Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Providence, Part IX: Application for Better Theology

This is part 9 of my series on providence. Table of contents:
  1. Introduction and apology
  2. A brief history of the soteriological debate
  3. Overview of Calvinism
  4. Overview of Arminianism
  5. Comparing, contrasting, and evaluation of Calvinism and Arminianism
  6. The Biblical data
     6.5. Interlude: The God Who Seeks Us
  1. My position on providence
  2. Applications of this position to the soteriological debate
  3. Practical applications and conclusion
Eight months after starting it, I'm sorely tempted to make the elusive conclusion to my providence series into some kind of mythical, continually-promised, never-delivered carrot-on-a-stick to keep people reading my blog. But I wouldn't troll my faithful readers like that. I have already written enough to fill a small book, which makes me rethink how many times I've casually told people looking to discuss predestination to just "read my blog" about it. I have significantly changed (I hope progressed) in my view on providence as I see it and as it is commonly debated in the church. While I'm not sure I'll ever "arrive" at a complete understanding of providence in this life or otherwise by virtue of my finite mind, I have come to a fuller understanding of it than I ever thought possible before, and it has been a truly rewarding journey.

But this is only half of the story. No theology is complete if it doesn't draw one into greater spiritual understanding of God and appreciation of His glory along with merely conveying intellectual understanding. Greater knowledge about God must lead to greater knowledge of God and love for who He is and what He has done in us. The connection between one's theology and the rest of life can't be understated, even if it isn't always obvious.

A Relational Theology Take on Sovereignty

I just read a commendable essay by one of my favorite contemporary theologians, Roger Olson, propounding what he calls a "relational" view of God's sovereignty that raises some very interesting points and perfectly captures the importance of this connection between theology and life. It was a nice reminder that my theology concerning God's sovereignty will never be complete--and that's great news! He says this quote pretty well summarizes this perspective of "relational theology":
To be sure, God does not hand over the reins of government to the faithful; but neither does he want to make them automatons, beings resigned to a determined will. From the very beginning, he has preferred to give his friends a joint knowledge of what he wills to do…and to deal historico-temporally through them as his instruments, which as personalities may co-determine his will and counsel. (Quoted in Claude Welch, God and Incarnation, p. 116)
Elsewhere, Olson makes another point about God's sovereignty:
The key insight for a non-process relational view of God’s sovereignty is that God is sovereign over his sovereignty. The missio dei is God’s choice to involve himself intimately with the world so as to be affected by it. That choice is rooted in God’s love and desire for reciprocal love freely offered by his human creatures. None of this detracts in any way from God’s sovereignty because God is sovereign over his sovereignty. To say that God can’t be vulnerable, can’t limit himself, can’t restrain his power to make room for other powers, is, ironically, to deny God’s sovereignty.
This is exactly what I was getting at in my seventh post: trying to develop a view on sovereignty that leaves God as free as possible. The answer, Roger says and I believe, is ironically that God seems to have used His total freedom to relinquish some of it, "made himself nothing and took the very nature of a servant", and allows us to share in His kingdom reign. God's sovereignty is two-way; though He doesn't need anything in the world and certainly can't be controlled or manipulated, He makes Himself vulnerable, opens Himself to sharing in our sorrows and joys. This is a much more satisfying view of God than one who either autocratically micromanages every moment of our lives from on high or challenges us to decipher His inscrutable will for each moment of our lives. Both of these views lack the deeply personal nature of God embodied in Christ. It will take some time to fully work this idea into everything I developed in post 7.

The Most Excellent Way

But Olson gets at something deeper than view on God's sovereignty when he explains where it came from, which is just brilliant:
Rather than focusing on proof texts of Scripture or philosophies, this relational view of God’s sovereignty arises out of and is justified by a synoptic, canonical, holistic vision of God drawn from the biblical narrative. Obviously I do not have time now even to summarize “narrative theology,” but I will mention a few of its major points. 
Narrative theology regards stories and symbols as vehicles of truth. The Bible contains propositions, but it is not primarily a book of propositions. It is primarily a book of stories and symbols from which propositions can be drawn. The Bible is the story of one great “theodrama.” Its purpose is to identify God for us and transform us. Transformation is its first and highest purpose though it does also contain information. 
Narrative theology refuses to treat the Bible as a “not-yet-systematized systematic theology” which is how I believe too much conservative evangelical theology treats it. No system can replace the Bible which always has new light to reveal and more truth into which to guide us. 
Narrative theology resists too much philosophical speculation into matters beyond our possible experience and beyond the biblical narrative which is not about God-in-himself but about God-with-us. Narrative theology resists metaphysical compliments paid to God that cannot rest on the portrayal of God in his own story. 
Finally, narrative theology insists on taking the whole biblical story into account when theology attempts to derive truth about God.
This shift from viewing the Bible as systematic theologies tend to, as a collection of propositional statements (which may be wrapped inside historical narratives, poetry, prophecy, etc.), to a holistic narrative about God and His people has been a big area of growth for me lately. I increasingly think the latter is how the Bible was written and how it is "meant" to be read, while the former is an imposition of a more recent, Western way of thinking on an ancient, non-Western text.

Often in Christian theology and teaching there is an imposing tone of "this is how the Bible says God is [usually as a set of propositions], and the Bible is God's true word, so we have to accept, believe, and proclaim it". The truth is the truth, and we must learn to love it even if it seems hard or doesn't make sense at first. With some of the things Reformed theology says about God--His absolute control over even acts of evil on every level, His indiscriminacy in inflicting pain and suffering, His willingness to preselect people for Hell--such an authoritative view of the truth is necessary, because of how intrinsically distasteful and difficult these things are to believe.

This often leads, in turn, to an expectation that Biblical truth should be hard to accept or unpalatable, because we're blinded by sin to God's true goodness, forgetting that the point of the Gospel is that we will, we can, we do joyfully know and love God for who He is. If people, presented with a harsh view of God's sovereignty or something else, "refuse to love the truth" and fall away, we view them as lacking faith, unable to run the race, without wondering if it was we who pushed them away. Looking back at my struggle with doubt, I now see just how much I was trying to force myself to maintain this way of thinking about God in a hyper-logical framework that was becoming increasingly untenable. I think that what kept me going through this time was an even deeper belief or expectation that God has to be better than this. I knew there was more to the picture than the cracked view of God I'd held before, and I determined to wait for Him to reveal it to me.

What if theology didn't always have to be like taking medicine? What if we expected truth about God to be deeply satisfying and resonant emotionally as well as intellectually? What if we "got to" learn more about how God relates with creation instead of "had to"? A holistic theology of anything, certainly God's sovereignty, must be worked out by the heart as well as by the head. No doubt some of the teachings of the Bible will sometimes be hard for us to accept, but the distinction between dishonestly disbelieving the truth and honestly struggling to accept a distortion is real and important.

Rachel Held Evans says in her post "The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart", "It’s not enough for me to maintain my intellectual integrity as a Christian; I also want to maintain my emotional integrity as a Christian." You have to have both. I think the narrative (or "Biblical") theological approach is the way to do that. I think God has wired us to know Him experientially, in the framework of a story, not a logical system of truth. It is this kind of knowledge that Jesus called us to and it is this kind of knowledge that transforms lives; theological study is at best an aid or a support to it.

I don't, ultimately, care if you see the "genius" of my thinking about providence or come to share something like my view. What I care about is this: does your understanding of God's sovereignty, whatever it is, "make much of God" for you both intellectually and emotionally? Does it magnify Him, or does it make Him harder to believe in? Does it draw you towards or away from Him? The point of theology is worship and communion--love and knowledge working together and building off each other, not conflicting. Is your theology doing its job?

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