A friend of mine once remarked that a particular school of biblical teaching had almost drawn him in, but at the last moment he discovered that however beautiful this systemization of theology may appear, it wasn’t entirely biblical. The word picture he used went something like this: Man — I really thought I liked the logic of that position, but I discovered that it was like kissing a vacuum cleaner. You may wonder about his word picture, but I understood completely. The tightly constructed theological argument was appealing. But when you got close to it, you realized that it was not as charming as it seemed. Yet its construction, not its truth, made it difficult to break loose and experience any other perspective. Lots of systematic theology is like this.
I see this again and again when I look at humanity’s attempts to systematize theology. Though I’ve only read some excerpts and reviews of Ben Witherington III’s book, The Problem With Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, And Wesleyanism, I wonder if this is his point–that all systematization of biblical truth actually falls short of biblical truth. If you’ve read the book, let me know. I’d read it, but can’t part with the $30. (I am Scottish, you know.)
Speaking of all-things-Scottish, I recently discovered that in The Great Divorce, Lewis has George MacDonald expressing interesting thoughts about the depth of insight one must have to understand the freedom we possess as bearers of the divine image. In my experience, the greatest of spiritual depth has been attributed to those who hold an extreme view of God’s sovereignty. Perhaps this is because holding such a view and appreciating it does take a great deal of submission, both to God’s right to be God and to the logical systemization of those presenting the view. In contrast to this thinking, note how Lewis elevates belief in the freedom of choice to a higher position and advances us out of the two-dimensional perspective that binds us to the false contradiction of God’s sovereignty and our free will. The first words in the dialogue below are from the George MacDonald character:
Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend… a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.”
“And will He ever do so again?”
“It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”
“And some hear him?”
“In your own books. Sir,” said I, “you were a Universalist You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too”
“Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”
“Because they are too terrible. Sir?”
“No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see — small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope — something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?” (C. S. Lewis in Chapter 13 of The Great Divorce, pp. 123-125)
I take it here that Lewis is saying my freedom to choose is the gift which most clearly identifies me as having been made in God’s image. Rather than regarding the belief in the human freedom to choose as being a sign of simplemindedness, Lewis is saying that, comparing freedom to predestination, belief in the gift of freedom is “the deeper of the two” concepts.
In a very real sense “it’s ill talking of such questions” because “the answers deceive. ” Our attempts to systematize theology are important, but while putting God in a box and limiting him to behave a certain way so we can better understand him may seem appealing, we might instead find ourselves “stuck” to something we’d be better off without.
So — if I have kissed a vacuum cleaner, how do I break loose? Do I need to?
PS: I am not saying it’s wrong to systematize theology. I just don’t want to be so married to a doctrinal position that I’ve lost my ability to see anything else.