Subterranean Theology: Controversies that Cannot Be Settled by the Bible
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Why is there so much theological diversity among Christians? Can’t we settle them all simply by better exploration of the meaning of the Bible? Apparently not.
I have been a student of historical Christian theology for more than fifty years and one conclusion I have come to is that the Bible does not settle every important controversy and does not answer every important question that arises among Christians. Much of the diversity among Christians arises from ideas, beliefs, that come from outside the Bible.
I call these basic, extra-biblical beliefs “subterranean theology” because they are “underground” in terms of consciousness even for those who hold to them passionately.
Perhaps the biggest one of these has to do with the Bible versus tradition. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians believe the Bible is part of, even if the primary part of, something called “tradition.” Perhaps it would help here if I capitalize “Tradition” to distinguish what I am talking about from mere common beliefs.
Let me illustrate. One part of Catholic tradition (small “t”) is so-called “limbo”—an idea first proposed by church father Augustine to name a place where I unbaptized infants go when they die. It is sort of like a state of suspended animation, neither heaven nor hell and not even purgatory. Many Catholics have believed in Limbo (I capitalize it now to distinguish it from the game), but Pope Benedict XVI declared it a traditional belief Catholics are free to believe in but not dogma of the church. An example of what I am calling “Tradition” is the immaculate conception of Mary. Another one is Mary’s “dormition” or “assumption” into heaven; she is believed to have escaped death. These are dogmas of the church not exactly supported by scripture although nothing in scripture clearly negates them.
Protestants typically claim that there can be no dogmas outside the Bible; Tradition alone cannot support a dogma.
This is an example of subterranean theology and helps explain why Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians cannot agree and unite in intercommunion. There is a chasm of fundamental belief about Christian authority that the Bible itself does not settle.
Another example, somewhat related to the above, the first, is beliefs about the nature of church after the New Testament in relation to the church of the New Testament. Restorationists (here I use the term broadly) are Christians of many denominations who believe the task of the church in every age is to return to the patterns of the church of the New Testament. They include Anabaptists, Churches of Christ, and Pentecostals. Traditionalist Christians are those who believe the New Testament church was “the church in embryo” meant by God to grow and change and evolve and develop. The Bible itself does not settle that debate.
Yet another example is “divine determinism” versus “divine self-limitation” and “human libertarian free will.” Both can be supported by passages of scripture which is why Protestants, especially, have endlessly debated them and probably always will.
Finally, perhaps for me, the most important subterranean belief issue is nominalism versus realism—a controversy very few Christians are even aware of. I have taken it on myself here to make them aware of it and show why nominalism is not a viable Christian option even though I admit that the Bible alone does not settle the issue.
Are certain things good because God wills and commands them or does God will and command them because they are good? The Bible itself, alone, does not answer this question; it is a question answered by theologians based on basic beliefs about God that are not absolutely provable by the Bible. And yet, which side you take makes a huge difference, even “on the ground,” in Christian practice.
Most Christian thinkers claim that these subterranean issues, controversies, are settled by the Bible. But I have concluded they are not.
There are many other subterranean theological issues such as the time of the events prophecies (or described with symbols) in biblical apocalyptic literature. Do the enigmatic symbols and events in the Book of Revelation point to our future or do they point to events and people at the time the book was written (“preterism” versus “futurism”)?
Especially conservative Christians want to say that all really important theological issues are settled by scripture, but even they cannot agree about these issues. And, very often, they seem unaware of the impulses driving their strong commitment to one side of the controversy over against the other one.
I will dare to mention another one here—whether or not a person who was once truly saved in the sense of standing “right with God” can lose that status and become “apostate,” separated from God, bound for hell. Baptists especially have divided over this issue since almost the very beginning of the Baptist tradition in the early seventeenth century.
So is it hopeless? Stay tuned…