Some Thoughts about Being Understood (and Misunderstood)

A serious health problem (not my own) has required an interruption of my reading and reviewing of Apostles of Reason. I’ll get back to that as soon as possible. Please stay tuned…

In the meantime, I’d like to reflect here briefly on the frustrations of a blogger trying (often unsuccessfully) to be clear.

Let me use my recent post about “Why I Am Not a Process Theologian” as an example. Many (!) commenters have misunderstood my intention there. I thought my intention was clear, but it was obviously not clear enough. (Or some readers just didn’t read carefully!)

There I was simply explaining why I am not a process theologian in the traditional sense of process theology–as represented by its prototypes (who I mentioned by name). I was not trying to defeat process theology which could only be done if readers shared all my presuppositions. I do value basic Christian orthodoxy and do not want to wander far away from it which is why I bristle at critics (such as Gerald McDermott) who accuse me of paving the way for others to do just that.

If someone does NOT care about being Christianly orthodox and does not believe that adhering to basic tenets of Christian orthodoxy is important, well, then, we would have to discuss why that’s important or not. That’s a meta-issue to whether process theology is true or not.

I do think Christian philosophers have raised some important questions about process theology such as its inability to explain why there is something (other than God) rather than nothing and how positing a power called “creativity” outside of God poses serious problems for God’s deity. But even those issues rest on assumptions.

When I write here, I normally assume my readers share my basic presuppositions or at least understand them. This blog is called “evangelical” and appears in that category in the Patheos taxonomy of blogs. Others who do not share my basic evangelical presuppositions are more than welcome to read and interact, but I beg them to not expect me to be open to non-evangelical Christian assumptions, methodologies, beliefs. In other words, don’t say “You are only saying that because you’re an orthodox Christian.” Of course I’m saying it (whatever “it” is) partly because I’m an orthodox Christian. That’s part of who I am and I make no apology for it.

I do not believe Christian theological reconstruction is limitless. I’m not sure exactly where the limits are (which means I’m not a fundamentalist), but I know where the center lies and at least some of what’s there. For example, the World Council of Churches rightly declares that “Jesus is God and Savior.” I think that rules out merely functional Christology (viz., Jesus was a man who perfectly represented God among us) and soteriological pluralism.

Now, if I misrepresent process theology (for example) I am open to correction. However, I’m not likely to say “Well, I could be wrong” without strong evidence because I’ve studied process theology a great deal and have known leading process theologians and had dialogue with process theologians of note.

Some who responded critically to my post on process theology seemed to assume I was cavalierly dismissing process theology as unworthy of serious consideration. That I was not. I’ve given it a lot of serious consideration. What I was trying to do was explain why, after giving it very serious, sustained consideration, I rejected it. And I was trying to steer fellow evangelical Christians away from it by demonstrating why it is not an option for orthodox (broadly defined) Christians (which evangelicals are). And I was attempting to point people considering process theology toward an alternative–God’s self-limitation in creation (e.g., Moltmann).

Finally, theological conversation (including debate) can be and often is very frustrating because theological words mean different things to different people and it’s often impossible even to anticipate all the possible meanings or to explain one’s own meaning every time.

For example, “omnipotence.” There’s a brief clip on Youtube of a leading process theologian explaining why “omnipotence” is a theological mistake. He says (among other things) that (paraphrasing) if God is omnipotent he has all the power there is and therefore has no power. This is, of course, not what most people mean by “omnipotence.” For many of us it simply means God is capable of doing anything consistent with God’s nature. It doesn’t exclude God limiting himself to give a realm of power to creatures–even power to resist his will.

Another example is “incarnation.” I recently had a discussion with a friend about whether Schleiermacher believed in the incarnation. I argued he did not. My friend believes he did. Eventually we realized we were working with different meanings of “incarnation.” When I say “incarnation of God” I assume pre-existence and “descent” (metaphorically speaking)–that Jesus Christ was and is in person, with humanity added, God–not merely a fully God-conscious man or God’s perfect representative among people.

There really is no single, theological glossary, dictionary, word book, that all theologians abide by. So, in brief, theological words mean what I say they mean when I am using them. After thirty plus years of being a historical theologian I think my uses of theological words are “mainstream.” But we all know some others will mean something else. That’s why I try to explain my meaning as much as possible but a blog is not the place to stop and define every single word.


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