Finding Fishy Theology

(system) #1

the·ol·o·gy (thē-ˈä-lə-jē) noun, the study of God and God's relation to the world

fish·y (fi-shē) adj. Informal, Inspiring doubt or suspicion

We all reach conclusions about God, whether he[1] exists, his principles and ethics, how or if he interacts with us. All based on a wide variety of investigative means. Some are directly experiential, some involve reasoning. But there is a tremendous amount of disagreement even among Theists, among Christians, among Adventists. And the disagreement is not just regarding “facts” but, importantly, also about the validity of the various methodologies whereby we try to obtain and ground our theology. Some methodologies and conclusions seem, to me, sensible and worth emulating. Others seem downright “fishy”. How then might we find, and separate out, the “fishy” theology?

It would be good to begin at the beginning, but few do, or even realize that they have failed to do so. Everyone grows up in a specific cultural and familial setting. Thus their earliest theology is necessarily influenced, often entirely, by these surroundings. And I question whether very many stray far from that inheritance. So what should be “the beginning”?

There is a stock, traditional answer to this, for many Christians. The Bible tells me so. But the weakness of this assertion as a starting position ought to be obvious, yet often it isn’t. No human was born accepting the Bible (or any other revelatory source) as the final authority about God. Thus it cannot be the initial starting point. There has to be some a priori reasons why anyone would elevate the Bible to the position of authority. Consequentially those reasons are more foundational, at least initially, than the Bible. What then, are they?

I think we can get a useful answer by rephrasing and asking what are the qualities we think God has – or ought to have – that would make him worthy of worship? Now various God-adequate qualities are likely to come to mind, beginning perhaps with all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. I contend that people envision God to be, as St. Anselm stated: “That, than which nothing greater can be conceived”[2]. God is the most loving, knowledgeable, fair, honorable, wise, kind, available, etc. etc. being we might envision. He embodies all the virtues with no moral or physical negatives. No lies, folly, meanness, weakness or absence. Good to the max, no badness in any way. Is this not your conception?

Christians typically see these virtues basically embodied in God the Father and Jesus[3]. And the Bible is understood to be the revelation, given by God, of His will for us. Christians are then willing to make it authoritative because we have accepted that linkage between the God we believe is worthy of worship and the Bible. If we didn’t believe the linkage was valid we would reject its authority or look for alternatives such as the Koran or Bhagavad Gita. Consequently Biblical authority is a conclusion first before it is subsequently used foundationally in the maxim “The Bible tells me so”.

This relationship, while undeniable, is also problematic for multiple reasons.

1) Humans are limited and faulty. Thus they might be mistaken in the conclusion that their preferred revelatory source is God-initiated and thus authoritative. Christians, for example, wish to elevate the Bible but not, say, the Koran. Thus they believe those who instead elevate the Koran are mistaken in doing so. But they need to accept that the same could be said about them. The old aphorism applies: “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”[4]. Each believer ought to consider and occasionally revisit their underlying reasons for accepting “scripture” and rejecting alternate candidates.

2) God is, necessarily, more authoritative than we are. Thus accepting a revelatory source implies acquiescence to its precepts. Yet we humans have to read and interpret what those precepts are. And doing that correctly is not a certainty because it is a human endeavor. Thus there is a conundrum that has nothing to do with humans being unwilling to listen to God. They can accept a revelatory source, agree that they wish its principles to be normative in their lives – but make an honest mistake in interpretation and application.

Thus that simple phrase “the Bible tells me so” is much harder to apply, in practice. My #1, above, addresses the issue of “Bible”, my #2 the issue of “tells”. Both are problems due to human limitations.

It is tempting at this point to do two interrelated things:

1) Deny that the interpretive problem exists. We hear the saying “the Bible is its own interpreter”. But this is obviously not true on its face. The Bible is inanimate. What is generally meant by this, I believe, is that careful Bible study will produce an unambiguous conclusion about whatever question prompts the investigation. This, I think, fails in practice. Some issues are sufficiently complex and the potentially applicable Bible principles have perhaps such cultural distance that there remains a measure of uncertainty regarding God’s mind on various problematic questions. There is a broad range of clarity/opaqueness when trying to apply the Bible to our lives. A great deal is quite clear and much of this clarity is addressing the most important issues. But not everything is equally clear, and honest Christians will often disagree about some interpretations.

2) Commit the false dilemma fallacy. That is, either the Bible is interpretively unambiguous or we are adrift in human relativism. Some people have a hard time with ambiguity. And Christian orthodoxy would understandably expect God’s word & will to take precedence over our opinions. So a simplifying move is tempting – either the Bible can infallibly address every situation, or relativistic chaos will ensue. But it is one thing to realize that absolutes exist from God, it is quite another for humans to know them – absolutely. This false dilemma is a way to support denial of any interpretive problem.

The dilemma exists because there are two potential sources of truth, both problematic. There is what I now will label our “internal moral compass”. This is how we conceive of God and good in the first place. It is used initially, at minimum, to elevate any revelation-wannabe. But we all realize our moral compasses can also be (and frequently are) flawed. We can easily point to human examples of grossly distorted moral compasses. So we naturally are averse to making this questionable foundation bedrock-normative.

But even when we are willing to elevate a revelatory candidate to be normative, we ignore the interpretative problem at our peril. We can also point to examples on the margin, where interpretive authority was abused by charismatic leaders who persuaded their followers they were correctly exegeting – yet led them to disaster. Even an infallible source is necessarily filtered through fallible instruments, and the risk of mistakes is real.

So, how then can we find “fishy” theology? Is it hopeless? I think not, but do not want to make the same mistake about authority I am cautioning against. So I will, much more modestly, here only suggest an approach that makes sense to me. Perhaps it will for you as well. Or not.

We cannot avoid being human and ought to admit the possibility of error up front. But, if one believes in a personal God – who communicates and cares about us – it is also reasonable to think such a God would not leave us in the dark. We ought to expect communication, and that means revelation which can, in general, be understood clearly. Finally, pathological examples aside[5], it is reasonable (so say I) to believe fundamental moral absolutes can be intuited by humans. Just not infallibly.

So … I think we ought to iterate. That is, we can: 1) make fallible but reasonable intuitive (via our moral compass) judgments about morality; and 2) the Bible can be considered the “word of God”. Thus we study scripture as normative and try to extend our understanding by finding and listening to others[6] similarly engaged. We then need to reflect whether the conclusions thus obtained sync with our internal moral compass or not. If there is dissonance we must recognize the error could be: 1) a fault in our moral compass; or 2) a mistaken interpretation in our Biblical understanding. Then we make a prayerful decision to either revise our understanding of revelation or our present internal norms. God can be behind a move in either direction. Our world-view is thus somewhat modified. But each move is tentative, at least at first. Over time the change should either lead to more or less dissonance. Theology does drive ethics, albeit murkily at times. And if our personal history has infused us with some judgmental warping God will use a Biblical corrective. Likewise if we have made an exegetical error then eventually we can have the opportunity to see that such a viewpoint fails ethically/morally, in practice. The key is iteration and evaluation. We need to have a modest opinion of our inherent insightfulness, a high opinion of God’s desire to teach us, and an ongoing attention to openness and willingness to change when convicted. This is no algorithm, magic bullet or recipe for perfection. It is a humble, teachable spirit, buoyed by God’s grace as life preserver for the well-intentioned but fallible works-in-progress that we are.

[1] He? Does God have gender? What does that even mean? I therefore employ gender as cultural acquiescence.

[2] Anselm’s Ontological Argument. Found in his Proslogion, Chapter 2.

[3] Jesus, having an accessible story, is a clearer model. Except, of course, that during his incarnation attributes like omnipresence and omnipotence were apparently constrained.

[5] Such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Hitler, etc.

[6] Iteratively deemed trustworthy by the same process I’m attempting to describe here.

Rich Hannon is on the AAF Board and is Columns editor for the Spectrum Website.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at