Theology: nobody knows; it doesn’t matter; what was the question?


Theology, like philosophy, poses excellent questions. Real puzzlers. I perhaps misunderstand both theology and philosophy to be academics’ intellectual playrooms. They get filled with things like those cubes made out of awkwardly shaped pieces of wood, or meshed ropes and metal rings. Only a few clever people can take them apart and even fewer can reconstruct them once they’re broken. And nobody can explain why anybody would need to do that in the first place.

In theology. some genius comes up with a proposition, or an objection, or an explanation, and starts an argument that will run for several lifetimes. Thus our beliefs are converted into a kind of puzzle, and we struggle to pull them apart, and we give up trying to put them back together. Having just read “How God Became King” by the contemporary theologian, N.T.Wright, he uses a similar analogy himself, of an imperfect car rendered useless by experts who dismantle it in their loving and enthusiastic attempt to analyse it, but not to increase its usefulness. Right now I am in a discussion group which is being run kindly and sensitively and constructively by someone who studied theology for a year in between jobs. About twelve of us are loving it. The book of the series is “Across the Spectrum” by Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd.

2009: This new edition of a popular text presents an accessible yet comprehensive primer that helps readers understand the breadth of viewpoints on major issues in evangelical theology, with chapters using the popular three- or four-views book format. The authors carefully examine positions taken by evangelical scholars on seventeen seminal issues. They lay out the biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments for each position in point-counterpoint fashion and discuss possible objections. The second edition retains the helpful features of the first edition-end-of-chapter “For Further Reading” sections and an extensive glossary-and adds an appendix that addresses thirteen peripheral issues in contemporary evangelicalism.

This is an unusually objective and rational book. I dislike books that purport to present a rational argument from which to draw a conclusion, when in fact the conclusion is presupposed and the arguments are fabricated and twisted to defend a conclusion – one which begins to appear all the more more under threat as its defenses are raised higher. There are particular subjects like homosexuality and Israel that are deluged in bias and where it seems foolish to seek out an objective history or argument. “Across the Spectrum” does actually offer us the luxury of reading, on consecutive pages, opposing propositions complete with their arguments and counter arguments.

This has freed me to get to grips with the topics without being distracted by my own efforts to filter out the author’s propagandist defence of a hidden agenda. So far so good. However, this has also brought to light a whole collection of issues that must be well-rehearsed by theology students, but are new to me.

The unbelievable weight of disagreement

We expect Christians to disagree with Jews, Mormons, Muslims and Hindus, though the layman would correctly say they all believe in life after death and being nice to each other beforehand. We expect Christians to disagree with other Christians, though the layman would say they all believe in a man who prayed for their unity and told them to love one another to death, which makes it hard to see why they can’t bear to meet under the same roof, and need so many denominational labels.

It’s astonishing that this book merely addresses the disagreements between evangelicals. I am not sure what the term means, but apparently I am an evangelical attendance. I think it means “protestants who really mean it”. Anyway, the book delivers on its promise to present only the main two or three alternatives for 17 out of 30 listed issues on which evangelicals disagree. I have learned that on our own, we evangelicals don’t just disagree, but are split multiple ways over Biblical Inerrancy, Genesis and Creation, Atonement and Salvation, Cessation and Resurrection, and much, much more.

I find it staggering that people can so happily use the term “believer” and “unbeliever” as is it were a simple atomic binary distinction. Do you believe? Yes you do. That’s great then, we both believe. Perhaps it actually is great – the diverse and numerous and contradictory differences in what we believe may be insignificant compared to the inestimably wonderful common ground that remains, be it ever so simple.

The necessity of simplicity

It’s OK for nuclear physics, or brain surgery, or even the football offside rule, to be too difficult for everyone to understand. It’s perfectly acceptable that we can’t all predict the amount of dark matter in the universe, repair a lower cortex injury, or score against Brazil. It’s not acceptable however, that the Gospel should be accessible only to the super intelligent, or even restricted to the well educated. Yet this means making irrational demands on the truth, because there is no reason why truth should be accessible. The universe around us is clearly too big and complex for anyone to understand. As Thomas Edison understated, “We don’t know one percent about anything”. But still, we believe the Gospel is for the poor, and this would not be possible if it were so complicated as to be inaccessible by the simplest person.

I have been repeatedly frustrated at Theology lectures where the conclusion always seems to be “Nobody knows; it doesn’t matter.”

The credentials of simplicity

Albert Einstein said that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”, recognising that some things just are complex, and though we can and should remove all unnecessary complication, there may be some remaining essential and inherent complexity. The real world teaches us though that simplicity is the credential of truth. Pressure and temperature and volume are directly proportional to each other in physics; but the numbers only work when you calibrate your scales of measurement properly. Throw out the Fahrenheit! Throw out the Celcius! They literally don’t add up. You need to measure temperature in degrees Kelvin. Zero degrees Kelvin is equal to minus 273 degrees Celcius, and there are no minus numbers in Kelvin, because it is based on an important truth; namely that there is a limit to how cold things can be. The equations all become simpler when the truth is at the heart of the mathematics of the physical world.

And so it should be with theology which should be to our relationship with God what mathematics is to the physical world. Theology is our attempt to create a model that explains the nature, that predicts the behaviour of this special relationship. Can you hear that ringing noise? That is a Peal of Warning Bells. I recall the 1923 work of Martin Buber, “Ich und Du” (I and Thou). He proposes two, and only two, styles of relating to things around us. In the “I and That” style, we can describe and define things, or people as if they were things. But in the “I and Thou” style, we acknowledge that other people are not things but, being conscious, share with us spiritual connection. He defines God as He who can only be known in the “I and Thou” style; thus limiting theology as way to understand the special relationship. The intellectual is the fool; and Jesus put this into a picture, saying that we must become as children to know Him.

The Creed

At the end of our study series, we read the creed together. It was a wonderfully different experience for me. As we read it aloud, the words washed past, now laden with depth, meaning, and mystery, carefully distilled to represent not just a lowest common denominator of agreement, but in fact naming the truths hidden in historical narrative, hidden in parables, hewn from the living stone by the fathers of faith, yet still defying mere words and mere human knowledge, through history.  I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders, the weight of arguments and academic questioning borne aloft by the lightness and beauty of great and mystical truths.

Then I picked up N.T.Wright’s “How God Became Man” which starts by promising to explain why “The Gospel” is so clearly visible all over the Pauline Epistles, but less evident in the four gospels.

It then goes on into explaining how the creeds are merely a rebuttal statement designed and intended to fence off heresies rather than any attempt at a holistic or comprehensive statement of faith. (Really?) In particular, Tom Wright points out that when the creed states “He lived, died, and rose again”, it reduces the entire life of Christ a comma!

The Thirst

I then read all four gospels again, and wondered what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to “preach the gospel”. The cross or the kingdom? I always think the clue is in the numbers. By sending out the 72 (if we assume that’s excluding the 12) we now have 7 twelves, all preaching and healing. For all my frustration with theology, I must say, I’d love to understand those numbers. Maybe I’ll try just one more theology book..

One thought on “Theology: nobody knows; it doesn’t matter; what was the question?

  1. The “rebuttal statement” is discussed really helpfully by Alasdair Heron in a chapter I could send you. The implications of the heresy it was set up to deny are that by not being fully divine, Jesus is merely an agent acting on behalf of God. This would fundamentally change the character of God to one who does not self sacrifice, but sends another to die. It doesn’t then go on to unravel the mystery of the incarnation in any way that is possible to fully grasp. There’s no Archimedean device to measure divinity/humanity!

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