Monday, May 28, 2007

Recognizing Good and Bad Theology: The Leftover Parts Test

I have a suspicion that the phrase "bad theology" will cause some objection (while "good theology" will go without notice). It's common for discussions of good and bad theology to have no content beyond taking sides and calling names. This has led to some justifiable distaste for the whole venture of separating good and bad theology. But recognizing the good is just as important as it has ever been; the problem is identifying the bad without going overboard and losing a valid perspective or descending into petty partisanship. I intend to sketch out several posts in a series of how to identify good and bad theology without subjecting the system to the judgment of any partisan system's pet litmus test; I hope to sketch out criteria which can successfully separate the partisan systems from the whole and robust systems.

Leftover Parts?
Consider this analogy: I take apart my lawnmower and put it back together. When I am finished, I have leftover extra parts. Looking at the extra parts, I claim to have put it back together better than before. Do you believe me? Or is it possible that I didn't really understand what those parts were for and how they fit into the whole?

One way to recognize a bad theological understanding is by the leftover parts. If there are passages of the Bible that have no place in a theological system, it's a bad system; at the very least it's incomplete. You can guarantee that there is a lack of understanding of those leftover parts, what they were for and how they should have fit into the whole.

A good understanding of God and his kingdom, at the very least, takes into account the whole of the Bible. There are no leftover parts which do not fit.


P.S. an after-thought said...

Well, yes and no. Ha.

Ideally, I think your view that "good theology" would have no left over parts is OK, but it assumes that God tells us everything in the Bible. It would also have to assume that we understand everything correctly (and can explain it correctly) which, I guess, is what theology is.

Practical problems: we have no original scriptures. Copies and translations are subject to errors, changes, and political additions, according to some scholars. Besides the Bible is too small to assume that God told us everything.

Interpretation problems: I have had the humbling experience of understanding something (non-Biblical) in a "literal way" only to have my understanding proven completely wrong. Yet the second interpretation is literal.

Problems of understanding: There are several Bible verses about God's ways are not our ways, God's mind is bigger than our mind, etc. I don't think it is possible to grasp (ie theologize) God's ways completely. Which is to say that I would hope God's mind is bigger than mine.

Nevertheless, we can be grateful for theologians who can write in a way that helps us understand God's ways and God's grace.

I also think that each of us, may, at times, come up with our own theology to help us deal with a particular situation in life. If this theology were really challenged, there would be left over parts or big chunks missing. But we need to tell ourselves certain things just to cope.

Weekend Fisher said...

Actually, I'm sure God doesn't tell us everything in the Bible. There are a few places where the Bible even mentions that.

The point is that if we disregard what we know, our picture becomes increasingly incomplete. So it's less an assumption that we know everything, more an assumption that what we do know is enough to get along with and that all of it has some value.

So I saw on your blog that you're getting ready to head off on your trip. How much longer? And you hint there will be no internet access?

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

What is the lawnmower? Is it just the Scripture, or do its parts also include the historical Church and its implicit or explicit interpretations of the Scripture? I'm not suggesting the analogy is totally bad, but I find myself wondering if perhaps the lawnmower we are dealing with is even more complex and more widely evidenced than being merely the Scripture. The earliest developments of Christian theological systems didn't even have the full New Testament canon to work on; it's almost as if the lawnmower was still being built.