October 20, 2017

Letters to a Friend 3: God Above Theology?

volunteerpx_2.jpgLetters to a Friend is a series of posts responding to some recent comments of a Christian friend regarding theology, divisions and debates. Previous letters: Division and Infallibilty.

Friend says, “I reject the claims of various (evangelical) Christian groups to be infallible, right about everything and all other Christians except themselves wrong. This makes the entire business of theological debate meaningless and ridiculous to me. God is obviously above theology, and we have no idea what God thinks about who’s right in these theological debates. Perhaps God sees issues like the Lord’s Supper in a completely different way than any church teaches. When unbelievers, like my atheist friends, hear of these doctrinal debates, it discredits all of Christianity.”

Dear Friend,

Probably the most provocative comment in your talk was the statement that “God is above theology.” If I remember correctly, you said this several times and it was obviously very crucial to your statement. I’d like to respond to this statement, because I believe it is the heart of the issue.

If God is not above theology, a number of things must change in your position.

For example, if God reveals or gives theology to human beings in a way they can understand, then we should not be surprised that there is a certain amount of contention and division among Christians. The Bible itself shows us conflict and division occurring among the churches and leaders in the New Testament over the issues of circumcision and inclusion of the Gentiles. Serious divisions are the reasons for some entire letters, such as the First Corinthian letter and the “Letters to the Seven Churches” in Revelation.

Theology has many definitions. I’ll assume that you are using theology in the sense of “human thoughts about God,” and that God has said “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” therefore our thoughts about God are not identical to God’s thoughts and ways.

No Christian that I am aware of believes there is complete identification between our thoughts and God’s mind. Every serious theologian wrestles with the issue of how we can say anything true about God since he is, as you say, “above” us and “other than us” in every way. The entire idea of divine revelation starts with the incomprehensibility of God.

To say that God is “above our theology” seems to indicate some despair on your part about theology, and this despair is your response to the arguments and disagreements you have observed. It is a position that would make some churches very attractive because they either reject all theology in favor or experience or they refuse to participate in most theological debates out of a certainty they have the truth.

Some despair about theology may result in the decision that all churches are equally “in the dark” in regard to truth, and therefore any church is equal to any other church, since doctrine is meaningless and practice/experience is all that matters. I would be cautious about taking these basically postmodern, relativistic positions that arise from a strong emotional reaction. The absence of conflict is hardly the proof that God is being honored rightly.

The important question here seems obvious: Is our theology completely our own creation, or does God reveal “theology” to us so that we can have “true truth” about him and respond accordingly?

The answer to that question seems simple, and I am sure that you appreciate it, even if you say God is “beyond” theology. God has revealed himself in creation, in Jesus and in scripture. I would say it more like this: God is revealed in general revelation, in Christ, in the scripture, through reason and in experience. All of these things are judged and regulated by scripture. I believe that there are several ways that God has given us theology and that he expects us to pay attention to what he has revealed.

For example, we have been studying Genesis 1-11 recently. You will recall that I said I have often asked students to do an assignment where they write down 50 things we can know about God from these early chapters of Genesis. This assignment typically yields statements like this:

“God exists.”
“God is creator.”
“God is creative.”
“God made human beings in his image.”
“God gave commands to Adam.”
“God is merciful and patient.”
“God punishes sin.”
“God chooses to remain involved in a rebellious world.”

All of these are theological statements, and I would have a hard time seeing that God is “beyond theology” when he has inspired these chapters with the obvious purpose of teaching these truths in language and example that anyone can understand. It actually seems that God is speaking, as Calvin said, “baby talk” so we can understand.

In John 1, John says that no one knew the Father until the Son made him known. The role of the Son in revealing what the Father is like, what the Father is doing, and so on is a major theme of the Gospel of John. This doesn’t seem to comport well with the idea that God is remaining above theology. It appears that the incarnation makes theology possible.

The inspiration of scripture rests upon the belief that God has expressed in human language what he wants us to know about Christ and salvation. If God is above our theology, then we should abandon any belief in the divine side of inspiration.

These various examples, however, are probably not what you intended by this statement. I believe you are looking at particular theological debates, such as the Lord’s Supper debate, and asserting that God is above this debate. Your statement that God’s view of the Lord’s Supper may differ from all of our views is the heart of what you mean. If this is true, then I must ask why God has revealed enough to start the theological discussion, but then made the solution inaccessible to anyone?

The problem is that all Christians are working with the same material: the incarnation, the salvation story and the Biblical text. These are revelatory. God has “come down” to us in ways that create faith, but that also create theology…and some conflict in interpretation.

So while I can agree that God is far “above” our confident efforts to say all there is to say, I do not believe God is above theology. I would agree with you that theology should be far more cautious and humble than many traditions attempt to make it. That is why I appreciate the minimal confessionalism of my own tradition and have some confusion at the attraction someone would feel for traditions that require complete confessional agreement with volumes and volumes of church teaching.

The Nicene Creed summarizes the theology that ought to bind the church together. A thousand page tome on the inner working of the Lord’s Supper is another attitude entirely. But that God does give us revelation in a way that causes theology to think some of God’s thoughts after him is undeniable.

peace

Michael Spencer

Comments

  1. Interesting and valuable stuff here. I’d suggest, though, that the construct “God is not above theology” needs additional thought. God Himself definitely is above, or greater than, things we know about Him — just as you would be greater than a portrait of you. That being said, the things we know about God are significant and should be highly treasured. We wouldn’t “know” God at all without Him disclosing Himself to us in some way. Typically, when someone says that “God is above theology,” they are dismissing theology altogether — ungrateful at least, prideful and disasterous at worst. The information that God has provided about Himself should be seen as a gift, and handled with the utmost respect — not simply tossed away out of frustration. But I’m just saying what you’ve already said.

  2. jmanning says:

    Also it could be that God stooped to be contained in “language”, or that God exalted man to use “language”

    To people who hold a strong version of the “logos” doctrine the latter is the option. We can look at creation and see that analogical language is not the norm.

    Either case we have grace in God stooping to us, or grace in God equipping us, probably a little of both