Saturday, July 29, 2006

How do we know?

Ok, this is heavier stuff than I normally post, so if theological argument is not your thing, feel free to skip it. But here in Sydney this is an important issue, because of a significant group (referred to as the mjs in this -- they are the dominant group at the moment in my own denomination, the same group who do not believe in the ordination of women or the charismatic activity of the Spirit) who believe that God only reveals Himself propositionally (through specific, dare I say formulaic, verbal statements in the Bible) and not in any other way. This description may not do justice to the nuances of their theology, unfortunately (from my perspective) it is an accurate reflection of their practice. This issue came up a while ago in some correspondence a friend was having with one of that party, and he asked for my take. These are my "thoughts in process":

++Their assumption is that knowing God intellectually is the primary requisite. Ok, this is a straw man in a sense, since no one (at least that I’ve known personally) would actually say that was their goal, but I am looking at the fruit here (since Jesus said that was how we are to discern our teachers) and what I see amongst mj’s in practice is the exaltation of intellectual understanding of the scriptures at the expense of other things which were long held to be central to Christian growth and obedience. I am not discounting the importance of intellectual knowledge or the value of scriptural study. We are commanded to love God with all of our minds (as well as heart and soul and strength), and I would assume that stretching our understanding to engage with truth as God defines it in His word is an essential part of that. How else are we to rightly divide the word of truth, or be renewed by the transforming of our minds? To assume, however, that that is our only knowledge, or that intellectual apprehension of theological truth is equivalent to godliness (or even some sort of brownie point), or that intellectual truth is the only truth of value, is much more shaky.

++The elevation of propositional theology. Yes, we do need propositional theology, or we end up floating around in a kind of lukewarm new age soup, where anything goes. But I would suggest that the principal function of propositional theology is negative – it defines what God is not. By propositional theology I know that God is Creator, not a pantheistic part of His own creation. By propositional theology I know that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit , He is therefore neither exclusively God or exclusively man. By propositional theology I know that I cannot be justified by my own works or find salvation outside of Christ. And so on … But propositional theology on its own will not save me, or produce in me the fruit of the Spirit, or move my heart in wonder, love and awe as I catch a glimpse of my awesome God. It sets the boundaries (and they are important boundaries) beyond which is not-God and untruth, but it does not reveal the truth of God to my inner person, because it only shows me truth in one dimension, like a black and white photo of a rainbow.

++Further, I would suggest that the Bible is not, except for a few particular verses, a book of propositional theology. To extract propositional theology from it is a valid exercise of human logic and reasoning, but let us be quite honest that that is what we are doing – presenting an interpretation, a “best fit” of Biblical revelation to the logical framework that is our cultural preference. We are one step (or maybe more?) removed from the actual Word of God. And, inevitably, I think, (though no one else seems to be asking it!) this also raises the question of why God chose to communicate this way. Why didn’t He give us a neat manual of propositional theology instead of this curious, messy, inspiring, frustrating amalgam of narrative and poetry and even people’s personal correspondence that has become our Bible? Could it possibly be that He wants to communicate something more to us than can be contained in propositional logic? Could the faith to which we are called be more than intellectual consent to a set of theological constructs, coupled with appropriately moral and correct behaviour? What is God up to and what response are we to give to this?

++Perhaps side by side with the question “how do we know?” we need to be asking “how much do we know?” One of the frightening trends I see among mj s is the assumption that when we have dealt with Truth propositionally and tied up the loose ends of our system of systematic theology, we have achieved all the knowledge of God that we humanly can or need to. Only an irrational level of conceit of course, could induce a person to believe that they then have total revelation, so the usual response is to assume that other forms of knowing God (which, after all, even at their uttermost, are still partial, and painfully inadequate, and shall be until we see Him face to face) are unnecessary, irrelevant or simply too unreliable to count. The assumption is that all our experience of God is a negligible source of truth compared to an intellectual abstraction. This is the point where I must part company with the mjs. I simply do not agree. Certainly all my experience, in it’s many forms must be subjected to and interpreted by scriptural truth – this is what the authority of scripture means, but it is, let us be really honest with ourselves, a bit of a two way process. Where my experience and the scripture do not line up, I certainly do not discard the bible, but neither do I discard my experience. I take a fresh look at both to work out which one I have misunderstood. Sometimes I must reinterpret my experience to fit in with objective revelation, sometimes (oh dear!) I find that the bible doesn’t necessarily say what I had thought it said. For instance, to give a concrete personal example, having been born and bred in the evangelical fold, I had always been taught cessationism. But when my experience demonstrated that God still speaks personally and directly to the believer today, I had to re-evaluate. Either my theology or my experience was wrong. In this case, careful re-reading of the scripture convinced me that the bible did not actually teach cessationism at all!

++At the heart of it all is mystery. God is eternal, infinite and holy. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. We are summoned to love Him, trust Him and obey Him, to surrender our whole being to Him as the only possible right and sane response to both His kingship and His grace. Yet we can only know Him so far as He reveals Himself to us. Dare we assume any limits or restrictions on how He may choose to do this? He is God, He will impart Himself to us in as many ways as he chooses. It is we who so often have eyes but see not, and ears, but hear not, because we have presupposed that the God of the Universe will only meet with us in predetermined ways.

1 comment:

Terry, Toronto Canada said...

It seems to me that propositional theology requires cessationism. After all, if God is still actively communicating with us, he might, as he did in Old Testament times, change his mind. What would that do to our dearly held beliefs?

For me, the key is that the words for both belief and faith in Greek and Latin mean deep trust - a trust that is born in experience, not in the mind - a trust that comes from the heart.

If this is true, the only valid function of propositional theology is to invite us to the door of trust - to convince us to begin the Christian experiment - to open our hearts to the Divine Presence, and to keep it open to that Presence as it heals and transforms us. The only valid proof of Christianity is the experiential result of conducting that experiment - the development of beautiful people in what might become a more beautiful world - the Saints, in the Kingdom.

My concerns about how Propositional Theology is used are similar to yours:

1. Too many people seem to think Propositional Theology is the end in itself. This includes thinking that Christian experience, if it exists at all, is only of value for selling a propositional ideology. This is a reversal of goals, and at worst a kind of idolatry.

2. Some people seem to think that holding to a propositional ideology is the ticket of admission to the kingdom - If we just believe the right stuff, we will be admitted. This is like trying to do a business deal with God. Admission to the Kingdom is by Grace, and what we need to learn is how to accept that grace.

3. Propositional Theology tends to appeal to a subset of personalities. Without limiting the range or tarring everyone with the same brush, let's just say that it might appeal to people who tend to be strongly opinionated, and to those who are inclined towards being obsessive-compulsive. It does not appeal at all to a much wider set of more easy going personalities who also need to be invited to the door of faith. If we insist on the propositions, we by definition turn people away from the door to Life.

4. In addition to Propositional Theology there are many other fruitful and meaningful ways of looking at the scriptures, any number of which may also be fruitful and meaningful in directing individuals toward the Christ life, even though they are not viewed as "True" by the propositionalists. Should they be rejected on intellectual grounds even though they are effective? Didn't Paul say he was a Hebrew to the Hebrews and a Greek to the Greeks?

5. The Nicene Creed was developed under the political necessity of keeping unity in an establishment religion. That cat has been out of the bag since the reformation. Now the attempt to prescribe propositional uniformity actually has the effect of further dividing the body of Christ. The classic true story I have heard is of a New England protestant sect so small that it only existed in one congregation in one church building. And that congregation eventually divided into two over irreconciled differences on the interpretation of two lines of scripture.

6. The ancients believed that the center of the mind was the heart, not the head. The Summary of the Law is that we should receive the divine love and pass it on to our neighbours. It is entering and becoming part of the flow of God's love. Paul said if I have . . . and have not love . . . .
Too often theological propositions become an excuse not only for not loving other Christians, but for attacking them, for false claims of heresy against them - in short, for hate. When it leads to hate, what good is it?

7. The Propositions are often embodiments not of the truth, but of how ancient Greeks and Hebrews understood and talked about the truth. If Paul spoke to each group in ways that it would understand, doesn't it make sense to restate things in a way that makes more sense to moderns?
To give one example, take the doctrine of substitutional sacrifice. Sacrifice is not a feature of modern European-based culture, in fact, it is viewed as a primitive superstition. According to Isaiah, even God did not believe in it. But Isaiah notwithstanding, it was still practiced in the Second Temple at the time of Christ, and was familiar in the Greco-Roman world. So it was a good way of talking about the undoubted value of Christ's crucifixion for our salvation. How do we convey the underlying truth in words that are meaningful to today's world? We too, must be inspired, like Paul to speak the Gospel afresh.

8. Formulating propositions is an attempt to formalize and own the truth. But our formulations are not the truth. Jesus told us what the truth is; "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." In attempting to claim ownership of the truth, we attempt to claim ownership of God, and we are denying ownership (and salvation) to others.

God is not
Something we own.
We are God's,
And God is One.

And the Body of Christ is one, in spite of our differences. This becomes apparent in a number of revival/renewal settings where Christians of many denominations meet to praise and worship God together, enjoying fellowship and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When I have visited such places, I do not see people wasting time arguing theology. Why? Because God is Happening, and theology can be left with our coats.
The fundamental teaching of Jesus is simply this: The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand - God is Right Here. Let's not let our differing interpretations of the Tradition distract us from entering Christ - or from allowing Christ to enter us.