Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Resolving Life's Paradoxes

Central to Reformed theology is its proper commitment to the authority of Scripture. The role of Scripture is not tangential, but is a prima presupposition upon which Reformed theology is predicated. The predominant concern given to the importance of Scripture is set forth in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, titled, “Of Holy Scripture.”

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

Despite the fact that God has revealed His will and ways to us in the Old and New Testaments, there exist a whole series of issues in theology, which are almost universally accepted as “tensions.” These tensions include such areas as particularization and abstraction (in older theology this tension is called the “one and the many”), the age-old question of the relationship of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, the catholicity and individuality of the Church, the dual natures of Christ, and the three persons of the Trinity



In the history of theology these tensions have sometimes been made to stand out even more as theologians have superimposed on the Bible intellectual frameworks, which themselves are dualistic in nature. Here I am thinking of the inherent dualism of reason and revelation in the nature/grace schema of Thomas Aquinas, the mechanical philosophy/theology of Descartes, and the view of Wittgenstein that religious language need not be True truth.  In addition, there is the alleged dichotomy of reason and metaphysics as seen in modern theology and philosophy, and the mental split in post-modern thought between individualism and multiculturalism (the emergence of this problem is more recent but actually predates Lyotard by centuries as it has appeared in different forms).

These tensions, regardless of how they are framed by the jargon of Western theology and philosophy, have, in many cases, provided a helpful set of qualifiers and quantifiers for the direction of cultural beliefs and values. Yet, upon closer analysis, these same helps are largely responsible for creating more unanswered questions. In modern times, the Dutch Reformed theologian, Cornelius Van Til, for example, attempted to settle the issue of dualisms in Scripture and in theology generally arguing that they represent a series of unexplainable “paradoxes.” Despite my high regard for Van Til as a theologian, his explanation reminds me of the proverbial dog chasing its tail. It provides a direction without really taking us anywhere.

Contra Van Til, other theologians insist that the Bible does not contain paradoxes, but only the “appearance” of paradoxes, which can be resolved by spending more time in the study of Scripture. In other words, this group argues that the persistent claim to paradoxes in the Bible is simply the lazy man’s way to justify his poor hermeneutic. 

Problematically, both groups of theologians have ventured down the wrong tracks in their attempts to address the problem of supposed theological tensions. The fact is that there is no such a thing as a theological tension arising out of the Bible.[1] The thought that such exist is the result of a long-held deficiency in Reformed epistemology. Once this deficiency is addressed the tensions are resolved.

Hebrews 11:1 records, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here the writer presents us a biblically-based, intellectual framework for one’s thoughts. Already a clue has surfaced regarding how best to solve theological riddles. The fact is that theologians who refer to theological tensions do so out of a misguided commitment to the high role of natural reason in the work of theology. In other words, they begin with the wrong intellectual framework. What theologians have a tendency to see as theological tensions are not tensions at all, but the implications of looking at Scripture from a far too temporal and rational viewpoint.  Theological tensions are understood quite easily when we enlist a different intellectual framework: faith, grounded in the very Word of God. This is not to suggest that faith is a-rational or anti-reason. Faith enables us to see all of life itself from God’s supra-temporal perspective, a place where intellectual tensions do not exist.

These facts have far-reaching significance for Reformed theology. They suggest that the faith is not of secondary concern in theology, but is of principle importance. In fact, faith is intimately connected with what it means to have “the mind of Christ.” To have the mind of Christ results in many good things, but for our argument the mind of Christ enables us to see life as God sees it: as a unity rather than as a set of paradoxical pieces of a puzzle that reason cannot solve. This is not to disregard the diversity of the universe; but it places such diversity in the context of a created world of meaning without the problem of internal disassociation.

This last point should be of special interest to Reformed theologians who are skittish about faith in abstractio, which is not our point. Faith is always dependent on its object and as such maintains the key to resolving the so-called paradoxes or dualisms that typically confront us in the ongoing work of theology.



[1] Note that I am not referring to alleged textual discrepancies in the Bible such as the several accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ as recorded in the synoptic gospels, and which theologians have tried to harmonize. The issue at hand is theological and includes areas already mentioned: the sovereignty of God vs. human responsibility, the dual natures of Christ, the catholicity of the Church vs. the particular church, and more.

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