Monday, November 22, 2004

Epistemology and Theology: Holistic Thinking

You don't hear a lot in emerging church circles about sin anymore.

Such a lack is somewhat understandable.

Part of it is vocab. The word has been used so many times about so many things for so long that ec wants to find alternative nomenclature.

Part of it is a move in a post-evangelical ec away from a focus on the individual - a desire to break out of a mere concern with personal salvation.

Part of it is a desire to shed unnecessary baggage. The word can connote a preoccupation with playing cards and dancing as sin.

As in many ec moves, we nevertheless have to take care that baby is not thrown out with bathwater. Baggage aside, "sin" is an efficient little word that denotes much legitimately. And while Evangelicalism is well-pushed away from narcissistically focusing only on the individual, it is an overreaction to remove the legitimacy of focusing on one's own individual relationship with God. This includes, of course, a focus on sin. One's own personal sins.

As we avoid thinking deeply about "sin" to our own peril, we similarly err - as we've suggested elsewhere - when we avoid listening carefully (though discerningly) to the lights that have preceeded us.

One of those lights was William Paley, the late 18th century philosopher and theologian.

Paley addresses two topic with which ec is vitally concerned: epistemology and theology. And they speak of an aspect of how we come to know what we know in a way that's not normally treated, especially in philosophical circles. Paley explores the transpropositional aspects of knowing, zeroing specifically in on how our sin - our moral choices - effects what we claim to know and believe.

In the third volume of his Dogmatic Theology, William GT Shedd ( the famous late 19th century theologian) quotes William Paley at length after a couple of remarks:

"[William] Paley (Sermon on John 7:17) shows the influence of the vicious bias of the will upon the judgment of the understanding concerning the truty of Christianity, in the following manner. His general position is, that "virtue produces belief, and vice unbelief." Remarking upon the latter part of the proposition, he says: "A great many persons before they proceed upon an act of known transgression expressly raise the question in their own mind whether religion be true or not, in order to get at the object of their desire; for the real matter to be determined is, whether they shall have their desire gratified or not. In order to get at the vicious pleasure in some cases, or in other cases the worldly gain upon which they have set their heards, they choose to decide, and do in fact decide with themselves, that the truths of religion are not so certain as to be a reason for them to give up the pleasure which lies before them, or the advantage which is now in their power to compass and may never be again,. This conclusion does actually take place, and must almost necessarily take place, in the minds of men of bad morals.

And now remark the effect which it has upon their thoughts and belief afterward. When they come at another time to reflect upon religion, they reflect upon it as something which they had before adjudged to be unfounded, and too uncertain to be acted upon, or to be depended upon; and reflections accompanied with this adverse and unfavorable impression naturally lead to infidelity.


But not only do vicious and sinful men expressly raise the question to themselves, when they desire to gratify their desires, whether religion be true or not, there is also a tacit and unconsious rejection of religion which has the same effect. Whenever a man deliberately ventures upon an action which he knows that religion prohibits, he tacitly rejects religion. There may not pass in his thoughts every step which we have described, not may he come consciously to the conclusion: but he acts upon the conclusion, he practically adopts it. And the doing so will alienate his mind from religion as surely, almost, as if he had formally argued himself into an opinion of its untruth. The effect of sin is necessarily, and highly, and in all cases, adverse to the production and existence of religious faith. Real difficulties are doubled and trebled when they fall in with vicious propensities, and imaginary difficulties are readily started. Vice is wonderfully acute in discovering reasons on its own side" (
Dogmatic Theology, Vol. III, pp. 81,2).

And it would be interesting to hear what corrolary Paley might have to say on the topic of "virtue produces belief" (as above).

What is very helpful in these remarks is Paley's exploration of the nexus of moral choices with belief. Belief is presented not as that which is utterly two-dimensional, logical, and sequential. Rather, belief is subjective with the knower's prior actions influencing them toward or away from particular beliefs.

I believe we see Jesus hinting at the same thing.

"John said to him, 'Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.' But Jesus said, 'Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.'"

Mark 9:37-39 (all quotes English Standard Version, emphasis mine)

Someone doing such works in Jesus' name is thusly hindering from later being able to speak pejoratively of Jesus.

Similarly, one might also see Jesus referring to a similar effect when after his resurrection but before his ascension the Lord conducts his famous interview with two of his followers on the Emmaus road. Jesus asks them what they're talking about. Cleopus responds:

"Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" 19And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.

(Luke 24:18b-21a, emphasis mine)

Cleopus goes on to speak of reports of an empty tomb and Jesus says,

"'O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! '"

Luke 24:25

These two disciples seem genuinely befuddled. Moreover, they explicitly indicate "we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel."

Jesus does not then simply tell them, "No, no, no, you're missing some of the steps. Let me set you straight." He does do this, but he also seems to hold them morally culpable for their lack of faith at this point. For Jesus characterizes the Emmaus disciples as being "slow of heart to believe."

This all indicates that there is no place for a putatively objective study of God or Christian theology apart from a very subjective submission to Jesus as Lord and Christian morality. The study of God must be intensely relational and flow out of obedience.

The intimate relationship between obedience and theological study can also be discerned in Jesus response to the scribe's question about the greatest commandment:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

And Jesus decided to add:

"On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."

Matthew 22:37b-40

The very foundation of the Scriptures is horizontal and vertical love. So also our study of them.

We've elsewhere explored other transpropositional aspects of epistemology.

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