January 31, 2007


Category: Bible,Hermeneutics,Theology :: Permalink

The Bible is a complex book.  Consisting of sixty-six books written over several millennia, it describes a bewildering array of characters and events.  The Bible seems especially complex and difficult to modern Christians, because, however hard we try to think biblically, we have been subtly but deeply influenced by modern philosophy and science.  Often, even when we have rejected the explicit conclusions of science, we unconsciously adopt a scientistic mind-set.  One example of this is our tendency to operate on the modern assumption that all ideas can be defined with infinite, scientific precision, and that concepts can and should be distinguished very sharply.

The more you study the Bible, the more you will find that it cannot be forced into this mold.  Ideas and symbols in the Bible meld together, overlap, and stretch out in a thousand different directions.  This is not to say that the Bible is irrational or unscientific, or that we cannot make any meaningful distinctions.  But a modern reader cannot escape the sense that the Bible speaks a very different language than he learned in “Chem. Lab” or Philosophy 101.  As theologian Vern S. Poythress has noted, the biblical world view acknowledges the reality of “fuzzy boundaries.”

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck drew a distinction between pagan and biblical thought that may help to clarify this idea.  Bavinck said that modern (and ancient Greek) thinkers attempted to find the “essence” of a thing, that which makes a thing uniquely what it is, by subtraction.  To discover the “essence” of a pencil, we subtract its color, its size, its shape — all of which may vary without changing the nature of the thing and all of which may describe something other than a pencil.  (There might be a red apple as well as a red pencil, a six-inch slug as well as a six-inch pencil, etc.)  When we have subtracted all the variables, what we have left is the “essence” of the pencil, what might be called “pure pencilness.”  (Of course, what we really have left is nothing at all.)

Scripture, by contrast, describes the essence of a thing by addition.  Only when we know the fullness of a thing, all of its attributes, do we really know its uniqueness and “essence.”  God’s “essence” is not some “bare minimum” of deity, or some “basic attribute” from which all the other attributes can be derived.  Instead, the “essence” of God is the fullness of all his attributes — Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 93-94.

Lest that sound too abstract, Leithart relates it to his main theme, the kingdom of God: we can’t know what the kingdom of God is by subtracting everything it has in common with something else to determine what makes it unique, nor can we really know what the kingdom is by reducing it to some basic elements.  Rather, we need to hear all the various ways in which the kingdom is described, all the images that the Bible uses to depict it, and so forth.  The more we hear, the more we say, “Yes!  The kingdom is like that, too.”  These various images don’t contradict.  Rather, they offer different perspectives on the kingdom.  And just as you know a diamond better the more facets of it you see, so we know the kingdom better by looking at its facets, turning it, as it were, so that we can see it from all angles.

That’s an important point.  But what Leithart says earlier, drawing on Poythress, should not be overlooked.  Why do we assume that the Bible defines everything precisely?  Probably because we’re used to a sort of scientific description of things.

But the Bible often presents “fuzzy boundaries.”  It’s not always easy to fit the Bible’s various images of the kingdom together.  Various perspectives may seem to us to conflict: How can it be both this way and that way?  How can the Bible teach this and that?  The conflict, of course, isn’t in Scripture but in us.  We don’t understand how both things can be true.  So our calling is to teach both, to live with the fuzziness.

Nor may that fuzziness necessarily be resolved by more study.  It’s not necessarily the case that God has given us all the data we’d need to resolve these apparant conflicts, to figure out how this relates to that or how this and that can both be true.  In other words, God may not have given us everything we need to produce a fully systematic theology.  That shouldn’t scare us, though, because we can trust that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness.

In fact, men in other fields have to live with a certain amount of mystery, too.  Even in science, I’m told, people work with the concept of the “black box.”  The scientist puts in a certain input and the same thing happens every time, even though the scientist has no idea how it works.  It’s a “black box” to him.

And so with theology.  Think of the Lord’s Supper.  How is is exactly that we can be nourished by Christ’s body and blood and receive His life as we eat bread and drink wine together?  I don’t know.  I do know that God says that’s what happens.  I don’t know how it happens.  I can’t explain it.  It’s fuzzy to me.  Calvin’s answer?  By the power of the Holy Spirit.  And that’s as good an answer as any.  But notice how that answer is pretty much a black box answer, leaving all the mystery while glorifying God.

Living with the fuzzies may be hard sometimes, especially because we want all the answers and we want them to fit nicely in our minds.  That’s part of how God made us: we want to see how things work and make them fit.  But living with the fuzzies is another way of saying living by faith.  It’s trusting God and echoing what He tells us, even if we don’t understand it all.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:57 pm | Discuss (0)

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