Breaking Your Liplock on the Vacuum Cleaner…

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.

9 thoughts on “Breaking Your Liplock on the Vacuum Cleaner…

  1. That’s why I have my own system of theology, made up of only right answers and correct ideas.

    I’m being facetious of course, but to prove a point. I think we all rely on theological systems a lot more than we realize. We’re all stuck on the vacuum cleaner (Electrolux- not a Hoover) to some extent. One good thing about theological systems is that they let us see how men from different eras reasoned from starting premises, which can help us see assumptions we make about the Bible that they didn’t necessarily have.

    With that said, I think you’re addressing a real problem though that (ahem) Reformed people need to heed. The Westminster Confession, as an example, was written to interact with (then) common errors in the Roman Catholic church, not to explain everything in the universe. The tendency now is to either try to make it explain everything, or make today’s questions fit into the categories addressed there.

  2. Wait a minute. Did I just do what I think I did? I think I said that My systemization of theology teaches me that it is dangerous to systemize theology. I hate it when I do that. 🙂

    Naturally, I don’t think it’s wrong to systematize theology. It’s just wrong to allow such to blind you to what God’s word might be saying.

    My own failure to take into account the historical backdrop of my “creeds,” elevates them beyond their initial purpose. For me personally, this has had several negative results:
    1) I force Scripture to submit to my systemization of biblical truth.
    2) I unintentionally lower Scripture to something below inspired by elevating my creed without warrant.
    3) I close my mind to viewpoints that conflict with my systemization.

  3. Paul Helm is currently running a series on systematic theology at His first entry is on definitions and how they do not define but protect and safeguard; that the NT does systematize, eg, what the resurrection is and why it is non-negotiable; and that systematic theology is above all obedient and loving thought about God not dogma. All of which will keep us all from the 3 negative results you expound.

  4. From your other “Reformed” friend. I appreciate the systematic way you have presented your concerns about the blinding effects of systematizing.

    Good systematic theology looks to take all of what Scripture says about any one topic, but also recognizes the tension that exists within God’s revealed Word on those topics.

    It is for this reason that I can say, systematically, that God’s Word is solely authoritative over systematic theology.

    We break loose from the vacuum cleaner by embracing Jesus Christ.

  5. It seems that systematizing theology should be the means to understanding Scripture, not the end. Our lip-locked brethren may have equated their system with Scripture itself. Does that mean the system is more precious than the Word? No one admits that, but they may think like that.

    It may be that a system of theology is more a presupposition than doctrine. That is, I believe this, therefore Scripture says that.

    Locking lips might be the kiss of death. :o)

  6. Here’s another problem I thought of with systematization. I think in any system, you have the statements of the Bible organized in a logical fashion. This problem occurs when your logical process itself is not Biblical. This can be seen when you find yourself trying to reconcile two things that the Bible holds simultaneously. Like the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, or a statement about the salvific power of baptism vs. statements about salvation by faith alone.

    I think someone asked Spurgeon how he reconciled the sovereignty of God with man’s responsibility, and he said “I never reconcile friends” (did you tell me that story?). What the Bible doesn’t set apart, we shouldn’t either.

  7. That’s not to say that those passages I mentioned can’t exist together in a logical framework. It’s just that those are a good indicator for us that our rules of logic and argument are a little sub-biblical, and that we should check our presuppositions about how things can be in harmony.

    That’s all now.

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