Regardless of the variety of theological systems out there and how well they reflect reality as portrayed in Scripture, there is one factor that is common to all of them: the human being.
Systems more often end up being a showcase for the prowess humans, rather than the comprehension of Scripture, because they attempt to offer full explanations for something that cannot be fathomed this side of Eternity. The simple reason for that is the human condition. Those of us who have systems that attempt to explain everything have either forgotten about that or they don’t take it as seriously as they say they do. There are three factors of the human condition that need to be addressed: finiteness, depravity, and logic.
A. The Finite Human
I watch a lot of science fiction, mostly because I like the story lines and sometimes because I like to laugh at those who think they can solve all the world’s problems with a little bit of technology.6 One of the ever recurring mantras of sci-fi is the idea that we as humans have not reached our fullest potential (“We only use 10% of our brains.”7) and that we must learn to grow beyond ourselves to become gods and take our rightful place in the universe.
Theologians do the same thing, except that they take the Bible as their basis, thinking that their minds can wrap themselves around something that is vastly larger than themselves.
Let’s face it, we’re finite. We have a beginning. According to a plain reading Scripture we won’t have an “end” in the sense that we’ll cease to exist entirely8, but there will be terminus of life on this small blue planet.
Our having a beginning sets us apart from God, who is infinite. Scripture is unequivocal about that. Psalm 90:2 states:
Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
God’s infinity does not only deal with His existing before everything else, but also with other aspects of His character, such as His intelligence and wisdom. In a moment of supreme theological wonder, the Apostle Paul shouts out:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36 — NIV)
God Himself says through Isaiah’s pen,
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9 — NIV)
God is far beyond the human mind. He created it after all and the creation is by necessity inferior to the uncreated Creator, simply by the fact that it had to be created.
The fact that we are finite dictates the conclusion (deductive logic, again) that we cannot comprehend the infinite. One picture that we might use to illustrate this is the medieval cathedral which abounds in Europe. Most of these were built in the shape of a cross with a steeply sloped roof and many crenellations and much ornamentation. Because of the immense size and unusual shape of the cathedral it is impossible for a human standing beside it to see any more than three or four sides at once. And if you stand far enough back to do that, you miss out on all the detail on the sides. I will not even mention that when you’re outside you can’t see the inside and vice versa. Add to that the subterranean levels found in most cathedrals, which few people will see, and it becomes clear that we tiny human beings cannot look at any more than a small portion of this vast building at any one time.
Now, the more pious builders of the cathedrals meant them to represent God to an illiterate populace and they do indeed capture a modicum of the grandeur of the One to whom they are dedicated. But what they perhaps best captured was a picture of how one person alone cannot see all of God. Standing at the base of a cathedral is like contemplating God. Just as the human eye cannot take in any more than a mere fraction of the great building at any one time, so the human mind cannot apprehend more than the smallest part of Yahweh. Just the idea of the Three-In-One is enough to blow the mind, not to mention all other parts of Him!
Transferring this concept to theology – which is the study of God – and the systems that result from that, due to the finiteness of the human mind, it is not possible for us to fully explain spiritual realities. If we seek to put all of the Truth in Scripture under only one large theme9, we will fall short and there will always be pieces that don’t fully fit within our chosen rubric.
If you think me to be crass in saying this, take for example the relatively small area of Old Testament Theology. This field deals only with what the Old Testament has to say about God. Gerhard Hassel’s Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate10 catalogues the various attempts of many different theologians to distill an overarching theme about God from the Old Testament. After a very careful study and a listing of the shortcoming of the various approaches, Hassel concludes:
Our attempt to focus on unresolved crucial problems which are at the center of the current crisis in OT theology has revealed that there are basic inadequacies in the current methodologies and approaches.11
If that is his conclusion dealing solely with the Old Testament, which is only a part of overall Scripture, what happens with the rest of the Bible? The interesting thing is that, as prolific as Old Testament theologies are, they are eclipsed by the New Testament theologies!12 No one seems to be able to agree on one overriding principle as to how to order or explain all of Scripture, which clearly supports the idea of God being like a cathedral.
B. The Depraved Human
Added to this innate finiteness is another aspect of humanity that few of us like to admit to and that is our depravity. The Calvinist system makes much of the evil that resides in the human heart, as any system of theology that takes the Bible seriously should. Scripture minces no words about how evil we are. Jeremiah dryly remarks:
The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)13
Quoting the Old Testament, Paul the apostle writes:
There is none righteous, not even one;
there is none who understands,
there is none who seeks for God;
all have turned aside, together they have become useless;
there is none who does good,
there is not even one. (Romans 3:10-12, quoting Psalm 14:1-3 and 53:1-3)
He then later goes on to write, “[F]or there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” (Romans 3:22b-23)
Most Christians will agree with this assessment. However what we don’t seem to agree with is the fact that, this side of Eternity we still wrestle with that fallen nature. Once more Paul so eloquently puts it in his letter to the Romans:
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. (Romans 7:14-21)
If Paul of Tarsus, one of the most godly men to have ever lived, could say something like that, how much more we who struggle to follow in his footsteps! The depravity clings to us this side of Eternity, it infests us and fights against God’s Spirit’s changing power. And the insidious thing is that we often don’t notice when it strikes, especially when we deal with our theological systems. We think that, because they deal with the spiritual things, they won’t be tainted by the twistedness of our fallen nature. This is where we must stop and rethink. We must realize how permeated we are with sin, how even our moments of highest, most godly bliss will incorporate a few motives that are not in tune with God’s will. This includes our understanding of God.
If we stop and honestly examine ourselves we will find that often two things swing in our building our theology and our defending it. The first is pride. We have labored hard, we understand the Truth about the One God. He has revealed Himself to us!
Beware! Duane Garret once very astutely observed, “Nothing is more harmful to the soul as the notion that my thoughts are God’s thoughts and that He is on my side.” 14 If we feel that we are the ones who have “eaten the truth with a spoon”15, as the Germans put it, then we will view our flawed system to be God’s one and only tool to explain Truth to the world. We’ll be trying to squeeze the Bible into our tiny, odd-shaped constructs and will be shocked to find corners of it poking out in places we don’t expect.
In addition to pride, we will often draw our significance from the coherence of our system and our understanding of Scripture through it, rather than from the God who has made us and redeemed us. If our system is threatened, be it by another person or by the Word itself, then our very significance will be threatened and we will fight tooth and nail to keep anything from tearing this significance away from us. This might account for the death-commandos of the various systems as they have hung their whole worth on this “correct” reading of the Bible.
Add to this that God does allow a spiritual blindness to claim people who have rejected the Light. This is not to say that most systems are darkness, but any system can lead to darkness if any Light given which contradicts or alters the system is rejected in favor of the coherency of the system.16
C. The Logical Human
Another area where our humanity surfaces is in how we have been taught to think. Logic is something that is learned and it clearly differs from society to society. This is why eastern and western thought processes so often clash. It is not merely an issue of differing values, but even a complete difference of how an easterner and a westerner arrive at varying conclusions when faced with the same problem. A very typical eastern response to a problem is to ignore it as long as possible, hoping it will go away, whereas westerners tend to grab the problem by the horns and get rid of it.
Tied in with this is the fact that the Bible is not a western book. It is an extremely eastern book, middle-eastern to be precise and so the logic behind its writing is alien to us westerners. We have been brought up to use Greek logic and Greek thought processes which are highly analytical and deal mostly with deconstructing an issue and looking at its minutiae before trying to reassemble it into the big picture. Hence we run afoul such issues as how to reconcile the free will of man with the absolute sovereignty of God or the idea that we are eternally secure versus the idea that our actions do affect our salvation.
The answer here is the Bible was written not by Greeks, but by Hebrews, who employ a very different system of thought and logic than the Greeks do. The Hebrews seem to espouse a more holistic thought process in which the statement of two opposites to make a point is regular. The Hebrews love comparisons. Their entire poetry is based upon that, comparing similar things, comparing opposites, expanding on those comparisons. Thus it would only be natural for a Hebrew to express the deep things of God in statements that might seem paradoxical to a Greek mindset.
Being trained in western thought, not only in our schools, but also in our seminaries, we wrestle with questions that did not even exist to the Hebrew writers of the Bible. It is often our shortcoming that we try to invent solutions to problems that don’t even really exist in Scripture! We need to learn to think like the Hebrews when we read the Bible, rather than using our Greek thought systems.
Now, there is nothing wrong with the Greek system of logic, as a matter of fact, when used in tandem with the Hebrew system, it is an incredibly powerful tool, but it remains a man-made thing, just as Hebrew logic is. However, for some reason, God chose to reveal Himself through Hebrew thought processes and not through the Greek ones. Perhaps it was because the only way to describe someone like Himself to us limited, depraved humans was through the concrete terms and holistic thought processes of the Hebrew mind. Imagine how it would have been if He’d used the abstract ideas of the Greeks, which are sometimes so esoteric that the seminary student can’t understand them, much less the every-day Joe on the street.17
When we honestly look at these three aspects of the human nature, our finiteness, depravity and lack of training in Hebrew thought should make us extremely humble as we approach Scripture. We must remember that, regardless of how brilliant we are, we will only apprehend the smallest amount of who and what God really is and our system of theology must reflect that. We can’t know it all, at least not this side of Eternity.
- 6. On a side bar, ever notice how both sci-fi and fantasy literature are about the same thing? They’re both about control. Sci-fi controls the world through technology, fantasy through magic and in both cases simple, finite humans cease being what they are and become gods.
- 7. This is claimed on many occasions in various sci-fi works, but one recent place I’ve heard it used was by Dr. Janet Frasier (played by Teryl Rothery) in the Episode entitled “The Rite of Passage” of the TV show Stargate SG-1.
- 8. See here Revelation 20:11-13 for the damned and Revelation 21-22 for the redeemed.
- 9. One prime example here is the Calvinist system’s trying to order everything under the rubric of God’s sovereignty. See here H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1956).
- 10. Gerhard Hassel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Fourth Edition. Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991) is a hassle to read but is extremely informative.
- 11. Hassel, Old Testament Theology, p. 194.
- 12. A simple search of an on-line Christian book store will confirm this fact.
- 13. The tenor of the question and the context suggest that the answer here be “no one.”
- 14. Duane Garrett, Angels and the New Spirituality (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995).
- 15. The literal German proverb is even a little more crass than that. “Sie haben die Wahrheit mit Löffeln gefressen” uses a term for eating that is only used of the way that animals eat and might be translated more accurately as, “They have gorged themselves on the Truth with a spoon.”
- 16. The cults of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are a good testament to this.
- 17. For more about the difference between Greek and Hebrew thought, see Appendix B.