One of the classes I took in the past semester was Hist 226, “Jesus to Muhammad: Ancient Christianity to the Rise of Islam.” Taught by Prof. Stephen Davis, the class presents an historical overview of the development of the Church in her first seven centuries. It was fascinating and informative to say the least. I heartily recommend it to everyone (Christians and non-Christians) who finds church history remotely interesting.
Now, brown-nosing to the professor aside, when I was preparing for its final exam a few days ago, I read an article online that I would like to share with you. It is “The Pattern of Christian Truth” by Timothy George, who discusses Church’s responses to Marcion, Arian and the Pelagian heresies. Here is a brief excerpt:
As Christians who accept the Church’s regula fidei and who stand Sunday after Sunday to recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, we are not free to view the Bible as though we had it at our disposal, as though we ourselves were not claimed by its story, as though we had already mastered this ancient document and could now move on to other bodies of knowledge without the discernment we have learned from Scripture. When Calvin began his Institutes with the sentence, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” he didn’t mean that we should first earn a Ph.D. in systematic theology, and then, with the knowledge of God safely under our belt, switch disciplines and go on to earn a second Ph.D. in, say, psychology. The duplex cognitio Calvin refers to is not sequential but correlative: we cannot know ourselves without knowing that we are at once finite and fallen creatures of God. Nor can we know God without knowing ourselves as persons made in His image, as objects of His judgment and love.
This is not to say, of course, that we cannot learn a great deal about the world of nature and history and science and politics and art quite apart from the story of God and His creatures as it is told in the Bible and confessed in the creeds of the Christian faith. Of course, we can and we must. But as believing scholars committed to the pattern of Christian truth, we must never forget that the usefulness of such abstract knowledge is limited. By itself, abstraction will always lead us away from what is truly real. Divorced from the biblical narrative, a purely abstract knowledge becomes not only self-referential but also self-defeating, fatuous, and sterile. It, too, will curve back in on itself.
As the noted theologian Robert Jenson once put it: “Scripture’s story is not part of some larger narrative; it is itself the larger narrative of which all other true narratives are parts. And so do not when reading Scripture try to figure out how what you are reading fits into some larger story; for there is no larger story.” This is true whether we are talking about biology, political science, or aesthetics. Disconnected from the biblical story, such disciplines can tell us how things work but not what they are for; how to clone a human baby but not whether this should be done; how to construct an atomic bomb but not whether it should be used; how to build a maximum security prison but not how to treat the prisoners. Without some teleology, there is no flourishing and no future for the human community.
I hope it’s enough to pique your interest to read the article in its entirety.