So what should our systems be like? This is a difficult question to answer, mostly because there are no final answers. I would like to use a word picture to suggest how we should view our theological system.
Most of us think of our system as a strong structure, based on the solid rock of Biblical teaching. It will withstand anything that the winds of doubt can send at it. But what happens when the supposedly so solid bedrock shifts, because our understanding of Scripture deepens? The concrete structure begins to collapse in on itself, because it was only built to withstand outside effects, not fundamental ones.
Perhaps a better image of a system that is based solely on Scripture is that of a round chasm. You might say that the chasm is the unknown. On every side of this deep cleft are various eyelets, axiomatic truths that are drilled deep into the bedrock of truth. Anchored to these eyelets are heavy steel cables that span the chasm, crisscrossing one another and forming a strong, secure mesh that can support enormous amounts of weight. The net is flexible, but it is still extremely safe, because if the tension in one strand lessens, the tension in another one will tighten, keeping the entire construct stable.
Artwork © Nat Wibberley. Used by Permission.
This picture is what our theologies should look like. We must live on the net itself, understanding that many of the axiomatic truths in Scripture are diametrically opposed from one another and it is the tension between the two that makes them work! Take, for example, the fact that we are utterly depraved. At the same time we are saved and completely holy. God is utterly sovereign, in control of every facet of all creation, and yet we have a completely free will. God is completely just and must punish sin, but He is also completely merciful and will forgive those who come to Him. God is Three and yet He is One. There are many more examples like this in Scripture and it is precisely the tension that exists between these points that keeps the system secure.
Most theological systems will place their buildings on a given eyelet and shoot at everyone else who has built theirs on another eyelet. Take here, for example, the eternally sparring Calvinists and Arminians. They shoot at each other across the chasm, not realizing that there is Truth in both positions and that it is precisely that tension that makes their systems secure.
Now, the fact that this construct hangs over a chasm is another important part of the picture. God does not reveal everything. To put that in layman’s terms, that would be like trying to download the FBI’s entire fingerprint files on to a single floppy disk. It just won’t work. There isn’t enough space to store all the information! God is so big, so vast that we can’t know everything, but He still gives us enough to be secure – the strands crossing the chasm of the unknown.
And that is where we must allow mystery to remain mystery. Trying to peer behind every curtain, to ascertain all the truths is a very human trait, but it is precisely in the mystery of God that the most worship abounds. Maybe the mystics have a point in trying to experience God. They are content to let the mystery be what it is, while we scholars stumble around in God’s china shop, clumsily knocking over His wonderful truths, shattering them at times, and not really stopping to marvel at the beauty of the way they are put together, only looking at the fine lines etched into the whole or at the shards on the floor, not comprehending the entire picture.
That said, one lesson that can be drawn from this image is that Truth is often, but not always, found in the middle. Perhaps it is so in the case of God’s sovereignty and the free will of man, or in the melding of the symbolism and the spiritual effect of the Eucharist. At other times the answer is found on a completely different plain, one that the human mind cannot even conceive. Who would have thought that God could satisfy both His mercy and His justice through His grace? What human could have conceived of a salvation that would have resulted from God dying for us? That is beyond all human scope and the only result it can engender is abject humility and soaring worship.