Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

On the Use of Systems and Narratives to Secure Theological Certainty

I was just thinking about how narratives are to the high church believer what systems are to the Protestant.

One of the things which strike me about the sincere high church believer is the disproportionate amount of reading they have done on narratives accounts of their church compared to their virtual total ignorance of the primary texts and sources of their church. The protestant version involves the virtual mastery of systematic theology and Protestant formularies compared to their command of the Bible.

The Worldview or “Total Picture”

At one level this is understandable. A new believer cannot be expected to read the entire Bible and/or all the primary texts of one’s tradition at the start. Systems and narrative accounts are portable, lightweight, simple and easy to grasp. They summarise vast amounts of details in a convenient manner by creating a “total picture” whereby one can grasp the faith in it’s entirely in a single glance.

However, such “pictures” are meant, not to become art pieces in themselves for us to gaze upon, but merely windows, leading us towards the primary text. The problem is that there has emerged that irritating concept of the “worldview” whereby the “picture” becomes enclosed unto itself, a mental ghetto for believers to retreat into and entrench themselves. As Heidegger explains succinctly concerning this “worldview” or “world picture”:

The modern age is the “age of the world picture” not in the sense of a picture of the world, but in that of the world conceived itself as picture: as a systemic and complete representation…

Thus, what has happened is that these “pictures”, whether they are Protestant systematic theology or High Church narratives, cease to be merely a “picture of the world” but a “complete” representation in itself.

Protestants and Systems

You can see this in the way the serious Protestant reads the Bible. The Protestant always feels a need to explain the Bible in the terms of the categories and terms of systematic theology. Always they feel compelled to defend rigidly the sola formulas like “sola fide” or justification by faith alone, even though ironically this formula can’t actually be found in the Augsburg Confession itself. Always the Bible is the one moving around to be defined according to the concepts of systematic theology. When confronted with some like James 2:24 (not by faith alone) or Colossians 1:24 (“in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”), the Protestant does not say, “I suppose I need to nuance or qualify my theological concepts to accommodate these verses”, instead he would nuance and qualify the verses themselves (no, that’s not what the verses mean! It really means…). The system has become an epistemic idol which, instead of being conformed to the Bible, they conform the Bible to it. For people who claim such faith in the perspicuity of the Bible, they are perpetually worried that the Bible may in fact say all kinds of inconvenient things.

Personally for myself, I am not committed to the wording of “justification by faith alone”. The phrase or formula is simply the name for the constellation of concepts associated with it, e.g. forensic justification, etc, something already taught by Pelagius and Duns Scotus long before the formula itself became a dogma. Like the Churches of Christ denomination, I can jettison the formula very easily while retaining the concepts referred to by it. The irony is that Protestants who claim the Bible as the direct object of faith and the “real presence” of Christ in their lives are always mediating and reading the Bible through their systematic concepts. Confessionalism, where the formulas of systematic theology itself is the test of orthodoxy, is the final form of this anxiety.

The High Church Believer and Narratives

If systematic theology is the idol of the Protestant mind, then narrative accounts are the idol of the mind of the high church believer. One of the defining characteristics of the fervent high church believer is virtual ignorance of the primary sources and texts and events. Always their faith is not upon the Church, as she has actually taught, acted and written, but upon these portable narrative accounts explaining in broad conceptual strokes what their church is supposedly about, accompanied of course by little snippets of the original texts. One of the most curious phenomenons one can observe is how the Eastern Orthodox likes to blame Anselm for the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement when in his actual Cur Deus Homo he actually argues for “satisfaction” as an alternative contrast to punishment. But of course, it is much more convenient to vaguely blame ALL Western scholastics for something in one broad stroke than to attend to the details itself.

Like the Protestant, even when the high church believer is confronted with the primary sources or primary historical facts or data, the primary sources or facts is the one always moving around to suit the narrative, the sources or facts themselves can’t be allowed to speak or say anything which could contradict the narrative. As Tim Enloe, an amateur historian notes in his debate with a Roman Catholic:

What I usually find in my discussions with Catholics about these matters is that either they have not studied the relevant primary source material in any detail, or they do but decide, somewhat oddly, to let external criteria of evaluation such as prior commitment to, say, Newman’s theory of development, govern what the sources are allowed to say. I remember fondly reading a debate done some years back ,between Brian Tierney and Alfons Stickler, then the curator of the Vatican Archives, in a professional historical journal. Tierney was analyzing a Decretist text on the infallibility of the pope and contending that the text showed something deleterious to the modern RC doctrine. Stickler, a trained historian himself, preferred not to stick to the text but rather to call Tierney a heretic for denying the modern doctrine on the basis of historical texts. To me, that’s the problem with the whole RC faith in a nutshell – when pressed up against the wall, it turns into a kind of gnostic flight from the knowability of the real world on the spurious grounds that only a “faith” disconnected from said real world can ever possibly help us understand said real world. No thanks. I prefer Protestantism, where I am at least allowed to do history with my eyes open.

Lastly, I notice that you are citing heavily from encyclopedias… if it is necessary and helpful, I can pull out the primary sources and cite directly from them. For as I am sure you are well aware, encyclopedias are not meant to be, ahem, “decisive,” but only goads to engaging the primary sources. I’ve read lots of the primaries – even translated some extended passages myself – but outside of the rarified world of Medieval political scholarship, I’ve met zero Catholics who have. Most are content to cite encyclopedias, pop-histories, and mere confessional propaganda. I take it that you know as well as I do that sober-minded scholarship requires much more than those things.

Conclusion

A lot of these have a lot to do with the anxieties of the contemporary mind than anything. The desire for mental security demands a means whereby one can get a grip upon the whole of reality. If God is the centre upon which all reality holds, then he who can get a grip upon God has a grip upon all. Unfortunately whether high church or Protestant, the Bible as it is in itself, or history in its bewildering complexity and vastness, cannot be so easily shoehorned to serve this need. Systematic theology and narrative accounts attempts to get a grip upon the divine in one seamless holistic picture to escape the anxieties of the difficulties of particular facts or details which might slip out of one’s grasp.

The proper Christian however knows that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Neither the Bible, nor ecclesiastical documents, nor systematic theology nor narrative accounts are our mediators to God, only Christ alone is the mediator. Our faith is not in mental objects, whether system or narratives, but in objective external realities, God and his Christ Jesus. Whatever the importance, or even necessity, of the Bible or tradition or even systematic theology or narratives to lead us to these realities, ultimately they themselves are not the object of our faith displacing the living objective realities. To argue otherwise would be to turn mental formulas into the idol of the mind.

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This entry was posted on December 6, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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