Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Orthodoxy as a Process

Is it better to ask questions or find answers? This beautiful and thought-provoking comic about this question is work a read. Seriously, read it.

Scott McKnight recently wrote a nice new post on his blog titled, "Orthodoxy was a Process". In it he describes the development of thought about Christ's divinity in the early church, which underscores the fact that Christians haven't always believed the fully developed "orthodox" doctrine of the Trinity. His thesis is roughly this:
All theology, in the sense of orthodoxy or dogmatics or systematics, is a process. It’s an experimental expression to put into words what one thinks the Bible teaches in words that make sense in a new context. This also means no articulation is infallible or absolute or final. Which is not to say theology isn’t true, but it’s not final truth.
A risk of seeking "orthodoxy" in the church is that once a doctrine is declared orthodox by the Pope, reformers, leading theologians of the denomination, or what have you, it can often be considered (especially by people unaware of how it was arrived at in the first place) to be a complete, final articulation of spiritual truth that exactly captures how it really is "up there". Seeking greater understanding of this area of theology beyond the orthodox doctrine thus becomes discouraged, or even forbidden as heresy; the focus shifts to passing on the orthodox belief and proclaiming the message.

I see this a lot in many circles of evangelical Christianity. The "gospel" has been clearly articulated in four easy points; we know what it is, and our responsibility now is go "go and make disciples" (Matthew 28:19), passing on the truth we have learned to others who will be able to continue proclaiming it (2 Timothy 2:2). (Wow, I just used the key verses of Cru and Navigators in a single sentence) Not that exploring the wider meaning and implications of the gospel is really discouraged, but presenting the gospel in such a distilled, "this is what the Bible says about salvation" way risks disconnecting hearers from the process by which the doctrine was developed and by which they must develop an internal understanding of the gospel.
Analogy time: this helpful video explains how the standard PEMDAS rule order of operations is an overly simplified and even misleading representation of how mathematics works: "Focusing on the order of operations can lead to ambiguity and obscures the real, underlying, and often beautiful mathematics." Blindly following the rule you were taught in school not only hides the beauty and complexity of the mathematical operations, it can lead you to incorrect answers on problems like  6 - 3 + 1. It concludes that "while the order of operations isn't technically wrong, because most of the time it'll give you the standard answer, it's morally wrong, because it turns humans into robots."
A similar danger exists in theology. When we teach the doctrine of, say, the trinity as a Biblical argument in support of a diagram like the one above, we are teaching people to accept and believe a paradox (or mystery) that seems counterintuitive but is supposed to describe the very nature of God. By distilling the beautifully complex nature of God to bare, propositional facts and ignoring all the tension in the Bible and in church history about the trinity, we get theological robots who are able to effortlessly rattle off how the Father is not the Son is not the Spirit but all three are one God and the references to back it up, but are unable to draw any further conclusions or connect this doctrine meaningfully to their lives because it's a paradox/mystery beyond our comprehension, after all, and besides, you don't question orthodoxy, you just believe it because it's The Truth.

McKnight's post is a nice reminder of how previous generations of Christians have wrestled with understanding the nature of God. Justin Martyr articulated a Christian attempt to resolve the Platonic concept of logos with the God of the Bible; he thus portrayed Jesus as the divine logos, subordinate to the Father, by which the world was created. The result was largely a two-God theology depicting a a transcendent  immaterial Father and a subordinate logos involved in the earthy matter of creation. Certainly this is incompatible with how we understand the trinity today, and yet "logos Christology was never considered heresy; it was considered inadequate."

All theology (knowledge of, not just about, God) is incomplete; some of it is bad. Because we now know God only in part (1 Corinthians 13:12), all theology falls into one of these two camps. There is no complete, perfect theology to be found among people who are incomplete and imperfect at their best. In his letters Paul writes incomplete theology and warns against bad theology; he definitely considered his own knowledge of Christ to be a work in continual progress:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14)
An application of this idea of orthodoxy-as-process is in the ever-continuing debate over the nature of predestination and salvation, which I see most clearly between Calvinism and Arminianism. I think the line where healthy discussion becomes unhealthy division over this issue is when either side presents its view as "the" complete teaching of scripture, the final word on the matter, the conclusion of the search for the mind of God in predestination, and all opposing views as therefore unbiblical. (This is probably my bias showing, but I see this especially being done by Calvinists who speak as though Romans 9 or some other Pauline text is absolutely conclusive)

When I first started my series on providence to tackle this debate, as much as I might have denied it I really was of this mindset. I dreamed of finding the One True Soteriology that brilliantly explained all the Biblical evidence marshaled by both sides and ended the debate by silencing them in mute agreement. But if this orthodoxy-as-a-process idea is to be believed, then this dream was the epitome of hubris. Maybe we should expect the conversation to continue and no final conclusion to be reached this side of heaven. Of course we will (and should) reach conclusions when we do theology, but these conclusions are only outcroppings and resting points on the mountains of God (or of Aslan in C.S. Lewis' metaphor); we should not presume to have reached the peak itself.

On this blog, I've found that I tend to look back on all my posts from more than about a year ago (like the providence series) and think, "How naive and foolish I was then!" Maybe in another year or two I'll think so about this post. This comes with the adventure of an ever-changing, ever-growing theology. And just as we ought to be humble and encouraging to people at different points on this journey, I'm learning to accept my old posts as looks back at where I was in the past and reminders of where God has brought me.

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