Salvation by correct theology?

Henry Neufeld, who is the CEO of Energion Publications, for which I’m Editor in Chief, has put up a video on the subject of “Salvation by Correct Theology”. My own often-stated view is that, in the debate between salvation by works and salvation by faith, the option of “salvation by correct intellectual conception” is never mentioned. Indeed, I think it’s a non-starter, given Jesus’ suggestion that we need to be as “little children” (who are incapable of forming complex intellectual conceptions) and many instances, including the thief on the cross,  where there is no evidence of much in the way of theology.

And yet, I’ve just listened to an episode of the “Patheological” podcast (which I recommend, particularly the series which ends with this episode, which talks a lot of depression) in which the guest, Scott Curry, uses Job 42:7 to suggest that what you think about God is of supreme importance, and noted a facebook post in the Liturgists group which quotes an unnamed source as saying:-
“Peter Harrison in the acknowledgements in his Cambridge University Press book “The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science” quotes a University of Queensland faculty friend Ed Conrad that the bible does not describe a world but creates a world.
What a helpful statement.
THAT is why bad theology is so horrific and good theology is so important.
Our reading of the bible and what we do with it through our theological thinking creates either a world of beauty, holy love, and wonder at what it means to be human, loving our neighbours inhabiting this astounding planet.
we can create a world full of ugliness, avarice, finding ways to accuse and exclude those with whom we do not agree rather than in and through loving hospitality speaking the truth
or to put it another way – this is why serious, informed, educated reading of Scripture is important.
Reading of Scripture, if it is without learning and wisdom, can lead to terrible theology with appalling consequences.”

It hasn’t escaped my notice, too, that when Henry and myself inveigh against salvation by correct theology or salvation by correct intellectual conception, we are saying that the correct theology, the correct intellectual conception is not “salvation by correct theology or correct intellectual conception”, so, to the philosophically minded, we are possibly destroying our own premise just by stating it. I have little patience with this kind of philosophical argument, which sets up a self-referential, absolute, statement in order to destroy the premise – if nothing else, you can escape from the loop by commenting that a statement about statements is of a higher order than a mere statement, and cannot legitimately be included in the lower-order case. (I say this despite being very keen on Godel’s incompleteness theorem, which uses just such a self-referential structure in order to “prove” its point – I think the conclusion there is correct, even if the argument is faulty!). I would also point out that using this kind of argument, even if everything in fact is relative, this argument apparently disproves what is then the fact that everything is relative; there has to be something wrong with the method of argumentation! (I point to the fact that every word in your dictionary is defined by other words, i.e. is relative to other words).

Both Curry and Conrad, however, have a point. In the case of Job, I might suggest that the take-away is that the use of theology in order to make people feel bad is a bad idea; Job’s friends spend much of the narrative attempting to say that his misfortunes are ultimately all his own fault, and the picture of God they end up putting forward is one of a vindictive judge. The fact that the whole book of Job suggests that God’s motive is not vindictive but is actually to prove a point to Satan (at this point a minion of God, tasked with putting forward counter-narratives), which is in no way actually a better picture of God, is by the by.

That is echoed in the piece from facebook – our conceptions of God matter inasmuch as they can reassure us or destabilise us, make us community-minded or defensively individualistic, compassionate or accusing, inclusive or builders of walls. I think Henry would agree with me that, in the face of a God whose chief characteristic has to be love (and who is sometimes identified with love), it does actually matter what our conceptions are. For my part, however, I feel I need to re-stress that our intellectual conception, our theology, can never be regarded as wholly true (“now we see through a glass darkly”), at least not if we are talking of what-it-is-to-be-God.

This leads me on to another line of thinking. I am not sure in what sense Conrad means the bible does not describe a world but creates a world”. It may be that the underlying thought is that scripture (and thus theology) is in some way performative – stating something makes it the case, as when a person with appropriate authority declares two people married. This could be regarded, in postmodern terminology, as “an event”. He may mean that the stories in the Bible and our theologies exist in what I call “concept space”; the issue of the extent to which they are true (given that I am strongly sceptical of our ability to state anything which is true in an absolute sense) is secondary to how they fit together and what they do, i.e. the effect they have on humanity. With fiction, for instance, it is pointless asking whether the story is true or not, the issue is whether it conveys something to which I relate, from which I can obtain a truth.

Things in concept-space can, of course, propagate as what Richard Dawkins has dubbed a “meme”. As Dawkins notes, memes can be extremely damaging (or extremely beneficial, though he tends to focus on the damage they can cause). Followers of Jung, however, go futher than this and posit the idea of a “collective unconscious” in which such concepts exist; it seems inevitable that Jungians believe in one or both of a form of telepathy and the inheritance of concept-structures. This, of course, raises the issue of concepts which we create “coming back to haunt us”; Voltaire famously remarked In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” When we consider memes or the collective unconscious, the image we create of God has an existence independent of any individual, and if we create for ourselves an image of a vengeful, capricious, unfeeling and unmerciful God, we are, perhaps, creating that as a reality rather than just a concept, at least in some sense.

That God-concept is, in my mind, Satanic, and not in the sense of ha-satan of the book of Job, but in the picture which developed later, not of an aspect of God which acts as accuser, as tester of concepts, but as the adversary of God, a spiritual power in its own right, the inheritor of the “equal-and-opposite-to-God force of evil in the world” concept of Ahriman in Zoroastrianism, opposed to the God-figure of Ahura Mazda. We should not give it our thoughts to feed on…

And, in respect of the Satan of the Intertestamentals and the New Testament, which I blame on the percolation of Zoroastrian ideas into Judaism (possibly aided by the Babylonian captivity), my watchword is “If Satan existed, it would be necessary to disbelieve in him”.

We are not saved by intellectual conceptions, but we can be horribly damaged by them.



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