by Vern Sheridan Poythress
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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Poythress, Vern S.
Symphonic theology : the validity of multiple perspectives in theology /Vern Sheridan Poythress.
Originally published: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, c1987.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 0-87552-517-2 (pbk.)
Many of my ideas about perspectives in theology grew under the influence of perspectival thinking in Cornelius Van Til, John M. Frame, and Kenneth L. Pike. I have tried to acknowledge in the footnotes cases of direct dependence, but I have lost track of many of the more subtle ways in which the whole style of my thinking has been profoundly affected by these three scholars. This book owes much more to these men than can easily be indicated. The bibliography contains a list of the writings of Van Til, Frame, and Pike that are most closely related to the concerns of this book.
I dedicate this book to my wife, Diane, who has been a constant source of encouragement in the process of writing.
1: PERSPECTIVES IN EVERYDAY LIFE
People are not all alike. They do not always notice the same thing even when they are looking at the same object. This commonplace observation has some profound implications for the way in which we do theology.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF PERSPECTIVES
Let us start with some simple illustrations. In figure 1, the drawing of the cube can appear to one person with vertex 1 in front and vertex 2 behind. Another person sees vertex 2 in front and vertex 1 behind. After looking at the figure for several seconds, most people find that the two views alternate. But a person busy with a problem in plane geometry might see the figure as simply a number of connected lines in one plane and not see a cube at all.
Figure 2 shows another picture that can be seen in two ways. If the viewer takes the black as a background, the picture is one of a white fountain. If the white is the background, the picture is a silhouette of two human faces looking at one another. This second example is an illuminating one, because many people at first see the diagram in only one way. They have to be told that there is another way of seeing it. We can say that two people can have different perspectives even when they see the same picture.
Something similar to these artificial examples can occur in ordinary situations. Suppose that two people are listening to the same speaker. One listener says, “He really has a good argument,” but the other says, “He is insecure, he’s hurting inside.” Or a husband and wife are shopping for curtains. The wife says, “These are beautiful,” while the husband says, “But they’re no good: they don’t block out the light.”
Two people can be interested in different things and consequently notice different things about the same object. In the latter example, the husband looks for mechanical utility, while the wife looks for beauty. In listening to a speaker, one person studies the logic of an argument, while another listens to the tone and style that reveal the person giving the argument. The people involved have differing perspectives on the same object.
Differences in what people see–differences in perspective–can obviously be useful. The husband and wife looking at the curtains may each agree that they overlooked something and that several factors need to be taken into account when they make their purchase. But the differences can also be exacerbating. The husband or wife might go away quarreling or fuming over their mate’s evident lack of judgement.
Clearly, the matter of different perspectives is important in personal relationships. Getting along well with people involves recognizing some ways in which people are different as well as ways in which they are alike. In order to understand other people, we must be prepared to adopt their perspective, or to “wear their shoes,” at least temporarily.
In pastoral counseling, ministers frequently find that part of their job is to help their counselees deal with quarrels that arise from differences in perspective. In fact, counselors themselves do better in their counseling if they are prepared to use more than one perspective. Frequently they need to pay attention simultaneously to what people are saying (their arguments and their logic) and to what they are revealing about themselves (their attitudes, emotions, etc.).
USE OF PERSPECTIVES IN NATURAL SCIENCE
Do differences of perspective occur also in academic disciplines? Do they play a role in chemistry, geology, economics, psychology, and the like? In the minds of many people, the “objectivity” and intellectual rigor of an academic discipline automatically exclude any use of perspectives. Especially the natural sciences seem to have no room for a personal individual input. Here we are after the truth as it really is, not the truth as seen by a particular individual with a particular limited perspective. And so people have often argued in favor of an ideal for science in which there is no longer any personal element.
But people are still human even when they are applying themselves to an academic discipline. It is really impossible for people to grasp objective truth except by using perspectives of one kind or another. Research in the history and philosophy of science has demonstrated this use of perspectives even within the natural sciences, the supposed domain of purely “objective” knowledge.1
Every area of science employs key theoretical models, and each such model is a kind of perspective on the subject matter of science. Models and analogies play a key role in scientific discovery. They also contribute to the growth, improvement, and intellectual articulation of existing theories. Science seems to be objective and to deal with universal knowledge partly because its practitioners within a particular field generally agree that one theoretical model or one theory–one “perspective”–has shown itself clearly superior and serves as a starting point for all further development.
The way in which models are used in natural science suggests implications for how we do theology. I explore these implications more fully in my book Science and Hermeneutics: Implications of Scientific Method for Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988). For the moment, we may observe simply that perspectives are used in natural science.
USE OF PERSPECTIVES IN STUDYING HUMAN BEINGS
In the social sciences, in art and literature, and in all the academic disciplines that are concerned with human beings, the role of perspectives is even more obvious. First, the objects of study are users of perspectives, and surely an account of human beings must include an account of their capacity to use different perspectives.
Second, social scientists themselves, as well as the objects that they study, use perspectives. Hence we expect to see the social scientists using some key perspective, or model. For example, psychology has been divided for some time into various “schools,” each one dominated by a single perspective. Freudian psychologists attempt to explain human beings in terms of biological drives, especially the sex drive. Behaviorists attempt to form explanations using as their dominant analogy stimulus-response experiments on animals. Humanist personality-theory approaches attempt to form explanations on the basis of the problem-solving and self-realizing capacities of human beings. Each one has a major perspective, a major beginning point in understanding human beings.
The use of perspectives is obviously fraught with danger. Like the husband or wife looking at the curtains, people with a single dominant perspective may see only what that perspective has trained them to see. For this reason, the schools of psychology tend toward reductionism. The Freudian is tempted to reduce human beings to animals that are controlled by drives. The behaviorist may reduce human beings to complex masses of stimulus-response patterns.2
Dangers exist also because some perspectives incorporate anti-Christian assumptions that then condition all subsequent investigation. For example, behaviorists or personality theorists may assume that religion is merely a human means of coping with the cosmos and that God can be effectively eliminated from the study. It is unlikely that the results of their investigation will confirm the presence of God!
Even though there are dangers, some benefits may result. Behaviorists, for example, even with their faulty assumptions, may nevertheless discover some true things about human behavior. In fact, precisely because behaviorists concentrate reductionistically on just a few aspects of human experience, they may notice some things that others who look at the larger picture do not normally notice. They may describe some interesting stimulus-response patterns, even though such patterns are hardly the whole story.
1 See Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). On the use of models in science, see Max Black, Models and Metaphors (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962); Mary Hesse, Models and Analogies in Science (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966).
2 On reductionism, see especially Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 2 vols. (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969); Vern S. Poythress, Philosophy, Science and the Sovereignty of God (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976).
2: PERSPECTIVES IN THE BIBLE
Do the observations in chapter 1 about perspectives relate to Bible study and theology? Do differences of perspective occur there? If so, how do we handle them? Before answering these questions, I consider here whether there are variation of perspective within the Bible itself. The answer depends to some extent on what one means by “perspective.” So far we have used the word in loose, flexible way. We have noticed various ways in which people have concentrated on one particular aspect of something that they are studying. But now we need to make some distinctions.
ANALOGIES AND METAPHORS
First, any analogy or metaphor is a kind of perspective. For example, if we talk about a “price war” between two stores, we are drawing an analogy between literal wars and the stores’ competition in pricing. We invite people to view price competition as a kind of war. In terms of perspectives, we invite them to see competition from the perspective of war. In this sense, any analogy or metaphor is a perspective. The Bible, of course, uses many analogies and metaphors and so provides a multitude of perspectives on all kinds of subjects. The sun is like a strong man running (Ps. 19:5). Wisdom is like a woman who invites guests to her feast (Prov. 9:1-5). The Pharisees are like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-2, 11-32). The kingdom of God is like a great stone (Dan. 2:44-45) or like a mustard seed (Luke 13:19). The undersides of leviathan are like jagged potsherds (Job 41:30). And so on.
MODELS AND PERVASIVE ANALOGIES
But a simple analogy or metaphor is not a sophisticated scientific model, nor is it a consistent, pervasive way of looking at the world. Therefore, we need to distinguish a second sense in which people use perspectives, namely, a consistently developed way of attending to particular features of some object of study. The husband shopping for curtains may consistently ask questions about the mechanical utility of the curtains, while the wife consistently asks questions about the beauty of the curtains and whether they will harmonize with the decor of their house. This kind of consistent pattern can pervade a whole academic discipline. Freudian psychology consistently looks for explanations in terms of biological drives. Behaviorism consistently looks for explanations in terms of patterns of stimulus and response. A theoretical model in natural science is also of this kind. Chemists consistently try to explain and predict chemical reactions in terms of interactions of atoms and their electronic shells to form molecules.
Does the Bible have pervasive models, or perspectives, in this sense? Some analogies and some ways of thinking do appear frequently. For example, a number of important analogies and metaphors provide us with perspectives on God. God is our Father (an analogy with human fathers). God is the great King (an analogy with human kings). God is light (an analogy with physical light). God is holy (indirectly, invoking an analogy with the holy objects and persons connected with the tabernacle and Israel’s worship). God is a shepherd (Ps. 23). Each of these analogies invites us to see God from a different perspective, that is, to see God as analogous to a different aspect of the created world and its relationships. In the context of the whole Bible, we also know that each analogy is limited: God is like a human father in some ways but unlike one in other ways. None of these analogies by itself represents a complete “theory” of God.
These analogies, though limited, are invoked many times. They are thus to be distinguished from the one-time analogies such as the comparison of the sun to a strong man running (Ps. 19:5). God is called a king and a father not once but many times. Quite a few times a Christian’s responsibilities are compared with those of a servant or a slave.
Sometimes a particular analogy has a dominant role in one passage or one book of the Bible. The comparison between Christ and Adam is developed extensively in Romans 5:12-21, a little in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49, but not much elsewhere. Isaiah 40-66 compares God’s work of salvation to creation, to the exodus from Egypt, and to new birth. The same themes occur in other books, but less prominently.
Although one analogy may be the main point in a particular passage, the Bible as a whole uses a multitude of analogies, each of which makes a contribution. No one analogy tells the whole story. In short, the Bible does not use a single dominant perspective in an exclusive way.
Paul, John, Amos, Ezekiel, and all the other human authors of the Bible characteristically express themselves in different ways. The Gospel of Mark presents us mostly with the theme of the kingdom of God, while the Gospel of John dwells on the themes of truth, light, glory, love, indwelling, and faith. Some of the differences between these two gospels consist in differences in the analogies that the authors use. Light is used as a prominent analogy in the Gospel of John for describing who Christ is and what he does. It does not occur this way in the Gospel of Mark.
I believe that, in principle, all such differences are harmonizable (though we may not always see right away how to harmonize). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Mark and John select different things to tell about and tell them in slightly different ways, because they are focusing on or emphasizing different truths or different aspects of the same truth.
We must distinguish yet a third kind of perspective: selectional perspectives that arise from differences in interest. Differences in peoples’ interests lead to differences in their selection of facts and to differences in theme when people talk about the same subject matter.
The example of a husband and wife shopping for curtains is in fact an example of this type of perspective. The husband and wife are not using two different analogies. Rather, they choose to talk about different facts because their interests are different, and therefore what they notice is different.
We can see a similar kind of selectivity in the Bible. The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John are different partly because they tell about different events. John concentrates on Christ’s ministry in the area of Jerusalem, while most of Mark concentrates on the Galilean ministry. Mark includes an account of the Last Supper, while John includes the upper room discourse.
Many times a book of the Bible selects events with a particular purpose in mind. The book of 2 Chronicles concentrates almost wholly on the history of the southern kingdom (Judah), while 1-2 Kings devotes much attention to the northern kingdom (Israel) as well. Chronicles selects events that show God’s punishments and rewards to wicked and righteous kings, while Kings selects events that show the fulfillment of God’s prophetic words. These two accounts of the period of the kings have different, although sometimes overlapping, interests. The two accounts are different perspectives on the same period of time. These differences are not so much differences in a dominant analogy but rather differences in the interests and themes that a person may see and emphasize in the period.
World Views and Background Knowledge
The Bible, then, does not use only one dominant analogy or model, nor does it have only one way of selecting events and themes. In both of these senses, the Bible uses many perspectives. But in a fourth and final sense, there is a single dominant perspective in the Bible. That is, the Bible teaches us a particular view of God, ourselves, and the world. According to the Bible, there is one God, there are three persons of the Godhead, human beings were created good but fell into sin, Christ came to save us, he died for us, he was raised bodily from the dead, he sits at God’s right hand, and he will come again to renew us and the world and to condemn the wicked.
In short, the Bible provides us with a world view. It explains the origins and purpose of everything, tells us who we are, tells us how to deal with our sins, and shows us our basic responsibilities toward God and toward our neighbors. These teachings and other central doctrines of the Bible are intended to provide us with a basic framework for serving God in every area of life–in our Bible study certainly, but also in our study of science, our use of money, our activity in government, and every other area.
The Bible, then, provides us with a Christian world view, or a Christian perspective, on everything. In a sense, this perspective is one among many. There is a Buddhist world view, a materialist world view, a hedonist world view, humanist world views, and so on. Each of these world views provides a background of assumptions and values against which people carry on their detailed reflections and decision making, in academic disciplines as well as in practical life. But the biblical world view is right, and the other, competing world views are wrong. Hence we ought not to compromise with other world views.
On the other hand, we must realize that our own understanding of the Bible’s teaching is not perfect or infallible. Because of error or deficiency in understanding, Christians may disagree slightly among themselves over certain aspects of their common world view. Moreover, people who are not Christians are still people in the image of God and still live in God’s world. Here and there they will acknowledge some bits of truth deriving from the biblical world view. Therefore we can learn from them, though the Bible must be our supreme judge of the truth.
When we were examining perspectives in the first three senses, we frequently dealt with complementary truths and ways of looking at something. Here, we have an exclusive category: one view is right, while the others are wrong. In the nature of the case, people can have only one world view. With effort, they may be able to see to a certain extent how things look from an alternate world view. But they themselves believe in only one world view, because world views, by their very nature, are ultimate frameworks for human knowledge. To begin to adopt a second world view, in the sense of believing it and treating it as an ultimate framework, is to leave behind (or at least subtly alter) one’s former world view.
For these reasons, I will simply use the term “world view” to describe this fourth sense of the word “perspective.” From now on I will reserve “perspective” for the first three meanings only, that is, for (1) one-time analogies; (2) consistently used, pervasive analogies; and (3) selectivity and emphasis controlled by a thematic interest. However, we can still notice a certain connection between world views and perspectives in these three senses. In both cases we are dealing with abilities of human beings to see things in one way rather than another, to see a facts against the background of one framework rather than another. The difference in the case of world views is that the framework claims to be ultimate, universal, and therefore exclusive.
3: PERSPECTIVES IN THEOLOGY
How can we use perspectives in the study of the Bible and in theology? The Bible itself uses different perspectives, as we have seen. But should we or should theologians use perspectives in studying the Bible? Although different perspectives are in the Bible, it does not follow that the thinking and writing of later theologians should involve different perspectives.
THE BIBLICAL WORLD VIEW AS THE PROPER FRAMEWORK FOR THEOLOGY
First, I content that the Bible’s own world view should be the one that all theologians adopt for themselves. All their study of the Bible should be in terms of the framework of assumptions about God and the world that the Bible itself supplies. This orientation is very important. First of all, adopting the Bible’s teaching is part of a theologian’s obedience to God. It is submitting to what God says.1 In addition, theologians with alternate world views are bound to distort the Bible’s teaching. They do not set that teaching in the proper context.
These concerns are so basic that they should go without saying. Unfortunately, in our day it is “fashionable to adopt a secular Western world view that is at odds with the Bible. After accepting a good deal of the modern world view, however, some still want to show respect to the Bible and try for some compromise. Such thinkers may simultaneously criticize modern culture on the basis of the Bible and “update” the Bible to remove what is offensive to our modern culture. In this book, however, I will assume that my readers have seen through this temptation. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We will not even begin to be wise if we do not listen humbly to God and to his word.
NOTICING BIBLICAL ANALOGIES AND THEMES
To a certain degree, theologians will inevitably use a particular perspective from the Bible when they are studying a passage that uses that perspective. Psalm 23 uses the analogy between God and a shepherd. When we study Psalm 23, we can hardly avoid considering the ways in which God is like a human shepherd. We should explore each metaphor or analogy in the Bible to identify the kinds of comparison it invites us to make. And we should pay attention to the selective thematic emphases that each particular book of the Bible has.
In addition, we can study the whole Bible with a particular selective thematic emphasis in mind. For example, we can study the whole Bible to see what each particular passage says about sin and its effects. Or we can study each passage of the Bible, asking what it teaches about God or about godly living or about Christ. Systematic theologians have been investigating Scripture in this manner all along.
Obviously there is a danger here. We may be like the husband who pays attention only to mechanical utility when he shops for curtains. We may notice only what we are looking for. Some people, for example, think of the Bible as a handbook for ethics. Whenever they read it, they ask only what principles and examples it can give them about right and wrong. The Bible does contain many direct statements about right and wrong, but it also contains much more. People who have this view of the Bible exclusively are in danger of misunderstanding ethics itself, because they do not pay attention to the relation of ethical principles to the purpose and plan of God, to the problems of sin and redemption, and to other matters that help us to understand more deeply all the nuances of what God is saying.
Similarly, some people read the Bible as a book of devotional literature. They look only for precious thoughts and inspirational verses that help maintain a spiritual outlook. Such people are also missing something. Others read the Bible as a handbook of theological doctrines or as an entertaining storybook or as an aesthetic literary masterpiece or whatever. Each of these approaches can be considered a perspective on reading the Bible, one that is incomplete by itself.
But suppose now that the same person reads the same passage of the Bible ten times. Suppose that each time the person adopts a new perspective from the ones mentioned above. Would not the person learn something new about the passage each time? A given perspective can be dangerous or stultifying if we use it all the time. But looking at a familiar passage in a fresh light can make it suddenly come alive again.
As an example, consider the account in Luke 18:35-43 of Jesus’ healing a blind man. Suppose first that we read the passage to see what it says about ethics. There are no direct ethical statements in the passage, but we would certainly detect some general principles. We can say that (1) we ought to ask Jesus to supply our needs, as the blind man did; (2) we ought to have mercy on people in need as Jesus had mercy on the blind man; (3) we ought not to turn people away or discourage them from coming to Jesus, even if they are being a nuisance; (4) we ought to have faith in Jesus, as the blind man did; and (5) like the blind man and the crowd, we ought to praise God for his mighty works.
Now suppose that we read the same passage again, this time with a devotional interest. We will probably recognize that Jesus’ healing of blindness is symbolic of his healing spiritual blindness (see especially John 9:39-41). Jesus has had mercy on us in saving us from spiritual blindness. As Christians we come to him again and again in prayer, just as the blind man did. We ask Jesus to take away our remaining blindness and cause us to see him as we should.
We might next read the passage for its theological doctrines. When we do so, we notice particularly what it reveals about Christ. His healing miracles testify to the fact that he is the divine Messiah. They also show the immeasurable power of God to work miracles in the physical world, as well as to work the miracle of spiritual sight and regeneration.
And so we may go on to still other readings of the same passage, each time with a different focus of attention. Consequently, each time we may notice something new or something that did not realy capture our attention before. If we are to sound the depths of a passage, we need to come back to it again and again.
If we read the passage from ten different perspectives, we still should not feel as if we are reading ten distinct passages. If we are reading carefully, we notice many of the same things each time. But each time certain different things stand out. Each time we force ourselves to pay direct attention to something new in order to make sure that we do not miss anything.
Thus, when we use a multitude of perspectives on a passage, we do not expect a conflict or contradiction between perspectives. Rather, we use each perspective to reinforce and enhance our total understanding.
EXPANDING A PERSPECTIVE INTO A PERSPECTIVE ON THE WHOLE
After we have looked at Luke 18:35-43 from a devotional and a doctrinal perspective, we could go back and read the same passage a second time from an ethical perspective. We would come up with the same ethical principles as before but in addition might notice ethical implications of what we have learned from the devotional and doctrinal perspectives. We might now conclude that, for example, (1) we should ask Jesus to heal our spiritual blindness and thank him for what he has done spiritually; (2) we should encourage others to do the same; (3) we should believe that Jesus is the divine Messiah, that he healed the blind man as a sign of his messiahship, and that he is still powerful to heal (what we ought to believe is part of our ethical obligation); (4) we should believe that God is in control of the universe and that he has power to work miracles. And so on.
The second ethical reading, therefore, sheds light on everything we obtained from the devotional and doctrinal. In fact, absolutely everything that we discover in any reading of the text has ethical relevance. Every fact implies something about our ethical obligations. For instance, when we read the passage in terms of theological doctrines, what we obtain are primarily statements about doctrine. But any true statement about doctrine has some ethical implications. Statements about God are simultaneously statements about the source and standard of our ethical obligations. Statements about Christ are simultaneously statements about the person who supplies us with power to meet our ethical obligations and forgiveness for our failure to meet past obligations. Statements about human beings are simultaneously statements about the type of beings who have the ethical obligations about which we are concerned.
Furthermore, any statement of fact implies an obligation to believe that fact. Our ethical obligations include not only obligations to do overt actions but intellectual and emotional obligations. We ought to think certain types of thought, to believe certain truths, and to have emotions and attitudes befitting godliness. The whole of systematic theology can be viewed as a description of what we ought to believe on the basis of the Bible. Thus all of systematic theology–all of doctrine–is simultaneously ethics!
Someone will object, however, that this ways of putting things is confusing and paradoxical. Usually we think of ethics and systematic theology as distinct though related disciplines. In ethics we simply say generally that ethical obligations include obligations to believe what the Bible teaches. Then we leave it to systematic theology to fill in the content of what the Bible teaches. Systematic theology and ethics thus have distinct tasks.
In a sense, however, this distinction is artificial. Christian ethics, even in the narrow sense, always returns to the Bible’s teaching about God, loving one’s neighbor, economics, telling the truth, and the exercise of power. Hence it really shares much common ground with systematic theology. The two tasks can never be isolated from one another. For convenience we might define ethics as studying what the Bible teaches about what we ought to do, while systematic theology focuses on what the Bible teaches about what we ought to believe. But in another sense, believing is an intellectual form of doing. Both traditional ethics and systematic theology consider the obligations that we have toward God. They are both “ethics” if this word applies to the study of those obligations in the widest sense.
We could also view ethics as a part of systematic theology. Ethical doctrine (doctrine concerning our obligations) is simply one kind of doctrine, and all doctrine is part of systematic theology. We can illustrate by reading Luke 18:35-43 a second time with a focus on doctrine. We will see the same things about doctrine that we saw the first time. But now we also have the benefit of our previous ethical reading. And so we might notice that the doctrines implied by or illustrated by the passage include those same ethical principles. We simply incorporate all the ethical principles into doctrine. While this step perhaps enlarges our concept of doctrine, nevertheless it is fruitful. It is valuable to notice that the Bible frequently weaves together ethical principles and propositional statements of fact about God and human beings (“doctrine” in a narrow sense). Both of these are aspects of its teaching (“doctrine” in a broad sense).
Finally, we can enlarge our concept of a devotional reading of the Bible to include everything in the Bible. In its narrow sense, a “devotional” reading of the Bible means reading the Bible with an interest only in what it says about the conscious psychological dimensions of communion with God and with Christ. But communion with Christ is richer than our psychological consciousness of it. As Christians, our whole lives are lived “in Christ.” Our bodies are to be offered as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), and our minds renewed to understand God’s will (Rom. 12:2). We must pattern our family lives after Christ (Eph. 5:22-6:4), and our work is to be for Christ’s service (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:17,23-25). All of life is in this sense “devotion” to God and to Christ. Our doctrine, what we believe, is part of the transformation of our minds, and thus is part of our devotion. What we do in conformity with ethical obligations is also devotion.
Thus we have seen that we can start with any of several complementary perspectives–doctrinal, ethical, or devotional. We notice different things when we study the same passage from different perspectives. But if we have done our study well, the different insights are in harmony with one another. Furthermore, after an extended study of the passage, we can enlarge any one of the perspectives until it covers everything. In this way we can see clearly that the differences of perspectives are not contradictory or antagonistic.
THE VALUE OF EXPANDING PERSPECTIVES
But some readers may still be uneasy about stretching one perspective to cover everything. Is this procedure really legitimate, and if so, does it do any good? Is it not confusing to say that ethics is doctrine or that doctrine is devotion? There are some good reasons for this concern. Anytime we deliberately broaden the meaning of words, we run the danger that someone will misunderstand. But some kinds of word stretching are actually fairly common. Metaphors stretch individual words or even our ability to relate two whole areas of life to each other. Since we can handle metaphors, we perhaps can successfully stretch traditional meanings of “doctrine” or “ethics.”
Most of the rest of this book is an attempt to show just how much positive value we can obtain from such stretching operations. The reason for expanding the meaning of words is not that there is something wrong with the traditional way that they are used, nor is it to say that the new, extended sense of the words is “better.” Rather, creating an extended meaning can help us to see three things.
First, fields of study and areas of life that are frequently compartmentalized in people’s minds actually belong together, particularly in our use of the Bible. God created us to be whole people. We are meant to respond as whole people to the whole of God. Every aspect of our being–our minds, our emotions, our physical abilities, our digestion, our tears–has been created by God to play a role in our communion with him and our service to him. The Psalms are examples in words of what holistic response involves. The lives of the heroes of the faith, though they are imperfect, are also examples (Hebrews 11). The life of Christ is the supreme example. All these examples show integrated service to God. Stretching our categories helps to force us to think about integrating what we may have too neatly compartmentalized.
Second, the boundaries that we have set up between our compartments are in some cases arbitrary and artificial. For example, specialists in ethics may concentrate more on ethical obligations in a narrow sense, while specialists in systematic theology may concentrate more on the factual content of the Bible’s teaching on major subjects such as God, humanity, and Christ. But the two areas are constantly intertwining and there is really a continuum here. The focus on one or another area can never be more than a matter of degree. We can still make rough distinctions for the sake of convenience between specialists in ethics and specialists in systematic theology. If we are not alert, however, the terms can all too easily mislead us into thinking that we are dealing with two rigidly distinct compartments. Then if two of us do not happen to draw the line between compartments at the same point, we have acrimonious debates about exactly where the line should be.
I suggest, then, that Bible students who are inclined to compartmentalize should stretch their terms. They should use them as perspectives to cover the whole of the Bible. Afterward they should go back to the earlier compartments and ask whether the old boundaries are the only ones that are possible. They can retain old boundaries if they wish but should recognize that boundaries are often drawn arbitrarily at one point on a continuum.
The third benefit of our stretching operations is more obvious. By looking at the whole of the Bible or the whole of doctrine from one perspective, we may notice things that had previously excaped our attention. The student may notice, for example, that the healing of the blind man in Luke 18:35-43 is analogous to spiritual healing of spiritual sight. Or some who have all along been looking primarily for moral lessons in the story of the blind man may notice for the first time how it testifies to Christ’s messiahship when they read it from the doctrinal perspective.
1 Though the doctrine of inspiration is crucial to theology, I cannot take time here to defend it. In agreement with inerrantist evangelicals, I maintain that the Bible teaches that it is the very word of God, and therefore infallible and inerrant. For supporting arguments I must refer readers to the evangelical literature on the subject.
4: EXAMPLES OF USEFUL BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES
In chapter 3 I discussed three perspectives that can be used in reading a passage of the Bible: the ethical, the devotional, and the doctrinal. But we can use many other perspectives. Since it is valuable to use several different perspectives in the study of a passage, it is to our advantage to expand our list. In doing so, we have no guarantee that every perspective we propose will be equally useful. In fact, perspectives developed outside of a Christian world view may be actually destructive in the hands of their users. It is certainly possible to read the Bible looking only for what agrees with preestablished conceptions. Within the Christian world view, however, the use of a multiplicity of perspectives is one protection against our tendency to read the Bible only in terms of a preestablished single perspective.
So we are looking for perspectives in harmony with the Christian world view. But still not everything will be equally useful in every case. Some narrative passages do not yield very much direct doctrine; some prophecies of the future do not yield very much direct ethics. Yet if we have a large number of possible perspectives to use, we are likely to find fruit. In many respects the most fruitful perspectives are the dominant themes and analogies developed extensively within the Bible itself. If we use these frameworks, we are bound to turn up unsuspected connections and insights.
Any prominent theme within a book of the Bible can be used fruitfully as a perspective on the whole book. For example, consider the story of the healing of the blind man (Luke 18:35-43) in the context of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. Luke-Acts has a number of distinctive themes. Like the other gospels, Luke presents Jesus as the Messiah who has come to save his people in fulfillment of the Old Testament. The theme of fulfillment is prominent in Luke, particularly the fulfillment of the Year of Jubilee (see Luke 4:16-30). Luke also has the themes of salvation to the poor and despised and salvation to the Gentiles. When we look at Luke 18:35-43 through the perspectives offered by these themes, we sometimes receive new insights. For example, we may look at the passage, asking how it reflects the theme of fulfillment. Jesus’ healing of the blind is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies of opening the eyes of the blind (Isa. 29:18; 35:5; 42:7). Through the perspective of the Jubilee, we see that it is also a fulfillment of the purpose of release from bondage symbolized by the Year of Jubilee (Luke 4:18). Through the perspective of salvation to the despised, we are reminded of the fact that handicapped people were in many respects second-class citizens in Jewish society. It was often thought that sickness was a sign of sin (John 9:2). In the case of this blind man, the crowd thought that he was a nuisance and was not worth Jesus’ attention. But Jesus, consistent with his purposes of bringing salvation everywhere, had mercy on someone whom other people overlooked.
How far do we go with this type of observation? There is a danger that we will indulge our imaginations and attribute too much meaning to a passage. But I think that often we do not give the Bible enough credit. Once a book has exhibited a clear-cut theme, the book invites us to see all its contents as somehow fitting in with the theme, sometimes loosely and indirectly, sometimes directly. Luke does not have to tell us every time that a miracle occurs, “Now this event is a fulfillment of the Old Testament.” It ought to be enough for Luke to introduce the theme of fulfillment and then indicate once or twice a connection between fulfillment and miracles (Luke 4:16-30 and 7:20-23).
IMPORTANT THEMES USED IN THE WHOLE BIBLE
Some themes and subjects are so important in the Bible as a whole that they appear repeatedly. Such themes can clearly be used as perspectives on any passage of the Bible that we are studying. Of any passage we can ask what it says about God, about human beings, about sin, or about Christ as the mediator between God and human beings.
Some recurrent patterns in the Bible are not quite so obvious but are nevertheless important. The covenants between God and human beings are one such pattern. God establishes covenants with Abraham, with Israel through Moses, with David, and with the church through Christ. Even when the word “covenant” is not explicitly mentioned, we can often see patterns reminiscent of the promises and responsibilities involved in explicit covenants. A pattern of promise, command, human obedience or disobedience, and reward or punishment occurs all through the Bible. If we wish, we can use “covenant” in an expanded way to cover all these instances. The word was actually used in this way in the development of covenant theology, which sees all of God’s relations with human beings in terms of the perspective of covenant.1
Another recurrent theme is the idea of the temple. The temple built by Solomon is one manifestation of the principle that God dwells with his people. But clearly God is with Abraham before there is any fixed temple structure, and he promises to be a sanctuary (temple) to the exiles after Solomon’s temple is destroyed (Ezek. 11:16). The whole theme of “Immanuel,” God with us, may be seen as the broader theme of which the temple is a special case.
There are other themes of the same kind: the holy land, the offspring of the woman and the offspring of Abraham, God as a warrior, God as king, theophany and glory. Some themes occur naturally in historical patterns: promise and fulfillment; sin, suffering, and glory. Fulfillment as well as suffering and glory are clearly important in the Gospels, in particular the Gospel of Luke (24:25-27, 44-47).
Expandable biblical Perspectives: The Ten Commandments
We have already indicated that we can expand a perspective until it encompasses the whole of the Bible or even the whole of life. With imagination, we can expand many of the themes or perspectives that the Bible offers us. Each of the ten commandments, for example, may be expanded to cover the whole of our responsibilities to God.2 I illustration this expansion here with five of the commandments.
The commandment “You shall not commit adultery” is our first example. In its most specific meaning, it forbids sexual intercourse with someone else’s spouse. But when we view it in the larger context of Old Testament law, we can say that it articulates or exemplifies a principle of chastity that has broader implications. We can see that God calls on us to respect the marriage bond and his design that sexual fulfillment take place within this bond. The principle of sexual purity has implications for the way we raise children to prepare them later for marriage. It has implications for engaged couples and implications for lust (Matt. 5:27-30). Moreover, God’s people have a relation to God, parallel to a marriage relation (Hosea, Ezekiel 16, etc.). Hence, violation of our exclusive loyalty to God is spiritual adultery. In the last analysis, any sin against God is spiritual adultery. Hence the commandment not to commit adultery can be viewed as a perspective on the entirety of human ethical life.
When looking at these broader implications, we must not ignore the fact that the seventh commandment has a specific focus. It does not mean anything and everything, but it means something quite specific, namely, the forbidding of adultery. When we look at the context of this commandment in the whole Bible, we can see the legitimacy of stretching the commandment into a perspective on everything. But we never ought to eliminate the specific focus with which we started. Our exercises in expanding the perspective help us to see the holistic character of our ethical life. They help to remind us that everywhere we stand before our holy and gracious God and that the obedience that he demands is not merely piecemeal and not arbitrary. At the same time, exercises in expansion ought never to be an excuse for overlooking, dismissing, or reinterpreting the obvious.
Next, consider the commandment “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” In its most explicit thrust, this commandment forbids false testimony in court. But it has implications for broader issues of telling the truth. We are to exercise care and be zealous to protect the reputation of others. If we are a servant of God, all our actions are explicit or implicit testimonies about the God whom we claim to serve. Any sin is a bad witness or a false testimony against God, within the “courtroom” formed by the universe and the angels (see 1 Tim. 5:21).
The commandment to honor our father and mother applies most explicitly to relations within the nuclear family. Viewed as an expression of a broader principle, however, it has implications for our relation to all those in authority (see 1 Pet. 2:13-21). Officers of the government and leaders in the church both have authority delegated from God, analogous to the authority of parents. Hence we are bound to honor them (1 Pet. 2:13, 17; Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13, 1 Tim. 5:1). Furthermore, God is our spiritual Father (Mal. 1:6, Heb. 12:7-11). We must honor him. Any sin dishonors our heavenly Father. Any act of righteousness is an act honoring him, an act obeying the fifth commandment. In this way, the fifth commandment can be viewed as a perspective on the entirety of our life.
Next, consider the commandment not to commit murder. Jesus points out that all sinful anger is a covert form of murder (Matt. 5:21-22). And all sin is a form of anger against God, nothing less than an attempt to destroy God as God.
Finally, consider the Sabbath commandment. Since this commandment is very specific and since at least some of the forms associated with it in Mosaic times were ceremonial and temporary, it is more difficult to expand it into a perspective on everything. Yet we can do so. The Sabbath commandment is not arbitrary or whimsical. It was meant to say something to Israelites about their service to God. As a clue to its deeper significance, note that the Sabbath is a holy day, a day particularly set apart for special acts of devotion to God. It is also a sign pointing forward to the time of final rest in the consummation of all things (Hebrews 4). Of course the commandment had a specific focus, namely, to rest from one’s works on the seventh day. But broadly, it was also an intensified form of the principle that all of life is to be devoted and consecrated to God (Rom. 12:1-2). The special seventh-day rest is a way of expressing this principle with a dramatic intensity. The Sabbath also expresses the idea of living in the light of our hope for a final rest, celebrating the goodness of God, and honoring God in expectation of fulfilling his promises of rest. All of our life is to be an expanding embodiment of these principles, and any sin is a breaking of this devotion to God.
STANDARD, GOAL AND ATTITUDE AS PERSPECTIVES ON ETHICS
It follows, then, that we can look at the whole field of ethics from the perspective of any one of the Ten Commandments. But there are still other ways of developing perspectives on ethics. One approach is to ask what rules and standards govern human conduct. This perspective starts with standards, or norms. The Christian answer is that the norms for human conduct are to be found in the commandments of God. Our ethical answers should always be derived from reflecting on the implications of God’s commandments. We may sometimes find ourselves in situations in which it is difficult to see the correct implications of the commandments. But in principle it is sufficient for us to keep God’s commandments: the person who does so is “blameless” (Ps. 119:1). Hence we may say that the norms cover all of ethics.3
Another route to ethics starts with the goal of Christian living. The goal of Christians is to do all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). In the context of this verse, Paul tells us to do everything in such a way that other people, as well as ourself, honor and praise God more thoroughly. Paul is counseling certain Corinthians who woodenly appealed to a theological principle or norm. They knew that all foods are from God (1 Cor. 10:26), and they therefore argued that they could eat whatever they wanted, ignoring whether the food had previously been sacrificed to an idol or whether other people were offended. But Paul points out that these Corinthians have to pay attention to their circumstances. They must think about and be concerned for the people who might be offended by what they do. The Corinthians must so act within their own circumstances that the honor and praise of God will be promoted. We might almost call this approach to ethics “situational,” “utilitarian,” or “pragmatic,” since Paul is saying that we must pay attention to what is useful, to what helps our situation, to what promotes God’s glory in practice.
Whereas the perspective on standards started with norms, this situational perspective starts with the question of what actions will help our situation. This perspective covers the whole field, just as much as the normative one does. If we genuinely promote the honor and praise of God in whatever we do, God is pleased.
But we must note carefully the relation between the normative and the situational approaches. Unlike in secular ethics or modern so-called situation ethics, there is to be no tension between norms and situation. God gave us the norms, and he creates the situations. He is the same God. Moreover, a proper understanding of God’s norms is not the wooden understanding that some of the Corinthians had. God’s commandment “love your neighbor as yourself” is a real commandment, a norm, a standard. At the same time, it specifically directs us to pay attention to our neighbors and their situations. Similarly, Paul gives norms to the Corinthians that tell them to take into account what other people think about what they are doing. The norms themselves tell us to pay attention to the situation.
Conversely, we can evaluate our situation properly only by using God’s norms. A genuine concern to promote the honor and praise of God (the situational approach) is the very opposite of modern situation ethics. How can we honor God if we do not listen to him and do what he says? God himself is, in a real sense, always the most important person in our situation! In addition, how can one tell for sure what the long-range consequences of an action will be? Only God knows all results, including the consequences at the judgment seat of Christ. So we must listen to God’s wisdom rather than try to argue independently that some action contrary to his norms will nevertheless turn out well on a given occasion.
A third approach to ethics is the attitudinal perspective. In this perspective, we evaluate human actions in terms of the attitudes and motives of the person doing the action. Clearly this startint point is important. Jesus locates the root of sins in the human heart and the attitudes of the heart (Matt. 15:19-20). Anger is already the essence of murder, and lust is already adultery (Matt. 5:21-30). Moreover, we can be expand this orientation to cover all of life. We may feel sincere, but our attitude is not really right if we do not have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), if our minds are not transformed to know the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2), if we do not have the law written in our heart (Heb. 10:16; cf. 2 Cor. 3:3-6). In other words, the attitude of loving God and loving our neighbor is genuine love (rather than sentimentality) only if we keep Jesus’ commandments (John 14:15, 23). The right attitude, in an expanded sense, must include all the norms. And of course it must take into account the situation. I may say that I love my neighbors, but I really do not if I pay no attention to their needs (James 2:16, 1 John 3:16-18).
We now have perspectives on ethics starting with standard, goal, and attitude, as well as perspectives starting with each of the Ten Commandments. Each perspective is obtained by expanding on an emphasis and a focus embodied in Scripture. In each case this focus becomes the starting point for a perspective on the whole field of ethics. We may summarize the overall properties of these perspectives as follows:
1. Each perspective has a separate focus of interest.
2. Each perspective is in the end dependent on the others amd intelligible only in the context of the others.
3. Each perspective is, in principle, harmonizable with the others.
4. Any one perspective, when expanded far enough, involves the and in fact encompasses the others. Each can be viewed as an aspect of the others.
5. Because of the tendency to human oversight or one-sided emphasis, each perspective is useful in helping us to notice facts and relationships that tend to be further in the background in the other perspectives.
The perspectives are like facets of a jewel. The whole jewel–the whole of ethics–can be seen through any one of the facets, if we look carefully enough. But not everything can be seen equally easily through only one facet.
THE ATTIBUTES OF GOD AS PERSPECTIVES
Now let us take a different subject for expansion: the attributes or perfections of God. God is righteous, holy, loving, all-knowing, sovereign, and so on. These attributes can be used as perspectives for understanding better everything that God reveals about himself. Consider, for instance, the righteousness of God. When we say that God is righteous, we do not mean exactly the same thing that we mean when we say that he is loving. The two words are not synonymous. Using the word “righteous,” we encourage people to relate what the Bible reveals of God to their knowledge of righteousness among human beings. But what we know about righteousness can also be used as a perspective. In all God’s actions, God acts as the righteous God. His love is not weakness or mere fondness but is a righteous love. His sovereign rule over the universe is not an arbitrary exercise of power but a righteous rule. His knowledge is righteous knowledge, not simply factual correctness. In knowing things, God knows them with a righteous attitude and righteous evaluation of their value and worth.
On a human level, to be “righteous” means to conform to a rule, a standard regulating human persons and human behavior. For God, it ultimately involves God’s conformity to a standard too. But the standard is not something outside God or above God (then the standard itself would be the real “god”). For God, the standard is simply the fitness of his being the way he is. Note that we are here expanding “righteousness” beyond its traditional associations and talking about fitness. In so doing, we can go on to make connections with other attributes, or perfections, of God.
For example, it is fit, or righteous, for God to know all things, since he is the standard for all values and truth. It is fit for God to be holy, to be separated from and revered by his creatures. It is fit that God, the supremely wise one, is also the creator and ruler, and that he exercises all power. Thus righteousness (or fitness) could be viewed as a primary attribute of God, from which other attributes are derived.
Such ways of speaking, of course, can lead to incorrect deductions about God, in which we might use a distorted human conception of righteousness or fitness. We might wrongly claim that those deductions gave us more ultimate insight than biblical statements about God’s other attributes. Furthermore, we might neglect to observe that other attributes of God can also be used as a starting point, in the same way that righteousness is used.
The attributes of God can thus be used as perspectives for our understanding of God. But in addition we can use them as perspectives on human beings, since human beings are created in the image of God. Traditionally, theologians have distinguished between so-called communicable and incommunicable attributes of God and have applied only the former to human beings. But such a distinction depends on how narrowly we define an attribute or how narrow our conception is. God is omniscient and human beings are not. Hence, God’s omniscience is said to be incommunicable. But human beings do know things, which is a point of similarity or analogy. This analogy can serve as a starting point for building a perspective that relates all human knowledge to its divine archetype. We may develop similarly the other attributes of God. We can even use attributes as perspectives on everything in creation, since creation is created and superintended by God, who is righteous, holy, loving, omnipresent, and so on. His ways with the world will be consistent with who he is.
GOD AS A BIBLICAL THEME
We have now surveyed a considerable number of biblical themes, each of which can be expanded into a perspective on the whole Bible. We could extend our list by developing still other themes. But the examples that we have developed are among the more prominent themes in the Bible, and they are sufficient to give readers an idea of what it would be like to take some other theme and expand it into a perspective.
Before leaving this topic, we may state the obvious: in many ways the most important and central theme of the Bible is God himself. God is, moreover, the trinitarian God–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Hence we could speak of three closely intertwined themes as well as one theme.
In discussing other subjects, the Bible constantly connects them, implicitly and explicitly, to its teaching about God. And the Bible is not only a book about God, it is a book written by God, a book that is God’s speech, hence a book though which we meet and commune with God. Reflecting on what each passage contributes and implies about our communion with God is clearly fruitful.
As a trinitarian book, the Bible also has Christ as its center. The whole the revelation of God comes to its climax and fulfillment in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, his session at God’s right hand, and his coming again to judge and to reign. Luke 24:44-47, Hebrews, and Matthew are particularly emphatic about the fact that Christ is the center of the Bible. He fulfills the promises and revelation of God in the Old Testament. Luke 24:45 implies that it is fruitful to look at each passage in terms of what it reveals of Christ. We need not practice any artificiality, such as introducing an allegorical meaning on an unpromising Old Testament text in order to force Christ into the text.
For several reasons, no artificiality is needed. Christ is the Word of God and is God. He speaks wherever God speaks in the Old Testament. Furthermore, key Old Testament human figures often perform functions that anticipate the coming of Christ in his human nature. Sometimes even their failures point to the need for a perfect successor. David failed in his sin with Bathsheba, and Solomon failed by following the idolatrous ways of his foreign wives (1 Kings 11). Those sins and the subsequent decline in Solomon’s descendants showed the necessity of a perfect human (and divine) king to come in the descent of David (see, e.g., Isa. 9:6-7).
PROPHETS, KINGS, AND PRIESTS
We should, then, notice the role that Old Testament prophets, kings, and priests have in foreshadowing the coming of Christ. Each of the three main offices can be expanded into a perspective on the way in which Christ mediates the presence of God to human beings. The mediation took place in the Old Testament largely by way of foreshadowings of Christ, and takes place in the New Testament in terms of the effects of his completed work on earth.
Traditional systematic and confessional theology has drawn attention to the themes of prophet, king, and priest and their fulfillment in Christ. At this point I only sketch the main lines of connection. The Old Testament prophets represented God to the people by announcing and bringing God’s word to them. Christ now declares the word of God to us in climactic form (Heb. 1:1-2). The kings (and judges) of Israel had the responsibility to lead the people in war and to rule them according to God’s law (Deuteronomy 17). When they acted righteously, they brought God’s rule to bear on the people, both in just statutes and in deliverance in war. Even when they acted unrighteously, they showed the necessity of the coming righteous king. Christ is now the final king who rules forever in the line of David (Heb. 1:2, 8). The priests offered sacrifice on behalf of the people and thus mediated God’s presence and blessing to the people. Christ offers his own body as the final sacrifice (Heb. 1:3) and gives the blessing of eternal life and mutual indwelling (John 14:20; 17:21-23, etc.).
The Old Testament officers had distinct functions. Prophets, kings, and priests did not all do the same thing. So how can any one office be expanded into a perspective on the whole? We find the answer by reflecting on the ministry of Jesus Christ during his earthly life. Some of Christ’s acts we can immediately associate with the office of the Old Testament prophet. Christ taught the people and preached to them, and in this way filled a prophetic role. He worked miracles as acts of power, demonstrating kingly authority. In his sacrificial death he functioned like a priest.
Upon reflection, however, we can see that each of the roles can be used as perspectives on the whole of Christ’s life. We cannot ultimately isolate one piece from another. Christ’s prophetic proclamation of the kingdom of God in words goes together with and reinforces his kingly demonstration of the presence of the kingdom of God by casting out demons and working miracles. His words have power and authority, unlike the scribes (Mark 1:22). We may say that Christ’s words possess the authority of the prophetic word. But we can equally say that the word he speaks to cast out demons (Mark 1:27) is an exercise of the power of the kingdom of God (Luke 11:17-20).
Jesus’ miracles, we have noted, clearly represent God’s kingship. They are not arbitrary in character but are signs (John 2:11) that illuminate the character of his mission as a whole. Many of them are parallel to miracles that Old Testament prophets performed and thus authenticate Jesus as the final prophet. The miracles are most often signs of salvation and reconciliation and hence point forward to the great work of reconciliation on the cross. They thus covertly prophesy the significance of Jesus’ whole ministry, climaxing in his death and resurrection. Since, moreover, Jesus’ death and resurrection are substitutionary sacrifices, priestly in character, the prophetic anticipations of his death and resurrection, both in his teaching and his miracles, also have a priestly character. He proclaims forgiveness of sins (Luke 5:20-24; 7:48), an act closely related to the priestly concern with expiation.
We clearly have, then, justification for expanding the idea of the prophetic, the kingly, and the priestly. All communication of God’s word to people is, in an expanded sense, prophetic. Even communicative actions such as miracles are prophetic in this sense. Similarly, we can say that all exercise of rule over people on God’s behalf is kingly. Since words are one way of establishing God’s rule and acts of reconciliation are another, they are all kingly. Finally, we may expand our idea of priestly to cover all acts enhancing communion with God. All of Christ’s ministry can then be said to be priestly. With these expanded senses of prophetic, kingly, and priestly, we could reread our Bibles and find much that related directly or sometimes only distantly to the central and climactic work of Jesus Christ.
1 I basically agree with historical covenant theology. Whether or not one agrees, however, one may still acknowledge that historical covenant theology achieved some important insights by the use of the covenant theme. Although the covenant perspective is useful, its proponents may still overlook something in the Bible. Similarly, dispensationalism emphasizes dispensations (distinctive epochs in God’s rule) and the distinctive role in history played by the Jewish people. Those perspectives are stimulating, whether or not dispensationalists are correct about the details.
2 I owe this insight, along with some of the examples in this chapter, to John M. Frame. See his unpublished classroom syllabus, “The Doctrine of the Christian Life,” (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1979).
3 Some Christians think that we are sometimes confronted with “tragic moral choice,” a situation in which a Christian may have to disobey one commandment in order to keep another. I agree that sometimes our situations present difficulties. But it is never necessary to break a commandment of God. I think the solution comes partly in seeing that the commandments in the Bible are not abstract rules isolated from the rest of the Bible, but are what God says in the context of everything else in the Bible. The context of the Bible sometimes indicates that there are qualifications or exceptions to a rule that is superficially thought to be universal. Jesus argues in this way in his discussion of David’s “violation” of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus appeals to a more basic principle in the Bible (v. 27), which was intended to guide our human understanding and application of the Sabbath law.
5: IN DEFENSE OF SYMPHONIC THEOLOGY
In chapter 4, we saw that different perspectives, though they start from different strands of biblical revelation, are in principle harmonizable with one another. We as human beings do not always see the harmony right away. But we gain insights in the process of trying to see the same material from several perspectives. We use what we have gained from one perspective to reinforce, correct, or improve what we understood through another. I call this procedure symphonic theology because it is analogous to the blending of various musical instruments to express the variations of a symphonic theme.
But now we must deal with some worrisome concerns. People who have not been accustomed to thinking in terms of perspectives may be worried about the possibility of relativism. If all perspectives are valid in principle, isn’t truth relative to one’s perspective? By putting everything in flux, do we undermine any idea of absolute truth? In our present-day Western cultural context, relativism in one form or another is indeed widespread and popular. So it is important to delineate the differences between symphonic theology and destructive relativism.
INEQUALITY OF PERSPECTIVES
In answering the question about equality of perspectives, we should first say that not all perspectives are equally prominent in the Bible. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul explains the nature of the people of God, the church, primarily in terms of analogy with a human body. If we do not notice that this analogy, or perspective, is the primary one at this point in Paul’s letter, we will miss part of what he says. In Romans 9, on the other hand, the people of God are discussed primarily in terms of God’s plan. God has plans for other aspects of creation besides the people of God. There are analogies between his plans for Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17) and plans for other human beings. Again, if we fail to recognize the prominence of this kind of perspective on the people of God, we miss something.
Second, not all perspectives are equally useful for all purposes. The most prominent analogies, themes, and perspectives at a given point in a text are obviously the most useful in understanding that particular text. In addition, certain themes are prominent in a particular writer (e.g., union with Christ, in Paul’s writings). Such a prominent theme can more efficiently be used as a perspective on the all of Paul’s letters.
Third, it is misleading to say that all perspectives are valid. A non-Christian philosopher can build a philosophical system that is invalid. Such a system is, in a certain broad sense, a perspective on the world. Obviously it is illegitimate for us to build our own thinking on assumptions that are antithetical to Christian truth. We cannot legitimately use a perspective in this sense.
Even in the case of the non-Christian system, however, there is something positive to be said. The non-Christian’s work would not even be plausible if it did not at some point formally resemble truth. Considered piecemeal, it has “grains of truth” in it. Any such grain of truth can be used as the starting point for developing a perspective on a much larger field of truth. Sometimes the non-Christian system as a whole is based on a “root-metaphor” of some kind, such as the world as mechanism or the world as organism.1
If we recognize such an analogy and detach it from its context in the non-Christian system, it can be used as a perspective.
ABSOLUTE TRUTH AND RELATIVE KNOWLEDGE
Is truth relative or absolute? I do believe that truth is absolute. But we need to formulate carefully the implications of this absoluteness. We are concerned about propositional truth, that is, truths expressed in declarative statements. A declarative claim can take the form of a statement intended to be about all times and places. Or it can take the form of a statement intended to be about only a single time and place. For example, the statement “Red and green are distinct colors” is a general truth, while “Socrates died from drinking poison” is a truth about a single event at a particular time and place. But in both cases the truth expressed may be correctly affirmed by anyone at any time and place.2
Any truth, then, is universal and absolute, in the sense that it is true for anyone who may inquire. Such statements about truth, however, are really not very profound, for they simply reflect how we normally use the words “true” and “truth.” People who use the words with some other implications in mind are likely not to be understood. (Often, such people mainly want to say that they do not believe that there is any truth, at least in the usual sense. But adopting such a position does not change the meaning of the word “true.”)
Sometimes, of course, we as finite human beings disagree with past judgments. We may change our mind about something we formerly believed was true. But in such cases, the word “true’ is normally used in such a way that alterations in people’s views are described as alterations in beliefs, not alterations in what is true. This discussion has a simple point: we can go on thinking the way most of us have been thinking all along. What is true is true, independent of what we as human beings think is true.
The use of a multiplicity of perspectives does not constitute a denial of the absoluteness of truth. Rather, it constitutes a recognition of the richness of truth, and it builds on the fact that human beings are limited. Our knowledge of the truth is partial. We know truth, but not all of the truth. And someone else may know truths that we do not know. We are enabled to learn what others know, partly by seeing things from their perspective. Again, we may use the analogy of a precious jewel. The jewel has many facets, each one analogous to a perspective. The facets are all present objectively, as is the jewel as a whole. But not all facets of the jewel may be seen equally well through only one facet. Likewise, not all aspects of the truth can be seen equally well through one perspective.
We may say, then, that while truth is absolute, any one human being’s knowledge of the truth is relative in certain respects. First, knowledge of the truth is not exhaustive knowledge of all truth. Human knowledge is relative in content. Our opportunities, our intellectual ability, our interests, our teachers, and our presuppositions all influence which particular truths we come to know. Which particular facets of a jewel we see depends on where we are when we look at the jewel. Any particular bit of truth is always related to other bits. The exact relations we see and use depends on us. Second, there is a sense in which human knowledge is also relative to use. The acid test of whether particular people know something is whether they are able to use it in relevant situations. The person who claims to know something but who cannot apply an insight may well know the words without having really understood. Knowledge is thus always knowledge in relation to other truths and situations of possible use. Finally, human knowledge is relative to time. Each of us can grow in knowledge, or forget, or cease to believe the truth.
Among theists, at least, I suppose that no one would deny that human knowledge is relative in these respects. (Some people might not want to use the term “relative,” for fear of compromising their conviction that truth is not relative, but I think most would agree with the substance of this section.) Nevertheless, I do not think that we have always appreciated the consequences of this relativity of our knowledge. We know that truth is absolute–in particular, the truths of the Bible. We allow ourselves, however, to slip over into excessive presumption with regard to our human knowledge. We do not reckon with the fact that our interpretation of the Bible is always fallible. Or if we know a piece of truth, we may erroneously suppose that we know it precisely and exhaustively. The Pharisees doubtless thought that they understood the Sabbath commandment exactly. Therefore they knew that Jesus was breaking the Sabbath. The Pharisees were drawing their boundaries very precisely. They knew, for example, exactly how far they could travel on a Sabbath day without “taking a journey” (i.e., working). But at this point the Pharisees were overconfident and presumptuous. They did not really understand the Old Testament.
But let us apply this example to ourselves. We may erroneously suppose that we, in our knowledge, do not really need a background of other, related truths in order to make sense of a certain teaching. We make one truth the basis for a long chain of syllogisms, without considering its context. For instance, we ignore the consider the context in which the Sabbath laws are given. At this point, it seems to me, the absoluteness of truth has been confused with the questionable idea that we can isolate and dissect any one bit of truth. Individual true statements are not self-existent in this way.
GOD’S ARCHETYPAL KNOWLEDGE
Two or three bad influences have pushed us into these invalid conclusions. The first influence is the general one of pride and sin, the same pride and sin that infected the Pharisees. This condition requires the remedy of the cross.
But there are two other, less dramatic influences of a more intellectual sort. One is the influence of Euclidean mathematics on philosophy, and of philosophy in turn on the ideal of theological knowledge. Ideally, we may think, theological knowledge should resemble the certainty and rigor of Euclid’s system. We may dream of such an ideal goal, even though we are realistic enough to know that theology will never perfectly attain this ideal in this life. But Euclidean mathematics is very selective in what it notices about the human element in mathematical knowledge and the human contributions to the growth of mathematics.3 And even if it were not, why should we use one field of knowledge as the ideal for the whole? It is only one possible analogy.
The other influence derives from suppositions about God’s knowledge. We know that human thinking and human knowledge are often partial and flawed. But since God knows all things exhaustively, he is able to isolate each bit of truth and know it precisely. Christians sometimes assume, therefore, that this kind of knowledge is our ideal and that, when God speaks to us, his message will approximate this ideal.
Although God’s knowledge is indeed exhaustive, the above implications do not follow. In fact, the implications are largely based on crucial, unexamined assumptions about the way in which God’s knowledge is organized. I came to see this point myself as I reflected on the four gospels.
The Gospels present the central person and the central acts of redemptive history from four distinct perspectives. The existence of four perspectives obviously does not mean that we can believe anything that we want about Jesus or about redemption. It does not mean we must believe two contradictory things at once. The four perspectives are in principle in harmony with one another, both in their general picture and in the details.
I know, of course, that there are some apparent discrepancies between the details in different gospels. On the basis of God’s truthfulness and the authority of the Scripture, I believe that these apparent discrepancies are harmonizable in principle. In fact, reasonable answers have been suggested in the literature for virtually all the problems. But as human beings we are not always sure what answer is correct. In sum, in the case of the Gospels a multiplicity of perspectives does not imply relativism. Hence, the same multiplicity elsewhere need not make us into relativists.
It is commonly said that the differences among the four gospels arise from the different interests and theological viewpoints of the four Evangelists. The selective information available to each may also have had its influence. Their intended audiences may also have been different, which can be seen as one aspect of the differences in their interests. The differences are thus human differences arising from the relative character of the human knowledge of each Evangelist.
Some people go a step further and say that the divine message consists only in the common core shared by all four gospels. As one who believes in plenary, verbal inspiration of the canonical books of the Bible, I find such a view incorrect. The full text of each gospel is what God says as well as what the Evangelist says. There is no tension here between divine speaking and human speaking, any more than there is a tension between the fact that Christ’s speeches are God speaking and a human being speaking.
It follows, then, that the very diversity of the Gospels is a divine diversity. God intended that we should hear about the center of redemption in four symphoniously related accounts, not one. God is absolutely at home with this unity in diversity.
Someone may object, “Although there are four accounts of Jesus Christ and of his works, he himself is a single person, and any particular event described is a single event. The Gospels provide four accounts of reality, but there is only one reality. The Gospels are diverse because it is possible to give plural interpretations of a fact, not because the fact itself is plural.”
Certainly there is one person, Jesus Christ, and in some cases the four gospels do describe the same event. But there is a temptation here to conclude that a particular event or reality as a whole exists prior to and independent of any perspective on it, any knowledge or interpretation of it. Any interpretations come only afterward. In this view, the event itself is a “brute” fact or state-of-affairs, an event that acquires real meaning only when meaning is added by a later observer.
I reject this idea of events without prior meaning because it does not really take account of God’s government of the world and his involvement in each and every event.4 God even “makes grass grow for the cattle” (Ps. 104:14). How much more is he concerned for those central events in the life of Christ by which he accomplishes our salvation.
All events are meaningful first of all to God. They are meaningful against the background of God’s knowledge and God’s plan for the world. That is, there are no self-existent or autonomous states of affairs independent of divine prior knowledge of them. Each one stands in relation to God, who ordains them. And so we are driven back to ask what God’s view is of the historical events recorded in the Gospels. The surprising answer is simply that God’s view is the Gospels themselves, in their unity and diversity.
But now another objection arises. The Gospels are indeed what God says to us human beings; God has genuinely “shared his mind with us” in writing to us in this way. But of course God knows more about the events than what he says in the Gospels. Someone may then object: “The diversity in the Gospels is an accommodation to our needs as human beings. It need not represent simply a direct transcript of God’s mind.”
This objection is mostly true. We grant that the diversity of the Gospels is adapted to our needs. But is the diversity merely an adaptation? How do we know that God’s knowledge in itself eliminates diversity of perspective? Some people just assume without question that there is no diversity. To me, such assumption is suspicious. Philosophical reasoning has often tried to get “behind” the Bible into some deeper speculative knowledge of God. Always this attempt turns out in practice to be a way of giving human reason autonomy to dictate to the Bible which of its parts are to be taken seriously and which are mere metaphors or “accommodations” for the common people.5
But we can answer this objection in terms of its own categories. Consider God’s knowledge of an event in the life of Christ or his knowledge of any other state of affairs. For all such cases we say that God’s mind is the final reference point for all knowledge and all truth. But how is that knowledge organized in God’s mind? It is often simply presupposed that God’s knowledge consists in an infinite collection of bits, each bit being a truth from God’s single perspective.
While God is one and while there is unity to his perspective, he nevertheless is also three persons. We are never allowed to swallow up the three persons into a pure unity or to divide the unity into a pure plurality.6 This argument about the divine mind appears to swallow up all diversity of perspective into a single perspective, God’s perspective, which is absolutely ultimate. This unifying center holds together the diverse bits, the individual truths.
This account of things, however, by-passes the ontological ultimacy of the Trinity. There is a single ultimate perspective on truth, God’s perspective, because there is only one God. But also there are three ultimate perspectives on truth–the perspectives of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–and these three are not identical with one another in every respect. The Father knows the Son (Luke 10:22) and, in knowing the Son, knows all things. The Son knows the Father and, in knowing the Father, knows all things. This knowledge is personal, loving, and intimate; it is not merely knowledge of propositions. The Father knows the Son as Father, from his perspective as Father. That standpoint is not the same as the knowledge that the Son has.
Moreover, the content of the truth is both one and many. It is not merely analytically precise and isolated bits, plus analytically cold relations between these bits and relations between the relations. The Father knows the Son, and the Son is one person. Yet this one person includes all treasures of wisdom and understanding (Col. 2:3).
This doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery! I would not dare to “solve” anything here. We worship. But I suggest that thinking about truth and knowledge can get carried away from worship and therefore from truth itself. Error follows when we wish to evade, suppress, or forget the gloriously personal, inextricably rich character of knowledge and truth (Rom. 11:33-36).
Addition to the reasons already given, we can justify doing theology symphonically by its sheer fruitfulness. By deliberately looking at a subject in terms of a given analogy, we notice things that we would not otherwise notice. Of course, there is a certain danger that we may imagine someting to be in the text when it is only the product of our own biased interest or that we may force everything into a preconceived mold. Rightly used, however, multiple perspectives help us to go in the very opposite direction.
First, by using more than one analogy or perspective, we can, as it were, stand outside the limitations that may arise when we just use one. Using a second or third perspective, we can criticize whatever artificiality may be involved in the first perspective.
Second, we use one perspective to enrich another. We do not attempt to suppress what does not fit into the newest perspective. We do not force a passage or an issue into the preconceived mold that we may initially have in mind when we start using this perspective. Rather, we attempt to adjust and enrich the perspective until it includes everything that we have noticed using a previous perspective.
Third, the problems of preconceptions and biases are not unique to a symphonic approach. Rather, they are involved whenever we are analyzing anything. We could argue that, by using a bias self-consciously, we put ourselves in a better position to remember that our discoveries have arisen from one starting point among many. We are better prepared to stand back at the end of our attempt and evaluate how much of what was forced on the passage is really there.
Finally, imagination and creativity often work best when people allow themselves to juxtapose unlikely parallels or analogies or to develop apparently fanciful or absurd ideas. This freedom is one of the ideas behind so-called brainstorming. Research on the processes involved in creativity shows how, in an advanced and sophisticated form of brainstorming, good and workable plans often evolve from some core idea that pops up using “wild” analogies.7
Beyond simply using a multiplicity of perspectives, symphonic theology, as I conceive it, involves learning how to learn more from other people, by listening sympathetically. Other people have both good and bad ideas. By looking for the “grain of truth” even in some bad idea, we can sometimes find a starting point for a new perspective or a piece of truth that we ourselves had overlooked. The theology of liberation is a case in point. The mainstream of liberation theology conceives of liberation in a distorted way, as almost wholly political and economic. But the theme of liberation is clearly a biblical theme. It is therefore possible to develop the theme in a balanced way, as a positive answer to liberation theology.
The question of the cessation or continuation of miraculous acts of God is another issue that can be clarified by using different perspectives (see chapters 9 and 10). People occupying either of the extreme positions on this question can be led to modify their views if they ask themselves what is the grain of legitimacy that gives the opposite position some of its appeal. Symphonic theology, therefore, is interested in using the different insights given to different people in order to enhance the abilities of any one individual to grow in knowledge of the truth. That goal leads us to consideration of the structure of the body of Christ.
UNITY AND DIVERSITY IN THE CHURCH AND IN HUMAN NATURE
From Creation onward, God intended that the human race should develop with a diversity of individuals. Even apart from the fall of Adam, different people would have had different gifts and different experiences, so that one person’s insights into the truth would complement those of another. The introduction of sin did not create diversity but rather made it contentious.
Our true unity and diversity is restored in principle in our union with Christ. Being united to Christ and conformed to his image destroys only the bad forms of diversity. The diversity of gifts in the body of Christ (Rom. 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12:7-31, Eph. 4:7-16) does not threaten unity in the truth but reinforces it. Growing up into the full understanding of the truth requires the full exercise of the diverse roles of the body (Eph. 4:11-16).
No one human being has all the fullness of Christ’s gifts. All of us are to learn from others who have insights and contributions that we could not easily achieve ourselves. When we listen to other people sympathetically, we obtain perspectives on the truth different from our own. Of course, we do not accept everyone else’s ideas uncritically. But we make an effort to listen lovingly and to take the other person’s point of view. In doing so, we achieve a kind of second perspective on the truth.
The use of multiple perspectives in our own thinking is thus a way of trying to reproduce and strengthen some of the effects that have always occurred in the growth of the church. Using multiple perspectives ourselves does not eliminate the importance of listening to others but strengthens our ability to do so (because we have had practice shifting points of view).
HUMAN KNOWLEDGE AS ANALOGICAL
Finally, we may observe that all human knowledge whatsoever is analogically related to God’s knowledge. We are made in the image of God, which implies that our knowledge is an image of God’s knowledge. In addition, I would claim that all growth in knowledge exploits analogy in one way or another. We learn by relating what is new to what is old. General laws of gravitation are learned by relating them by analogy to particular test cases such as falling apples. General understanding of biological cells is aided by using analogies with a factory. General understanding of human experience is achieved by moving by analogy from our own experience to other people’s stories of their experiences. The use of perspectives is a way of becoming self-conscious and deliberate about the use of analogies and in this way promises a systematic way of searching to advance knowledge.
1 See Stephen Pepper, World Hypotheses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
2 See the more elaborate discussion of such matters in Paul Helm, “Revealed Propositions and Timeless Truths,” Religious Studies 8 (1972): 127-136.
3 Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery, ed. John Worrall and Elie Zahar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); Morris Kline, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).
4 At this point, I am following Cornelius Van Til’s criticism of the idea of brute fact. See, e.g., Van Til, Christian-Theistic Evidences (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) 40-65.
5 One of the contributions of Van Til has been to identify clearly the move toward autonomous reason as sinful rebellion working itself out in the area of thought. See Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963); idem, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969).
6 Again I owe this point to Van Til. He has emphasized the “equal ultimacy” of unity and diversity in the Trinity (see, e.g., The Defense of the Faith 25-28). All non-Christian philosophies, he says, are unable to solve the problem of unity and diversity. In the end they arrive at ultimate pluralism or dualism, or else ultimate monism.
7 See, e.g., William J. J. Gordon, Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 34-56.
6: WORDS AND PRECISION
Our ability to use a number of different flexible perspectives is based partly to the fact that terms such as “ethics” or “adultery” or “covenant” or “prophet” can be stretched. We can use such words in a conventional, prosaic way. But we can also stretch them in an imaginative, almost playful way until they give us a perspective on the whole of the Bible.
This flexibility is in fact closely related to the flexibility that occurs in the meaning of words. A key area in our exegesis and our understanding of the Bible is the area of word meanings and the use of words in the Bible. It is also an area in which we can easily make mistakes.1 Some people have imagined that words in the Bible all have a special technical precision and give us automatically fixed, rigid categories. These fixed categories are then thought to exclude any kind of flexibility in the use of perspectives. In fact, I believe that the opposite is the case. A close look at the way in which words function in ordinary language and in biblical language complements and reinforces what we have observed regarding the use of perspectives.
THE MEANING OF WORDS
Each natural language (English, French, Greek, etc.) includes a collection of vocabulary items, or lexical units (words), currently in use. A good dictionary attempts to list all the words and idioms used in the language at the time. This list we will call the vocabulary stock of the language. (Of course, the dictionary may also include obsolete and archaic items representing earlier stages of the language, and there will always be some hard decisions about whether obscure technical terms or ephemeral slang should be included.) What bearing does the vocabulary stock have on interpretation–either interpretation of a biblical text or interpretation of the function of a philosophical category?
This question is difficult. Formerly, individual interpreters had to use their intuition to figure out what was going on in the use of a given word or idiom. With the development of twentieth-century linguistics, semantics (the study of meaning) and lexicology (the study of dictionaries) have taken on a technical character. Of course, there is danger that technicians in their desire for rigor may oversimplify aspects of language. But at its best, the research in semantics provides tools that enable us to sharpen our intuitions, to correct them, and to criticize certain incorrect inferences based on language properties.2
The main insight to be gleaned for our immediate purposes is an insight into the finite precision of the meaning of words. The vocabulary stock of a language contains only a finite number of words. The speakers of the language are capable of saying an indefinite number of things about an indefinite number of subjects, using these words. This ability is possible because the words themselves, as members of the lexical system, can be applied to a range of cases. For example, the word “pig” applies not to one individual thing alone but to any of a whole class. It applies to porcine animals male and female, young and old, pink and spotted. If we call some creature a pig, we do not say everything we could about the creature but only that it has a collection of characteristics shared by other creatures in the class. We can gain precision by employing a narrow technical term or by inventing one on the spot. A grice, in some dialects, is a young pig. We gain in precision by adding the feature “young.” But we simultaneously lose in scope: the word “grice” can be applied in fewer contexts and can appropriately describe fewer creatures. In the technical terminology of linguistics, we gain in “intension” (the number and richness of the features associated with the term). Simultaneously we lose in “extension” (the number of entities to which the term applies).
Moreover, the meaning of most words is largely determined by the contrast of the one word with other, related words. The word “pig” functions to distinguish a certain group of animals within the class of domestic mammalian animals: it contrasts primarily with “dog,” “horse,” “cow,” “cat.” But in another language and culture, if people are intensively involved in raising pigs, there may be several words to describe pigs of various kinds. Even in English, a semitechnical vocabulary used primarily by those working with pigs includes “swine,” “boar,” “sow,” “shoat.” Each of these words contrasts with the others, so each can be more precise.
These same considerations apply to our understanding of the use of key categories in philosophy and theology. Consider, for instance, the philosophical categories “cause” and “mind” and the theological categories “miracle,” “revelation,” and “regeneration.” How precise are the meanings of these words? We can expect here that there will be a trade-off between precision and scope, between intension and extension. If we make the word precise, it will cover fewer cases.
For instance, we can use the word “miracle” in a vague, general way, as many people are accustomed to doing in everyday English. Any extraordinary event that helps someone out is a “miracle.” If we use the word in that way, it has a wide scope, or extension. Many events are miracles. But it has little precision, or intension. It does not say very much about the events, except that they are extraordinary and that they helped someone. On the other hand, we can establish a technically precise meaning for “miracle”: for example, a “direct, extraordinary, visible act of God, conveying special revelation, delivering his people, and confounding his enemies.” In this case, the word “miracle” has a much smaller extension. Fewer events count as miracles in this technical sense. However, there is a richer intension. We provide quite a few important characteristics of those things we call miracles. Similarly, “revelation” can cover everything that people come to know, or it can cover only the speech of God in the Bible. In the first use, it has wide extension (scope) and little intension (precision). In the second use it has narrower extension and richer intension. “Regeneration” can be used loosely to cover the entire experience of conversion, or more narrowly to describe the initial act of the Holy Spirit in giving a person a new heart.
There are, then, many cases in which we have some choice about how widely or narrowly we are going to use a term. If we define the term widely, it will be vague. We will probably not be saying anything profound. If we use it narrowly, it will cover only a few cases and therefore may not be so useful for what philosophy and theology wish to do in the way of making statements of great generality.
This trade-off is almost always present in ordinary language. But there is one important exception that does crop up in the technical sphere. An exception occurs when there exists a “natural class,” or a very numerous group of entities, all or nearly all of which have a large number of common properties. Pigs are a natural class. So are dogs. Electrons form a natural class.
A natural class arises from a state of affairs in the world, not in human language. Because there are natural classes in the world, we can invent technical terms such as canis familiaris or “electron,” which are both general and precise. Such technical terms are general in the sense of having wide extension (they apply to many individual entities) and are precise in the sense of having rich intension (anything denoted by them has many specified properties).3 All of the natural sciences use key technical terms. Usually, these terms correspond to natural classes, in which I include not only groups of living things (species, genus, family, etc.) but relational entities such as “force” in physics and “ionic bond” in chemistry.
The key question is whether similar natural classes exist in philosophy and theology. At the very least, these disciplines do use technical terms. Do such terms correspond to natural classes? Or is there a simple trade-off between intension and extension?
There may be some natural classes of a loosely linked sort in philosophy and theology, that is, certain clusters of properties that tend to occur together.4 But most of these connections are loosely drawn. Our work with multiple perspectives easily enables us see that many times there are multiple connections in a variety of directions. God is in some ways like a father, in some ways like a king, in some circumstances like a warrior, and so on. No one of these analogies is the only correct way to describe God. There is no one natural class (say, the group of all fathers) that uniquely captures who God is.
Philosophers and theologians have not always taken account of the looseness of their categories. Let us take a specific example from Immanuel Kant. Kant argues for the impossibility of substitutionary atonement in the following way:
This debt [of radically evil disposition] can never be discharged by another person, so far as we can judge according to the justice of our human reason. For this is no transmissible liability which can be made over to another like a financial indebtedness (where it is all one to the creditor whether the debtor himself pays the debt or whether some one else pays it for him); rather is it the most personal of all debts, namely a debt of sins, which only the culprit can bear and which no innocent person can assume even though he be magnanimous enough to wish to take it upon himself for the sake of another.5
Kant’s argument depends on the presupposition that certain kinds of debt belong together in natural classes. According to Kant, financial debts are one natural class. They have uniform properties and can always be discharged in certain ways. “Personal” debts are another natural class, to which certain other uniform rules apply. In addition, Kant assumes that possible acts of substitution by an innocent person also belong to a natural class, so that it is possible fairly quickly to draw universal conclusions. In every case, according to Kant, substitution is illicit.
But Kant’s arguments are no better than the analogies that he sets up. Is the “debt” of radical evil really analogous to personal debts and not financial ones? Is it analogous in just the way that Kant suggests? We can answer these questions only if there are a whole cluster of properties of personal debts that always go together. Moreover, is substitution always impossible? It appears from biblical revelation that both Adam and Christ have a unique representative relation to a whole race of people (Rom. 5:12-21). Interchange is possible here in a way not quite like interchange between two individuals chosen at random. In sum, Kant’s argument depends on the fact that key terms such as “personal debt” and “substitution (by an innocent person)” form natural classes, with both broad extension and rich intension. Kant’s arguments become problematic once we question Kant’s postulated natural classes.
In the realm of philosophy, almost any chapter of a major philosophical work reveals problems of this kind. Philosophers want to arrive at profound conclusions. Such profound conclusions are possible, however, only if the terms at issue have rich intension and if such intension corresponds to a large natural class. How could one establish the existence of such a natural class? Philosophers almost always attempt to do so by some combination of general reasoning and a few key examples. Kant uses the key examples of financial debts, personal debts (moral crimes?), and the possibilities of substitution in human affairs of justice. But we notice that the examples have become perspectives on the whole. In Kant’s case, they become perspectives on what God can do in any case whatsoever. The extension into a perspective is not rigorous. And such an extension can be done by using other categories that would lead to different conclusions. For example, in Romans 5:12-21, Paul uses the example of Adam, which helps to illustrate the substitutionary significance of Christ, even if it does not provide the type of rationally transparent explanation that Kant was looking for. In philosophy and also in theology, this situation is typical. My rule of thumb, therefore, is to question profound conclusions in philosophy or theology that depend largely on a key technical term or system of terms.
There are some other pitfalls in a philosophical approach. The progress of science has shown that guesses about natural classes must be checked and revised again and again by empirical means. For example, consider the development of theories about the origin of human sickness. In ancient Greece and Roman physicians thought that sickness was related to imbalance in the four humors, blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These four humors and imbalances among them were therefore treated as natural classes. The discovery of the bacterial source of disease showed that this original guess about natural classes was worthless. Bacteria did actually possess the properties of a natural class. But further refinements in the understanding of disease were still necessary. Continued research has made the picture more and more complex. Viruses, for example, have some properties similar to bacteria and other living things and other properties similar to nonliving things. The discovery of viruses therefore made it clear that a simple division into diseases caused by living organisms and diseases caused by nonliving things would be too simple. Moreover, diseases like cancer are sometimes caused by a virus, but other times they are caused by inorganic cancer-causing substances, and still other times by radiation. We could never guess at this complexity without doing empirical research, which shows again and again that our postulated natural classes are insufficient to explain everything.
Guesses about what natural classes exist are important, but ultimately we cannot second-guess God. We must look at what God has actually done, not simply reason until we think we know what he must have done. In the example from Kant, Kant thought he could figure out what God must have done to handle people’s sins. He did not submit himself to God’s revelation of what God has in fact done.
The remedy, apparently, is for philosophers not simply to reason things out in isolation but to do check carefully the nature of the world. In so doing they will function more as linguists, psychologists, and theologians by turns. There is very little independent ground left for the philosopher as philosopher.
We can put the matter another way. The natural classes familiar to science are kinds that could have been otherwise. God could have created a world in which an animal looked like a pig and barked like a dog. We have to look at the world to find out what he actually did create. How can philosophical or theological reasoning claim to pronounce on what must be, when the very categories used in the reasoning may or may not correspond to natural classes?
Theology, of course, has resources not open to philosophy. Those who believe that, what the Bible says, God says, may claim to know what must be, not because they have exhaustive insight or because they have surveyed the whole universe, but because God knows exhaustively and has told them what is universally true.
While this confidence is right in principle, we need to reckon with the fact that the Bible is written in ordinary language to ordinary people. God is not mainly concerned in the Bible to furnish grist for the mill of theological experts or speculators. He intends mainly to bring us to know him personally, to save us, to enable us to serve him from our hearts. Hence, very few if any individual words occurring in the Bible have technically precise meanings.6
For example, we will distort exegesis if we equate hagiazo (“consecrate”) with the technical term “sanctification.” Sometimes the Greek word designates the perfection in holiness that we have because we are united with Christ (Heb. 10:14), which is quite distinct from the progressive growth in Christian maturity and obedience designated by the technical term “sanctification.” Similarly, we ought not to equate pisteuo (“believe”) and pistis (“faith”) in Paul with the technically precise term “saving faith.” Sometimes the words are used in other ways. Ungodly people “believe the lie” (2 Thess. 2:11). The word pistis sometimes designates the content of Christian faith (Gal. 1:23), sometimes a special gift of faith (1 Cor. 13:2).
If, then, as systematic theologians we wish to propose a technical term, we must do so by generalizing from a large number of analogous patterns and teachings that we see in the Bible. Theologians have already identified these patterns for the technical term “Trinity” and for many other technical terms. This work can be valuable. But two restrictions should be borne in mind. First, we should be aware that there can be no category system of systematic theology that is more ultimate than the Bible itself, in the full richness of its message. The category system is always selective and partial in its analysis of the Bible. Second, if we use a category to group together in our mind a series of texts, we thereby put into the background the differences between the texts and the links that some, but not all, of them may have with an alternative category grouping.
For instance, if we use “covenant” as a technical term to describe all of God’s relationships with human beings, we group together all the texts that speak of these relationships. Such a grouping is useful, because we then see some common patterns. But note that our technical term “covenant” applies only to human beings. It does not include God’s relationship to the sun, moon, and stars. Hence, when we define “covenant” in this way, we put in the background the relation that the Davidic covenant is said to have with God’s “covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth” (Jer. 33:25). We are likely to overlook this connection, because it extends to the nonhuman order, outside the boundary that we fixed for the technical term “covenant.” In defining “covenant” as we have, we also put into the background the contrast between different kinds of relationships that God established with different people. The Davidic promises hold for ever, which is very different from the failing, temporary character of the covenant of Sinai (Jer. 31:31-32; compare Jer. 33:20-21). When we use one term for both, we may overlook the differences.
Thus, when systematic theologians define a technical category, they are inevitably selective. In the Bible we confront a complexity of interlocking and multifaceted themes. Defining technical terms and categories cannot reduce this complexity into a pristine simplicity. It will not furnish us with “ultimate” categories.
Another kind of imprecision in language arises because the boundaries of the meaning of a word are not fixed with perfect precision. When is a word “correctly” used? Words can be used in imaginative new ways in creating a metaphor. So it is best to start by asking when we can rightly use a word in a nonmetaphorical sense. Some patches of color are clearly red. Some are clearly not red. But what about a color that is off-red in the direction of orange? How much suggestion of orange must it have before it is not red? Or consider another example. Some living things are clearly animals, and some are clearly plants. But what about the intermediate cases, the protozoa Phytomastigophorea which has with both locomotion (animallike) and photosynthesis (plantlike)? We could mention other puzzling intermediate cases. The “boundary,” beyond which we would no longer be comfortable using a word, is “fuzzy.”
We make the same observations in terms of metaphor. When is the use of a word such as “pad” a metaphor? Some uses are clearly not metaphors (“the furniture maker padded the chair”). Others are clearly metaphors (“Bill padded his emotional life to withstand the bad news that he knew would come”). Others represent minimal extensions of meaning or dead metaphors. For example, “he padded his essay with truisms” is a metaphorical extension of the most literal meaning of “pad”–“to stuff.” But the use of “pad” in the sense of “extend by adding useless extra material” is so common is that is listed in most dictionaries as a separate meaning. It is no longer a metaphor (though it once was) but a regularly recognized extra meaning. We need to recognize that nearly all (if not all) words have a range of application with a clear center but a fuzzy boundary.7
The phenomenon of fuzzy boundaries means, for one thing, that categories that separate a group into two parts may often admit of intermediate cases. Sometimes we will be unable to say easily which category the case belongs to. Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? In such cases, we must beware of an inappropriate kind of appeal to the law of excluded middle. The law of excluded middle says that, for any proposition A, either A is true or not-A is true. This law, however, may not help to solve complex mixed cases. “Either it is raining or it is not raining,” someone says. But it may be misting, something between an ordinary rain and no water at all.8 “Either he acted righteously or wickedly,” someone claims. But a particular human action might be righteous in some respects, wicked in others. “Either Mary forced Sue to do it or she did not.” But what if Mary urged, cajoled, threatened, or tricked Sue, or used some other means for trying indirectly to force her? “Either this spot is white or it is not white.” What if it is off-white? What if some parts of the spot are more off-white, while others are closer to pure white? What sort of lighting is one to use in looking at the spot? What do we do with this kind of difficulty?
We can eliminate these difficulties only by postulating an infinitely precise boundary for a key term. For instance, we could try to define “white” precisely. We could introduce specific data on the different mathematical frequencies of the light waves. Then, however, we would be dealing not with the English word “white” but with an invented technical meaning attached to the same sound sequence “white.” As long as we are using a natural language rather than a formalized language of mathematics, fuzzy boundaries are going to interfere with the ideal of infinite precision.
The existence of such fuzzy boundaries also means that we must be willing to admit that other people can, if they wish, draw the boundary at a different point. It is a semantic question as to whether one wants to call a tomato a fruit or a vegetable or both. Likewise, it is a semantic question whether one wants to apply the word “cause” to God or only to connections immanent in the world. It is a semantic question whether one wants to apply the word “miracle” to extraordinary events in our time. The real problems arise because people often will not recognize any distinctions that differ from their own choice of terminology.
The examples here are closely related to what Ludwig Wittgenstein dubbed “family resemblances.” Within an ordinary human family there are resemblances among the various members. But such resemblances are a matter of degree. It may well be that there is no one, obvious property shared by all the members of the family. But even if some such property or properties are shared (say, brown eyes and brown hair), these features themselves may not be a sufficient basis for defining the boundaries of the family. To get a reasonable boundary, we may have to require that each member of the family share these two properties and at least one other family feature.
Similar things may happen in dealing with other types of entities grouped together by using a word as the common label. The entities have resemþblances among themselves. They may also have resemblances of various kinds with entities outside the group. What determines what counts as a member of the group? How many different kinds of resemblances must a test case share, and how closely must it resemble the paradigm case in each of these different kinds of resemblance in order for it to be counted as a member of the group? For example, how big must the drops be for mist to be counted as “rain”? There is no obvious, common-sense, agreed answer. People may also differ in their judgments over just when they know confidently what the answer is.
We ought to recognize, then, the fluid character of meaning boundaries and the complex character of resemblances in dealing with language use both outside and inside of the Bible. Such recognition can only be for the good, since it gives us more accurate insight into what the Bible says and how much language tells us about the world.
Philosophy and theology, however, are tempted to retreat from this complexity whenever they are bewitched by the mathematical ideal of achieving the accuracy and certainty of Euclid. But even mathematics, we now know, is not so immune to change or uncertainty as was once thought.9 Moreover, even the kind of accuracy that mathematics does achieve is achieved by eliminating most of the intension that characteristizes ordinary language. The meaning of a number, a function, or a mathematical structure is almost wholly determined by relationships among the parts or relationships with other mathematical objects in a system. “Three” means little other than a contrast with and ability to combine with “two,” “four,” etc. in specified ways. As long as key words in philosophy and theology are loaded with human, personal, intensional meaning, the appearance of rigorous precision will be an illusion. Any apparent precision always neglects fuzzy boundaries. Moveover, resemblances that cross over the boundaries often make it possible to imagine drawing boundaries in altogether different ways.
HOW WE LEARN WORDS
In addition, vagueness in the meaning of words is related to the way in which words are learned.10 Consider how children acquire the vocabulary of their native language. Almost all words, except the most technical, are learned not by explicit definition but by hearing others use them. Now when we as adults use a word, we do not consciously remember all the instances in which we heard it used in the past. However, we have somehow retained an impression of the overall scope of the word’s meaning. We have somehow “averaged” the word’s occurrences in the past in order to know how to use it now.
In the learning process, each of us hears a word only a finite number of times. which is not enough to enable us to infer the boundaries of its meaning with infinite precision. We have heard the word “rain” used in clear-cut cases and have had its use rejected in other cases. But that background of experience does not enable us to decide confidently whether the word applies when we encounter an intermediate case, such as a slowly falling mist. Past instances of use of “rain” do not suffice to make up our minds about cases that do not fit the past.
Hence, in general we may expect that appropriate uses of a word will “fade off” into inappropriate uses. Some uses are clearly appropriate; some are clearly inappropriate. But in between there are difficult cases. The boundary between the appropriate and the inappropriate use is fuzzy. Are technical terms, then, an exception? Technical terms may sometimes be defined with the explicit purpose of eliminating fuzziness on the boundaries. But even so, the definition itself will contain words of ordinary English that have fuzzy boundaries. Or it may contain other technical terms that will themselves be defined in terms of words with fuzzy boundaries. Elaborate definitions can, of course, eliminate a great deal of fuzziness in the spots where precision matters most. But they will not eliminate it all.
These observations confirm the point made earlier about limited precision and give us an additional way of testing the cogency of arguments. When philosophy or theology introduces a special word that will play a key role in an argument, we can ask how we are expected to learn the meaning or range of usage of the word and what the boundaries are to its application. Even if we are given a few examples or a few instances of its use, the boundaries may remain quite unclear. We need to ask whether we know the use of the term in a situation very different from what the speaker provides. A new word or an old word used in a new sense remains quite vague unless there is an explicit definition. And if there is one, we can ask where the vague boundaries are in the terms used in the definition itself. Such questions will serve to alert us to fallacies or untested presuppositions that sometimes slip in because of movable boundaries.
1 See, e.g., D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), especially pp. 25-66.
2 The field of semantics is now a large one, and it is not possible here to consider at length the principles and insights that have been derived. For a fuller discussion, the best starting point is John Lyons’s Semantics (2 vols; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), which contains full bibliographical resources. For the needs of the average biblical student, this book is still too detailed and technical. Several works have applied the insights of semantics and lexicology to biblical studies, and these books will prove to be the most relevant. The two outstanding ones are James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961); and Moises Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983). Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is an excellent book covering a larger range of topics. The reader should also be aware of the work of Arthur Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic (New York: St. Martin’s, 1981); Anthony Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980); Ludwig Wittgenstein, Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations,” Generally Known as the Blue and Brown Books (New York: Harper, 1958); idem, Philosophical Investigations, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1968). Some of the same points that I make below I have developed in another connection in Poythress, “Adequacy of Language and Accommodation,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 349-76.
3 In making these observations, I am not proposing a revival of nominalism. Nominalism (at least in its naive form) says that words and names are only labels for individuals or collections of individuals, that “red,” for example, is merely a label for a collection. By contrast, I would say that God has ordained that some created things have common properties (i.e., some things are red). I am proposing neither nominalism nor realism in the medieval sense.
4 This chapter aims at generalizations about words. In doing so, it singles out clusters of properties that go together. Though its roots are more in linguistics than in philosophy, it might be considered as a philosophical analysis of certain natural classes (e.g., “properties,” “categories,” “technical terms,” “intension”). However, my conclusions go little beyond confirming the best of what we do by common sense. My terms are not techically precise, otherwise I would be saying a great deal about the clustering of a large number of properties in a striking number of instances. However, without a great deal of precision in the definitions, my conclusions are necessarily more general.
5 Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Chicago and London: Open Court, 1934), 66.
6 For a full discussion of these problems, see Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 46.
7 See Stephen Ullmann, Semantics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1964), 125-127.
8 I owe this example to Kenneth L. Pike.
9 See Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations; Kline, Mathematics.
10 Poythress, “Adequacy of Language.”
7: TWELVE MAXIMS OF SYMPHONIC THEOLOGY
It is now time to summarize some of the basic principles involved in a symphonic approach to doing theology. I express these principles here in twelve maxims.
1. Language is not transparent to the world.
Natural human languages are not simply perfect, invisible glass windows that have no influence on what we see in the world. Nor is there a perfect language available that would be such a perfect window. In particular, no language will enable us to state facts without making any assumptions or without the statements being related to who we are as persons. No special language can free us from having to make crucial judgments on the basis of partial analogies or similarities. No special language can immediately make visible to us the ultimate structure of categories of the universe.
Positively, natural languages are adequate vehicles for human communication and for communication between God and human beings.1 Some of the features that might be supposed to be imperfections are in fact positive assets. In the Bible God uses ordinary human language rather than a technically precise jargon. He does not include all the technical, pedantic details that would interest a scholar. By doing so, he speaks clearly to ordinary people, not merely to scholars with advanced technical knowledge. What God says is not exhaustive, but it is sufficient to save us and to provide a sure guide for our life.
Hence, the ordinary, humble readers of the Bible do all right. Paradoxically, scholars and would-be scholars can easily get into trouble by overestimating the degree of technical or pedantic precision in the Bible. They will then fall into mistakes that an ordinary reader of the Bible would not make. Therefore, if we are engaged in more scholarly theological reflection, we must become self-conscious about our language. Of course, most scholars do not explicitly do theology on the basis of some fully developed philosophy of language. Mistakes made without an explicit philosophy are nevertheless mistakes. And such mistakes do occur. In fact, mistakes, obscurities, inadequacies, and infelicities related to language occur with considerable frequency in our day, even in reputable, scholarly writings of theology.2
James Barr has published a long catalog of mistakes made by biblical scholars. Without going into detail, I list six of the most common errors that he cites.3
Attempts to deduce theological conclusions directly from the grammatical structure of a language. For example, Thorlief Boman tries to deduce a philosophical concept of time from the Hebrew tense system (pp. 79-81).
Attempts to deduce theological conclusions directly from the number and relation of vocabulary synonyms. For example, Edmond Jacob attempts to deduce the fluidity of the concept of miracles from the fact that several different terms are used (p. 147).
Attempts to use etymology instead of the current meaning of a word, even when the current meaning is well known. For example, “holy” and “healthy” are etymologically related, but they do not now mean the same thing, and it is just confusing to say that they do (p. 111).
Attempts to deduce a particular world view on the basis of combining the various senses of a single word. The Hebrew word dabar sometimes means “word,” sometimes “matter” or “thing,” depending on the context. But Thomas F. Torrance wrongly draws the conclusion that often it means both at the same time (p. 133).
“Illegitimate totality transfer.” The various meanings that a word has in all its contexts in the Bible are all read into a single passage (p. 218). For example, because the Bible teaches in various places that the church is the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, and a manifestation of the kingdom of God, people may think that ekklesia (“church”) means all of these things together whenever it occurs.
“Illegitimate identity transfer.” Because two words refer to the same thing, the two words must mean the same thing (pp. 217-218). For example, the Hebrew word dabar (“thing”) is sometimes used to refer to a historical event, and the word “history” can also be used to refer to the same event, but it is wrong to conclude that dabar means “history.” As a parallel illustration, note that we can designate the same person both as “the brightest student in the class” and as “the only redhead in my family.” Although the two descriptions refer to the same person, they do not have the same meaning. “Student” does not mean the same as “redhead,” or “class” the same as “family.”
Barr’s book and later books along the same line concentrate to a considerable extent on biblical scholars.4 But some analogous problems arise among systematic theologians, who often find themselves involved in problems related to the opacity of their own technical terms. An example or two may suffice.
Louis Berkhof, near the beginning of his discussion of dichotomy and trichotomy, says, “It is customary, especially in Christian circles, to conceive of man as consisting of two, and only two, distinct parts, namely, body and soul. This view is technically called dichotomy.”5 What does Berkhof mean by a “part”? And evidence determines whether a part is “distinct”? Arms and legs are parts of an individual, and they are distinct. Are conscience, memory, imagination, and emotions parts? Are they distinct? Berkhof raises these questions about the key terms. Nor does he discuss whether the use of the key terms in their key contexts assumes an ontology derived from Aristotle. Are we to think of the universe as made up of a number of diverse self-existent substances, with attributes attached to those substances, and these distinct substances later combininig? I contend here, not that Berkhof assumes Aristotelian metaphysics, but that he has not clearly identified his own assumptions.
By the very next page, Berkhof concludes, “The prevailing representation of the nature of man in Scripture is clearly dichotomistic.”6 Berkhof can affirm this position only by assuming that the key terms are clear. But they are not. The result is that the whole rest of the chapter is built on air. The question at stake here is not first of all the correctness of dichotomy or trichotomy or some other view. The question is whether we even know clearly what we are saying and know what will count as evidence to support what we are saying.
Karl Barth’s neoorthodox theology also exhibits violations of maxim 1. The most basic problem with Barth’s whole theology, from the standpoint of language, consists in the pervasive ambiguity in the meaning of nearly every fundamental term. Barth, in the judgment of many, has made revelation a dimension of life with no direct contact with the ordinary, the secular, and the scientific world. But without this contact, theological vocabulary makes no difference in the word and threatens to become meaningless.
Thus Anthony Thiselton, appealing to Wittgenstein, observes, “Concepts like ‘being redeemed,’ ‘being spoken to by God,’ and so on, are made intellibible and ‘teachable’ not on the basis of private existential experience but on the basis of a public tradition of certain patterns of behavior.”7 Thiselton is criticizing Bultmann, but similar criticism might apply with less intensity to Barth. The problems can be illustrated by taking a passage almost at random from the Church Dogmatics. In the discussion of man, Barth says:
Godlessness is not, therefore, a possibility, but an ontological impossibility for man. Man is not without, but with God. This is not to say, of course, that godless men do not exist. Sin is undoubtedly committed and exists. Yet sin itself is not a possibility but an ontological impossibility for man. We are actually with Jesus, i.e., with God. This means that our being does not include but excludes sin. To be in sin, in godlessness, is a mode of being contrary to our humanity. For the man who is with Jesus–and this is man’s ontological determination–is with God. If he denies God, he denies himself. He is then something which he cannot be in the Counterpart in which he is. He chooses his own impossibility. And every offense in which godlessness can express itself, e.g., unbelief and idolatry, doubt and indifference to God, is as such, both in its theoretical and practical forms, an offense with which man burdens, obscures and corrupts himself. It is an attack on the continuance of his own creatureliness.8
Undoubtedly we must try to make allowances. The larger context of this particular passage and of Barth’s work as a whole can help us to have some idea what Barth is really saying. Moreover, in examining this particular passage, we must allow for the rhetorical value of stating things paradoxically, mysteriously, or hyperbolically. But my criticism is that it is too easy to agree with Barth by reading in one’s own meaning or disagree with him by reading in a contrary meaning. Are the key terms such as “godless,” “ontological,” “possibility,” “with Jesus,” “with God,” “include” versus “exclude,” and “attack on continuance” anywhere defined?
Barth’s “universalism” is visible here, a position arising from the observation that Jesus was a man and that he was “for” us. But a large amount of this universalist rhetoric simply either by-passes the issue of what the particular respects are in which Jesus is for us or else it vacillates between different senses. Hence it is easy for disputes to arise as to just what this universalism amounts to. If Jesus is “for us,” does that mean that everyone is saved in the end? Or is there an “end” in the traditional sense? Or are some people (possibly) finally lost, even though the Atonement is universal? Or are there simply universal benefits to an act of atonement that also has a narrower focus on Christ’s sheep (John 10)? Or is the Atonement really a kind of eternal act that is just a metaphor for God’s kindness, since the Atonement seems to define creation as well as redemption?
Most of these questions perhaps show a scholastic or static orientation that is alien to the dynamic character of Barth’s approach to theology. Some may object that such “static” questions are beside the point. But the problem is that if one cannot answer the static questions or justify those answers or at least say that, for such and such reasons, we do not know the answers, then the meaning is indeterminate. This dynamic approach all too easily boils down to a wax-nose theology that can mean anything or nothing. It sounds good because the words still carry emotional associations that they have acquired in a more traditional context.
2. No term in the Bible is equal to a technical term of systematic theology.
Words and phrases in the Bible are words and phrases of ordinary language. They have a meaning, but the meaning has fuzzy boundaries that are usually not as sharp as the boundaries of technical terms. And normally words used in the Bible will not, by themselves, have the rich intension that characterizes technical terms. Of course, it is natural for at least a few religious terms to develop a semitechnical precision. In first-century Judaism, the words for altar, temple, sacrifice, and Sabbath had some of this character. But it is easy to overestimate this precision. Because the vocabulary of a language must be a medium for expressing many differing and even contradictory views, it retains a generality. The views held by particular individuals or sects are much more precise than the normal meanings of the vocabulary items that they use in expressing their views.
It follows that, if we want to develop technical terms in theology, such as “Trinity” or “saving faith,” we cannot make those terms perfectly match individual Hebrew or Greek vocabulary items. The reason is that we cannot make a word with a precise meaning exactly match a word with a broad, flexible meaning, or one with several shades of meaning in different contexts. If we really succeeded in making some English word “exactly match” a Hebrew or Greek word, the word in English would be just as vague and flexible as the one in Greek or Hebrew; it would not have any of the advantages of technical precision or fixity of meaning. The more precise we make the technical term, the greater distance it must have from an exact match to any one word of Hebrew or Greek.
Systematic theology can easily become the most confused in reflection on the “order of salvation” (ordo salutis). Consider the terms “regeneraþtion,” “vocation,” “faith,” “justification,” “adoption,” “sanctification,” and “glorificaþtion.” All of these words, in the course of historical reflection in the church, have become technical terms designating actions of God and of human beings in the process of working out salvation. Often, in the use of these technical terms, two conflicting desires are at work: (1) a desire to match English words with vocabulary items of Hebrew or Greek and (2) a desire to condense a great deal of doctrine and historical theology into a single word.
Charles Hodge, for example, tries to satisfy both desires at once. On the first page of his section discussing the order of salvation, he describes the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing people to faith. Then he adds:
This work of the Spirit is in the Scriptures called VOCATION. It is one of the many excellences of the Reformed Theology that it retains, as far as possible, Scriptural terms for Scriptural doctrines. It is proper that this should be done. Words and thoughts are so intimately related that to change the former, is to modify, more or less seriously, the latter. And as the words of Scripture are the words of the Spirit, it is becoming and important that they should be retained.9
This passage demonstrates Hodge’s lack of sufficient reflection about the functioning of language. In the first place, Hodge has mixed inspiration and translation together in a confusing way. In his doctrine of inspiration, Hodge correctly maintains that the Bible is verbally inspired, that God chose the very words of the original, and that the message composed of those words has full divine authority. This position, however, says nothing directly about a theory of translation, namely, a view of how we express the message in another language with different words and different grammar. Hodge has ignored the complexity of the process of translation and interpretation.
But Hodge is also wrong about Reformed theology and about his own vocabulary. It is easy to show that his vocabulary does not match biblical vocabulary. For example, “faith,” as a technical term in the order of salvation, cannot be equated with Greek pistis or pisteuo. The Greek word pistis is used with the sense “faithfulness” (Rom. 3:3), “solemn promise” (1 Tim. 5:12), “a special gift of faith” (1 Cor. 12:9), “body of belief” (Jude 3), as well as specifically “trust” (Rom. 3:22). The verb pisteuo is used with the sense “entrust” (Luke 16:11). When it has the sense “believe” it can be used neutrally (Acts 9:26), weakly (Luke 8:13), and negatively (2 Thess. 2:11), as well as in contexts that connect it more closely with saving faith in the narrow, technical sense (Acts 4:4). The range of use of pistis or pisteuo is far from “matching” that of the technical idea of saving faith. Hodge and theologians before him had isolated passages such as Romans 3:22 and Acts 4:4 and built the technical term “saving faith” on such passages alone. The technical term does not spring full-grown from a single word, but derives from the teaching of whole passages. The technical term actually does not perfectly match the meaning of pistis or pisteuo even in the key passages, since the passages are richer than the word alone. We learn about saving faith from the joint contribution of all the words of the passage, in their context and their relations to one another–not from analyzing a single word. A technical term in English (or any language) thus does not match any one Greek word but captures common features of a number of whole sentences or paragraphs dealing with a given subject.
Matters can become quite obscure when a theologian define a technical term means or stick to one meaning. In his book Faith and Sanctification Berkouwer does not define “sanctification.”10 Most of the time he uses the word “sanctification” (Dutch heiliging) in a way similar to its normal technical use within academic theology, namely, to describe the growth of the believing person in spiritual maturity and moral rectitude. At other times, however, Berkouwer appeals to passages in the Bible that happen to use the words hagios, qadosh, and their cognates, even when the words may not be closely related to “sanctification.” The result is that some portions of the book appear quite muddled.
A somewhat extended example can fully illustrate this confusion. In the midst of an extended discussion about the relation of justification and sanctification, Berkouwer writes:
Understood in this fashion, the distinction between justificaþtion and sanctification would amount to assigning the one act wholly to God and the other wholly to man. Sanctification would then be described as a series of devout acts and works performed by the previously justified man. The distinction between justification and sanctification could then be traced to the subject of each act: God or man.11
Berkouwer is right to object to this distorted approach. But the reasons he gives for his position are not so adequate. He says, “It is not hard to see that the Scriptures are intolerant of this division. We are told, for example, that Christ ‘was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30).”12
Unfortunately, Berkouwer has not distinguished the issue of definition from the issue of the theological affirmations to be made using the term so defined. In theory, at least, we could define the English technical term “sanctification” as the actions of human beings in the course of maturing in their lives. As long as we did not deny that God was also at work, there would be nothing wrong with such a definition. It is simply a matter of history that “sanctification” is customarily used in systematic theology to describe God’s action in causing people to grow.
But Berkouwer, by simply quoting passage in which God or Christ is the agent of “sanctification,” proposes to demonstrate that sanctification is not the action of human beings. He demonstrates no such thing. If, in systematic theology, “sanctification” has come to mean the action of God in causing us to grow, then no quotation of the Bible is necessary to show that sanctification is the action of God. It has this meaning by definition. If, on the other hand, we are asking what the Bible says about spiritual growth, then we have to cite passages that are about spiritual growth. 1 Cor 1:30 may or may not be such a passage. The word “sanctification” appearing in some translations does not settle the question, because we must ask whether the original text contains that technical meaning. Paul perhaps had in view “consecration,” the fact that union with Christ gives us the status of priests before God. The word hagiasmos in 1 Corinthians 1:30 could mean roughly what occurrences of qds often mean in the Old Testament: separation for God’s service, involving declared perfection. Such usage would say that, by virtue of union with Christ, we are perfectly holy, fit to stand in God’s presence (see Heb. 10:10, 14). The term, then, would come quite close to what we normally designate “justification.” If so, 1 Corinthians 1:30 is irrelevant to Berkouwer’s point.
By reading on from this page in Faith and Sanctification, one can easily see that the same problem occurs repeatedly. When citing a passage about holiness, Berkouwer never asks whether or in what way the “holiness” is related to the technical term “sanctification.”
The general lesson here is that a lot of such mischief has arisen from an underlying fallacy. We believe that, when God speaks, he will exercise infinite care in what he says and how he says it. But then we add, “God therefore uses words with a pedantically precise technical meaning.” But such is not the nature of God’s infinite care. God cares enough to speak human language masterfully, which means using to the full the vagueness and variation possible in the meaning of individual vocabulary items.
This idea is really not a new one but was recognized in a general way by the classic advocates of the orthodox doctrine of inspiration. Thus Benjamin B. Warfield says:
And there is no ground for imagining that God is unable to frame His own message in the language of the organs of His revelation without its thereby ceasing to be, because expressed in a fashion natural to these organs, therefore purely His message. One would suppose it to lie in the very nature of the case that if the Lord makes any revelation to men, He would do it in the language of men….
. . . Not only was it God the Lord who made the tongue, and who made this particular tongue with all its peculiarities, not without regard to the message He would deliver through it; but His control of it is perfect and complete, and it is as absurd to say that He cannot speak His message by it purely without that message suffering change from the peculiarities of its tone and modes of enunciation, as it would be to say that no new truth can be announced in any language because the elements of speech by the combination of which the truth in question is announced are already in existence with their fixed range of connotation [note the acknowledgement of range of meaning here].13
Similarly, A. A. Hodge says, “The thoughts and words are both alike human, and therefore subject to human limitations, but the divine superintendence and guarantee extend to the one as much as the other.”14
God fully knows variations in possible use of each vocabulary item of Hebrew and Greek. He does not invent an artificial jargon of technical terms but speaks using the resources that he himself has designed, the resources of vagueness. We are less careful than he is when we import mistaken views of human language and expect God to conform to them.
The fallacy can have its effect in at least two directions. We may attempt to read artificial precision into all the occurrences of the same word. We then imagine that it must mean the same thing (namely, our technical definition) in every single occurrence. Conversely, we may suppose that, despite the obvious diversity of uses of a given word, we must search for some some deep, mysterious unity of a “core meaning” to be discovered underneath. Both of these approaches manifest lack of real care in the understanding of human language.
3. Technical terms in systematic theology can almost always be defined in more than one way. Every technical term is selective in the features it includes.
By “technical term” I refer primarily to terms such as “Trinity,” “imputation,” “covenant,” “regeneration,” and “soul,” which are typically introþduced by way of definitions. But many other abstract terms used in philosophy can become technical if they are used as key terms in ways that deviate from some kind of average use in the language. Such terms characteristically become filled with meaning (i.e., become rich in intension), either by associating them with explicit definitions intended to make them precise or by using them repeatedly in key contexts and turning points in the arguments. Often the aim is to use a given technical term with precisely the same meaning every time it occurs.
Technical terms, at their best, identify “natural classes,” that is, a group of things sharing interesting similarities of various kinds. Once again, let us take “faith” as an example. How do we come to using “faith” as a technical term, in the sense of “saving faith,” “faith in Christ that leads to eternal salvation”? We do so by seeing a consistent pattern in Acts, in Paul, and even in the Old Testament. For example, there are quite a few interesting characteristics shared by passages in Acts and elsewhere thatwhich, in connection with people’s conversion to Christianity, mention cognitive, trustful responses to a message about Christ’s work and a call to repentance. In quite a few of these passages, the word pistis or pisteuo occurs (though some passages have other words such as peitho). Hence it is useful to invent the technical term “saving faith” to designate some common features of the passages.
But the grouping together could have singled out other features, depending on our interest. For instance, we could have studied occurrences of pisteuo and related words in the context of belief in idols and false gods. We could have studied the contexts in the Bible that speak of a person’s entrusting something to someone else. We then could have invented a technical term “idolatrous faith” or “entrustment” to capture common features of these passages.
Or we could choose the same passages in Acts and single out different aspects. We could choose to emphasize the difference between the responses in Acts, in the post-Pentecost context, and the responses before Pentecost. The cognitive content of people’s beliefs is, in general, richer after Pentecost. And the presence of the Holy Spirit in a new way in the spreading of the gospel colors the responses subtly. On the other hand, we could choose to emphasize the continuities before and after Pentecost. The technical term “faith” in Reformed theology has typically chosen this latter course.
Moreover, we could choose to focus narrowly on the striking common cognitive features in people’s responses. We could focus on assent to the truth. Or we could choose to produce a technical term that designates the whole response of trust (Latin fiducia). We could produce a term that encompasses the entire change of life-direction (“conversion” or even “conversion-initiation,” including baptism).
The point is that the choices are ours. No passage forces upon us only one “right” technical term. Of course, there may be several inappropriate ways of formulating a definition. That is, there may be some plausible definitions that presuppose something untrue. Such definitions are misleading. But the rejection of misleading definitions in this sense still leaves us with more than one option. Theological texts sometimes propose a single “right” definition. Underlying such an approach is the illusion that a technical term ought to and can match an item of uninterpreted biblical vocabulary. To proceed on the basis of this illusion is to invite trouble. It simply allows us to conceal from ourselves the influences of our own interests, biases, and selectivity on the kind of technical terms we use. It allows us to introduce all kinds of unexamined assumptions into our interpretation of the Bible.
Whatever way we choose to define or use a technical term, it will not capture everything. If we define the technical term “faith” narrowly, so that it applies only to the post-Pentecost situation, it will not allow us to identify the resemblances between events in Acts and those in Luke and in the Old Testament. If we choose to define “faith” so that it includes the faith of Abraham, we will not also be able to single out those features and contexts that make people’s response after Pentecost unique. Moreover, the only way in which we may capture in a new term the entire range of a Greek or Hebrew word is to make our own term imprecise, with different senses or connotations in differing contexts. We must then abandon the idea of making the word a technical term in any normal sense.
4. Boundaries are fuzzy.
The world has many natural classes (genera and species) whose boundaries are fuzzy. The groups are characterized by gradual reduction in the degree of resemblance to paradigm cases, which means that, however we may choose to define a technical term, there will be borderline cases. We will not always be sure whether a given case is an instance to which the technical term applies. “Saving faith” as a technical term certainly illustrates this uncertainty, because we cannot read another person’s heart. The problem, however, arises not only from the limitations of our knowledge of the world but also from the limited precision of the language used in the definition itself. We should carefully examine the language used in defining technical terms and ask what key terms mean. How precisely do we really know what is involved? Can we think of borderline cases for the applicability of key terms in the supposed definition?
5. No category or system of categories gives us ultimate reality.
No category gives us a kind of metaphysically ultimate analysis of the world. Nothing will change the fact that we are creatures with limited knowledge and with a variety of possible perspectives. In speaking of a category or theme, I have in mind not only biblical themes such as “covenant,” “revelation,” “prophet,” “king,” and “priest” but also terminology coming from other sources, such as the normative, situational, and personal perspectives on ethics, or philosophical terminology such as “being,” “infinite,” “necessary,” “logical,” “reason,” “existence,” and “mind.”
I claim that no single category, theme, or concept and no system of categories can furnish us with an infinitely deep analysis of the world. No category gives an analysis that is innately more penetrating than any other could be. Moreover, no category is capable of being formed that allows human beings to separate the world or any aspect of the world neatly into two parts, leaving no residue or disagreement about possible intermediate cases. No category, whether from philosophy, theology, natural science, or any other discipline, gives us the essence of a particular group of things.
There are several possible ways to verify the truth of this maxim. One way is to start with meditations about the Trinity. No categories, including categories such as “person” and “substance,” enable us as creatures to dissolve the mystery involved in our understanding of the Trinity. We believe that God is one and that God is three persons, but we cannot exhaustively analyze how God can be both one and three.
Neither can we make some attribute such as righteousness or self-existence into the essence of God, if we mean by such a phrase that one attribute alone can be regarded as a source of the others, and not vice versa. Moreover, God’s attributes are not “deeper” than his trinitarian nature. No one attribute is the “last thing back,” from which all the others are derived. Rather, any attribute can be seen as related to any other. On a human level, we can derive any attribute from any other. We just have to expand or stretch our conception of the starting attribute, and we will find that it involves or implies the derived attribute. Hence, we might just as well start with the fullness of God’s existence as one God and as a fellowship of three persons, as with some attribute.
It follows, then, that no category suffices to unravel the mystery of God himself. But now what about God’s creation? What God has created is not self-existent but dependent on him continuously (Acts 17:28). In a Christian or biblical world view, God himself is the only truly ultimate explanation for anything. If one category could serve as a tool for obtaining an ultimate analysis, it could only be the “category” of God. And as we have seen, God always remains mysterious for us.
Such arguments may seem excessively abstract. We can go on to consider different sorts of argument that lead to confirmation of the same principle. One such way begins with the finality and ultimacy of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. There is no more ultimate revelation of God. Hence there is no more ultimate revelation of our significance as human beings and of the significance of our life and our world than the revelation offered of Jesus Christ in the Bible. Maxim 5 is simply a prohibition against any endeavor to go “behind” or “above” or “beyond” the Bible by means of categories that are presumably deeper or more ultimate and thus dictate the limitations of the Bible’s revelation.
There are simple instances of such attempted limitations and distortions. For instance, some may classify the Bible as “religious” language and may assert that, as such, it makes no meaningful claims about events in space and time but only about some “noumenal” realm. Such claims make sense only if words such as “religious” and “noumenal,” used in this way, offer some profound insight into the world. Such key terms are important aspects of a world view. This world view is in fact different from that of the Bible itself. Within the Bible there are many statements and claims about God’s doing things and even predicting things in space and time. Analysis of the categories “religious” and “noumenal” within a biblical world view easily shows that there are false assumptions presupposed in such arguments.
But, more generally, philosophy and non-Christian religions are often, if not always, manifestations of full-blown world views. In these world views certain categories, which appear as key words or key concepts, form an ultimate framework for interpreting the world. The purification and advancement of Christian understanding require that we view these categories with caution. Philosophies and religions involve deep commitments, and the prior commitments influence the construction of systematic thought and key categories. Hence we need to be wary of the categories used and of how they may presuppose things inimical to the Christian world view.15 In the history of theology, the systems of Aristotle and Kant, along with variations among their followers, have been by far the most influential. Many modern thinkers have virtually begun with the observation “of course we are all Kantians” and have supposed that it is really impossible for anyone who has digested Kant’s insights to go back to a pre-Kantian stage. The Christian, however, should critically evaluate Kant’s categories right from the start. The way in which the phenomenal/noumenal distinction is construed, the way in which the category “experience” is used, and the way in which human reasoning is conceived already presuppose that the God of the Bible does not exist. Instead there is only a Kantian surrogate god who cannot appear in history, who cannot become incarnate, who cannot raise the dead, and who is alleged not to be in intimate fellowship with us in the midst of all human reasoning.
My point concerns not any one particular philosophy but the claims frequently cropping up in philosophy of many kinds. Philosophies often claim that their categories provide wisdom because they get to the roots of the world or of the human mind. I contend that nothing gets more to the roots than what God says to us. God’s final word is Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is not to be a Christ after our own imaginations but the Christ described by the Bible.
Still another way to support maxim 5 is by appeal to perspectives. Philosophical categories and technical categories of systematic theology are often valued for their precision. But by using the technique of developing perspecþtives, we realize that sometimes this precision is an illusion and other times it is a precision achieved by drawing a boundary at an arbitrary point (we could have expanded or contracted the category). Once we see this limitation, the category loses its claim to give us some unique “depth” in our view of the world.
In particular, any category that a philosopher or theologian proposes can be converted into a perspective. We can extend it or contract it by using analogies. For instance, we may ask ourselves what Kant’s category “experience,” present even on the first page of the Critique of Pure Reason, really amounts to. Is it “raw” experience, before it is “processed” by our rational powers? Is it like an idealized kind of pure sensation? Or does it include everything? Does it include the experience that human beings have had of God’s speaking person to person, as he spoke to Abraham and Moses? Does it include the experience that angels or demons have or that God himself has? “Experience” could embrace everything (as a perspective) or nothing (as an idealization of something prior to “processing”).
Finally, we can support maxim 5 by means of a linguistic approach. In this approach, we analyze the way in which we use words in natural languages. The words have fuzzy boundaries, as do the categories we develop. We have already seen the way in which this limitation produces obstacles to the idea that we have some infinitely deep knowledge by means of infinitely sharp distinctions. Our knowledge is genuine and true, but it never makes us gods.
6. Different human writers of the Bible bring differing perspectives to bear on a given doctrine or event.
Differences between the human writers of the Bible do exist. For instance, the four gospels, written by four different human writers, show different emphases in their description of the life of Christ. Many of these differences are subtle. Others are more striking. For example, the difference between the the “I am” sayings in John and the more concealed claims in the other three gospels is noteworthy.
Even in the treatment of the same theme there may be differences. All four gospels show how Jesus fulfills God’s purposes. There is harmony here. But there are also differences in emphasis and approach. Matthew is the most fond of proof-texting. He takes most care to show Jesus’ relation to David, the Davidic promises, and the idea of kingship in the Old Testament. Mark relies many times on implicit similarities between the Old Testament and the events that he narrates. John focuses on the typological and symbolic relations between the work of Christ and the institutions and feasts of the Old Testament. Luke emphasizes the necessity of Jesus’ going to Jerusalem and the cross, usually without citing any one Old Testament passage. The emphasis therefore falls more on fulfilling God’s plan as a whole.
Suppose, then, that we tried to develop a theology of fulfillment. A definition of fulfillment or an essay on fulfillment could attempt to capture the emphasis of one gospel alone or it could attempt to weave together various features from all four gospels. In the latter case it would leave in the background the distinctive emphasis of any one gospel. No matter which way we chose to organize the discussion, we could not simultaneously do everything. There is no one “right” definition of fulfillment, nor is there any one right way of writing the essay. After all, Matthew and John both wrote essays, in a sense, and they were both right.
7. The differences between biblical writings by different human authors are also divine differences.
God uses a multiplicity of perspectives in communicating to us. For We may thus view the differences between the emphases in the four gospels as divinely ordained. Hence we do not need to postulate some underlying single harmonistic account as more appropriate. Harmonization is possible in principle, but it needs to be balanced by an appreciation of divinely ordained diversity.
8. Any motif of the Bible can be used as the single organizing motif.
For the benefit of our own understanding, it is helpful to use biblical motifs explicitly as perspectives on the whole of the Bible. As an example, consider the biblical motif of justice. For the sake of gaining insight, we can treat “justice” as the most basic organizing motif of any given passage, of a book, or of the whole Bible. But in so doing, we have to be prepared to alter and enrich our definition of the motif. The theology of liberation has in fact expanded the theme of justice. But much theology of liberation, influenced by Marxist reductionism, has a distorted or truncated view of justice (a critique I cannot take space here to develop fully). It has too often contracted rather than expanded its idea of justice. In its interaction with the Bible, it has not let the Bible engage in a radical critique of Marxist ideology. The solution is not to deny that justice can be used as an organizing motif but to do the job in a way more faithful to the Bible than the theology of liberation has done.
Of course, many passages give natural prominence to one motif and not another. The second coming of Christ is pictured in one passage with a focus on judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), in another passage with the motif of war (Rev. 19:11-21), and in another passage with the motif of cosmic participation (Rom. 8:22-25). Such natural prominences should not be overlooked but taken seriously.
On the other hand, motifs are always related to one another. There is one God and one world created by God. We can therefore expect harmony in principle between different motifs. We expect that we can learn something by looking at God and the world from a variety of starting points. Consider, for example the depiction of the Second Coming in Revelation 19:11-21. We may start with the motif of holy war. This passage describes the Second Coming as involving a war: the final, climactic battle in the war between God and the hosts of Satan. This perspective is an obvious one to adopt for looking at the passage, because, as we noted above, war is a prominent motif within the passage itself.
But now suppose that we use as our starting point the motif of legal judgment. God as the Judge pronounces judgment and gives rewards or punishments to people. This process is pictured directly in Revelation 20:11-15. Revelation 19:11-21 may be describing one aspect of the same event as Revelation 20:11-15 (as amillennialists think), or it may be a separate event (as premillennialists think). But it definitely shows God’s judgment implicitly. Even though the main imagery is that of war, we must remember that it is the righteous God, the Judge, who wages war, in the person of Christ (Rev. 19:11). There is implicit in the war the pronouncement of judgment on the opponents (cf. Dan. 7:25-27), and there is explicit the consignment to punishment (Rev. 19:20-21), parallel to Matthew 25:46.
We also may take the motif of cosmic transformation as basic. What happens when we look at Revelation 19:11-21 with this starting point, or perspective, in mind? The participation of the cosmos is visible in Revelation 19 in the invitation to the birds (v. 17) as well as the scope of the armies involved. And the outcome of the war, we know, is the cleansing of the whole universe by a banishment of whatever is impure (Rev. 21:4, 8, etc.). By thus using other motifs besides the most obvious ones, we can make ourselves aware of other kinds of connections in the Bible.
9. We use different motifs not to relativize truth but to gain truth.
When we follow maxim 8 above, we do not aim at relativizing truth, which would be tantamount to making truth disappear. Rather, we aim to gain more truth and to set truths in more and more complex relationships to other truths. There is harmony and not contradiction in truth.
Are the accounts of the Second Coming in Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 8:22-25, and Revelation 19:11-21 in contradiction to one another? No. There is no contradiction, even though each passage uses analogies with a different aspect of our experience (human experience of courts, longings, and wars respectively). Neither does there need to be any contradiction or relativization just because we use an analogy suggested by some other part of the Bible.
Such examples help to clarify the distinction between my approach and philosophical relativism. The goal of radical philosophical relativism is to demonstrate that there is no absolute truth, but only “truth for me.” By contrast, I am producing a method of more productively proceeding toward the goal of truth. The goal is still genuine knowledge of the truth, and we can achieve such knowledge.
10. We see what our tools enable us to see.
Our ability to understand the Bible in depth depends on the gifts that God has given each one of us (1 Cor. 12:8, Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 2:7). In the body of Christ we are to rely on not only our own gifts but also the gifts of others. On the negative side, we may be led astray by false teachings coming from others. But on the positive side, we may profit from the genuine insights of others. The use of a variety of perspectives, in the way set forth by the previous maxims, is intended to enhance our abilities on this positive side. By deliberately using a motif that may have been noticed and developed by others, we appropriate their gifts. And we can thereby free ourselves from some of the limitations that tend to confine us when we constantly read the Bible in terms of what is most familiar to us. We may, for example, notice for the first time the note of righteous judgment in Revelation 19:11 when we try to view this passage from the perspective developed in Matthew 25:31-46.
11. Error is parasitic on the truth.
To be at all plausible, errors and lies must somehow look like the truth. They cannot sustain themselves long, and they will not be believed long, unless to some degree they disguise themselves as angels of light. (2 Cor. 11:14).
To take an extreme case, the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) is a heretical sect that denies the doctrine of the Trinity. But they emphasize and teach about the kingdom of God and the second coming of Christ. In this area their teaching is not the same as the Bible’s, but it is close enough to have some of the attraction that accompanies biblical hope in God’s promises.
Similarly, Christian Science is attractive because of its emphasis on healing. Even though it has a highly distorted view of healing, its attraction is based on a grain of truth: God is powerful even now to heal sickness when he wishes, and at the Second Coming he will put an end to all sickness and suffering among Christians.
These illustrations remind us that there is a distinction between truth and error and that some errors in doctrine are very serious. Jehovah’s Witness teaching and Christian Science seriously obscure and sometimes contradict important biblical teachings that affect our eternal salvation. We ought never to forget this fact. And yet, even in such cases, we find mixtures of truth and error. It is worthwhile asking what grain of truth makes the error more plausible.
12. In theological debates, we should preempt the other person’s strong points.
As we saw under the previous maxim, sometimes we are dealing with outright error, not just a harmonizable difference of viewpoint. In such cases, it is often worthwhile trying to figure out what other people fear and what are the strongest points in their arguments. We should try to find some grain of truth in their fears, in their strong points, and in the things that they care for most intensely. Even if there is only a distant similarity between what they assert and what is actually true, we can find the primary points of similarity. Starting with the actual truth closest to their viewpoint, we can develop a perspective from which to expand to the truth that we want them to learn. We can, in other words, “steal their thunder,” or preempt their strong points.
Again, Jehovah’s Witnesses may serve as an example. One of their strong points is their emphasis on the second coming of Christ. It might seem futile to try to outdo them at this point, for they are well trained on this subject, and have available to them their own special interpretations of a large number of texts. A discussion along conventional lines in this area is almost certain to become bogged down in endless wrangling. But we might seize on an unconventional connection. It is very important for Christians to be prepared for Christ’s second coming and to understand what the Bible teaches on the subject. But how do we understand what the Bible teaches? There are false prophets who can mislead us. One of the elements in our preparation is to be on our guard against false prophets (Matt. 24:4-5, 11, 24; Mark 13:5-6; Luke 17:23). Jehovah’s Witnesses are ready to agree that there are false prophets around (outside of their own group). We could then start asking about criteria for identifying false prophets (Deut. 18:18-22). Then we could go to examine the false prophecies issuing from the Watchtower Society.16
Similarly, for Christian Science one point of approach might be precisely in the area of healing. We may speak of the hope that the Bible gives us for complete healing in body, soul, and spirit at the second coming of Christ. This hope far outstrips the mental gymnastics to which “healing” reduces in Christian Science.
But situations in which we have to deal with cults are among the most difficult we ever encounter. The typical situation is one of less violent and less dogmatic disagreement. In these situations, it is even easier to show that there can be value in preempting the strong points of another.
Consider, for example, what we could say to a person who thought that evangelism was the only important thing in the Christian life. Or what about another person who thought that doctrinal purity was the only important thing? With both, we could start with the strong point. With the first, we start with evangelism itself, which is proclaiming the gospel. From Rom 1:16-17 we show how central the gospel and evangelism is but then work to show how, in Romans itself, the gospel is broader and deeper than a minimal evangelistic message. That very depth is a source of power for salvation.
For one who is oriented to doctrine, we may start with a passage such as Eph 4:11-16. Our growth in doctrine depends upon the work of each part of the body, including parts being added to the body by evangelists. Evangelism aids doctrine by bringing to the church more members who will contribute to growth. Moreover, we experience growth in the very process of rethinking the gospel to proclaim it to others. Finally, since one of the teachings of the Bible is that the church should be evangelistically making disciples, we are not doctrinally pure in a true sense unless we are actually evangelizing.
1 See Poythress, “Adequacy of Language.”
2 See Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 25-90. The main exceptions that I find are (1) exegetes who are concentrating on the meaning of a single passage and who have sound intuitions about language, (2) the great Reformation and pre-Reformation theologians, who most often knew how to look beyond the terminology to the subject matter, and (3) writers who have been trained in the tradition of analytic philosophy or twentieth-century semantics or who, by some other means, are aware of the workings of language and conceptual systems.
3 Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language, to which the page numbers in this section refer.
4 See Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning; and Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, which considers also problems in the writings of theologians see pp. 91-137.
5 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 191.
6 Ibid., 192.
7 Thiselton, Two Horizons, 382.
8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936) 3. 2. 136.
9 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (1871-73; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 2:639.
10 G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952).
11 Ibid., 21.
13 Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (reprinted; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967), 93-94.
14 Archibald A. Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield, Inspiration (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 19-20. See also p. 28.
15 Cornelius Van Til has been a help to me in this area, exposing the religious roots involved in and presupposed in non-Christian philosophy. Those roots routinely involve the claim to human autonomy, and hence the rejection of the God of the Bible. By alerting us to this problem, Van Til paved the way for reevaluation and criticism of category systems that are presupposed or even explicitly invoked in theological reasoning.
16 See Robert A. Morey, How to Answer a Jehovah’s Witness (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1980).
8: DISTINCTIVE METHODS IN SYMPHONIC THEOLOGY
My observations about language in chapter 6, together with the maxims in chapter 7, show that symphonic theology has a number of distinctive methods in approaching the study of the Bible. Some of the maxims will immediately be clear and require no further illustration. And I give an extended illustration of the use of symphonic theology in chapters 9 and 10. But we still need to discuss a few methods that are to some degree distinctive to symphonic theology.
The investigation and interpretation of the Bible proceeds on many levels. We learn how to interpret individual words and passages in their uniqueness. We learn how to integrate those words and passages with what can be learned about the social and cultural context. We learn how to integrate many passages of the Bible with one another in studying a topic or theological issue. We learn how to take into account our own modern context in the effort to apply the Bible’s message to ourselves. Since all of these levels influence one another, it is important that our approach be as good as possible on each level.
Because symphonic theology reflects extensively on language, it has something to say about almost all of the levels on which we consider a text. For the sake of clear organization, I look first at the smallest bits of text and proceed upward to the larger systems of relations between texts and between texts and contexts.
EXEGESIS OF TEXTS: INTERPRETING WORD MEANINGS
In the exegesis of individual texts, we deal with words, syntax (relations between words), and whole passages. Symphonic theology has some implications for each of these three areas. The implications for words and syntax are not so different from what linguists today would advocate, though linguists might use other terms to say it. But their contributions are not yet broadly appreciated in the field of biblical scholarship. Hence there is need for some further discussion. Others have already said much more about words and syntax than I can in this book.1
The most basic points can be easily summarized. First, most words have a number of different senses, as listed in a dictionary. In any one context in the Bible, only one of the possible senses is used. For example, the Hebrew word dabar can mean either “word” or “thing,” but in any one occurrence it has only one of these meanings.2 Greek pistis can mean “trust” or “faithfulness,” but in any one occurrence it will have only one of these two meanings. To use an example from English, “sharp” can mean either having an acute point or edge (as of a knife) or having a pungent taste or smell (as of cheese). In any one context, only one of the meanings is present. (There are, of course, exceptions in the cases of word plays, metaphors, and other figurative language which deliberately activates a second sense.)
Second, it is easy to read too much meaning into a single word, if we do not bear in mind that it has fuzzy boundaries. In the Bible, richness of meaning arises primarily from combinations of many words to make up whole sentences and paragraphs, not from any precision supposed to exist in a single word. For example, it is commonly said that the Greek word agapao means to exercise divine (unconditional, unselfish) love,” in contrast to phileo, the love of friendship. But in fact the word agapao itself is much more indefinite and colorless. It can be used when speaking of the Father’s love for the Son (John 3:35), the Father’s love for Christians (John 14:21), and worldly love (John 3:19). Phileo is also used in all of these ways (John 5:20; 16:27; 12:25). In the Septuagint agapao is even used for Amnon’s lust for Tamar, which led to rape (2 Sam. 13:15). The richness in the Bible’s teaching about love arises from what it says in whole sentences about how God deals with us and how we are to deal with one another in turn. That richness is not inherent in the word agapao, since other words can be used instead and sicne agapao can be used in contexts of sinful lust.3
EXEGESIS OF TEXTS: WHOLE PASSAGES
In the study of whole passages, the unique contribution of symphonic theology is to urge people to read in terms of a multiplicity of themes, or perspectives. For instance, with respect to any passage in the Bible, we may ask what it shows about God, about human beings, and about mediators between God and human beings. Since prophets, kings, and priests are some of the main mediatorial roles in the Bible, we may ask more particularly what prophetic actions and functions take place in the passage, what kingly actions, and what priestly actions. For example, Abraham performs a priestly action of intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18, even though he himself is not a priest in the technical sense. We must be alert to such actions, because they anticipate the actions of Christ as final prophet, king, and priest.
In addition to these questions, we may analyze a passage in terms of what it reveals about any of the great themes of the Bible: how does it show a fulfillment or continuation of God’s covenant with us, how does it show the relation of promise to fulfillment, how does it show God’s dwelling with his people as in the tabernacle, how does it show God’s justice, and how does it show the pattern of suffering and glory to be fulfilled in Christ? If we admit that these great themes are background themes for the whole Bible, it is legitimate to try to discover their relation to even those passages that do not speak about them in an explicit and obvious way. By thus tracing themes self-consciously, we will notice relationships that we did not notice before.
We may likewise study a particular book of the Bible thematically. In the second half of Isaiah, the themes of new creation, new birth, new exodus, righteousness, and salvation to the nations repeatedly appear. It is fruitful, then, to ask how these themes harmonize with or reinforce or illumine any particular passage that we are studying. The results will usually be fruitful, even for passages that do not obviously invoke the themes, because the themes are nevertheless still in the background and are meant to be related to the message of the whole book.
Symphonic theology shows its greatest distinctiveness in its methods for doctrinal synthesis. There are at least four major complementary methods involved:
1. Use of a variety of perspectives to examine a topic or a doctrine.
2. Preemption method of argument (using the other person’s strong point).
3. Dissolution of poorly posed questions and debates that are based ultimately on semantic questions.
4. Enrichment by reconciliation of opposite emphases.
I illustrate these methods at length in chapters 9 and 10 in discussing the question of miracles. For the time being, I note simply that we must not dilute truth by combining it with error. But we may sometimes add more truth to what truth we already have by listening carefully to doctrinal disagreements. Even when one party in a dispute is basically wrong and the other basically right, the party in the wrong may have noticed at least one or two things in the Bible that have usually not been noticed by the opposite side. These one or two things become the basis for the plausibility of their own claims.
ARGUING WITH ADOPTIONISTS
As an example of this approach to dealing with error, consider the Adoptionist view of Christ’s divinity. A simple form of Adoptionism argues that Christ became divine by an act in which the human being Jesus of Nazareth was adopted as God’s Son and thereafter invested with divine authority, power, etc. This view is quite wrong, dangerously heretical, and contradicted by biblical teaching about Christ’s preexistence and the nature of the Incarnation (John 1:1-18, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2-3). The view arises from a presumptuous use of human rationality in order to resist the element of mystery and incomprehensibility in the orthodox doctrine. Yet, for all its errors, we can perhaps learn something from Adoptionism.
Sometimes we who are orthodox may not reckon directly enough with passages such as Luke 3:22 and Rom 1:3-4, which are favorites for an Adoptionist. In the midst of a controversy with Adoptionists, we should be asking how we can use their “strong point” (i.e., such texts) in a positive manner. The answer, I believe, lies in appreciating the truth that, in the course of redemptive history, there are transformations in Jesus’ role and even in his very mode of existence with respect to his human nature. Those points of transition also represent important transitions in God’s salvific relation to the world, since through Christ as mediator we are reconciled to God.
Moreover, we may well recognize that the convictions about Christ’s deity were not fully worked out in the minds of his disciples in a mere moment’s time. In the New Testament itself we find that statements of Christ’s deity are usually made without a concern for technical precision and distinctions. Such technical discussions arise only in subsequent reflection in church history. Hence we may say that there is historical development in the human understanding of the person of Christ, as well as historical development in Christ’s human nature.
The Adoptionist controversy illustrates another aspect of the symphonic approach, namely, the use of perspectives. We learn something about the nature of Christ when we ask questions about the function and redemptive-historical role of events in his life, as well as asking about the metaphysical basis for the events. Thus we might speak of a redemptive-historical versus a metaphysical perspective on the biblical passages describing key events in the life of Christ.
The redemptive-historical and metaphysical perspectives can be regarded not merely as two different sets of possible questions about the events. Each can be used as a genuine perspective on the whole. Redemptive history has at its heart the revelation of who God is. Hence it is inescapably metaphysical. On the other hand, the God who is, is aGod who rules the universe and bears it along to its goal of communion with him. He is not a god who sits and does nothing. Hence metaphysical reflection, done in a biblical context, always forces us back to reflection on the acts of God and the great transitions that lead forward to the fullest revelation of who he is.
The use of redemptive history and metaphysics as perspectives also helps us reply to the tendencies toward “functional Christology” in modern circles. It is argued that the New Testament language about Christ describes him in his functional role as Messiah and as “God for us.” He is thus functionally divine, in the sense that God is revealed through him. But, it is argued, the ancient confessions made a mistake in equating function with essence. Metaphysically, Christ is a human being. He is divine only in a functional sense.
We may reply directly by pointing to texts that, to all appearances, go beyond mere functionalism (Heb 1:3, John 1:1). But we may also take a more indirect route and use metaphysics and redemptive-historical function as perspectives on one another. We can agree that few passages in the Bible concentrate on the being of Christ to the exclusion of redemptive-historical function. But such a fact is altogether natural. We know God precisely as he is revealed to us in the course of redemptive history. We know something about the essential being of God precisely by the route of his functional revelation for the purpose of our salvation. Salvation, after all, is not narrow but restores us in a knowledge of who God is. There is no other route to knowing God truly than that which God himself provides. Hence these redemptive-historical functions of Christ are precisely what reveals to us his being. What right do modern scholars have to attempt to go “behind” or “beyond” such revelation? By such an argument, then, we show that redemptive historical revelation through Christ is precisely a window, or a perspective, on the metaphysics of who God is, in his Trinitarian nature.
But we may also travel in the reverse direction, from the metaphysics of God to the redemptive-historical functions of Christ. We do so by observing that the Old Testament revelation of God is practical and, as it were, functional. Human beings, as creatures made in the image of God, need an understanding and knowledge of God mediated in personal communion with him. Because of our metaphysical status as creatures and image bearers, revelation takes a particular route. We are not to subject God to categories of understanding that we invent in a vacuum but rather must subject our own thinking about God and the world as a whole to the practical and ethical revelation of God in the Bible. There is thus no room for an autonomous metaphysical speculation about God. It is illicit; indeed, it is in essence idolatry. We are not to guess speculatively about God’s being but rather to learn from what God actually says. What God says about himself is the metaphysics about God, for we can have nothing more ultimate than his own statements. Of course, God’s word about himself includes statements about his character and his independence from the world, statements that are metaphysical in the ordinary sense. But even such statements are integrated into contexts that contain a practical, functional, redemptive-historical purpose. This integration is metaphysically appropriate to who we are.
In such a way, we might start with the metaphysics of God. Having observed that biblical metaphysics has this practical thrust, we can conclude that the teachings about the nature of Christ are not less metaphysical because they are practical and redemptive-historical in character. In virtue of our metaphysical status as creatures and as fallen and in need of salvation, biblical revelation gives us an appropriate metaphysical orientation.
We thus see that the use of categories such as “metaphysics” and “redemptive history” as perspectives provides a means of disarming some bad tendencies of modernist scholarship. Such scholarship can easily ignore the implications of Scripture by arguing that, because a given text or doctrine serves a certain function, it serves only that function and that we cannot draw further implications from it. Sometimes, of course, biblical contexts do serve to limit the possible implications that we might draw in isolation. We rightly do not deduce Arianism from John 14:28, because we perceive that it is addressed to the question of Jesus’ messianic role, rather than to ontological questions. Harm enters when such observations are extended to universal principles, to the effect that the Bible “has no interest” in, say, the metaphysics of God.
1 Readers who are not yet familiar with this area should be sure to consult Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning; and Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 25-90.
2 See Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language, 129-40.
3 See further Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, 96.
9: A TEST CASE: MIRACLES
The principles of symphonic theology are best understood in the light of examples. In this chapter and the following one, I discuss a problem of medium-level complexity from systematic theology–the problem of the continuation of miracles. And I consider here only a few facets of the problem.1
PAST DEFINITIONS OF MIRACLE
The word “miracle” is used loosely by English-speaking Christians. Its use is not restricted to technical theological or philosophical discussions. The word has fuzzy boundaries. Two people from different backgrounds may disagree as to whether God still works miracles today, but they may not mean exactly the same thing by the word “miracle.” Some people will label some events “miracles” that others will not, even when both admit that those events occur. How much is the dispute one of semantics, and how much is it a genuine doctrinal difference?
Theologians have been aware of this problem and some of them proposed technical definitions that aim at greater precision. It is worth spending some time thinking about how to define “miracle,” because many problems characteristic of systematic theology occur right at this stage of definition.
Some familiar definitions from the past are as follows. David Hume defined a miracle as “a violation of the laws of nature.”2 For Charles Hodge, a miracle “may be defined to be an event, in the external world, brought about by the immediate efficiency, or simple volition of God.”3 Very similar to Hodge, Louis Berkhof held that “the distinctive thing in the miraculous deed is that it results from the exercise of the supernatural power of God. And this means, of course, that it is not brought about by secondary causes that operate according to the laws of nature.”4 On the same page Berkhof also said that in a miracle God acts “immediately.” Finally, John Murray said that a miracle cannot be done by created forces alone.5
WHAT IS A “CORRECT” DEFINITION?
How do we know whether a definition such as one of the above is right or wrong? How do we know whether it is biblical? And even if we are convinced that one of them is right, how do we use it to decide what is and what is not a miracle?
Two dangers confront us immediately. One is the danger of introducing antibiblical notions or assumptions by means of some key term in the definition. Hume’s definition illustrates this danger. One has only to ask what Hume has in mind by the “laws of nature.” It turns out that, for Hume, those laws are regularities understood within the framework of a world view in which the God of the Bible is denied from the outset. Rather than God’s being continually involved in the world, as the Bible presents him, the world goes on “by itself.” Similarly, Berkouwer’s analysis uncovers unbiblical ideas behind “natural law” in the Roman Catholic theology of miracles.6
A second danger is that we will automatically assume that there is only one right definition. Is there in fact more than one possible definition that could be “right”? What purpose do we want a definition to serve? For example, geometric figures can be classified by number of sides, length, perimeter, area, number of right angles, number of reentrant angles, etc. Is only one of these classifications correct?
The idea that there can be only a single useful definition of a technical term is related to the idea that there is only one possible classification or point of view that it is of ultimate interest. This opinion, however, is not necessarily true.7 Definitions help us to recognize similarities among all the instances that meet the terms of the definition. But other similarities may cut across those first similarities. One can have vague “family resemblances” rather than a strictly delimited species with infinitely sharp boundaries.
Can we expect to construct a single correct definition of “miracle” from the Bible alone? To begin with, we cannot establish a definition by examining individual words in the Bible. Most Bible words, including words associated with the miraculous, have a flexible range of usage that we customarily find in words of ordinary vocabulary. For example, the word semeion (“sign”) is used to designate what we naively would call miracles, but it also refers to other things. Conversely, sometimes what we would naively designate as a miracle (see, e.g., 1 Kings 17:17-24, especially v. 24) has no specific word attached, but rather a formula (v. 24) or nothing at all (Mark 7:24-30).
We unavoidably come to the Bible with our own naive idea of miracle. Then we have our ideas criticized and improved by listening to everything that the Bible says (not just passages that have a key word in them). As we listen, we may discover family resemblances and realize that there is more than one way of grouping together the phenomena that we had in mind.
DIFFERENCES AMONG BOOKS OF THE BIBLE
In particular cases of the miraculous, different books of the Bible stress somewhat different things. The Gospel of John, for example, focuses on Jesus’ works of power as “signs” that testify to him; they signify who he is and, rightly understood, illuminate the climactic work of the Cross. For example, the feeding of the five thousand in John 6 is followed by Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life, which is his flesh. The mention of his flesh ultimately points to his self-sacrifice at Calvary.
The Gospel of Mark focuses on Jesus as the great opponent to the kingdom of Satan (see Mark 3:20-30). The casting out of demons and other elements relating to opposition have a particularly prominent place. The miracles are primarily actions of war.
The Book of Revelation sees the whole course of interadvent history as a sequence of mighty works of God (at least according to an idealist interpretation or an interpretation with any sympathy for this approach). The climactic miracle, to which all other miracles are tied and which they portend, is the cosmic miracle of war, victory, and physical transformation at the second coming of Christ.
Isaiah repeatedly reflects on God’s acts of Creation and of the Exodus. These acts of God not only demonstrate that God alone is God, over against idols, and that he was Lord in the past but also point to a further, climactic manifestation of God’s kingly power in the “last days.” God will accomplish a second exodus and a new creation. Isaiah invites us to see all of God’s works in relation to his mighty acts in the Creation and the Exodus.
For Psalms 135 and 136, the works of creation and providence are grouped together with miracles of the Exodus. All these events arouse our wonder because they display God’s power and grace. They are an occasion for thankfulness and praise. He “gives food to every creature” (Ps. 136:25); he rules the clouds and rain (Ps. 135:7). Creation and providence, then, are seen as resembling other works of God’s power.
No one definition will capture equally well all the emphases of these different books. If we group some things together in our definition, we also separate them from others. We cannot equally emphasize all the connections. John draws out connections between works of power and revelation. Mark shows us connections with spiritual war. Revelation shows us connections with the Second Coming and with interadvent calamity. Isaiah shows us connections in terms of global structural similarities among Creation, Exodus, and second exodus. Some of these connections intersect others. Elements that are immediately connected with one another in one way are not always immediately connected in all the other ways. There is no contradiction here. One must simply decide what one wants a definition to do, for it cannot do reflect all emphases simultaneously.
POYTHRESS’S WORKING DEFINITION
I outline here one possible way of capturing some of the connections between the various aspects of the miraculous events in the Bible. What we would naively call miracles are particularly striking demonstrations of God’s lordship. But his lordship is demonstrated also in the apparently ordinary (for example, clouds, as in Ps. 135:7), to which we are sometimes blind. We thus may say that a miracle is a power demonstration of God’s sovereign presence in creation. It is an extraordinary appearance of God. Now, God appears above all to deliver his people and attest his word. So we may say more precisely: a miracle is an extraordinary visible act of God to deliver his people and attest his word.
In agreement with the symphonic approach, we may expect that this definition has fuzzy boundaries, or loose ends. First, what is the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary? There is no sharp line. What is ordinary to one culture or one person may seem extraordinary to another. This definition in terms of what is extraordinary is oriented to the need for human response to God’s ways. God does some things that we might say make us sit up and pay attention. The more spectacular exhibitions of God’s power recorded in the Bible are indeed oriented partly toward the human need to notice him.
A second area of fuzziness involves the language “deliver his people.” How much does this limit miracles to certain places in space and time? We expect miracles when God delivers his people. The central acts of deliverance are at the Exodus, the conquest under Joshua, the restoration from Babylon, and the two comings of Christ. Miracles cluster around all of these events except the restoration from Babylon. Can we say, then, that miracles are limited to these climactic acts? If we wish to use a narrow definition of miracle, they may be thus limited. But there is also a continuing process of deliverance through the power of the Holy Spirit in our age. The application of redemption already accomplished in the life of Christ is taking place.
Similarly, we expect miracles when God attests his word. The central acts of attestation accompany the giving of his word in connection with the central acts of redemption. Miracles attest prophets and apostles such as Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Peter, and Paul. In a secondary sense, however, all of history confirms and testifies that God is God and that God is true. Hence, in a subordinate way, there is continuing attestation to God’s word.
What have I done here? The expressions “extraordinary,” “deliver his people,” and “attest his word” all represent restrictions on the definition and make it more precise. Each expression describes special properties (including relational properties) that characterize certain events and not others. While each expression narrows the overall meaning of “miracle,” each of them still has some remaining vagueness or fuzziness to its boundary. Each can be made a perspective on the whole of history. Hence we can use the definition as a perspective and view every event of history as a miracle in an extended sense.
MIRACLES AND NATURAL LAW
Someone may object that one of the other definitions is more precise than the one just presented. We must observe, however, that any of the other definitions may be used in an imprecise way. Any may be used to separate out roughly some group of events. My own suggested definition does so, provided that we do not narrowly define the key expressions “extraordinary,” “visible,” “deliver his people,” and “attest his word.”
But suppose we are after more than a rough separation. Suppose we want a line precise enough to be used in some rigorous theological reasoning that will show quite irresistibly that miracles do not occur today (or that they do). In that case, we have to look further at the meanings of the terms in the definitions that are put forward for our use.
First, consider the “laws of nature.” Is “nature” what happens by itself? But nothing is independent of the Lord. Nothing is autonomous. God makes grass grow for the cattle (Ps. 104:14). There is also a problem with “law.” Is a law merely a statistical average or the latest pronouncement by scientists? There is indeed some value of speaking of natural law. A miracle, as extraordinary, presupposes the concept of the ordinary. It presupposes that there are regularities. In a world of total chance or total irregularity, one could see no pattern, and one could say nothing. There are regularities. If we wish, we can label them “laws of nature.” But are such regularities ironclad, as the word “law” tends to suggest?
Hence there are at least two main liabilities to the phrase “natural law.” It may suggest that there are no exceptions to the regularities that scientists observe. And it suggests that law has an independence from God. From such a view one might conclude that God must “break through” an already existing law-out-there in order to act in the world. By contrast, the Bible pictures God as speaking. “He sends his word and melts them [snow and ice]; he stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow” (Ps. 147:18). His law is his word. The law is not something sitting in the world over against God, which God must break through.
The Bible shows us a personalistic world, not impersonal law. What we call scientific law is aa approximate human description of just how faithfully and consistently God acts in ruling the world by speaking. There is no mathematical, physical, or theoretical “cosmic machinery” behind what we see and know, holding everything in place. Rather, God rules, and rules consistently.
A miracle, then, is not a violation of a “law of nature,” and not even something along side laws of nature, but is the operation of the only law that there is–the word of God. What God says is the law (see Ps. 33:6).
MIRACLE AND IMMEDIACY
What about defining a miracle as an “immediate” act of God? Right away, the symphonic approach asks what we mean by “immediate.” Does it mean that, in a miracle, God uses no means? In what respect does something else have to be involved in order to be considered a means? How do we classify “means”? In fact, in an ordinary sense, God frequently does use means in bringing about events that are ordinarily classified as miraculous. In the Exodus, Moses himself is a fairly constant means. In the crossing of the Red Sea, an east wind is involved (Exod. 14:21).
Moreover, how can we as human beings tell what is and is not immediate? The idea is quite unclear when we try to apply it. It presupposes a sharp line concerning what is and is not a cause, which is difficult if not impossible to draw. Ps. 104:14 suggests that the growing of grass is an immediate act of God. All acts of God are in a sense immediate, because, as the Lord, God is present in each event. The existence of means does not undermine his presence.
One suspects that “immediate” is, in practice, an ambiguous or unclear term. An unclear term can be surreptitiously used with different specific meanings at crucial points in an argument. For instance, “miracle” can at one point be used as a technical term distinguishing miracles of apostolic times from “extraordinary providences” of our time. By definition, “miracle” connotes an act associated with an apostle or a prophet as the agent of special revelation. “Miracles,” accordingly, have now ceased. But at a later point this conclusion may be taken to mean that certain types of events (e.g., healing of broken bones, resurrection from the dead) are or are not to be expected to occur now. The drawing of such a line comes from an illicit, concealed shift of meaning. The possibility of shifting between two senses of a word easily leads to fallacious argument, as Richard Robinson shows.8
CESSATION OF MIRACLES
What can we learn from the arguments that are using these different meanings of “miracle”? In general terms, we can learn to beware of easy assumptions about terminology. As a rule, we ought to suspect any assumption to the effect that a particular expression draws a sharp line, with no fuzzy boundaries. In this particular case, we may also learn something about the focus of the Bible’s concern. The desire in the arguments for the “cessation of miracles” is partly to protect the uniqueness of God’s acts in the history of redemption. The Bible itself does recognize such a uniqueness. But the uniqueness in miracles recorded in the Bible is not primarily in their bare metaphysical character as, say, violation of natural law. They are acts of salvation or judgment. They anticipate the consummation.
If miracles are concerned with salvation and judgment, then the resurrection of Christ is the central miracle. It can serve as a perspective to understand all other miracles. Christ’s resurrection, as a once-for-all event, is the foundation for his present life at God’s right hand. As the living Christ, he now gives spiritual life to us. Old Testament miracles, in one way or another, prefigured the resurrection of Christ and its consequences. The miracles accompanying the Second Coming are also founded on Christ’s resurrection. In the resurrection Christ received a body of glory. His own body is the paradigm for our glorification and the glorification of the universe (Phil. 3:20-21). It is thus the foundation for the miracles that are to occur at the second coming of Christ.
In general, the miraculous events in the Bible have a unique role in the way in which they are related to the central act of Christ’s resurrection. We do not need to have that unique role repeated now, and we do not expect that it will be.
On the other hand, the emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ’s resurrection does not imply that there are no surprising works of God now. In fact, the opposite is true. Christ’s resurrection is the foundation for God’s work with us now. Christ’s resurrection power is now at work for us (Eph. 1:19) and in us (Eph. 3:20). It is on that basis that God may do surprising things now.
Let us look at some other values in arguments given for the cessation of miracles. What good things are theologians trying to protect when they argue that miracles have ceased? Even if we find that their terms are problematic, they probably have some reason for wanting to establish their conclusion. In this case, we may suspect right away that we have a situation with family resemblances. Various events that might be called miracles have resemblances of various kinds among themselves. They also have some dissimilarities. The theologians arguing for the cessation of miracles may have some bad methods, but they have probably also noticed some dissimilarities between apostolic times and now. They choose to emphasize those dissimilarities. What good reasons do they have?
First, the canon of the Bible is now complete, or closed. These theologians do not want to say that miracles could occur today of such a kind that they would attest new additions to the canon of the Bible.
Second, we are not to dote on the spectacular or to lust after it. Luke 16:31 points out that a spectacular event is not what unrepentant people need. In John 6:26, Jesus calls on people to go beyond excitement about an external spectacle. According to 1 Corinthians 13, an overvaluing of the spectacular was a sign of immaturity.
Third, miracles once had the unique function of conveying special revelation. Modern events do not. For example, Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a high fever. That act was a vehicle for special revelation about the nature of his messianic mission. God still heals people of high fevers now. But healings now are not recorded as part of the Bible, nor do they establish the significance of Jesus’ messianic mission at the foundation of a new epoch of redemption.
Note that the difference is not in the difficulty of healing now. According to naive thinking, healing a high fever is relatively easy, and raising the dead is hard. But inherent difficulty has nothing to do with whether either of these events plays a unique role in Jesus’ life. It is not possible to draw a line between so-called difficult events such as resurrections and floating ax heads and less difficult events such as healing high fevers, such that one is a “miracle,” no longer possible, and the other is an “extraordinary providence,” still possible. The difference is not in the violation of natural law but in a different function.
In the light of this point, we might frame an alternative definition: miracle is an extraordinary visible act of God conveying special revelation. This formulation builds the idea of special function (“conveying special revelation”) into the definition. By this definition, miracles have ceased (because special revelation is complete). But because this statement is a narrow definition, it still allows that all sorts of extraordinary acts of God might take place in our day. (They just wouldn’t be called miracles.) And we would still have to remember about present-day general revelation. All providential acts of God, whether ordinary or extraordinary in our eyes, confirm more or less strikingly the faithfulness of our God and his word.
This definition has the advantage of enabling us to pay attention to the unique attestational function of great acts of God’s power in the Bible. But it has the disadvantage of being liable to confusion. Anyone who does not keep firmly in mind the special technical sense of the word “miracle” will think that we are denying the occurrence of extraordinary providences now. For the sake of clear communication, therefore, I think that it is better to leave the word “miracle” alone and let it function as simply an ordinary, vague word in the English language. If we think that we need a technical term to distinguish biblical miracles and to discuss their unique functions, let us simply call them “biblical miracles.”
What kind of extraordinary events can God bring to pass in our time? We need not be dogmatic about what ways God chooses to act. The important points can be protected without a needless dogmatism not based on the Bible. We are not supposed to lust for the extraordinary–but neither must we deny it.
1 I owe a good many ideas of this chapter to John Frame.
2 Hume, Of Miracles (reprint, LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1985), 30.
3 Hodge, Systematic Theology 1:618.
4 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 176.
5 From an oral lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary.
6 G. C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 233-237.
7 See, for example, Richard Robinson, Definition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), 149-92.
8 Ibid., 59-92.
10: PASTORAL HEALING IN THE MIRACLES CONTROVERSY
Now we should ask how the insights developed about miracles can be applied fruitfully in pastoral ministry to people with inadequate conceptions of biblical teaching.
PRINCIPAL PRACTICAL CONCERNS
In our day the debate about miracles is related to the evaluation of the Charismatic movement as a whole. (For convenience, I include in this movement both the established Pentecostal denominations and various varieties of Neo-Pentecostalism within other denominations.) But we should not imagine that analysis of miracles will simultaneously answer the many other questions that are connected with the Charismatic movement. Several principal concerns are related specifically to miracles. For one thing, the stress on the miraculous within the Charismatic movement, and sometimes a preoccupation with it, should be seen as at least in part a reaction to and criticism of the closed-universe world view of modern science. This reaction has an element of truth (see the discussion about natural law in chapter 9).
Second, people who are preoccupied with the extraordinary and the spectacular need to recognize their immaturity (1 Cor. 12-14). Those who are enamored with the extraordinary need to learn to appreciate God’s presence in the apparently ordinary. This attitude cures the lust after the extraordinary. To a person who seems preoccupied with the extraordinary and who is prone to says, “A miracle happened to me today,” someone might well reply, “Great. Ten miracles happened to me in the last ten minutes. Isn’t it miraculous how my fingers can move when I want them to?”
Third, people in this camp need to realize the uniqueness and foundational character of biblical miracles and biblical revelation. Knowing that God has proved himself true once and for all and that he has accomplished salvation once and for all, they will be less dependent on having spectacular new assurances each day. As the story of Job illustrates, God wants us to trust him not only when we can see that he is caring for us but when we cannot see it.
There are also problems to confront among people who believe that miracles have ceased and who may be antagonistic to the Charismatic movement. Some are too quick to deny the occurrence of the extraordinary. They are afraid of it, particularly if it is associated with immaturity in other respects. We must remember that God takes special care of the lambs of his flock (Isa. 40:11). People who have been Christians for only a little while can be likened to lambs. Sometimes young Christians meet with extraordinarily blessed experiences even though they have immature expectations about guidance and miracles. We need not deny God’s care for them in these instances but can simply point out that lambs are supposed to grow up. Moreover, we are not to eliminate from our reckoning the possibility of God’s surprising us with his miracle-working power. The power that raised Christ from the dead is working among us (Eph. 1:19-20, 3:20).
ADVANTAGES AND LIABILITIES OF PERSPECTIVES
Can we see, then, that there are both advantages and liabilities to identifying ourselves with one of these camps? Suppose that we teach “miracles have ceased.” We may truthfully make this statement if we use a narrow definition of miracles, in which miracles convey special revelation. By choosing such a definition, we put into prominence the uniqueness of the great acts of God in which he accomplished salvation once-for-all in the course of history (the Exodus, the life of Christ, Pentecost). Such an emphasis is an advantage. But we have the liability of being identified with unexpectant negativism that characterizes some members of this camp.
Suppose, on the other hand, that we say, “Miracles occur in our day.” We may truthfully affirm this statement if we use a broad definition of miracles, in which any gracious acts of God out of the ordinary are included. By choosing such a definition, we stress the continuity of the present with the past. Christ’s resurrection power is at work among us and in us, because he lives. This emphasis is also an advantage. But we have the liability of being identified with the preoccupation with the spectacular that characterizes some members of this camp.
The Bible itself indicates both continuity and discontinuity between foundational acts of God in Bible times and the present day. In our teaching we want to say everything that the Bible says and help people who are one-sided to come to grips with their imbalance. In the long run, we best accomplish this goal by stimulating appreciation for God’s personal, intimate, glorious, powerful, “miraculous” presence as Lord in the ordinary events of our lives. We attain this appreciation precisely through the insights furnished more strikingly by the extraordinary works of God given in the Bible.
Here the extraordinary, once-for-all works of God become a perspective on the ordinary. We are able to identify the powerful hand of God in the ordinary as we extend what we learn from the extraordinary. In the Psalms, Israel demonstrates this experience. Israel was enabled to see God’s hand in providence partly by the experience of the Exodus, in which God’s hand was spectacular (Pss. 107, 135).
But we can also work in the opposite direction. Suppose that we start, as the Charismatic person likes to do, with an extraordinary work of God in our own time (a “miracle”). Such a thing is intended to be treated not as something self-sufficient but as a pointer to the fact that God is still the same God he demonstrated himself to be in the redemption accomplished through Jesus Christ. A miracle today starts with us here and now in order to introduce us to larger vistas of history. We ought to see from today’s miracle that God is present not only now but in all of history. His power and presence are so certain that we do not lust for continual reassurance of it. Rather we look to that central assurance given to us in Christ’s death and resurrection. That foundation underlies any “miracle” today. Thus today’s miracle can become a perspective on all of God’s work in history, one that leads us beyond narrow, subjective preoccupations.
Of course, we cannot simplistically determine the meaning of an extraordinary event in our time. We need to have the Bible as our framework or guide in order to interpret properly the significance of the event. Miracles simply do not prove the authenticity of an alleged prophet (Deut. 13:2)! Nor do miracles granted to or through a person show that that person is more holy or more doctrinally sound than others. For this very reason it is important that we have the Bible as a final and sufficient point of reference for our understanding of God and our assurance of salvation. We need to see that the great miraculous acts of God that inaugurate new epochs of history are our basis and our security. No multiplication of extraordinary works of God today could replace that foundation. On the other hand, the whole world is God’s, including the extraordinary. In principle, then, a modern event can be used as a starting point for looking at the whole.
CONDUCTING AN ARGUMENT
A controversy such as the debate over miracles is not always what it appears to be. Frequently other issues, not directly addressed, may be the real reason for disagreement. We always need to ask what the real point or points at issue are. In this case, is the real question whether God does extraordinary things today? Or is it more in the area of what our expectations should be and what our understanding should be of anything extraordinary?
Then we may ask, “What is the strongest point and strongest love of my opponents?” Frequently it is possible to start with this point and expand it into a perspective in order to introduce greater balance into their understanding and to point them in the direction of a solution. We need not be disappointed if we do not always get complete agreement. We are not aiming for an all-or-nothing solution.
TALKING WITH PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE THAT MIRACLES HAVE CEASED
In talking with those who believe that miracles have ceased, we first ask ourselves what the real issue is or where there is a central need, an ignorance, or a confusion. Such people may have a need in one of the following areas: (1) they may view natural law or ongoing ordinary processes as something semi-independent of God; (2) they may fear the irrational or inexplicable; (3) they may lack appreciation for the ongoing character of God’s powerful and sometimes surprising presence through the power of Christ’s resurrection at work for us (Eph. 1:19-20); or (4) they may fear that admission of miracles will sanction the immaturities associated with some people in the Charismatic movement. Their strong point is often their appreciation for the objectivity of God’s finished work in Christ, recorded once-for-all in Scripture. Our comments to such people could start with this strong point.
If the problem is with a certain view of natural law, we may appeal to the resurrection of Christ and to other miracles in the Bible. We point out that they are demonstrations of how powerful God is, how completely in control. God is in control in the same way, even in the case of apparently ordinary events. Thus we eliminate the idea of natural law as an intermediary keeping God from direct contact with the world.
As an alternative, we might use natural law itself as a perspective to stretch a person’s conception of law. A law is a general rule about events. But it may take into account particular circumstances and situations. Formulations of physical laws always tacitly include the qualification “other things being equal.” Good laws by human governments make provision for certain extraordinary circumstances when exceptions are in order. Such taking into account of particular circumstances is not irrational or inconsistent but rational.
We can utilize analogies between this type of law and God’s rule of the universe. God has a plan for the universe that includes human beings in important roles. Human beings are primary inheritors of redemption and combatants in spiritual war. God’s plans and rules, therefore, may be expected not to be wholly expressible in terms of simple mathematical formulas but to take people into account in an essential way. Moreover, it is wise of him to include in his plans provision for the unusual case. Now, miracles in the Bible itself are precisely unusual cases. They are associated with God’s great acts of redemption, acts that have a special role as crucial upheavals in the war against sin. There is a periodicity in God’s works, so that certain times are times of great crisis and upheaval. The coming of Christ himself is the greatest time of upheaval, precisely because Christ’s presence is the presence of God himself in an unprecedented way. Precisely at such points we may expect the laws of nature to have vastly different form.
But this line of thought suggests that we cannot always anticipate beforehand what God will do in unusual circumstances. Nor do we, with our limited vision, always know when other things are not equal. Hence there is no bar to admitting that the laws of nature may include all the miraculous apparent exceptions that may occur.
This approach is one way to deal with problems associated with the idea of natural law. Other people, however, may fear the inexplicable and may be insensitive to God’s presence in the power of Christ in this age. To help such individuals, we might begin once again with the strong point: respect for the miracles associated directly with the giving of Scripture. People need to submit themselves totally to Scripture, which means being willing to be surprised by God’s thoughts. God’s lordship is not what we in our merely human will might desire. God’s acts are beyond what we dream (Eph. 3:20); his mercy is truly surprising. For example, God heals people that have very imperfect ideas of faith (Luke 8:48). Let’s relax about the possibility of his healing people today who have imperfect understanding of his purposes. Extraordinary works of power today all point back to that one source of power for us–the resurrection of Christ. Because of the Resurrection, God displays his grace so lavishly now.
We can also show that the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture leads to this open attitude toward modern miracles. The Bible’s message gives us certainty about who God is, what he desires from us, and how he saves us. Precisely because of that certainty, we do not need to be anxious about how to identify God’s will from guesses about the significance of what he is doing today and how he is doing it. We will be disposed to admit that God can do extraordinary things today, because his doing so does not threaten us. We can pray boldly, leaving it to God to answer in either extraordinary or ordinary ways, because the extraordinary will not unbalance our security.
Moreover, one might appeal to people who are in fear by pointing to the advantages in persuasion. We can better persuade those in the Charismatic movement if we do not get sidetracked by debating the existence of modern miracles. Rather, we show that even their own experiences, so far as they may be genuine, actually call them back to trusting uniquely in the resurrection of Christ.
I propose, then, taking this approach to people who argue that miracles have ceased. But our words, by themselves, will probably not make much impact unless our own lives exhibit the stability that comes from being rooted in Scripture. For this reason, the Charismatic movement has not won over more people from the opposite camp.
TALKING WITH PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE THAT MIRACLES CONTINUE
Now we should consider how to talk with people on the opposite wing, those who believe that miracles continue. Some of these people are sound and mature in the faith, but others have problems. Personal lacks are likely to be (1) lust for the spectacular; (2) devaluation of the ordinary; (3) lack of appreciation for the accomplished character of God’s finished work in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; and (4) weak use of the Bible as the unique foundational interpretation of these unique events. Their strong point is typically their appreciation of God’s continued presence and their expectation of seeing great and surprising works of God.
To help deal with the first two needs, we can use the spectacular as a perspective on everything. Can we see everything as a miracle, as spectacular? We might start with Ephesians 3:20-21. This passage speaks of God’s doing “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” Does not such a passage lay before us as a goal an experience of “continuous miracle”? God can work “immeasurably more,” which would include accomplishing his works in more circumstances and times than we now envision. What would it be like to have continuous miracles? If we had nothing but one surprise after another, it would be chaos. The alternative to chaos is regularity, some pattern to our lives. God’s power will be present, but sometimes in a way that might strike unbelievers as not obvious. Sometimes such regularities might seem ordinary to them. Perhaps things seem ordinary to us now because we do not fully appreciate how God is at work.
According to Ephesians, we grow into an understanding of God’s mighty works by growing in the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18-19). We mature in the love of Christ, Paul says, by studying and meditating on what Paul has written (Eph. 3:3-4). If we seriously and prayerfully apply ourselves to understanding what Paul says about the significance of Jesus Christ, we will become centers of “continuous miracle.” Study and meditation on the Bible is necessary. And so we come around to touch on the last two weaknesses above. Having our lives rooted in the finished work of Christ and in the teaching of the Bible is precisely the way to grow into a person who is the center of Christ’s power today.
Our answer will not mean much, however, unless our own lives show consciousness of God’s presence in power. For this reason, the doctrinalists have not won over more people from the opposite camp. Often we do not express the whole truth in our arguments. Or if there is truth in our arguments, there is not an equal amount of truth in our lives.
Moreover, we should bear in mind that some church divisions and doctrinal divisions have existed for centuries. Even the difference with respect to charismatic miracles, which primarily belongs to the twentieth century, promises to be with us for a long while. We should make a positive contribution toward reconciliation, rather than giving up, in those cases in which, for example, someone is not totally convinced and will not adopt the totality of our viewpoint, including our exact vocabulary.
THE CREDIBILITY OF BIBLICAL MIRACLES
We have pondered almost exclusively the debate between Charismatics and non-Charismatics over modern miracles. But there are other areas of debate. For instance, modern secularism denies the possibility or credibility of miracles recorded in the Bible itself. How do we respond to this denial? Modern secularism often requires discussion oriented in different directions. The real points at issue are usually not miracles as such (though they may be the starting point). The debate involves the entirety of one’s world view and especially one’s views of God and of modern science.
Even here, there are obvious ways of using perspectives to appropriate the opponent’s strong point. For instance, we may expand the idea “law of nature,” as we did above, until it includes the miraculous. Or we may use the idea of God’s speaking as a perspective on modern science.1 God’s speech is the real “law” of the universe. All scientific study works at uncovering some of the regularities of God’s word, which governs all things. Modern scientific triumphs then become so many exhibitions of the faithfulness of God in ruling the world harmoniously day by day. Miracles are alternate modes of his faithfulness in extraordinary ways. But I cannot here develop these points fully.
I have been concerned to illustrate the symphonic method of examining a single theological problem. The symphonic character of the approach appears particularly in the attempt to weave together genuine insights held by each of the two main views. Using each of the positions as a perspective on miracle, we are led to a standpoint that is not strictly identical with either of them–at least when the positions are held in their more one-sided forms. Yet we do not use a frontal attack or abandon the past. We attempt to appreciate people’s concerns and then build on them. Their concerns become the different “instruments” in a symphonic articulation of biblical truth. This approach is far from relativism, as I have already shown in chapter 5. We grow in understanding the truth by using a multiplicity of perspectives.
1 For an expanded discussion, see Vern S. Poythress, “Science as Allegory,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 35 (1983): 65-71.
EPILOGUE: OTHER WORKS ON PERSPECTIVES
As I have indicated, my thinking about perspectives has developed under the influence of my own study of the Bible, especially of the Gospels and Revelation. But I might never have come to see the implications of biblical revelation in the way that I do if it had not been for the stimulus of the classroom teaching and the written works of Cornelius Van Til, John M. Frame, and Kenneth L. Pike. The extent of my debt to these thinkers cannot easily be indicated. For readers who wish to supplement and enrich their knowledge of the use of perspectives, I have included in the my bibliography a selected list of their writings, including those that show the closest connections with the perspectival approach developed in this book.
In addition, some works of mine listed in the bibliography develop other aspects of a perspectival approach. Philosophy, Science and the Sovereignty of God (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) represents an earlier stage of my thinking about perspectives, in which I sketch elements of a Christian world view that are important as a framework for modern science and technology. Method and Discovery in Science and Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming) examines the relation of perspectives in theology to developments in philosophy of science, especially the work of Thomas S. Kuhn. Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming) applies symphonic methods to the analysis of dispensational theology and its relation to its traditional antagonist, covenant theology.
Developments outside theology have also begun to show certain points of contact with the concerns of symphonic theology and the use of perspectives. First, advances in the study and understanding of language challenge us to refine our own use of language in the study of the Bible itself and in the writing of theology. The challenges come from the joint impact of twentieth century linguistics (post-Saussurian, structural linguisþtics),1 language philosophy (both logical precisionists and Wittgensteinians),3 But from other directions analogous questions are raised. Anthropologists and missiologists report the variety of world views and the influence of a whole society on its members. Sociologists of knowledge, philosophical relativists, and pragmatists apply similar insights to Western culture. Marxists argue for the influence of our relationship to the means of production, Freudians for the influence of invisible biological drives. Heideggerian phenomenology argues for the key role of our situation of being-in-the-world and being-toward-death. We need not agree wholesale with their presuppositions or their conclusions in order to recognize a glimmer of truth in some of their intuitions.4
Finally, advances in the study of biblical themes challenge us to study the Bible in ways that cut across previous lines of separation between topics. “Biblical theology,” as practiced by Geerhardus Vos and Richard B. Gaffin, studies main themes of the Bible in their historical development.5 This approach leads to an increasing understanding of revelation as an organic whole, in which each theme is to be understood in the light of other themes and in the light of the total purposes and plan of God. Gaffin appropriately challenges us to reorganize our systematic theology on the basis of this advance.
1 See Lyons, Semantics; Kenneth L. Pike, Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior, 2d ed. (The Hague: Mouton, 1967); Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning).
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1968).
3 See Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963); Dooyeweerd, New Critique of Theoretical Thought; Hendrik G. Stoker, Die wysbegeerte van die skeppingsidee (Pretoria: J. H. de Bussy, 1933); Hendrik van Riessen, Wijsbegeerte (Kampen: Kok, 1970).
4 For further bibliography on these movements, see Poythress, Method and Discovery in Science and Theology.
5 Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966); idem, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyteriand and Reformed, 1980), 3-24; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in The New Testament Student and Theology, vol. 3, ed. John H. Skilton (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976), 32-50 (reprinted from Westminster Theological Journal 38 [1975-76]: 281-299).
Barr, James. The Semantics of Biblical Language. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. The critical application of twentieth-century semantics to biblical interpretation.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936-77.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939.
Berkouwer, G. C. Faith and Sanctification. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952.
________. The Providence of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952.
Black, Max. Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962.
Carson, D. A. Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.
De Bono, Edward. Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. On trying new perspectives as a means of creativity, see especially pp. 31-45.
Dooyeweerd, Herman. A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969.
Frame, John M. “The Doctrine of the Christian life.” Parts 1,2. Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1979. Classroom syllabus. One of the fullest expressions of symphonic theology applied to normative, existential, and situational perspectives on ethics and applied to the Ten Commandments as perspectives.
________. “The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.” Westminster Theological Seminary, 1983. Classroom syllabus. A treatment of symphonic theology in the area of epistemology.
Gaffin, Richard B., Jr. “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology.” In The New Testament Student and Theology, vol. 3, ed. John H. Skilton, 32-50. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976. Reprinted from Westminster Theological Journal 38 (1975-76): 281-99.
Gibson, Arthur. Biblical Semantic Logic. New York: St. Martin’s, 1981. An expansion of Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language.
Gordon, William J. J. Synectics: The Development of Creative Capacity. New York: Harper & Row, 1961. See especially pp. 34-56.
Helm, Paul. “Revealed Propositions and Timeless Truths.” Religious Studies 8 (1972): 127-36.
Hesse, Mary. Models and Analogies in Science. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.
Hodge, Archibald A., and Warfield, Benjamin B. Inspiration. 1881. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. 3 vols. 1871-73. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.
Holmes, Arthur F. Christian Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: An Essay in Philosophical Methodology. Nutley, NJ: Craig, 1969. A perspectival understanding of the task of philosophy, with affinities to my approach.
Hume, David. Of Miracles. Reprint. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1985.
Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. Chicago and London: Open Court, 1934.
Kline, Morris. Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Kuyper, Abraham. The Work of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941.
Lakatos, Imre. Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery. Ed. John Worrall and Elie Zahar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Lyons, John. Semantics. 2 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. The standard recent work in the field of semantics.
Pepper, Stephen. World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
Pike, Kenneth L. “Here We Stand–Creative Observers of Language.” Approches du langage: colloque interdisciplinaire, Publications de la Sorbonne, Serie “Etudes” 16 (1980): 9-45.
________. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior. 2d ed. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.
________. Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagmemics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. An elementary introduction to tagmemics and perspectives.
________. “Toward the Development of Tagmemic Postulates.” In Tagmemics, vol. 2: Theoretical Discussion, ed. Ruth M. Brend and Kenneth L. Pike, 91-127. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1976.
Pike, Kenneth L., and Pike, Evelyn G. Grammatical Analysis. Dallas, Tex.: Summer Institute of Linguistics and University of Texas at Arlington, 1977.
Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
________. Science, Faith and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.
________. The Tacit Dimension. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.
Poythress, Vern S. “Adequacy of Language and Accommodation,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus, 349-76. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
________. “Analysing a Biblical Text: Some Important Linguistic Distinctions.” Scottish Journal of Theology 32 (1979): 113-37. Applications of some linguistic perspectives to biblical meaning; continued in “Analysing a Biblical Text: What Are We After?”
________. “Analysing a Biblical Text: What Are We Afer?” Scottish Journal of Theology 32 (1979): 319-31.
________. “A Framework for Discourse Analysis: The Components of a Discourse, from a Tagmemic Viewpoint.” Semiotica 38, no. 3/4 (1982): 277-98. Working out perspectives in the area of language and communication; continued in “Hierarchy in Discourse Analysis.”
________. “Hierarchy in Discourse Analysis: A Revision of Tagmemics.” Semiotica 40, no. 1/2 (1982): 107-37.
________. “Mathematics as Rhyme.” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 35 (1983): 196-203.
________. Method and Discovery in Science and Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming. Perspectives are related to Thomas S. Kuhn’s work in philosophy of science.
________. “Newton’s Laws as Allegory.” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 35 (1983): 156-61.
________. Philosophy, Science and the Sovereignty of God. Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976. An earlier expression of multiple perspectives.
________. “Science as Allegory.” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 35 (1983): 65-71. Developing a perspective on science; continued in “Newton’s Laws as Allegory” and “Mathematics as Rhyme.”
________. Understanding Dispensationalists. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming. Symphonic method applied to the dispute between dispensationalists and covenant theologians.
Robinson, Richard. Definition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.
Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Silva, Moises. Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983. An expansion of Barr, Semantics of Biblical Language, with special attention to positive principles of lexicography.
Stoker, Hendrik Gerhardus. Die wysbegeerte van die skeppingsidee: of grondbeginsels van ‘n Kalvinistiese wysbegeerte. Pretoria: J. H. de Bussy, 1933.
Thiselton, Anthony. “Semantics and New Testament Interpretation.” In New Testament Interpretation, ed. I. Howard Marshall, 75-104. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977. A valuable survey.
________. The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980. The best discussion available of the bearing of philosophical hermeneutics on theology.
Ullmann, Stephen. Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell, 1964.
van Riessen, Hendrik. Wijsbegeerte. Kampen: Kok, 1970.
Van Til, Cornelius. Christian Theistic Ethics. Philadelphia: den Dulk Foundation, 1971. The beginning point for normative, existential, and situational perspectives on ethics. Christian ethics is distinctive in norms, motives, and goals.
________. Christian-Theistic Evidences. Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976.
________. A Christian Theory of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969.
________. The Defense of the Faith. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963.
________. An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Phillipsþburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974. Valuable for its robust view of the relation of general revelation and special revelation.
________. Why I Believe in God. Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1976. One of the most sociologically oriented of Van Til’s many discussions of presuppositions. As such, this work is a useful starting point for considering the role of models and conceptual frameworks, even though models are less deeply rooted than the presuppositions with which Van Til is concerned.
Vos, Geerhardus. Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966.
________. “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline.” In Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., 3-24. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyteriand and Reformed, 1980.
Warfield, Benjamin B. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. 1927 and 1948. Reprint. Ed. Samuel G. Craig. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1968.
________. Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations,” Generally Known as the Blue and Brown Books. New York: Harper, 1958.