I am concerned with these two posts to establish both the limits of Scripture and the truthfulness of our conclusions we make outside of Scripture. On Thursday, I limply tried to establish that there are limits to the questions we should ask of Scripture. For example, we do not ask the Bible how we should lose weight, for the Bible does not intend to address that question. Moreover, to assume that the Bible’s lack of a condemnation towards some activity you happen to enjoy justifies the activity is an argument from silence, for the Bible does not commend that activity to you either. This is both a faulty understanding of the nature of the Scriptures (since it is not a comprehensive legal guide to the Christian life) and a misunderstanding of what is good. We are to prove what is good and what is evil, I insisted.
But what about the truthfulness of what we prove? As I asked in part 1, “Do we impose a “second book of authority” when we insist that there is truth outside yet derived (secondarily) from the Scriptures? To be sure, the Bible must play a role in determining the morality of our actions. But what about when it does not explicitly address our cultural particulars? Can we be sure? Can we assume that our conclusions are truth?”
The contemporary world has become global, and so we are met with what seems to be myriad ways of looking at reality. To be certain, our exposure to other cultures and other cultural expressions should give us pause before blindly accepting the validity of our own. But this is not to say that every individual or culture reigns sovereign. I believe that we must reject cultural relativity.
But the point here is not to attack cultural relativity (perhaps on a different day I will try to climb that mountain), but to offer that truth outside the Scriptures exists–that we can reach certain conclusions and that our convictions about things we have concluded from the Bible are true. My favorite proof of extra-Biblical truth is the Greek word homoousios.
Theology is closely related to ethics in a number of ways. For conservative evangelicals, theology begins with the foundational things you have been taught in Sunday school and by the sermons you heard at church (or by watching Sesame Street or wherever else you got your theology), which is then (hopefully) corrected or substantiated by the Bible. The evangelical method for determining ethics closely resembles our method for theology. They are both “Biblically based.” But ethics, like theology, is in large part a “second order” discipline. Every evangelical says he believes the Bible. But the immediate question following is What does the Bible say? By the way, this is in large part why creeds (a.k.a. “doctrinal statements) and church covenants are so important. When someone adheres to a summary of doctrine (creed) or practice (church covenant), we better know what he believes. We can compare his doctrine and practice with our own. We can see where his differs from ours and where they are alike.
Creeds and covenants are not first order sources for theology, The Holy Scripture is. I view theology as primarily teaching–taking the Scriptures and communicating it to the church. Again, theology is a second-order discipline, whereby the Scriptures are taken and applied to contradict certain false teaching (negatively) or to articulate and summarize and systematize the Christian teachings found in the Bible (positively).
When we use the “rapture,” we are using it with reference to an understanding of the Bible’s teaching concerning a particular point of eschatology. When we use the word “inerrancy,” we are again making theological deductions about the Bible based on its own teachings. The Bible never uses the word “rapture” or “inerrancy.” Although the Scriptures teach inerrancy, nowhere do they give a nice tidy “doctrine of inerrancy.” Yet we must believe the truth of inerrancy. When we confront what seem to be problem texts that do not neatly mesh with our system, we can change our pre-existing system, but we also sometimes bring our current system to bear on the text, which in turn informs how we understand the way that text coheres with our system. Of course, the goal for every conservative evangelical theology is conformity with the text of Scripture.
So it goes with the homoousios. What does homoousios mean? This is a Greek word that was crucial to the early church’s articulation of the Trinity. Roughly, it means “the same essence,” and was spoken of Christ against the moderate sect’s similar word, homoiousios “the similar or like essence.” Jesus Christ is of the same essence or nature or substance as the Father. As the Nicene Creed says,
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
If Christ is of a different substance, then he is not truly God. If he was made by the Father (and not eternally begotten), then he is of a different substance. This word demonstrates that we can and should make theological pronouncements that not explicitly found in the Scriptures. We believe the historic doctrine of the Trinity, and declare that it is the true teaching of the Scriptures, even though some of their words and summaries, like homoousios, are not explicitly found in Scripture. In a certain sense, they are as true as the Scriptures, because they accurately summarize the teaching of the Scriptures. If they were not the correct teaching of Scriptures, we should reject them. Yet if they are, then we should believe them with all our heart. Christian churches throughout history have accepted the Nicene creed as the orthodox teaching of the Bible. In fact, this Trinitarian teaching was to a certain extent a reaction to teaching which was not Biblical, namely that of Arius and others.
So we believe the truthfulness of certain things that are outside the explicit address of Scriptures. And just as this is true for theology, it is true in the realm of ethics and morality. For example, I believe that abortion is immoral. How do I know this? In part from my understanding of Scriptures, and (in part) from my understanding of what abortion is. My having a correct understanding of abortion is essential to my making accurate conclusions about the morality of it.
This is not to say that we somehow hold the conceived truthfulness of our theology or our moral conclusions like some immovable stalwart. Humility is essential, for if we recognize that it is possible for other persons to err (since they don’t agree with us!), then we should recognize that it is possible for us to error. Particularly when we determining ethics and morality, we should always be studying, always “proving” (1 Thess 5:21-22), and always seeking to better understand ourselves and the nature of things. This can only be done when we fuse the horizons of different “cultures” (those who hold differing theologies, mores, and ethics) with our own. Hopefully their eyes will help confirm what we already understand, but also give us a perspective as to the shortcomings of our own milieu. This is what Jonathan Edwards and Augustine and Calvin and Anslem and the Cappadocian fathers and Bach (!) have done for me–they have shown me a different kind of Christian world, one that critiques my own American fundamentalist/evangelical setting (while I am inevitably critiquing theirs).
All this is to say that when we are convinced that some doctrine or practice is the Biblical teaching on the subject, we should believe it to be truth. We are not preaching an easy road to truth, yet we are condemning the philosophies propagated that any “second order” theology or ethics are in the end unknowable. Just because there is some degree of agnosticism does not mean that we cannot know. Nor should we say that just because an issue is not taught explicitly in the Bible that it is not as important, or somehow relegated as an issue simply of “Christian liberty.” In my view, homoousios and inerrancy and abortion are not matters of “Christian liberty.” They are in essence the Biblical teaching on their respective subjects. There are other second order teachings and practices (the rapture, church government, smoking, whether or not someone has cable) that similarly represent the Biblical teaching, but may not be as crucial to the faith as these other doctrines. Nevertheless, they are still important, and equally represent the Bible’s teaching on that given subject as we understand it. Although my point is not to discuss Christian liberty, let me say that the main principle of Christian liberty seems to be how we treat brothers who are prone to building their Christian ethics simply off the influence of others, simply taking as their own what other people embrace or shun. Finally, weighing the importance of the doctrines is very important in this whole discussion. Paul says eating meat should not be judged (because God will judge that person), but he calls the person who neglects to care for his widowed mother “worse than an infidel.”
In conclusion, I have tried to establish that both theology and mores are both second-order disciplines, summarizing the truths of and deriving their truthfulness from the Word of God. I believe that we should consider these teachings and practices to be the truth though with humility. Moreover, we should not banish all such “second-order” statements and beliefs to the realm of relativity simply because the Bible does not teach them explicitly. Thus our Christian life should be lived understanding the tension between the limits of what the Bible explicitly teaches and the truthfulness of our conclusions of how we apply what it does teach to our faith and practice.