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More on understanding the nature of Theology

September 1, 2009

First, I want to thank all of you for your comments on this blog. The comments have pushed me to make things clear and concise. I really appreciate it.

I have been thinking about how to explain why there are different branches of Christian (and when I say Christian I mean those who confess the Nicene Creed) theology and why there seems to be such a wide range of opinions on different subjects. It’s always been my thinking they are not really that different, but I haven’t thought of a good way to explain to people who aren’t believers. I can completely understand why it’s so confusing and I have really worked on hard trying to explain the weirdness.

Then, an analogy came to me when I didn’t expect it. It came as I have been working hard to understand the science and elegance of evolution. I have just finished Ken Miller’s excellant book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for the American Soul. In the book, he talks about evolution has been badly explained both by its opponents and its advocates. This explanation is often presented as either blind chance by its opponents or unpredictable by its advocates.

Miller argues that neither is correct. He believes that evolution has to be viewed in two ways, big picture and details. He conceeds that in the details, it’s often very unpredictable how evolution will play out. However, in the big picture, it’s very easy and that evolution has a purpose to everything it does. Miller shows in his book how evolution in a general sense is confined by a number of different factors, pushed towards “conclusions” if you will. It explores the space given to it by the natural world, but it’s limited by that space to do definite things.

Whether you think Miller’s explanation of evolution is a good one, it’s a perfect analogy for how theology works. In the details, it’s often very unpredictable. For example, why do some Christians drink alcohol and others don’t? Or, why there are different views on the Lord’s Supper? Or, why are there are so many dang denominations? The variety of these questions show how unpredictable theology is because of the individual people who have done it over the course of the history of Christianity.

But, in a general sense, theology is bound by certain rules, rules I have outlined in a recent post. It takes definite shape, no matter who does it and it guides it along a certain path. There is a remarkable amount of agreement of these constraints among Christians who confess the Nicene Creed. Just as in evolution, it explores the space and is remarkably creative, but it stays within the space.

I hope this is helpful.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew permalink
    September 1, 2009 12:41 pm

    One question:

    In the historicity threads and elsewhere, you’ve suggested works by liberal theologians as though they somehow represented the nonbeliever’s or skeptic’s position.

    Do you think that is a correct categorization?

  2. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 1, 2009 12:46 pm

    Well, no, not exactly. I present them as people who are wrestling with the evidence in a different way.

  3. Ms. Crazy Pants permalink
    September 1, 2009 1:21 pm

    But, in a general sense, theology is bound by certain rules, rules I have outlined in a recent post.

    Can you provide a link to that? Either I missed it or I’m just being spacey.

  4. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 1, 2009 1:22 pm

    Ask and you shall recieve.

  5. AdamK permalink
    September 1, 2009 1:30 pm

    Sounds remarkably like Harry Potter fan fiction.

  6. Ms. Crazy Pants permalink
    September 1, 2009 1:52 pm

    Ask and you shall recieve.

    Ahh, posted on the 28th. That explains why I missed it. I was busy drooling over fast motorcycles in Indy that day.

  7. Shannon permalink
    September 1, 2009 1:57 pm

    I see the mindspace, and – to risk a Henleinism – I grok.

    I have a small issue, however: What is it theology is intended to do? It doesn’t cross across divides in dogma, it certainly doesn’t (generally) add anything to the dialogue over whose interpretation is correct.

    I can see a certain argument in the direction of interpreting the bible to fit better into modern society; after all, stoning your recalcitrant child isn’t exactly something we condone, these days, and trying to justify it biblically may be easy but won’t win you friends. The question is still begged, though:

    Why devote so much time to theological concerns when, just like evolutionary pathways, as you mention, it leads to fragmentation and division within the structure of christianity’s followers?

    Passages from the bible can be chosen to prove just about any point of view (heck, review the pro and anti- slavery movements of the 1800’s for wonderful examples) – what does theology offer beyond an attempt to reclassify passages yet again to justify.. well.. whatever else has come down the pipe?

  8. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 1, 2009 2:11 pm

    Do I dare ask, Adam?

  9. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 1, 2009 2:17 pm

    As for why to devote so much time to theological concerns, you are focusing on the fragmamentation part of my example and not the big picture. The big picture would be the reason for doing so.

    Yes, passages CAN be chosen to do exactly what you say. This is why I outlined a full developed view on how to avoid that in another post.

  10. September 1, 2009 2:48 pm


    So wait…does that mean that Jesus was God’s Mary Sue?

  11. AdamK permalink
    September 1, 2009 4:19 pm

    Non credo quia absurdum.

  12. AdamK permalink
    September 1, 2009 4:23 pm

    Jonathan, I’m reading Chas. Williams’ “Many Dimensions” currently, which is doing disturbing things to my mental functions.

    Highly recommended (especially for anglophiles.)

  13. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 1, 2009 8:36 pm

    Ah, Chas, one of my favorites. He is certainly high on the weird skubulos meter. No question, but that’s what makes him awesome.

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