Friday, February 8, 2008

Exploring the Limits of Our Knowledge

Responding to a question by a friend that has caused me to think quite a bit on a very difficult topic.

The question was basically "can humans grasp ultimate truth/reality?" From a Christian perspective, this ultimate truth or reality is said to be based or found in God. So the question is can humans comprehend God? If so, can we express this in words?

At one end of the spectrum we find the position that we have no ability to comprehend God in our human reasoning. Common lines of reasoning in Western Christianity are that God is above human reasoning or excluded from it (because he designed it, presumably). The Eastern Orthodox Church holds a similar view and ultimately resorts to using more mystical methods to understand God. These Eastern thinkers might be perfectly comfortable in making contradictory statements about God because our human reasoning cannot really comprehend Him. They also are much more comfortable with making statements like "God is not…" rather than attempting to positively describe God. More moderate views hold that God can be understood to a certain extent, but our knowledge is limited. The emergent church movement has a lot of this type of thinking in it.

The evangelical view (which is by far a minority position in Christianity) is that God can be understood (though even here we find limits). He has revealed himself in His word and so as far as His word describes Him we are able to understand Him (or at least make descriptive statements that make sense and do not contradict each other about Him). To do this we often must resort to using philosophy to refine our understandings. This is somewhat controversial, but I would argue that the "ultra-evangelical" idea that we can base our theology solely on the Bible is impractical. To interpret and understand the Bible, we must use some form of hermeneutics, itself a philosophical discipline.

Ultimately, I find problems with the idea that we cannot comprehend God. It seems actually a self-defeating position- to say we cannot have any understanding of God is to make a statement that shows understanding of at least some aspect of God's character (call it His mysteriousness). Further, to say that God is above or outside of human reasoning raises some serious issues. If God is not "subject" to the law of non-contradiction, for instance, then he could potentially exist and not exist at the same time!! That seems a serious flaw in the reasoning (unless you're an absolute relativist, which is also a self-defeating philosophical position). So it seems we have to have some ability to understand or comprehend God.

At the same time, I can readily admit there must be limits to that knowledge. We finite beings obviously cannot fully comprehend an infinite being. But this does not mean we cannot comprehend in part. The traditional evangelical view holds that we can understand God in a large way, and hence I have several very thick books on my shelf on "Systematic Theology." While I was basically raised on this understanding of God, I am highly suspicious of systematic theology. I think all the proof-texting that goes on by theologians tends to take passages of the Bible way out of their intended context to imply things they may not necessarily imply. To clarify, I do believe the Bible very clearly teaches (though perhaps not in a proof-text friendly form) some essential doctrines- the separation of man from God by sin, the deity and humanity of Christ, the death burial and resurrection, salvation by grace alone, the trinity, the return of Christ. Those seem pretty big and pretty clear. But a lot of more minor doctrines seem much less clear and much less spelled out. In those grey areas, I worry that proof-texting makes things too black and white, too cut and dry, and in some cases misses the point all-together.

So I guess that makes me a bit of a moderate evangelical. I think we can understand God to the extent that He has made Himself known in scripture, and perhaps more so based on philosophy. But I think perhaps we have overdone it in our quest for a simple, systematized understanding of God. There may be more mystery than some evangelicals want to admit.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Reflections During Missions Conference

We've just finished a missions conference here at Southeastern with Dr. Billy Kim as our keynote speaker. He is a native of Korea who came to the United States to go to school after the Korean war and then went back to Korea as a pastor of what has now become one of the largest and most influential churches in Asia and the president of the Far-East Broadcasting Comany. He has really challenged and I think on many levels convicted us regarding our often apathetic attitude toward missions and making disciples of other nations and peoples.

He has talked several times about the explosive growth of the church in South Korea. His church, for instance, began with barely a dozen members meeting in a shack. Now it has 20,000 members. Overall, there were less than a million believers in South Korea 40 years ago. Today, there are over 13 million. According to Dr. Kim, the largest Presbyterian, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches in the world are in South Korea along with "probably 20 of the world's largest churches" (not sure out of how many). As I was hearing these stories, a statistic I had heard came to mind. About 100 years ago, 80% of Christians were found in the West (West Europe, North America). Today, 80% of Christians are outside of the west. In Europe, which used to be the major stronghold of the Church, Christianity is all but dead. I wonder if the United States is not headed in that same direction. There are at least some indications that it may be. In twenty years, will America likewise be labeled "spiritually dead and dark" as France is right now and will countries like Korea be sending missionaries to us?

It is somewhat disheartening that Christianity seems to be faltering in the West, but I think in large part that has been by our own making. Our wealth and prosperity has, in many ways I think, made us apathetic towards God. By contrast, when I meet Christians from less wealthy parts of the world, I am always amazed at their zeal and passion. One thing, however, has occurred to me that makes me quite nervous. Many of the Christians in the developing parts of the world are remarkably uneducated. This definitely extends to theological education. Dr. Kim said at one point this week that Korea admittedly does not have the theological knowledge that many Christians in the west have. I've spoken with missionaries this week who discussed regions in the world where new Christians are easily led astray by cult movements like the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses (some even to the point of making cult leaders the pastors of their newly founded churches). There is a real danger here.

Christianity may be "dying" in the west, but there is still a great wealth of knowledge in the west. The best seminaries and theological schools in the world are primarily in the United States, Britain, and Germany. If Christianity is shifting to other parts of the world, it seems to me it is essential that Christian theological education shift into those areas as well. Yet this seems a fairly neglected need.

I have definitely felt God's calling towards full-time ministry. I desire to work to some extent in a pastoral role, but I also know that my main interests and skills are more academic and related to teaching. I have also felt, to some extent, a desire to work in oversees missions for at least a little while. I am definitely beginning to entertain the notion of going to the missions field to train pastors and teach theology to people in parts of the world where that knowledge is much more scarce.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Inspired By or Compatible With?

I've heard it said that the concept of separation of powers in America's political system ultimately originates from the doctrine of sin. The argument says that the founding fathers recognized man's sinfulness and so they designed a system that took that into account, whereas European systems seemed anti-Christian in that respect because they often lack a separation of powers.

I think I have a different take on this. Given that most of the founding fathers (and certainly all of the most influential ones in drafting our constitution) were not Christians by most accounts, it seems doubtful they would base such an important aspect of our government on a Christian doctrine. Its also doubtful that such a system was even intended: the constitution gives some checks between legislative and executive branches, but in my studies of history, it seems the legislature was always intended to dominate and the judiciary was never intended to play a part in the balance of power. So the current understanding we have has been the result of some political evolution in our government. The best explanation seems to be that the original system was devised as a reaction to the "tyranny" of British politics from under which the colonies had just escaped and an attempt to create a more populist government that actually functioned. Later political forces created the system we now understand. I see little reason or evidence to indicate that this was based on the Christian doctrine of sin and depravity.

That being said, it is certainly compatible with that doctrine. The system of checks and balances certainly fits to some extent with a Christian understanding of the human condition. But it seems an illogical leap to suggest that means this political institution was inspired by Christian doctrine, especially when historical evidence seems to suggest otherwise. I think there needs to be caution expressed before reading democracy or any western institution into the scriptures or out of the scriptures. They may sometimes be compatible with each other, but this does not mean that they are inspired by one another. Nor does it mean that scriptures teach democracy or support democracy. Remember, they were not written under democracy, and for the most part none of their writers had any democratic experience or knowledge. But their truths are timeless, so we should not be surprised when we find ways to make them compatible with or apply them to our culture or any culture. This does not mean this culture is what scripture teaches. Culture can change, and the application of the Bible will adapt.

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