Thursday, 31 October 2013

Towards a 'Unified Field' Theology


The ‘holy grail’ of physics has long been the ‘Unified-Field Theory’ — a description that would encompass all the basic physical phenomena of the observable world and explain why they are as they are.
Recently I have been thinking that we could do with something of the same in Christianity — a ‘unifying theology’ that both draws together different aspects of the faith and explains why they are as they are.
Quite apart from anything else, it would surely help us face and respond to new challenges, whether individually or collectively. I remember some years ago being asked by someone studying elementary theology what should be our attitude to ‘the Sabbath’ and thinking to myself, ‘You ought to be able to work this out for yourself, given where you’re up to in your studies.’
Somehow, although this person had a tolerably good grasp overall of the Bible and its message, and was learning to preach and teach, they were stumped by a question which is answered by biblical theology itself (see Col 2:16-17).
It was as if their theological ‘framework’ was not so much a framework as a loose collection of bits — atonement over here, law over there, Christ’s nature in a drawer in the kitchen, and so on.
But then this person was no different from many of the rest of us. Take, for example, the ‘five marks of mission’, on which the Anglican Communion has drawn for so many years as a summary of what we should be about.
•          To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
•          To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
•          To respond to human need by loving service
•          To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation
•          To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
They look comprehensive — and I suspect the reason for that is precisely that they were drawn up to include ‘something for everyone’. But what is the underlying rationale? What holds them together? What decides that there shouldn’t be six marks, or fourteen? What is the connection between responding to human need with loving service and baptizing people?
Recently it has been suggested that the five marks are really one mark — to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom — and four other ‘manifestations’ of that mark. This may be disputed, but at least it has the merit of ‘unifying’ the marks.
Yet of course the theological task is far more complicated than that. At my 7am men’s Bible study group this week, we actually got onto the question of why we are here, and why did God make the world this way and not some other way, including the propensity for sin.
To some people, such questions will seem childish, because they suggest there might be ‘answers’ we could comprehend. But though they may be posed ‘naively’, they are asked justifiably. Why should we not seek to understand all we can of the ways of God and the nature of the world?
Furthermore, if there is a ‘unified’ theological ‘field’ available somewhere, the answers to these big questions will be related to the answers to much smaller questions, like ‘What about the Sabbath?’
I think, therefore, that the task is well worth attempting and that though we may ultimately be as (un) successful as physicists have been in their area so far, we might make some progress which would stand us in very good stead, given the problems facing the church both from without and within.
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17 comments:

  1. I think the fundamental unifying question to ask is why did God feel the need to create man in the first place?

    Genesis states 'let us make man in our image' but does not say why.

    An answer to that is from where all (human) reality has its source.

    Chris Bishop
    Devon

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  2. Its already been done, in Paul's Letter to the Ephesians!

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  3. Pater, if you mean Eph1 3-14 then this does not actually answer my question. This passage suggests that God for reasons only known to himself' ( ' the mystery of his will' ) decided it might be a good thing to create humans ' for the praise of his glory'. It doesn't really give any clue as to His motivation for doing so.

    If God created the heavens and Earth (including us) then it suggests things were somehow incomplete or in some way deficient beforehand. The Bible does not tell us much about the nature of reality before creation except to allude to rebellions going on in heaven, the existence of other kinds of spiritual beings and the fact that the Word (Jesus) was with God but there is precious little to go on,

    I would suggest that the unifying theological principle has to do with the nature of the Trinity and God being in relationship with Himself. That the concept of relationship (expressed freely and without coercion) being a fundamental principle of reality that God feels compelled to expand.

    I think that baptism- when we are baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is illustrative of this relationship principle. Among other things, baptism is welcoming us in to the relationship the Trinity has with itself.

    Chris Bishop
    Devon

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  4. Lots of people have answered that question with covenant.

    The Bible has a structure around 1 BIG covenant, made up of lots of smaller covental arrangements. There is the covenant of redemption between Father & Son - to save a people. The Covenant with Adam, & a covenant of grace, made up of Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic & New. What I've found good about this structure is that it brings together all the Biblical Theology stuff & all the systematic stuff together & answers questions about Sabbath etc. Instead of things all over the place, they seem to come together. &- real plus - it's relational. How we relate to each other, the world & to God

    Darren Moore
    Chelmsford

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  5. Darren got there before me, but yes, I think the pactum salutis (inter-trinitarian covenant of redemption) might be key. It ties together the doctrine of God with the doctrine of salvation. I might write my ThM dissertation on it for this reason. Garry Williams at the John Owen centre is doing some study days on covenant of redemption next year, which would be well worth going to.
    Stephen Walton
    Marbury

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  6. Hi Chris
    A bit of confusion above. I was suggesting Ephesians worthiness as a candidate for a unified theology, not as an answer to your question.

    I agree that your question is important and Ephesians doesn't answer, though might it go a bit of the way towards an answer with its words about God being glorified in the church. Were we created that God might be glorified?

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  7. In the end, a complete unified field theory of theology will be impossible. This because all our knowledge of God, even in heaven is ectypal, and only God's knowledge of God is archetypal. Only God has sufficient knowledge, both quantitatively and qualitatively, for a UFT (of theology, but I suspect of physics too).
    See Francis Turretin "Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 1" 1.Q2.5.

    Stephen Walton
    Marbury

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  8. "The Bible has a structure around 1 BIG covenant, made up of lots of smaller covental arrangements. There is the covenant of redemption between Father & Son - to save a people. The Covenant with Adam, & a covenant of grace"

    Darren. I wonder if this is right? I know that the so called 'Covenant of Redemption' and Covenant of grace' are much quoted elements of what might be called Reformed theology, but there seems to be little scriptural evidence to support these.
    Jon Zen's comments on a biblical view of God's plan BEFORE human history is enlightening and IMO accurate. He asks :how does the Bible reflect on the unfolding of God's plan in history?
    Answer: "With respect to God's intention before time, the Scripture designates them comprehensively as an "eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:11) and see 2 Tim. 1:9. This "purpose" of God in Christ is elsewhere called a "decree" (Ps.2:7), a "determinate counsel" (Acts 2:23 & 4:28), and foreordination (1 Pet. 1:20). . . . .Clearly, before history, God "purposed" to glorify His Son IN history (John 17:1,5) (my emphasis).
    I hope you find this helpful?
    Graham

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    1. It is helpful! God's purpose before history to glorify his Son in history isn't a bad description of the covenant of redemption from the Father's side. We would then have to add "the Son's purpose before history to glorify his Father in history by his obedient sacrifice".
      Stephen Walton
      Marbury.

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  9. Stephen. Agreed. When you say "because all our knowledge of God, even in heaven is ectypal, and only God's knowledge of God is archetypal - perhaps you are really reflecting Pauls' terse comment "We (only)see through a glass darkly" !

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    1. No. Paul's statement in 1 Cor 13 is eschatological- one day we will see clearly. The archetypal/ectypal distinction is making a different point: our knowledge will never, in all eternity, be equivalent to God's knowledge. We cannot know God as he knows himself.
      Stephen Walton
      Marbury

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    2. Then isn't it also true to say that we can't know God as he knows *us* - and doesn't that then contradict what you said about 1 Cor. 13:12?

      What if that verse actually isn't eschatological.

      Dan

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  10. Much of theological discourse seems to this pewsitter to be crying out for an Einstein to come and say, "E=mc2 you dummies!" I think that is why Jesus taught us in parables. There is a simple single solution to the complex questions, and it may be that we just have to listen to the person we have been crying out for and to call him by name, not Einstein, but Jesus.

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  11. Sometimes intellectual theologians can't see past their noses and become embroiled in the distracting miniscule issues.
    To create a unified field of theology, two major presumptions have to be accepted as fact that is indisputable. First, that there IS a God and secondly that he made man to be his companion. After these, all else is semantic to our purpose.
    For example, God sent his son because he knew that we could not live according to his purposes and did not want us to suffer in Hell. His original purpose was that we should live in harmony with Him.
    Also, the scriptures were written very haphazardly, therefore a concise deliberation on the main theological issues would be good but I suspect has already been written. Interpretation would be biggest difficulty to a broad acceptance of such. Most Christians accept the basics, however its the little foxes that spoil the vineyard.

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  12. +Edmund Campion2 November 2013 00:52

    What can I say? The unified theory of which you dream is Catholicism: all Christians united under the Pope, practicing the seven sacraments, confessing one faith. There's no other theoretical or practical unification possible. Anglicanism begins with the shattering of this Faith, and then looks at the fragments (your "nature of Jesus in the kitchen drawer") and says "We meant to do that. It's so much better when it's broken, so much more interesting to puzzle over all these shards and potsherds. If you weren't such a scruffy little lout, you could make a stained-glass window out of it all." Honestly, what can Anglicanism offer that makes any real sense, and isn't retained from Rome? What can you show for this mere dynastic accommodation, persisted in through pride and sloth for five centuries? Follow your instincts and chuck it for the truth. Yes, you'll lose female clergy; but on the bright side, you'll lose female clergy! :-)
    And please---if a commenter has no theological background, he shouldn't opine that scripture is "haphazard." That's rubbish, and all the worse when followed by "therefore."
    As Pope Francis says: follow your conscience. I can see very well where yours wants to take you!

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    1. Ahem, as A A Hodge put it:

      "...of necessity Romanists appeal to the Scriptures to prove that the Scriptures cannot be understood, and address arguments to the private judgment of men to prove that private judgment is incompetent".

      Some unified theory then.

      Dan

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  13. Graham (Mostly)
    Luke 22:29, Jesus says that he "convenents" diathekai a Kingdom to his disciples, just as his Father diathekai one to him. Lots of John seems to allude to this, especially 15 & 17.

    Some Reformed/Covenant theologians actually aren't that keen on it (we wait for Prof S Walton of Marbury's work). But even without it, covenant theology still works. How else can all humanity be held accountable before God? Then the structure shapes/phases all fit together. You them get the whole idea that God binds himself to a plan and to a people. They are also bound to him & each other etc. etc.

    It's also not strictly "Reformed". Peter Lillbacks "The Binding of God", shows it's historical development goes way back.

    +Edmund... Romanism is a structural unity, not a theological one. There are no fewer theologies within the Roman Catholic Church than outside, the only difference is a (false?) unity is imposed on it. I'm far to catholic to be Catholic. To be Catholic I'd have to ditch or adopt lots of ideas that would break from from the catholics before the Catholics made things dogma.

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