Those Stupid Theologians, What Do They Know? ‘The Shepherd’s Voice’

Sixteenth century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza didn’t like Christian Dogmatics or her theologian’s very much; in fact he sounds, unfortunately, very much so like many today—of course his reasons were a little different from many today, but not that much, at least not in the way that Matthew Levering describes it. Here is how Levering describes Spinoza’s relationship with the theologian:

spinoza

Yet, as Spinoza sees it, the salvation of these common people is seriously impeded by the nonsense taught by theologians. As Spinoza argues, with much evidence on his side, “people in general seem to make no attempt whatsoever to live according to the Bible’s teachings. We see that nearly all men parade their own ideas as God’s Word, their chief aim being to compel others to think as they do, while using religion as a pretext. We see, I say, that the chief concern of theologians on the whole has been to extort from Holy Scripture their own arbitrarily invented ideas, for which they claim divine authority.” Theologians not only do not live piously, loving their neighbor, but moreover their work, motivated by greed and lust for power, simply fosters controversies that result in the common people equally displaying hatred of neighbor. In their passion to be believed and followed, theologians claim that the most profound mysteries lie hidden in the Bible, and they exhaust themselves in unraveling these absurdities while ignoring other things of value. Having invented these false complexities in the Bible, theologians insist that others must follow their ideas, and “the bitterest hatred” and contention results among the common people. In light of the peril faced by the common people, Spinoza seeks to outline better principles for interpreting “what the Bible or the Holy Spirit intends to teach.” [Matthew Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, 114-15.]

Wow, this hits so close to home. Being a student of Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance and other such theologians I have been accused more than once of the same kind of gibberish that Spinoza accuses theologians from his day of. In fact, this kind of accusation was actually just made toward me today.

There are speculative theologians around, but then there are also revelational theologians (of which tribe I am); theologians who follow what historically was identified as the via positiva (positive way)  and the kataphatic approach instead of the via negativa (negative way) and the apophatic approach. Revelational theologians, by and large, seek to work a posteriori from what has been given in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ, who exegetes or explains (John 1.18) His life with the Father by the Holy Spirit. Thomas Torrance has identified this kind of positive way as theological science, something that he picked up from Karl Barth. Torrance describes this kind of mode in Karl Barth this way:

[. . .] Barth found his theology thrust back more and more upon its proper object, and so he set himself to think through the whole of theological knowledge in such a way that it might be consistently faithful to the concrete act of God in Jesus Christ from which it actually takes its rise in the Church, and, further, in the course of that inquiry to ask about the presuppositions and conditions on the basis of which it comes about that God is known, in order to develop from within the actual content of theology its own interior logic and its own inner criticism which will help to set theology free from every form of ideological corruption. [Torrance, Theological Science, 7 cited by Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church Chapter 4, 102.

If only Spinoza would have been around later, he would have understood that the best of theologians think from Christ, and that Scripture is not a mystery waiting to be un-locked, but a hymn book waiting to be sung to its glorious reality, Jesus Christ.

It is this aspect that I would love to see many Biblical Studies folk and Theologians embrace; that is, that reading Scripture must be understood from its ultimate center (methodologically and in every way), in Jesus Christ (Jn. 5.39). And that doxology (worship) is the mode by which Scripture is most appreciated, as if the living voice of God in Christ can be encountered every time we crack its pages. This does not ignore that involving ourselves in this kind of koinonial (fellowshipping) exercise requires toil and hard work (II Tim. 2.15), and that there are critical tools available to engage in this process of encounter and sanctification; but it is to highlight that the purpose and aim of reading Scripture is only given shape by its Revealed reality and continual giver, God in Christ by the Spirit. And thus contra, Spinoza, and anyone else of like mind, approaching Scripture as a theologian is not intended as some sort of mysterious exercise of abstract speculation, but it is to repentantly and obediently to seek to hear from the Teacher and reality of Scripture in dialogical form. Because the sheep know their Shepherd’s voice and we listen!

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5 thoughts on “Those Stupid Theologians, What Do They Know? ‘The Shepherd’s Voice’

  1. I see no need to call theologians stupid or cast aspersions on their seeking in any way (heck, everyone needs to seek something and most probably choose to seek far more trivial things than the nature of the divine and lessons for how to do right in this world).

    Even so, like spinoza I do wonder at the value of holding the idea that there is some ultimate truth buried in the books in the bible. The fact that they are referred to as “books” is telling. Are you familiar with John McClaren? In A New Kind of Christianity, he lays out the idea that the bible is not a single book but a library.We don’t seek a single truth from a library because we know it isn’t there. We know that what we will find there are different authors with different purposes, different perspectives, and different conclusions .

    The bible itself almost calls for us to treat it as a library as early as e 2nd chapter of genesis, where things of this world are created in a differ order than they were in genesis 1. Different authors, different perspectives, different conclusions.

    Do you recall, bobby, our bible/science teacher, Mr. Cratsley (the former Lt. Col. Cratsley, whose job was to break the seemingly-straightforward 7th commandment), teaching is creation science? If memory serves, it was 9 weeks vase on Genesis 1. No mention of genesis 2. It was swept under the rug. Perhaps he believed there was no truth to it.

    I am wary of that approach when it comes to theology. If its so easy to disagree about and sweep under the rug portions of ones own favored source of insight into the divine, how easy must it be to sweep under the rug sources that come from other seekers removed from one another by counties and by continents?

    I’m not suggesting that everyone’s truth is as valid as everyone else’s. there is little truth in blind hatred, insatiable thirst for power, or a single-minded quest for hedonistic pleasure. I suppose i am suggesting, however, that an earnest search for the nature of he divine and how to live is more important that being concerned that ones own particular answers to these questions are exactly the right answers.

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  2. Hi Jeff, let me just repost my response to you, as you did with your’s, from FB:

    Jeff, I used stupid in a sarcastic way, since I are a budding one.

    I couldn’t disagree with you more about the divine. In fact I don’t know the divine in such impersonal ways, I know Him personally by the name of Jesus Christ as the Son of the Father bonded in love by the personal activity of the Holy Spirit.

    Apparently you didn’t read my post, or maybe you did. But the reality is, is that the divine isn’t a psychological projection of the self embedded in some sort of aesthetic ideal; no His name is Jesus veiled in the flesh of a particular man from the city of Nazareth. Once you taste and see that he is good, you will repent of any kind of self-reinforcing rationalized delusion, and embark on a never ending quest of fides quarens intellectum ‘faith seeking understanding’ and not some sort of secular misconception of blind faith, but a faith squarely grounded in the concrete and substantial faith that comes from the vicarious humanity of Christ for us from which we participate by which we live in the Yes of the Son for the Father, and the No of the Son put to death at the cross.

    I am un-interested in a gnostic or universal type of search for the divine, like I already said, that is rooted in an approach that seeks some sort of 19th century transcendent ideal of the divine; that reduces scripture to a study of what has been called the history of religions wherein Scripture is simply considered as an ad hoc text that is hung together based on this previously mentioned conception of this psychologized conception of the divine. No, scripture hangs together with both its intratextual particularity, per each book, and its universal intertextuality in its unity, as Jesus has said in Him ( John 5:39).

    I remember Mr. Cratsley, a great man of God! I am not really concerned with anyone’s idiosyncratic readings of Genesis. I don’t see it as a science text book. And the apparent problem between Genesis 1 and 2 is just that, apparent and artificial; 1 is the prologue, and 2 is its body and depth explanation, and this is all recapitulated in recreation and reconciliation of Jesus Christ in John 1. Genesis 1 and 2, introduces Yahweh to His covenant people as a God of grace, which His Divine Fiat and the fact that He spoke in order to create human beings in His image as a counter-point upon whom He might shower His effulgent free Self-determined life of love, of which we were intended to reciprocate through the ground of His life and image in His Son, is the proper theological reading of Genesis 1 and 2. Of course this takes us full circle: ‘taste and see that the LORD is good.’ And anyone who does will abandon conceptions of a modernistic archetypal unifying abstract principle of transcendent divinity that is really nothing other than a Feurbachian projection of the self-possessed self onto the indomitable human spirit. The only cure for such attitude is to Repent, so Repent. Blessings, Jeff.

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    Jeff, I understand that my above comment sounds harsh, but I am sensing a kind of skepticism in your tone, and your appeal to A New Kind of Christianity (which is not new, but an old form of Gnosticism repackaged, and one that starts in a kind of Cartesian cogito ergo sum mode that is diametrically opposed to the particular and thus exclusively inclusive teaching of Jesus Christ).

    I wonder why you think A New Kind of Christianity is needed, a kind that does not start in God’s particular and Self-revelation and explanation (see John 1:18) in Jesus Christ? Why do you? If indeed you do?

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  3. I enjoyed your post, Bobby. My reaction didn’t go in the direction of the comments that were posted above mine. The following sentence by Levering describing Spinoza’s thoughts caught my attention: “Theologians not only do not live piously, loving their neighbor, but moreover their work, motivated by greed and lust for power, simply fosters controversies that result in the common people equally displaying hatred of neighbor.” This hit me because I am currently reading a short book by an Orthodox priest, Fr. Stephen Freeman, entitled “Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.” Freeman says even most Christians live as though they lived in a two storey universe, with God “kicked upstairs,” living most of life as though, effectively, there were no God, a secular life, compartmentalized. (I’ve seen it described elsewhere as “Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism”) Besides the impact of the Enlightenment and it’s emphasis on the purely material realm of the world, Freeman says this: “Remember that secularism was not born as an idea in itself, but as a reaction to the religious wars of various Christian groups in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Secularism, in its infancy, was not designed as an enemy of Christian belief, bus as a peaceful solution for Christians who had raised theological debate to the level of out-and-out warfare. It is an unintended effect that secularism has become a thing in itself, responsible for the exile of God from everyday life. The natural force of this understanding has been to devalue all external forms of religious devotion (where they can be seen and become matters of debate, or even warfare). (Jerome here: hence the reported comment of the IRS agent to the candidate for tax-exempt status: “Keep your faith to yourself!”) back to Freeman: If everyone agrees to hold their beliefs about God in a compartmentalized fashion – as a matter of belief understood as a set of ideas – then conflict is minimized.” Freeman argues, correctly, that faith is NOT a set of ideas, but the reality of the universe – the world really is a “one storey universe” with God, Christ, filling it – Ephesians 1:23 and Ephesians 4:10. I found the connection of our secular world to the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th century quite astounding. Makes me think about how I understand where people around me are comming from, how I approach Christian debate, and how I present myself to the world apoligetically.

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  4. Jerome,

    Thanks for sharing! This sounds like a very intriguing thesis, I will have to read this guy at some point. My concern with some of the EO stuff, is that there tends to be not a robust enough Creator/creature distinction; at least not in the way I prefer, which TFT does through his thinking on non-contingent independent/contingent independent—which still repudiates dualistic ways of thinking. 🙂

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