Monday, May 10, 2010

What Guides Our Theology?

One of my professors in college had a catchphrase: "Theology does not happen in a vacuum." Any theologian is inevitably going to be influenced by outside elements. Beliefs that we have are never pure and come from our genetic and culturally influenced biases. Should we consider these things contaminants in our theological petri dishes? External influences do not necessarily destroy the validity of our beliefs but it helps to be aware of them when evaluating our own decision-making (check out the blog Overcoming Bias for cool discussions on human rationality). Many would consider this a problem for theologians because the practice of theology is not scientific. It is impossible to test a theological hypothesis (despite my petri dish comment), so what criteria do we use to test our theological ideas against our biases? How do we filter out the noise to find out what is truly divinely inspired?

Christians have some consolation in that there are certain specifics that they do not need to have right to be saved. According to traditional Christianity one is not saved by whether they are calvinist or arminian, premillenial or amillenial, covenential or dispensational; it is their faith in Christ's death for their sins and resurrection. The penalty for biased thinking in those matters is considerably low. However, essentials of faith are also a matter of theology. Soteriology is just as theological as any of the non-essentials mentioned earlier, the fact that it has stronger universal agreement among Christians (at least in its basic sense, for details many come up with check out the wikipedia article on atonement theories in Christianity) does not magically disqualify it, or remove it from the realm of discussion and articulation. Also, many Christians are tempted to categorize reading and interpreting the Bible as a different thing than theology. When I pose this question, I do not.

Here are some solutions that many Christians have come up with:

1. Strongly emphasizing Biblical exegesis. The best way to keep your culture from contaminating your theology is to understand the Scriptures as best you can within the context of when they were written. This may seem like simply switching to another cultural contamination. However this was the culture that God chose to write inspired words down, so one who uses this solution would see this culture as closer to the source than current culture. Also, the prophets who were the individuals God acted through expressed themselves in conventional ways of their time. Understanding these conventions helps find the "pure" message they were given to convey.

2. All theology must be uncontaminated by culture. Any connection that can be made between someone's theology and a cultural influence automatically falsifies that theology. I do not think anyone openly endorses this method, but many people do attempt to falsify a theology by pointing out its cultural influence. That method suggests that this is their approach.

3. Acknowledge that saying, "you believe this because your culture influenced you to believe this" is the equivalent of saying, "Yeah? Well you WOULD say that!" Simply dismissing what someone says as a result of bias ends the conversation without saying anything about the truth of the statement or how the bias leads someone down the wrong path. Also, you could say this to almost anyone saying anything. Two plus two equals four? Only a modernist European imperialist would try to push such an absolute on me!

4. The Holy Spirit guides true believers, so don't worry about it. If our bias is harmful to our relationship with God we can pray for the Spirit to give us the wisdom to rise above it. We know from the promise of James 1:5 and the example of King Solomon that if we pray for wisdom, God will grant it.

Number one is the most tempting for me. I like history and am biased towards a solution that involves the historical method. I fully believe that God grants wisdom to those who pray for it (see #4), but that does not exclude #1. God can even make us wise historians who understand the historical context of the Scriptures. Number three is tempting, but most disciplines have methods for addressing this issue with ways of filtering out bias without destroying the possibility of knowledge. It is a form of academic responsibility and I do not see why theology should be exempt from it. Also, the extreme skeptic voice #3 provides is sort of a straw man. Most people accept a certain degree of common sense objectivity like math and basic logic. Number two is the least convincing solution. For one thing, it inches the thinker closer to the straw man presented in #3. For another, it is impossible to form a theology that cannot somehow be traced to some cultural element. Even the writings of the Bible show cultural assumptions that were contemporary to the authors.

I think that I prefer a method combining #1 and #4. I do want to understand what the Scriptures are telling me in their own words, which requires exegesis, but I want to be open to the Spirit to give me something revolutionary that really does transcend historical context. While #1 is preferred for being the most objective way of understanding how God has revealed himself we must be open for something new. Jesus completely overturned how his contemporaries understood the messiah. Many of the ways he fulfilled prophecy were innovative and revolutionary. We should be careful not to adopt such an extreme devotion to solution #1 that we confine God to the ancient world.

No comments:

Post a Comment