Theological formulation: hierarchy, inference, and mystery

Once again, Tony Penner has raised a question that prompts me to reply by means of a post, since he puts on the table a rather critical issue of theological method, and I want my thoughts about it to be accessible in future, through the archives.

In a comment concerning my post on universally sufficient enabling grace, Tony wrote:

 “I realize (I think) that as a theologian you are doing your best to try to understand the paradoxical concepts of Scripture. It is in many regards a mystery how God may grieve over the condemnation of sinners while at the same time [by] the nature of predestination overlook them for salvation. One’s mind can whirl trying to come to terms with the truths of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. I am glad that you are willing to try to reconcile these things as I believe that it is a benefit to the Christian community. But without trying to be disrespectful, do you not have to hold some of what you are proposing lightly [my emphasis] because there is not a strong biblical affirmation but rather a philosophical one? I am not trying to dismiss or join the camp of believers who simply throw up their hands to everything that they read in Scripture that does not make sense on a cursory reading and who do not put any value in the hard work of searching out the Scriptures. But this brings me to a question, at what point do we embrace the mystery of the Scriptures and conclude that we only see dimly but one day we will see in full?”

The hierarchy of truths

First of all, let me affirm that I do hold my proposal lightly. In reading Roman Catholic theology, I came to appreciate the concept of “the hierarchy of truths.” Not all truth is equally well warranted, so not all of it is equally essential or important. One of the defining characteristics of “fundamentalisms,” I think, is their tendency to hold all their convictions as equally important and necessary, leading to a high degree of separation from others who disagree on any point. The list of “fundamentals” tends to grow over time.

In The Christian Faith, Michael Horton states that “theological reflection must be aware of related disciplines, especially languages, philosophy and history,” and then he proposes this as the proper order in our doing of theology: “(1) the Scriptures as the infallible canon, qualitatively distinct from all other sources and authorities; (2) under the magisterial norm, the ministerial service of creeds and confessions; (3) contemporary proclamation of God’s Word in the church around the world; (4) long-standing interpretations in the tradition; (5) the particular nuances of individual theologians” (218).

I think that is quite nicely said. My proposal clearly fits into the bottom rung of that hierarchy but, for all we know, in a couple of centuries it might make it up to level 2.  (Dreamer!)

Decades ago in a fine essay (“The Theologian’s Craft: A Discussion of Theory Formation and Theory Testing in Theology,” in The Suicide of Christian Theology, 267-313), John Warwick Montgomery urged us to hold in balance the scientific, artistic and sacral dimensions in our theological formulation. In regard to the scientific aspect of doing theology, he compared the levels of authority of theological statements to three “conceptual gestalts” in science: hypotheses, theories and laws. These approximate to Roger Olson’s 3 levels of “opinion, doctrine and dogma” (The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 44). Obviously, what I have given you is an “hypothesis” or an “opinion,” respectively, but acknowledging this does not invalidate the proposal, it merely puts it in perspective.

Prior experience that informs my present concerns

Lest I appear a bit defensive, let me give you the context out of which my concern arises. Some months ago, I had the opportunity to read the prepublication manuscript of a fine work in process. Since what I am about to relate has to do with the prepublished form, and since things changed before the final publication, I will mention neither the book nor the essayist by name. But revisiting my comments on the manuscript gives me an opportunity to speak to the issue of theological method that Tony’s question brings to our attention.

One of the essayists had written rather pejoratively about my proposal of universal sufficient grace, commenting: “As with other points of Tiessen’s view, he admits that there are no explicit biblical texts that teach a universally sufficient grace . . . Nonetheless, he thinks it is a plausible notion as both a legitimate deduction from biblical texts, as well as a view which does not negate any specific biblical text.”

I asked the author: “Am I really doing theology any differently than most constructive systematic theologians do? I think not. You may disagree with the inferences I draw from biblical texts but I don’t see why my method, per se, would be objectionable.”

Further on in his essay, the author said that he found “no biblical grounding” for my argument for universal sufficient grace and that I “admit this” but still “propose it.” I suggested that his assessment was incorrect. I granted that there are no “explicit biblical texts” that state this concept but, I objected: “that is scarcely equivalent to denying that it has any biblical grounds, is it? In the chapter and in the appendix, I lay out precisely my biblical grounds for believing that this doctrine is a legitimate way to make sense of what we find in Scripture. Theologians do this all the time and Calvinists are no exception. We develop constructions to provide a way of holding together the various truths we find in Scripture. I have been careful to differentiate the doctrines I hold as a matter of orthodoxy, or with certainty, and those that I hold more tentatively as hypotheses to be tested. About some of these hypotheses (like universal at-death encounter with Christ) I become more and more convinced, about others (like universal sufficient grace) the construct is growing in my own perception of its value, but I’m listening carefully to critique from fellow Calvinists. In still other cases, I may encounter data that don’t fit, and that call for modification of the hypothesis. This would include hypotheses I tried out, and abandoned, before the book was completed. It seems to me that this is how theology is done.”

Further on in the author’s essay, he observed that I admit to finding “no biblical examples of people who were saved through general revelation alone,” but then he spoke as though this settles the matter. Hence, my pursuing what sort of response to general revelation would please God, if the Spirit were to enable such a response, was deemed invalid.

Still later in the critique, commenting on my proposal that everyone meets Christ at death, the essayist wrote: “In Tiessen’s work . . . , he says he does not have explicit biblical support for a certain position, and then argues it anyway.” Hmm! That sounds bad. Instead of this sort of theological systematizing, my critic counselled  agnosticism “on matters that Scripture does not explicitly address.” I responded that this is very rare among systematic theologians. I asked him whether he really found my hypothesis that everyone meets Christ at death implausible? I meet few people who do. Did he really think, I asked him, that no effort should be made to make sense of the two factors that I had identified as leading me toward my universal sufficient grace proposal (namely, judgment according to deeds done in the body, and God’s distress about the unbelief of the non-elect), or to explain how it is that Christians are as holy as God graciously chooses they should be, but that they are responsible for not being more holy? These are things that my proposal tries to address. I have found the results helpful, and I am happy that some others have too.

I suggested that if my critic had a better proposal to make sense of this biblical data, I would be happy to know it, but I hoped that he would not just plead agnosticism because no Scripture passage explicitly and directly addresses these particular questions.

I went on to say that I drew some encouragement from the fact that a number of essayists in the collection had referred to a common consensus about the salvation of the unborn, infant mortalities and the mentally incapable. I wondered: “How did they get there?” Surely not from any Scripture texts that explicitly address these questions. So I asked my critic: “Do you think we should remain agnostic on these and all other matters that Scripture did not specifically address? You fault me (and J. I. Packer too, I guess) for believing that God might save some who only receive general revelation when there are no biblical examples of such.” I asked whether he does the same about infants? There are no biblical instances of any unborn who are saved either, but that has not prevented countless theologians from constructing their convictions on the matter by tracing out the trajectory of related biblical doctrines. I remarked that it is ironic, since I am the “inclusivist” [his term] in the conversation. I have not found biblical ground for asserting that all who die in infancy are elect. In that regard, I turn out to be less “inclusive” than a number of the “exclusivists” who wrote in the book that was in process.

Mystery

I concluded my remarks on this particular issue of theological method by warning my critic about how widely he might be painting with his pejorative brush, within the theological fraternity, and of how narrow a path he was leaving for himself as a theologian. There is certainly a place for saying “I don’t know;” I have said that frequently in class, and I expect to say it often on this blog. But I believe that we can often push further in trying to address matters on the basis of the witness of Scripture as a whole, provided we keep in mind that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

So, in conclusion, I concur with Tony that there is a time to appeal to mystery, and I admit that I may sometimes keep pursuing understanding beyond the point at which I would be wise to make that appeal. In the meantime, like Anselm, my faith will keep seeking understanding.

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One Response to Theological formulation: hierarchy, inference, and mystery

  1. Tony Penner says:

    Terry, thank-you for your honest response. One of the things that I have appreciated about you in my interactions both in this blog and in your classes is the humility with which you handle the issues. This reminds me of times in class when I or another student would ask a question or propose a thesis and you would carefully and dare I say almost fatherly handle the inquiry. It was a tremendous learning experience.

    Thanks again and I look forward to future posts!

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