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Daniel of Doulogos Name:Daniel
Home: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
About Me: I used to believe that evolution was reasonable, that homosexuality was genetic, and that people became Christians because they couldn't deal with the 'reality' that this life was all there was. I used to believe, that if there was a heaven - I could get there by being good - and I used to think I was more or less a good person. I was wrong on all counts. One day I finally had my eyes opened and I saw that I was not going to go to heaven, but that I was certainly going to suffer the wrath of God for all my sin. I saw myself as a treasonous rebel at heart - I hated God for creating me just to send me to Hell - and I was wretched beyond my own comprehension. Into this spiritual vacuum Jesus Christ came and he opened my understanding - delivering me from God's wrath into God's grace. I was "saved" as an adult, and now my life is hid in Christ. I am by no means sinless, but by God's grace I am a repenting believer - a born again Christian.
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Thursday, September 15, 2005
The House of Cards
In declaring the error of Ephraim and Jerusalem Isaiah the prophet writes:

"But the word of the LORD was to them:

Precept upon precept,
precept upon precept,
Line upon line,
line upon line,
Here a little,
there a little,”

That they might go and fall backward, and be broken And snared and caught.

The prophet was saying that Ephraim and Jerusalem were erring by deriving commands from other commands. They were building a doctrinal house of cards by building new doctrine upon the foundation of previous doctrinal conclusions.

That doesn't seem like such a bad thing to most of us. Surely we find it reasonable to apply a certain transitive logic to our theology - that is, if "a" equals "b" and "b" futhermore equals "c" we say that "a" must also equal "c." This is a logical progression, we deduce that "a" must equal "c" even in the absense of any direct reference as such.

A direct reference would be:

Statement: "a" equals "c."

Using a transitive approach we can deduce the same indirectly if we are given the following:

Statement: "a" equals "b"
Statement: "b" equals "c"

Deduction: "a" equals "c."

Projecting this reasoning into our house of cards metaphor: explicit statements form the bottom layer, but directly upon that layer is the next layer - transitive deductions.

Transitive deductions are just as weighty as explicit statements because they hold as much truth as an explicit statement - and that truth is not a matter of interpretation, but a matter of sober reflection. Reason demands that we view both explicit statements and transitive deductions with equal weight - they're both said to be true regardless of whether they are explicitly stated or transitively deduced.

Difficulties arise as we take it to the next level - and this is what Isaiah was talking about.

There is a grand difference between transitive deduction and interpretation. The doctrine of the trinity is not stated explicitly but is deduced explicitly:
1) the Father is God
2) Jesus is God,
3) the Holy Spirit is God, and
4) God is One.
Conclusion: The Trinity.

At this point we should make a distinction between an explicit truth and an apologetic. Explicit truth is what the early church used to defend against error. When an error was defeated by explicit truth, the arguments given to answer the error are referred to as "apologetics."

The doctrine of the trinity is a "first level" apologetic - that is, it is an answer given to some theological question by way of applying relevant but explicit biblical truth.

Throughout church history the orthodox position was challenged, and godly men united to hash out the orthodox teaching of scripture. Eventually the challenges could not be answered from explicit biblical teaching. That is, scripture isn't always "cut and dry" on some issues. In such cases, rather than let a challenge go unanswered apologists began to put forward what they believe to be the most likely explanation - which would invariable hinge upon some discrete interpretation, that is, --If-- this certain scripture means this other thing (which it might), then it is reasonable to conclude that such and such is true.

Did you catch the shift? It is an extension of the transitive speculatory method we were using previously, but now it isn't grounded in explicit biblical truth, rather it is loosely coupled (and subordinate to) one or more significant interpretations of scripture - that is, the conclusion can only be justified as "valid" if the premise is true.

Consider if you will one of the foundational premises of covenant theology - the "covenant of works."

In Hosea 6:7 we read, "but like Adam, they transgressed the covenant..." - the word for "man" is "Adam" so some translations read, "but like men, they transgressed the covenant..." Israel transgressed the Mosaic covenant, and Hosea is either saying that this is typical of men, or that it is just like the covenant Adam broke. The problem is that scripture doesn't explicitly record a covenant between Adam and God.

But if we allow that this is the correct interpretation of Hosea 6:7, we can go back into Genesis and find one - since according to our interpretation it ought to be there. Which thereafter requires us to regard God's command that Adam abstain from eating the fruit that comes from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a "covenant". In this way we imply that there was a covenant "of works" between Adam and God - that being that if Adam remained sinless he would earn eternal life, and if he failed he would earn eternal damnation. This "covenant" doesn't present itself to anyone unless they are expecting to find it because of the offhand reference in Hosea. We see it because we expect it to be there - some would consider this approach eisegetical, and others would accept it as tolerable, even arguing perhaps that this covenant was "explicit" - though if we are intellectually honest we cannot help but accept that the "covenant" interpretation of this exchange between God and Adam is implicit because that interpretation depends on one (and only one) interpretation of a verse that was written at least a thousand years later. I am not arguing that there is no such thing as a "covenant of works" here - I am just giving an example of what a second level deduction looks like - whether the conclusion is correct or not is a matter of debate - and that is the point The moment we step off the explicit our theology becomes open to debate.

This sort of deduction is what Isaiah is writing about - precept upon precept - line upon line, here a little there a little. The moment we imply truth - we step off into slippery stuff. Extending the house of cards metaphor - implied truth rests upon speculation about the proper interpretation of one or more passages in scripture (as I have already stated) - but one can use this implied truth as a starting point for "deeper" understanding - that is, if we believe that there is a covenant between Adam and God - we can name it (the covenant of works) and use that "doctrine" to prove other doctrines. The novel interpretation of Hosea might be the third layer in our house of cards - and a doctrine that relies on there being a "covenant of works" would be built upon that, ad infinitem.

Christians can therefore adopt a theologically squat house of cards or a tall one. Theologically "tall" houses characterize very rigid belief systems - straying on any one point of doctrine has a dramatic ripple effect, and can bring down the whole house. Each successive level we build upon our theological house brings us one level farther away from what we KNOW to be true. Every level after the first two is what we "suppose" is true. When our house is very tall, we become like Jerusalem and Ephraim - we are no longer mining scripture for truth, but making presumptions on our own theology in order to generate more theology.

The Christian common ground is not in the upper levels of our card houses - but in the lower levels.

In answer to the question - should we baptize babies? We compare where the answer to that question comes from - the foundation of their house, or the lofty heights? Those who baptize infants find the authority to do so, not in the foundational levels, but higher up in their theological house of cards. Many assumptions, presumptions, and narrow interpretations are required to answer "yes, we baptize babies." The credo-Baptist finds the answer closer to the base - that is, in the first and second layers only - the explict truth - they have not found infant baptism explicitly allowed, and they cannot arrive at that conclusion without adopting one or more confining interpretations - so they answer, "no infants should not be baptized"

If I had my choice in selected who is more likely to be right when there is theological discrepency - I would look to see whose "solution" is closer to the base of their foundation. In the case of infant baptism, that answer lies with those who baptize believers, since their doctrine being less than "lofty" is more likely to be correct. Isaiah would have agreed.

The bottom line is that our theological differences typically are found in the upper areas of our card houses. If we want to avoid disagreement, we have to stop building line upon line and instead dig down and build on the foundation - and only on the foundation.
posted by Daniel @ 11:03 AM  
  • At 10:25 AM, September 16, 2005, Blogger FX Turk said…

    Since you asked, Daniel, I think there is merit in this post -- especially in the matter of building "house of cards" theologies.

    The problem I see with this in pratice is that we have to take the essential to the real world in every waking minute. For example (as you have been reading with me over at my blog), we Baptists draw a line in the sand over baptism because we take a narrow-band approach to the matter of this ordinance -- one kind of baptism (dipping or immersion) to one kind of person (only the person confessing belief in Christ).

    The strength of this narrow-band approach is that it is (for the most part) in ample evidence in the NT, but it does not even vaguely consider the other kinds of baptism described in the NT (like the baptism of the whole household of the Jailer). It also does not account for what we actually believe about baptism vis a vis what it does and the reason for which it is done.

    Overall, the real strength of our confessional position is that, in the end, we admit we do not have perfect theologies and systematics but that we have a Bible which can correct us. And more importantly, there is an implication in that confession which is frequently overlooked: the implication that we can fellowship with those who do not abandon the essentials without corrupting our testimony to the truth in Jesus Christ.

  • At 10:36 AM, September 16, 2005, Blogger Daniel said…

    I think you nailed the distinction in that last part - our approach allows fellowship with those who have not abandoned the essentials and having fellowship with such will not corrupt our testimony to the truth in Christ.

    Thanks for the thoughts Frank - This whole Piper thing has got a lot of us looking again at what is important.

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