15 July 2012

A Few Clarifications Regarding Philosophy and Christian Theology

This is an update/revision of an article originally published in July 2010

For years I grappled internally and with others over theological issues. As time progressed I became convinced most theological debate was basically fruitless due to fundamental differences regarding reason itself, and accepted or assumed thought categories.

We bring this baggage with us when we read the Bible and we run the risk of two extremes.

Theological Rationalism I contend is an elevation of term logic-based Systematics to the place of supremacy in the realm of doctrinal construction. The Scriptures are subordinated to the conditions and structure of the model. The System is read into the Scripture, or the Scripture is made to conform to the systematics model.

Mysticism is a rejection of deduction and synthesis, functioning deliberately as a non-system. Emotion often ends up becoming the standard. It is by definition subjective in its doctrine of authority.

How can we read the Bible, employ reason in the realm of metaphysics and yet subordinate our understanding to the Scripture? How can we synthesize and yet avoid speculation and undue induction?

How can we find acceptable termination points…places where we say…no further development is necessary nor allowed...and yet avoid both of these pitfalls?

I'm suggesting a system that I would call Dialectical Theology or a Theology of Dichotomy. Dialectics is a confusing term because others have used it in different ways. I'm using it here not as a 'Yes and No' method, or a method of logic to work out (synthesize) or in some cases break down dogma. Rather, I'm suggesting:

In the realm of Theology, accessible only to those who have been given the gift of faith, we employ logic with confidence within the dual (or sometimes additional) categories repeatedly presented in Scripture, and yet we must at times leave certain questions unresolved or in other instances due to the nature of the tension, equally assert the status of both categories despite apparent contradiction or unresolved dichotomy. The contradiction is apparent, because Term Logic is unable to deal with Temporal-Eternal or Visible-Invisible interplay. When forced exclusively into one realm or the other, there may in fact be in a contradiction. But in this case the contradiction arises because of faulty or insufficient methodology.

What are these dual categories? A few examples…

We see these pairings repeatedly in Scripture…

This age and the age to come
Already and not yet
They are not all Israel who are of Israel (Covenantal language applied to those who apostatize.)
Christ presented as fully God….and Christ as fully man

These are just a few.

What is the nature of these categories? They are what I would call eternal or sometimes essential truths that have reflections in reality that are equally true in time and space and yet may not reflect (in time and space)…the actual reality in eternity.

This is not exactly the concept taught in Platonic Realism…though with all these discussions the categories of Realism, Conceptualism, and Nominalism give us some idea of how we deal with dichotomy, universality, and particularity. So I use the historic labels though somewhat in a loose manner. The concepts play out very differently depending on the context.

Platonism can be just as rationalistic as Aristotelianism or Nominalism, but Platonic thought at least grasps dynamic concretized metaphysics …categories the Bible employs. Historically Aristotelian thought overthrew earlier Platonic models and the Scholasticism of the medieval period contributed much to what later became Protestant Theology and more specifically Dogmatics.

I am of the school that believes Luther, Calvin and the first generation or so seemed to escape some of this…but the Calvinism of the 17th century turned away from Calvin in terms of method. Not that we care about Calvin, but these things should be of interest to us. We can learn from them. Any time someone is wrestling with basic epistemological questions with regard to reading the Bible...it's worth a look.

So what of these seeming paradoxical categories presented to us in the text?

How can this be?

In some cases it is because as I said…time is still progressive and has not yet reached the eschaton when it merges, as it were, with Eternity. At the eschaton the two categories will be reconciled. This would not be true in the case of the Incarnation which I would still use as something of a paragon of this type of interplay or tension. The Incarnation is the tension…the Incarnation is the hermeneutical paradigm. Christology…The Person of Jesus the Christ, he is our foundation, our a priori assumption. The Dialectical Hermeneutics I propose are grounded in Christocentricity.

I have not fully developed this in my own mind, but I would say there are some things inherent in the created universe reflecting the unity-diversity tensions within the Godhead. If there are these types of supra-logical constructions not only in the 2nd person of the Trinity but in the Triune nature of God Himself…it would follow that as we interact with Divine Revelation ,there will be a certain degree of mystery and incomprehensibility.

Yet, Scripture is not presented to us as esoteric mystical maxims, rather it is given to us in historical narrative forms and in theological constructions implying the validity of reason…and yet is in the end limited.

For communication to exist there must be certain degrees of intelligibility which implies structure and thus the use of logic…but we must be cautious. It is ironic that those most concerned with offensive autonomous thought are often then guilty of erecting systems demonstrating man's unbelievable self-confidence to probe theological nuance and engage in speculation. What is often labeled as 'Biblical' has not resulted from exegesis but speculation and inductive development.

What speculative theology does and certainly in how it has been applied in the realm of Dominionistic Worldview thinking, from a Biblicist standpoint, must certainly be identified as autonomous thought and not merely in the Natural realm, but in the Metaphysical sphere. It has resulted in what to me seems an astonishing assault on the Divine Incomprehensibility.

Probably the strongest argument accounting for the apparent contradiction is our fallen nature. The sinful nature has limited our ability to grasp eternal truths. We are not (collectively) so depraved that we are unable to formulate imperfect Natural Law based on Natural Revelation and we can positively construct logical and philosophical systems sufficient for horizontal life….the world in space and time governed by Providence. Fallen man can create states and societies, artistic and economic theories and invent machines and devices.

They all fail in the end, cannot philosophically account for themselves, and will degenerate when Providence withdraws the hand of restraint. But I contend the quest for an Integrationist Monism…a macro-system, is not only fruitless in a fallen world, it is futile. Utopianism always ends in failure, the Monism always fails after a short time.

Doctrinally the fruit of the tendency is to actually profane the Covenant Word and Kingdom, much like hyper-speculation profanes the Incomprehensibility and Majesty of God.

Our depravity and our deficient deductive tools render us incapable of unaided interaction with the Eternal. We must be regenerated to even 'see' The Kingdom of God, let alone begin to understand it. We employ logic but understand our limitations to penetrate the depths of the Grace-Revelation realm, but we cannot engage in speculation and must exercise extreme caution in deduction. Even the two-sided model, the dynamic I'm advocating must in the end be viewed as a general organizing principle, not a concrete structure or model which functions as a filter for all texts. We can't go looking for it, which would be to employ a key, model, or formula, but when we encounter it we must respect the boundaries.

We realize the Kingdom is not bound by the Laws of Logic…because they are sufficient only for the Natural Revelation realm….not the Grace-Revelation realm. Just because they aren't 'sufficient' doesn't mean we leave them behind. But they are subordinated. We do live in the temporal realm and God communicates to us with words. Logic is necessary for the words to have meaning, but our very words in the end are inadequate to fully describe the eternal glories.

When the Scriptures present to us something like individual election and yet also demonstrate our ability and responsibility…and even potentiality….

At that point we need to stop and recognize the temporal limitations of the laws of logic are insufficient to reconcile the two…and we need to just leave the two referents or categories in tension.

This is not illogical…..breeding scepticism

Nor is it a-logical….resting in mysticism

It is supra-logical, or if the term were available I would call it meta-logical. It is something that is beyond the capability of our fallen minds and temporal models to reconcile or to frankly even interact with.

Nominalism historically created a climate in which all metaphysics were cast into doubt. Either the faith is to be abandoned…with all metaphysics …

Or, in the case of the church, what I continue to call Theological Nominalism, leads to a kind of Schliermachian or Kierkegaard-ian 'leap of faith'…or let go and let God as it is so often put today. It doesn't have to make sense…just believe.

This of course is another form of mysticism, most familiar to us today in Charismatic circles.

Or there is another type of Nominalism which is really Aristotelianism applied to theology and metaphysics, wherein Revelation is completely accepted, but as the theologians construct, they reject the concept of dichotomy when it comes to theology. They won't accept ideas such the visible/invisible distinction or the Bible teaching us some things from multiple perspectives…things like Covenant and Election which are used in different ways.

This Theological Nominalism applies Ockham's razor to textual questions and reduces theology, introducing considerable scepticism regarding some of the plain truths taught in Scripture. Sometimes this Nominalism is Inverted, rather than focusing on particulars and individual concepts it focuses on the universal and plural, the eternal and uses that axis as the referent. So then, the visible things….ecclesiology for example, becomes the abstraction or concept.

I'm not saying we need to read more philosophy, but we do need to grapple with the text and why others just as committed to its Divine origin and inerrancy have come up with so many different ways of reading it. Most groups have some part right but then in getting some wrong, their foundation is incomplete and the building ends up crooked.

The very fact that I can converse with so many people who simply cannot bring themselves to think outside of the conventional categories and indeed in many cases don't seem to be able to, has lead me to want to probe these issues.

For some readers they may say, okay, I get it….don't let the system define the Bible, let the Bible define the system. Right….but there are others who want something more, if not only for themselves, for the sake of understanding where others are coming from. I want to ask the right questions. Often I find whole paradigms presented with complicated structures and responses which stem from a few basic questions being answered in a wrong or more often lopsided way at the very beginning. It's hard to argue with these people because the realm of debate is up in the superstructure. They want to debate issues which result from their assumptions and they find it very difficult not only to question the issues, but to question the assumption….sometimes to even see the assumption they don't realize they operating with.

One quick and simple example…there are many more and some much more complicated.

We have to recapture America. We've all heard this before, and we're all familiar with the discussion a statement like that engenders. People will argue all day long about the founding fathers, lesser magistrates, Lex Rex, tyranny, Ulster-Scots/Scot's Irish Presbyterian culture v. Anglicanism. They'll talk about abortion, homosexuality, the Supreme Court, Foreign Policy, economics…all these things.

Interesting things to talk about, I will be the first to admit. But when I suggest to someone that the American Revolution was sinful…but nevertheless it happened and so we just live the consequences…I find I'm often confronted with stunned silence.

There are assumptions built into American Christianity, upon which a huge structure is built that is never questioned.

What if the Revolution was wrong? What if there is theological justification, no such thing as a Christian Nation? So where does that leave us? All their questions become moot…when they're based on the assumption.

Well for some like myself, it's rather liberating. I can now have a discussion about the Revolution, the Founding Fathers, the fact that America was the first explicitly non-Christian state in the Western Tradition as was lamented by many Christians in that day. I can talk about the absurdity and Unbiblical nature of the lesser magistrate doctrine developed by Calvin and others. I can talk about Rutherford…how he had some good things to say and got some other things dreadfully wrong. I can appreciate the Scots-Irish (I'm part one myself), and the Covenanters and yet at the same time be very critical of them. I can talk about social issues as Christian, and not as a Christo-American.

But for others, it's trampling holy ground. They can't even ask those questions because they've invested so much in the structure they've built. They can't question it. They can't even begin to. So these assumptions are computed into every equation of debate and since I refuse to use their formulae it is almost impossible to have a productive discussion.

That's a simple example. When you talk to Neo-Calvinists or Van Tillians it gets a bit more complicated, but the same principle is at work. Basic statements about Culture and Dominion, or Integration are made and it is difficult to get some of the adherents to even question the basic assumptions they are making. You end up arguing over things like music and politics but it's all done atop foundations that I assert are wrongly formed. It has profound implications.

More often than not the questions which led to the formation of these skewed foundations is directly attributable to the theological and philosophical issues I have been repeatedly discussing on these pages.

Rationalism, whether Nominalistic, Aristotelian, or even Platonic in its refusal to acknowledge the complex nature of Biblical dynamics, and the often dichotomous nature of Biblically revealed truth leads to over-simplified Integrational and Systematic tendencies which in turn lead to grave misunderstandings and an often large scale misreading of the Scriptures. This usually manifests itself around primary foundational theological concepts such as Kingdom, Covenant, Soteriology, and Ecclesiology. The nature of the Kingdom is misidentified. The Covenant is forced into only visible or invisible categories, or it is read mono-covenantally, rejecting Redemptive-Historical development, or it is read only historically and fails to grasp the unifying elements. The Church is either hyper-concretized or hyper-abstracted rather than realizing the Scriptures reveal all these doctrines in both covenantal eschatological and covenantal economical forms. The sacraments are either abstractions or hyper-concretized….both extremes creating unnecessary superstition.

Soteriology is either read in light of election, in light of free will, or light of axiomatic formulations concerning Justification which then define all other Soteriological terms, and reduces them in scope. Then depending on how one answers these questions there if often a considerable outworking in terms of Eschatological expectation and the nature of the Christian life.

Our theology shapes how we live and act. That's obvious, but there are certain basic areas which profoundly affect the others.