Friday, November 1, 2013

On the esotericism of reformed theology

A few weeks back, I had lunch with a brother who I had not seen in a long time. After covering good ground on life subjects, our conversation ended up reaching into matters of faith and theology. We ultimately came to discussing our thoughts on reformed doctrine: ecclesiology, the nature of Christ's atonement, and salvation. As we delved deeper into the theology, the more and more I grew wary of how esoteric some reformed terms are: Dispensationalism. Monergism. Eschatology. And the countless other words seminary students spout off in a small shedding of pride.

There's invariably a linguistic need to describe every distinct concept in Christian theology, as often times it helps us determine what's biblical and what's not. But as we use affixes and stems to construct our words, they get longer, more complicated, and ultimately reach a level of esotericism that can be perceived as horribly elitist, as if only the most biblically-trained theologians are worthy to understand them. That's why you'll never hear words like "traducianism" in the pew-- after all, what kind of lay congregation has any interest in hearing words more than three syllables long?

Much of this has led me to think about whether or not esoteric theology is beneficial for the church, or only for the inflated egos that dabble in it. To be sure, many complex terms refer to very simple literal concepts. Soteriology, for example, is nothing more than the study of Christ's salvation. Similarly, cessationism simply refers to the belief that the sign gifts of the apostolic age have ceased. There are, however, realms of theology where concepts are not as simple and incur much more speculation than biblical exegesis.

Take the debate of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, for example. While it, at its simplest, aims to discover how God logically decreed the order of predestination in relation to the fall of man, there has been far more enormous effort, not on properly exegeting biblical truth, but speculating as to the workings of the mind of God. While some will argue that it is a most important doctrinal debate, others may see it as a trivial and fruitless exercise, aimed only at attempting to comprehend the mysteries of God which have been deliberately withheld from us.

Ultimately, where do we draw the line between being learned scholars of God's word and being egotistic wordy theologians? An insightful post from Michigan pastor Bruce Buchanan addresses the point (in response to supralapsarianism vs. infralapsarianism):

Reformed Theology is "rigorous," that is, it presses the hard questions and seeks the clearest Scriptural answers, and receives that teaching submissively no matter how much the response challenges the natural (i.e. fallen) mind. Most people who reject, say, the doctrine of predestination don't do so because it isn't biblical (after all, the plain term is part of the text); but because they don't LIKE the facts or implications of the doctrine, and *voila* it must not be true (because, heaven knows if I don't LIKE something, it must not be so...). 
But RT in its truest form has always had sufficient room to admit the limits of theology. Just because a question can be raised, thought about in relation to biblical data, and an answer offered, does not mean that a black-and-white, "rigorous" answer is available. The answer given may be "tentative," and must be "tentative" perhaps forever. How unfortunate, therefore, if the "tentative" answer is turned into a test of orthodoxy, or hardens into the "correct" answer for a given "camp" within RT. This is the objection that I believe stands behind Dabney's wistful observation that the energy expended in fighting for the "truth" of the matter is largely futile. 
The infra/supra answers are essentially two ways of approaching the same question: one more "historical" (infralapsarian), the other more "logical" (supralapsarian). An argument over which of these is "better" isn't necessarily faulty, until it becomes abusive. If "logic" succeeds in marginalizing "history" as insignificant, it is a Pyrrhic victory of abstraction over creation. "History" has concrete lessons for airy constructs. If "history" marginalizes "logic," it likewise sacrifices the benefit that the Present or Future has in "informing," "judging," or "ordering" the Past. Both notions divided against one another are "linear" in their approach. But the subject with which both are interested (the mind of God) is not linear but whole (or omnidimensional), and defies human limits. 
God accommodates his revelation to man, and his creaturely limitations. Therefore, it is possible to build sound and reliable theological constructions from the materials of special revelation, linear concepts slowly building a "whole" edifice, or a "whole" revelation: "For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little," Is.28:10. This is the way we gain true understanding. 
But on some questions we are left (again, maybe everlastingly) with a "Heisenberg principle" or a "wave/particle conundrum" (see a physics textbook), but in the realm of theology. And why should this be "bad"? It imposes a lesson on us that we must stop at the bounds God sets for us, and not travel beyond them. In the end, the infra/supra debate ought to be a lesson in humility.

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