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Hardening of the categories and theological absolutism

Hardening of the categories and theological absolutism April 15, 2011

Two diseases of disposition seem to infect and derail many good theological discussions: hardening of the categories and theological absolutism.

So many theological discussions become unnecessarily heated by failure to recognize that many of our dearest theological categories cannot be precisely pinned down.  People assume a particular definition of, say “inclusivism,” and disallow anyone from thinking of it differently than they do.  I’ve been reading in that subjective widely and deeply for years and find that there is no one, universally agreed on definition.  It is an essentially contested concept and too flexible to mean much.

Basically, all it means is any view of the fate of the unevangelized other than restrictivism (by which I mean belief that a person who never hears the name “Jesus Christ” has no hope of salvation), pluralism (by which I mean belief that Jesus Christ is not the only Savior) and universalism (by which I mean belief that eventually everyone will be reconciled with God in such a way that hell will be empty).

In fact, my reading in the subject of the fate of the unevangelized has led me to think that all these categories are somewhat artificial. The fact is that virtually everyone who writes on this subject holds his or her own distinct view.  In other words, they may SEEM to be saying the same as someone else, but difference inevitably appears in the details.

So, what we do is lump people who seem to be saying something like what other people are saying into a catch all category, label it, and then use it as shorthand for a spectrum of views.

I’m sure there are people who legitimately claim to be restrictivists who don’t fit my definition above perfectly.  I know there are people who legitimately claim to be inclusivists who don’t fit any definition other than “not this and not that.”  I’m sure there are pluralists who don’t exactly fit my definition above and I know there are universalists who don’t fit my definition precisely.

Most theological categories are like that–humanly constructed devices meant to be helpful rhetorically but they should not be confused with something real.  It’s a mistake to reify them which is all too commonly done.

Of course, I’ve made clear here and elsewhere that this is how I think of “evangelical” –as a humanly constructed, flexible category about which it is not always possible to tell who is in and who is out.

But I keep running into people who think theological categories like these are somehow real–as if they have some kind of ontological being.  That they are somehow or other “out there” and someone has the absolute, authoritative mental image of them.

Such people often insist on their meaning of a catgory to the exclusion of all others.  I’m not claiming such categories are compatible with anything and everything.  To think I’m saying that reveals a black-and-white mentality that rejects ambiguity.  What I am saying is that one has to remain open to the possibility of meeting someone who doesn’t fit one’s image of a category perfectly but is “generally there.” 

A great deal of worthless argument is spent on these categories.  That appears when people discussing them are not interested in arriving at some kind of consensus but only in enforcing their own definition as if it had some kind of heavenly Platonic reality as a form.  In fact, many theological categories (perhaps most) are evolving.  As Wittgenstein would say, their meaning is in their use.

As a historian, I prefer, whenever possible, to go back to history to define a category.  When and how was it first used?  That’s often difficult to discover.  When a category is being used so flexibly, especially by people with no knowledge of its historical roots and evolution (e.g., many journalists!), that it threatens to become meaningless, Ioften jump in to try to correct that with reference to history.  But I recognize these categories are not real; defining and describing them is not like defining and describing a physical object.

I propose that when people find themselves embroiled in a debate over a theological category they lay all their cards on the table and say what they mean by it before the debate becomes too confusing and hopelessly bogged down.  And I propose such participants in a debate or controversy not assume that everyone means the same thing by a category.

I admit I have not always followed these proposals; I will try to henceforth.

But my main point is that some people seem to be so allergic to ambiguity they simply cannot open their minds to flexible boundaries; they feel compelled to be able to know with absolute certainty who is “in” and who is “out” of a category.  It’s simply not that simple in most cases.

I find that such people are what I call theological absolutists.  There’s a category.  What do I mean by it?  By “theological absolutist” I mean someone who so identifies his or her theological concepts with revelation itself that they are unable even to consider the possibility they might be wrong.  Such people also tend to hold theological categories as bounded sets when, in fact, they are centered sets without firm or definite boundaries.

My experience has been that when such people find themselves in a movement or organization they cannot rest until they have excluded everyone who disagrees with them.  They aren’t usually completely successful, but they cause a great deal of consternation for others by pressing, lobbying, arguing for their boundaries until leaders slowly succumb to them–often just to bring about peace within the group. Of course, that peace is at the cost of someone(s) being excluded.

Years ago one of my favorite Christian writers, Joseph Bayly (author of numerous books and short stories and articles and columns) wrote an article in Eternity magazine entitled “Why the absolute absolutists always win.”  As I recall, the article was occasioned by the firing of a Bible Institute professor ONLY because his wife wrote a book defending egalitarianism.  (Fortunately the professor went on to greater things!)  Bayly noted that this was the result of a small group of constituents putting tremendous pressure on the Bible Institute until it gave in and fired the professor.  He decried the tendency of evangelical (and no doubt other) organizations to bow to “absolute absolutists” just because they are loud and insistent.

A historical example of absolute absolutism in theology is William Bell Riley, fundamentalist pastor of First Baptist Church of Minneapolis and organizer of the World Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919.  He and his followers elevated premillennialism to the status of an essential of Christianity.  I personally witnessed one of the effects of that in the 1980s.  One of my very conservative, evangelical colleagues (at the college where I then taught) was an amillennialist.  Neither the denomination nor the college had a statement of faith that included premillennialism.  But some absolute absolutist constituents made my colleague’s life miserable over his denial of premillennialism.  They mounted a campaign to get him fired for that.  Fortunately, in that case, they didn’t win–EXCEPT in the sense that they made his life and our lives miserable off and on for years.

Now let me connect absolute absolutism with hardening of the categories.  The two diseases are closely related.  Premillennialism as a category is not something real; it is a humanly constructed category and it is somewhat flexible and contested.  I have had students assume I’m a dispensationalist and “pre-tribber” just because I confess I’m a premillennialist.  Many premillennialists (like the earliest church fathers) are not those.  Jurgen Moltmann told me and a colleague he is a premillennialist.  That challenges my preconceived notions of premillennialism!

Obviously I’m not suggesting that we throw away all categories and labels.  What I am suggesting is that we prefer people’s own descriptions of what they believe to our tendencies to insist on putting them in or out of a category.  And when we argue that someone is “in” or “out” of a category explain what we mean by it and admit our definition may not exhaust the category’s meaning. 

Above all, let’s not treat theological categories as incorrigible as if they have some kind of transcendent essence like a Platonic form. And let’s resist the absolute absolutists who demonstrate by their disposition and actions a determination to use their hardened categories to demean, marginalize or expel people who disagree with them or don’t fit their categories perfectly.


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