Three Ways to Ask: What is Most Essential?

Doctrine and Division, I.3.1

Worldviews, of which theology is the most fundamental piece, are integrative. The imagery of a puzzle has been utilized much recently, but for our purposes it will prove too simple. The reason is that the elements of a worldview are much more dynamic than the individual pieces of a puzzle. We might say of a puzzle that some pieces are more formative than others—say, corner pieces and pieces with unique parts of the picture that stand out—but the analogy breaks down after that. No matter how unsuccessful we are at finding the next piece, the other pieces that we have already set down will still be there, passively waiting for us, in their proper location. Worldviews are not that static and cooperative. And there are two basic reasons for that. The first is that reality is infinite and the second is that the finite mind is not. So a worldview is always a representation to a finite mind of a reality that is infinite. If this was a puzzle, one would need an infinite table, which doesn’t tend to work into the schedules of beings who will live for a mere seventy years and who are quite anxious to mix other activities into this time—whether we explain this anxiety by evolutionary appeals to instincts or by spiritual appeals to the fears and hopes of the afterlife. In short, even the biggest pieces of this “infinite puzzle” that show up everywhere also move and disintegrate on us. We get frustrated and frequently leave the table, or at least throw down the pieces and lose track of them again.

This is why the puzzle metaphor won’t work. The postmoderns, following Heidegger, are wrong that we are “so wrapped up in the puzzle” that the objects are reduced to “ready at hand” status only. Yet if the participant in an infinite puzzle found out that he was going to die in less than a hundred years and either be eaten by the worms here or else the other worm that does not die, then we may imagine a more dynamic, anxious participation. The picture of a worldview as a puzzle then has severe limitations that should be clear.

Since the analogy of the puzzle is limited, let us turn to another limited analogy, but one which is much closer to what we are dealing with here. Think of the most fundamental elements of a worldview not as “pieces” that can be moved from “here” to “there,” but as informative building blocks such as DNA in all of the cells of the body of our worldview.

Living systems are fundamentally information. DNA is the scripted information “stored” for the end of translation into the physical manifestations that we can all see in life. The order of the four nucleotide bases matters. These orders constitute the relationship between genotypes and phenotypes, between the essential makeup that takes magnification and the physical traits that show up to everyone.

Worldview systems are likewise fundamentally information. It is more obvious to see why our beliefs are informational than is the case with any part of matter in motion. There are the basic building blocks that form the whole. The information in miniature is the form of the whole and all of its parts. And just as with the nucleotides, the order of these units of information matters to the meaning of the whole. It matters little that truth precedes the symbols of human language, for here we are discussing worldviews as they are held by the human subject. As words inform the mind, the encoding process will occur whether the mind is active or passive in the design.

Moreover, returning to biology, this system of chemical signals continues to operate throughout the whole life of the organism. For example, when our blood sugar rises as a result of eating too many sweets, the pancreatic cells react, sending signals which retrieve the information necessary to build the enzyme called insulin which removes the excess sugar from the blood. In the same way, worldviews are also called “life-views,” which reminds us that even our most mundane actions are the result of the values to which our view of the world has committed us, as Paul says about our obedience being “from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were committed” [Rom. 6:17].
Finally there is the prospect of mutations and engineering which rounds out our metaphor. A mutation occurs when the DNA is incorrectly encoded. The consequences can be deadly, as in the case of cystic fibrosis. There are mutations at the foundations of worldviews. Because they are insidious they are the least explicit of our beliefs, which is why sincerity is irrelevant here. Just as one single chromosome makes or breaks the normalcy of a child’s physical life, so one iota makes the difference between Arius and Athanasius and the rest of history ever since.

Just as worldviews are integrative and disintegrative, so the human soul is integrative and disintegrative. And the most immediate agent of integration or disintegration upon the soul is the integrative and disintegrative movements of the worldview held by the soul. The soul mirrors the worldview it beholds, as we have already established in our definition of doctrine. So there are two degrees of integration (and disintegration): in the worldview itself and in the soul. This was not a foreign idea prior to our generation, even if they could not relate to the scientific metaphor. As the world beheld by the individual soul disintegrates, so the soul follows and becomes increasingly attracted to that disintegration and the mirroring effect perpetuates itself.

Nowadays systematic theology tends to be viewed as one kind of theology alongside of biblical, historic, philosophical and practical. To be sure, there is a narrow sense of the term in which that is appropriate. Yet in a broader sense, our systematic theology is nothing but a synonym for our entire worldview, since every truth in a God-glorifying universe is a theological truth within a singular system of reality. One upshot of the modern-postmodern compartmentalized vision of systematic theology is that there is a desperate attempt to divorce the enterprise of theology from the individualistic and rationalistic way that Western man once thought. Hence a theology for the church is now defined as anything from “the church reflecting on its mission” to “the community in conversation” to “the lived, social, and embodied integration of drama (story), doctrine, doxology, and discipleship.”[1] That last definition is from Horton and it can be a good one if we mean ‘theology’ in a more first-order way, to mean the knowledge we are given of God per se, or, the first contact we have with that knowledge. This is theology defined as the whole relationship that the believer experiences with God in Christ by the Spirit. But the moment that it is used to circumvent the systematic expression of the same with coherent propositions, it becomes self-defeating.

The importance of systematic theology is indirect rather than direct on the soul. But to devalue it on that basis is like saying that inhaling and exhaling bear only an indirect effect on the lungs; it is air itself that gives them their direct life! The Word of God itself is the direct agent upon the intellect that moves the soul in one direction or another. That is what we meant earlier by the whole personal relationship and life being the “first order” of the Christian faith and doctrinal formulations being the “second order.” Theology (the study of God) and doctrine (a subsection of that study) are the fallible human echoes of the infallible Word, the “second order.” However as rational beings who communicate with words, we just will echo what God has revealed, in all our assortments of finitude and sin. Consequently there are two extremes we want to avoid here that we have pretty well hinted at already. In the first place, we want to avoid setting up our performance in constructing and deconstructing our systems as the essence of our direct relationship to God. It should be clear that such would be just one more way of justifying ourselves and therefore it would constitute a false gospel. On the other hand, however, we do not want to avoid that error only by denying that our systematic theologies play the role that they do in our total lives. We do not want to pretend that they do not have the integrating relationship to our whole soul that they play, similar to the breathing in and out of air; nor should we pretend that they are not as inherently disintegrating as our own souls are. As our systematic theology disintegrates from its properly central objects, the soul which is fixed upon this disintegrating thing will be disintegrating itself. Our system is not the “first contact” we have with God, but it does settle in as the “constant contact” that represents Him to us. This is inevitable. In this sense bad doctrine is like carcinogens to the “lungs” of our relationship to God. Hanging around cigarettes or in a painting room at a furniture manufacturer is not “the thing” that goes into our lungs, but it is the form of the bad thing that goes into our lungs. The mysteries of why we go down the paths that we do are informed by our worldviews more than we allow ourselves to think.

These two extremes about doctrine and performance cause discomfort and that psychological state begins to pull us to one extreme or another concerning the knowledge of God. These positions are roughly called rationalist and irrationalist (or pietist). They are positions that answer the question about the relationship between reason and faith, between what we need to know and the very incomprehensibility of God. These extreme positions arise from the psychological discomfort we feel at the realization that the knowledge of God matters for everything. At this psychological point, which we are never aware existing, we instantaneously form our views of the object of theology. And yet both the rationalist and irrationalist war against the incomprehensibility of God at this point, only from different ends. The rationalist presumes to unveil the divine by his brain, while the irrationalist presumes to cover God up from everyone else’s. Both assume that systematic theology is just another subject and then proceed to line along on their respective extremes. We are all forgetting what theology studies.

Another mistake we can make by treating theology in the exact same way as every other subject involves the notion of paradigms. So “systems of theology” are equal to “paradigms for theology.” Sometimes otherwise fairly respectable statements in textbooks can be taken as if ‘paradigms’ of theology can be transcended very much like Thomas Kuhn’s thesis about scientific revolutions.[2] Such paradigms are the product of one particular group residing within history and culture. But where do we draw the line between paradigms that arise from our subjectivity and objects that are necessary conditions to any Christian theology? Those necessary conditions are exactly what we mean by the essentials of the faith. To treat all doctrine as merely paradigmatic is to have abandoned the idea that any doctrines are essential to the faith. To call the holiness of God a mere “paradigm” for theology is just the same as to suggest that there is a possible world, or at least a legitimate conception of theology, in which God is not holy. And that is to have abandoned Christian theism. What makes a paradigm a paradigm is precisely that there is something a) basic, or central, that defines it, and b) basic that can be moved beyond. In fact to call a system of theology a “paradigm” is to assume up front that the things that define the system must always be subjective. The center is relative to the particular needs and slant of that community.

It should be clear that our thesis here is on a direct collision course with this idea which is so prevalent today. The center is objective, and therefore that which orbits around the center is objectively defined by that center. Consequently the exact way in which the center is central, or the exact way in which the peripheral objects orbit around the center also constitute an object of reality and therefore the proper object of our knowledge.

Now if we were to be asked, “What is the most central doctrine, or set of doctrines, to the Christian faith? If there is a center of gravity, the absence of which would collapse the whole in its orbit, then what is that center?” If that is the question, then there are three ways we could answer it, depending on our meaning of “centrality.” And in my experience of reading authors on theological matters, the simplistic answer to this question that treats them as one (when they are in fact three) is the source of a lot of anti-intellectual rabbit holes.

In fact the reason these three ways of approaching reality are what they are is because they exhibit the very character of the triune God. We can see this insight in John Frame’s tri-perspectivalism,[3] though Frame makes the mistake of elevating this grid to the level of first-order epistemology. God decrees all that is through his Son, the Word, whose work in creation and redemption is then reflected back to God’s glory through the subjective life of willing persons now indwelt by the Spirit. Thus there is Object and Subject, bridged by a mediating Word. Incidentally this objective Trinitarian epistemology is the answer to Kant’s divide, but that is another subject for another day.

So in answering the question of what is most central, we could mean “What is the most central doctrine metaphysically?” In other words, what is the most necessary being, the essence of which, if it were non-existent, would imply the non-existence of all other contingent things? Without this thing, nothing else is. Such a being demands that we not only believe that it is, but, to a certain extent, what it is, since the nature of all other things will be derived from it on the principle of sufficient reason—i.e. a cause cannot render to an effect that which it does not have the power to produce. To the degree that we do not understand the essence of this ultimate Cause, we will not really understand the essence of its effects. So a metaphysically central doctrine will wind up being the chief controlling factor in every other doctrine. Its stamp will be upon them. In fact, they will be its stamp, its image.

We could also mean “What is the most central doctrine epistemologically?” In this case, we would be asking ‘What is the most immediate lens through which I can see anything else in reality?’ It may be the same thing as the metaphysical central point or it may not. To the degree that there is a chasm between God and man these two will not be answered the same way. Whatever God is like, it does not follow that we can perceive that apart from some medium that bridges the chasm. If the destination and the traveler are miles apart, then there is at least one third thing besides the knower and the thing known that will be important. If the destination and traveler have the tendency to move away from each other, then there is not only epistemological distance but also real repulsion.

Consequently we might also mean “What is the most central doctrine existentially?” Substitute the word “experientially” if you like. Here we are not simply any old traveler facing our destination, but we are considering the actual circumstances we find ourselves in given the whole reality of our lives. In fact we are not just a casual traveler. We are a fugitive on the run from our essential destination. The biblical worldview will have a lot to say about how our relationship to God and life and death is not one of indifference. Our souls are facing a worldview—so our souls are related intellectually to this worldview lens—but our souls are not purely and simply intellects: we are also affections and will. Moreover those affections and wills have a nature. What needs to be kept in mind about this nature everywhere we move in the biblical worldview? Whatever that is will apply in the whole of theology.

We are at several disadvantages in discussing this that we have already explored. One more disadvantage is the dilemma of whether or not to mix metaphors. Some pictures will play better to some readers than others. On the other hand, mixing them may lead to a worse confusion than working with only one. I will risk the latter approach, but perhaps if I show how each of these pictures really mean the same thing, we can proceed with one accord. We have already made use of each of these in passing. Think of 1) the sun in our solar system, 2) a cell in a body, and 3) a foundation to a house. All three of these are meant to show the relationship between the most essential thing to all those secondary things which are informed by the essence of this central, foundational, informational thing. One thing we ought to gain from these reflections is to see how that which is at the center, foundation or in the genetic code is not arbitrary placed there. It is what the whole thing is, essentially, so that there is a gravitational, ontological, structural or genetic relationship between that which is essential and that which is secondary—or, as the classical thinkers would say, accidental. That which is at the center is necessarily central. In other words we are beginning to get even further under the surface of something we have already seen. Consider the following syllogism.

1. Remove the essential and you remove the thing itself.
2. Remove the centrality of the essential and you remove the essential.
3. Therefore, remove the centrality of the essential and you remove the thing itself.

We can see here the form of inference that logicians call modus tollens, or the way of negation.

And this will lead to our fundamental principle of worldview disintegration, that, if the center is no longer central then the whole is no longer itself. The reason for this, to review, is that the nature of all of the effects in the whole is predicated entirely of the sufficient identity of the cause. And if the cause is not itself (A = A), then neither are any of the effects. Each proposition that would represent any of the consequent parts would be an implication of A ~= A, which consequent is rendered logically null. We will now apply this principle to the three different ways of answering the question of what is most central.

____________________________________________
[1] Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 87
[2] cf. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962
[3] cf. Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God (Crossway, Wheaton 2010) for another, more basic treatment of how the triune nature shapes our epistemic view of reality.

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