Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Note on Theological Category Mistakes

Summary: God provides general revelation to help us fulfill his common-grace culture-building mandate, and special revelation to inform our special-grace kindgom-building mandate. If we mix-up the differences between the content, modes, and purposes of these two types of theology, large problems result.

Mostly, this is a quick note to myself, though I thought I'd post it here in order to stimulate conversation or feedback.
A time-tested category division in theology has been made between general revelation and special revelation. The latter refers to truth that God reveals through Scripture and is otherwise inaccessible to unaided human reason or experience. The former, general revelation, refers to anything that God reveals outside of supernatural means, and that would be knowable to anyone (regenerate and unregenerate) through reason and experience. So, the specific category mistake I'm referring to is when we wrongly require special revelation to tell us about a topic that God has only chosen to reveal through general revelation. A not-too controversial application of this idea is the example of bridge-building: special revelation (the Bible) says nothing about how to construct a suspension bridge, but most of us would only be willing to cross a bridge if we believed the designers and builders had respected the various principles of bridge-building that physicists and engineers have discovered. Ultimately, though God created the laws of physics and the physical properties of various building materials, he reveals these truths to humans through general revelation (the sciences), not through special revelation. General revelation can be understood by a non-Christian person, even if not exhaustively as to its ultimate meaning in light of the triune God (cf. Cornelius Van Til, et. al.). That is, a non-Christian can understand physics, even if he doesn't understand, through special revelation, that the ultimate purpose of physics is the glory of the triune God of the Bible.
Going beyond bridge-building, a slightly more controversial example would be statecraft. Can a person be a good ruler of a nation, say, if he uses principles of political theory that don't acknowledge the God or derive from the Bible? A more controversial example yet: could a non-Christian marriage counselor provide real help to a Christian couple since he would not acknowledge what special revelation says about the ultimate purpose and design of marriage -- for example, that marriage is a mirror of Christ's husbandly relationship to his bride, the church? Even broader, how much general revelation has God given, accessible even to those who do not acknowledge God who is its source, that would allow a perceptive non-Christian to give a piece advice about human relationships to a Christian who could not find that same particular piece of help in the Bible?

These are not new questions, but consider that the context for answering them might best be found in another distinction: the cultural mandate vs. the kingdom mandate. The cultural mandate owes its locus classicus to Genesis 1:28 where God commands Adam and Eve, and all humanity, to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it." This mandate is to be fulfilled by those outside of a special covenant relationship with God - it is "general", global, and is the reason why marriage, child-bearing, and culture-building pleases God wherever it occurs (and why indiscriminate divorce, for example, displeases God even when committed by non-Christians). Culture-building, however, as God-honoring as it is, should not to be confused with kingdom-building, which is the mandate to the redeemed community to preach, teach, and live-out the indicatives and imperatives of special revelation. As someone has said, culture-building is God's way of maintaining a theater of redemption, that is, an ordered world where his church can grow and do its work. For example, the Pax Romana was a social and political reality, a laudable culture-building success story that cannot be credited to Christians, though it delivered a peace and prosperity that any Christian would thank God for, and more importantly, that created a particular set of social conditions that made the rapid spread of the church through the ancient Mediterranean world possible.

So here is the final thesis: when the topic is one of culture-building, general revelation will often be indispensable, and the Christian may even turn for help to a non-Christian who has studied that particular area of general revelation more adequately. For example, in-so-far as marriage is a common-grace, culture-building institution that even non-Christians properly engage in, a non-Christian marriage counselor may have something to teach the Christian about the how-to's of married life. Of course, upon leaving the counselor's office the Christian will properly refer any new general revelation discoveries to the God who he knows through special revelation by praying, "God, may you be glorified as I seek to serve my spouse in the ways I just learned, and forgive me for failing to love her like this before today."
A perennial danger will present itself when the Christian, in a theological category mistake, will not accept the teaching of general revelation (that even a non-Christian has access to, by God's grace) because he "doesn't see it in the Bible". The Bible is primarily a book of God's special revelation that proclaims his supernatural redemptive plan to create a people for himself through his Son's intercession -- it is not a manual for how to fulfill the cultural mandate. To require that the Scriptures speak to issues that God only addresses in general revelation is a category mistake, and will cause the Christian to either overly tax the text by making it teach on areas that it barely touches on, or to decide that such areas, since not dealt with by the Bible, are therefore unimportant and should be ignored or actively dismissed. In other words, some will invent whole systems of say, "biblical financial planning" or forcibly extract "God's method of parenting" in the Scriptures, while others will see the specious exegesis of such attempts, but will mistakenly go on to decide that details of financial planning, since not spoken of in the Bible, are not important or is an unspiritual pursuit. The first mistake is to aribtrarily demand that special revelation should be the only manual for how to fulfill the cultural mandate, while the second mistake denies altogether that God has given a cultural mandate. While the Bible is not silent on the topics of money and parenting, to be sure, there is no systematic treatment of either topic. What the Bible reveals, primarily, are "directional" commands -- that is, that we use our money and parenting influence for God's glory and not our own, for the good of the child and not our own, etc. Many more good and proper things could be said about financial management and parenting, but many of those things are properly discovered through God's general revelation (through reason, science, trial and error, etc.)
While most of this entry deals with the problem of denying the role of general revelation (and thus consequent mistake of reductionism and anti-intellectualism) a related problem is the denying the role of special revelation as the necessary source for kingdom building, which results in mislabeling various (good) cultural projects as "kingdom" work. For example, when non-Christians implement an environmentally conscious civic policy, Christians should applaud, but never call it a "kingdom" accomplishment. Just some opening thoughts...