of Election. I think it has sorted the idea of Election wrongly. However I can be slapped in the face with "not allowing a tension". I'm not an Arminian either. Think things out, love God with our whole minds and if it turns out it's a gordian knot, that's fine. However the Reformed approach is good to find those knots, the problem as you stated is that they play Alexander and that's a bridge too far.

Protoprotestant said...

You're right...there's a danger in allowing tensions to remain as well. There are dangers on all sides.

With regard to Election....I've had many Calvinists think I'm an Arminian and Arminians always think I'm a Calvinist.

The 5pts are a reductionism. I would never want to present the theology of Scripture in that form. They're true (I argue) but to put them into that grouping, that arrangement, is more harmful than helpful.

Divine Predestination is meant to inspire worship and grant comfort. It's not meant to dominate soteriology, sacramentology, or even drive ecclesiology in general. That's where the problem comes in...Election ends up affecting all those doctrines and I think distorts the fuller picture of what the Bible gives us.

The Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. God's Holiness and Righteousness, and His mercy and love.......all tensions. Take any of them and start building an unbalanced structure...you're in trouble.

I guess I'd say I'm not looking at balance for balance sake or tension just to avoid dealing with questions. I think the Bible presents many issues which SEEM contradictory...but they're not.

When people say the Bible is full of contradictions many say the answer is to synthesize. That sometimes is true especially with regard to narrative. But theologically more often than not it's learning how to ask the right questions.

Synthesis and/or favouring/anchoring on one side...either way is trying to deal with the knot. Leave it be and appreciate it's complexity and wonder. Again, not very satisfactory to the inquisitive flesh or for a theology department at a seminary....