Principles of Theological Dialogue

After a conversation with a good friend the other day, I started thinking of some fundamental principles of theological dialogue which will hopefully aid in avoiding confusion and bad arguments.

1) Creator/Creature distinction

  • This is one of the most fundamental premises of all theology from the perspective of humanity. If we are to say anything about God at all, we must not confuse these two categories. Not much to say here, but the importance of this principle is seen in what follows

2) Contingent vs. Necessity

  • This follows from point one. God as creator is necessary, and the creation is contingent upon Him. Thus, all that takes place in the spatio-temporal realm of the universe is contingent. The implications of this principle will be clarified by an example. Often I hear an argument against Protestantism that goes something like this: “Look at how many denominations there are! This only happened after the Reformation, therefore, Protestantism necessarily leads to fragmentation and division. Jesus wanted his Church to be unified (i.e., John 17), thus Protestantism is not the true church.” The problem with this is that it takes contingent events in history (fragmentation) and makes those contingent events necessary. Now, if one wanted to say that that Protestantism is necessarily fractious, then one would have to begin with the definition of Protestantism and go from there (NOTE: some think that the word “Protestantism” means to protest something, but this is blatantly false and just plain silly). But, to argue that conclusion from the contingent facts of history is to ignore the fact that theology takes place in a contingent universe.

3) History over Systematics

  • There is no such thing as systematic theology because theology takes place in space and time. This follows from the last point of the contingency of the universe. Humans cannot escape their limits and it is naive to try to do so. The point is, there is no such thing as “5 points of Calvinism” that exists in a theological vacuum. But there are “5 points of Calvinism” in response to the “5 points of Arminianism.” All theology must be taken in context.

4) Irreversibility of Time

  • While all events are contingent, once they occur they cannot be undone. And once the occur, they influence and change everything that follows. Thus, while the Reformation tried to pick up in the Early Church before they thought everything went wrong (the Restorationists who tried to go back to the NT times came later), it is impossible to hit the reset button and act as if the previous 1000 years never happened. Indeed, it is only because the previous 1000 years happened that the Reformation happened, and the Reformation’s attempt to go back is merely one more step forward in time. Everything that came after is also influenced by these events. No two churches are alike. Maybe I’m being to Platonic, but there is a difference between a thing, the image of the thing in ones mind, and the painting one does of the thing (or of the image of the thing in ones mind).

I’m sure there will be more to add, but I think this is a good place to start.


8 thoughts on “Principles of Theological Dialogue

  1. On point 1: a good and important point to stress, but I do not see the importance of it for the remaining points.

    On point 2, you said:

    “The problem with this is that it takes contingent events in history (fragmentation) and makes those contingent events necessary. Now, if one wanted to say that that Protestantism is necessarily fractious, then one would have to begin with the definition of Protestantism and go from there (NOTE: some think that the word “Protestantism” means to protest something, but this is blatantly false and just plain silly). But, to argue that conclusion from the contingent facts of history is to ignore the fact that theology takes place in a contingent universe.”

    But, this makes little sense to me; especially the first sentence quoted. How is it that the taking of something contingent and making it necessary? And, even if, what then? Come, come Ryan, you have had some elementary logic. It’s called a syllogism, and that is the structure of syllogisms. Some syllogisms move from necessary premises to necessary conclusions, while others move, with perfect validity, from contingent premises to necessary conclusions. If you do not think this is possible then I must respectfully disagree; it’s above your pay grade to say so. Hence, I do not think that anyone is ignoring that history is contingent (in a strange use of contingency), but rather the fact that theologising takes place within a contingent universe speaks nothing to the validity of conclusions. How could it?

    On point 3:
    So, since theology takes place in space and time therefore there is no such thing as “the Five Points of Calvinism”? That makes little sense and, also, a bit of a sweeping generalisation isn’t it? All theology must be taken in context? Context of what? Could we not have a theology that transcends the “limitations” of space and time, or at least have aspects of our theology so transcend? If the answer is “no” then I fear for the faithful, since they are caught in the grips of EARTH and nothing more. If the answer is “yes”, then it would seem that we have the potential for a genuine THEOS-logos. I.e. if all theology is caught in the grips of contingency and contextualness, how on earth do we know that it isn’t all stupidity? I ask genuinely. Is it really naive to try to transcend limits towards what is not limited? I thought that was what it meant to be a theologian (have you been reading Derrida?).

    On point 4:
    First of all, not every event is contingent. That being said, you are correct in saying that a “reset” button cannot be pushed.Your reference to Plato’s theory of art and imitation is also a bit obscure; are you trying to say that, given that no two ecclesiastic bodies are the same, and given the historical seatedness of those bodies, therefore we should not make proclamations as to what is the Church and what is not? (Presumably, further, because given the above no one is in a position to offer any judgment beyond a “contingent, historical preference” or some such thing?).

    I’m afraid I am more confused by your words here than before; you are sounding more modern than historical, more 19th century than 3rd century.

    your slightly pugnacious brother, Sam

  2. I will try to make my response brief, and I will not hit every point you said. Principle 2) was actually where I started, the others were things I had been thinking about before and tried to squeeze them in to this post (i.e., I didn’t want to do a bunch of separate posts). So, I will play my cards and try to be clearer at what I was trying to say. I rushed through writing this because I didn’t want to forget it (I even felt that I didn’t express myself clearly, but I didn’t have time to edit it). And, yes, I still don’t get contingency. 🙂 I was going off of the little I remember from the Torrance lectures, but I’m sure I didn’t do it justice.

    So, here is the point, which just so happens to be the main problem that I had with Khomyakov when I first read his work “On the Western Confessions of Faith” (though, this is not what immediately prompted my post). Namely, moving from the fact that there is fragmentation in the Protestantism/Western Christianity to the conclusion that such fragmentation was necessary. I can’t see how that conclusion necessarily follows, especially when one considers that the fragmentation that followed the Reformation had many other factors contributing to it (cf. the first chapter in “God is Dead” by Steve Bruce). Now, whether Khomyakov makes that argument or not, I don’t remember. Again, this post was prompted by another conversation (with a Roman Catholic convert) who consistently implied that Protestantism is inherently fractious because it has splintered into so many different groups. But isn’t that question begging? Maybe not, I’m not sure, but something just doesn’t jive. I am white after all. 🙂

    Maybe it would be clearer to put it this way. To say that there has been fragmentation in Protestantism/the West is a fact. But facts are not arguments. So what if the “East” never had a Reformation? That doesn’t mean that it never could or will. It just means that it hasn’t happened. This is my frustration. Stating a fact (which is contingent :)), and assuming without argument that it necessarily implies something. That does not mean that one couldn’t make the argument that Protestantism is necessarily fractious, it just means that pointing out the fact of fragmentation isn’t the place to start.

    Sorry, this wasn’t as brief as I had hoped, I just hope that I made my original intentions clearer. I really would like to figure this out. My mind just continually goes back to the Donatist controversy. The character of the Priest is irrelevant because it is God who is working the Eucharist and Baptism. Could not one likewise say that the character of the Protestant churches is irrelevant, what matters is God working through them? Or, so what if the Western churches have fragmented: is what they say true? Don’t argue for the complete illegitimacy of Protestantism or Roman Catholicism (for the Orthodox) on the basis of the accidents of history, but on whether or not what they teach is true. You may think it is false, but I find it deceptive to argue in that way with people who know nothing of Church History or Theology. It is more apt to evoke an emotion response than critical thinking.

    • Well, this is a little better 🙂 on the last paragraph, though, you want to know whether it matters if the Western churches are fragmented or not. Can you honestly tell me that it doesn’t matter? “Is what they say true?” Well, by what standard would you judge the truth of their statements? How are you going to determine whether what they say is true or not? All you have are counter-terms, people speaking past each other and beginning at different points. How does one judge? I made my judgment by looking at who has the longest historical claims, the most coherent doctrines in light of those claims, a history of genuine faithful people and clergy, apostolic roots, beautiful buildings, liturgy and not a show, beautiful music that contains beautiful theology and prayers, a vibrant and extensive and ancient monastic tradition (the protestants completely forget that one), and strong cultural influences wherever it is. If one looks at criteria such as these, which are by and large objective and open to scrutiny, then perhaps one will be in a better position to be saying whether the western churches (and the east) are speaking truth or not. Otherwise, how will you judge? This is not to say that what the western churches teach is not true, much if not most of it (and here I am primarily thinking of the Romans) is. But, is it the whole deal, the complete package, the living truth, the living church? Can the fragmented protestant ecclesial bodies lay claim to that, in good faith? Perhaps that is what your Roman friend was trying to get at. (also, it is highly common for converts to be a bit brash when they become either Roman or Orthodox, so don’t be too surprised. I’ll try not to be too brash myself.)

      • I do think it matters if only that it is a little disconcerting. My contention is that inter-Christian dialogue gets confusing when proper subject boundaries are not set or clearly defined. For example, to ask, “is this specific teaching of Protestantism true?” is a separate question form asking, “what are the criteria for determining true doctrine?” Too often I see the first question answered by the answer of the second question–or, answered by a lack of or insufficient answer (i.e., you don’t know so the answer to Q1 is no!).

        If you do want to know my criteria, it first involves internal consistency and then external consistency (of course, I would want to make sure that I understand the doctrine in it’s proper historical context :)). External consistency is a little tricky because here, as I was trying to say above, one has to be careful of the implied question. To say, “is it true?” is too general. The first place I would start would, of course, be in Scripture. If it fails that test, then I would be hesitant to move forward. If, by appearances, it passes, then I would compare it with the earliest extant Christians sources and, as Everett Ferguson says, see if I can get there from here. I would also want to see if the doctrine is consistent with the other things I believe. At least, that’s what I have so far.

  3. In case you’re curious, the last two principles could probably be put into one. I wanted to mention them because someone was commenting on an argument of Rob Bell in his new book that hell, justification, etc… were merely metaphors. The implied conclusion is that we can use new metaphors today. So, my point that I was trying to get across was that even if such language was a metaphor at the time of Jesus and the Apostles, the fact that they used it means that it has now become a part of our language of justification, hell, etc… and we cannot avoid it or toss it out. Jesus could have used any metaphor he wanted, but he used the nasty ones about fire and torment, so we are stuck with those.

  4. Also, I just remembered another reason for the last two principles. This comes from the often misunderstood position of Origen on hell and the fate of Satan (again, prompted by the Bell controversy). To summarize the issue: Origen said it was logically possible because of free will that Satan could repent and find redemption, but he said it wasn’t likely to happen (people often take this as a positive affirmation of universalism when it isn’t). Anyways, I think one of the problems with understanding Origen is that his concept of free will was specific to his time and his opponents. The understanding of free will has changed over the years, so to assume they have the same meaning is equivocating and poor scholarship. But, care for such details is often overlooked in theological dialogue and we abstract Origen from his time and place, systematize his ideas, and then judge whether they are true or not. But without respect for his context, this inevitably leads to strawmen.

    • Well, that’s a valid enough point. The same occurs in the history of philosophy as well.

      I would continue to say, though, that one can logically move from contingent premises to a necessary conclusion. Of course, we need to be careful with out modal operators; are we speaking of contingency and necessity de re or are we speaking de dicto. That would change things. But… I don’t want to get into that 🙂

      • I probably wouldn’t understand if you did. I think I was just sloppy in my haste to publish my scattered thoughts. You’ll have to explain the “move from contingent premises to a necessary conclusion” sometime so I can know how to avoid confusing language in the future.

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