Bill Long 11/18/04
Applying the Argument to the Case of Theology
As I was thinking about the "tax simplification" argument in the previous mini-essay, I got to thinking about the concept of simplification in general. There really is no reason, I suppose, why we can't pursue tax "simplification" if it would eventuate in no net increase of the tax burden for the broad middle, would not decrease the services of government and would not drive up the national deficit/debt. But as I thought further about simplification, I thought of how tragic the whole concept is. Though fueled by noble desires and not a little longing for perfection, the movement for simplification in general is the anodyne for a culture that is living too quickly, thinking too little, and questioning too haltingly. Let's illustrate the issue by reflecting on faith for a minute.
Believe in JESUS
What would not have been acceptable public discourse 30 years ago is now all about us. You are encouraged to believe in Jesus as your personal savior, despite the fact that you may be Jewish, Muslim, Bahai, atheist or just not that interested in religion. "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:30)." John 3:16, which used to be hung from nearly every balcony of every sports event in America, says "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Faith is simple. Believe in Christ and you are saved. Everything else is commentary.
Just wait a second. Even if a person is inclined towards Christian faith (not an ignoble thing), why should that person be inclined to see it as something simple? Isn't the plea for simplicity of faith an adjunct of the plea for tax simplification--uttered by conservatives who are probably trying to pursue another agenda (like bashing gays or abortion-rights activists)? If you spend a few minutes thinking about it, however, faith is not that simple. Even the conservatives know that.
Meeting Charles Hodge
One of the most influential theologians in American history is known only by a few professors and studied nowadays by almost no one. He is Charles Hodge (1797-1878), after whom a hall is named at Princeton Theological Seminary, who held forth at Princeton when it commanded the American theological world in the mid-19th century. In his three volume (yes, 2200 pages) Systematic Theology, published between 1871-73, Hodge laid out what would become the most articulate and wide-ranging summary of Protestant (Reformed) theology in American history. Thousands of students educated under him filled the pulpits of (mostly Presbyterian) churches in the 19th and early 20th century, laying the intellectual foundations for the modern Evangelical movement. Though he is not read today, his reigns from the grave.
But if you take down one of his volumes from the shelf, you see just how complex faith can be. One only example will suffice us this morning. Part I of his work, divided into 13 chapters and dozens of sub-chapters (this is after a 190 page "Introduction"), considers the nature and attributes of God. Choosing a topic at random, I landed on his discussion of the "Will of God" in volume 1, pages 402-406. All Evangelicals want to think they are following the "will of God." But Hodge asks the question of what it means for God to have a will.
As a 19th century theological "scientist," Hodge must classify everything. Thus, the will of God includes: (1) The will in the narrow sense of the word (which he has previously defined); (2) His power; (3) His love and all his moral perfections. Like any good systematician, he first turns to the will in the narrow sense. Slicing and dicing as he goes, Hode then distinguishes between the decretive and the preceptive will of God, the antecedent and the consequent will of God and the absolute and the conditional will of God.
Space (and probably your interest) does not permit a full exposition of each here. Suffice it to say that the decretive will of God "concerns his purposes, and relates to the futurition of events." On the other hand the preceptive will of God "relates to the rule of duty for his rational creatures." God, like the proverbial 3,000 pound elephant, can decree whatever he wants for the universe in general but his prescriptions are more narrow--comprising what, according to his will, his creatures should do or abstain from doing. But, you might ask (if your eyes haven't completely glazed over), since the decretive will seemingly also includes the preceptive will, can they ever conflict. Hodge anticipates our question nicely by saying, "The decretive and preceptive will of God can never be in conflict." Why? Because Charles Hodge says so.
Hodge goes on and on. I know you believe me. If you think that the issue of the will of God is complicated, just think what can happen with the Trinity, with the explanation of how redemption actually occurs through Christ's death, of how human sin is to be reconciled with human freedom. Anything but simple. Even though Hodge's work is a product of the numbing "scientification" of all disciplines in the late 19th century, it remains very useful today. One page can evoke dozens of questions on how faith should be explained and understood. The only problem is, however, that by the time you try to sort through all of Hodge you have done enough work to earn multiple doctorates. Faith is anything but simple. Better said, faith is simple to those who want to see it as simple.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long