How Far Can We Go?
I have been thinking a lot recently about how far our theology can take us. That is to say, how much can we truly say that we know. Two big reasons for this are the two classes that I am currently auditing and conversations I am having with friends. Through it all, I have grown more and more attached to what I wrote last week at the end of the blog: "Christianity is faith seeking understanding."
I am currently sitting in on two classes. The first is called Creeds, Councils, and Controversies I. This class is a study of the church history until the Reformation. The class focuses on how Christian doctrine was formed around (you guessed it) the historic Creeds, Councils, and Controversies. It is really fascinating. The second class is a class on the Enlightenment and religious thought. This class looks at the modern turn in culture and how that impacted theology and the church.
The really interesting part of sitting in these two classes is that they seem diametrically opposed to each other. In Creeds, Councils, and Controversies you see the church struggling to set the boundaries of how far someone can go in their theology. There is an important distinction to make here. The brothers and sisters that went before us were not trying to invent a new theology, but were fighting against beliefs, that they understood, to have gone too far. Thus, as they write the historic creeds, it is not an attempt to invent the "Trinity" or to precisely explain all the inner workings of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, but they are saying, "this is the fenced in area in which this theology can develop more." Granted for doctrines like the Trinity and the incarnation the space to play and be creative is small, but the goal was the same: to define the limits.
Now in my class on the Enlightenment the context has drastically changed. At this point in history many theologians and philosophers no longer liked the fact that we have to say "I don't know" about certain aspects to particular doctrines. Perhaps better put, many of the educated elite didn't like that we had to say "Before I can understand, I need to start with faith." Thus, they threw off the shackles of historic Christianity to pursue their own thoughts on God, the world, and humanity. Many down played the role of "speculative doctrines" like the Trinity. They emphasized only that which can be "proven" by sense experience and reason. They believed that they had understanding, and thus with this understanding they could seek a reasonable faith.
This same temptation can be seen in some of the conversations I am having with friends. It can been seen in many of the conversations that I have had over the course of the years. We have a hard time understanding a doctrine so we want to throw it out. If I don't get the difference between enhypostasis and anhypostasis, well, they must be nothing more than speculative theological positions that don't matter. If I can't prove it, it isn't important. In saying this, we effectively make ourselves the arbiters of theological truth.
Now, I am not saying that every person has to understand every doctrine. However, the beauty of what our brothers and sisters in the church throughout the ages have struggled to give us must not be discarded based on our pre-understanding of what is reasonable. Our position must be to start with faith and from there to seek understanding. A former professor of mine and a dear friend, Dr. Tim Sigler, taught me this old Talmudic saying years ago and I think it is appropriate here. "Teach your tongue to say, 'I don't know.'" You see there are going to be moments in our theological pursuits that we need to hear that wisdom. We need to say, "I don't know." My hope is that in all our theology we start with faith and from that point seek understanding, and when we can't understand, we say "I don't know."
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