Subterranean Theology (Part 2)

Subterranean Theology (Part 2) June 10, 2014

Subterranean Theology (Part 2)

At the end of Part 1 (immediately preceding blog post) I asked: “When a difference in theology is rooted in subterraneanism, is there any way forward toward settling which is right and which is wrong (if that’s important)? Are any common criteria for evaluating subterranean perspectives on pre-biblical issues?”

Of course, to understand this post you should first read Part 1.

Perhaps I should make more clear here (than I did before) that I am only talking about perspectival differences among orthodox (trinitarian) Christians. Of course there are enormous perspectival differences between orthodox Christians and adherents of other religions and worldviews.

If subterranean theological differences in theology are so seemingly incommensurable and resistant to simple falsification and verification (as I argued in Part 1), how can anyone decide whether they (the perspectives) are right or wrong?

Of course, the revelation (Jesus, the Bible) is the first test. But I have argued that these are pre-biblical perspectives that largely determine how the Bible is interpreted and, at least within orthodox Christianity, they are all compatible with belief in Jesus as God and Savior. Where, then, to turn for guidance when guidance is needed?

Let’s take an example again. For years I have begun my Reformation theology classes with study and discussion of nominalism because, I’m convinced, you cannot really understand the earliest Reformers’ theologies without that. Luther was educated in nominalism and nominalism played a large role in his idea of God (potential absoluta and deus absconditus). It also played a role in Zwingli’s doctrine of God and God’s sovereignty (voluntarism). And I think it can be detected at least lurking around the corners of Calvin’s doctrine of God and God’s sovereignty. Many students tell me they come to understand the ways in which nominalism have conditioned their own interpretations of the Bible and their theologies as a result of encountering nominalism. Then, of course, they want to know why they should change and adopt realism (as I recommend).

I tell them that ideas always have consequences and nominalism tends to lead toward fideism and belief in a God who is not trustworthy because he is only freely good. It empties “the good” of any meaning other than “what God commands” and that’s insufficient because God’s commands are arbitrary and not reflections of his own eternal goodness by nature. Of course not all nominalists follow the logic of nominalism to that end, but that is the direction in which nominalism goes. (Of course, secular nominalism leads to moral relativism, but that’s a different subject.) In other words, if you are a consistent nominalist, you must (logically speaking) become a voluntarist with regard to God (i.e., that God is “freely good”), which leads inexorably (in terms of logic) to God being able to deceive (even the elect).

In other words, my argument against nominalism is not from any “clear biblical proof” against it but from its undesirable (even to most implicit nominalists) consequences. Realism is stronger and better in terms of upholding the eternal, unchangeable goodness of God and his faithfulness. There are other consequences of nominalism that are pernicious to sound doctrine. For example, it is difficult, if not impossible, on the basis of nominalism to explain the Trinity—how three distinct persons can share one substance (because a substance, in the sense of “divine nature” or “divine essence”) is a universal and in nominalism universals are only concepts.

(A side note to those tempted to bate me into an argument about nominalism: if your understanding of “nominalism” is not mine, fine. I realize there are several ideas of universals that are lumped together under the term “nominalism.” Not all nominalisms are the same. Go by my description here and if you don’t think “nominalism” is the right word for it, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. This is my meaning of “nominalism.” The issue is the perspective, not the label.)

Although there is no litmus test for verifying or falsifying legitimate subterranean theological perspectives, they can be tested in terms of their consequences. If it turns out that a particular “good and necessary consequence” of one is not desirable, then it might be that the subterranean perspective is faulty and should be changed.

We’ll take a look at one more subterranean theological perspective for evaluation. Some Christians believe the early Christian church, the church of the Acts of the Apostles and of Paul’s epistles, was the mature, healthy, ideal church from which later churches fell away into corruption. They (restorationists of various kinds) believe the task of today’s church is to restore the New Testament church as much as possible (given cultural differences that can’t be overcome). Other Christians believe the New Testament church was the “church in embryo”—meant to grow and change and mature as led by the Holy Spirit and the bishops (for example) who were appointed by the apostles. This is why leaders and members of highly liturgical and hierarchical churches with highly developed organizational “charts” believe their approach is fully legitimate. No one doubts or debates, for example, that the Greek churches took several huge steps in worship and law and theology under Justinian in the sixth century—at the Hagia Sophia church in Constantinople.

How can this subterranean difference be adjudicated (if it should be)? Restorationists (Churches of Christ/Christian Churches, Anabaptists, Pentecostals, most Baptists) can argue until they are blue in the face that the New Testament church enjoyed simple worship and congregational independence, etc. But can they prove that such was intended for all churches of all times? No. Can liturgical-hierarchical churches prove that their developments (such as under Justinian or in England under Elizabeth I) are legitimate? No. It all depends…on subterranean perspectives.

But are those subterranean perspectives about the church incapable of testing? I would suggest they be tested by where they lead. If one believes the church was meant to change in structure and liturgy from the New Testament, how does one draw the line? Where is the line across which change should not go? Or is anything possible?

To use a somewhat silly example, some years ago “Coffeehouse Christians” (during the Jesus People era of the 1970s) used pizza and Pepsi for the Lord’s Supper. Are bread and wine more legitimate? Why? To use a more historical-theological example, some liturgical churches insist on the use of icons in worship and devotion, but there’s no evidence of icons being used in the New Testament church. Is use of icons legitimate? Why not?

Once you open the Pandora’s box of change from the basic patterns of the New Testament church, why isn’t anything possible? How does the church avoid becoming endlessly changeable?

One way, of course, is to claim that the bishops appointed by the apostles and their heirs have the right and power from the Holy Spirit to guide the church “into all the truth.” Okay, but who can deny that sometimes they have taken the church too far in wrong directions? Many bishops of the German churches in the 1930s led church assemblies in saluting the Nazi flag. The German Christians took on the Nazi Party and ideology as a new revelation from God. During the Renaissance bishops sold indulgences. Etc., etc.

If the New Testament church is not at least an anchor, the ideal to which contemporary churches should try to conform (as much as possible given cultural differences that can’t be changed), then it would seem that anything becomes possible. (Clearly I’m a restorationist as Baptists have been historically—which doesn’t mean I think restorationist churches have achieved their goal. But I do know of some that I think have come close. One is an intentional Christian community about which I wrote in Christianity Today a few years ago that combines Pentecostal and Anabaptist features.)

So, what I am arguing is that the only way to decide between competing, incommensurable subterranean theological perspectives (when scripture doesn’t decide for us) is by looking at their trajectories—where they tend to lead.

Browse Our Archives