Theology, or our understanding of God, is more like a sweater than a smorgasbord. We can’t logically walk up to the Bible buffet and load up on the teachings we like while skipping the ones we don’t; give me an extra helping of love but hold the stuff about wrath. Instead, our beliefs about God and the Christian life are intertwined like the strands of yarn in a cable-knit sweater. When we tug on one, the others tend to come, too….It is impossible to reassess the subject of hell without also reevaluating our beliefs about Scripture, God, sin, Jesus, the cross, and salvation. In the Bible, practically everything is interconnected with everything else.
Michael Wittmer in Christ Alone
Just a few thoughts on sweaters…and smorgasbords.
The analogy used by Wittmer in his critique of Bell has had my mind spinning for the past month – or perhaps more accurately, it’s increased or deepened an internal spiral into the essence of Jesus and his message that’s been underway since I let in the yeast of the kingdom of God over fifteen years ago.
Funny thing about yeast. It takes a nice compact lump that had it remained without yeast would have been very flat and heavy (and not particularly tasty) and turns it into an appetizing loaf that will feed an entire household – or in the case of Jesus’ parable with its “three satas” of dough (check your measurements – that is a huge ball of dough!) an entire village.
Theological systems tend to be very flat and compact lumps like that. Introduce a bit of yeast and the thing will expand beyond what we can contain or imagine.
Theological systems are also much like sweaters, as Wittmer observes. Pull out one thread, and where does it stop, where does it stop! (Pausing now to sing my own rousing rendition of Tradition…you can check it out on YouTube…okay, maybe not.) This is very much the way the carefully ordered cosmos of a systematic theology works. Everything is interconnected, the system/sweater only as strong as it’s weakest thread.
In the first half of my life, having been fitted with the Pelagian arsenal of a systematic Restoration/Campbellite theology, I was introduced to the TULIP sweater of Calvinistic theology (Total depravity of man; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistable grace; Perseverance of the saints, for the uninitiated reader). I was then trained in the ready dispatching of that theological flower pedal by pedal, or to retain Wittmer’s analogy, that theological sweater thread by thread. It was one of the mantras I learned and repeated: “Knock off any one of the pedals and the whole flower collapses.” We memorized multiple verses and arguments that would irrevocably sever each pedal in turn, leaving even the most ardent Calvinist fuming in a tangled pile of now useless threads.
That’s how it is with theological systems.
What’s interesting is that in Wittmer’s analogy he starts off with the word “theology” and ends up with “Bible.” That’s actually a crucial shell game maneouver we all perform on ourselves on a regular basis if we are not careful. Our theological systems are indeed like sweaters which we have produced from an ample and at times seemingly endless supply of biblical skeins, a supply of skeins that is so huge and so diverse, in fact, that in any sweater we produce from it we will of necessity have to be selective in our choice of threads.
Yes the Bible is interconnected – but it’s the artificial systems of thought we impose on it that can’t afford to have the threads tugged or the pedals pulled. This collection we know as the Bible, this assemblage of ancient genealogies and story, of poems and proverbs, of sublime epistle and nightmare apocalypse is far more diverse than we generally credit or care to acknowledge. πολυμερως and πολυτροπως is how Hebrews 1:1 puts it, many portions, many ways. Portions and ways that are often quite discordant not merely in minor details (How many days later did this happen? How many blind men where there? Which prophet said that?) but also in larger whole life perspectives (witness the ordered world of Proverbs right next to the chaotic world of Ecclesiastes – the one is the foil for the other). We hear the discordant note and must reconcile, explain, and harmoniously systematize them together – usually through a selective identification of one chord or thread as “clear” (i.e. useable) over the other that’s clearly an “unclear” (i.e.unusable or awkward) thread.
Salvation by producing and wearing the right carefully coordinated theological sweater.
On the other hand, the Author/Compiler of the Book seems to rather relish the discordant notes, often quite literally placing them side by side. He seems to care little about presenting us with a carefully knitted and homogeneous sweater with its artificial, finite and fragile interconnections. He seems much more intent on sharing a quite heterogeneous Story with an organic connectedness in the midst of its many- portions-many-ways complexity leading to its ultimate, mind-blowing climax (in a word, Jesus). Not only does this Author invite us to pull the threads – He very busily does it himself.
To be continued…