Wednesday, January 12, 2005

A Tale of Two Tensions

Lately the issue of tensions has been coming up in my life. Specifically, the way to balance biblical tensions with theological ones.

Biblical tensions are tensions between passages of Scripture. For instance some passages speak of the role of works in salvation, while others say that salvation is not by works. Another popular example, and, I think, related, is that of God's sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation. In both of these cases there is not necessarily a contradiction involved, but apparent conflict is, and the means of harmonizing the two is not immediately obvious.

Now for some people, like myself, a biblical tension is not much of a problem. I accept easily that Scripture is God's way of telling us Who He is, and as such it carries His authority. Now if God is God, then I expect that not everything about Him will be easy for me to understand, and I also expect that there will be different facets of His nature and character that I will have a hard time holding together in my own understanding. I don't expect God to be easily synthesized into a neat system that my mind can wrap itself around. Tensions actually are to be predicted, almost accepted as inevitable, when trying to fathom so great and awesome a Being as God.

In a nutshell, I accept tensions simply because they are given to us by God. Some people have phrased the idea differently. I understand C.H. Spurgeon called God's sovereignty and human responsibility friends, not needing reconciliation.

The consequence of biblical tensions though is another kind of tension; theological tension. Unless you reconcile biblical passages that stand in a tension, it is impossible to take the Bible and create a seamless system of doctrine from it. Now, obviously, since I don't mind the biblical tension, I don't mind the theological tension. Not everyone agrees on that though. Some folks really cannot stand theological tension. For them it seems to be more important that Scripture speak with a unified voice.

I am not opposed to the idea that Scripture should so speak, but I am opposed to the method that is often used to eliminate the biblical tensions. Basically what happens is an interpreter forces a passage to conform to their particular theology. Now that isn't to say that the interpreter abuses Scripture or disregards the context or anything like that. It does mean though that the interpreter accepts an interpretation as true more because it conforms to his or her theological system and less because it is the best understanding of the passage in its context. This interpretation is always contextually less plausible than the one that creates the tension.

That kind of "harmonizing" actually creates a lot of tension within me. My first commitment is to the Word of God, not a particular theological system. I am distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of causing those teachings to conform to a theological system, however much I might agree with that system.

For some people scripture has to sound like a studio recording of music, with all the sour notes exorcised. Personally I love live music; the missed notes and botched chords give the music a quality of "in the moment" that a studio recording lacks. To me that is more what Scripture is. Scripture just doesn't read like a professional, polished, post-production piece of literature. It reads more like live.

And isn't that how it was written?

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