08 June 2005

Theology and Variegated Nomenclature

Because minds greater and more focused than my own have seen value in reducing argumentation to writing as a means to finding holes in argumentation, I am going to make some sort of effort to record a thought today. My stupidity will have fewer hiding places on a page than in my head. Perhaps in spare moments I will continue this practice; hardwiring my mind to a keyboard again would be good for me.

Today I was wondering about the source of theological terminology. A professor taught in class today that union with Christ appears to be used differently in different contexts. Sometimes it is a reference to union to the saving work of Christ and experienced by both OT and NT believers. In other contexts union with Christ refers to a work of the Spirit (namely Spirit Baptism, 1 Cor 12:13), which exclusively introduces believers into the body of Christ or the NT universal church.
The methodology implicit in this definition of union with Christ seems to be that the lexical data en Christo refer to the theological concept of union with Christ. Because en Christo is used in different ways by NT authors, the NT concept of union with Christ is "variegated" (to use a word I recently had the pleasure of meeting through a mutual friend).

My take is this: I come to a theological category (like union with Christ) through exegetical study of certain detailed passages (in this instance, Romans 5-8). Basically when the Biblical author seems to be purposefully explaining himself, when he is consciously explaining a concept, I try to articulate (if only mentally) the concept that he is trying to get at. Then, when I see similar lexical data in other passages, I try to see if the author is indeed referring to the same concept or if he is simply using the same words to describe something else. And, when I see disparate lexical data, I sometimes think, "Isn't that basically the same thing as such-and-such, which is expressed otherwise elsewhere?"

The difference I am describing may be subtle, so I will try to put it as bluntly as I can: Does our theological terminology tie itself directly to Biblical usage of terms or does theological terminology express conceptual links across disparate or similar Biblical term usage?

Unfortunately stating it like this seems to erect a straw man against which Carson's "technical term" fallacy provides cheap kerosene and matches. The Bible is not a textbook of theology; Biblical authors are free to use terms in different ways at different times. One cannot export the meaning of a certain word from one Biblical text and import that meaning into another Biblical text without contextual (as well as lexical) warrant. But these things are evident to people who use either methodologies. Carson's argument against abusing technical terms pertains to one's work in exegesis (i.e. finding the meaning of a text) not in theology (relating the meaning to a category).

So the correct theological methodology is still under debate. Should we have theological terms that are variegated to reflect the variety of uses of similar terminology in the Biblical text? Or should we have theological terms that remain relatively static in meaning but reflect only a small portion of similar Biblical terms? That is, the Biblical text is evidently variegated in its use of terminology; should the categories of systematic theology reflect this variety?

I think that this difference in methodology plays itself out most clearly in the debate about the logical relationship between regeneration and conversion in a theological ordo salutis, though I would be hard pressed to say methodology settles the issue. If one prefers the view that conversion precedes regeneration he generally points to all of the passages which use the lexical data translated "life" or being spiritually "raised from the dead." He then proceeds to show quite convincingly that these passages present life as a consequence of conversion. Then, if he is Calvinistic, he finds a Biblical set of terms which are more uniformly applied like those of illumination. He notes that illumination is always used in the Biblical text as a prerequisite to conversion and places God's sovereign, gracious, efficacious work in salvation under this rubric. On his methodology, he has won the battle: the Bible does use "life" language to refer to a consequence of salvation, but it never uses "turn the light on" language in that way. Therefore, we should say that "turn the light on" precedes conversion, but "new life" does not.

Unfortunately the victory is never appreciated by those who use the other methodology. They see passages which clearly indicate that we are dead in our sins; that is, that all of our proclivities and activities are always God-hatingly evil. Only a change in who we are can produce the ability to believe genuinely and perseveringly. From especially clear Biblical texts, theological terminology arises. Usually those who embrace these theological concepts are willing to agree that other Biblical texts use the same terminology in different ways, so the argument that "life" language sometimes refers to the consequences of conversion does not deter them. Only when it can be established that the Biblical author is alluding to the same theological concept (Biblical terminology or not) will those with this methodology modify their understanding of the theological concept. Otherwise, the Biblical author is "simply not addressing this issue in that passage." He divorces similar lexical data on conceptual grounds. Yet on the same grounds he agrees with the other position that illumination refers to God’s prior work in salvation. Although the Biblical authors use different language, they express the same thing: “God turning the light on” is essentially the same thing as receiving “new life.” Or “Illumination is regeneration of the mind.”

In the end I suppose I am spring-loaded to the second methodology because of my understanding of the purpose of systematic theology. If the terms of systematic theology are as variegated as the terms in the Biblical texts have we made any progress in a systematic understanding of the Scriptures? It seems to me that part of the task of systematic theology is to bring together texts of disparate language and say that they are talking about basically the same thing and to take texts of similar language and say that they are talking about basically different things. In order to do this it is necessary to put names on our things, and we get our names from especially clear, extended, or otherwise well-known texts. But our names have to stay still and behave if they are going to be good names.

Well, there goes some perfectly good reading time. See my first post.

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