Thursday, January 19, 2006

On morality and the limits of Scripture (Part 2)

I am concerned with these two posts to establish both the limits of Scripture and the truthfulness of our conclusions we make outside of Scripture. On Thursday, I limply tried to establish that there are limits to the questions we should ask of Scripture. For example, we do not ask the Bible how we should lose weight, for the Bible does not intend to address that question. Moreover, to assume that the Bible's lack of a condemnation towards some activity you happen to enjoy justifies the activity is an argument from silence, for the Bible does not commend that activity to you either. This is both a faulty understanding of the nature of the Scriptures (since it is not a comprehensive legal guide to the Christian life) and a misunderstanding of what is good. We are to prove what is good and what is evil, I insisted.

But what about the truthfulness of what we prove? As I asked in part 1, "Do we impose a "second book of authority" when we insist that there is truth outside yet derived (secondarily) from the Scriptures? To be sure, the Bible must play a role in determining the morality of our actions. But what about when it does not explicitly address our cultural particulars? Can we be sure? Can we assume that our conclusions are truth?"

The contemporary world has become global, and so we are met with what seems to be myriad ways of looking at reality. To be certain, our exposure to other cultures and other cultural expressions should give us pause before blindly accepting the validity of our own. But this is not to say that every individual or culture reigns sovereign. I believe that we must reject cultural relativity.

But the point here is not to attack cultural relativity (perhaps on a different day I will try to climb that mountain), but to offer that truth outside the Scriptures exists--that we can reach certain conclusions and that our convictions about things we have concluded from the Bible are true. My favorite proof of extra-Biblical truth is the Greek word homoousios.

Theology is closely related to ethics in a number of ways. For conservative evangelicals, theology begins with the foundational things you have been taught in Sunday school and by the sermons you heard at church (or by watching Sesame Street or wherever else you got your theology), which is then (hopefully) corrected or substantiated by the Bible. The evangelical method for determining ethics closely resembles our method for theology. They are both "Biblically based." But ethics, like theology, is in large part a "second order" discipline. Every evangelical says he believes the Bible. But the immediate question following is What does the Bible say? By the way, this is in large part why creeds (a.k.a. "doctrinal statements) and church covenants are so important. When someone adheres to a summary of doctrine (creed) or practice (church covenant), we better know what he believes. We can compare his doctrine and practice with our own. We can see where his differs from ours and where they are alike.

Creeds and covenants are not first order sources for theology, The Holy Scripture is. I view theology as primarily teaching--taking the Scriptures and communicating it to the church. Again, theology is a second-order discipline, whereby the Scriptures are taken and applied to contradict certain false teaching (negatively) or to articulate and summarize and systematize the Christian teachings found in the Bible (positively).

When we use the "rapture," we are using it with reference to an understanding of the Bible's teaching concerning a particular point of eschatology. When we use the word "inerrancy," we are again making theological deductions about the Bible based on its own teachings. The Bible never uses the word "rapture" or "inerrancy." Although the Scriptures teach inerrancy, nowhere do they give a nice tidy "doctrine of inerrancy." Yet we must believe the truth of inerrancy. When we confront what seem to be problem texts that do not neatly mesh with our system, we can change our pre-existing system, but we also sometimes bring our current system to bear on the text, which in turn informs how we understand the way that text coheres with our system. Of course, the goal for every conservative evangelical theology is conformity with the text of Scripture.

So it goes with the homoousios. What does homoousios mean? This is a Greek word that was crucial to the early church's articulation of the Trinity. Roughly, it means "the same essence," and was spoken of Christ against the moderate sect's similar word, homoiousios "the similar or like essence." Jesus Christ is of the same essence or nature or substance as the Father. As the Nicene Creed says,

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

If Christ is of a different substance, then he is not truly God. If he was made by the Father (and not eternally begotten), then he is of a different substance. This word demonstrates that we can and should make theological pronouncements that not explicitly found in the Scriptures. We believe the historic doctrine of the Trinity, and declare that it is the true teaching of the Scriptures, even though some of their words and summaries, like homoousios, are not explicitly found in Scripture. In a certain sense, they are as true as the Scriptures, because they accurately summarize the teaching of the Scriptures. If they were not the correct teaching of Scriptures, we should reject them. Yet if they are, then we should believe them with all our heart. Christian churches throughout history have accepted the Nicene creed as the orthodox teaching of the Bible. In fact, this Trinitarian teaching was to a certain extent a reaction to teaching which was not Biblical, namely that of Arius and others.

So we believe the truthfulness of certain things that are outside the explicit address of Scriptures. And just as this is true for theology, it is true in the realm of ethics and morality. For example, I believe that abortion is immoral. How do I know this? In part from my understanding of Scriptures, and (in part) from my understanding of what abortion is. My having a correct understanding of abortion is essential to my making accurate conclusions about the morality of it.

This is not to say that we somehow hold the conceived truthfulness of our theology or our moral conclusions like some immovable stalwart. Humility is essential, for if we recognize that it is possible for other persons to err (since they don't agree with us!), then we should recognize that it is possible for us to error. Particularly when we determining ethics and morality, we should always be studying, always "proving" (1 Thess 5:21-22), and always seeking to better understand ourselves and the nature of things. This can only be done when we fuse the horizons of different "cultures" (those who hold differing theologies, mores, and ethics) with our own. Hopefully their eyes will help confirm what we already understand, but also give us a perspective as to the shortcomings of our own milieu. This is what Jonathan Edwards and Augustine and Calvin and Anslem and the Cappadocian fathers and Bach (!) have done for me--they have shown me a different kind of Christian world, one that critiques my own American fundamentalist/evangelical setting (while I am inevitably critiquing theirs).

All this is to say that when we are convinced that some doctrine or practice is the Biblical teaching on the subject, we should believe it to be truth. We are not preaching an easy road to truth, yet we are condemning the philosophies propagated that any "second order" theology or ethics are in the end unknowable. Just because there is some degree of agnosticism does not mean that we cannot know. Nor should we say that just because an issue is not taught explicitly in the Bible that it is not as important, or somehow relegated as an issue simply of "Christian liberty." In my view, homoousios and inerrancy and abortion are not matters of "Christian liberty." They are in essence the Biblical teaching on their respective subjects. There are other second order teachings and practices (the rapture, church government, smoking, whether or not someone has cable) that similarly represent the Biblical teaching, but may not be as crucial to the faith as these other doctrines. Nevertheless, they are still important, and equally represent the Bible's teaching on that given subject as we understand it. Although my point is not to discuss Christian liberty, let me say that the main principle of Christian liberty seems to be how we treat brothers who are prone to building their Christian ethics simply off the influence of others, simply taking as their own what other people embrace or shun. Finally, weighing the importance of the doctrines is very important in this whole discussion. Paul says eating meat should not be judged (because God will judge that person), but he calls the person who neglects to care for his widowed mother "worse than an infidel."

In conclusion, I have tried to establish that both theology and mores are both second-order disciplines, summarizing the truths of and deriving their truthfulness from the Word of God. I believe that we should consider these teachings and practices to be the truth though with humility. Moreover, we should not banish all such "second-order" statements and beliefs to the realm of relativity simply because the Bible does not teach them explicitly. Thus our Christian life should be lived understanding the tension between the limits of what the Bible explicitly teaches and the truthfulness of our conclusions of how we apply what it does teach to our faith and practice.

24 Comments:

Anonymous dissidens said...

Some of us have followed elsewhere the tension you discuss here; those discussions involved people we know. That makes my question a delicate one. Please take it for what it asks, not for what the partisan might make of it. Nor do I want to put anyone on the spot for a ticklish commitment: I ask to provoke thought about a necessary consequence of what you’ve just written.

If important moral questions (abortion) and doctrinal questions ([I]homoousios[/I] and inerrancy) are second order, can we say that a person who dismisses a consideration of “second order questions” takes a high view of scripture or a low view?

What ought to be our relationship with those who for whatever reason place issues like inerrancy and the nature of Christ into a category of thought unworthy of serious contemplation? Can we whole-heartedly embrace as a colleague one who rejects inerrancy, say, as binding on all believers?

If I can oversimplify: How is it reasonable to separate from (or bring under church discipline) one who has had an abortion if we do not allow the rightness or wrongness of the issue to rise to scriptural adjudication or recognize its spiritual gravity?

Are not these questions essential to the discipling of all nations in our century even as [I]homoousios[/I] was in an earlier one?

1/20/2006 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

I think these are good questions, but difficult all the same.

You asked, can we say that a person who dismisses a consideration of “second order questions” takes a high view of scripture or a low view? I think we can at least say that he takes a deficient view of Scripture. Let me ask you, why do believe it is a "low view"? I may be missing something here.

1/20/2006 01:12:00 PM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

“Deficient view” is a perfectly acceptable change, I just used high versus low because that is how I have often heard the notion defended, as in: “It is because I have a high view of scripture that I cannot countenance its being used as a validation of your second order conclusion.”

To equate the two was, in their mind, to demean or devalue Revelation.

1/20/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

Keep it comin' Ryan. Perhaps, after you stop the mouths of all the doubters, you can backtrack to how these ideas affect those who aren't regenerate.

1/20/2006 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Dissidens, I agree. The inconsistency of some is very frustrating.

John Franke is consistent, where many others are not. Franke (who calls himself a "post-conservative evangelical"), would reject as binding any "second-order" conclusions. He is consistent even to the point of rejecting the original Trinitarian language for one that is more "contextual." So he talks about the "relationality" of God and the "social" God and a handful of other innovative "Trinitarian" expressions. This is a deficient view of Scripture. But, then again, he believes that a desire for truth is unwarranted Scripturally. All is determined by individual cultural contexts. The irony, as you point out, is that both Franke and others who want to make their creed "only the Bible" and reject all "second-book theories" are trying to uphold the Bible. But, in the end, with this approach to theology and ethics, we do not have much left (when it is carried out consistently), except a kind of Christian communal anarchy.

1/20/2006 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

And thanks, Jesse. I am not sure how much I can convince the doubters, but hopefully I can make a small contribution towards our understanding of these things. What is your question exactly pertaining to?

1/20/2006 09:28:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

Ryan, any thoughts on WHY this divorce of the two books has taken place, or at what point in history (roughly) this took place - or at least, is there any traceable development of it that you see?

1/20/2006 09:29:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

My earlier question had in mind natural theology as done by the unsaved. It seems that we reserve natural theology for the Christian, and even then, the Christian is bound tightly in his ability to use it. The idea I have in mind is that this sort of skepticism (apart from the bible) starts with our approach to how we witness to the unregenerate, and then how we proceed from there. It is a pseudo-nominalism where the only meaning for life and all is found in the Scriptures. But at that point, we have robbed ourselves of the ability do even biblical theology, because of our disdain for natural theology. Is that rather unclear?:)

CS Lewis talked about his "Men Without Chests". I'm thinking its very much like that. Because we use the 'Green Book' to get people saved and to teach them theology, we have stolen from them the ability to feel and think in a truly Christian, even truly human way.

The connections are still a bit foggy, at some points in particular, but I'm convinced there's something to that.

1/20/2006 09:36:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Looks like we just missed each other, Jesse.

My ability to bluff a knowledge of history is obviously working over you, my friend. I am not sure. It probably has something to do with the modern perspective on the nature of things (objectivity, etc), and a misunderstanding of what a high view of Scripture actually means. This latter mindset is the one sometimes seen of those who simply want to be called "Biblicists." They are not Calvinists or Arminians, Dispensationalists or Covenant Theologians, but "Biblicists." I am tempted to think that in the great modernist controversy, the Bible was often set against science as the source of truth. Truth became to be only what we are absolutely sure of, and the only thing of which we are absolutely sure is the Bible. Therefore truth is only found in the Bible.

I have several more thoughts, but I had better stop there before I get myself into trouble. Rash statements are something I am prone to make.

1/20/2006 09:44:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Lilrabbi, the foundation of all theology is love for God. Without love for God, you might as well abandon any attempts at theology. Theology cannot be done by someone simply "lifting propositions" out of Scripture. I believe that it is true that Scripture has the priority as a source for theology over general revelation, because the Scripture speaks in coherent language. Yet general revelation is helpful as a source for theology.

In another setting I wrote, "The imagination does serve in one’s understanding of theology, as the imagination informs our ideas of wrath and love and other important matters particular to the human condition. It is in this sense that general revelation can be helpful, as developing our understanding of the nature of things--lightning moves our imagination to consider the nature of wrath, the lily informs the imagination in pondering the nature of beauty, and fire assists one’s imagination to consider the pain and severity of eternal punishment."

Having said all this, I think you are on to something. I believe that since theology is a task for the church, the unregenerate have little business doing it, even with natural theology. If you want to say that natural theology or general revelation reveal truth about God, I would agree. But I do not think we should necessarily call a "thought about God," true or false, "theology." General revelation can assist man in understanding the way things in the world truly are to a certain extent, and we ought not to deny this. For example, an unregenerate man may come to realize that mankind is evil. But he would not fully understand the statement, "mankind is evil," until he understands it in light of God's outpouring of his wrath on his Son Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. Again, love for God is the ultimate prerequisite for theology. This makes truth very subjective, by the way.

I am not sure how much I have answered your questions, but I can tell you I like this conversation quite a bit more than the one still lingering from a few days ago.

1/20/2006 10:05:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

That's helpful. As for calling it theology - simply knowing anything accurately about God is what I would call theology. And Romans 1 is clear that all men do theology, whether regenerate or not.

This was encouraging to read:

"General revelation can assist man in understanding the way things in the world truly are to a certain extent, and we ought not to deny this."

This is exactly what presuppositionalist fundamentalist biblicists deny.

It threw me for a loop when you and Joel and Scott were discussing the seeming assumption of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy in Dr. Doran. What I saw was the exact opposite. RC Sproul affirms, "We have to assume the basic reliability of sense percetpion." Its not infallible, but it is, basically, reliable.

I think presuppositionalism is nothing more than skepticism, and it makes it hard to do theology even when one is saved. The very principles one has denied the regenerate and unregenerate are the very principles by which we operate and are the tools God gave us to understand things (anything).

It is the 'biblicist' impulse, like you say. And what isn't attractive about that? I'm beginning to think that this is just a 'fall back plan' for when people don't see certain distinctions.

Ferinstance, if Van Til had noted Jonathan Edwards distinction between the natural and moral abilities, he may not have fallen into his skepticism. Perhaps he studied it and rejected it. But, at least, this distinction answers the problem of knowledge for the calvinist, without having to scrap Reason. Once you do that, its hard to be serious about theology.

1/20/2006 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

I would concede all the same that there are men who have many of these things put together much better than I do.

We want to affirm that there are true statements being uttered by the unregenerate. All the same, we need to grasp the deficiencies of their understanding because of the noetic effects of sin. Yet, God by his common grace has withheld from man his working out the full extent of his sin. Thus they are able to make true statements about art, music, culture, language, man, even God.

I am obvious advocating "balance."

1/20/2006 11:11:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

Balance is over-rated! lol

Have you read Edwards' Freedom of the Will? I assume you have.

1/21/2006 07:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Joel said...

So, dissidens, assuming the answer is they have a defficient view of Scripture, we would have to emphasize these distinctions in order to make plain what we really have in common and what we really do not. They would be interested in obscuring the distinctions, the separatist would be interested in stressing them.

Is that the direction your question is driving in?

1/21/2006 11:16:00 AM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

Hmmmm.

It certainly is frustrating, and J.F. certainly is a nutburger: “Father, Son and Holy Ghost, blessed relationality”? I wonder if relationality adequately describes the unmixed, unconfused triple personhood.

But your reply doesn’t answer my question—or perhaps I should say your reply doesn’t answer the problem. For one thing, people who repudiate “second book theories” themselves have second book theories, kinky ones: how long my hair can be, whether my women can wear slacks, what kind of games I can play, what kind of movies I can watch, what kind of music I can listen to.... For another thing, these “second book theories” define the church I was baptized into. By what theological theory can I reject them?

It’s not just a conundrum or a seminarian’s brain-teaser.

Are not these questions essential to the discipling of all nations in our century even as homoousios was in an earlier one? Which of these deniers can be my colleague in the Great Commission?

Do these anarchists have a mission board?

1/21/2006 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

I am probably dense becaue I am young, dissidens. I am really trying to work these things out, you know?

I would say that these "second-book theories" are all important, if not essential, for the discipling of all nations. Perhaps this is why the church looked so similar in so many places in its early church. How much I can join with those who deny their importance or change them will take a great deal of thought, but I would find it very difficult to join in gospel pursuits with those who differ with me on these important questions. I believe the importance of these questions has to do with their relationship to the gospel.

1/21/2006 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

I can't think what theological theory you have in mind, dissidens. Do you mind divulging it?

*Is the key to understanding what is going on here that I read the original post? That was a really long bit, you know.

1/21/2006 01:34:00 PM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

Joel:

Well yes. My larger point is that for any number of people to work together—and by “work together” I mean everything from the serious theological issues (like homoousios) to practical matters (like how to wear your hair)—we have to agree on an algorithm, a method for determining what is consistent with biblical teaching.

If someone dismisses what you say merely by charging you with a “two book theory”, it is not really a matter of coming down on one side or another of a particular issue, it amounts to a profound difference of belief in the authority of scripture. Does the Bible say X or does the Bible say Y and you incorrectly infer X?

Fundamentalists berate neo-evangelicals for abandoning the idea of scripture as normative. If fundamentalists berate other fundamentalists by charging them with a “two book theory”, what are we left with? As Ryan says, that difference throws an awful lot of good theology and good deal church precedent into the trash.

In theory fundamentalism is all about separation; in reality it’s become a matter of rejection. And some of us are watching an awful lot of good stuff being hauled off to the dump.

1/21/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

Sorry, I was unclear. I mean “theological theory” in the same sense as lawyers use the term “legal theory” when they discuss a case. One might ask, “What is your legal theory behind that notion?”

I merely meant to ask: On what grounds do we accept or reject that host of beliefs handed down to us (as well as all those beliefs we form for ourselves in response to a new error) which aren’t explicitly enumerated in Bible verses?

1/21/2006 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Your questions are not being ignored, dissidens. Only contemplated.

1/24/2006 10:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

Who is contemplating them?

1/25/2006 06:59:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Yes, yes. I knew that was an incoherent post the moment I posted it.

I am contemplating it. How about you, Joel? Are you going to give me some help here?

Sigh.

1/25/2006 07:31:00 AM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

Contemplation is all I ask. : )

You've no obligation to give an answer.

1/25/2006 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

How can I help you Ryan?

Do we start by saying we'll not automatically separate from McArthur and that we will pretty definitely separate from Detroit?

1/25/2006 02:13:00 PM  

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Immoderate: On morality and the limits of Scripture (Part 2)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

On morality and the limits of Scripture (Part 2)

I am concerned with these two posts to establish both the limits of Scripture and the truthfulness of our conclusions we make outside of Scripture. On Thursday, I limply tried to establish that there are limits to the questions we should ask of Scripture. For example, we do not ask the Bible how we should lose weight, for the Bible does not intend to address that question. Moreover, to assume that the Bible's lack of a condemnation towards some activity you happen to enjoy justifies the activity is an argument from silence, for the Bible does not commend that activity to you either. This is both a faulty understanding of the nature of the Scriptures (since it is not a comprehensive legal guide to the Christian life) and a misunderstanding of what is good. We are to prove what is good and what is evil, I insisted.

But what about the truthfulness of what we prove? As I asked in part 1, "Do we impose a "second book of authority" when we insist that there is truth outside yet derived (secondarily) from the Scriptures? To be sure, the Bible must play a role in determining the morality of our actions. But what about when it does not explicitly address our cultural particulars? Can we be sure? Can we assume that our conclusions are truth?"

The contemporary world has become global, and so we are met with what seems to be myriad ways of looking at reality. To be certain, our exposure to other cultures and other cultural expressions should give us pause before blindly accepting the validity of our own. But this is not to say that every individual or culture reigns sovereign. I believe that we must reject cultural relativity.

But the point here is not to attack cultural relativity (perhaps on a different day I will try to climb that mountain), but to offer that truth outside the Scriptures exists--that we can reach certain conclusions and that our convictions about things we have concluded from the Bible are true. My favorite proof of extra-Biblical truth is the Greek word homoousios.

Theology is closely related to ethics in a number of ways. For conservative evangelicals, theology begins with the foundational things you have been taught in Sunday school and by the sermons you heard at church (or by watching Sesame Street or wherever else you got your theology), which is then (hopefully) corrected or substantiated by the Bible. The evangelical method for determining ethics closely resembles our method for theology. They are both "Biblically based." But ethics, like theology, is in large part a "second order" discipline. Every evangelical says he believes the Bible. But the immediate question following is What does the Bible say? By the way, this is in large part why creeds (a.k.a. "doctrinal statements) and church covenants are so important. When someone adheres to a summary of doctrine (creed) or practice (church covenant), we better know what he believes. We can compare his doctrine and practice with our own. We can see where his differs from ours and where they are alike.

Creeds and covenants are not first order sources for theology, The Holy Scripture is. I view theology as primarily teaching--taking the Scriptures and communicating it to the church. Again, theology is a second-order discipline, whereby the Scriptures are taken and applied to contradict certain false teaching (negatively) or to articulate and summarize and systematize the Christian teachings found in the Bible (positively).

When we use the "rapture," we are using it with reference to an understanding of the Bible's teaching concerning a particular point of eschatology. When we use the word "inerrancy," we are again making theological deductions about the Bible based on its own teachings. The Bible never uses the word "rapture" or "inerrancy." Although the Scriptures teach inerrancy, nowhere do they give a nice tidy "doctrine of inerrancy." Yet we must believe the truth of inerrancy. When we confront what seem to be problem texts that do not neatly mesh with our system, we can change our pre-existing system, but we also sometimes bring our current system to bear on the text, which in turn informs how we understand the way that text coheres with our system. Of course, the goal for every conservative evangelical theology is conformity with the text of Scripture.

So it goes with the homoousios. What does homoousios mean? This is a Greek word that was crucial to the early church's articulation of the Trinity. Roughly, it means "the same essence," and was spoken of Christ against the moderate sect's similar word, homoiousios "the similar or like essence." Jesus Christ is of the same essence or nature or substance as the Father. As the Nicene Creed says,

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

If Christ is of a different substance, then he is not truly God. If he was made by the Father (and not eternally begotten), then he is of a different substance. This word demonstrates that we can and should make theological pronouncements that not explicitly found in the Scriptures. We believe the historic doctrine of the Trinity, and declare that it is the true teaching of the Scriptures, even though some of their words and summaries, like homoousios, are not explicitly found in Scripture. In a certain sense, they are as true as the Scriptures, because they accurately summarize the teaching of the Scriptures. If they were not the correct teaching of Scriptures, we should reject them. Yet if they are, then we should believe them with all our heart. Christian churches throughout history have accepted the Nicene creed as the orthodox teaching of the Bible. In fact, this Trinitarian teaching was to a certain extent a reaction to teaching which was not Biblical, namely that of Arius and others.

So we believe the truthfulness of certain things that are outside the explicit address of Scriptures. And just as this is true for theology, it is true in the realm of ethics and morality. For example, I believe that abortion is immoral. How do I know this? In part from my understanding of Scriptures, and (in part) from my understanding of what abortion is. My having a correct understanding of abortion is essential to my making accurate conclusions about the morality of it.

This is not to say that we somehow hold the conceived truthfulness of our theology or our moral conclusions like some immovable stalwart. Humility is essential, for if we recognize that it is possible for other persons to err (since they don't agree with us!), then we should recognize that it is possible for us to error. Particularly when we determining ethics and morality, we should always be studying, always "proving" (1 Thess 5:21-22), and always seeking to better understand ourselves and the nature of things. This can only be done when we fuse the horizons of different "cultures" (those who hold differing theologies, mores, and ethics) with our own. Hopefully their eyes will help confirm what we already understand, but also give us a perspective as to the shortcomings of our own milieu. This is what Jonathan Edwards and Augustine and Calvin and Anslem and the Cappadocian fathers and Bach (!) have done for me--they have shown me a different kind of Christian world, one that critiques my own American fundamentalist/evangelical setting (while I am inevitably critiquing theirs).

All this is to say that when we are convinced that some doctrine or practice is the Biblical teaching on the subject, we should believe it to be truth. We are not preaching an easy road to truth, yet we are condemning the philosophies propagated that any "second order" theology or ethics are in the end unknowable. Just because there is some degree of agnosticism does not mean that we cannot know. Nor should we say that just because an issue is not taught explicitly in the Bible that it is not as important, or somehow relegated as an issue simply of "Christian liberty." In my view, homoousios and inerrancy and abortion are not matters of "Christian liberty." They are in essence the Biblical teaching on their respective subjects. There are other second order teachings and practices (the rapture, church government, smoking, whether or not someone has cable) that similarly represent the Biblical teaching, but may not be as crucial to the faith as these other doctrines. Nevertheless, they are still important, and equally represent the Bible's teaching on that given subject as we understand it. Although my point is not to discuss Christian liberty, let me say that the main principle of Christian liberty seems to be how we treat brothers who are prone to building their Christian ethics simply off the influence of others, simply taking as their own what other people embrace or shun. Finally, weighing the importance of the doctrines is very important in this whole discussion. Paul says eating meat should not be judged (because God will judge that person), but he calls the person who neglects to care for his widowed mother "worse than an infidel."

In conclusion, I have tried to establish that both theology and mores are both second-order disciplines, summarizing the truths of and deriving their truthfulness from the Word of God. I believe that we should consider these teachings and practices to be the truth though with humility. Moreover, we should not banish all such "second-order" statements and beliefs to the realm of relativity simply because the Bible does not teach them explicitly. Thus our Christian life should be lived understanding the tension between the limits of what the Bible explicitly teaches and the truthfulness of our conclusions of how we apply what it does teach to our faith and practice.

24 Comments:

Anonymous dissidens said...

Some of us have followed elsewhere the tension you discuss here; those discussions involved people we know. That makes my question a delicate one. Please take it for what it asks, not for what the partisan might make of it. Nor do I want to put anyone on the spot for a ticklish commitment: I ask to provoke thought about a necessary consequence of what you’ve just written.

If important moral questions (abortion) and doctrinal questions ([I]homoousios[/I] and inerrancy) are second order, can we say that a person who dismisses a consideration of “second order questions” takes a high view of scripture or a low view?

What ought to be our relationship with those who for whatever reason place issues like inerrancy and the nature of Christ into a category of thought unworthy of serious contemplation? Can we whole-heartedly embrace as a colleague one who rejects inerrancy, say, as binding on all believers?

If I can oversimplify: How is it reasonable to separate from (or bring under church discipline) one who has had an abortion if we do not allow the rightness or wrongness of the issue to rise to scriptural adjudication or recognize its spiritual gravity?

Are not these questions essential to the discipling of all nations in our century even as [I]homoousios[/I] was in an earlier one?

1/20/2006 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

I think these are good questions, but difficult all the same.

You asked, can we say that a person who dismisses a consideration of “second order questions” takes a high view of scripture or a low view? I think we can at least say that he takes a deficient view of Scripture. Let me ask you, why do believe it is a "low view"? I may be missing something here.

1/20/2006 01:12:00 PM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

“Deficient view” is a perfectly acceptable change, I just used high versus low because that is how I have often heard the notion defended, as in: “It is because I have a high view of scripture that I cannot countenance its being used as a validation of your second order conclusion.”

To equate the two was, in their mind, to demean or devalue Revelation.

1/20/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

Keep it comin' Ryan. Perhaps, after you stop the mouths of all the doubters, you can backtrack to how these ideas affect those who aren't regenerate.

1/20/2006 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Dissidens, I agree. The inconsistency of some is very frustrating.

John Franke is consistent, where many others are not. Franke (who calls himself a "post-conservative evangelical"), would reject as binding any "second-order" conclusions. He is consistent even to the point of rejecting the original Trinitarian language for one that is more "contextual." So he talks about the "relationality" of God and the "social" God and a handful of other innovative "Trinitarian" expressions. This is a deficient view of Scripture. But, then again, he believes that a desire for truth is unwarranted Scripturally. All is determined by individual cultural contexts. The irony, as you point out, is that both Franke and others who want to make their creed "only the Bible" and reject all "second-book theories" are trying to uphold the Bible. But, in the end, with this approach to theology and ethics, we do not have much left (when it is carried out consistently), except a kind of Christian communal anarchy.

1/20/2006 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

And thanks, Jesse. I am not sure how much I can convince the doubters, but hopefully I can make a small contribution towards our understanding of these things. What is your question exactly pertaining to?

1/20/2006 09:28:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

Ryan, any thoughts on WHY this divorce of the two books has taken place, or at what point in history (roughly) this took place - or at least, is there any traceable development of it that you see?

1/20/2006 09:29:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

My earlier question had in mind natural theology as done by the unsaved. It seems that we reserve natural theology for the Christian, and even then, the Christian is bound tightly in his ability to use it. The idea I have in mind is that this sort of skepticism (apart from the bible) starts with our approach to how we witness to the unregenerate, and then how we proceed from there. It is a pseudo-nominalism where the only meaning for life and all is found in the Scriptures. But at that point, we have robbed ourselves of the ability do even biblical theology, because of our disdain for natural theology. Is that rather unclear?:)

CS Lewis talked about his "Men Without Chests". I'm thinking its very much like that. Because we use the 'Green Book' to get people saved and to teach them theology, we have stolen from them the ability to feel and think in a truly Christian, even truly human way.

The connections are still a bit foggy, at some points in particular, but I'm convinced there's something to that.

1/20/2006 09:36:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Looks like we just missed each other, Jesse.

My ability to bluff a knowledge of history is obviously working over you, my friend. I am not sure. It probably has something to do with the modern perspective on the nature of things (objectivity, etc), and a misunderstanding of what a high view of Scripture actually means. This latter mindset is the one sometimes seen of those who simply want to be called "Biblicists." They are not Calvinists or Arminians, Dispensationalists or Covenant Theologians, but "Biblicists." I am tempted to think that in the great modernist controversy, the Bible was often set against science as the source of truth. Truth became to be only what we are absolutely sure of, and the only thing of which we are absolutely sure is the Bible. Therefore truth is only found in the Bible.

I have several more thoughts, but I had better stop there before I get myself into trouble. Rash statements are something I am prone to make.

1/20/2006 09:44:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Lilrabbi, the foundation of all theology is love for God. Without love for God, you might as well abandon any attempts at theology. Theology cannot be done by someone simply "lifting propositions" out of Scripture. I believe that it is true that Scripture has the priority as a source for theology over general revelation, because the Scripture speaks in coherent language. Yet general revelation is helpful as a source for theology.

In another setting I wrote, "The imagination does serve in one’s understanding of theology, as the imagination informs our ideas of wrath and love and other important matters particular to the human condition. It is in this sense that general revelation can be helpful, as developing our understanding of the nature of things--lightning moves our imagination to consider the nature of wrath, the lily informs the imagination in pondering the nature of beauty, and fire assists one’s imagination to consider the pain and severity of eternal punishment."

Having said all this, I think you are on to something. I believe that since theology is a task for the church, the unregenerate have little business doing it, even with natural theology. If you want to say that natural theology or general revelation reveal truth about God, I would agree. But I do not think we should necessarily call a "thought about God," true or false, "theology." General revelation can assist man in understanding the way things in the world truly are to a certain extent, and we ought not to deny this. For example, an unregenerate man may come to realize that mankind is evil. But he would not fully understand the statement, "mankind is evil," until he understands it in light of God's outpouring of his wrath on his Son Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. Again, love for God is the ultimate prerequisite for theology. This makes truth very subjective, by the way.

I am not sure how much I have answered your questions, but I can tell you I like this conversation quite a bit more than the one still lingering from a few days ago.

1/20/2006 10:05:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

That's helpful. As for calling it theology - simply knowing anything accurately about God is what I would call theology. And Romans 1 is clear that all men do theology, whether regenerate or not.

This was encouraging to read:

"General revelation can assist man in understanding the way things in the world truly are to a certain extent, and we ought not to deny this."

This is exactly what presuppositionalist fundamentalist biblicists deny.

It threw me for a loop when you and Joel and Scott were discussing the seeming assumption of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy in Dr. Doran. What I saw was the exact opposite. RC Sproul affirms, "We have to assume the basic reliability of sense percetpion." Its not infallible, but it is, basically, reliable.

I think presuppositionalism is nothing more than skepticism, and it makes it hard to do theology even when one is saved. The very principles one has denied the regenerate and unregenerate are the very principles by which we operate and are the tools God gave us to understand things (anything).

It is the 'biblicist' impulse, like you say. And what isn't attractive about that? I'm beginning to think that this is just a 'fall back plan' for when people don't see certain distinctions.

Ferinstance, if Van Til had noted Jonathan Edwards distinction between the natural and moral abilities, he may not have fallen into his skepticism. Perhaps he studied it and rejected it. But, at least, this distinction answers the problem of knowledge for the calvinist, without having to scrap Reason. Once you do that, its hard to be serious about theology.

1/20/2006 10:27:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

I would concede all the same that there are men who have many of these things put together much better than I do.

We want to affirm that there are true statements being uttered by the unregenerate. All the same, we need to grasp the deficiencies of their understanding because of the noetic effects of sin. Yet, God by his common grace has withheld from man his working out the full extent of his sin. Thus they are able to make true statements about art, music, culture, language, man, even God.

I am obvious advocating "balance."

1/20/2006 11:11:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

Balance is over-rated! lol

Have you read Edwards' Freedom of the Will? I assume you have.

1/21/2006 07:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Joel said...

So, dissidens, assuming the answer is they have a defficient view of Scripture, we would have to emphasize these distinctions in order to make plain what we really have in common and what we really do not. They would be interested in obscuring the distinctions, the separatist would be interested in stressing them.

Is that the direction your question is driving in?

1/21/2006 11:16:00 AM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

Hmmmm.

It certainly is frustrating, and J.F. certainly is a nutburger: “Father, Son and Holy Ghost, blessed relationality”? I wonder if relationality adequately describes the unmixed, unconfused triple personhood.

But your reply doesn’t answer my question—or perhaps I should say your reply doesn’t answer the problem. For one thing, people who repudiate “second book theories” themselves have second book theories, kinky ones: how long my hair can be, whether my women can wear slacks, what kind of games I can play, what kind of movies I can watch, what kind of music I can listen to.... For another thing, these “second book theories” define the church I was baptized into. By what theological theory can I reject them?

It’s not just a conundrum or a seminarian’s brain-teaser.

Are not these questions essential to the discipling of all nations in our century even as homoousios was in an earlier one? Which of these deniers can be my colleague in the Great Commission?

Do these anarchists have a mission board?

1/21/2006 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

I am probably dense becaue I am young, dissidens. I am really trying to work these things out, you know?

I would say that these "second-book theories" are all important, if not essential, for the discipling of all nations. Perhaps this is why the church looked so similar in so many places in its early church. How much I can join with those who deny their importance or change them will take a great deal of thought, but I would find it very difficult to join in gospel pursuits with those who differ with me on these important questions. I believe the importance of these questions has to do with their relationship to the gospel.

1/21/2006 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

I can't think what theological theory you have in mind, dissidens. Do you mind divulging it?

*Is the key to understanding what is going on here that I read the original post? That was a really long bit, you know.

1/21/2006 01:34:00 PM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

Joel:

Well yes. My larger point is that for any number of people to work together—and by “work together” I mean everything from the serious theological issues (like homoousios) to practical matters (like how to wear your hair)—we have to agree on an algorithm, a method for determining what is consistent with biblical teaching.

If someone dismisses what you say merely by charging you with a “two book theory”, it is not really a matter of coming down on one side or another of a particular issue, it amounts to a profound difference of belief in the authority of scripture. Does the Bible say X or does the Bible say Y and you incorrectly infer X?

Fundamentalists berate neo-evangelicals for abandoning the idea of scripture as normative. If fundamentalists berate other fundamentalists by charging them with a “two book theory”, what are we left with? As Ryan says, that difference throws an awful lot of good theology and good deal church precedent into the trash.

In theory fundamentalism is all about separation; in reality it’s become a matter of rejection. And some of us are watching an awful lot of good stuff being hauled off to the dump.

1/21/2006 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

Sorry, I was unclear. I mean “theological theory” in the same sense as lawyers use the term “legal theory” when they discuss a case. One might ask, “What is your legal theory behind that notion?”

I merely meant to ask: On what grounds do we accept or reject that host of beliefs handed down to us (as well as all those beliefs we form for ourselves in response to a new error) which aren’t explicitly enumerated in Bible verses?

1/21/2006 02:16:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Your questions are not being ignored, dissidens. Only contemplated.

1/24/2006 10:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

Who is contemplating them?

1/25/2006 06:59:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Yes, yes. I knew that was an incoherent post the moment I posted it.

I am contemplating it. How about you, Joel? Are you going to give me some help here?

Sigh.

1/25/2006 07:31:00 AM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

Contemplation is all I ask. : )

You've no obligation to give an answer.

1/25/2006 12:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

How can I help you Ryan?

Do we start by saying we'll not automatically separate from McArthur and that we will pretty definitely separate from Detroit?

1/25/2006 02:13:00 PM  

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