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Theology has been called the "Queen of Sciences." One might consider this statement to be true partially just because of the importance of the subject matter, but there is another reason why this title is appropriate. Theology, just like her little sister, apologetics, is not really a discipline in its own right, but a combination of many disciplines. To be a competent theologian, it is not enough to study theology. You need to study the Bible, church history, philosophy, ancient history, languages, literature, science, geography, and any number of other disciplines that will impact the final product of your labor. So, theology is also the Queen because all other disciplines are in service to her.
It is also appropriate to think of all other disciplines contributing to theology because, after all,theology concerns itself with God, the one who has created the entire universe. As Aquinas said, theology is the culmination of wisdom, and wisdom ultimately stems from God. Wisdom is the highest form of knowledge, and knowledge is based on truth. So, all truth, all wisdom, and all knowledge ultimately lead to their source in God. This is ultimately why theology can never simply be a recitation of facts concerning God because as we speak about God, it is impossible to avoid having God speak to us. I mean this in the simplest, non-poetic form. To study God means to study our Creator to whom we are accountable. Thus, at the same time as we can look at theology as the highest form of science, it is ultimately also the most practical because, if theology does not lead to application, we have not really brought theology to its proper conclusion.
So, we can start out by saying that the essence of theology is to read the Bible and to apply it. Now, there is a lot to be said for such a statement. First of all, one should be all for reading the Bible, and second, one should be all for applying it. Third, in any number of situations, such as holding a Bible study or having our daily devotions, chances are this appears to be precisely what we do. If I preach a sermon, for example, it is very likely that I will have picked out a passage and am aiming towards one particular application of what the passage teaches. In the process of getting to that conclusion, I will emphasize certain parts of the passage and attempt to illustrate them so that they will make sense in our contemporary setting. By the time that I am through, the subpoints should all add up to the main point, and I will ask the congregation to implement the main point, whether it be an invitation to receive Christ as Savior or some aspect of leading the Christian life. By and large, my procedure will be essentially to move from the biblical text to what it says to us today.
But this is only how it appears to be externally. In reality, such a leapfrog is not really possible. As I take the biblical text and I draw my conclusions concerning how we should act, I am implicitly using a number of other substages, which I may not point out explicitly, but which are certainly inevitable. So, what I will attempt to do in this essay is to carefully delineate these various steps that bring us to a full-fledged theology.
Let me make it clear that I am stipulating the truth of Christianity. I am also assuming that theology is based on the Bible, and that the Bible is the inspired word of God. There is obviously a lot that can be said and has been said about defending the truth of these assumptions (see my No Doubt about It), but for our purposes in this essay I want to talk about theology and not apologetics.
To emphasize this point let me quote the very familiar verse from 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Now, it would be silly to claim that the Bible is the inspired Word of God because it says so in these verses. That would simply be circular reasoning, which does not have a whole lot of apologetic value. However, this verse does put some restrictions on what we can pass off in the name of theology. The two assumptions that Christianity is true and that Christianity is based on the Bible should be noncontroversial and should cut across denominations and traditions. Consequently, when we are saying that Christian theology bases itself on the Bible, we are assuming the truth of whatever it is that the Bible affirms.
There is no need at this point to go further and argue for the inerrancy of the Bible; it suffices for our purposes that it would be contradictory to say that the Bible is authoritative, but that it affirms falsehoods. The issue in which concepts such as inerrancy become important has more to do with the question of what the Bible actually affirms as opposed to what is just incidental information that is part of the context, but not really a part of what the Bible teaches us. Furthermore, these issues usually come up in the context of historical, geographical, or scientific questions, not when it comes to straightforward theological assertions, and this statement from Timothy certainly falls into the category of theological affirmations, rather than any of those other categories.
So, theology basis itself upon the Bible, which contains the observation of itself that it is inspired. This fact leaves us with one of two options:
1. The statement could be false, in which case the Bible is not inspired, and in which case it would be foolish to base our theology on the assertions of the Bible.
2. The other possibility is that it is true, in which case the Bible is inspired.
----What is logically not possible is for the Bible to be true and not to be inspired.
But this text not only says that the Bible is inspired, it also stresses that the Bible is sufficient. Being inspired entails that it contains everything for a Christian to be complete and to be prepared for every good work. Thus, it would appear that, despite what I was claiming above, the Bible is all we need, and all we need to do is to study the Bible and apply it. So, where is the leapfrog?
The leap frog to which I alluded comes into play when we think about how we are actually learning from the Bible. It is at this point that it becomes naïve to think that we can simply read the Bible and apply it directly without at least implicitly transferring the message of the Bible through various channels before it becomes applicable for us. Nonetheless, to say that we cannot leapfrog from the text to application does not deny the Bible as the ultimate authority.
Let's say that if I am teaching a class, and my students need to meet the requirements that I have set for passing the class, then I am the authority concerning those requirements. However, there needs to be a device by which I communicate these requirements to my students. They cannot read my mind, and I am not capable of sending telepathic messages. So, I will write up the requirements for the course in the syllabus, but that does not do much good if I just keep the syllabus to myself. Whatever is contained in the syllabus needs to be conveyed to the students. Thus, I hand out the syllabus on paper, post it on the Internet, talk about it on the first day of classes, and hope that my students understand the requirements for the course. Still, there may be questions, and it is not at all unlikely that some things that I say on the syllabus will be misunderstood. Thoughtful students looking at the syllabus will attempt to understand what I tried to say by relying on various factors: what they know about me in general, what they know about me as a professor, what is a reasonable expectation in a course of this nature, the kinds of requirements they have known me to give in previous courses if they took any with me, and possibly other circumstantial factors. Regardless, though, of what they may conclude, my requirements as expressed in the syllabus, and as meant by me, remain to be authoritative. I might have decided to implement some new requirements in the course or to have changed the length or purpose of certain assignments. Thus, even though all of the other factors will have an impact on how a student interprets the syllabus, they will never be as authoritative as the syllabus as I intend it to be understood.
The application to theology becomes obvious. Even though, as we shall discuss over the installments of this essay, there are many factors that will influence us in how we understand the message of the Bible so that we can apply it sensibly, the Bible remains authoritative.
Some of the topics that we will address as we move through this complex subject will be:
Tonight's Cartoons from Expert Software's Premier Clip Art
Give some people the opportunity, and you can count on them to do something really weird with it. Take, for example, the subject of interpreting a text. It is fashionable these days in certain quarters to make it appear as though it is impossible ever to come to a clear understanding of what a biblical passage actually means. But even an exercise as simple as my writing this blog entry and your reading of it shows that such a conclusion is vastly overstated, if not just plain wrong. I'm going to be so bold as to assume that, unless you don't understand any English, you are basically understanding what I'm going to say in the next few paragraphs. That doesn't mean that you will understand everything in the way that I intended to, but you will have a general idea of what I'm saying. You will realize that I will be talking about reading and interpreting the Bible, and I don't think that you would interpret what I'm saying as billing you for so many cubic feet of natural gas or informing you of the best way of attaining enlightenment in Jainism.
Of course, there is a good chance that you will not understand one hundred percent of what I am trying to convey. I may be using a word slightly differently than you are used to, or these ideas may be fairly new and strange to you, or (and this is the most likely possibility) I may not be expressing myself as clearly as I should or as, perhaps, I think I am. You may be getting the basic idea, but not necessarily follow all of the details. For that matter, my voice recognition program may wind up garbling something because I muttered rather than spoke, or, like Hal in 2001 a space Odyssey, it may be trying to take over the world. Nonetheless, I'm quite certain that for the most part you will understand what I'm saying.
Unfortunately, there are many people who, as far as I'm concerned, wind up abandoning common sense when it comes to understanding certain texts, such as the Bible. Not that I'm claiming that the Bible is always as easy to understand as a blog entry of mine, though, on the other hand, it may be easier to follow what the Bible is saying than some of the things that I've written on this blog. Nonetheless, any number of scholars make it appear as though it is for all practical purposes impossible to get back to the originally intended meaning of any biblical text. They emphasize the difference in cultures and presuppositions to such an extent that one is led to think that the only thing that we can do with a text is to read it in terms of our response to it because either there is no original meaning to be found, or, even if there were, it would now be unrecoverable. This is what happens when you let pure theory take over rather than looking at what really happens when someone actually reads a text.
A good example of a fairly realistic “understanding of understanding” was provided by the early 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and his idea of the hermeneutical circle. The basic point is that, any time that we come to read a text, we bring certain preconceptions to it. This is unavoidable. It would be very, very rare for you to pick up something to read and have no expectation whatsoever what you are about to encounter. You open a recipe book and don't expect to read a short story. You open a letter from a close relative, and don't expect to receive an invoice for water consumed on your premises over the last 30 days. Furthermore, there is no question that your preconceptions are going to influence your understanding of what you are about to read.
Lets assume a very sad scenario as an example. Say someone, let’s call him Fred, is deeply in love with a girl named Fritzi, and he receives a letter from her. He expects to read the kind of mushy stuff that lovers write to each other, but instead, to his deep dismay, he realizes that what he is looking at is a "Dear John" letter. It may take him a few times of reading the letter to come to terms with what it actually is saying. But eventually he will get it. He is not just going to read the letter and remain confirmed in his notion that Fritzi has a deep and abiding love for him.
So, as you read a text, you have this oscillation between your preconceptions and the text's rectification of your presuppositions. This pattern applies to reading a biblical passage as well. We approach a certain passage with our expectations of what it may say. To some extent, the passage may reinforce what we are expecting. But if we are reading honestly and with an open mind, the passage will also yield new information and cause us to rethink our earlier preconceptions. The next time that we come to the same passage, we may have a slightly revised preconception, which will again affect how we understand what we read. And thus, we go around the circle again and again, never totally getting rid of our preconceptions, but always getting just a little closer to the actual meaning of the text. I am not suggesting that we will ever become entirely liberated from our presuppositions; the Pope will read the Bible within his Catholic theology, Reformed theologians in Grand Rapids will find some of their Reformed doctrines reinforced, while Lutheran theologians in St. Louis will discover a certain amount of support for Lutheran doctrines. Still, they will also encounter new information that will challenge their presuppositions, and cause them to modify their beliefs to a certain extent.
Why am I so certain that this is, in fact, how it happens? The answer is easy. If it weren't the case that we learn and change our beliefs from reading biblical texts, we would all believe exactly what we were told what the Bible contains when we were four years old or so, and there could never be any progress either on our own part or on the part of the theological community in general.
It is helpful here to observe the distinction between a source of truth and test for truth. How did I learn my first theology, assuming that it is worthy of that word? From my mom and dad who very early started to teach me about God and Jesus. How do I know (speaking theologically now and not apologetically) that my theology is correct? By testing it against Scripture. And, because of what I have read in the Bible, I have changed my mind on some things that I thought I knew in childhood, and I have learned a massive amount of further information.
My point, then, is this. I said in the last installment that Christian theology must have its basis in the Bible. There is no question that we already come to the Bible weighed down with certain factors that will influence what we read. But this hermeneutical circle is not a vicious circle because every time that we make a revolution around it, so to speak, our understanding will be improved. As a result, it is not totally naïve to think that we can get a good grasp of what the biblical documents are saying to us and what the original authors intended for us to learn.
Next time: how to un-pack a text.
Since we're on the topic of hermeneutics, please allow me call attention to Humility and Commitment:An Approach to Modern Hermeneutics" Themelios 11.3 (April 1986):83-88, an article I wrote quite a few years ago, which was recently resurrected by the website, biblicalstudies.org.uk. The "uk" is an important part of this URL. Without it, you get to a second-rate Church of Christ website. With the "uk," you get to a site that is a gold mine--no, that's too weak--a platinum mine for articles and other resources in theology.
In an e-mail I received this morning someone said, "I'm just not certain that interpreting texts is as easy as you make it out to be." My answer is that we just haven't arrived at the real problem area yet. We are still in the very early stages of working towards a theology. I have tried to make the case that there is not an insuperable barrier between a text and its reader, but that it is possible for the reader to come to a good understanding of many a text, even if he or she initially comes to it with certain preconceptions. The serious cultural interferences come later. Here is a diagram of the entire structure that I’m trying to build. The big hurdle is in the area I have called the “cultural filter.” We are still at the very bottom.
Let me inject another important distinction here, namely the difference between the meaning of the text and its significance. Many of the problems that come to mind when we think of the difficulty we might have interpreting a certain text really have to do with its significance or function or application rather than with its actual meaning. To quote Norman Geisler (more or less), "What does it mean in the Old Testament when it says not to boil a kid in its mother's milk? It means simply this: Do not boil a kid in its mother's milk." Now, of course we may want to know further what the point of this commandment is, and how it fits in with all of the other Jewish dietary laws. These are legitimate questions, but they are ahead of where we are right now in our discussion when we're simply talking about the actual meaning of the text. The question is: What does it say?
Now, obviously some texts are easier to understand than others. Biblical texts are not written in 21st-century American English, but they go back thousands of years; they are written in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew; and they reflect the contexts of cultures that are very different from our own. Consequently, to understand a text correctly, we need to acquaint ourselves as much as possible with the culture and the languages. It is a blessing that we live in a world today where much of that work has been done by extremely competent translators, and in so far as translations differ, we have commentaries to explain the text further. At the root of the process is "historical-grammatical exegesis", which ultimately means to try to get back to the original meaning as closely as possible.
Now let us hear a big cheer for a little common sense! Obviously, poetry needs to be understood as poetry, symbolism as symbolism, historical narrative as historical narrative, exaggeration as exaggeration, and so forth. We need to be prepared to encounter different styles of writing and interpret them accordingly. Again, 100% accuracy may not be guaranteed, but that does not mean that we cannot get to the correct meaning of many, if not most, passages.
This might be a good time to address the problem of the alleged contradictions, inconsistencies, and just plain errors that many people claim to find in the Bible. There is no way around the fact that if the Bible would contain falsehoods, and since contradictions must always be false, we would have a big problem with the whole idea of the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Many of us would agree that, since it is inspired it cannot contain any errors. But wholesale theological avowals of this nature do not help us solve specific problem passages of which someone may insist that they contain errors. When confronted with alleged errors or inconsistencies, keep in mind principles such as these:
Let these principles stand for others, all of which ultimately are founded on a lot of common sense. Most importantly, keep in mind that, just because you cannot know everything, does not mean that you cannot know anything.
Next time: Biblical theology, and why it is not my own theology.
Remember: No leap frogs are allowed as we look at theological methodology. Now, I'm quite sure that the supposed hermeneutical problems with reading and understanding the verbal meaning of a single passage are heavily overstated, but that doesn't get us very far by itself. Next, we need to take that passage and relate it to all of the other content of the Bible, and this is where the fun starts. On the pyramid, I'm calling this next area "biblical theology."
There are many levels on which a passage relates to the rest of the content of the Bible. Let's take a verse, such as Ephesians 2:8--"By grace are you saved by faith." The obvious questions are:
How does this verse fit into the book of Ephesians?
How does the teaching of Ephesians fit in with the other letters by Paul?
How does Pauline theology compare and contrast to, say, Johanine theology?
How does Pauline theology fit in with the rest of the New Testament?
How does the New Testament relate to the Old Testament?
What is the total theological message of the Bible?
And ultimately, how does our verse fit into the total message of the Bible?
By the time that we are through asking and answering questions of this nature, we may theoretically have a complete biblical theology. In practice, given our finitude, we can only think in terms of approaching a fairly coherent biblical theology, though again, completion is not necessary for accuracy. What we are aiming for is the theology of the Bible itself.
But it is at this point that I need to be aware of the difference between the world of the Bible and our world, as mentioned before. Biblical theology is not my theology. That doesn't mean that my theology is not biblical in the sense of being based on the Bible; I certainly think that it is. However, from here I need to integrate the teaching of the Bible into my world and my culture, and I cannot do that without taking account of all the cultural factors that influence me and my thinking. This is an unavoidable requirement. If I did not do so, I would merely be repeating mantras or shiboleths, To have the Bible impact my life, I need to transfer its message into my life world. The only question is whether I do it consciously and well, or whether I'm going act as though I don't need to do so and, consequently, probably wind up making mistakes. (By the way, this is the topic of my Handmaid to Theology.)
Next time: the cultural filter.
I just love the saying prevalent among certain Christians:
Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent.
Obviously, this statement violates its own principle. The Bible does not speak it. But that's okay; it just illustrates my point that it's not possible to have a viable faith without transferring the biblical message into our life world. If people only spoke in Bible verses, we would not really be speaking within the context of our faith in our lives. Interestingly, since in Islam the Qur'an is considered to be the real Qur'an only in the original Arabic, many Muslims who don't know Arabic memorize portions of their holy book without understanding it. But Christianity is very different. It's not about mindlessly repeating prescribed verses and rituals, but it's about having a conscious faith in Christ and growing in understanding.
So, in order to make the biblical message applicable to us, we need to appropriate it in the context of our lives and cultures. Whenever I teach about this, I have the class compile a list of the various cultural factors that influence how we apply the content of the Bible to our lives. It usually starts out pretty slowly, but once they catch on to what I'm after, we come up with a pretty sizable list. Here are some influences on how we put our personal theology together:
The trick is to not to let your culture swallow up the biblical theology. We need to have a lot of discernment because cultures aren't neutral. There are things in every culture that are contrary to biblical values. So, I'm not talking about transforming the biblical message through cultural values, but expressing the biblical message in terms of our culture, and possibly even transforming the culture through the biblical message.
Nobody says that this is easy. But, once again, to repeat what seems to be becoming my mantra in this serialized essay, just because you can't do something to 100% perfection, doesn't mean you can't do it.
Next time: Some positive and negative examples.
In order to own up to our beliefs, we need to take the message of the Bible and filter it through our cultural categories so that it will make sense to us. As I said earlier, this is unavoidable; the question is not whether we do it, but whether we are going to do it self-consciously and well or whether we are going to pretend we don't need to do it and, consequently, wind up making serious mistakes. Here are some examples of the misuse of what I'm calling the cultural filter.
There is no better place to start than with Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), a German New Testament scholar and theologian. Even if you disagree with his conclusions on various passages, he demonstrated a great amount of skill in both exegesis and biblical theology. But when it came to the question of truth and applicability, he rejected it all. He believed that the world view expressed by the Bible is simply unacceptable for people living in the advanced civilization of the twentieth century. His famous quote is:
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. 1
I would like to submit that this is one of most wonderful non sequiturs in intellectual history. It definitely belongs with the top 10 stupid things that people said in the twentieth century. Why does the fact that we can listen to the radio in a room illuminated by electric light invalidate belief in the supernatural? Obviously, it doesn't.
Another misuse of the "cultural filter" is to retain the biblical message, but to distort it in the process of adapting it to contemporary culture. By trying to relate to the so-called postmodern environment, Brian McLaren attempts to create a "new kind of Christian," who defies all classifications and is consequently left without a meaningful message of redemption. It would now be appropriate to give a quote from McLaren that illustrates what he's saying, but that's exactly the problem. He raises crucial questions, condemns those who give straight answer because they are condemnatory and sidesteps giving clear affirmations.2
Yet another serious error is to give too much weight to tradition and history. Now, again, this is a fine line to tread. We'd be fooling ourselves if we thought we could apply the biblical message apart from our historical heritage; it is so deeply ingrained in us, we may not even always realize when we we are influenced by it. Still, we need to try to do exactly that, to separate what is biblical and what is tradition. The risk is that we wind up giving tradition the same authority as scripture, as is true for Roman Catholic theology, even after Vatican II.
Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence. . . . Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God, committed to the Church.3
We are subject to many historical influence. For a simple example, the manner in which we celebrate the Lord's Supper and Baptism (and maybe even that we do so) is based on historical developments. Thus we need to make sure that what may have become standard practice is in compliance with the teachings of Scripture. Martin Luther recognized a category of adiophora, those traditional practices that are not commanded by the Bible, but are not contrary to it either. This a good distinction to observe. The problem is that religious practices (not just in Christianity), once established, take on a life of their own. One man's personal expression can become the next generation's adiophora, and a ritual obligation for the subsequent generation. There's a little bit of Amish in all of us.
Okay, so I need to come up with examples of theologians who do a good job maintaining the priority of the Bible while addressing contemporary culture. I'm deliberately limiting myself here to writers who are primarily known as theologians (as opposed to other types of Christian scholars, such as apologists), and two come to mind: D. A. Carson and Millard Erickson.
Next time: Putting it all together.
3Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation (Dei Verbum) in Walter Abbott, ed. The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1964), p. 116-117. For a more extended quotations and discussion, see my essay "As the Romans Do" [Back to text.]
Putting together a systematic theology is very similar to natural science, insofar as it consists of model-building, except that the data consist of the conclusions of biblical theology rather than experiments and empirical observations. Let us assume we have followed all of the previous steps. We have exegeted particular passages correctly, have come up with an accurate biblical theology, and are able to express the biblical content in appropriate cultural terms. Now we need to state it all so that people can make sense of it.
The last phrase, "make sense," is incredibly important. The whole point of doing theology is to comprise a coherent picture. That doesn't mean that there is no room for "mystery," but frequently, invoking mystery is likely the sign of either a lazy or a confused theologian. The word "lazy" needs no further illustration, but let me explain what I mean by "confused" in this context. What I'm thinking of is for someone to forget the distinction between biblical and systematic theology.
Take the doctrine of the Trinity: God is one nature in three persons. How can this be? To many people this statement is essentially bad math, for which the justification is that it's a mystery, which we simply have to accept. Eastern Orthodoxy, in particular, firmly prohibits applying rational categories to the subject. For example, Vladimir Lossky insists that God's three-in-one-ness is an incomprehensible mystery, which is not communicable. 1
But this is confused. The trinity is not directly revealed. It's a scheme devised by theologians in order to make sense of the fact that the Bible clearly states two facts: 1) that there is only one God and 2) that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each God. Thus, biblical theology leaves us with a difficult set of data to accomodate, and we need to explore our cultural philosophical arsenal to see if there are any categories available to reconcile these facts. The early church found those in the concepts of nature (or essence or substance) and person. They avoided the contradiction of there being both one God and three Gods by saying that God is one in one category and three in another. Therefore, they concluded that he is one nature in three persons.
The point is that this is a model. It could theoretically be replaced by another model, but that would have to be one that does even greater justice to the biblical data. The outcome for success for such an endeavor, other than using different words that mean the same thing, is slim. 2
In other respects, more recent categories can become more helpful. I think that recent developments in genetics, physics, and logic are crying out to enhance models in theology.
Next time: Examples of the above.
2See, for example, William Hasker, "Tri-Unity" The Journal of Religion 50,1 (Jan., 1970):1-32. In this interesting article, Hasker seeks to redefine the term "person" in supposed twentieth-century terms (which, BTW, are so complex, that even a twentieth-century person would have to learn the concepts before applying them), but ultimately judges his own success by fourth-century criteria. In other words, even though he attempts a construction using alternative phraseology, he does not actually succeed in coming up with a different model. (For what it is worth, this article has a certain amount of sentimental value for me because my first term paper in seminary was a critique of it, and the professor--Clark H. Pinnock--said it was "excellent." It reminds me of my early stumblings in theology as well as the time when Pinnock was still attempting to be orthodox.) Back to text.
So, what's new in theology? Nothing much yet, thanks. ----
But there could be. I'm going to blame at least partially the fact that contemporary evangelical theology is constantly having to fight for its existence--against the heretical views of "openness" theology, for example, or against the nothing-burger slogans of postmodern misadaptations. But we could be doing more creative things, using the insights gained over the last one hundred or so years to build fresh models for theology that are orthodox, but help us see biblical truth in new ways. There is room for creativity in theology without sacrificing biblical accuracy.
Just the other day a former student and now friend (a very common appellation, as consistent readers of this blog know) sent me a copy of a paper in which he derived the attributes of God by utilizing insights from the special theory of relativity. This idea has been kicked around for a while now. Eleanor Stump and Norman Kretzman 1 referred to it in an article on God's eternity in the 1980's, and a former student and now friend, Bill Hathaway,2 expanded on the notion. But these attempts have come mainly in the area of philosophical theology, and much more could be done to incorporate some of these concepts into actual systematic theology.
Since this is an essay about theology, not in theology, I won't go into details now, but the implications for God's eternity and omnipresence are fascinating.
Let me just mention a couple of other items: Contemporary systematic theology could be well-served by taking greater cognizance of set theory as well as modal logic. But I need to hasten to add that, just as it took theology a while to become comfortable with Aristotelian categories, it may be another generation yet that feels free to take greater recourse to these conceptualizations.
Next time: Living on the basis of truth rather than an illusion. And then we'll get back to Ephesians!
Here is a quick refresher of what the special theory of relativity tells us. For perfectly understandable reasons, the following description did not make the cut to the final printing of my Holman Old Testament Commentary: 1, 2 Chronicles:
Please, do not check out the following fact with any experiments. If you were to drive a car at sixty miles an hour and you were to collide with a car coming right at you, also at sixty miles an hour, the effect would be the same as if you had hit the other car when it was standing still while you were going a hundred and twenty miles an hour. All you have to do is to add up the two speeds, and you will get the net effect.
What if two space ships were to collide with each other, both of them going at, say, the speed of light? The total speed of the two vehicles in relationship to each other would not be twice the speed of light, as you might think, but would still only be the speed of light, because nothing goes faster than the speed of light. If the sum of any two speeds were theoretically going to exceed the speed of light, the total would still be just one speed of light--186,000 miles per second. That’s pretty fast, but--outside of science fiction--nothing travels faster.
The speed of light as an absolute limit was a central part of the theory of relativity discovered by Albert Einstein. His ideas have caused people over the last one hundred years to rethink the nature of the universe. Rather than thinking of the cosmos as a great machine in which everything runs in perfectly stable coordination with everything else, we now have to think of it as much more flexible and dynamic. The relationship of objects in space and time to each other can be paradoxical.
Think about the following phenomenon. Let us say that there are three supertrains heading at different speeds towards one station. Trains A and B are moving in the same direction. Train A is speeding at a scorching three quarters of the speed of light, while train B is dawdling along at only half the speed of light. A certain distance out from the station, train A overhauls train B. Meanwhile, at that precise moment, the identical distance away, train C is heading toward the station from the opposite direction . Let us say that it is clocking in at two thirds of the speed of light, faster than train B, but not quite as fast as train A. What is the speed of train A in relation to train C? Since the speed of light is the limit, it cannot be any more than “just” the speed of light. How about the speed of train B towards train C? Again, we cannot add the speeds any further than the speed of light, so that is also their speed relative to each other. Thus, even though train A is going much faster than train B, both of their speeds toward C are the same, and they have the same distance to go toward C. Thus, from the point of view of the station master, they are going to meet train C at the same time and at a point halfway between them--right at the station. But from the perspective of the engineer of train B, that does not alter the fact that train A will get to the station earlier than train B since they are approaching the station at different speeds. This takes getting used to.
2 William L. Hathaway, "Eternity and Divine Nature"Bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society 8
(1985):34-48. The Bulletin is the ancestor of what is now Philosophia Christi. Bill is the first of three (soon-to-be four) of my
students to have actually published their senior paper.
Back to text.
Okay, now we can return to where we started. We began with the idea that we think of ourselves as doing theology by reading the Bible and applying it, but that, as a matter of fact, implicitly or explicitly we have to proceed through a number of steps in order to get from a Bible passage to its application. Having done a careful study of a text, we need to integrate it into the total message of the Bible. Then we have to express that message in the terms of our culture and background and, thereby, build our own systematic theology. Then, finally, we can, thanks to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, make the proper application to our lives. As I have kept insisting, there are two ways of doing so: either consciously and making sure that our categories fit the biblical data, or unconsciously and taking a greater chance of loosing track of the biblical data within our cultural influences.
So, having done our work carefully, what we have done in the previous steps should now be the basis for our practice. But we're looking at one more serious problem: Frequently there is a gigantic disjunct between what we should conclude based on what we learned from our theology and what we actually do, very likely because we do leapfrog so rigorously. We should know better, but we wind up doing what is the popular thing to do or what is based on anything but biblical teaching.
Let me be more specific. I would think that the final product of our systematic theology is going to include content about God working supernaturally in the world and inside of human beings. Presumably then, these conclusions are then going to be the basis on which we act. So, how do we get from there to:
The wages of leap-frogging is a wrong-headed Christian life.
Now, I know that not everybody is a professional theologian (thank God!), but if you are engaged in any kind of Christian leadership or teaching, you should be a theologian of sorts. By that I mean that you should be thinking seriously about, not only what Christians should do, but the basis for our actions, and those reflections should take you through proper exegesis, biblical theology, awareness of your cultural background, and a coherent way of putting your beliefs together.
And there is a pay-off. As I mentioned above, if you are careless in your theology, you are likely going to be stuck with gimmicks, fads, and secular techniques, all of which are illusory, and none of which are going to contribute to a thriving Christian life because you are just going to have to move from method to method. But, if you pay attention to the conclusions of a biblically-based systematic theology, you should realize that you are in the hands of an omnipotent God, you Creator and Redeemer, and that you can live your life in the light of that reality without constantly having to find new ways of attempting to get God to do things for you. I started this essay with a very familiar verse from 2 Timothy; let me conclude with another one:
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn't need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth. 2 Tim. 2:15 (HCSB)
So, whenever we interpret scripture and build theology, please remember that, whether I make it explicit or not, the interpretations and applications of the passages will have gone through a lot more steps of processing than you may see on your screen.