Don't Forget Mystery

In the church of my dreams, the Bible is central and speaks with "final authority on all matters of faith and practice" (to quote a document from the Baptist church of my youth). Such a valuing of the Scriptures will inevitably lead to teaching from the Bible that is doctrinal in nature. So far so good.

From this can arise the desire for a "systematic" theology that covers all aspects of Biblical revelation and attempts to draw together the different strands of Bible truth into a comprehensive whole. Affirming that Scripture is not internally contradictory and assuming that all strands of Biblical truth can be harmonised, we can then develop a system of belief that attempts to explain all - a kind of Biblical equivalent of the scientist's search for a Grand Theory of Everything.

This desire is, of course, understandable and at one level is to be welcomed. It does, however, have its risks. One problem that can emerge in a church or movement committed to expounding Biblical truth is that its understanding of doctrine can become overly formulaic and can fail to recognise that in the end, all doctrine ends in mystery.

When we say that "God is love", for example, we are saying something that at one level appears reasonably clear and able to be understood (to the mind made alive by the Spirit). But at the same time, we are also staring wide mouthed into the most profound mystery of the universe, a mystery that makes the unraveling of the human genome appear child's play.

Although the words of Scripture are sufficient, they are not exhaustive. They do not tell us all that can be known, only that which we need to know for our salvation and for living a godly life.

Perhaps Paul had something similar in mind when he confessed that "we know in part" and when he portrayed this present life as "looking into a dark mirror" or (as other versions put it) "seeing only dimly". Because so much attention has been spent in recent decades explaining that these verses in 1 Corinthians do not refer to the cessation of spiritual gifts with the closing of the canon of Scripture, we have perhaps not been as careful to explain what they actually do mean.

In context, Paul is saying that all of our current knowledge about the things of God is limited - not incorrect, just limited. It is like the knowledge that a child has about the world around him - simplistic, basic, lacking depth or rigor. "Now", says Paul, "we know in part."

What is Paul's response to the reality of our current childish knowledge compared to our future adult knowledge of spiritual things? Does he abandon doctrine? Not at all. Rather, he emphasises love: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

In the church of my dreams, doctrinal teaching is important. But it is to be set forth with a healthy dose of humility and a recognition that at present we're just kids talking about big stuff that we don't really get. This being the case, we adopt humility in our dealings with each other, and we make great efforts to think, speak and act lovingly towards all those who belong to Jesus Christ, even with those who don't agree with our view of the Millenium.


Mark H said...

great post Al,

although surely you go too far to suggest that I show love to people who are wrong about the spelling of millennium ;)

atlanticwriter said...