How to Solve a Theological Dilemma when Scripture Doesn’t Clearly Solve It: An Exercise in Theological Method

How to Solve a Theological Dilemma when Scripture Doesn’t Clearly Solve It: An Exercise in Theological Method January 23, 2014

How to Solve a Theological Dilemma when Scripture Doesn’t Clearly Solve It


Roger E. Olson


When I teach or speak on theology I often say “The Bible is not as clear about many things as we wish it were.”

1. One of the major differences between “fundamentalists” and others (e.g., “moderates”) is the belief that Scripture alone does settle every important theological issue.  To fundamentalists, there can only be one right “biblical” belief about every given important issue of Christian life and thought.  The Bible is viewed as a comprehensive source book of revealed doctrines (and ethical rules).  Thus, when two Christians disagree about the Bible’s meaning as it pertains to a doctrinal or theological issue, the fundamentalist believes one of them (or both) must necessarily be misinterpreting and even perhaps dishonoring the Bible.  The non-fundamentalist, on the other hand, will often say the Bible is not perfectly clear about some important issues and therefore we need to use other sources and norms if the issue must be settled at all.  (“Settled” here does not necessarily mean “imposed” on anyone, but it might mean a pastor, for example, needs to decide what he or she believes in order to communicate that to a congregation or inquiring parishioner.)

2. The problem with the fundamentalist approach is that equally God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians have disagreed for centuries (sometimes all the way back to the earliest Christians) about the Bible’s meaning on some important issues.  Also, on some important issues fundamentalists themselves disagree among themselves about the Bible’s meaning.  (Of course, in that case, they will usually divide and cast aspersions at the other fundamentalists as not truly fundamentalists but something else.)

3. Another problem with the fundamentalist approach is that it ignores or overlooks the fact that on some important issues the Bible seems to speak with more than one “voice.”  On some such issues most Christians have simply agreed to disagree and “move on.”  Does the Bible have to always speak with one “voice?”  Is it possible that the Bible is not perfectly clear in some cases?  Could it be that we want and even need answers the Bible doesn’t clearly give us?

4. When an issue is a pressing one, moderate, non-fundamentalist Christians often take an approach to solving the dilemma the Bible does not solve by turning to tradition.  But, of course, whose tradition? then becomes the question.  And, as all Protestants admit, even the “Great Tradition” can be wrong.  Tradition gets a vote, but never a veto.  Luther himself approached the issue of justification this way.  He appealed to “reason” and “conscience” over against tradition to interpret the Bible.

5. Assuming the issue is not settled by tradition (or the person needing to settle it for himself or herself does not agree with tradition)—what then?  Reason is the third criterion. By “reason” I mean logical consistency between doctrines and consistency of doctrines with the “material facts” of the world. Begin by asking “What bearing does what I believe the Bible is clear about and/or tradition says have on this dilemma?”  In other words, turn to more basic beliefs and draw a line of reason from them to what must be the right answer in the dilemma under consideration.  For example: If you are unsure whether a truly saved person can ever fall away from salvation and be eternally lost, and you don’t think Scripture settles the question, ask whether you are a Calvinist.  If you are a Calvinist, that settles the question.  It is logically impossible to be a true Calvinist and believe in real apostasy (falling away entirely and forever from God’s saving grace).  That is because if you are saved it is because you are one of God’s elect and if you are elect God has drawn you to himself irresistibly…  If you are not a Calvinist and you find that Scripture does not settle the issue, ask yourself what other beliefs can guide you to the right answer.  You might be guided there by belief in God’s keeping power based on his character and omnipotence.  But, then, you might ask yourself about free will.  Why would a saved person no longer have free will to reject grace?

6. If reason does not solve the issue (e.g., by appeal to more basic beliefs and logic), turn to experience.  “Experience” here does not necessarily mean your own private, subjective experience.  As Luther said, that can be a “wax nose that any knave [villain] can twist to suit his own countenance.”  So what “experience,” then?  Perhaps the collective experience of the people of God in your community of faith.  But, in the end, sometimes you do have to appeal to your own personal experience when Scripture, tradition and reason do not settle the issue.  Some Christians, for example, are convinced that the issue of possible apostasy versus eternal security is not settled by Scripture, tradition or reason.  But they believe they know of people who were once really saved and then fell totally away.  Or, on the contrary, a person might “feel” such a strong keeping power of God in their own life in spite of temptation and even “backsliding” that they are convinced God never allows a saved person totally to fall away.

7. Sometimes Scripture is so unclear about an issue that needs to be decided (for an individual or a group) that the only way to settle on one belief about the issue is to decide which of two or more beliefs permitted  by Scripture, tradition, reason and experience has the fewest problems and/or the problem(s) you can live with better than the others. For example, both Calvinism and Arminianism can be supported from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Debates over “predestination” and “free will” have gone on for centuries and always end in an impasse between equally God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians. So how to decide? For many people the only way to decide is to embrace the view that has the least problems and ones that they can live with.

8. Back to fundamentalism versus non-fundamentalism: A fundamentalist will reject this entire method of solving theological and doctrinal dilemmas because it admits ambiguity in the Bible about even some important theological and doctrinal issues which is impossible from a fundamentalist point of view.  Many non-fundamentalists will also reject this method for a very different reason: they are so comfortable with ambiguity (and perhaps afraid of fundamentalism) that they don’t feel any need to settle doctrinal and theological issues about which the Bible is not crystal clear.  Both approaches have problems, however.  The fundamentalist approach leads to numerous schisms and divisions to say nothing of imposing personal opinions on the Bible and making all doctrinal and theological issues equally important.  The opposite approach leads to warm, fuzzy spirituality devoid of cognitive content and leaves inquiring minds without satisfying answers.

(Illustrating anecdote: Some years ago I attended a meeting of theologians where the main topic of discussion was Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism. There were advocates of the three views present. Two well-known Calvinist theologians fell into disagreement over whether the Bible settles the Calvinism versus Arminianism issue: Do humans have free will, even when enabled by prevenient grace, to resist grace intended by God for their salvation? A leading British Calvinist philosopher-theologian argued it does not, much to the chagrin of his American counterpart. The British theologian argued that because the Bible is not as clear about this as we wish it were, we must turn to systematic theology and base Calvinism on justification by grace alone through faith alone. The American Calvinist emphatically stated that such a crucial doctrine as effectual grace must be found clearly taught in Scripture and it is.)

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