What Were They Thinking?

What Were They Thinking? June 14, 2024

What Were They Thinking?

I’m something of an expert in historical Christian theology. Not as much as some scholars, but I’ve studied, written about, and taught historical Christian theology for forty plus years. I come now, finally, to admit that I just don’t understand how some Christian theologians of the past could think the thoughts they did and teach the ideas that they did teach.

The only ones I will ask about here are those who at least SEEMED to believe in logic. I will set aside those who openly affirmed “antinomies” in theology. (“Antinomy” is just a fancy word for contradiction.) My only question to them is why and how they could affirm and teach logical contradictions and expect thinking people to take them seriously.

I have at times to pretended to respect certain Christian theologians of the past and present who believed ridiculous things while claiming (or at least seeming to claim) to be reasonable thinkers, not irrationalists. Well, I can and do respect many of them for the good ideas they held and taught, but I struggle to respect them when I come across their more ridiculous, ludicrous ideas.

One notable example is Ulrich Zwingli, the founder of the Reformed tradition of Protestantism. He lived in Zurich, Switzerland in the early 16th century and claimed to have developed many of the same Protestant doctrines that Luther claimed to have discovered. No wonder they couldn’t get along.

Zwingli was an out-and-out nominalist and divine determinist who believed that God foreordained and rendered certain everything including sin, but without guilt. His explanation was that God is free of any law, even from any law within himself. I could go on. But the upshot is that, like many Reformed Christian thinkers after him, Zwingli denied that God is the author of sin or evil while claiming that even sin and evil are ordained and rendered certain by God. He denied free will. I not only shudder at Zwingli’s view of divine providence but worry that he might have been out of his mind.

But, then I come to the much revered and beloved Jonathan Edwards. Edwards held much the same view of divine providence as Zwingli but worked harder to get God off the hook (of being responsible for sin and evil). In the end, however, Edwards could not get God off the hook because (and this is the real shocker) he believed that God creates the whole universe and everything in it ex nihilo at every moment. But he attempted to get God off the hook by claiming that God’s motives are always perfect and pure and that guilt resides in the motives of a person. But, wait! In that view God MUST be the creator of motives! What was Edwards thinking?

I could say the same and for the same reasons about Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “father of liberal theology,” who agreed with Edwards (probably without ever knowing about Edwards) about God’s meticulous and absolute providence. He even went so far as to say that sin and evil are God’s doing. Of course he didn’t mean that God coerces anyone to sin or do evil, but he might as well have mean that. Where lies the difference between God creating everyone and everything, in toto, at every moment and God causing sin and evil? The subtleties are purely scholastic and end up affirming distinctions without a difference.

I could go on and one wondering how seemingly reasonable Christian thinkers could possibly believe and affirm the things they did believe and affirm.

Sidebar about a synchronicity: Today I am reading the book The End of the Timeless God by R. T. Mullins (OUP, 2016). The author writes about “another doctrine [viz., divine timelessness] that someone can only pay lip service to but  not actually believe.” (123) It almost seems like a Jungian synchronicity that this sentence comes before my eyes on the day I write this! What I am objecting to here is beliefs and teachings of Christian theologians that can only be paid lip service to but cannot be believed because the persons who pay lip service to them believe things that utterly and positively contradict them.

What about my own theological mentor Wolfhart Pannenberg? I know I’m jumping over a lot candidates for “What were they thinking?” Here. I spent a year with Pannenberg in Munich trying to figure out what he meant by “God does not yet exist.” I did finally figure it out, but I was never sure he agreed with my interpretation! He was often enigmatic.

Pannenberg acquired much of his fame and reputation by believing and teaching “eschatological ontology,” the ontological primacy of the future. He even talked about “retroactive enforcement” such that what happens in the past and present is determined by the future. But he adamantly denied being a determinist. Something was just “off” about this eschatological ontology. I never could buy it. I tried. I really tried, but I couldn’t embrace it without sacrificing my intellect. I am not sure Pannenberg ever really believed it! According to him, at least some of the time, the future not only defines but determines the past! (I specifically asked him about this and he affirmed it.)

It seems that even Pannenberg realized this wouldn’t really work, so in his Systematic Theology he affirmed God’s presentness to every moment (a version of divine timelessness). I heard his first volume of ST in lecture form in Munich and began to worry that he was departing from his signature idea of the futurity of God. When I read the ST I was convinced that was the case. I was disappointed, although I thought to myself “But of course.” Pannenberg was something of a rationalist.

As a Christian theologian I am embarrassed by some of the really dumb things some Christian theologians have taught that just can’t be true. What were they thinking? I have no explanation for it. I suspect the explanations differ from one theologian to another.

The main one, which appears in various forms throughout Christian history since Augustine, is that God determines sin and evil without being responsible for them (while those who do evil and sin ARE responsible for them).

Am I exempt? Well, this is one reason I have never reached toward systematic theology. I doubt anyone can write a comprehensive systematic theology without stumbling into contradiction. Now that does not discount “dogmatics” which is not necessarily the same as systematic theology. A dogmatics can be just an account of Christian doctrines. A systematic theology is an attempt to create an entirely coherent and comprehensive system where all the pieces (doctrines) are entirely consistent with each other. I haven’t found that yet.

*Note: If you choose to comment, make sure your comment is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures or links.*


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