The other day I came across a relatively recent blog entry by Paul Helm, a well-known (conservative) Christian professor of philosophy. In an online essay, he critiques a particular theological method as being unsound. Although he is writing primarily to respond to Peter Enns' recent book, "Inspiration and Incarnation," his comments - I think - have a more wide-reaching application, and therefore are worth considering, whether one is a biblical scholar, a philosopher, or any person seeking to follow Christ.
Helm begins by saying:
"Questions of method are fundamental to the problems that arise in formulating any Christian doctrine, including the doctrine of Scripture. Take, for example, the doctrine of divine providence. We are all familiar with an array of evils - a child dying of inoperable cancer, the activities of international terrorists, of Herr Hitler, of rapists and murderers, of volcanoes and tsunamis and hurricanes. Suppose that we take these into account in our efforts to construct a Christian doctrine of divine providence. How should these data help us? To what extent should they help us? Ought one to concentrate wholly upon Scripture’s own clear statements of the extent and character and purpose of divine providence, or also to shape that doctrine by taking into account statements of the evils that all too obviously confront us all? Do these data about evil carry equal weight with the statements of Scripture? Are they to control the statements of Scripture?
The (consistently Christian) answer to these questions should be obvious. We formulate our doctrine from attending (no doubt fallibly) only to Scripture’s own explicit statements on the matter, returning time and again to check and modify our first thoughts by the data of Scripture in a never-ending iterative process. And then we wrestle with the problems in the light of our understanding of these statements. In the mercy of God, the doctrine (along with other doctrines) will illuminate the problems; the problems never control the doctrine."
While I find much of value in Helm's explanation, and agree with his statements in principle, I do have questions about some of his presuppositions and would like to question a few of these underlying assumptions. I suppose he may have already responded to similar questions, perhaps in a book or article I haven't read, but for now I will pose my questions here for the sake of fostering dialogue.
Helm's primary concern appears to be that Christians often let the problems stemming from modern critical research, as well as our own existential dilemmas, affect "how we think about doctrine," and argues that such a stance is always dangerous to a greater or lesser degree. His response to this approach, in essence, is the traditional Christian response: We begin with revelation - primarily Scripture, but also accepted doctrines, etc - and use those as our guides to deal with the issues raised by research and experience. We interpret non-revelatory information through our understanding of God's revelation, not vice versa. Helm, following Wolterstorff, calls these our "control beliefs." And, of course, he is right... to a point. My question is how Helm (and those who share his perspective) expects this to be done in an unambiguous manner.
Right off the bat, Helm concedes that this is not an either/or question. He rightly points out that the questions must be: How should the data help us, and to what extent? This implies that experience, reason, research, etc. will have some role to play in shaping Christian belief. But Helm does not clarify here (probably because it would take too long!) what that role might be. Further, he intimates that the role of non-revelatory sources ought to be minimal, in order to eliminate the danger that comes with them. But can't this be taken too far as well? Is the elimination of danger even an option in coming to a realization about God? Isn't faith, by its very nature, a dangerous process? Is attempting to make Christian belief "safe" really the best approach? Isn't an honest attempt to hold both revelation and experience in tension a more faithful way to go?
Further, Helm suggests that non-revelatory sources ought to have a minimal role, given the clarity of the message within Scripture. For my part, I am not as convinced as Helm apparently is that Scripture's claims on most topics are "clear" and "explicit." Doesn't all reading of Scripture involve a great deal of interpretation? As such, it seems that Helms' mention of the fallibility in formulating doctrine ought be highlighted. But here we see the dilemma in its most basic form: If fallibility exists in the formulation of Christian beliefs, and Christians have faith in the priority and inerrancy (which is such a loaded word that I find it obtuse) of Scripture, then clearly the problem cannot be with the Bible. The problem must be with our interpretation(s) of the Bible. But then who decides what a correct interpretation might be?
The traditional Christian answer has been that the Holy Spirit, throughout history, has guided the Church (as a whole) toward an ever-more-true understanding of revelation, including Scripture, and as that takes place, the Church develops doctrines which become the ground for further examination and development - the basic truths serve as control beliefs for the rest of Christian thought. Many of these were set out by the early Church and continue to hold for Christians today. But more and more, many sincere Christians are beginning to think that perhaps some of these doctrines/control beliefs are not, and have never been, as monolithic or set in stone as other Christians have claimed.
For example, with regard to biblical studies, Helm states:
"The Church holds fast to the divinely-breathed character of Scripture while recognising its all too obvious human properties. The books are breathed by God and authored by men. Such a confession throws up difficulties... But – if we are to be consistently and thoroughly Christian – these difficulties may perplex us but we should patiently await their resolution in a way that is consistent with the Christian view of Holy Scripture, the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, while all the while holding fast to that doctrine."
But this is either extremely obscure, or seems to create a catch-22. On the one hand, we are asked to "hold fast" to the "divinely-breathed character" of the Bible and await "resolution" of difficulties... But isn't the problem precisely that we either don't know, or can't agree, on what it means to "hold fast," or what the Scripture's "divinely-breathed character" might be?
Would Helm agree that Christians who view parts of the Bible as historically and scientifically non-literal can still hold fast to its divinely-breathed character? Would he accede the possibility that the writers of Scripture, and perhaps even Jesus Christ himself, might have thought things that were not factually true? And, if so, could any of those thoughts have been included in the writings which became the Bible? Does this diminish Scripture's divinely-breathed character somehow? And, if so, what about obvious biblical "errors" with regard to cosmology or biology? Do they diminish it? (I would assume Helm's answer to this last question would be "no", but this only highlights the complexity of the issue.)
Further, how can he say that we should wait patiently for resolution "in a way that is consistent with... the teaching of Christ and the Apostles..." when it is that very teaching which is the source of much of our confusion and conflict?
Helm, quoting J. I. Packer, rightly reminds us of the unavoidable mystery in any attempt to develop Christian doctrine:
"We must be clear as to the nature of our task. Our aim is to formulate a biblical doctrine; we are to appeal to Scripture for information about itself, just as we should appeal to it for information on any other doctrinal topic. That means that our formulation will certainly not give us a final or exhaustive account of its subject. All doctrines terminate in mystery; for they deal with the works of God, which man in this world cannot fully comprehend, nor has God been pleased fully to explore."
Helm then states: "The point to stress here is Packer’s observation that the doctrine of Scripture is to be derived from Scripture itself. The doctrine’s lack of finality arises from the mysterious way in which, in the production of Scripture, the divine concurs with the human."
While I agree heartily with Helm and Packer on this point, I wonder if any of us really grasp what this entails? For clearly, we are not content with mystery. In fact, it could be argued that Christianity has made every attempt to clarify the mystery of God's revelation... and that this is not always such a bad thing. It seems that there has been, and always will be, a necessity for us to take out as much of the mystery as possible, in order to develop systems of doctrine that provide structure for the masses of laypersons who seek guidance from godly leaders.
However, the flipside is that these very systems are wrapped up in contradiction and confusion, due to the fallible nature of the systematizers. If we are truly going to embrace the mystery of doctrine, which is an extension of the mystery of God, then it seems we ought to admit the possibility that each one of us has gotten quite a bit wrong. This does not mean we have to simply agree to disagree, or become relativists. But perhaps it might mean, for example, that Calvinists would feel free to admit that 5-point Calvinism does not have a lock on doctrine, and that God's way of doing things may not fit into that paradigm as much as they would like. The same is true of Arminianism, or any other division within the Christian faith.
Most Christians would probably agree with me on this point. But, then, what does that say about our "control beliefs?" From what I can tell, here we have reached the root of the problem. This is really a disagreement between those whose control belief is something like, "God has revealed X to me through Scripture, the Church, etc. and therefore everything else follows from that..." and those whose control belief is something like, "Well, X seems to be what God has revealed, but given that I am a fallible human being, I could be wrong about a lot of it, and so I want to take care and constantly re-evaluate my beliefs, always remembering that being a Christian means certain things are non-negotiable."
Now, of course, we can then argue over the non-negotiables, and I may have just created something of a false dichotomy, but the issue still remains: given that God's revelation to human beings can only ever be experienced, and given that part of that experience is accepting the priority of certain control beliefs, how do we hold these two seemingly incompatible ideas together? This is the key question, I think.
Maybe a better way to ask this would be: given that I have a profound realization of the reality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how do I remain open to further shaping of that reality, without abandoning that which is necessary to the Gospel, and without assuming that I have now been given the final word? If we ever think we've sufficiently answered this question, I would say that we are in a lot of trouble.
I assume that all this raises red flags with many traditional Evangelicals, because it gives the impression that I am positing that there may be value in agnosticism, at least with regard to some facets of Christian belief that are, in certain circles, held to be non-negotiable. I suppose that is what I am doing. But I guess what I wonder is, if we are really honest with ourselves, don't we all do this, to a greater or lesser degree? And is that really such a bad thing?