Are There “Wicked Problems” in Theology?

Are There “Wicked Problems” in Theology? January 29, 2017

Are There “Wicked Problems” in Theology?

I only recently became aware of the social-scientific concept of “wicked problems.” According to a 2012 article in The New Yorker ( the concept was created by two social scientists in 1973. In brief, using my own words, a wicked problem is one that seems intractable because solving it appears to create as many or more problems. Examples often given of wicked problems are: poverty, prison reform, health care, etc. The idea is not that policy-makers should give up on such problems but that they should recognize them as “wicked” and not imagine they have simple, straightforward solutions. Solving them, if it’s possible at all, requires careful planning by a multi-disciplinary group of people collaborating together and taking into account all the possible unintended consequences of the solutions considered.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

During my forty years of studying Christian theology I have encountered what I would now label “wicked problems.” These are conundrums in Christian theology that seem to have no workable solutions. All the solutions seem to have consequences those working on the solutions do not want to embrace or live with.

As a historical theologian I see that these problems have bedeviled Christian theology for centuries. Some Christian theologians have simply given up on some of them. Others have claimed to have discovered solutions, but they have consequences other Christian theologians can’t embrace or live with. One common “solution” is simply to embrace “mystery” and “paradox” and say “both-and” and have done with trying to solve the problem.

Why would there be wicked problems in theology? Well, first, because the Bible is not as clear about some important issues as we wish it were. In fact, so it seems, the biblical writers did not even foresee some problems that would arise among Christians and so did not give us much to go on in solving them. Second, because equally sincere and devout Christians interpret the Bible differently and nobody has direct access to God’s mind (although some claim to).

Much to some of my students’ dismay, I have often told them that, in some cases you simply have to look at all the seemingly biblical options (opinions, interpretations, doctrines) and choose the ones that include the problems you can live with.

I have never claimed to have perfect answers to all the problems of, for example, Arminianism (or what I call “evangelical synergism”). I have been asked more times than I can count about the philosophical problems of free will especially in relation to God’s omniscience. I look at all the alternatives to classical Arminianism and see more or deeper problems with them than with classical Arminianism. All the alternatives imply things I cannot live with—mostly about God’s character.

Now, knowing about the concept of “wicked problems,” I will tell inquirers that I readily admit that human libertarian free will in relation to God’s foreknowledge is a wicked problem. It’s worth revisiting and working on, but there is no magical solution that appears to solve all its problems without creating more and worse ones.

Over the years I have become relatively comfortable with this idea of wicked problems in theology. When I speak to audiences I sometimes tell them, tongue-in-cheek, that I actually appreciate wicked problems in theology because they keep me and other theologians employed!

The other day I was speaking with a group of Christians about the doctrine of the Trinity. They were educated Christians who have already studied the doctrine of the Trinity and, I suspect, were hoping for me—a veteran theologian—to pull out of my “hat” a magical solution that will make it all suddenly completely comprehensible. I told them that although the classical, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is a mystery and perhaps involves some paradoxes, it is “better” (more biblical, even more reasonable given other Christian beliefs) than any of its alternatives (e.g., subordinationisms, modalism, tritheism). IF you are a Christian, one who believes (as all real Christians do) that Jesus Christ was and is God incarnate and that the Holy Spirit is a person not just an impersonal force, then the doctrine of the Trinity becomes inescapable—even if you don’t like it. Is it “biblical” in the sense of directly and clearly taught in the Bible? No, but it makes more sense of the Bible’s teachings about God than any of its alternatives even though it represents an imperfect solution to a “wicked problem” to the human mind.

Perhaps the biggest wicked problem in Christian theology is the (at least) five hundred year old problem of how to reconcile faith and good works in salvation. All kinds of solutions have been presented by both Catholic and Protestant theologians. At their best, the very best of them seem to come extremely close in dialogue. Then an issue like “merit” arises and the whole thing seems to fall apart again.

Sometimes, when a wicked problem seems intractable and unsolvable, you just have to muddle through as best you can and live with the problem while keeping an eye out for possible solutions. One thing I suspect is that some of our wicked problems in Christian theology are “wicked” due to our Western culture and its mindset (e.g., individualism). Perhaps theologians arising out of non-Western cultures can help us break through to some solutions to age-old wicked problems in Western Christian theology.

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