Clear, logical, Biblical and wrong

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I like Gerv’s comments; we often disagree but they often get me thinking, and often expose me to viewpoints I hadn’t thought of before. After my recent musings about sovereignty he pointed me at a John Piper article about God’s two wills. Some further tentative thoughts on that article:

First it made me think about a more general point about the development of doctrine. This is not specifically about what Piper says, but it reminded me because his main mode of argument seems to be that if you take this bit of scripture and that bit of scripture, you can put them together like building blocks and form a doctrine. It’s a very common and a very logical mode of argumentation, using axiomatic raw materials and building a proof out of them. If you accept the metaphor of the Bible as the storehouse of truth, then this makes a lot of sense.

One major problem is that I’m not sure this is how the Bible is meant to be used. Most of the Bible is the story of God’s people, and narrative makes bad axiom. Then there’s poetry, and love poems, and allegorical stories, and prophecy, then some tales of Jesus and then some letters. Even if you decide that the purpose of all of these things is actually to impart doctrinal truth - a pretty shaky proposition to begin with - that still doesn’t get you to the point where you can use a verse from one and a verse from another to build up an argument.

The other major problem with it is that it leads you to conclusions which are clear, logical, Biblical and wrong. A lot of people like Piper because he’s clear and logical and Biblical. But that doesn’t equate to correct. Here’s an example of such an argument: The Bible is the word of God (2 Tim 3:16). Job 1:10 is the word of Satan. Job 1:10 is part of the Bible. Therefore, clearly, logically and Biblically, Satan is God.

Now you might think that that is a silly example, but that’s no reason to dismiss it. It is a logically argued and Biblically based argument. You will have to do a little better than just calling it “silly.” You know it’s silly because of something else. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Here’s a more serious one. How many persons are there in the Godhead? Using the Scripture-building-block principle you can construct a good clear, logical and Biblical argument for one, two, three or four.

But despite these arguments, however clear, logical and Biblical they may be, we know that there are three for precisely the same reason that we know that Satan is not God: because that’s what the Church teaches. The catholic teaching of the Church inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, not the strength of logic or the clarity of argumentation, is the trump card in deciding whether a Biblical argument is valid or not. The Trinity, for instance, is hardly clear, totally illogical and at least as arguably Biblical as the other views - but it is the belief of the Church. The Church upholds the Trinity not because it is clear from Scripture but needs to uphold it precisely because it is not clear from Scripture!

And it has been ever thus. I keep coming back to Acts 10 - Peter had a belief that was clear, consistent, Biblical and wrong.

Tertullian in his debates with Marcion famously cautioned against the use of Greek philosophical forms in the understanding of doctrine - what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? - and said that since even heretics quote the Scriptures, doctrinal truth is not found in the Scriptures alone but in the rule of faith established by the Church. (Against the Heresies, ch.21) As such he refused to use the Bible in debate with non-believers - the Bible belongs to the Church.

John Henry Newman started writing a book about the development of doctrine, but abandoned his effort when he realised that doctrine really is a set of progressive revelations to the Church and not simple induction from the Bible. (At which point he realised that his objections to Catholicism made no sense, and so he swam the Tiber. I’m not planning on doing that, but I do think they have their heads screwed on right on this point.) His simple maxim is one that I believe: “The Church teaches, the Bible proves.”

I am not saying that we should be suspicious of an argument that is clear, logical and Biblical. What I am saying is that there are many arguments which are clear, logical and Biblical, but this is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for them to be right. Biblical backing is important, but it is the backing of the Church which settles it, because we know that there are a multitude of possible interpretations, and we cannot stake important questions of faith to the vagaries of interpretation. There needs to be a magisterium over the Bible; thankfully there is, and it is called the Church. I believe that Protestants will get the hang of this eventually. (It’s always funny that Protestants balk at the idea of “Scripture and Tradition” but if you talk to them about “hermeneutical communities”, you get thumbs up all round.)

My second thought was about the Calvinist idea of the two wills of God. Calvinists remind me of the man who thinks that the best way to get out of a hole is to keep digging. Once you have swallowed both limited salvation and God’s universal will for salvation, you are left with all sorts of problems. To avoid these problems, they come out with the idea of two wills.

A small problem: A God who wants something (good) but chooses not to decree it is malevolent. A God who decrees something He doesn’t want is insane. I can certainly fear an insane and malevolent God, but I certainly can’t love one. And He calls me to love Him. So that can’t be right. A two-willed God might be a nice clear, logical, and possibly even Biblical argument, but that does not equate to the Christian God.

On the Facebook comments to the previous article, Peter Yonge suggested we think in terms of not “God wants” versus “God wills” but “God wants” versus “God works with.” I think that may be closer to the mark. I think God works with a lot of stuff that He doesn’t want. The will of God may be a plain, not a bridge.