I wonder if God wonders

DeaCe_Web_StillCelia Deane-Drummond (Professor of Theology, Notre Dame) takes wonder as a point of departure in considering the nature and existence of the world. I could listen to her speak all day, and I love what she shares here. A sense of wonder is how we first experience the world’s beauty. We later learn the scientific ways the world works predictably. We discover something of the world’s logos. But wonder remains. And wonder is never ‘accounted for’ physically. Wonder is never reduced to a cog in the parts of the world whose beauty is the cause of such amazement. Wonder is in this sense transcendent of the world itself, though we experience wonder in and through the world’s own apparatuses (i.e., embodiment).

Thinking about Deane-Drummond’s comments on wonder (see the video below) got me thinking—Does God experience a sense of wonder and amazement at the contemplation of himself? One reason to think not might be the assumption that ‘wonder’ implies finitude and ignorance. One is only amazed if what one is amazed at is ‘discovered’, if there’s an inherent element of surprise, of moving from a state in which one’s experience wasn’t defined by such wonder to a state in which one awakens to such wonder. So ‘wonder’, one might argue, can only be experienced by finite creatures who don’t already perceive all truth. God couldn’t experience a sense of wonder or amazement even at the contemplation of himself because that would imply a certain discovery of what he didn’t already fully realize about himself, and that in turn implies a certain failure to know himself, and certainly we don’t want to say God can fail to know himself.

That said, I don’t think it follows that all sense of wonder entails the kind of discovery that implies finitude and ignorance. Traditionally, God is believed to be the summum bonum, the highest good, the greatest beauty, an unsurpassably intense delight grounded in his own self-contemplation. I agree there’s a certain necessary, timeless fullness to God’s being and identity that we cannot reduce to any temporal becoming, but I don’t suppose this precludes—in fact I think it requires—divine wonder. Bliss is wonder.

I imagine God to be ‘wonderful’, to experience and know himself with an infinite sense of wonder, not because he is forever discovering things about himself he didn’t know, but because there is nothing possibly boring or redundant about God. God is never bored with himself. He always experiences himself as supremely wonderful. The Father’s eternal begetting of his Logos is an exclamatory act (!), an eternal “Wow!” whose utterance is God’s existence.

So how do we imagine such wonder? Well, I’ve listened to certain pieces of music repeatedly, through the years, more times than I can count, knowing the notation, knowing what is to come, so to speak—no surprises there—and yet I continue to experience a sense of wonder at their beauty and my wonder isn’t preceded by some ignorance. The same can be true of fine art. I’ve sat contemplating favorite works of art for hours, and do so still, years after being captured by them as a teenager, and I continue to experience wonder, a kind of pre-linguistic experience of possessing myself ecstatically in and as shared beauty. We discover ourselves piecemeal because of our finitude. We are not our own bonum. But there’s no reason to suppose that God, who just is the beauty toward which all our discoveries of wonder tend, is not also infinite wonder.

Here we meet the most serious diseases of modern—I’ll stick to my own tradition—Evangelicalism. God is more or less thought to be boring. Our religious services are full of diversions put in place to insure that our services are sufficiently entertaining. True, we concede God must be appealed to in order to explain the world’s beauty or to make our experience of the world enjoyable. We can do this much. But what do we make of just God? We never say it. It would be anathema to admit it. But it is everywhere evident in the dysfunctions of our theology, the dispositions of our worship, the endless diversions of our culture that at our center there is not an experience of God as the transcendent, unifying wonder of existence. There is instead a gnawing absence of such wonder which threatens to consume everything we are and do with infinite boredom.

Enjoy Deane-Drummond’s Closer to Truth video.


Wonder is thy name,
Not trapped being the same
In form and thought; nor art thou boringly so.
Eternal delight without repetition
Of what in thee gives thee joy; nor by omission
Art thou Infinite Wonder, but euphorically so!

More on logical & ontological possibility

Necessity-page-0Allow to me pull out a few relevant passages from the Hartshorne piece (Religious Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 [Jun., 1977]), I linked to in the preceding post regarding logical and ontological possibility/necessity (all bold emphases are mine):

“Note that the meaning postulate used to define God can be rejected as lacking self-consistent meaning. Also some hold that ‘there might have been nothing’ is consistently conceivable, granting which the notion of a nature such that there logically must be something having it is absurd. So far as I recall, Hick nowhere discusses the conceivability of ‘there might have been nothing’….”

“What is Hick conceiving when he ‘conceives’ the divine non-existence? Is it ‘the existence of bare nothing’? I take this to be a series of words with no clear, consistent, specifiable meaning….”

“I insist there is a problem here that Hick has merely ignored. It is not incidental to my reasoning but central to it. I think Hick has entirely failed to show what ‘God does not exist’ means, assuming that ‘God exists’ has consistent meaning. He is comparing two allegedly conceivable but not mutually compatible ‘states of affairs’, but has given us no help in conceiving the negative alternative.”

“Consider now the points made by Anselm and me that a logically contingent statement must be such that, were it false, its being true would remain conceivable, and that this conceivability of both truth and falsity is intelligible only with assertions of things that are not eternal, that could come into or go out of existence. A still-born child that never became an actually thinking animal might have survived to become such an animal. A couple that had no child might have had one. Even the logical contingency (conceivable falsity) of assertions about non-eternal things is dependent, Anselm and I hold, against Hick, upon the non-eternality of their subjects. As Aristotle said long ago, eternal things are necessarily necessary and temporal things necessarily contingent. Hick wants necessity here to be merely ‘ontological’, that is, to mean self-sufficient, ungenerated and indestructible. I think Aristotle neither implied nor would have accepted any such view, any more than Anselm would have accepted it. Hick identifies God’s necessity with his eternity and self-sufficiency. However, no one, not even God, can wait forever to see if something is always there; for then he would never know its eternal status. It is necessity that explains eternity, not vice versa. And Hick partly sees this. God will live forever because he could not be destroyed. And this is the logical could not! Hick says so…but adds that this logical necessity depends upon an hypothesis that there is an ontologically necessary being.”

“The issue now grows clearer. Granted that God exists at present, there is no further logical contingency about his always existing. But his non-existence, Hick tells us, still remains conceivable. Yet, how do we conceive this allegedly conceivable negative case?”

“Anselm holds that some existential assertions, all ordinary ones, are logically contingent, that is, their denials involve no intrinsic absurdity, while at least one extraordinary existential assertion is not logically contingent, that is, its denial does involve intrinsic absurdity, either a misuse of words or a contradiction. Thus I cannot at all accept the gulf between talk of logical modality and what Anselm intended. He had the idea of logical necessity, though not the distinction between those cases which involve more than the constants of formal logic as now recognized, and those which involve meanings additional to purely logical ones. Either way the necessity in question turns entirely on the meanings of the terms employed.”

It is analytic that a thing to whose existence there is a conceivable alternative is either something producible (at least indirectly) by causes capable themselves of not existing or of not acting as they acted or would act in producing the thing, or else is something that could exist without cause of its existing and could fail to exist without cause of its non-existing. Since God is conceived as eternal and without cause of his existence, only the uncaused case is relevant. Such a causeless yet contingent existence is without connection with our ordinary ways of understanding contingency. I do not believe that any extraordinary way has been or is likely to be arrived at.”

We do not seek causal explanations of non-contingent truths, as in mathematics, but we do seek them for contingent truths. The empiricists tell us in effect to forget all this when considering God. They accuse Anselm of violating rules; but they violate the elementary rule that logically contingent matters are intelligible in genetic and causal terms, or not at all.”

“As Leibniz with his marvelous clarity saw long ago, a mere definition cannot establish existence, not, however, because there is no logical connection of ‘idea’ with reality, but only because it is possible for sensible sounding phrases to lack definite and consistent meaning, so that the assumed ‘idea’ is only a set of words. I find this more illuminating than all Kant’s lengthy verbiage on the proof. Some definitions, like ‘greatest possible number’, fail to express a coherent thought. Thus the conviction of so many that existence cannot be derived from a mere definition is fully justified, but not for the usual reasons. Thought does have a necessary connection with reality, for even contingent ideas make sense only because there is a creative process able to produce or not produce various things. What lacks necessary connection with reality is only words and sentences. If they fail to capture a thought, they will certainly not capture a true thought.”

“The foregoing theory of contingency, without which I take no stock in any ontological argument, means that to exist contingently is to be, or to have been, contingently produced, that is created. It follows of course that no eternal entity can be contingent. Am I now speaking of ontological or logical contingency? Neither, as Hick explicates terms. His logical contingency of the divine existence is, to me, a meaningless business of a way we can talk about nothing, while pretending to talk about something. All existence implies God as its creative ground, according to both Hick and me. Still there might be, he thinks, neither the creative ground nor its contingent creations. This might be is merely logical, it has no ontological referent. I think it is mere words.”

Logical & ontological possibility/necessity

HartshorneI’m not a process theologian, but I like a lot about Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000, pronounced ‘hearts-horn’ by the way), an extremely brilliant philosopher. Recent conversations about the distinction between logical and ontological possibility have taken me back to Hartshorne’s view that ultimately logical and ontological possibility coincide and are one and the same. But philosophers today (exclusively of the analytic sort?) distinguish between these two modes of speaking and being. Logical possibility/necessity is strictly about the formal-logical consistency of the terms of a proposition. Do the semantics of some claim or description violate the axioms of logic (about which there is ongoing debate), which traditionally are the law of identity (A is A), the law of non-contradiction (A is not not-A), the law of excluded middle (between A and not-A there is no third option). Others (e.g., Schopenhauer) add the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) as a fourth which states that everything that exists has a reason sufficient to explain its existence. Some of these four are hotly debated today.

It is generally (as far as I can tell) held that logical possibility/necessity concerns itself with language and conceivability. It’s primarily about speaking. Something is logically possible just in case its definition doesn’t involve any violation of the rules of logic. Ontological (or metaphysical) possibility/necessity describes realities themselves. It’s about being.

The question then is, what is the relationship (if any) between logical and ontological possibility, between logical modalities and ontological modalities? One option is to conflate them, take them as coincident and say that whatever is logically possible is ontologically possible, or that whatever is ontologically impossible is logically impossible. Another option makes a hard distinction between them and holds that neither mode of possibility can be assumed from the other. What is logically possible may in fact be ontologically impossible. But to begin to expose the difficulty of positing too absolute a distinction between the two, I don’t know of any philosopher who argues that what is metaphysically possible may be logically impossible. That is, it must be logically coherent to say of what exists that it exists, or what may exist that it may exist. Additionally, and controversially, others (e.g., Hartshorne) argue that it is not coherent to conceive of what exists necessarily as not existing.

A clear example of how the two manners of speaking relate would be the existence of God. Take the proposition:

P1  “A necessary being of infinite intelligence and goodness exists.”

(Assume whatever apophatic qualifications you wish.) I don’t know of any atheist who argues this is logically impossible (i.e., the words generate one or more violation of the axioms of logic), although all atheists are committed (though very few recognize it) to the ontological-metaphysical impossibility of such a being, for the only way a proffered ‘necessary’ being fails to exist is if its existence is impossible. Contingent existence isn’t an option for the God folks debate. He either exists necessarily, or his existence is impossible.

However, many theists who hold to the truth of P1 agree that its contradiction (“No necessary being of infinite intelligence and goodness exists”) is logically possible. That is, the non-existence of God is ‘conceivable’, because it is thought that conceivability is purely about the formal-logical consistency of language. “God does not exist” does not generate any obvious logical contradiction, hence it’s logically possible (i.e., conceivable).

Charles Hartshorne took the rare view that ultimately logical and ontological possibility coincide and are one and the same. I’ve always gravitated toward this view. It doesn’t make sense to me that once committed to the necessity of God’s existence, one should concede the conceivability of the non-existence of God. Hartshorne felt the same thing. He expressed this on many occasions and the linked article here is one such instance.


No one who believes in the metaphysically necessity of God can find his non-existence conceivable, at least not if one’s understanding of God is that he is the ground and source of all being (as opposed to believing in “a” God, Zeus for example). We’re speaking about a necessary being here, so our options are either he exists necessarily or his existence is impossible. Hence, to the extent one grants the logical possibility of God, one is committed to his actual existence. When theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, for example, grants that God’s existence is indeed logically possible but he doesn’t believe God exists, he’s being self-contradictory.

So what do we do with logical and ontological possibility? Well, since it isn’t immediately obvious what metaphysical necessities there are, we do require a consistent and predictable way to talk about candidates, and to this extent Hartshorne granted a distinction between logical and ontological possibility/necessity. The laws of identity, non-contradiction, etc., remain the immediate rules for meaningful discourse. But, as Hartshorne’s arguments revealed, once one had reasoned one’s way through to conclude the existence of a necessary God, one was justified in maintaining the inconceivability of God’s non-existence. And the rules of logic held one to this. The inconceivability in question had to be argued for, of course. Hartshorne didn’t think metaphysical (a priori) truth was always obvious, laying on the surface. And he granted that debate over the status of such truth would continue. But where the mind embraced the truth of God’s existence, it could not consistently concede the meaningfulness (conceivability) of his non-existence, even if to enter into conversation about God he admitted atheist claims for examination alongside his own rather than dismiss atheist claims as obviously incoherent, like “Married bachelors exist.” But he did maintain that there are legitimate grounds for affirming the logical impossibility of the metaphysically necessary. So long as one is up front and careful about one’s use of language, all is well. There’s no logical reason why one one’s formal-logical language game must in all cases remain unrelated to one’s metaphysical commitments. Metaphysical commitments carry logical implications.

I’m doing a poor job of describing it. Forgive me. Enjoy the Hartshorne piece.

To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 2

creationOn to some thoughts in response to the idea that the created order may in fact be eternal (never “having come to be”) and yet be metaphysically contingent.

First (and my thanks to Alan Rhoda for helping clarify this point for me), there are different types of modality, and thus different types of modal contingency. While some philosophers conflate “logical” and “metaphysical” contingency, this is arguably a mistake. Logical modality is constrained only by internal consistency, whereas metaphysical modality is also constrained by what exists. Metaphysical possibility, arguably, doesn’t follow from logical consistency.

Second, and more to my Orthodox friends, consider Athanasius’ debate with Arius. When the Church anathematizes one who says of the Son “there was a time when he was not,” is this not said in recognition of a fundamental distinction between divine being as uncreated and thus without beginning (i.e., there was not a time when he was not) and human being as created and thus having begun (i.e., there was a time when created things were not)? Does not Orthodoxy assume in the logic by which it condemned Arius a fundamental difference between uncreated and created being with respect to “having not come into being” and “having come into being”?

Third, as all know, Plato himself, and then Neo-Platonism with Plotinus (the philosophical context of early Christianity) held the world to be (a) eternal and (b) ontologically dependent upon the God. But the Church objected to this understanding of things in refining its understanding of CEN. But what’s the point of positing CEN if it’s construed as compatible with the eternity of a world that is ontologically dependent upon God? Pagan Neo-Platonists granted that much themselves. So what were Christians objecting to in rejecting this pagan view and positing CEN as an alternative? It doesn’t seem to me that positing CEN in terms of an eternal world which is dependent upon God is adding anything unique by way of critique or modification of pagan Neo-Platonism. But this is a problem since we know Christians believed that in arguing CEN they were offering a view of creation contradictory to that of Neo-Platonism.

Fourth, supposing that the world has always existed (a) implies an infinitely temporal past, for creation itself is irreducibly temporal, and more concerning, an eternal material order would (for Christians) (b) remain subject to, and grounded in, God-given teleology. This would (c) land Orthodoxy in the same mess as Process theists, namely, supposing that the present state of creation is preceded by a temporally infinite teleological failure, having tended naturally forever toward fulfillment in God without having reached its goal. If protology entails eschatology, a protology that posits an everlasting history of teleological becoming that has failed to reach its end is fatal to Christian hope.

Fifth, does anyone know the present status of the authority of the Condemnations of 1210-1277? Not that Protestants or Orthodox are subject to them, and it seems they lack final Papal endorsement, but it would be interesting to know what other Christian believers make of the arguments. Medieval theologians debated the eternity of the world, among other things. In the 13th century, in an attempt to fix a distinction between Aristotle and Christian faith regarding the implications of CEN for the nature of creation, the Catholic church (via the University of Paris and certain local ecclesiastical powers) condemned certain propositions relative to Aristotle’s influence upon Christian theology, including the claim that “that the world is eternal.”

Brief comments, I know; and without full arguments for each claim along the way. But I hoped a shorter statement would help me crystallize the issues, and the questions, for myself.

To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 1

infinite_stairwell_span02I believe in creatio ex nihilo (CEN), or creation out of nothing. I’ve always taken this to mean the created order ‘began to be’. I don’t get into debates over the temporal semantics of such a unique beginning (for example, in what sense can we talk about God “before” creation?), but I do understand “being created” as entailing “having begun to exist.” I also equate “being created” with “being a subject of temporal becoming.” But there are certain implications to supposing creation is eternal that present problems. So let me grope around here and try to make some sense of my questions.

Recently the distinction between kinds of “contingency” came up in a conversation with Bill Vallicella. He had posted on this distinction in reply to Fr Aidan’s request. I asked a few questions. Bill responded.

Bill makes a distinction between two kinds of contingency:

  • Modal Contingency. Something is modally contingent if it might not have existed and/or it might fail to exist. (I take it this is equivalent to metaphysical or ontological contingency).
  • Dependent Contingency. Something is dependently contingent if it depends for its existence upon something else.

These are meaningful categories under which to contemplate the nature of things. My questions engage a further step Bill made regarding the relationship between modal necessity/contingency and dependent contingency/non-contingency. Hopefully the quadrants below will clarify my issues.


Whatever exists, then, is either modally contingent or modally necessary AND either dependently contingent or dependently non-contingent (or not dependently contingent; if you’re a professional philosopher trained in logical notation, forgive me if I get the negation in the wrong place).

An example of a Quad 3 reality would be (carefully said) “God” who exists necessarily and depends upon nothing for his existence. An example of a Quad 4 reality would (in my view) be all non-divine realities (the world and all that is in it) as created. Quad 1 arguably is empty since (I’m assuming here) nothing can exist necessarily which also depends for its existence as such upon something outside itself.

Now we come to my first difficulty—Quad 2, that is, things that are modally/ontologically contingent (they might fail to exist) but their existence, though contingent, depends upon nothing whatsoever. Their existence is a “brute fact.” Nothing ‘explains’ or ‘accounts for’ their existing. Bill finds this a meaningful concept. I don’t.

My second difficulty has to do with the temporal nature and implications of modally contingent realities. For the sake of argument, let’s limit this to Quad 4. Is it intrinsic to such realities that they “begin to exist”? Bill and, as I’m discovering, every modern Orthodox person I ask about this curiously hold that Quad 4 realities needn’t be thought of as having a beginning. Being “created” doesn’t entail “beginning to exist.” Entities may be modally/ontologically contingent (i.e., they may not have existed at all and may fail to exist), and they may depend upon God for their existence, but they have always existed and always will exist. Their modal contingency requires only that it be true that they “may” not have existed or they may cease to exist, not that it be the case that they “began to exist.” Thus the “out of nothing” in CEN (on this view) merely describes a “dependency” relationship. It says nothing about whether creation is eternal or whether it “began” to be.

I’ll just leave the descriptions there for now and come back with a follow-up post to share some thoughts on why it seems to me we should think of non-divine, created being as (among other things) “having a beginning.”

What is the Bible?—Part 4


Two summers ago I offered a three-part series outlining some of our thoughts on the nature and authority of the Bible. This week Dwayne shared some interesting comments that I’d like to work into a Part 4 in answer to the series’ question: What is the Bible? First, let me clip a couple of lines from our earlier points 1 through 6, which we remain committed to, and end by trying to describe our sense of a new point No. 7.

From our earlier Parts 1-3:

(1) Israel and its history as a suitable context for Incarnation.
“Our first suggestion is to place the incarnation at the center of our understanding of God’s unitive purposes for creation and view Scripture as subservient to these ends. If God is to incarnate and as an individual develop a unique sense of identity and mission, he needs to be born into a cultural-historical-religious context sufficient to inform and shape that development. No one develops an understanding of who they are and what their destiny is apart from these contexts. So the question of a context sufficient to shape the Incarnate Word’s embodied worldview and self-understanding is paramount, and in our view that is what Scripture is primarily about. The Word could not have been born randomly into a culture which was not an adequate means of identity formation…The construction of a suitable context for this formation is what God’s choice of Abraham and Israel is fundamentally about. All else extends by implication from this single purpose.”

(2) Scripture as inspired.
“We imagine the human authors of Scripture inspired by God in much the same sense that God inspires anybody — through the prevenient grace of his presence working in cooperation with what is present on the human side of the equation. Hence, inspiration achieves greater or lesser approximations to the truth as it works with and through the beliefs and limitations of authors.”

“What makes the Bible unique as God’s word, then, is not the manner or mode of inspiration (which we think should be understood as typical of divine inspiration universally), but the subject matter with which God is concerned. It is the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’ which makes the Bible unique, i.e., the content and its purpose which in the case of Scripture make what is otherwise the standard mode of God inspiring human thought to be something unique and unrepeatable. Biblical inspiration, we might say, is unrepeatable because this history, this context, this pursuit of this purpose (incarnation) are all unrepeatable and not because God inspires humans ‘here’ in some unique and unrepeatable way.”

(3) Functional inerrancy.
First, “we suggest that Scripture ought to be a sufficiently truthful source for Christ’s first-century self-understanding as executor of God’s promises to Israel and the redemption of the world” and then also “its truth should be sufficient to inform and facilitate human transformation into Christlikeness. In a word, it must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this.”

“Scripture is ‘functionally inerrant’ where its function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness.”

“In the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed [with a view to Christlikeness], it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with. To want something more or other than that tends to idolatry.”

(4) Canonization of history.
“In choosing a particular man and his descendants to be the sufficiently truthful context into which God would incarnate, God chooses to identify himself as a covenant partner with Israel, and that means with her successes and failures, with the truth they perceive and the falsehoods they embrace, with the violence they pursue and the good they manage to achieve. It all gets chosen by God as the space in which God’s incarnational and redeeming work is embodied. This space is fallen but not so hopeless as to be void of all truth. God remains committed and engaged. In choosing Israel God is choosing the whole world. He simply chooses to work within this nation with respect to securing a context adequate for the Incarnate One who will mediate God’s purposes universally.”

“We are thus arguing for the canonization of Israel (as opposed to her texts alone) as the sacred space within which God creates the conditions sufficient for incarnation. Are the OT ‘texts’ inspired? In the sense that these writings are the written record of that created covenantal space God has sanctified for pursuing his incarnational purposes, yes. And it’s a mixed history: a history of misconstrual, of despairing nationalism, of religious hubris, but also of honest praise and humble dependence upon God. It’s a history that succeeded at preserving the socio-religious conditions sufficient for incarnational vocation. Israel is that space in the world where God does not give up on carving out a worldview sufficient for incarnation. They got it right enough for what ultimately mattered.”

(5) Christ-centered reading.
“For Paul, there simply is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ. This usefulness is for teaching, rebuking and correcting relevant to development of Christlike character and the doing of good works. Thus, the OT can be trusted when read Christologically to shape godly character and to empower the doing of good. That’s its purpose. Uses outside of this narrow purpose, whatever they are, are not explicitly embraced by Paul’s belief in the purpose of Scripture.”

“But traditional ‘inerrantists’ implicate the truth of any biblical claim in the truth of every other claim, so that if any link in the chain proves false, the purpose of Scripture fails utterly. We view the relationship not as links in a chain, one after the other and so on, but as bodies orbiting a center, and that center is the risen Christ. Christ exercises a gravitational pull, so to speak, over all of Israel’s traditions and texts which revolve in their orbit around Christ, sometimes approaching theological truth better than at other times. So where inerrantists typically see the truth of any one text…as implicated in the truth of every other text…we suggest viewing the truth of all texts as relative to Christ, so that Christ becomes the determiner of the relevancy of Scripture as a whole, the same way the Sun is the central force that determines the course and trajectories of those bodies that rotate around it. To what extent is the course trajectory of a planetary body ‘accurate’? To the extent that it maintains its course relative to the Sun, not relative to the orbits of other planetary bodies.”

(6) Sensus Communis.
A “communal reading” of Scripture — at least on the essentials. To be sure, there’s certainly a sense one could give to the notion of sola scriptura which is compatible with what we’ve already said in points 1-5. The Scriptures relay that sufficiently truthful historical-social-religious context necessary for the Incarnate One’s self-understanding and vocation. [The] incarnation, we argued, was the primary point of creation and election of Israel. Naturally, it is to the Scriptures (and not to the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Avesta of Zoroastrianism or the Quran) that Christians look to understand those events which ground their self-understanding, their religious inspiration and worship, their ethical core, and their missional/vocational calling.”

“What’s typically meant [by sola scriptura] is not only that the Scriptures are the authoritative source of doctrine and theology for the Church (there’s agreement there) but that the individual believer is the final arbiter in determining doctrine and belief for him/herself, a kind of creedal sola fidelis (the ‘believer alone’).”

“I…want to suggest that something is amiss with the sola fidelis reading. The Church after all is Christ’s “body,” a “community,” a “communion” of faith and identity formation. Only that community as a community can decide who they are, what they believe, and what they exist for.”

mind the gap

With that review in mind, I’d like to add a seventh principle:

(7) Scripture as communal meaning-making.
I’m not sure where I ran into the term “meaning-making” first or if it generated on its own in my head before meeting up with it elsewhere. One runs into the phrase everywhere nowadays. In psychology it describes the process by which we make sense of (either by giving meaning to or deriving meaning from) the events and relationships of our lives. Viktor Frankl (d. 1997) developed his logotherapy around the conviction that our drive to establish meaning and significance for our lives is fundamental to human being and that meaning can be established in the most horrific of circumstances. Development psychologists employ the term “meaning-making” to describe roughly the same process. Robert Kegan focuses on meaning-making in his book The Evolving Self (1982) and ends up equating ‘human being’ with this it unique meaning-making capacity. Theologians integrate this capacity into theological anthropology as well (James Loder and Marilyn McCord Adams come to mind). I love the phrase meaning-making. It’s entirely descriptive of human experience, isn’t pejorative, and doesn’t presume any specific philosophy or theology. It simply offers up empirically what we know to be fundamental and undeniable about human experience.

What’s involved in ‘meaning-making’ has been the subject of cross-disciplinary studies for decades. We’ve touched here and there in our blog upon what we think is essential to it:

  • Identity formation
  • Value assessment-integration of experiences and relationships
  • Irreducibly teleological disposition for aesthetic value
  • The Void as a necessary context for human becoming
  • The Face that cannot die (basically Loder and SK)

At issue is how our primordial meaning-making drive is understood as a dispositional aptitude or capacity for the experience of aesthetic satisfaction grounded in our God-given identity revealed in the gospel.

How this applies to our understanding what the Bible is and how its authority functions is what we’d like to explore here. It comes down to the narrative structure of meaning-making. We know enough about the brain to know that we process meaning by narrating stories to ourselves (and to others socially). So many have seized upon the narrative nature of personal and social existence, it’s time to apply what we’ve learned to our understanding of the Bible and its function within faith. We’d like to suggest that in order to better understand Scripture, we remind ourselves that social identity and vocation emerge and are maintained through shared stories that reflect and maintain a tradition of meaning-making. This may seem an innocuous thesis, but it undermines certain cherished approaches to the Bible.

So what has the narrative structure of meaning-making to do with the Bible? It makes Scripture completely understandable and appropriate as we have it (i.e., in the diversity of its perspectives, its textual history and traditions of interpreting and editing itself, etc.). Where many want immediately to go is to the truth question(s) because they’re sure the trustworthiness of any part of the Bible (e.g., John 3:16) depends upon the truth of every other textual claim. So it starts:

  • Is this text true? Did it happen this way?
  • Did Luke get the date of this census right?
  • Did Paul falsely conflate OT texts in 1Cor. 10?
  • Did the gospel writers confuse some of the events of the Passion Week?
  • Was there really an innumerable host of Hebrews who walked across the Red Sea to wander 40 years in the Sinai?
  • Are these Hebrews the source of a widespread military conquest and settlement of the Israel?
  • Will it hold up in debate against someone picking apart the textual history?
  • What will Bart Ehrman say?

Well, does the Bible behave in our hands and history like it was intended to be an inerrant book of recipes for decision making, church leadership, staffing church ministries, adjudicating moral dilemmas, political activism, raising children, and perfectly lining up historical events? Do Christians who all appeal to the Bible as final authority in fact share the same biblically derived conclusions on all these questions? No. Does anyone see a problem here? If this is how we’re to understand the Bible, then I think the Bible loses the debate as a book judged in recipe terms.

But if the Bible is a record of Israel’s (and by example, all humanity’s) struggle for meaning-making that finds its end in Christ’s power to transform individuals, then that changes the terms of the conversation. What we’re suggesting here, together with our previous points, is that the entire Bible is the very human story of an emerging community’s search for meaning. It’s meaning-making all the way. Some might immediately agree and wonder what’s new here. But others have placed their faith in a book  because they believe its exceptional constitution provides them perfect recipes for decisions, dilemmas, and doctrines. Where human social movements are all characterized by an ongoing struggle to make meaning, and this struggle can be reflected in their history (editing, correcting, reinterpreting, all in light of a certain mixture of ignorance and insight), many believe the Bible to be an exception to this. How so? Because inspiration, it is thought, exempts the biblical authors from all the error.

What we’re suggesting is that the Bible not be exempted from the messy, human business of hit-and-miss meaning-making, that rather than being an inerrant exception to humanity’s struggle to find meaning, the Bible be viewed as the example par excellence, a kind of template, of that struggle and its final redemption. Is there anything inerrant? Yes, Christ the Incarnate One. He is where Israel’s varied and messy meaning-making journey ends. Is there nothing unique about Israel’s Scripture? Certainly there is, namely, that it ends as explicitly as it does in Christ, the Incarnate One. It’s not different from other meaning-making journeys that have been documented in that it’s exempted by the magic of inspiration from all human error such that truths, and only truths, about God and the world can be picked up off the surface of any text like finely polished sea shells. On the contrary, it’s different from other meaning-making journeys in that God adopts this history, this people, this journey of meaning-making, as the sacred space in which he prepares an adequate context for incarnation. So there’s a covenant with this journey, but it’s not a book per se. It’s a history of God’s commitment to Israel’s entire journey, a commitment to engage Israel for a unique purpose that involves God and Israel in a unique way. But it doesn’t exempt Israel’s narrating her own journey from all manner of error in understanding God or in interpreting her experience. Whatever Israel is—and she’s a mixed bag—so her Scriptures are. Israel is her Scriptures.

Perhaps viewing the Bible as Israel’s history of meaning-making is entailed in other core commitments we’ve mentioned in this series. Still, it’s worth pointing out. Scripture isn’t just a Polaroid snap-shot of a mixed journey of meaning-making. In that case the ‘picture’ is something fundamentally other than what’s photographed. No, we’re saying Scripture is that journey. We’re also saying that it couldn’t really be otherwise, not if Israel is redeemed, kept by God’s grace through faith and doubt, of Israel’s search for meaning, through getting it right and getting it wrong, and being kept by grace to welcome the Incarnation. How do we know God’s grace kept Israel if her records aren’t absolutely inerrant? We know because the Son was incarnate. He came. (There’s a William Walker over at Missio Alliance, who is ringing the same bell we are.) Apart from Christ, the Old Testament isn’t Scripture, since Christ is the end of the law for all who believe. Christ was what Israel was called to and where God was always guiding Israel along. Could Christ perhaps also redeem the Bible as well? That is, could Christ be ‘the meaning’ that makes/interprets Israel’s varied history of meaning-making (as opposed to simply ratifying and confirming all that went before)? That’s what we’re suggesting; not that Christ is the ‘end’ (telos) that does away with the need for the Bible, but that he is the truth and meaning in light of which we read it.

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper shall we sink.

I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.

The norms of theological judgment

donovanpaintingI recently mentioned having not read a Protestant theologian for several years now. James Loder comes to mind as the only brief exception. I finally decided to pick up Protestants again and chose Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson as my re-entry point. Wow.

I’m ashamed to confess having put off Jenson this long. He’s been on my shelf for, God forgive me, years. I’ve read works by others about Jenson. But when it comes to getting into Jenson himself, well, I just kept deferring to other things—Maximus, Bulgakov, Hart, Desmond, (and Fr. Aidan!). So here I am in Vol. 1 of Jenson’s SysTheo (The Triune God). I’ll get around to a response when I recover, if I recover. However, I sense a “response” to Jenson would reduce me to just taking inventory of what’s left of my own beliefs after Jenson got through with me and whatever reasons I have for holding on to what I hold on to.

Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, has taught for decades (various schools), is author of more than twenty books, and has edited that many more at least. I believe it was Jenson who wrote of David Bentley Hart that “Hart will never use one phrase when twenty will do.” Those who know Hart will agree. Jenson, on the other hand, is frustratingly terse and efficient. Frustrating because you want more of him, not because you need more of him to grasp his point. There’s no need to ramble on. Just insight after insight. I disagree (I think) with some of his key thoughts, but he argues them so well I find myself sometimes wishing they were true.

In the second chapter (“The Norms of Theological Judgment”) of his SysTheo’s first volume, he gets into the question of the canon and its authority, as well as dogma, tradition, and the question of magisterium. I’m an Evangelical, but I’ve suspected sola scriptura of being woefully inadequate for years, and describe my own evolving position here (sensus communis, about which, I don’t mind saying, I felt much better after reading Jenson’s thoughts). I liked much of what Jenson says in this second chapter and would like to reproduce a few it its paragraphs for your consideration:

It is the mission of the church to speak the gospel, to the world in the proclamation and to God in appeal and adoration. Theology is the hermeneutic of this work. Theology must therefore have norms by which to make the judgment, “This is/is not the gospel.”

…[the church] would have to make arrangements for carrying the self-identity so constituted into a future of her own, for perpetuating the apostolic tradition; that is, she would have to deliberate institutions that would be constitutive of her life…Catholic theology is tempted to take these developments as unproblematic, Protestant theology to take them as illegitimate. Both temptations must be resisted, since the “early catholic” developments are plainly very problematic over against the life of the apostolic period, and yet are just as plainly necessary to there now being any church at all.

…We will first and most lengthily consider the canon of Scripture. That we so proceed does not reflect the foundational order of the church’s norms; without antecedent ministry and creed, there would not have been this book, and without the continuous liturgy of the church, there would have been no occasion for creed or ministry. Rather, our order reflects ecumenical consensus that once a canon of Scripture is in place, it has authority also over against any particular dogmatic proposal, magisterial responsum, or apparently mandatory liturgical order, if our perplexity becomes so extreme as to need such authority. That is, canonical Scripture is—in the language of the Reformation—the norma normans non normata, the norm with no norm over it, although other norms establish it in this position and, as we will see, are necessary to its function in it.

…It was the historical and already conflicted church that gathered and winnowed documentary relics of apostolic proclamation. The canon of Scripture, that is, a list of writings together with the instruction, “Take all these writings and non other as standard documents of the apostolic witness,” is thus a dogmatic decision of the church. If we will allow no final authority to churchly dogma, or to the organs by which the church can enunciate dogma, there can be no canon of Scripture. The slogan sola scriptura, if by that is meant “apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy,” is an oxymoron.

…Scripture as canon is the norma non normata of gospel-speaking and not directly of faith in the gospel or of theology about the gospel. The object and so criterion of faith is not Scripture as a collection of writings but God in his living word of the gospel. And theology uses Scripture as a norm of the proclamation and prayer theology serves, that is, as a norm of something other than itself; thus Scripture becomes theology’s own norm only mediately.


Scripture indeed becomes faith’s normative object in its liturgical use or when the reading or study of Scripture otherwise becomes living proclamation or adoration. When Scripture appears in such power, its authority is that of proclamation and sacrament and prayer generally: it is the authority of God’s own presence in his word, to create and nurture faith

…But when Scripture appears in this immediate authority, it is removed from the sorts of mundane analysis theology must execute to use Scripture in making its judgments. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between Scripture’s authority as living word of God and its authority as a norm in the church’s theological effort to speak that living word.

…There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. Theology is thinking what to say to be saying the gospel. Like every intellectual enterprise, this demands its own appropriate practices of thought. Since the gospel is whatever the apostles said to say “Jesus is risen,” apostolic reflective activity also—however profoundly or superficially done—must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

Thus it is not that Paul thought through the gospel better than, say, Irenaeus; the matter is in fact debatable. And having named Paul, we have named one of the few New Testament writers who, so far as the documents show, could compete in precision and profundity with many saints and thinkers who have come after. The New Testament witnesses are not necessarily the deepest or most critical or creative speakers of the gospel; they are the ones we must suppose did not simply do something else. That some of the New Testament writers were also genial thinkers is a bonus.

…If now we ask who is to defend a biblical text against its churchly interpreters—perhaps by pointing out facts about it—the final answer is that the Spirit must do so. But at the lower level maintained in these prolegomena, the needed insight is that there is no one to defend the text against the association of its interpreters except the community of those same interpreters, that is, the church as church over against the church as a certain number of conjoined persons. All texts finally need an interpreter that is no particular interpreter or even all particular interpreters added or averaged together, that is to say, all texts need a true community as interpreter; in the church, Scripture has just such a defender.

But if the church as community is to defend the text against the interpreting of the church’s associated members, the church must have a voice with which to speak for herself to her own members. Biblical authority—and mutais mutandis ritual and dogmatic authority—are therefore not possible apart from a voice for the church as community speaking to the church as association, that is, in the church’s own language, apart from a teaching office, a magisterium. To affirm this, we need not yet commit ourselves about a mandated or appropriate location of teaching authority.

The single entity of the church-community, to which appeal is here made, is both synchronic and diachronic in its unicity, but it is the latter than is now our concern. Through the teaching office, the church speaks as one diachronically communal reality and is guarded in this unity precisely by so speaking; therefore the teaching office must itself be essentially characterized by diachronic unity. In the church’s traditional language, this is called “succession”: those are to teach who make one community with former teachers.

There is an obvious problem here. It is the teaching office that speaks dogma, that speaks theologically for the church to its own members. Every proposal of dogma, like every proposal of theology generally, must be tested against Scripture and existing dogma. But we now see that it is, again, the teaching office by which Scripture and dogmatic texts can assert themselves. Here is a circle that obviously could set the teaching office adrift to define the gospel as whatever pleases its momentary holders. Sensitivity to this threat has notoriously made Protestantism uneasy with the posit of an authoritative magisterium. Yet now we see that a teaching office is necessary if Scripture or dogma are themselves to exercise authority.

We have again arrived at a limit of prolegomenal description. The magisterium can be the necessary enunciator of the gospel’s diachronic identity rather than a threat to it, can be the defense of Scripture and existing dogma rather than a danger to them, only if the circularity of the magisterium’s role marks the freedom of a charism, if the teaching office is an instrument of God the Spirit.