“Descriptive, not Prescriptive,” part 4: Options and Patterns

7 November 2010

Before I begin this entry, I need to make something clear to you, dear reader.  Some of the examples I use here are indeed topics of discussion and continuing growth in my church, and I am using them because they are very much on my heart of late.  But I am not picking on my church.  As my church has been prodded toward obedience on these things, it has responded very well.  So as I talk about evangelical resistance to growth in certain areas, that is not a passive-aggressive way of calling out recalcitrant people in my own circle.  There aren’t any.  I mean just what I say — I see this resistance in the broader evangelical church, and I am seeking to address it as best I can.

Options and Obedience

Many believers will simply fail to notice a biblical requirement — say, the one to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  They may have read those passages many times, but it simply doesn’t occur to them that they should do something in response.  The first time this dawns on them, it is because someone is pushing for a particular type of obedience — say, “We need to sing the Sons of Korah version of Psalm 148 in the service this Sunday.”   Upon being challenged as to why this is necessary, the speaker will respond with Ephesians 5:19.

The response at this point is pretty predictable.  “There’s nothing there that says we have to sing that particular song this particular morning.”

This is of course true.  The church could be in complete obedience to the biblical requirement and never sing any song by that particular band, ever. Unfortunately, too often what happens next is…nothing.

Because we need not sing that particular arrangement of that particular psalm this week, we don’t.  Also we don’t sing any other arrangement of that psalm.  Or any other psalm.  And in this way the fact that God gives us freedom in how we obey becomes the occasion for not obeying at all.

Patterns

This is where biblical patterns of obedience are so helpful to us.  The Bible not only gives us requirements to obey, it gives us patterns of obedience to emulate.  A particular example may not be the only way of obeying, but it is a way of obeying.  We don’t have to start from scratch.

The first problem evangelicals have with these patterns is failing to even notice them.  We notice that the early church successfully resolved an important theological disagreement in Acts 15, for example — but we pay no mind at all to how they did it.  We recognize the commands to be of one mind, to submit to one another, to contend earnestly for the faith, and so on.  And Acts 15 becomes a sermon illustration: “See, they stood up for the truth.  We should too.”

Yes, but how?  Are we acting in continuity with the way they did it?  We don’t know.  We never even checked to see how they did it.  We just take the goal that the requirement gives us, and improvise something that we think will get us there.

At some point, some observant soul may point out how they did it, back in the day.  “Look at what they did.  They appealed to another church with more theological ‘horsepower,’ they appointed a day to gather, they pursued the dispute until everyone had fallen silent, and then they responded, unanimously, to the issue.”

Most evangelicals respond to that observation in the same way that they do to the suggestion that we must sing this arrangement of this psalm this week.  That is, they say “Sure, that was a good way to do it.  But it’s descriptive, not prescriptive.  We don’t have to do it that way, just because they did.”

True, up to a point.  Every situation is somewhat different, and it is the province of God-given wisdom to appraise those differences and tweak our response accordingly.  This is to say that we will not respond in unison with our fathers at every point; sometimes we will be in harmony with them.

But what madness makes us suppose that we may simply invent an approach without regard for the examples that God gives us in inspired Scripture?  What makes us think that we may act out of harmony with the way in which our fathers obeyed?

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Science: Universals and Particulars, again

11 October 2009

This universals and particulars thing just isn’t going away.

In this week’s tour (or more correctly, half-tour), Tackett said that philosophy’s task is to deal with the universals, and science’s task is to deal with the particulars, but science is now taking a more philosophical mode and trying to evangelize for materialistic Darwinian philosophy.

This is half true.  The institutions of modern science certainly do evangelize for Darwinian materialism.  But why should scientists stay away from the universals and stick to particulars?  And is that even possible?

No, it isn’t.  Psalm 19 — of which this tour has correctly made much use — works from particulars to universals.  The heavens declare the glory of God.  A scientist rightly studying the heavens will hear them declaring the glory of God, and he will, in turn, glorify God and be thankful.  God has so made the world that the particulars of it educate an observer in certain key universals — notably Yahweh’s eternal power and God-ness — and obligate that observer to worship Him.  When scientists don’t worship, it’s sin.

Moreover, the whole edifice of modern science rests on a Christian worldview to start with, as Pearcey and Thaxton show clearly in The Soul of Science.    The development and long-term support for science in Western culture depends on a series of Christian beliefs:  the material world is really there (Hindus and Buddhists, among others, take it as an article of faith that it isn’t); the material world is separate from God, and valuable, and behaves precisely in an extrinsic order that is comprehensible to man, and so on.  Most of the people in the world do not affirm these things even today, and very few cultures in the history of the world have ever espoused them. So universals and particulars can’t be separated in science because to even do science is to rest on a certain set of universals.

Since these beliefs are Christian, the implication is that science today is subsisting on borrowed capital and institutional momentum, and has been committing a slow and painful suicide for a century.  Exactly.

Everything is an echo of the Trinity.  In the Trinity, universals (one divine Nature) and particulars (three Persons) are equally ultimate.  Universals and particulars must ultimately must be understood together, and in terms of one another, and so it is in science.  Trying to separate universals from particulars is just absurd; we can certainly comprehend partially, but real separation can’t happen in the world God made.  Trying to keep true particulars, but build on false universals, is just as absurd.


Truth is a Person

4 October 2009

A further thought to add to the earlier reflection on universals and particulars:

Ultimate reality — truth — is a Person: “I am the Truth,” Jesus says. Because the Truth is also the divine Word, one expects propositions, and there are propositions. But because the Truth is a Person, one expects more than propositions: one expects acts in history, questions, commands, stories, emotions, all the true things of which a person is capable. And there they are. These lay claim to truth in the same way that propositions do: they are the derivative truth that comes from being a reflection of Truth, the Person.A life that honors God — “walking in the truth,” the apostle John calls it — derives its truth in the same way: by reflecting Christ.

This is another reason why universals and particulars are equally ultimate. When the divine Word is made flesh, when Truth is a person with hair of a certain length and eyes of a certain color, particulars and universals have met and kissed, and can never be separated.

Which leaves us with a burning question: how are universals and particulars related?  It’s a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries (again, see Rushdoony’s The One and the Many for details on the history).  Christians have an answer to this question: “The same way unity and diversity are related in the Trinity.”  We have a word for it: perichoresis, the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity in one another.  So we might say that in the world, universals and particulars are perichoretically related — each indwells the other, as in the Trinity.  Which is to say, we don’t understand the phenomenon in the world any better than we understand the Trinitarian phenomenon of which it is a reflection.  But since the world is created by the Trinity and reflects the Trinity, we expect to encounter a mystery on this point, and it should not surprise us that the answer is beyond our ken.

Discovering that the thing is, finally and forever, beyond our reach forces us to realize that we are not God, and never will be.  There are two possible responses to this: glorify Yahweh in gratitude, or be offended and ungrateful.  One of them is life, health and peace, and the other is struggle, sickness and death — the same two choices humanity has always faced, from the Garden right down to today.


Universals or Particulars?

28 September 2009

In week 2 of the Truth Project, Tackett notes that many pagan philosophies attempt to begin with particulars and proceed thence to universals. Others, notably Plato, try to begin with universals and make their way to the particulars. Tackett contends that “Plato was right; he just didn’t know where to get” his universals. He goes on to say that God gives us the universals by which all the particulars make sense.

There is an element of truth there, but it’s too simple by half, and flies directly in the face of some of the Scripture he cited earlier. When we look at a sunset and see the heavens declaring the glory of God, we are learning a universal from the particulars. When Paul tells us that everyone in the world is without excuse because “since the creation of the world, His invisible things are clearly seen, being understood by means of the things that are made,” Paul is telling us that man knows the universals — particularly God’s eternal power and God-ness — because he sees them in the particulars.

On the other hand, in Genesis 1-2, we note that God speaks to man, and by that revelation gives the principles by which man and his place in the creation make sense. Genesis 3 provides us with a graphic lesson in what happens when man tries to start from the particulars without taking account of what God has already told him. (Even this is oversimplified — we’re equating verbal revelation with universals, which is a bit too facile, but let it pass for now.)

So which is it? Do we start with the universals, or the particulars? The Christian answer to this is “both,” and a brief reflection on the Trinity should be enough to teach us this point.

God is ultimate reality.  Where do we start in the Trinity: unity, or diversity?  Which is more important, more fundamental to the nature of God? Both are equally vital, you say? Exactly. For more on this, see The One and the Many (more demanding, but a great review or the relevant history) or Trinity and Reality (more accessible) and its companion piece, Paradox and Truth.

Does all this seem a little arcane to you?

That’s because it is. But pushed out into the corners, the thing has serious consequences. Rushdoony likes to talk politics, and goes to some trouble in The One and the Many to show how societies that take plurality as ultimate disintegrate into chaos, and how societies that take unity as ultimate trend toward totalitarianism. Since the trinitarian idea isn’t available outside Christianity, pagans find themselves oscillating forever between one pole and the other, unable to reconcile them.

At a simpler level, I’d leave it with this: Christians ought not to forge an alliance with Plato when Scripture has given us a much, much better answer.