Saving God’s Appearances
I realized why I’m allergic to so much systematic theology. It’s because that method of approaching scripture attempts a science of revelation, which is almost tantamount to a science of God. The very word “theology” displays this in its etymology.
A science of God is fascinating, but problematic if we make it the highest mode of possible knowledge of God. If God is Lord of his universe, then he is higher than science, which is only one mode of knowledge available to the human mind.
The title of Owen Barfield’s book, “Saving The Appearances,” is a translation of Greek “sodzein tai phainomena.” It means roughly “to apologize for and explain fully what we see with our senses,” and it contains a fear of the inexplicable. Barfield talks about how the ancient Greeks tried to explain the retrograde motion of the planets (then inexplicable) with theories that “saved the appearances”–theories that would tie up all the uncomfortable loose ends in the appearances (phenomena) of the night sky.
The Greeks’ theories of retrograde motion began from a place of scientism–a belief that loose ends *can be tied up*, that the rational principle is the highest in the universe. The Greek’s exact theories on the motion of the planets have been disproven, but the principle of scientism is alive and well in modern epistemology, especially in the church.
The problem with scientism as a worldview is that it demands of science more than science can provide as a mode of knowledge. To wit:
In the book, Barfield makes a critical distinction between what he calls “dashboard knowledge” (how to drive the car–practical technique that can effect a desired result) and “engine knowledge” (total ontological knowledge of how the car works). He essentially says that science is capable of the first (giving us the techniques to manipulate nature), but not the second (teaching us the true nature and ultimately hidden mechanisms of reality).
Keep that in mind. Now to my punchline.
Systematic theology as espoused today is a product of a historical moment–the scientific revolution and humanity’s application of that type of knowledge to the reading of scripture. It is an attempt to “save the appearances” of scripture. It is an attempt to gain “engine knowledge” of God’s mysterious salvific work, as inexplicable to us this side of glory as the retrograde motion of the planets was to the Greeks. In reality, the only kind of knowledge of God’s salvific work that we can attain is “dashboard knowledge”–how to drive the car of salvation–not how to fix its engine.
This matters because, as Barfield points out, there are such things as “idols of the study.” When one approaches scripture from a fundamental bias of scientism (placing the rational principle above all else in the universe), one insidiously demands a God made in one’s own image–a God who is rational and nothing else.
While rationality is a facet of God’s character, it is not the only facet. He must be higher than rationality, too–modern science attests to the objective existence of beyond-rationality in the discovery of quantum noise and the uncertainty principle. Our bias of scientism drives us to terror when we encounter the beyond-rationality of God. But his universe displays it. We shouldn’t fear it. It’s part of who he is.
How, then, do we interpret scripture?
We should realize that we can experience God’s word only in specific instantiations of our reading it. There is no abstract whole of systematic theology that exists outside our moment-by-moment, grace-enabled apprehension of inspired scripture. There is only our inward apprehension of the truth of scripture as the Spirit speaks it to us. The fact that at face value (how I believe we should read scripture), the Bible contains contradictions (especially in the area of predestination vs. free will) indicates that a 100% rational, fully systematized view of scripture is impossible for those who are intellectually honest with themselves.
Are you panicking yet?
We were not meant to carry the cross of scientism to “save the appearances” of scripture as a total body of work. Scripture does not need salvation. It stands. Its appearances are wild, glorious, beautiful, at times incomprehensible. When we attempt to “save the appearances” of scripture by jamming them into rigid, rational molds of systematic theology, we commit “idolatry of the study” and display our fear of the non-rational principle that is part of God’s character.
But he has already forgiven us for that. He has even forgiven me for saving the appearances of scripture in my own way with this post. Can we ever escape the idolatrous interface with which we think about God?
God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. Light reveals form. It also blinds incomprehensibly.