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A Response to my Learned Colleague

In Andrew's last post, he wrote a section on some of his recent thinking. I started to write a comment to respond, but I thought I'd just go ahead and post this--it boosts my posting stats.

First, I would like to say that I agree with Clark and Schaeffer that all that God does is absolutely logical. That said, I think that it might be somewhat arrogant to think that we can figure out exactly how the "system" of the Bible works. God makes it pretty clear that his thoughts and ways our higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9).

So, given that:

  1. We are fallen creatures;
  2. We are not omniscient; and
  3. We are futile in our thinking (Romans 1:21),
I think that it's safe to say the following:
  1. God is perfectly consistent (i.e., logical);
  2. We are perfectly consistent as well, but while God's consistency focuses on glorifying himself, we instead glorify ourselves and our fellow creatures (Romans 1:21-23);
  3. Because of (2), our "logic" will never be free to plumb the depths of God's wisdom, unless God himself reveals his wisdom to us (e.g., Matthew 16:17)

As for the narrative and the propositional systems, I think that their differences are most similar to the differences between different languages. In any language, a single word can be almost infinitely nuanced because of how the word might have been used in slang, famous speeches, advertising slogans, and countless other sorts of ways. So, where a word in one language might suitably focus (or make ambiguous, for that matter) an idea, properly translating that word might be somewhat difficult, and a perfect translation would be nearly impossible. I would argue, therefore, that the problem is not that God is illogical, but rather that we do not have the ability to translate his message perfectly from the language of narrative to the language of definitions.

You asked specifically "whether a particular truth can be equally represented in narrative and abstract propositional system." I think that the truth can be equally represented, but I also think that you would be going from something like a novel to something like the Oxford English Dictionary in order to bring out all the facets of the truth. That is why Jesus chose to tell stories--they are simple, but the more you think about them, the more wisdom you gain from them.

Learning, then, was more of a horizontal process for Jesus--a person would get a story and think more and more about it, mining more and more truths as he went along. For us, though, learning is a vertical process where we sort of try to come down and land on a whole framework of truth. I don't think that such a process is necessarily bad, but I do think that we must understand our limitations.

In any case, I think that in presenting the gospel, we must meet people where they are--if they need to see how the big picture works before they can start to understand the little parts, let us by all means provide them with a systematic theology to the best of our understanding. If, however, their questions are much more along the lines of an orphaned child looking for a loving Father, we perhaps should begin with the parables Jesus used.

So that's what I think, but I recognize that I too am futile in my thinking. What were the answers you were coming up with?

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A most thoughtful and well-written response.

A couple of replies:
1. I agree with you (and Clark) that God is completely logical. A problem I see is that, given that our intellects were affected by the Fall and therefore our logic does not always align with God's logic, what does it mean to say God is logical? It seems that when we run into problems where it becomes difficult to explain how things are consistent (e.g. free agency and divine providence) we avoid the critique of logic by claiming that God is logical even if we can't understand it. How then do we critique other worldviews for not conforming to our logic? Can't they too say that their system is consistent, if only we were able to properly understand it?

2. I have to be careful what I say about narrative versus other modes of explanation, because I'm not sure I even have a clear idea in my mind about what I'm comparing. For example, I would tend to think of something like the Westminster Confession as systematic as opposed to narrative, but it very clearly has narrative in it. Example:

"It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create or make of nothing the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.

After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female..."

Perhaps I'm creating a dichotomy where there isn't one. Narrative is governed by the rules of logic as well. If I tell a story: "Jack went to Wendy's for dinner. Later that evening Jack was upset because he was hungry and wished he had gone to Wendy's earlier," it doesn't make sense because I'm (apparently) contradicting myself. Maybe the whole narrative vs. system is completely unrelated to the question of logic.

You said, "the truth can be equally represented [by either narrative or system], but I also think that you would be going from something like a novel to something like the Oxford English Dictionary in order to bring out all the facets of the truth." I think certain truths are told in narrative and can only be told in narrative. The truth of Jesus' one-time action in history can only be communicated through narrative. There doesn't seem to be a "dictionary" equivalent.

Anyway, I admit there's a lot of "fuzzy" thinking about this stuff on my behalf, so I apologize that if I'm not making much sense. I need to put more time and thought into it. Here's an interesting edition of Mind and Language that discusses narrative and its uses. (You probably have to be on a UNL computer to access the link. Even then it might not work.)

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