Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Gentle Critique of My Thoughts on History and Theology

It was nice to hear from a colleague of mine (we both served congregations in Utica Presbtery), Bob Campbell. Bob now pastors a church in Pennsylvania. Utica Presbytery was a moderate to liberal presbytery, I would guess, at that time. Bob spoke eloquently and with style on behalf of the evangelical voice there. While now and then we found ourselves voting on different sides of an issue, I was impressed that Bob knew what it meant to be a "colleague in ministry."

I will leave this up for now, then respond later.


You may or may not remember me. We were fellow members of Utica Presbytery back in the ‘90’s. I was at Oneida 1st when you were at Lowville. I’ve read your letters on Presbyweb over the past few years. Maybe you have read mine too. Actually I was thinking about you last night, about sending you an email. Imagine my surprise today when I found a link to your blog in a nasty letter on the Layman’s webpage. So, first a few comments on things you said in your last blog:

1) I entirely agree with you about premillenial dispensationalism. Anyone who is a Reformed Christian should say the same. Premillenial dispensationalism is a bad exegesis and bad theology. Sorry, I didn’t follow your rule about I statements there. I might not say this in the mocking way that you do, but bad exegesis is bad exegesis and theology based on bad exegesis is bad theology. And when people make a lot of money based on bad exegesis and bad theology it pisses me off too!

2) I’m not always sure when you make a theological statement and when you make a statement that grows out of your understanding of scientific and historical method. Some examples:

a) You say: “A ball does not roll down an incline plane because God wills it.” This,it seems to me, is a theological statement and not a scientific statement, although you may not mean it as a theological statement. As I read the rest of this particular blog I understood you to say basically that science explains the how and theology tries to give meaning. A scientific statement on the subject would be an observational statement with a theory about why the ball rolls down the incline plane.

i) An example might be an observation that the ball gathers speed at a constant rate, (although the condition of the incline plane and the ball might interfere with it. Let’s assume that we have a perfectly shaped ball and an incline plane with no bad spots or bits of pine sap on it!), which allows us to first measure the increase of the speed of the ball. Then we have to repeat the same experiment with the same ball and incline plane a bunch of times to make sure that the experiment is repeatable. Then we might be able to develop a mathematical equation that allows us to express the rate at which the ball gathers speed. Finally we might be able to propose a theory, with mathematical equations attached, that suggest that some force, that we will call gravity causes the ball to roll down. Of course all this work was done a long time ago.

ii) But to say that the ball does not roll down an incline plane because God wills it is not a scientific statement. It speculates about who God might be and what God might do. Deists, for example, would say that a ball does roll down an incline plane because God wills it. Or rather they would say that God has so set up the laws of the universe so that the ball will always roll down the incline plane. I, on the other hand am a bit more complicated. I would say that God has indeed so set up the universe so that the ball, with perfect conditions will normally roll down the incline. But, being the rather traditional Calvinist that I am, I would also say that if just one time God wants the ball to roll up the incline instead of down, God can do that.

iii) I know; this is not a scientific statement. Science depends on repeatability and therefore makes certain assumptions about the nature of the universe. Science assumes that the universe always operates in regular patterns. Nevertheless one cannot rule out miracles, or at least what theologians might call miracles, because of the operating assumptions of the scientific method. The assumptions that miracles can’t happen. Science therefore cannot rule out miracles. It can only say that scientists do not study miracles because they depend upon repeatability as a basis for their observations. A miracle, by definition is not repeatable.

b) You say, “Only one phrase of the Apostle's Creed can be evaluated historically, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried." The rest is theology. It is a far more beautiful and hopeful statement of faith than history could ever grant it.” I’m not sure that this statement is entirely accurate. It is accurate if one’s view of the proper way to do history grows out of historicism, which has as an assumption that miracles don’t happen.

i) Historians I talk with, (you may remember Joyce Irwin, the Music Director and Christian Educator at 1st who also had a PhD in Church History), describe their craft differently. While Joyce disagreed with me about the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, she observed that historians evaluate events as historical or not historical on the basis of the evidence. This means that while in some cases we may be able to rule certain events as highly improbable or highly probable and others as various degrees of possible, one cannot automatically assume that an event that would scientifically be ruled to be a miracle, (on the basis of its non repeatability), would not also be historically possible or even probable. While I would agree with you that most of the claims in the Apostle’s Creed stand outside of history, (how are we to make any historical evaluation of the clause, “he descended into hell,” as this clause describes something that by definition happened or didn’t happen outside of the possibility of human observation?), the statement that Jesus rose from the dead can be evaluated on the basis of statements like that of Paul in I Corinthians 15: that others had seen the risen Christ, (of course in the case of others, from a historian’s point of view we would have to say that Paul recorded what the statement of others which would be open to evaluation), and that Paul himself had see the risen Christ. One might also evaluate the behavior of the early Christians in the face of persecution as supporting evidence for the resurrection, although one would want to do historical and other kinds of criticism both on documents written by Christians and on those written by others, (the letters of Pliny, for example).

ii) Some religious claims to historicity can be described as highly improbable. For example, you mention so called creation science. Geological studies and fossil studies, to say nothing of astronomical observations, make it very highly improbable that the universe is less than 10,000 years old. In fact there are archeological studies in that suggest that the date of 4004 BC as the date of creation simply will not work. I would add to this that the exegesis of Genesis 1-3 by the creationists is poor. What kind of “history” are we supposed to find in a highly stylized poem, (the first creation story), and a story in which the male is called “man” and the woman is called “other of all living, (the second creation story)?”

iii) Having said all of that, I don’t think that one comes to faith in Jesus Christ through historical evaluation. While some people might do some historical evaluation first, ultimately people have some kind of faith experience. Faith experiences are historical events but whether the experience describes reality is not open to historical or scientific evaluation.

c) This is getting long so let me make one last observation. You say, “Christ will come to judge the quick and the dead. That doesn't mean he is coming at some time in history to dole out eternal lollipops or spankings, but that the justice and compassion of God will come to fruition in our lives if we would only open ourselves to it. The "second coming" of Christ has already begun. It is the hope and the presence of God in our midst, raising our awareness, enabling us to live with all the things for which Jesus lived.” This, as you point out, is a theological observation. I disagree with your observation. I believe Jesus will return. I do believe that God calls us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to seek to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God now and therefore to live justly and with compassion and also to work in an attempt to so influence governments and societies that there may be more justice and compassion. Both as a theological observation and as an observation on the vicious way humans treat one another and God’s good creation, I don’t believe justice and compassion can become complete until Jesus returns and makes it complete. That, I think, is the true purpose of Christ’s return, of which judgment of humans will merely be a part.

Again, it was good to read what you wrote and I have enjoyed interacting with your thoughts. I always liked you, John. It seems we have some rather large disagreements, but I hope you will be willing to interact with me as well.

In Christ’s love,
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