‘Publishing a system of theology is an irremediably hubristic enterprise’ (Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. vii).
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.
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?
I read here today that the NAE has developed a code of ethics for pastors. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with wanting to promote integrity and purity among pastors, but would this be necessary if evangelicals were properly rooted in ecclesial traditions and confessional frameworks that emphasized more than just Bebbington’s big four?
What do you make of the implications of this code? Is it an important corrective? A problematic development?
It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.). Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts. A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,
In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource. We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts. We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).
I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art. None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God. It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.
Earlier this year Paternoster released Steve Holmes’ new book The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life in the Christian Doctrine in Historical Perspective series edited by Alan Sell. Steve has been at work on the doctrine of God for some time now and this book, as Karen Kilby’s blurb on the back cover notes, can be viewed as both a textbook for historical theology and also an ‘intervention’ in recent debates about the doctrine of the Trinity. The volume certainly endeavors to canvas the historical and modern developments in a level-headed manner and yet, insofar as contemporary trinitarian doctrine must heed the wisdom of our theological forebears, it cannot help but call into question a number of the more recent proposals.
At the end of the book, there is a seven-point summary of patristic trinitarianism that includes, among other things, divine simplicity, the limitations of human speech about God, and the persons being distinguished by the relations of origin alone. Here is the provocative last paragraph of the book:
I don’t have any hard facts on when this tack became plausible or on how pervasive it is (no doubt the bifurcation of Jesus and Paul is somehow a factor), but it seems lately that the claim that Jesus himself did not overtly express concern about a particular spiritual or ethical issue in the Gospels constitutes an argument to the effect that Christian believers need not concern themselves with that issue. This can be (and has been) used in the case of homosexuality, for example: Jesus apparently did not feel the need to address the matter; therefore (so the logic runs), Christian believers are not obliged to take a hard line on whether such conduct is sinful.
Whether the issue at hand is homosexuality or something else, there are at least two significant problems with this approach to dealing with hot-button spiritual and ethical quandaries in our day. First, it proceeds on a warping of the analogy of Scripture, or the commitment to allowing clearer passages of Scripture to help in interpreting more difficult ones. The analogy of Scripture is useful when one text genuinely boggles the mind of even the most careful reader and other relevant texts can be invoked to establish parameters within which the difficult text should be understood. However, in the case of things like homosexuality, the importance of well-ordered doctrinal formulation, the importance of church polity (all things about which, allegedly, Jesus was not terribly concerned), there are texts that come at these topics in a reasonably straightforward fashion (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3 ; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Jude 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-5). Moreover, instead of employing particularly lucid texts in those cases to help in wrestling with difficult passages, the ‘Jesus said nothing about…’ argument actually attempts to use mere silence as the lens through which to view passages concerning homosexuality, etc. In other words, a move with some resemblance to the use of the analogia Scripturae actually lacks both of the conditions for using the analogy: unclear texts and clearer ones that shed light on those that are unclear.