Read Part 1.
The Problem of Ambiguity
A good theology is never less than biblical. It can and will draw upon extra-biblical elements, but no theology can ever be authoritative unless it is firmly grounded in the text of Scripture. Until a doctrinal proposition is justified through sound handling of the Bible, it remains a merely human opinion.
Good doctrine is never imposed upon the silences of Scripture. People can suggest all sorts of propositions that Scripture neither affirms nor denies. These propositions can never rise to the level of Christian teaching. If a proposition cannot be found in or inferred from the biblical text, then it must never be taught as Christian doctrine.
In other words, Christian teaching must always be justified from the actual teachings of the Bible. The people of God are supposed to affirm what Scripture affirms and to deny what Scripture denies. They do not have liberty to invent the Christian faith. That faith is given to them and discovered by them, but it is never assembled from their clever opinions.
All worthwhile theology begins with questioning, because nobody looks for an answer until a question has been asked. The task of theologians is to find the answers to doctrinal questions. They cannot offer an authoritative answer until they have accounted for every Biblical teaching that affects the question before them. This process of accounting for and weighing the biblical evidence is what separates good theologians from bad ones.
The process of gathering and weighing evidence is something of a balancing act. On the one hand, theologians always begin with some assumptions about the answer. If nothing else, they assume that the answer is worth the effort that they will invest in order to discover it. In other words, if they did not begin with some level of prejudice, they would never pursue their task. Their prejudice or preunderstanding also provides them with an initial standpoint from which to view the potential answer. Usually, a theologian begins the task with a prima facie (at first sight) notion of what the answer might look like. This prima facie construct must be held tentatively, but it does become the starting point for the process of inquiry and revision.
On the other hand, the whole point of the theological enterprise is to move beyond prejudice and preunderstanding. A good theologian wishes to test every assumption and to examine every bit of evidence. Therefore, good theology requires patience. One mark of an immature theologian is the tendency to rush toward a conclusion before all of the evidence is in. Theologians who draw their conclusions too precipitously may end up twisting large blocks of evidence to fit their preconceived opinions.
In almost every case, the biblical evidence will be of different sorts. It may include didactic statements, exhortations, narrative descriptions, and poetic allusions—among other forms. In nearly every case, the evidence will seem to point in different directions. Some parts of the evidence will seem to support one answer, while other parts of the evidence will seem to support a different (and perhaps contradictory) answer.
The great challenge for good theology is learning how to evaluate the evidence. Depending upon how they perform this task, theologians may draw radically different conclusions. One of the most common reasons for theological disagreements is that theologians have prioritized the evidence differently.
This situation is not unique to theology. In every intellectual system whatever, some evidence fits the system better. Some evidence will be used to explain the system, while other evidence will be explained or even explained away within the system. Virtually all intellectual decisions are matters of probability, not of certainty. Whether in theology or in any other discipline, some of the evidence will, on the face of it, contradict whatever conclusion is eventually drawn. Every theologian always has to deal with some residue of contrary evidence.
Beginning theologians may find this situation unnerving. The yearning for epistemological certainty is strong. Consequently, immature theologians often experience a powerful urge to retreat from at least some of the evidence. They close the eyes of their minds and pretend that it does not exist. The result is a state of self-deception that leads to unwarranted dogmatism. Because the certainty of such theologians is only illusory, it is fragile and easily threatened. When they are pressed, these theologians are likely to resort to sneers, personal attacks, and even political maneuvers instead of careful arguments.
Good theologians are willing and able to articulate the evidence that seems to contradict their conclusions. Usually they will offer some explanation for the contrary evidence, but they will understand that they are now explaining the evidence rather than relying upon it. Teachers who cannot perform this task are either terribly naïve or simply dishonest.
Mature theologians have learned to live with some level of ambiguity. They know they could be wrong, even about some very important issues. They do not allow this possibility to trouble them too much, however, because they have taken an honest look at the evidence. They have weighed it as carefully as they could. They have drawn the conclusions that seemed most probable. While they are prepared to be corrected, any legitimate correction would have to come from someone who has also looked at all the evidence honestly and who can give good reasons for weighing it differently.
All good theology is exegetical. All sound doctrine is grounded in the careful handling of the text of Scripture. This handling involves a process of gathering and weighing evidence, and the evidence is rarely or never without some ambiguity.
How, then, must theologians weigh the evidence? How do they know which weighs more and which weighs less? How do they know which evidence explains the answer and which has to be explained (and perhaps explained away)? The next essay will articulate specific tests that can help theologians in performing this task.
William Cowper (1731-1800)
Dear Lord! accept a sinful heart,
Which of itself complains,
And mourns, with much and frequent smart,
The evil it contains.
There fiery seeds of anger lurk,
Which often hurt my frame;
And wait but for the tempter’s work,
To fan them to a flame.
Legality holds out a bribe
To purchase life from Thee;
And discontent would fain prescribe
How Thou shalt deal with me.
While unbelief withstands thy grace,
And puts the mercy by;
Presumption, with a brow of brass,
Says, “Give me, or I die.”
How eager are my thoughts to roam
In quest of what they love!
But ah! when duty calls them home,
How heavily they move!
Oh, cleanse me in a Saviour’s blood,
Transform me by thy pow’r,
And make me Thy belov’d abode,
And let me roam no more.
|This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.|