Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Theological Truth with a Sprinkling of Anathemas

Because I am a strange creature, I enjoy getting online and having theological debates. I log on to a program called Paltalk and have discussions ranging from Roman Catholic baptism to reformed epistemology (study of knowledge) and Gilligan's island. (Did you know that the skippers show name was Jonas Grumby?)Anyway, many of these discussions concern theological truths and after several years of having them I have come to a conclusion. Biology is the study of living things within a finite system (the earth), and no biologist would assume they knew all there was to know about biology. No one who studied, say microbiology, would be so bold as to presume to be an expert on ferns. Yet some theologians consistently assume they have every answer to every theological problem. Strange isn't it considering their subject matter, God, unlike the subject matter of biologist's, is infinite.

For the biologist hubris makes more sense. They study a finite subject. There is a limited amount of life on the earth and eventually they might figure everything out. It is conceivable that a fully finished systematic biology could be made. But when we do theology we study an infinite God. No matter how much we study we can never "figure him all out." Nor can our systematic theology be complete, but will always be at best a working and changing model.

Truth in theology should be understood as expansive not reductive. In biology truth is reductive. The biologist narrows out falsehoods to find the "truths" of biology, which exist in a limited and countable set. There is only so much truth in biology, and no more. But in theology truth is expansive, we don’t so much define it as hug it, because our intellectual arms can only get around so much of who God is. The truth of God is such that the more we know, the less we realize we know, and the more study is needed. God is infinite, so the truth about him is likewise infinite.

If only we approached our relationships with others in this manner! If we truly considered the vastness of God our candor towards other Christians who disagree on certain points would be quite different.

Within the Reformed world some people speak about Arminians as being saved, but not truly equal to us. We (because of our theological commitments) are full Christians, and the Arminians are saved in spite of their ignorance (psst...but just barely). As if some spiritual Jim Crow law could be set up, making me a full Christian and those who hold to a different theology as being a 2/3 Christian.

This is the entirely wrong approach. There is nothing in the defense of a reformed worldview that necessitates seeing an opponent as an intellectual or spiritual inferior. In fact, if we were truly interested in convincing someone of our theology (instead of cushioning ourselves by dismissing their opinions ad-hoc) we would see their theological opinion as being something constructed after careful thought, like our own, and their beliefs as being honest attempts to answer hard questions. In turn perhaps we might have some theological humility, believing what we believe to be scriptural, but recognizing that we can only embrace a part of the nature of God, and hence the truth might be beyond either us or our opponent.

Moreover, when dealing with non-believers, we ought not to see their objections to faith as being “irritating” but as being (for the most part) honest intellectual barriers to faith. Apologetics done rightly is gentle and wooing, not forceful. If you want to be gentle in apologetics, without being condescending, then it is imperative you see people’s objections not a hurdles to be jumped, but real problems to be worked through with them.

Of course it’s not just Reformed folk such as us that act in this way. Every theological camp has one thing in common with others. Each is quick to cast an anathema against the other and to pretend that Jesus secretly agrees with them on all points theological. This is a backwards approach to doing theology with others and it violates the principle of charity. If we accept a person as being saved, we must also embrace them as a brother. There is no separate but equal clause in denominationalism. We are either equal, or we are truly separate.

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