‘Putting God in a Box’? Ruminations on a Common Saying

After a conversation earlier today in which this came up, I am reminded again of both the legitimate concern about ‘putting God in a box’ when we do theology and of the serious liabilities of this kind of suspicion toward theology.  There is, of course, the ever-present peril of assuming that we have comprehended God and pinned him down or packaged him neatly in a box.  Yet, though typically not meant to raze all possibility of doctrinal articulation and commitment, the attitude that is often beneath caution about ‘putting God in a box’ generally disparages serious and careful thinking about God and God’s works.  I’d like to suggest that this attitude and its common expression in hesitation about confining God to our descriptions are misguided for at least three reasons and then hear some of your thoughts on this.

First, it fails to carry the incomprehensibility of God into the practice of theology.  Indeed, it assumes that mystery, wonder, and reverence somehow simply cannot come with us into the realm of rational discourse and inform the way in which we operate there.  In a sense, one could say even that this attitude stems from unbelief: God’s greatness will begin to disintegrate with our theological distinctions and discriminations and so needs to be protected from such intellectual activity.  Perhaps, though, God’s awe-inspiring majesty and riches are never, and cannot be, in any real danger of being corroded even as we seek to speak carefully, even precisely, of him.

Second, this attitude misunderstands what theology is meant to do.  It is not meant to dissolve the mystery of God but rather, in view of God’s gracious revelation, to elaborate on certain points and make helpful distinctions for the well-being of the church’s worship and witness and then to leave things there, to reflect and to formulate modestly without ever presuming to domesticate God.

Third, this kind of thinking can leave the believer with his or her own experience as the primary or even only platform from which to talk about the faith and commend it to others.  If one resists confessional and rational articulation, one can get stuck in let-me-just-tell-you-how-Jesus-changed-my-life mode.  Because of the objective work of God in history and because of the fact that God’s word addresses us from without, it will not do to have only our experience as a resource or vehicle for commending the gospel.  God has worked and does work in the world and not just subjectively in our own hearts and it’s important that believers be able to give an account of that.  Otherwise, we may even risk absolutizing our own (always limited) experience and unduly foisting it upon others as the normative pathway to knowing God.

Ultimately, as Bavinck puts it, ‘Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics’ (RD, 2:28).  Yet, lest we appear to spurn God’s redemption of the human intellect, something is amiss if we resist thinking clearly about him as in the work of theology.

‘Cartesian Asceticism’

In Joseph Owens’ essay in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, the author emphasizes that Aquinas (with Aristotle) roots human knowledge in objects in the world impinging on our senses.  With a nice turn of phrase, Owens marks how this is rather different from the subjectivism that one finds in Descartes and, generally, in ‘postmodern’ sensibilities:

[T]he postmodern approach is bound by its own historical antecedents in a way that stretches as far back as Descartes. It cannot take seriously the approach from things in themselves.  It is incapable of understanding how things in themselves may be epistemologically prior to thoughts and words.  Still conditioned by the Cartesian asceticism of turning one’s back upon the immaturity of sense cognition and taking one’s ideas as the starting points for philosophical thinking, it finds incomprehensible the stand that the thing signified can be epistemologically prior to the sign (p. 56).

In Bavinck’s narrative of this (in RD vol. 1), one finds that our true sense perception of the world serving as the foundation of human knowledge is a staple in the history of catholic Christian theology and philosophical thinking.  Intriguingly, on this reading, infatuation with idealism or linguistic constructivism in recent Christian thinkers enamored of (so-called) postmodern thought represents a spurning of the catholic (small ‘c’) resources and trajectory.

Any thoughts on any of this?

On Doubting Ourselves (as Opposed to Holy Scripture)

I came across this comment in Bavinck as he examines the doctrine of eternal punishment and aims to bind the discussion to exegesis:

Human feeling is no foundation for anything important (RD, 4:708).

Bavinck has a deep appreciation for nature and for common grace.  For example, he affirms the reality of an implanted knowledge of God and recognizes the force of the consensus gentium (consensus of the nations) as an argument for belief in human immortality.  Yet, at the end of the day, he’s unwilling to crown fallen human intuition king in the realm of theology.

What do you make of the quote?  Is it helpful or unhelpful in relation to contemporary debates about hell and in relation to other theological loci?

On Pendulum-Swinging

I ran across an interesting comment in Bavinck about moving between theological extremes and seeking middle ground (Bavinck is quoting James Buchanan):

But it is common to all those who take the ‘middle way’ to show a greater preference ‘for that extreme they go halfway to than for that from which they go halfway’ (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:532).

Any thoughts on this?  Where do you see overcompensatory pendulum-swinging taking place in contemporary Christian and theological circles and what are some resources for decelerating the pendulum?

Paedobaptism

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit lately on different features of the doctrine of the church and would like to hear some thoughts on Bavinck’s ten propositions concerning ‘the validity of infant baptism’.  As someone reared in a Roman Catholic family but converted in a Baptist setting, I’ve been intrigued for some time by the paedobaptist teaching of the Reformed, whose tradition I find salutary with regard to so many areas of theological enquiry.  Here are Bavinck’s big ten in summary (see Reformed Dogmatics 4:525-32):

1)  At the inception of the church it was natural for baptism to concern primarily adult converts and this is what we see in the New Testament.  However, because valid inferences as well as explicit statements of biblical teaching are binding for the church, the legitimacy of infant baptism doesn’t depend on it being explicitly narrated or commanded in the NT.

2)  Baptism is the new covenant counterpart to circumcision, which was, of course, granted to the infants of Abraham’s family in the Old Testament.  Baptism and circumcision are of the same essence, but the former exceeds the latter in grace, not least because it is given to both male and female.

3)  Covenant and election are two distinct categories and the former (in which sphere the sacraments are administered) concerns persons in their historical existence in communion with one another.  In the OT, children are ‘regarded in connection with [parents]’ and God ‘established a communion of parents and children in grace and blessing’.  ‘While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations.’

4)  In the NT, children are still regarded as participants in the covenant and this is evidenced as Jews in the Gospels reject Jesus and in response Jesus calls into question their status as God’s people but still in kindness regards Jewish children as ‘children of the covenant’.

5)  The apostolic ministry proceeds along the same lines, with the church taking the place of Israel and households as organic wholes in the book of Acts converting to Christ and sharing in common blessing (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14).  ‘Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age.’

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Calvinism, Drivel, and the Best Possible World

Herman Bavinck’s section on the divine counsel in Reformed Dogmatics is, in my rather biased mind at least, teeming with shrewd theological judgments.  However, it also bears the mark of a deep, pastoral awareness of the tragic and the disturbing realities of the world.  In the midst of underscoring the active posture of the will  of God and the dependence of all creaturely happenings thereon, he acknowledges,

Present in this world there is so much that is irrational, so much undeserved suffering, so many inexplicable disasters, such unequal and incomprehensible apportionment of good and bad fortune, such a heartbreaking contrast between joy and sorrow, that any thinking person has to choose between interpreting it – as pessimism does – in terms of the blind will of some misbegotten deity, or on the basis of Scripture believingly trusting in the absolute, sovereign, and yet – however incomprehensible – wise and holy will of him who will some day cause the full light of heaven to shine on those riddles of our existence….Pelagianism scatters flowers over graves, turns death into an angel, regards sin as mere weakness, lectures on the uses of adversity, and considers this the best possible world.  Calvinism has no use for such drivel.  It refuses to be hoodwinked.  It tolerates no delusion, takes full account of the seriousness of life, champions the rights of the Lord of lords, and humbly bows in adoration before the inexplicable sovereign will of God Almighty.  As a result, it proves to be fundamentally more merciful than Pelagianism (RD, 1:394).

For Bavinck, the tradition has always taught ‘not that God could have done “more” and “better” than he did, for he always acts in a divine and perfect manner, but that he could have made things “greater in number, greater, and better” than he did’ (RD: 1:234).  Along with this recognition of the fact that God’s abilities are not exhausted on created things, Bavinck is of course steeped in the biblical hope of new creation.  It’s from this vantage point that he can bluntly characterize as ‘drivel’ talk of this world as ‘the best possible world’.

How does this stack up against contemporary Calvinistic expositions and impressions of the divine decree or divine providence?  What do you  make of it?