Biblical, Systematic, and Consensual Theology

 

As a person deeply committed to the Bible as the source and substance of all that I teach, how do I avoid the shoals of solipsistic theology? Humility recognizes that I am finite. I am neither omniscient nor omni-competent. I am limited in perspective. I need the wisdom that comes from corporate perspective. It will be only as I listen attentively and appreciatively to the perspectives of others within the Christian community that I can extend the bounds of my vision past the categories of my own mind, hence the need for consensual theology.

 

When I listen to my brothers and sisters, how shall I listen? Is consensual theology a potluck buffet? All ideas are presented; we each choose the combination that appeals to us? This cannot be the nature of consensual theology if truth is unitary. Mutually contradictory ideas cannot both be true in the same way at the same time. Truth is one.

 

So then what shall arbitrate between conflicting ideas? Shall I choose a champion from the ranks of the faithful and say, “I am of Paul?” Or, “I am of Wesley?” This is the path many have followed, but it is the wrong path. It is a comforting path, but it is the wrong path. It is a well-worn path, but it is still the wrong path. What then shall arbitrate? It must the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God.

 

But you ask how shall the word arbitrate when it is the subject of disagreement? It can arbitrate if we will listen to its full counsel. The primary reason so many have disagreed over its meaning is because they have failed to listen to all it says. God has given us, in written revelation and in its presentation of the Word incarnate, all that is necessary to be completely equipped for every good work in this life. The Word is sufficient, even to serve as its own arbitrator. It supplies the data for our systematization and the check for the accuracy of our systems.

 

This is the map and the compass of my journey. With this compass, I can navigate the vast reaches of the Church’s testimony, thoughts, conclusions, and systematizations of God’s truth. I believe in the need for consensual theology. I deny the possibility and desirability of hermeneutical neutrality. I deny the possibility of the theological tabula rosa. Yet when I listen to the fathers and their sons, ancient, medieval, and modern, I always ask, “Is this in harmony with the totality of inscripturated revelation?” Or more simply, “Is this what the Bible says?”

 

I come to my brothers and sisters to hear their understanding of Scripture and to measure their understanding by the Scriptures. I listen to how they read Scripture and then measure their readings by the Scripture’s reading of itself (e.g., Isaiah’s reading of Deuteronomy, Jesus’, Paul’s, and other NT writer’s reading of the OT).

 

How does this apply to being a Wesleyan-Arminian? First, the fact that I accept that label means that I have listened to others and have been shaped by others. Second, it means that I have concluded that Arminius’ and Wesley’s understanding of the broad message of Scripture takes into account more of the data of Scripture in a logically coherent and compelling fashion than do the understandings of others of my brothers in Christ.

 

To be Wesleyan is to have read the Bible with Wesley and to have evaluated Wesley by the Bible. It is to have found that Wesley’s reading of Scripture is consistent and compelling in its main lines of thought. It must never mean simply that I read the Bible as Wesley and evaluate the Bible by Wesley. It does not mean that I must accept all of Wesley’s thoughts about Scripture. It does not mean that I must think only in the categories that Wesley thought. It must never mean that Wesley is my hermeneutical touchstone—all I believe must agree with him. And more broadly, it must never mean that the Methodist consensus is my hermeneutical touchstone—all I believe must agree with it. This is the mire and bog of which every serious student of Scripture must steer clear.

 

Some will call this impossible or arrogant. I believe it is Mosaic, Isaianic, and the true Christ-ian hermeneutic. Moses said a prophet’s message must be evaluated on the basis of the written law of God. Isaiah said, “To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, there is no dawn/future for them. Jesus said It is my word that shall judge you.

 

Yet we must take this discussion deeper. For some will claim that I have made my personal understanding of Scripture the arbiter of all other’s understandings of Scripture, that I have elevated myself to the position of ultimate Judge in theology. Is this true, or is there an objective standard that transcends the individual interpreter, that provides an objective measuring tool that may be reduced to a science and that is not subject to individual skewing?

 

The answer is yes and no. Yes, there is a set of objective standards found that are a part of the imago dei in us: language and logic. Rejecting much of the current philosophical skepticism regarding the indeterminacy of meaning and the arbitrariness of language, I believe that God designed language and logic as reliable means for understanding Himself and His will. His word implies this by its very existence and affirms it in many places and varied ways.

 

On the other hand, the use of language and logic cannot be reduced to a formulaic chemistry that if the right sequence and combination of elements are combined the same result will always occur in every case. My personal limitations can skew my use of these tools. The use of language and logic is itself a skill that is both science and art. There is more than enough science to it to provide guidelines, bounds, rules, and even solid prohibitions regarding what the language of the Bible can or cannot mean. Yet skill in the use of language and logic is the work of a lifetime and requires many tutors. Here we arrive back at the need for humility and willing listening to others in our own pursuit of this skill.

 

We can and must learn language along with all its cultural, political, philosophical, etc. underpinnings, and we must learn the nature and laws of logic. Together these provide the platform for all analyses of biblical theology and all systematizations of those analyses. These provide the tools for building consensual theology, and they also provide the means for evaluating each workman’s contribution to that theology as well as the shape and direction of the total structure. We are not limited solely to our faith community; nor should we desire to listen only within its circle. Yet we are a product of our faith community and we should not desire nor attempt to achieve monastic or monadic theology.

 

General application to discussions about sin, salvation, entire sanctification, etc. We are unapologetically and committedly a part of the Wesleyan-Arminian community of faith. We have listened and continue to listen to Wesley because we find his theology consistently consonant with the language and logic of Scripture. However, we are not and should not desire to be Wesleyites. We must be, as Wesley himself was, people of the book. Our enduring cry is “Back to the Bible!” which means back to its language and its logic as the touchstone for all our theological formulations. The systematic formulations of Methodist theologians from Wesley to the present are valuable and enduring, but they should never be viewed as the ultimate arbiter of either the form or the content of our theology. They are guides, good guides, but limited and finite just as we. The language and logic of Scripture alone is the ultimate arbiter of both the form and the content of our theology.

 

Specific Application of my previous discussion to the topic of sin.

I recently was given two pages from a text discussing the definition of sin. These two pages, without the benefit of knowing their author, book title, or context, were a prime example of the bog of doing theology only in terms of the conclusions of one’s community. What disturbs me deeply about this kind of theologizing is that it fails to use the Scriptures to help answer the questions it is raising. It raises issues in its discussion that would be ruled out if the Scripture were considered. For example, the second sentence on p. 174 reads, “No man is able to keep a law where he is required to ‘always think, always speak, and always act precisely right.’” There is no such law in Scripture. On what grounds this is this even an issue? Fourth sentence, “No man can perform what the Adamic law requires …” There is no such law. It is a straw man.

 

Regarding the section where the author argues that calling unintentional or ignorant violations of God’s word sin results in confusion and a tendency to excuse sin in the life of the believer, consider these questions: If God is so anxious that we be holy, why did He call ignorant violations and unintentional violations sin? If God calls us to live above sin, why did HE define sin as He did?” He is the one who called ignorant transgressions sin. He is the one who says that he who ‘stumbles’ (unintentional sin) at one point in the law is as much a lawbreaker as if he had broken them all (James 2:9-10).  These questions, which arise naturally from a commitment to saying what the Text says, are ones I have never heard raised in discussions on the question of sin in Wesleyan circles. Instead we always seem to circle around Wesley’s situationally conditioned response to the antinomianism of his day as though it is the touchstone for our theology. It is not. And in fact, it is not the best response to the problem Wesley was trying to address.

 

Let me raise another question regarding this author’s discussion: Where in Scripture do we find the basis for distinguishing “ethical” “sub-ethical” or “legal” senses of sin? There is no such thing as sub-ethical sin. There is such a thing as sin for which God does not hold one culpable. Ignorant sins are immediately covered by the provisions of the atonement. But they are still sin. They still offend God’s holiness. They will bring a harvest of corruption. They are damaging both to the perpetrator and those affected by them.

 

Richard S. Taylor’s recent article in the Revivalist, “Avoiding the Trap of Wesleyan Pharisaism,” involves us in these same distinctions, but discusses them in a confusing way. He talks about “sub-ethical … sin … [which involves] the absence of evil intent or willfulness.” Yet in the next sentence he asserts that such sin is implicitly “ethical wrongness.” This is contradictory and unhelpful. Further, the reason such sins need the atonement is not, as Taylor suggests, because they “are damaging [to others].” They need the atonement because they have aroused the righteous wrath of our holy God who must be propitiated by atonement. They have offended His infinite holiness and require an infinitely satisfactory sacrifice to expiate them.

 

In conclusion, I reiterate, the language and logic of Scripture alone are the ultimate arbiters of both the form and the content of our theology. We must do theology in community. We cannot avoid such theologizing, but we must always spiral back to the Word to verify, correct, restrain and extend our theological formulations.

 

Musings from 2-4am, March 10, 2005.

Philip Brown