Category Archives: New Theology

A Brief Discourse on Justice

“When justice is divorced from morality, when rights of individuals are separated from right and wrong, the only definition you have left for justice is the right for every individual to do as he pleases. And the end of that road is anarchy and barbarism.” – John Piper

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t a post about John Piper or even fundamentalism per se. Taking them down is too easy, and frankly, they see enough abuse from other progressives. I say that because what I want to suggest in this post might at first sound rather pedestrian, some kind of banal plea for social justice. But stick with me. I intend to do a few posts about justice, so in this one, I’m just trying to lay out the primary tension and raise some really difficult questions.

I’ve been thinking about justice a lot since moving to Chicago. I now live in a city that suffers some of the worst systemic oppression in the country (not that Los Angeles is much better), and I live in a neighborhood (Rogers Park) that experiences a large portion of that. I live among people who, according John Piper’s understanding of justice, deserve some sort of punishment–not the justice that comes through the undoing of systemic oppression.

The understanding of justice posited above begs two important questions:

Is justice tied to morality, and if so, how?

Christians tend to think of justice in two fundamentally distinct ways: Legal and Social. Most Christians probably wouldn’t disagree with Piper, i.e. we need morality or else civilization degenerates into anarchy. I also don’t doubt that most Christians, including Piper, have a heart for the poor and oppressed. That varies widely in how it’s embodied, but I think most Christians today know that’s part of the program, and they want to participate, whether they really mean it or not. The problem is that these two categories aren’t divided so neatly. It’s not as if all those who suffer under systemic oppression are really saints with hearts of gold in desperate need of liberation. Many who would qualify under the Social probably also qualify under the Legal understandings of justice. So if we really want to stick to the legal/moral understanding of justice–that true justice punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous–we have to shuffle a bit if we also want to be biblical followers of Christ and address the social. In other words, it’s really tough to love a homeless drug addict with the love of Christ when you also feel pretty strongly that he should go to prison for the stealing the money he needed to buy his drugs.

I know some might object to the idea that Jesus didn’t have a moral understanding of justice. He did, but not in the sense of bringing punitive justice to the rule-breakers. For Jesus, the true moral breach was living in a way that did not bring liberating justice to the poor and oppressed. That is his message to the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23:23, for example.)

Here’s the primary problem: Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation?

Why is it that we’re perfectly comfortable with our notion of “God’s love” exceeding our wildest expectations and definitions, yet when it comes to justice, we seem to want to limit God to an exact replica of our own penal system? Why wouldn’t “God’s justice” be just as radical as God’s love? And why wouldn’t those two things be tied together?

The typical response to this sort of question is, “Oh, but they are! You see, when a parent loves a child, she disciplines that child for the things he does wrong. It is just that the child be punished for the things he does wrong.”

There are two glaring problems with this.

1) We don’t love our criminals. That isn’t why we punish them. When we think of the people who are “going to hell,” we think of the “bad guys” (probably because it’s too painful to think of some atheist relative, but that’s a future post.) We want the people who have done us wrong punished. We want them to suffer a bit–or a lot. Most of us have never been wronged in any serious way by a criminal, yet we still demand punishment, mostly because we sense that it will make us safer. That’s what the Piper quote at the beginning is getting at. If there’s not punishment, all us civilized folk are going to be forced into a state of anarchy. That might be the case for describing a practical social structure. But that has less to do with some notion of maintaining morality for the sake of morality than it does just making sure we can walk safely on our own street (and I recognize that even those points are debatable.)

2) People who make the above claim always forget the second part of it: Forgiveness. The punishment doesn’t work the way the parent intends unless the child is allowed to return to the loving arms of the parent. If you’ve been scouring the gospels this whole time for the place where Jesus tells the adulterous woman to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11),  you need to ask yourself: If the woman did continue to sin, would Jesus not continue to welcome her back regardless of whether or not she repented? And that isn’t even the whole verse:

10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” [CEB]

Jesus doesn’t condemn her, and I think it would be hard to make the case that he would change his mind regardless of whether or not she followed his final instruction to her. (Of course, this is all ignoring that John 7:53-8:11 is a disputed section of the gospel anyway. Critical editions of the Greek New Testament don’t have it. So if one really wanted frame Jesus as a moralist out to nab the rule-breakers of the Ancient Near East, one would need to look elsewhere.)

The extreme tension in understanding what justice is according to Jesus comes when we try to reconcile our moralist sensibilities with the fact that Jesus welcomes everyone and doesn’t condemn them. That starts raising all sorts of grinding, insomnia inducing questions about murderers, sex offenders… Questions that cannot be written off or taken lightly, but questions that we’ll have to cover later.

There is only one group of people Jesus says are excluded from the his kingdom. He says everyone except those who wield power against the poor and oppressed are welcome in the kingdom of God. And it isn’t because there’s some sort of “sin force field” keeping the power wielders out. It’s that the kind of thing that the kingdom of God is is the kind of thing that they absolutely despise. Those on the outside, in the outer darkness that Jesus speaks of in Matthew, aren’t weeping and gnashing their teeth because they’re being horrifically tortured–it’s because the kindgom of God is an absolute affront to the power they hold so dear, and they just can’t stand it. They can’t bear to see God’s justice being handed down–not against them but for those they were against. The powerless coming to power.

It might seem like our notion of justice is a bit of a mess at this point. There’s a lot I haven’t addressed yet. We haven’t really defined “sin.” As I’ve alluded to, we haven’t talked about justice for victims of crime, especially violent crime, about justice for victims of despots like Hitler or Stalin. We haven’t talked about what forgiveness is or might look like in any of those situations. Those are all very important points. What I want to do in subsequent posts is tease out the ways in which even our conceptions of what justice should be like in these situations is challenged by the nature of God as I want to suggest it. For now though, let’s think about what the implications might be for the sort of justice I’m suggesting. What do we lose if we remove morality from the equation? What do we gain?

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For Your Reading Pleasure…

I (Joel) have been invited to participate in a new blogging community called Flux of Thought. There you can find brief discussions on theology, philosophy, political theory among other related things.

You can read here: Flux of Thought

You can follow the blog on Twitter here: @fluxofthought

I’ll still be writing and posting at A Church Unbound as well since FoT is going to be made up of much shorter posts, and I can’t help but be long-winded sometimes.

This Will Help Them: A Theology of Disability

Study the image above for a minute. It’s called This Will Help Them by the Clayton Brothers: mixed media on two large wood panels, measuring together 67” x103”. It’s currently on display through November right across the street from Fuller at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The piece tells the story of a boy who grew up on the same street as brothers Rob and Christian Clayton. He was mentally disabled, and they remember him being a difficult playmate to have. The painting depicts one particularly striking memory they had of him attempting to give his medication to the local wildlife in the neighboring wood.

The painting has an ominous quality to it, driven primarily by the drug-influenced, anthropomorphic animals and the look of terror on the face of little girl who is trying to prevent the boy from causing any more damage, the contrast between their two faces striking: shock and delight, knowledge and blissful ignorance.

And his face seems to be melting. Why is that? Certainly, there’s no concrete answer. It could be a result of his actions, he could be feverish with anxiety—but no practical explanation seems to do the power of his image any justice. What is important here is the grotesqueness of this representation of disability. The boy is somewhere between human and animal, not just spatially in the painting, but in terms of his features. He is oddly proportioned, and in some ways is closer to the female squirrel than he is the female child.

Disability is perhaps the most widely ignored, widely misunderstood aspect of Christian anthropology. It makes us uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is one of the feelings this painting is supposed to evoke the moment you lay your eyes on it. That is a visceral reaction. It’s a reaction that nearly all of us have had at one time or another in our lives to disability.

What do we do about it? If you attend even a moderately sized church (over 150 members) you probably have attendees with mental handicaps of some kind. Is it enough to just say hi to them awkwardly, to pat them on the back, to say, “I’m glad you’re here!”

Do we really mean that?

I genuinely believe that some people do—those people who honestly could love anyone with the love of Jesus. They have a gift. Their visceral reaction is to love. The rest of us need to think about things a little harder. It has to start with theology.

Greg Boyd, in Satan and the Problem of Evil, makes a really strong case for why evil exists in the world: True, Absolute, Perfect Love requires the free will of moral agents. God’s love means nothing and our love for him means nothing if we don’t have the free will to express it or not. You can probably see where it goes from there. It is a strong argument for why horrific, terrible, atrocious things happen to good people who have never harmed anyone, and it flies in the face of Augustine’s blueprint model (i.e. bad things happen because they are part of a divine plan we just can’t comprehend.)

However, when it comes to what is commonly termed “natural evil,” Boyd encounters a problem. His entire argument (both in this book and in the one that precedes it, God at War) is driven by a belief in spiritual warfare. I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether or not demons and angels exist—that really has nothing to do with my critique. Boyd’s explanation for natural evil is tied up completely in spiritual warfare. To put it bluntly, demonic forces are the cause. Ignoring the questions this begs about the existence of demons, we could say that this would be an acceptable argument for tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters: demons are moral agents who have free will. If they have the power to control natural forces (which Boyd clearly believes they do,) then they can choose to be destructive with that power.

When we start talking about illness and disease, we begin to cross into darker waters. Is cancer caused by demons? Chicken pox? The common cold? What about a scraped knee, a broken arm, a stubbed toe? Or are those things all a part of a divine plan? In other words, it’s easy for a proponent of spiritual warfare or the blueprint model to ascribe supernatural or divine causes to immense disasters, but there’s no distinct line between immense and inconsequential.

Here’s where things get really sticky though: Is a child born with Down Syndrome a victim of a moral agent exercising free will? Is his or her disability a part of God’s divine plan that we just can’t understand? I think the answer must be a resounding “No.” I know—the demoniacs in the book of Matthew were mute. Couldn’t we say that they were potentially mentally disabled in some way…?

Just going to let that trail off there for a second. There is absolutely no point in trying to make a case like this or to say that disability is simply an unexplainable part of God’s plan as a theology of disability because at the end of the day, it does not allow for us to care for our disabled brothers and sisters the way that we should. We can ask these sorts of questions all day long. I don’t think the point of Jesus’ exorcisms was so that we would know that the cause of disability is demon possession.

Let me set forth an example for consideration: From the time he began first grade, Tommy has had trouble keeping up with the rest of his classmates. His teachers have taken notice, filed reports. He’s having trouble reading, and he hasn’t been doing homework assignments. His third grade teacher is at a loss with him, and wants to meet with his parents. They come in, and the teacher tries to explain that if Tommy does not improve, he may be held back a grade or may even need to attend the Special Day class. His parents don’t understand.

But their lack of understanding isn’t because they are at a loss for words, unable to comprehend how they could have brought a boy like Tommy into the world. They don’t speak English. They’ve immigrated from Guatemala and have been living with Tommy’s aunt and uncle for the last three years. Tommy, as you have probably guessed, is having trouble because he barely speaks English. In fact, the reality of immigrant education is that even if he were moved into a Spanish-speaking classroom at this point, he still would not have the skills in his own language to succeed.

What do we say about this? Do we say that a demon caused Tommy’s circumstances to be less than desirable? Do we say that God desires this? Is that what we say about those who live in the third world? Those who live in government housing? Those who are homeless? Those who are simply less fortunate than we are?

A theology of disability, then, must recognize that disability is not a significant marker of difference. If we allow it to become that, then we make the disabled in our congregations into the grotesque figure of the painting. If we call fellow Christians around the world our brothers and sisters in Christ and claim that even though we live differently, we are all the same in Christ, recognizing that Christ calls us to serve those who are less fortunate than we are and simultaneously be able to be in relationship with them, then why should disability, no matter how severe, be any different?

The disabled are just as human as we are. I refuse to see disability as an evil that can be explained away as a mysterious transcendent good or the result of a supernatural moral agent’s will. People are born into difficult circumstances. We are called to serve those people not just by helping them but by being in relationship with them. That is certainly not an easy thing to do. For some of us, it’s always going to be challenging. But if we belong to the church, to Jesus, then that’s the life we’ve chosen.

It’s that simple.

by Joel Harrison

Referential Revelation: Why Modern Understandings of Knowledge and Language Produce Inadequate Doctrine

The ability of religions to make claims that correspond with T/truth has seemed to fall further and further into jeopardy over the last half century. Developments in both science and philosophy have given rise to doubt among many that religion, specifically Christianity, can provide any useful account of truth and reality. In response, many theologians turn to one of two extremes for an argument regarding revelation of the authority of Scripture—either that Scripture is the provable and authoritative Word of God and that it is possible to have access to the literal and original meaning of the text or that it is secondary to or can merely describe religious experience and that the truth of religion is located in said experience. Both sides of this debate are, however, making certain assumptions that are worth noting.

First, there are some underlying epistemological claims that I hope to help quell in this paper; namely, the claim that we have an inner self to which we turn to determine truth, the metaphor of true knowledge as a reflection of what we “see” inside ourselves, and the claim that this knowledge must be based upon an indubitable foundation in order to be valid. Second is the erroneous assumption that language, if it is to correspond to truth, must acquire its meaning referentially. Following the logical atomists of the early twentieth century, if language does not correspond to physical reality, then it can only describe subjective experience, not objective fact. For theologians, referentialism entails a belief that the language of the Bible corresponds directly to external reality—Scripture must be literal in order to be true. Those who agree that religious language can only be a description of experience run with that, arguing that it is within experience that truth must lie. For the purposes of maintaining a narrow scope in this paper, I will focus on the primarily Evangelical position: a referentialist theory of revelation.

This will also be important for a number of other reasons as well. Theologians tend to encounter a great difficulty when speaking of the authority of Scripture. They have come to understand that the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in our apprehension of the Biblical text and that Scripture is illuminated for us through the work of the Spirit. That is, we must interpret Scripture through the power of the Spirit enabling us to do so. Coupled with this act is God’s act of revelation—His “divine act of self-disclosure which reveals ultimate truth, namely, the triune God himself.”[1] This revelation, along with tradition, is what informs our doctrine. It makes up part of the authority upon which we make theological and doctrinal claims. Yet, when theologians speak of the authority of Scripture, they tend to mean the authority of their particular understanding of Scripture, without recognizing it belongs to them and their community, their tradition or sub-tradition. There is a claim of objectivity—of direct connection to revelation without interpretation. However, as alluded to above, since the time of the Enlightenment, this authority has been questioned, and now in contemporary theology, the critique of authority comes from someplace else: postmodern understandings of epistemology and the philosophy of language.

A further, perhaps secondary issue, which will be developed through the course of the paper, is the unclear or sometimes incomplete relationship between theology and philosophy. Fergus Kerr writes:

Philosophers who are interested in theology, and theologians who go in for philosophy [. . .] tend to devote their energies to arguing for or against the hypothesis that there is a deity. Once that issue is settled, they are free either to give up theology or get on with it. In the latter case, interestingly, they often show no sign of having any further theological problems. Philosophy, that is to say, concerns theologians only at the threshold. Once the foundations of the theological enterprise have been secured, it is often thought that no further philosophical assistance is required.[2]

This poses a severe problem for theology because the assumption, as Kerr points out, is that one does not need to continue to develop an understanding of theology once one comes to the belief that the foundations have been established. Such enquiry would be extraneous and, worse yet, potentially threatening to the security of the foundation in the mind of such a theologian. It is necessary then to demonstrate why philosophy is vitally important for the continuation of theology.

My aim here will be to produce a coherent understanding of revelation in scripture that departs from the referentialist view so dominant in Evangelical theology—an understanding that has vital implications for Christianity’s relationship to other worldviews and one that directly informs the way we should operate as theologians. Abandoning referentialist understandings and claims of special access to the absolute is important not only because they do nothing to help Christianity in the face of its opponents, but they also do nothing to help us move forward within our own tradition. Instead, referentialism leads to a vastly erroneous understanding of our relationship to Scripture: an onto-theology.[3] My thesis, therefore, is that modern assumptions that our knowledge comes from within as something we picture, is set upon an indubitable foundation and that our language must reflect this real knowledge or else by relegated to a mere description of experience has negatively affected our understanding of revelation in Scripture resulting in theological misdirection and metaphysical violence;[4] theological investigation must instead shift to understand truth as derived communally in conversation with other traditions and convictions which requires a rejection of claims to absolute knowledge of Scripture as well as an upholding of Scripture as the Word of God.

The Mirror Within

The concept of the inner self has existed since the time of the ancient Greeks, yet it was not until Augustine that it became cemented in Christian thought as the location of all truth. Through the development of Augustine’s thought, he comes to deny the divinity of the soul itself and instead conceive of the divine as something within oneself that can be found by turning inward and searching. We find God within the soul but also above it as its Creator. The problem, according to Augustine, is that our inner selves have been clouded by sin and a love of our bodily existence. Thus we cannot find God within unless we first have grace and the vision that grace provides us. This is not to suggest, however, that the soul is not capable of an elevated rationality. Although tainted by sin, Augustine maintains that the soul does have the ability to perceive the immutable and infinite—that if one were able to turn him or herself completely over to God, one would be able to see Him. Yet through our striving to reach this point, we do encounter moments of inspired rationality where we “see” the truth.[5]

What Phillip Cary points out in his study of the development of Augustine’s thought is that even though Augustine rejected the soul as divine, he maintained a Platonist conception of it, a belief that its rationality could transcend to truth, effectively melding Christianity with Greek philosophy, the consequences of which are still widely felt today. He writes that Augustine conceives of the relationship between truth and soul semiotically “in which signs are understood as outward expressions of what lies within” and that this understanding is Platonic in that “the most important use of signs is to signify intelligible things.”[6] In other words, one receives information from the external world and upon reflection within is able to discern the truth-value of what is seen.

This metaphor of vision, of containing an internal mirror or viewing space in which reality is reflected and understood, has dominated Western philosophy for the better part of a millennium. This metaphor assumes that as sensory beings, we take in sense data, bring it before our internal mirror, and analyze it in order to gain knowledge. It is this process which has given rise to many problems in philosophy such as the mind/body distinction as well as the quest to find an objective foundation upon which to build a system of knowledge. Richard Rorty, in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, provides us with an explanation of the problem as well as an argument for why understanding epistemology using this metaphor is optional, not absolute. For Rorty, the very notion of knowledge presenting a problem about which we ought to have a theory is the result of viewing knowledge as a series of representations.[7] This arose primarily in the modern era as philosophers such as Locke and Kant continually confused knowledge as a person-object rather than a person-proposition relationship. In other words, truth had to correspond to a physical reality, external to the mind but made internal once converted into knowledge by being brought before the mirror of the mind.

The search of the modern philosopher was dominated by the idea of “valid criteria”—that one had to find criteria that could stand as a foundation upon which to build a system of knowledge: something beyond the veil of ideas. However, Rorty points out that this notion is only made necessary by the ocular metaphor. If knowledge is created through judging objects we take into our minds and hold up to the mirror, then finding an objective criteria is necessary in order to make sure the judgment is true universally and not just to us. In this understanding, there is a synthesis that occurs in the mind of various perceptions.[8] However, Rorty imagines how this understanding, of Kant’s primarily, would have been different if he “had gone straight from the insight that ‘the singular proposition’ is not to be identified with ‘the singularity of presentation to sense’ [. . .] to a view of knowledge as a relation between persons and propositions.”[9] The problem here is one of a misplaced importance on our “inner” perception of an “external” world. For Rorty, justification is a matter of relating propositions to other propositions because that is the most “objectivity” we are ever going to get—consensus that a proposition is true because its relationship to other propositions suggests strongly that it is.

The effect that these two developments, inner space and the ocular metaphor, have had on theology is tremendous. I would like to take them in reverse order. First, while the ocular metaphor itself is perhaps not used explicitly in justifying theological claims, its side effects can be clearly seen. Namely, the ocular metaphor is, as Rorty points out and as explained above, what gave rise to the claim that one need an indubitable foundation upon which to make truth claims. In theology, this foundation usually manifests itself not as God, but as Scripture. The question of foundation, however, presents a particularly difficult, if not impossible, situation for theology, exemplified in the following question: How do we gain an indubitable understanding of an infinite being such as God through what seems to be a finite text? We need not even go as far as God—How do we gain an indubitable understanding of something as complex as a religion? These questions are complicated further by the appeal to the authority of Scriptural revelation.

With the dependence upon scriptural foundationalism in order to justify doctrinal claims, the question becomes, as Nancey Murphy states it, “[H]ow is one to know that sentences accurately represent invisible, supernatural realities?”[10] The aim of many Evangelical theologians is to come to just such an understanding of God and then the whole of Christianity primarily through a “proper” reading of scripture—an accurate understanding of how the words of Scripture, through revelation, accurately reflect an invisible reality. That understanding, that foundation, is worked out in “inner space,” the carry over from Augustine that God can be found by searching within, using our own rationality. This has also contributed to the claim of some to have an absolute understanding of doctrine because of a sincere belief that one has access to the literal, actual, original meaning behind God’s revelation in Scripture. The suggestion that such access is impossible, that we cannot in fact have access to an absolute understanding of God’s revelation in Scripture is typically taken as a refutation of the truth of the Bible altogether. This fear is a result not only of the belief in foundation and inner self but of a referential understanding of language as well.

The Use of Language

The referential theory of language owes about as much to the ocular metaphor of knowledge as foundational epistemology does. It arose in part from Locke’s belief that when objects were translated into words in the mind, those words stood for or referred to ideas in the mind, which in turn referred back to the objects in question. Philosophers of language, such as Gottlob Frege, eliminated the “middle step” of words representing ideas in the mind before objects to argue simply that words refer to objects in the external world. Frege made a distinction between “sense” and “reference” with the former being the “primary meaning of ‘meaning.’ ”[11] It is important to note, however, that Frege “understood the sense of a word in terms of the contribution it makes to the truth of sentences, and the truth of sentences, for Frege, depended only on its reference.”[12]

Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein (in his early work) continued Frege’s thought, arguing that propositional sentences can be reduced to their most basic (atomic) components—that each word of a proposition must be said to refer directly to an external reality in order to be considered true.

However, in his later work, Wittgenstein began to move away from an atomic understanding of language to a more holistic, meaning-as-use understanding. Wittgenstein’s argument as a whole is lengthy and complex, but it will suffice to use one of his illustrations from The Blue Book in order to demonstrate why the meaning of language cannot be reduced to atomic reference. Wittgenstein points out that there are certain verbs, wishing or expecting for example, around which a sharp boundary of meaning cannot be drawn. In other words, there is not one singular referent for these words. Wittgenstein provides the following scenario:

If for instance I expect B to come to tea, what happens may be this: At four o’clock I look at my diary and see the name ‘B’ against to-day’s (sic) date; I prepare tea for two; I think for a moment ‘does B smoke?’ and put out cigarettes; towards 4.30 I begin to feel impatient; I imagine B as he will look when he comes into my room. All this is called ‘expecting B from 4 to 4.30.’ And there are endless variations to this process which we all describe by the same expression.[13]

We can see that to claim a single referent for a word like expecting is not just difficult but impossible. One could not even claim a group of cases, a set of examples, to use as a referent for such words. Wittgenstein writes with regard to ‘wishing’ that “If we study the grammar [of wishing] we shall not be dissatisfied when we have described various cases of wishing. [. . .] If someone said ‘surely this is not all that one calls “wishing,” ’ we should answer ‘certainly not, but you can build up more complicated cases if you like.’ ”[14] This demonstrates that there is no class or set of cases, experiences, descriptions, etc., which would constitute a referential understanding of a word like “wishing” or “expecting.” Furthermore, as Wittgenstein points out, we do not seem to be inherently troubled by this fact either. We are satisfied by a few descriptions, which can give us a detailed understanding of what these verbs mean. What all of this points to is that the meaning of language is in its use.

The implications of Wittgenstein for theology are far-reaching. The referentialist theologian assumes that God’s revelation through the language of Scripture comes to us through a literal, precise understanding of that language. This typically begins with a return to the Biblical languages, ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek, which is not necessarily a fruitless or problematic endeavor. It can become such, however, if one is studying those languages carefully in order to come to an absolute understanding of how the Biblical text must be translated. From a study of original language in this absolute mode, referentialists will move to an attempt to understand what the words in their own language refer to in God’s invisible realm. Finally, from this point, doctrine can be developed which, since it is apparently based upon an absolute understanding of God’s word, must be irrefutable. This level of appeal to the authority of Scripture leaves its proponents with little other choice than to condemn those who strongly disagree with them as heretics. This is not to say that such theologians suffer from personality disorders or are necessary caustic in their interactions with others, only that this conclusion, that dissention must be heresy, is what logically follows from a claim to have access to an absolute understanding of Scripture and can very easily, as described in the introduction, lead to metaphysical violence if pushed too far.

Fergus Kerr helps us connect our earlier discussion of the soul to our current one about language with reference to Wittgenstein’s influence on theology. What seems to be at stake in bringing a Wittgensteinian understanding of language to the theological table is “a reluctance to acknowledge that the myth of the soul, even after all these centuries of official ecclesiastical rejection, has as strong a grip on our imagination as it ever had on Origen or his monkish followers. [. . .] [Wittgenstein’s] games are designed precisely to overcome that antipathy to the body which marks the metaphysical way of thinking.”[15] He alludes here to Augustine’s insistence that it is love of the body, which prevents the soul from achieving its true rational potential. Yet, this metaphysical way of thinking does not refer strictly to the soul; rather, Kerr is also suggesting that many modern theologians are looking for a way to transcend human understanding through their commitment to the inner self, foundational epistemology, and a referential philosophy of language. Wittgenstein’s conception of language, brings us “back to Earth” so to speak in that it demonstrates that there is not only no inner self, no way to establish a foundation, and no way to get “behind” language to its literal meaning but that none of those things are even necessary in the understanding of truth. The question then becomes: If those are no longer necessary, what is, and what constitutes truth?

Doctrine, Conviction and Community in Practice

The argument so far has been to demonstrate the origins and shortcomings of a referentialist understanding of God’s revelation through Scripture, and to describe more adequate philosophical underpinnings for developing a better understanding of revelation. The task now is to sketch a picture of what this understanding will look like in practice and what the implications are for the discipline of theology. We begin by surveying the cultural landscape with regard to religion. The current milieu is dominated by both religious pluralism as well as (though paradoxically) a New Atheism, which is really a dogmatic revival of scientific naturalism. In the middle somewhere are Christians, both liberals, Evangelicals and others, trying to carve their own way. What this landscape tells us is that it is difficult to make a claim of special access to Truth based solely upon internal criteria which we tell ourselves is in fact universal without being willing or able to demonstrate, philosophically, why one should adhere to that access rather than what they perhaps see as their own special access to Truth based upon universal criteria. The issue is threefold: How do we now develop doctrine? How do we speak about that doctrine? How do we know that our understanding is true over against competing claims of truth?

The answer to the first question has been taking shape since the beginning of the argument, but we shall now draw all the points made together. To begin, we must determine the “location” of truth, which is in fact not spatially or temporally located but arises, as Rorty argues, between the relationships of persons and propositions.  To put it even more simply, truth is consensus through conversation. This may seem like a far-fetched, oversimplified proposition, so let us take a few steps backward to see how this is the case. Wittgenstein and other postmodern philosophers of language understand the meaning of language in terms of how it is used. Wittgenstein’s examples, provided above, demonstrate this very clearly. The meaning of those verbs is not derived through reference to a single “entity” but comes from descriptions of those “states” which can vary and be great in number, yet a few descriptions of how those words are used gives us the gist of their meaning. When a religious claim is made, to examine it based upon how well it corresponds to “reality” is an incoherent enterprise because not only because religious claims are perhaps even more complex to understand than the meaning of “expecting” but because, as has been shown, there are no objective criteria by which to judge such a thing. Thus, a new method of developing doctrine must be established.

George Lindbeck argues that religious language be conceived cultural-linguistically, as a framework within which those who know and understand the language operate. He writes “Like a culture or language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities.”[16] Thus, any approach to Scripture is automatically mitigated by the community rather than an objective criterion that is not actually there. Doctrine then, according to Lindbeck, is what is communally authoritative “essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question. [. . .] [T]hey indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.”[17] There will most likely be at least two objections at this point on the part of conservative Evangelical theologians; namely, how can one speak with authority regarding doctrine, and how does one determine validity of competing doctrinal or religious claims?

To answer the first objection, we must remove the notion of relativism from the conversation. The appeal to relativism in light of what has been said about knowledge and the meaning of language is certainly understandable. If we can have no objective foundation and if language does not directly refer to reality, then what is to stop anyone from claiming justification for anything he or she desires? How could we argue against a claim that is clearly erroneous when we cannot be absolutely sure that our own claims are not? Relativism, however, is a self-refuting proposition, for one can never claim that relativism itself constitutes the actual, true state of affairs without contradiction. Given this, we must no long understand justification of belief as “a once-and-for-all yes-or-no achievement but [rather as] an ongoing task of any who have convictions. That task includes attempts to meet current objections and to present evidence to show that the conditions for happiness of one’s convictional speech can be satisfied.”[18] This notion of “convictions” as developed by James McClendon and James Smith informs how we can speak authoritatively about doctrine. A conviction is a belief that will not be easily relinquished and is such that if it were to be relinquished, that act would render the person or community holding it significantly different.[19] Understanding the authority of doctrine as conviction is certainly adequate—what could be more authoritative than a belief that, if removed, would drastically alter the person or community who held it in lieu of objectively derived beliefs? Indeed, convictions are what Evangelicals do hold when they speak of the authority of Scripture. The problem comes in the inability to see those convictions as contingent and the justification for said convictions as dynamic rather than static. The justification of a conviction does not need to be absolutely decided because it is the conviction itself that constitutes the authority of a doctrine as long as said conviction is considered to be “happy.”[20]

In response to the second objection, of determining the validity of competing truth claims, we must turn to Alasdair MacIntyre and the notion of competing traditions through a return to virtue in his ethics. MacIntyre begins with the concept of practice, which is:

[A]ny coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.[21]

Religious practices viz. the disciplines found within a religion constitute practices as defined here. Murphy writes with regard to virtue that “Human qualities required for successful participation in practices are candidates for virtues [. . .] before one can call a quality a virtue, one must see how it and the practice it supports contribute to an individual’s life story from birth to death.”[22] In order to make such a judgment, one must turn to the tradition of the individual in question because traditions are teleological. Thus, one can judge against the telos of a tradition, whether or not someone possesses virtuous qualities. Competing doctrines within a tradition (assuming that we are not calling the whole of Christianity a single tradition for our present purposes) can be evaluated in much the same way by attempting to judge whether or not a doctrine helps us achieve our teleological purposes.[23]

With regard to the question of how the claims of Christianity as a whole can compete with other traditions, whether they are other religions or atheistic worldviews, MacIntyre again offers some helpful insight. MacIntyre argues that when two traditions are competing with one another, the one who ultimately wins is the one who will be able to first answer its own epistemological crises and then not only recognize and describe the problems of the other better than it can itself but be able to solve those problems quite easily.[24] How those crises are solved is ultimately irrelevant; if there is consensus that it has been solved, then the conviction that it has been solved will stand. This, of course, will require consent on the part of the failing tradition as well as, perhaps, recognition from another tradition not in question. Furthermore, the adherents to the failing tradition will likely undergo a loss of convictions causing radical transformation—not necessarily of conversion to the competing tradition, although that is certainly a possibility.

Our relationship to revelation through Scripture is thus understood communally rather than individually. This communal understanding can include all of the same tools in practice before (exegesis, systematic theology, etc.); the difference is in our understanding of how knowledge is gained and its relationship to truth. Rather than believing that we can come to an absolute understanding of the text, knowing exactly what God intended, we recognize that a communal conviction with regard to an interpretation is sufficient to establish doctrine. Furthermore, we recognize that it is possible such convictions could be mistaken or shown not to be virtuous through a comparison of competing traditions of doctrine. This understanding of revelation places theologians in a much better position to continue to wrestle with the Biblical text through dialogue and reminds them of their relationship to God—a point to which we now turn in order to conclude.

Conclusion: Onto-Theology

As mentioned at the beginning of the paper, at the heart of this issue is a question of comprehension: Can one comprehend, even in smallest part, a God whom we believe to be infinite? The answer, based upon my study, has to be no. However, there is one other philosophical reason I would like to raise in order to round out this argument. It is not that the previous arguments are insufficient without this final point; rather, while they focus upon what we can know with regard to not just Scripture but language in general, this final point looks at what can be known with regard to God Himself. Merold Westphal summarizes the modern era conceived of the issue:

God is at the beck and call of human understanding, a means to its end of making the whole of being intelligible in keeping with the principle of reason. In order to place the world at the disposal of human theory (and practice), it becomes necessary to place God at our disposal as well. But there is no awe, or singing, or dancing before such a factotum. And if there is any clapping, it will have the form of polite applause. ‘Please join me in welcoming the Ultima Ratio.’ [. . .] In short, calculative-representational thinking is hubris on a world historical scale.[25]

Westphal is alluding here to a concept coined by Martin Heidegger called onto-theology. This is essentially the attempt to contain the totality of God’s being within human reason—a crude fusion of ontology and theology. Such a thing, for Heidegger, was ludicrous, yet it seemed to him the whole of Christendom was bent on accomplishing the task. When theologians claim an absolute understanding of Scripture through revelation, they are essential claiming the revelation they have experienced has been the glory of God in His entirety—something no God-fearing Christian would every claim to be a possibility.

Yet, there is good news. Heidegger tells us “Theology is not speculative knowledge” pointing to the fact that the task of theology is not to “found and secure faith in its legitimacy, nor can it in any way make it easier to accept faith and remain constant in faith. Theology can only render faith more difficult.”[26] This is particularly the case for a theologian who has a conviction that his understanding of doctrine is unquestionably true, only to discover through further theological study that it might not be. I would like to suggest, however, that given the approach to scriptural revelation that I have outlined including holistic understandings of language and knowledge, theology will not render faith more difficult; it can only make it more exciting. If we are convicted in our faith, conceiving of it as a dynamic play of language and dialogue within a community, then we will be compelled to face the challenge of theology head on, always with a sense of purpose, attempting to chase after what really is True, even though we know we won’t discover it until God reveals it to us in the eschaton.

May our work hasten His kingdom.

by Joel Harrison

            [1]. Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994) 512.

            [2] Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1997) 171.

            [3] This a term coined by Martin Heidegger, developed by Merold Westphal, which I will return to and define at the end of the paper.

            [4] This is a term borrowed from Gianni Vattimo and can be briefly explained here. For Vattimo, claim to have special access to the absolute, to some metaphysical, transcendent truth, will ultimately entail violence, verbal or physical, because the person holding that view will have no reason not to defend their absolute belief “to the death” so to speak. He points to the Communist revolutions of the early 20th century as an example. See Gianni Vattimo, After Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)

            [5] Phillip Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

            [6] Ibid., 133.

            [7] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) 136.

            [8] Rorty uses the example of “frogs” and “greenness.” One cannot take those two concepts and derive the claim “Frogs are usually green” without synthesis occurring first.

            [9] Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 152.

            [10] Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder: Westview Press, 1997), 11.

            [11] Ibid.

            [12] Ibid. Original emphasis

            [13] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958) 20.

            [14] Ibid., 19.

            [15] Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 169.

            [16] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984) 33.

            [17] Ibid., 74.

            [18] James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1994) 154.

            [19] Ibid., 5.

            [20] McClendon and Smith draw heavily upon the speech-act theory of J.L. Austin in addition to Wittgenstein’s understanding of language. In short, a speech-act is rendered happy when a set of criteria is met in performing an utterance. To translate this to the happiness of a conviction requires not only the happiness of an utterance, but the ability to justify the conviction as it corresponds to truth developed within a community.

            [21] Quoted in Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 28-29.

            [22] Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 29.

            [23] A good example of this is the doctrine of the Rapture. If compared to the [interpreted] telos of Christianity as found in Scripture—we are to care for the earth as it is God’s creation, God will transform creation in the eschaton, and heaven will be here on Earth—a doctrine which claims Christians will depart the universe to avoid suffering, before God ultimately destroys the cosmos does not seem to hold water. It is important to note that even the telos of a given tradition is perhaps open to interpretation making this type of internal judgment a continual process—it is the justification of a conviction.

            [24] Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity, 58.

            [25] Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001) 12.

            [26] Quoted in Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology, 15.

Distinguishing What is True and true: Toward a Postmodern Understanding of Revelation and Authority in Scripture

Theologians tend to encounter a great difficulty when speaking of the authority of Scripture. They have come to understand that the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in our apprehension of the Biblical text and that Scripture is illuminated for us through the work of the Spirit. That is, we must interpret Scripture through the power of the Spirit enabling us to do so. Coupled with this act is God’s act of revelation—His “divine act of self-disclosure which reveals ultimate truth, namely, the triune God himself.”[1] This revelation, along with tradition, is what informs our doctrine. It makes up part of the authority upon which we make theological and doctrinal claims. Yet, when theologians speak of the authority of Scripture, that tends to mean the authority of their particular understanding of Scripture, without recognizing it belongs to them and their context. There is a claim of objectivity—of direct connection to revelation without interpretation. However, since the time of the Enlightenment, this authority has been questioned, and now in contemporary theology, the critique of authority comes from someplace else: postmodern understandings of epistemology and the philosophy of language.

A number of developments, both in science and philosophy, have called into question the validity of a claim to be able to derive an ultimate truth or absolute authority from the pages of a text whose origins, opponents would claim, are dubious at best.[2] This raises a problem for theologians—not one of how to refute these objections directly, but of discovering how these objections actually inform our understanding of how we can derive a form of authority from the Bible. That is, they direct us toward a collection of truths coming in contact with Truth as opposed to attempt to discover Truth in its entirety. Certain objections have forced us not to examine whether or not we are wrong altogether, as the science of new atheism would like, but to reframe the objections as questions about our method with regard to the limits of our knowledge when it comes to God and his revelation through Scripture. Theologians must distinguish what they can know from what only God can know without sacrificing the validity and importance of rigorous theological investigation.

The purpose of this paper is to outline the modern theological problematic: an adherence to foundationalism and propositionalism and the claim to be able to access the absolute meaning of the Biblical text, thereby going from revelation to doctrine without acknowledging the step of interpretation. Second a case must be made for why a claim of access to whole Truth in scriptural revelation can actually hinder our ability to move closer to God’s truth. When we become caught up in problems of knowing absolute Truth, we tend to see all other competing claims of Truth as dangerous to our faith when they can in fact act as a supplement to it. Reading scripture in the way that I will argue here frees us to interpret revelation through scripture as moments of truth, which touch God’s Truth—that is, God is able to work through our incomplete understanding, transforming our lives without revealing everything to us. This understanding of the interpretation of revelation frees us from being drawn into debate with other, competing claims of truth, such as those of modern science and philosophy, because we are no longer committed to an absolute understanding of truth the way those disciplines tend to be. Thus, I argue that because our language is not fixed, because we have no need for a foundational conception of epistemology, and because God is, by definition infinite and mysterious, we need not conceive of revelation as revealing whole Truth (absolute understandings) to us because such a conception can actually limit our understanding of God and even lead to the idolatry of human, onto-theological[3] understandings.

1. Philosophical and Theological Problems

It will be important to first outline some key differences in how the disciplines of philosophy and theology each approach major problems within their traditions so that we can better understand the specific issue this paper addresses. Developments in 20th century philosophy have proven quite useful to theological study because they break us from certain assumptions that, although may have been helpful at one time, actually hinder our understanding of Scripture. There are two issues with contemporary theology that are intimately tied together. First, is the tendency to be unaware of the philosophical underpinnings of certain theological claims.[4] Second is the mistaken understanding of certain claims as nothing short of God-ordained. This second issue has to do with a misunderstanding of revelation, which will be addressed later in the paper.

Theology has often been concerned about being “too” connected to or influenced by philosophy, and indeed, there must be a distinction between the two. Rather, however, than attempt to shake off philosophy all together and attempt to proceed as if it had no influence on theological investigation, one must identify the connecting points and the ways in which philosophy can inform theology. This will help us to avoid the second problem mentioned above. Part of this second problem is that, unlike secular disciplines, which are not supposed to have any specific metaphysical, eschatological, or ideological commitments (though they certainly have and still sometimes do), theology must have those commitments. When a paradigm shift occurs in philosophy, there is nothing except perhaps one’s own stubborn ideology to chain oneself to an old paradigm. Many happily make the transition. However, because of the requirement of those commitments in theology, beliefs which once were contingent become “of God” once they are cemented in our tradition.[5] Revelation moves directly to doctrine without the recognition of the processes of illumination and interpretation. That is, when a paradigm shift occurs in theology, the violence of metaphysics[6] tends to erupt. Scholars are afraid to abandon old paradigms for fear that they are actually turning away from God’s specially revealed Truth, and will, therefore, identify what are actually interpretations as revelations of Scripture which support these paradigms as Truth descended from God. However, once we see that the philosophical underpinnings behind such a belief are actually false and in fact unnecessary, we will be free to move forward.

1.1 Against Foundationalism

The desire to ground doctrine in an all-revealing understanding of scriptural revelation that corresponds to Truth arises from an epistemological belief of the seventeenth century that we need an indubitable foundation on which we can build the system of knowledge. The majority of scholars trace the beginnings of foundationalism to René Descartes and his [in]famous Meditations on First Philosophy published in 1641. It is here that Descartes sets for himself a project of radical doubt in which he attempts to doubt everything that he previously had held to be true since he recognizes that, over time, his beliefs have changed—things he had held to be true in his youth may have turned out to be false once he had gained new evidence or further developed his reasoning ability. In his course of radical doubt, he sought a foundation, at least one thing he could know for certain was indubitable and universally known by all.

What his specific foundation selection was (that he is a thinking thing) is not important here. Rather, we must focus our attention on the metaphor of foundation as the beginning of knowledge. The wave that this metaphor has sent through every scholastic discipline is rather large and has put theology at odds with other disciplines, which claim to have found a different, provable indubitable foundation. Theologians, following Descartes, developed a sharp distinction between natural theology—“those beliefs that were seemingly demonstrable by reason”—and revealed theology—“the more particular doctrines taught by specific religious communities.”[7] As the grip of the Enlightenment grew, revealed theology was questioned more and more, and a reasoned approach to theology was taken up.

The problem with foundationalism is two-fold. First, it does not meet its own criteria. That is, foundationalism requires that foundations be indubitable and intuited a priori, yet foundationalism itself is neither of those; it is self-referentially refuting. Second, one cannot remove oneself from all context and knowledge and, as Descartes attempted to do, forget all one knows. If Descartes had actually forgotten everything, how did he know how to proceed from there in a line of questioning? The answer is that he actually could not doubt everything. Objectivity is not possible. Therefore, the project of making a case for why Scripture is the foundation of our faith is unnecessary since foundationalism does not in fact bring us closer to Truth.

1.2 Against Propositionalism

Some of the primary sources for the argument of revelation-to-doctrine theology are referential (known as propositional in theology) theories of the philosophy of language. These theories, most widely associated with Bertrand Russell and later A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists, argue that language can be analyzed into its simplest parts and that individual atomic words and statements correspond directly to the reality they describe. In theology, “propositional theories of religious language assume that the primary function of religious language is to describe God and God’s relation to the world and to humankind; for example, the doctrine of creation is stating a fact about how the universe came into being, namely, that it was created by God.”[8] Therefore, the propositional approach to religious language attempts to remove the necessity of interpretation altogether, positing that once we have identified the facts that revelation refers to, there is nothing to interpret—they’re just there.

This may seem to work for some words, however, if we examine others, we find ourselves at a loss to see how they could possibly refer to one atomic fact. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the father of ordinary language philosophy, presents the following case:

If we study the grammar, say, of the words “wishing,” “thinking,” “understanding,” “meaning,” we shall not be dissatisfied when we have described various cases of wishing, thinking, etc. If someone said, “surely this is not all that one calls ‘wishing,’” we should answer, “certainly not, but you can build up more complicated cases if you like.” And after all, there is not one definite class of features which characterize all cases of wishing [. . .] If on the other hand you wish to give a definition of wishing, i.e., to draw a sharp boundary, then you are free to draw it as you like; and this boundary will never entirely coincide with the actual usage, as this usage has no sharp boundary.[9]

Wittgenstein’s point is that when it comes to these verbs, there is not one “inner act” which absolutely defines them. Rather, we have a number of scenarios which, to use an explicitly Biblical example, can be called “giving” that bear a family resemblance to the each other. This phenomenon points us to the necessity of interpretation, since the meaning of language is understood through its ostensive definitions—its use.

2. Onto-theology and the Mystery of God

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, writes: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known,”[10] suggesting that our understanding of Scripture and, for that matter, of God is somehow incomplete. As shown above, this uncertainty is unacceptable for foundationalist epistemology and propositional philosophy of language, which attempt to posit an absolute understanding of Scripture through revelation without interpretation. Apart from the philosophical arguments I have laid out which refute such approaches to Scripture, it is important to also describe, in a larger sense, what those projects manifested in theology are actually attempting to do and what the consequences of such projects are; namely, when one claims access to the absolute understanding of revelation without interpretation, one is attempting an onto-theological understanding of God and ignoring His mystery.

2.1 Onto-theology as Idolatry

The term onto-theology originally comes from Martin Heidegger and his critique of it in Identity and Difference. Heidegger is referring to the attempt on the part of philosophers to construct a god of which they could contain the idea of its being in their minds—a fully comprehensible god. Heidegger writes, “[W]e can neither pray nor sacrifice to this god. Before the causa sui, man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this god.” [11] Heidegger’s argument is valid when applied to our God as an object of theological study: If we claim to serve an infinite God, how can we claim absolute knowledge of His revelation without the mediation of our interpretations, which would render our knowledge finite because we are finite beings? It seems to Heidegger that such a claim would negate the possibility of God’s infinite nature—and that would not be a God worth worshipping any more than any human idol.

There is a danger, then, in any theological system that claims direct access to whole Truth through revelation without the aid of interpretation—an objective, complete understanding of a doctrine. In philosophical terms, this is called an ideology. In biblical terms, it is idolatry. However, we certainly must be very careful in using this word so as not to become judge and jury, delivering verdicts of idolatry upon particular theologies. Rather, we must understand what would make the adherence to a particular theological system idolatrous. Peter Rollins, speaking on this subject, writes that “the only significant difference between the aesthetic idol [the Golden Calf] and the conceptual idol lies in the fact that the former reduces God to a physical object while the latter reduces God to an intellectual object.”[12] It is important to remember that idolatry is not the identification of a problem with a particular object; rather, it is our response to and use of that object which will make it idolatrous or not. Onto-theological understandings of revelation can become idolatrous when they claim to represent God in His totality—to make God completely visible. That is the very definition of idolatry.

2.2 Revelation and Mystery

The mistaken understanding of revelation outlined above becomes idolatrous because it misses a central piece of the nature of God and His revelation. Stanley Grentz writes, “In Scripture, the term ‘revelation’ occurs primarily in the verb form and generally refers to the act of uncovering or unveiling what is hidden. Only secondarily does it mean what is uncovered in the act—the static deposit produced by the revelatory action.”[13] Grenz’s definition raises two important points about revelation: 1) There is discovery of the hidden and 2) What is discovered is not as important as the act itself. If we accept the latter point, then we are acknowledging that what is important to us is the fact that God reveals himself—a point that is illuminated by the first, which needs further definition.

Following Barth, we must understand that “even the revealed side of God is a mystery.”[14] It is in these two points that the arguments presented thus far converge: Because what God reveals to us is a mystery, because we cannot arrive at an indubitable foundation for our knowledge, because our language is defined by use not reference, because onto-theology is idolatry, the importance of revelation cannot lie in what is uncovered. What is uncovered is always rendered incomplete by our human interpretations. The importance of revelation lay in the act—that our infinite God would make his Truth incarnate for us in the Word both as Jesus Christ and Scripture. Revelation, rather than uncover the absolute Truth of God, reveals His infinite nature—His mystery. In other words, “[R]evelation ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown.”[15] Revelation shows that we can and do worship an infinite God.

Conclusion: Working Toward truth

Some valid objections are no doubt raised against such an understanding of scriptural revelation, most common, the fear of relativism. While it is certainly possible for the belief in the impossibility of an authoritative understanding of Scripture to lead to an “anything goes” sort of theology, the claims of such a belief will, fortunately, not allow for radical relativism. This is because Scripture still acts as the guiding light of theology. It is not as though this view were claiming that one may go anywhere outside of Scripture to any text or experience in order to discover God’s revelation. That is not to say that God does not reveal himself in ways outside of Scripture, but that outside revelations are always mediated against Scripture. Our particular communities also dictate what is acceptable and what is not. Grenz writes that we avoid relativism “as we remember that our declaration of the inspiration of the Bible asserts that this book is objectively divine Scripture; the Bible is Scripture regardless of whether or not we subjectively acknowledge this status.”[16] Therefore, rather than claiming access to Truth, theology must work toward the truths which connect to Truth. These are not fixed; they are highly contextual. Yet, they are chasing after God, constantly pursuing the mystery he has revealed.

Part of this journey requires, as I argued at the start of the paper, the careful examination of new developments not only in theology, but in other fields as well. Theology’s focus must remain the Christian faith; however, that does not necessitate the irrelevance of other disciplines to theology’s goals. As demonstrated, such developments can supplement theological study and help it move beyond some of the major problems it has encountered. If we run from such developments because of the possibility that they may destroy our current understanding, then we have turned that understanding into an idol and our God into a god.

by Joel Harrison

            [1]. Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994) 512.

            [2]. The specific reasons behind these objections such as seeing these claims as directly competing with scientific ones, etc. are not important for the purposes of this paper and will not be addressed here.

            [3]. I will revisit this term later in the paper. I am drawing upon Merold Westphal’s use of Martin Heidegger’s term, “onto-theology.” See Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001).

            [4]. Fergus Kerr makes an excellent case for this in the first chapter of Theology After Wittgenstein. See Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 1997).

            [5]. The current debate surrounding hell provides a perfect example.

            [6]. This need not entail physical violence, although the slaughter of Anabaptists was certainly an example of the metaphysical violence I am describing. Verbal dogmatism would be another. We must be clear, however, that this certainly does not apply to all theologians and religious scholars. The ability for fruitful dialogue among differing views has been possible for quite sometime. This paper seeks to address those specific claims of special access to absolute Truth through scriptural revelation, whether they actually result in dogmatism or not.

            [7] Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 32-33.

            [8]. Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2007), 43.

            [9]. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958), 19.

            [10]. 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NRSV).

            [11]. Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1969).

            [12]. Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006), 12.

            [13]. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 512.

            [14]. Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, 18.

            [15]. Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, 17.

            [16]. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 506.

Love Won

I received an email from my dad the other day as I was headed to my Monday night Contemporary Literature and Theology course that said this:

“I’m reading a book called ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell, who says he is a Fuller graduate – – do you know anything about this guy? – – the book is certainly non-traditional in its descriptions of heaven and hell.  Just thought you might have an insight.”

I love my dad, who is an engineer. Because of his engineer’s mind, he and I tend to think about things differently. Three years ago, as I was in the middle of my MA in English, he remarked in response to something I was saying, drawing a distinction between us: I’m an intellectual, and he is not. Since my dad is certainly one of the smartest people I know, I thought that to be interesting, something I had never considered before.

During my first quarter at Fuller, my dad asked me how I liked my classes and wanted to know what I was learning about. I started telling him about Nancey Murphy and non-reductive physicalism (the belief, essentially, that there is no such thing as a soul.) About three minutes in, he put his hand up to stop me and said, “Does this affect whether or not Jesus is our Savior?” I told him, no, it didn’t. “Okay,” he said, “as long as I don’t have to try to understand any of this stuff, then I’m okay.”

My dad wasn’t writing off what I was studying as not worthwhile—just as not of practical value to him. To be clear, this difference between us hasn’t been a point of tension in our relationship either. Lately he’s been marveling at the fact that currently two of his four sons are in graduate school studying things that are way over his head (a third is getting an MBA, which is right up his alley.) This difference between us has actually been fruitful in the sense that it has helped me to gauge whether or not a particular abstract idea (some hermeneutical tool, for example) would be helpful necessarily in practical application or at least to start to develop an idea of how it could become helpful someday.

I think that’s really important. One of the biggest problems I see as I sit in philosophy and systematic theology classes, have coffee with other like minded students, stay up late with my roommate smoking pipes around our fire pit, all the time discussing these lofty, invisible structures in our thought that lie behind and support practical concerns is that far too many people in the church still cling to modern ideology and ways of knowing, but they’re a long way off from seeing it. Many people will probably post comments on Church Unbound’s Facebook page under the link to this post, railing against me or Rob Bell without really reading this post or Bell’s book. Challenging the modern worldview is tantamount to challenging the reality of God Himself for many people. That’s one of the primary reasons Bell’s book has stirred things up so much: It’s a full frontal assault on that way of viewing the world. But the difficult issue for me becomes how to help people see that without dragging them through years of careful philosophical reflection and study. It’s not at all a matter of smart versus stupid—it’s a matter of intellectual versus practical.

I decided the very minute I heard about John Piper’s tweet (“Farewell, Rob Bell”) that even though I would be reading Love Wins, I wasn’t going to engage with it in a public forum like this or my blog for Fuller admissions. Other writers I know, either at Fuller or elsewhere, may have avoided it for similar reasons—we’re just not fans of drama here. Besides, Greg Boyd, Richard Mouw, and others have basically said all that needs to be said:

It’s a book that simply raises a question about something that is perhaps contradictory in Christian tradition and calls readers to seriously think about that question.

And somehow that is seen as heretical.

But then there’s my dad’s question.

Here I am, wrapped up in the culture of Christian pop-academia. I would venture to say that there are very very few people in my circles or on Fuller’s campus who do not know the name Rob Bell or who are not at least vaguely aware of what a controversial figure he is within Evangelical circles.

But then there’s my dad’s question.

My dad grew up in the church, coincidentally at Pasadena Covenant Church, where I now work. My mom is a Christian as well, growing up at Lake Avenue Congregational, down the street from PCC. They took my brothers and me to Sierra Madre Congregational. None of these churches lean very far in one direction or the other on the conservative/liberal scale. They’re pretty close to the middle. My parents now attend a church in Lafayette, CO called Flatirons Community Church—a place not unlike Rob Bell’s own congregation in size and style—which is also near the middle.

I responded to his email the next day, explaining who Bell is, what the controversy is over, and then pointed him to Boyd’s, Mouw’s, and [for a laugh] Donald Miller’s responses to Bell’s book. I told him that for me, the important thing Bell’s book does (and Bell really says as much in the preface) is not just to raise this one question about who is in hell and how we can know that but to raise a much larger question about where particular doctrine even comes from in the first place—something most Christians don’t really think about day to day.

My dad called me later that afternoon.

“I was going to email you, but then I thought I’d call,” he said. He thanked me for the links to the blog responses. He particularly liked Dr. Mouw’s.

And then he said something that I thought was profoundly important.

“It just seems to me,” he said, “that we can’t limit God by saying he will punish people in one particular way. We just don’t have enough information to know something like that. And I really like that phrase: Generous Orthodoxy.”

I realized then how vastly important Bell’s book and others like it could potentially be. My dad, a man with no particular academic or intellectual interest in his faith, who knew nothing of Bell or the controversy surrounding the book, just someone who simply cares about reflecting on his faith because he wants to grow spiritually—who saw the book at Costco and thought it sounded interesting—was able to grasp the thrust of Bell’s argument—the larger purpose at which he is driving. Somehow that gap between intellectual and practical was crossed. In my mind, that is an enormous victory for any kind of “postmodern” theological movement.

Rob Bell will obviously never see this blog, but someone needs to tell him that he has accomplished what he set out to do. Nice work, Mr. Bell.

by Joel Harrison

And So On…

I read Stanley Fish’s New York Times blog from time to time, and one of his recent posts was sort of shocking to me. It was a lament of the decline of humanities departments and in particular the decision of SUNY Albany president George Phillip to cut their French, Russian, Italian, classics, and theater programs. Fish rightly points out that it’s silly to dream of the public being enriched by the humanities, to think that the man on the street should, as if by moral imperative, appreciate art, literature, language, and philosophy and especially appreciate it beyond it’s mere enjoyment and into the minutiae of academic study. In fact, Fish contends that the complaint on the part of scholars that the average person’s apathy toward the world of the intellectual, the world of French philosophy for example, is evidence that these endeavors are ultimately pointless is actually not directed at the right people. They shouldn’t worry about what the implications of French philosophy are for the average person because, in Fish’s view, there aren’t any. He writes:

“Don’t ask what does it do for the man in the street (precious little); ask if its insights and style of analysis can be applied to the history of science, to the puzzles of theoretical physics, to psychology’s analysis of the human subject. In short, justify yourselves to your colleagues, not to the hundreds of millions of Americans who know nothing of what you do and couldn’t care less and shouldn’t be expected to care; they have enough to worry about.”

In most cases, I think Dr. Fish is correct. Whenever a family member or friend not in school with me asks about what I’m studying, the second I start to get too technical, their eyes glaze over with apathy, they smile, nod, and say, “That sounds—interesting.”

It’s okay.

Biblical hermeneutics, literary theory, French philosophy, and systematic theology are not for everyone, nor do they need to be. But I’d like to make a short case here for why the study of the humanities is important and why you can find it infiltrating both biblical and theological studies.

Prior to coming to Fuller, I was earning an MA in English language and literature from the University of Northern Colorado. I wrote my thesis on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions arguing for a non-postmodern (but not necessarily post-postmodern/post-secular) reading of Vonnegut in which the word sacred in the novel becomes a moment of deconstructive differánce which prevents the narrator from continuing to see humans as mindless robots, hopelessly trying to change their circumstances.

Most people read Vonnegut as supporting the early postmodern belief that humans futilely attempt to change their circumstances, to find absolute truth, when neither is possible. I see Vonnegut differently. He was a man deeply troubled by the way he saw people treating each other. He did, after all, experience the bombing of Dresden, easily one of the most horrific events ever perpetrated by one human being against another. Reading his corpus, one can easily see that human ignorance and violence are upsetting to him. But there is another side, like the two sides of a sheet of paper—human beings are also sacred to Vonnegut. That’s the puzzling thing about Breakfast of Champions. At times, the narrator uses that word as parody, mocking people for their violence and callousness and also their stupidity at trying to make the profane into the sacred. At other times, however, a marked “genuineness” slips in (hence, my argument for differánce.) There are points in the novel (and in others for that matter) where an argument for a satiric use of the word just doesn’t make sense. There is an innate use of the word where rather than characters attempting to assign a category of sacredness to something as mundane as a crack in a ceiling, the narrator recognizes an inherent sacredness within all living things that is there outside of human language. A pure, Real, sacredness. An unwavering band of light, as one of the characters of the novel calls it.

The impression the reader is given is that the narrator is struggling mightily with the dual nature of anthropology—human beings are important, sacred, chosen, yet tainted and sinful. One of my favorite passages from Breakfast demonstrates this well. Here, the narrator (who is a quasi-God-like character who has “entered” his own writing) is describing one of his characters, Kilgore Trout, as he attempts to cross a polluted creek:

His situation, insofar as he was a machine, was complex, tragic, and laughable. But the sacred part of him, his awareness, remained an unwavering band of light.

And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machine made of metal and plastic. The plastic, incidentally, is a close relative of the gunk in Sugar Creek. And at the core of the writing meat machine is something sacred, which is an unwavering band of light.

At the core of each person who reads this book is a band of unwavering light.

My doorbell has just rung in my New York apartment. And I know what I will find when I open my front door: an unwavering band of light.

God bless Rabo Karabekian!

There is a redemptive quality to the epiphany that the narrator experiences here. It is Trout’s awareness of his tragic situation as such that is sacred. In other words, we are consecrated when we become aware of our brokenness and choose to do something about it. Rather than attempt to figure out how the cold, mechanical nature of humanity can be conflated with the sacredness he senses is inherently there, the narrator comes to the conclusion that the two parts can be reconciled.

What drew me to literature initially is actually quite cliché, but I make no apologies for it. It was the way in which stories can force us to see things we thought were so simple, so easy before, in completely new ways. Literature has the ability to make the obvious suddenly foreign and unfamiliar. And what really sold me on literary studies is that it unapologetically utilizes whatever it can to understand a text. If a mode of thought or ideology or method of reading (Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, historicism, religion etc.) can be used as a tool to unpack a text, then it’s fair game. There have been times here at Fuller where I’ve been so immersed in a Biblical studies course that I forget for a moment that there’s this whole other world, which some seminarians at other institutions rarely have access to—a world of hermeneutical tools outside of redaction criticism.

The humanities has a wealth of tools to offer us as we try to come to a better understanding of the Bible. If you’re a Vonnegut fan, then you know how this post has to end. When we, as seminarians, as budding biblical/theological/religious scholars ignore the rest of the humanities, we miss out on an opportunity to see a broader picture. That’s a shame.

So it goes.

by Joel Harrison