Saturday, August 25, 2012

Wandering away from “Biblical Christianity”

I recently read a comment on an ancient post on a blog I have never visited before, which critiqued the late Clark Pinnock for his Open Theism, suggesting that in this “he wandered away from Biblical Christianity”.

Thing is, though I am not an “open theist”, a pretty good biblical case can be made for a version of this doctrine – it relies on close exegesis, as many have now shown. I think, for example, of various comments in John Goldingay’s stellar theology of the OT volumes. In other words, I suspect that it is a version of biblicism which can lead to Open Theism.

Open Theism falters, I think, in not thinking theologically enough, in failing to consider its various proposals in terms of other doctrinal themes as these have been hammered out in both the scriptures, and in the reception of these scriptures. In other words, I suspect that in part Open Theism is a child of a myopic biblicist agenda, founded upon a certain (mis)construal of the notion of the perspicuity of scripture.

Of course, perhaps I am assuming too much, namely that the above critique of Pinnock understands the phrase “biblical Christianity” to be practically synonymous with “straightforward exegesis of what the bible says so that we know what to believe” – an approach to systematic theology propounded in many evangelical circles, for example by Wayne Grudem.[1]

But certainly “biblical Christianity” does not have to mean this, and it could indicate at least

  • a method of theology without excluding consideration of hermeneutics and tradition, to name two important factors
  • a theoretical commitment to sola scriptura or even just prima scriptura
  • that one’s theology is in accordance with the biblical witness and not simply the content of the theology of the Bible (I echo here Gerhard Ebeling’s point about the ambiguity of the phrase “biblical theology”)

Problem is, the simple phrase “biblical Christianity” does not clarify such matters, and indeed in popular parlance more often than not coheres with Grudem’s naive and misleading approach.

Which is why I will not use it.

For example, what does Michael Kruger mean, in his Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, when he writes of certain “Critics of biblical Christianity”? This naturally implies the set “unbiblical Christianity”, but I am not sure what is won by this, especially when the meaning is not specified.

Hence, I suggest we take leave of unqualified uses of the phrase “biblical Christianity”. It only plays into the hand of naive and unreconstructed biblicism, which is the bane of so much popular Christian literature, ignoring as it does the role of doctrinal coherence, the development of the canon, trinitarian ontological reflection, and many more matters beside.

[1] he claims: “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, 'What does the whole Bible teach us today?' about any given topic. This definition indicates that systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarising their teaching clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic”. Ken Schenk is helpfully taking Grudem’s approach to task for this kind of nonsense, here.


At 8/26/2012 4:30 AM, Blogger James Goetz said...

Hi Chris,

I appreciate this. I recently leaned to open theism. The two major factors for me were my extensive biblical study of conditional futurism and studying the nature of time. I consider my view biblical, but not part of ancient orthodoxy while the two ancient church views of divine foreknowledge were compatibilism and simple foreknowledge.

When I first converted in 1984, I recall initially disbelieving that God could know the outcome of a genuinely stochastic event such as a fair coin toss. Then somebody convinced me that Einstein's theory of special relatively implied that God could know the outcome of genuinely stochastic events. But after twenty-five years that included extensive research and contemplation, I understood that this common interpretation of special relativity implies philosophical eternalism, which essentially means that there is no distinction between the past, present, and future. For example, all events such as everybody's existence have always existed while there is no real sequence of time and the appearance of sequential time is nothing but an illusion within events that always existed. Perhaps a quasi-eternalist view could say that all events existed since God created the universe, but nonetheless, sequential time still reduces to an illusion. That said does not necessarily disprove the existence or compatibilism of simple foreknowledge, but other factors influenced the development of my view.

In the case of Augustine's or Aquinas' compatibilism, they ultimately reject the possibility of genuinely stochastic events while they pull a mystery card to explain free will. Regardless, compatibilism appears at odds with many scriptures about predictive prophecy. Also, I never heard of anybody holding to both compatibilism and for example conditional election, which goes hand in hand with conditional futurism.

So why not believe in simple foreknowledge? I found only a few scriptures that support the possibility of simple foreknowledge that had helped to convince me of simple foreknowledge many years ago, but none necessitate simple foreknowledge as various proponents of open theism have proposed. Moreover, I found many scriptures that describe a conditional/open future. Also, I rely as little as possible on mysterious paradox. The only mysterious paradoxes in my philosophy and theology is the necessary beginning of time and relative identity, which helps to explain legal entities, the Trinity, and the Incarnation (my paper in review). But I assume no paradox of simple foreknowledge.

At 8/26/2012 3:00 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi James, good to hear from you - this is quite a fascinating and philosophical journey! I hear you about the biblical aspect of your thesis, something I picked up from the first chapter of your book. Hope you are well.

At 8/26/2012 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I was convinced of Open Theism for a while until I realized it was really tied to biblicism, as much of Evangelicalism is. Open Theists play by the rules biblicists in Evangelicalism set down. Their opponents are just mad they beat them at their own game. It's very similar in it's origin to Socinianism, which I realized reading Jason Vickers' "Invocation and Assent: The Making and the Remaking of Trinitarian Theology"

I've pretty much abandoned Open Theism since then but not for another option like divine exhaustive foreknowledge. I just have no idea. I imagine I hold to some incompatible combination of both options but I'm not sure it's possible to do otherwise nor do I think it matters much.

At 8/26/2012 6:32 PM, Anonymous Daniel Sladen said...

As any student of (at least English) law will tell you, the Lord Privy Seal is neither a Lord, a privy, nor a seal. Probably a worthwhile mantra to remember when people start playing with terms like "Biblical Christianity" too. Surely it's more about ownership, or claimed ownership, of a compound denoting term than any actual meaning: it's just easier to use a denoting term that has comforting connotations, and it offers more possibilities to denigrate one's opponents by virtue of the perceived negatives of being separated from those connotations. Although it carries the form of meaning something, it's use doesn't have a lot to do with any underlying meaning except in the sense of association with the meanings imputed by those who have previously claimed ownership of the term. It's all a question of, as 50 Cent said, whether you want to be in the (da) club.

You can't really improve on Humpty's linguistic analysis here.

"‘When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'

‘The question is,' said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things."

‘The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that's all.'"

At 8/28/2012 10:34 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Yes, I think you are right and "biblical Christian" often means something like "correct Christians (like me!)" by those who use it!

At 8/28/2012 10:37 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Thanks elbryan, sounds like an interesting journey! I have wondered about posting on doctrines I dont consider too important if we get wrong - you say this is one of them? I would plop patripassianism in at this point, which makes me then wonder "what have I missed that is important not to get wrong here?!"

At 8/29/2012 7:20 AM, Anonymous Marc Regier said...


Does Mr. Grudem haunt your theological consciousness the way that creepy asian ghost haunted Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge? We have our demons and thorns in the flesh! Mine is Yoder and his band of pacifist worshipers (you will never find a book so thoughtlessly written, so obviously heretical as The Politics of Jesus).

Open Theism's greatest error is its philosophical insistence that an action can only be free if there is no supernatural foreknowledge of it. But then neither God the Father in sending His Son, nor Jesus Himself in dying, had any knowledge of all of the future sins that human beings would freely commit (and what Open theist would define sin as anything but an action freely chosen?).

Essentially, a consistent Open Theist has to admit that the Trinity had zero knowledge of any sins that needed atonement. There can be no guarentee that MY sins have been forgiven me, because Jesus had no idea that I WOULD sin.

Can you be anything but correct in chiding the Open Theists for their lack of theological depth?

Marc Regier

At 8/29/2012 7:43 PM, Blogger James Goetz said...

Thank you Chris.

Hi elbryanlibre,

I appreciate your struggle with these concepts. Perhaps you already know this, but I want to note that any monotheistic concept of divine foreknowledge that does not involve some version of exhaustive definite foreknowledge (EDF) would then be some version of open theism. Also, there are various versions of EDF such as compatibilism, Molinism, and simple foreknowledge while there are also various version of open theism.

At 8/30/2012 9:27 PM, Anonymous Daniel Sladen said...

@Chris just a thought, but the classic manoeuvre of introducing your own terminology, defensible on your own terms, into the debate is probably the best one here. So those who seek to appropriate the the term "Biblical Christian" in this manner can be safely described as "Biblical Occultists" (or perhaps 'Scriptural Fetishists" if you're in it for the laughs). The syntax to close down the debate is something like 'X seeks to restrict the term "Biblical Christians" to apply only to the narrow category of Biblical Occultist to which X himself belongs rather than using its more natural applicability to all Christians who appreciate the value of Scripture..."

It does draw attention to the fact that there are two irreconciliable camps, but arguably that is done by the participant who seeks to restrict a positive descriptor to him and his mates rather than everyone to whom it previously applied - so you don't need to feel guilty at all, in other words.

At 4/10/2013 3:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CH Spurgeon the famed prince of preachers said that Biblical Christianity is Calvinism

At 5/01/2013 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's wrong with calling ones self a Biblical Christian if one is a Christian according to the Bible since the meaning of Biblical is just that in the dictionary. I am a Biblical Christian because I admit to having a problem with personal sin in my life, further more Biblical Christians know that man made religious institutions with it's traditions, clergy, and rituals will not cleanse me of sin, that, that only comes by accepting what God has done one on the cross with his son to cleanse of sin.
Like our brothers and sisters of the past, modern day Biblical Christians know that we only need Christ and nothing else. That is radical stuff but true. We obey and follow Christ everyday. That's a Biblical Christian without fancy theology and ideas.

At 5/01/2013 9:07 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

I think it is wonderful that you have discovered Christ's redeeming love in your life!

The problem I highlight is what you understand by "biblical". There was quite a bit of theology in your statement, too and some of it might not be as central to the bible as you seem to think e.g. "having a problem with personal sin in my life"

At 5/02/2013 8:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look at the Wikipedia article under cultural Christian and you will find the first contrasting term is Biblical Christian.
Biblical= is in accord with or in the Bible according to Webster's dictionary. So what meaning do you give to the word Biblical? Are you trying to change the meaning of a word like changing the meaning of the Bible to fit man? Are you telling me Man's interpretation of the Bible is more important then that of God?

At 5/02/2013 9:08 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi Anon,
Not sure why you think I am trying to change the meaning of the word "biblical" to mean something that fits "man". The problem with the and adjective "biblical", as I outlined in my post, is that it can mean a whole host of different things. Would that theology was as simple as going to Wikipedia! Rather, it involves orientating our lives, thinking and Bible reading around Jesus Christ.

Best wishes to you in your relationship with Christ Jesus!


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