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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Problematic Theology

A First Step Towards a Problematic Theology

At first blush, it might seem as though the phrase “Problematic Theology” is an oxymoron. Or perhaps even a contradiction. After all, isn’t the whole point of theology to solve problems? Well, it will be the goal of this piece to call for a refocus of theology – away from a mode of problem-solving. It may make some cringe to hear the term “Problematic Theology,” but in some ways that is the point!

I would like to land on a particular question for a few paragraphs or so. The question centers on the overall goal of theology and the theologian: Why do we feel that theology must reconcile and bring coherence to the Scripture or to Christian doctrine? Or, more simply put: Why does theology seek to solve problems? A great deal of theologians over the centuries – particularly in the resent past – have set about the task of theology by seeking to make the doctrines of Christianity more coherent. For example, when dealing with the problem of free will and the doctrine of election, the first move of most theologians will be to “solve the problem.” So, all attention and focus will be given to some sort of “reconciliation” of the free choice that men make in choosing salvation with God’s predetermining work, before the creation of the world, to actually choose those who will be saved. We then go about the task of reconciliation by defining these doctrines in exhaustive detail for the purpose of bringing some sort of logical coherence between two doctrines that seem, on the surface, to be incoherent.

Problem Solving in the Modernist Tradition

I take issue with this approach, right at the start. I think that one of the marks of theology in the Modern era was an obsession with coherence and systematic consistency. This came quite naturally because the philosophical underpinnings of Modernism was the epistemology of foundationalism. Here the general thought was that we must first identify the foundation of our belief system. These were considered “basic” beliefs that were essentially “undeniable.” The task of Descartes as he defines in his Meditations was to undergo a methodology of doubt whereby he would call into question all things that he did not know with absolute certainty. He would then have a secure foundation of beliefs from which to construct a right and true view of the world. Others took a very similar course, which has led us to label the whole Herculean project as the search for Cartesian Certainty.

And we would be remiss, of course, if we did not mention that one of the key tenants to this whole idea of Cartesian Certainty had to do with what epistemologists term “Internalism” – the idea that these foundations of knowledge must be something to which the believer had special access, had a certain obligation to search for the foundations of knowledge (i.e. beliefs must be “justified”).

There was, of course, a great deal of disagreement amongst philosophers as to what beliefs were foundational and how to go about “building” a belief structure, but the one thing that was very rarely called into dispute is that once our foundational beliefs were established, we must then proceed with logical consistency and coherence. Again, there was debate as to what exactly we should consider “logical consistency” or “coherence,” but who was going to argue that we should abandon the whole project of having a coherent belief structure? Well, let me be the first…
That is, of course, not entirely the truth. Many have questioned the philosophical aims of the Modern era, and I do not want to get sidetracked with the philosophical side of the coin when my concern is more theological. So, I will ask the question in a theological way: Why are we so focused upon coherence when defining Christian doctrines or doing Christian theology? What this amounts to is a sort of “theological obsessive-compulsive disorder” that develops such an intense preoccupation with coherence that all it can do when approaching theological doctrines is to approach them in order to solve the logical problem or eliminate the logical tensions. Once this is accomplished – or, at least, it is accomplished in the eyes of the theologian who is working on the “problem” – then a theological sigh of relief is breathed and we can all rest easy knowing that our doctrines are safe from the secular charge of “Inconsistency!”

Towards a More Problematic Theology

I admit that solving the logical problem is a very sexy thing for a theologian to do. What a great amount of respect and outpouring of praise goes to the theological giant who has climbed the Mount Everest of Theological Problems and has planted the flag of Logical Consistency upon its peak! What a challenge! And what a thrill!

The point I am driving at here is not to say that logical consistency has no place in theological or doctrinal discourse. I think coherence has a very important role in theology. We, as human beings, have an innate and instinctive desire and drive to order our beliefs in a coherent and consistent way. This is important and certainly must never be completely lost. What I am arguing against, rather, is the seeming obsession with coherence; the highly exalted status it has been given and the esteemed merit it has been awarded. I simply feel that it has been granted a status that it was never meant to attain and that the authors of Scripture, itself, do not award it. How often do the authors of Scripture attempt to define doctrines for the purpose of logical consistency or systematic coherence?

The issue then, as I see it, is not in defining these doctrines, but the issue is why are we defining them. Is it for the purpose of coherence? If the answer is “yes,” then I think that we have smuggled in an incorrect philosophical bias – which isn’t so bad because, after all, we all have philosophical biases. What I suggest, however, is that we need to wrestle with the question of why we are defining these doctrines and for what purpose are we doing theology. Perhaps it is simplistic, but I would suggest we should be doing theology and defining doctrines for the purpose of correctly defining the doctrine – not for the purpose of making it cohere with the rest of our belief structure.

But perhaps, you might argue, we must have some sort of more specific purpose in mind when we define doctrines. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have some philosophical or theological axe to grind. For after all, you might argue, no one can do theology simply to define the doctrines – we all have a bias and purpose that is more specific to what we are doing. And you might site one of the major faults of philosophy and theology of the modern era, which sought to elevate the status of the “autonomous subject.” But, you chime, the concept of an autonomous subject was a fallacy! We all have motivations for thinking and doing theology. We must discuss, you would argue, our specific purposes in defining doctrines; we cannot define doctrines simply for the purpose of defining the doctrines.

Well, to that highly articulate response I would voice agreement. It does seem true that we must be more introspective and not so naïve as to think we can define doctrines or do theology without defining a more specific purpose. But perhaps the purposes of doing theology can be defined on a doctrine-by-doctrine basis. Is it possible that we develop a somewhat eclectic approach that evaluates a doctrine on the basis of what it, itself is trying to accomplish?
For the remainder, I would like to evaluate the doctrine of free will and that of election. In this discussion I will evaluate the doctrines in regard to their function within the experience of the individual and the community. In doing so, I hope it will become clear that these doctrines were not given to us for the purpose of internal coherence, but rather have a crucial role to play in the experience of the church as she relates to God both corporately and individually. If we are seeking as our primary goal to bring coherence and systematic consistency to these doctrines that seem to conflict, then we typically risk losing or minimizing some crucial aspect of the doctrine.

Free Will and Predestination - An Example of A Problematic Theology

Let us look at a specific example; a question really, How do we resolve the tension between free will and election. On the surface, it appears that if we hold to both free will and predestination, then we are basically saying, “God chooses me, but I choose God.” Although I simplify the discussion to the point that I seem to be a mere theological child – which, in many respects I am – the point is that if we are to bring coherence to our belief system, we cannot say “God chooses me, but I choose God.” To say this is to lose the precious commodity of coherence, which, of course, we cannot do if we are problem-solving theologians. So, what we must do (as good problem solvers!) is specifically define what we mean by “God chooses me” and “I choose God” so that we do not use the word “choose” in the exact same sense in both instances. If we use the word “choose” in precisely the same way, then we have treaded upon the sacred ground of coherence and our theological belief system is in danger of the cry “Inconsistent!” that we fear so much.

But here is the whole problem: once we begin to define the words “choice” in such a way so as to eliminate the tension and become “consistent” theologians – the very minute we do this - then we are defining our doctrines so as to eliminate tensions. At that instance we have become theologians who are focused on problem-solving. That is, we are engaging in theology for the express purpose of bringing logical consistency and coherence: problem-solving.

This approach is great, as far as it goes (i.e. in solving the problem). However, when we begin to define these terms so that they reconcile with each other and thus alleviate the dreaded tensions we fear, we then risk losing the experiential relevance of one or the other doctrines. For example, we can eliminate the tension by saying that when man chooses, he does not actually make a real “choice.” God is the main operative in this scenario and man is more in the position of ratifying the choice of God. Or, conversely, we can say that humanity possesses Libertarian Freewill and therefore when God “chooses” this choice is more in the line of ratifying the choice of mankind. The operative concept being that we must “dumb down” the word “choose” at it applies to either God or to mankind.

With this move, however, I fear that we do injustice to an aspect of Christian experience, not to mention doing damage to the biblical themes of freedom and predestination. On the one hand we deny the responsible choice that each person must make to repent and ask for God’s grace: an actual choice-act, and we also deny the personal responsibility clearly taught in Scripture. We deny the reality of the experience of denying the self, taking up our cross, and following our Savior. On the other hand, if we deny the predestination of God, then we deny the powerful existential comfort, as well as the clear data of Scripture that reveals a God who loved us in such depth and had such mercy on us that he elected us for the gift of redemption and restoration even before the history of the universe has begun to unfold. I think we could explore this in much more depth and realize that at each point where we seek logical consistency and alter the meaning of “choose” we find there is a very, very high experiential price to be paid. The cost, I would assert is too great for the acquisition of a little bit of coherence. And, as mentioned previously, I do not see the authors of Scripture seeking to solve the logical problems we have found to be so important. Rather, the focus, I believe, is much more existential.

Now, I would hasten to say that I am not asserting that there is anything really wrong with problem-solving theology. As I mentioned before, there is great intellectual appeal to these approached, and a great service to the church is rendered in so doing. Some of the problem-solving theologians of the past centuries in the church were some of the most brilliant intellectuals to have walked the earth; certainly more brilliant than this theological webblogger! The literature written and the concepts developed have only served to drive Christianity to greater intellectual heights, and I would not want to take anything away from the importance of this project.


My point here is that in this “post” modern era, perhaps the theological considerations have gone beyond the Modern obsession with coherence. Hence, I think we should take the fist steps toward a more problematic theology that seeks to define and articulate doctrines for what they are – and for the life changing and community building power that they possess – rather than allow our concern to solve problems dictate the direction we allow a doctrine to develop. All Christians are guilty of this “crime” (if I may call it that!), and this Christian is no less so than anyone else. However, by placing coherence a little lower down on the list of theological considerations, we will relieve a great deal of “stress” that we have piled on ourselves in being so concerned with coherence. This will then free our available energies to focus upon other doctrinal considerations that will, perhaps, bridge the gaps between theology and real life change. It will also allow a “post” modern generation of both Christians and non-Christians alike to tune in to the messages of the Church of Christ. With every day that passes, our world and culture is becoming less and less obsessed with consistency and coherence and more aware of the spiritual void and vacuum of the human soul. If Christianity believes its out-of-date claims of exclusivity can fill the void of humanity, then perhaps it is appropriate that our theological reflection attend to this task with more energy.

That is why I call for a more “problematic” theology – and do so with no shame! When we release the angst for solving the problem, then I believe our doctrine will begin to take on greater existential relevance and unleash the power of the Gospel to save and to sanctify.


Anonymous said...

nail on the head:-)

Anonymous said...

How can Real God or language about Real God be problematic?
The problem is the inherently godless ego that asks the question.
Please check out:
1. www.realgod.org

Unknown said...

A really good article!

Yes, the Bible, as life itself, does not come in a neat consistecy, as a logical system. Rather, it has paradoxical flows sometimes, and some tensions just can not be solved by philosophical theology.

But, by the way, I must admit am an open theist just because it is more consistent with 1.) the biblical narrative of God and his actions and 2.) with a real life and spiritual and moral experience, which is the basis for any theological or ethical thinking!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thank you, Gorazd. I appreciate your thoughts.

Although I am not an Open Theist, I am sympathetic to some of their aims - for just the reasons you describe above. Open Theism does provide a consistency with certain biblical narratives, and Open Theism is certainly consistent with our experiences as time-restricted beings.

I have sympathies for any theology that takes seriously certain portions of the biblical text that seem to have been forgotten. One thing that strikes me from my Calvinist background is the fact that there are so few real and genuine engagements with narrative passages where God is seen as changeable. Certain texts just seemed closed - problematic, if you will. And when these texts are opened they are treated in a very defensive manner - something to be explained away.

But one of my hang-ups with Open Theism is simply that the biblical narrative presents a God who is not just open, but also closed. The example of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart is but one of many examples where we see a God whose will is determined and who exercises his sovereign right to do as he pleases with whomever he pleases. (See Exodus 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:8 for more on God hardening Pharaoh's heart. Also see Exodus 4:21 and 7:3 where God tells Moses, at the outset that he will harden Pharaoh's heart. These are clearly narrative passages, and it seems to me that the God presented is not very "open.")

Open Theists seem to want to explain away the "Closed" God that they see in the biblical narrative. By contrast Calvinists seem to need to explain away the "Open" God presented in the biblical narrative.

My personal belief - at this point in time - is that God has the sovereign right to be whomever he wills to be. I like to think of this as a very radical sovereignty - a God whose "closed" or "openness" is purely up to his own will and remains, like so much of him, a mystery to mortal man.

Anonymous said...

It's Gorazd here again.

Thank you Jonathan for your answer!

Yes, every theological system, if it tends to be as coherent as it can, gets across texts of the Bible that doesnt seem to fit. Open theism has such too. But, funny, I dont see that hardening of Pharaoh's hart is one of these :-)

First, if you see all those passages where hardening of pharaoh's heart is described, it is clearly a play of language. Sometimes it says that The heart of Pharaoh was stubborn or hardened, or at other times it says that Pharaoh himself hardened his heart (See for ex. 7,13-14, or 7,22; 9,7 etc.). The interesting question is: Which version of hardening of pharaoh's heart is more literal and which reflects more the theopoetical usage of language?

There is ample evidence in OT, that OT many times says "God does this and this", and clearly, it was not God doing it or controling it, but evil people or even evil spirits! Like, for example 1 Sam 16,14: "The Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord was terrifying him." Evil spirit from the Lord? When one understand, that everything in the OT can be described "from the Lord" if it turns out for good at the end, then things make more sense with the NT perspective (Where, for ex., the light has nothing to do with the darkness). It is the special religious God centered language world of OT writers.

Do, in the case of Pharaoh, I would opt for the "Pharaoh hardened his heart" as more straighfoward description, and "The Lord has hardened Ph.'s heart" as a God-centered theological language.

But even the other explanation, that God directly did it, is somewhat consistent with the Open Theism. This is then not God's foreknowledge but decision, that is in the game. Or is it possible, that foretold hardening of pharaohs heart was completely clear to Jahve because of Jahve's knowledge of Pharaohs state of heart anyway?

There are many options of understanding the text, as I see it. The more difficult texts from Opennes perspective are, for example, Jesus' fortelling to Peter directly, that he will betray Him 3 times that night. If that was infallible foreknowledge, it takes away freedom to Peter in this matter. This seems to me harder to swollow. But overall, Open Theism solves more problems than it creates, and that is neat!

Sorry, perhaps too many words on this subject. Thanks for the discussion.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Gorazd, you ask the following question:
The interesting question is: Which version of hardening of pharaoh's heart is more literal and which reflects more the theopoetical usage of language?

But why do you ask that question? Why do you feel the need to look for a "literal" versus a "theopoetical" use of the language? Your distinction (literal/theopoetical) is not a distinction that seems to have concerned the biblical author.

Your question betrays the fact that you see a tension between "Pharaoh hardened" and "God hardened". In your mind (and in my mind, too, I must confess!) you immediately assume it must be one or the other: either God did it or Pharaoh did it, but they both could not have done it!

In this post I talked about "problem solving theology." By asking your question you are engaging in problem solving theology. By making your distinction you are forcing our hand! One must either say that "Pharaoh hardened" or "God hardened." Those who are Arminian/Open Theist will side with "Pharaoh hardened" in most cases. And those of us who tend to be more Calvinistic will say that "God hardened".

But perhaps we have all succumbed to a false dichotomy. What if we don't have to choose? It seems as though the biblical author (and by implication the divine author) didn't think in terms of strict causality. As such, he could feel free to use the terms "Pharaoh hardened" and "God hardened" interchangeably.

Maybe we need to change the philosophical outlook that forces us to ask these questions.....

Anonymous said...

Hi again, Gorazd here!

Yes, I too think that biblical author did not engage in lteral vs. theopoetical distinction. He used the language quite freely, as is many times the case in OT especially. God "does" plenty of interesting things there: Sending demons to afflict Saul, sending babylonians or Assirians to kill Hebrew babies etc. etc. Yet, these people were responsible for their deeds, which is also biblical messege.

I believe though that understanding God as a person, and us as persons, distinct from Him, demands disctinctions between "God did it" (directly) or "I did it". One can speak "in what sense" God did it anyway (when it is not with direct intervantion etc.), when actually I did it.

Refraining from asking such questions (which then force us to make such distincitons) may seem fine as far as biblical author is concerned, and as far our practical spirituality and spiritual growth is concerned. Yet, I can not throw away the historical process of refining the thought through distinctions, percise thinking etc. It is just impossible for me to go to the woldview of a biblical author.

For ex. I can not even think in the way that causes can be either human od divine, and that's it. Biblical authors did not operate with "chance", or "physical law" as categories of reality. Either God did it (Good and bad spirits are "from the Lord", also natural phenomena, weather, animals etc. etc.), or human did it. No other categories.

No one today is able to think that way, and, actually, does need to. :-)

Anonymous said...