September 21, 2007

On Theological Method

Last night, I had a brief friendly debate with some Calvinists, which has me thinking about theological method. Briefly, I approach the issue of Calvinism and Arminianism from the perspective primarily of philosophy rather than revealed theology. That is, I argue that libertarian free will, which is incompatible with most (but, surprisingly, not all) versions of Calvinism, but is central to Arminianism, is a philosophically attractive thesis on grounds of, for instance, human moral responsibility, the problem of evil, and the phenomenology of choice. (I don't claim that Calvinists can't provide accounts of these things, I simply claim that Arminians are able to provide better accounts. I also acknowledge that Calvinists might have better accounts of other things.) As an Evangelical, I have to justify this approach, and I generally justify it by arguing that the answer is simply not, or at least not clearly, revealed to us; that the Scriptural arguments pro and con balance, or at least nearly balance. Because I don't believe the answer is revealed to us, and also because of the nature of the question, I don't think this issue is that important, as theological claims go (but it is still a theological claim, and therefore matters). As a result, when it comes up in theological contexts my approach is generally to argue for a claim that I do think is important: the claim that this is not a matter of dogma, i.e. that churches ought not to enforce uniformity of belief on this issue among their members or even among their leadership. I've been trying to think through my reasons for this, and I've realized that they have a lot to do with theological method, so in this post I am going to develop an account of an idealized theological method (still very much a work in progress - objections or suggestions are extremely welcome!), then briefly attempt to identify where in this method Calvinism and Arminianism enter the picture, and suggest that their position ought to disqualify them from being considered dogma. (Wayne Leman's five part series on what the Bible "explicitly" teaches about headship and submission, discusses what it means for the Bible to explicitly teach something and so has also helped to get me thinking about this subject.)

I have wrestled on this blog with questions about Scripture and tradition, and have usually been short on answers. In the context of the present discussion, I am going to venture an answer to the question of how the two relate to one another: tradition, I claim, enters the picture in that the method described below is to be applied primarily by the Church rather than the individual. In saying it is applied by the Church, I mean to include the entire Church, from the beginning to the present. Because the process is iterative and further stages build on past stages, awareness of Christian tradition will be critical if an individual's efforts are to contribute to the total process. (It should be noted that this is not a general answer to the question of the relationship between Scripture and tradition because, as those who have read my Why Believe the Bible? series are aware, I think that the Church and its traditions have something to do with how we know that the Bible should be central to our theological method.) It is a good intellectual exercise, I think, for an individual to start, as it were, from scratch in theology, but we ought not to base our doctrine or our lives on the conclusions that we have drawn from scratch without awareness of the total process being done by the Church.

Although tradition thus has an important place in theology, I suspect that the nature of the method is such that anyone who believes that this is the correct method for the Church to apply agrees with what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura (but I am not an expert on Reformation theology). Also, it is critical to realize that the individual and, especially, the Church is to be guided by the Holy Spirit throughout the process.

Here, then, are the steps in my proposed theological method:

  1. Identify the clear teachings of Scripture

  2. Systematize and apply these teachings

  3. Draw inferences

  4. Use the information gained in steps 1 through 3 to interpret less clear passages

  5. Return to step 2

Step 1 is harder than it sounds. For one thing, language and culture come in here. (Fortunately, the Church started the process when the cultural and linguistic context of at least the New Testament was familiar.) For another, we have to be careful not to take things out of context. However, I'm pretty confident that even an individual acting alone could read through the Bible, especially the epistles which are the most explicitly theological portions, and take the general points (without getting bogged down in details) and have enough to go on to get started, and a significant enough percentage of this would be correct that the process would be able to self-correct in later iterations.

In step 2 our primary concern is to form general theories, resolve apparent contradictions, and interpret at a slightly deeper level. In step 3, we wish to know if there are any further points to which we are rationally comitted by accepting the theological points we have earlier discovered. At either of these steps, we may decide that what we previously thought was clear is no longer so clear. Finally, we return to Scripture and begin again by looking at those portions which were previously unclear to us to see if further learning has made them any clearer. From here, we iterate through the process again. Further iterations may lead to modify our previous conclusions, and this is ok.

This is a process that the Church is to undertake communally. We might try (but there are a lot of fuzzy concepts here) to say that someone is within the bounds of historical orthodoxy if and only if he or she shares the general views of the community to a great enough degree to be able to participate meaningfully in the process.

Now, the claim of a belief to be dogma should, it seems, be judged on two closely related issues: first, how early in the process is it discovered, and, second, how confident is the Church about it. These are closely related, because the Church is, in general, most confident about things that can be drawn immediately out of Scripture or derived with very little interpretation and which have not been subject to credible challenges in later iterations. (A third issue, which I will ignore here, is the degree of practical importance attached to the doctrine; if a doctrine has a lot of practical importance in terms of ethics or religious practice churches may be forced to take a position on it.)

As an example, doctrines like "all humans are sinners" (Romans 3:23, etc.) or "those who trust Jesus are not condemned for their sin" (John 3:18, etc.) come from step 1. On the first iteration of step 2, we might get doctrines like the trinity, a basic concept of propitiation (subject to refinement in future cycles), and such things. Then we'll go back and read confusing passages in light of these discoveries.

Now, my claim is that Calvinism and Arminianism are late-comers in this process; an ideal reasoner might get one or the other on the third iteration of steps 2 and 3. One point in support of this is simply that basic exegesis and preaching is rarely directly effected by one's views on this issues; they come in at the level of systematic theology (steps 2 and 3), and even then they are relatively advanced subjects in systematic theology. Another point is that they are late-comers historically. Now, it is important to note that the discussion is not without precedent in Church history, but before Arminius challenged Calvin's views on the subject, the debate was not carried on the way it is today, and it wasn't nearly as focal. Thus, even though some of the issues were around earlier, the actual debate is relatively recent. However, this could have at least two other explanations (and there exist debates having each of these explanations): the first is that prior to that time it was simply assumed that everyone held one view rather than the other, and the second is that some outside circumstance cause the debate to come to prominence. The first I find implausible (though if it were the case, it wouldn't go well for the Calvinists, as their position is an extreme one in the total context of Church history). The second is possible, since the discussion is partially a reaction against perceived Pelagianism in the Roman Catholic church. In short, between the antecedent debates and the outside circumstances, the recentness argument is a relatively minor consideration.

I do think, however, that, on balance, this discussion shows some reason to suppose that the issue of Calvinism or Arminianism is not a good candidate for the status of dogma.

Posted by Kenny at September 21, 2007 6:25 PM
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