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Reflections on Theology

August 4, 2011

So I’m a year into the masters. My last course was “Contemporary Christian Thought”, or in other words, Christian theology. I’m doing the course with the express aim of balancing my philosophy with some religion – I want to at least try to understand where the other side in the religion debate is coming from. So, I’ve been thinking about what I took away from the theology course.

For one big reason I owe a big debt of gratitude to the course. Without it, I would probably never have picked up anything written by George Eliot. That’s a situation no one should have to face. She was an amazing writer, a recovered evangelical who espoused a very forward-thinking humanism. Her novels are exceptional and her critical essays even better. She could write incredible takedowns of her contemporaries – read Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, or Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming. You will struggle to find more effective critical writing. So, thank you theology course.

But of course, Eliot was only introduced as a way of looking at the “origins” of modern atheism, as if the arguments put forward by such atheism are new. It’s similar to the way that Alister McGrath tries to pin the atheism of Dawkins on Feuerbach and Marx, without realising that these people (and more) only helped sow the seeds that allowed people like Eliot and Dawkins to live in a world where atheism could reasonably be seen as a reasonable social choice. The arguments that atheists use are older than the “origins” of modern atheism – they date from the Enlightenment back to Plato, and every time in between.

So, having given us Eliot as a counterpoint, the rest of the course focused on Christian thinkers. Rahner, Barth, Moltmann, Taylor, Girard, Crossan. Through these theologians we explored ideas such as the anthropology of religion, the doctrine of election, the suffering of God, Christian and Jewish relations, the nature of Jesus, and other topics. These subjects, and these theologians, are the topics that religious folk seem to say that atheists should be addressing – rather than ignore modern, “sophisticated” theology, we should read these people, contemplate them, think about what they say and realise that actually religion does have something to offer.

I like to think I have now done at least the first part of this. I have given my waking moments (away from work) to reading and thinking about modern Christian thought. So hopefully my opinion isn’t too ill-informed anymore. For what it’s worth here’s what I think about theology. It doesn’t work.

Before I’m accused of not being “nuanced”, here’s what I mean when I say that. Theologians have a lot of things to say about God, about Jesus and about life. There’s one problem with how they say these things though, which is that they have the implicit (ok, I guess a lot of the time it’s explicit) assumption that this thing they call “God” exists.That’s fine, if we treat theology as just a complicated word game, playing with a particular set of beliefs. But this exposes two problems.

First, theologians and the religious in general don’t treat it as just a word game. Rather, it is treated as if it can reach conclusions with actual substantive value. This assumes it has some epistemological basis that makes what it says have some form of truth, a truth that might be applicable to other people. But what is this basis? What can it be other than faith? If I have the correct faith I may believe that the conclusions reached by a theologian apply to me, but if I don’t have it, why should I have any reason at all to think that?

This brings me to the second problem. I said above that theology is a word game, setting out what we can say given a set of beliefs. But of the theologians I studied, I’m not sure I encountered two with the same beliefs. Fine, they all believed in “God”, whatever that may be. But, they had other ancillary beliefs that affected what they could say. They didn’t all believe the same thing. How then can we think that they were talking about the same “Christian” set of beliefs? I don’t think we can. More importantly, how can we decide which theologian is right? With each position maintained through faith (be it via a reliance on scripture or just plain old faith statements), there is no mechanism for deciding that this theologian should be considered correct whilst that one shouldn’t. It’s a word game with no winner.

So that’s what I mean when I say theology doesn’t work. It can’t give us knowledge that has any meaning beyond religious semantics. I tried, I listened, but that’s what I learned in 10 weeks of study.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2011 7:54 PM

    Christian, thanks for expressing your ideas. You definitely raise a number of valid critiques on the issue. I’m looking forward to following your blog as you try to work out both sides of the issue. Could I point you to one more author that I’d highly recommend for giving a philosophical explanation of how Christianity works, the questions it answers, the basis on which it stands? Hopefully you encountered him in your MA course, but if not you should definitely read Francis Schaeffer. I highly recommend How Should we Then Live.

  2. August 4, 2011 8:14 PM

    Thanks for the suggestion, I’ve just started reading some Schaeffer, I look forward to seeing what he has to offer. A brief reading suggests that I’m going to have the same problem though… Why should I take what he has to say as better than another theologian/christian philosopher? What is it that differentiates his writing as more correct? Ok, maybe if I read for a while longer I’ll see something, but I’d still like to ask the question.

  3. August 4, 2011 9:24 PM


    I think evidentiary arguments for God’s existence provide the epistemological grounds for a belief in God’s existence. Things like the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument, the argument from desire–these provide a logical framework by which belief in a transcendent yet personal God is rational and grounded.

    Regarding the differences in theology, you are correct in your assertion. Different people have different opinions on theology. That’s why if you are interested in knowing Christianity or theology, you have to go by an objective basis. That’s why before you read any theology book from anyone, read the Bible first. You need a framework by which you understand someone’s theology, as well as a litmus test to compare it to.

    I think this satisfies both of your questions. Let me know how I can help!


  4. August 4, 2011 11:02 PM

    I agree with much of SH’s comment. As I’m sure you already know, in assessing any author you are going to want to assess the interior logic of their writing. If the writer is inconsistent within his own logic then you will obviously have serious issues in accepting their overall philosophy. When assessing Christian theologians their fidelity to scripture is important. In my opinion a firm belief in the inspiration of Scripture as the true revelation of God is essential for a Christian. If you discard that (which some of the theologians you mentioned having studied in your course did) then you really are cutting the legs out from under your philosophical position.

    So two of the things I would consider are the author’s fidelity to Scripture and his own logical consistency.

  5. August 5, 2011 7:29 AM

    Thanks for the comment. Two points to address…

    Of the arguments that you list for the existence of God, I’ve heard of the first three – what do you mean by the argument from desire? The problem with these kinds of argument though is that, even if they are logically coherent, and even if they concluded with the existence of the Christian God (which they don’t), they are not likely to persuade a non-believer. They’re guilty of “begging the doxastic question” – you’re only likely to be persuaded by the argument if you antecedently believed the conclusion. As a non-believer, I don’t think the arguments make sense, I don’t think they lead anywhere that helps one religion over another, and I’m not likely to be persuaded by them. So this makes it difficult for me to use them as an evidentiary base for further argument.

    I will admit I haven’t finished my reading of the Bible, so I’m not quite able to answer your challenge, but I have read chunks of it, and I do refer to it when studying theology – how else could I do it! Your point is obviously valid – from a Christian perspective an theology is bound to fail if it doesn’t cohere with Biblical statements. Two points to be made here. The first is short, and is that of interpretation. Some bits of the Bible are to be taken literally, some metaphorically. So, the resurrection is to be taken literally, but stoning homosexuals is metaphorical (or just a case of historical/philological interpretation, which is still reinterpreting). Slavery… I think that’s just ignored. My point is that I have no way of knowing except by external standards what it is that I should take literally in the Bible and what should be interpreted.

    My second point here is probably best illustrated by an example. Karl Barth uses Ephesians 1:4 (I won’t quote it, no Bible next to me) to justify his universal doctrine of election. He uses that verse well, it’s hard to argue from that alone that he’s wrong (of course, reading around the passage gives some problems, for instance Ephesians 1:12). But how do people argue against him? They either quote other Biblical verses that disagree, or they just disagree because surely universal election is wrong! Which leaves me wondering how exactly I can use the Bible, in a consistent way, to justify a theology.

    That was longer than intended, but hopefully makes sense. Thanks again.

  6. August 5, 2011 7:35 AM


    Theologians are often incredibly intelligent people, and they have built hugely complex systems of thought that are internally consistent. As I point out in my reply to SH, the problem as I see it is that people can adhere to scripture, be logically coherent and still disagree over fundamental things, with no other recourse for deciding who is right. I’d be interested to know what you think of the second half of my reply to SH – how do I decide what is literal, what is interpreted? How do I decide how to interpret the Bible? How do I resolve a disagreement when both sides are coherent and adhering to scripture?

  7. August 5, 2011 10:28 AM

    Another point that I think deserves to be made. I pointed out in my post that the assumption is always made that God exists. SH pointed out that there are potentially arguments that make this a reasonable starting point, although I would take issue with that. But, by saying that we can evaluate a theologian according to their adherence to scripture, we add a whole new layer of assumptions that really are articles of faith.

    Is the Bible really the word of God? If it has been transmitted via humans, orally and then via scribes, how do the errors, editions and subtractions from the Bible affect what we think is the correct interpretation of what happened and what Jesus said and did. Even then, who was Jesus (assuming his existence) – was he really divine, or was he a Jewish reformer, a mad man, or any number of possible questions. These questions all have a bearing on how we read and interpret the Bible in a theological setting, and given that I assume most Christians are going to want to go with Jesus being the son of God and the Bible accurately records what he said and did, this is a massive assumption to bring to the table. It doesn’t solve the problem, it just adds to it, with yet another reason to think that it’s faith that attempts to ground theology in reality – and this doesn’t work for me.

  8. August 5, 2011 2:59 PM


    The argument from desire, most simply put, is the idea that every innate desire that we have has an object that satisfies that desire. When we are hungry, there is food to satisfy us. Sexual desire has sex as satisfactory object. So it makes sense that those that long for those that have an innate desire for God, that such a Being likely exists to satisfy those desires. It’s not a foolproof argument, but does carry strong weight when you think about it. Here is the Wiki link to more about it, and here is a more complete explanation of it for your reference.

    Two points to be made here. The first is short, and is that of interpretation.

    I think that when the Bible is meant to be taken figuratively, the language indicates it. When it is meant to be taken literally, the language reflects that as well. There is the idea of context (i.e. women braiding their hair being guilty of sin) that must be considered too, but I think anyone who reads the Bible for the purpose of understanding it will be able to distinguish the language differences for him/herself.

    Which leaves me wondering how exactly I can use the Bible, in a consistent way, to justify a theology.

    To me, to justify a theology there must be literal Biblical text that supports such a position, with supporting text behind it (i.e. baptism of the dead is predicated on one obscure verse and there is no other text in the Bible to support it). However, what you are discussing here is dogma, not theology. Theology is the study of God, and as He does not change, neither would theology about Him change. How we are affected (i.e. election, atonement, etc.) are dogmatic issues and what I would call “tertiary” issues. What I mean by tertiary issues are issues that are worth discussing but more on the fringe and not essential to faith. “Primary” issues would be belief that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus is also God, any area that deals with salvation. “Secondary” issues are critical, but not absolutely necessary for salvation, such as Biblical inerrancy.

    The reason tertiary issues are debatable is because the Bible is not clear on such matters. It is apparent to me that God does not feel that we need to understand everything on these issues to know Him, nor do we need to have an opinion on these things to be saved. To choose your opinion if there is disagreement on something like, say, limited atonement is to do the same thing you would do when deciding between atheism and theism. Weigh the evidence for both sides, and align yourself with whichever you believe to provide the best explanation for the issue at hand.

    I hope that helps. God bless!


  9. August 5, 2011 4:24 PM


    Food for thought, thanks.

    I have somehow missed the argument from desire. I’ll be thinking about that over the weekend, probably a post to get my thoughts together.


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