Dr. Millard Erickson – Theology Needs Help and More Q&A

C. Edwin Gheens Lecture Series 2008: Theology Needs Help – Luncheon Lecture and Q&A

Through the generosity of the family of the late C. Edwin Gheens, a series of special lectures is given each year in the several fields of theological studies and related areas.

I was told I would lose my audience if I announced that my lecture during the luncheon was going to be about what theology can learn from philosophy so I waited to announce it until you were here and eating. So, my topic for this lecture is going to be what the resources in the field of philosophy can do for theology. I would like to show eight ways that the discipline of philosophy can help theology.

First, philosophy can help us define the meaning of our theological assertions. In analytical philosophy, the main question is what do you really mean? For example, if I tell someone that “God loves you” and they think of “God” as a force and “love” as lust then all I am really saying to them is “force lusts you” which is an almost nonsensical statement.

There comes a point where we need to push our selves and our definitions onto others. A great example of this is the flexibility of the term “evangelical.” I prefer to call myself a conservative, biblically-based, Christian these days. A while back I was reading a columnist from a Los Angeles newspaper that used the term “evangelical atheist.” I took a step back and realized all the more that we need to make clear what we mean when we use certain terms.

Second, philosophy helps us to analyze the structure of theological arguments. For example, when you learn the Greek language, many seminaries and Bible Colleges teach the structure of the language through sentence diagramming. This forces us to see the relationships between the parts of the sentences. We must take this approach with theological arguments as well. We need to be familiar with the nature of logic as well as what follows from what in an argument.

Third, philosophy helps us to draw out the implications of the thoughts and doctrines we hold. For example, a familiar syllogism would say If A, then B, If B, then C, so If A then C. If one holds to A in this example he must hold to C as well. Many times we discover that this is not the case. The question really becomes whether or not one has the right to not accept the logical outcome of their theology. You must seek to be consistent with what you believe.

Fourth, philosophy explains to us how we can know what we know. This is referred to in philosophical circles as epistemology. When we say we know God, are we saying we know something about Him or are we saying we know Him personally? There is a new craze that I will not say much about other than to forewarn you that it is on the horizon. Evangelical mysticism is a philosophy that is now pressing epistimology to its limits regarding whether we can say we know God (or anything in the Bible at all) or not.

Fifth, philosophy helps us to assess the truth value of certain things. If I were to say that I believe A and you believe B and then I said B is wrong and A is right, how do I know if I am right? In essence, I am simply saying that my view (A) has fewer deficiency than yours (B). Philosophy helps us to grade the alternative theories. However, we need to be cautious of arriving at a conclusion and closing our minds. There is always going to be degrees of probability in all inductive reasoning. Perhaps our framework needs to be reexamined in those “minor” areas of theology that we hold onto so tightly.

Sixth, philosophy helps us wrestle with the problem of objective truth in a pluralistic world. This has become more of a problem with the post-modern culture because they reject foundationalism (everything is built on a foundation of some sort). The problem really is presented when we say that Jesus is the only way of salvation for mankind. Many will say without a problem that for the Christian, that way of thinking makes sense because it is consistent with their worldview and the way in which they set up and define their communities. However, we must be able to show that this is true for all people and philosophy can help us to do that. We must be able to find the neutral area where all religions have a common ground with Christianity and begin from there.

Seventh, philosophy helps us to get at the essence of doctrine. This becomes paramount when we begin to say something different about an unchangeable truth. It helps us to answer whether or not we have preserved the doctrine or if we have changed it. We can contextualize our message as long as we don’t lose the essence of the message. I believe it is easier to translate from one thought language to another rather than from one spoken language to another. This can be found more in the sub-discipline of philosophy called phenomenology where one attempts to distill out the pure essence of something.

Finally, there is the concept of “autoreferentiality” which means that a statement applies to every other belief but one’s own. We must always strive to apply to our own views the same standards as we have for everyone else’s views.


Q: How is philosophy not beneficial for theology?

A: When a philosophy with substantive elements are accepted uncritically is when I think philosophy becomes unbeneficial to theology. I say this because one’s theology is built into their understanding of that philosophy. Everyone works with basic assumptions. Remember, I am only saying that the methodological dimension of philosophy can help. I do not think that philosophy should influence one’s theology.

Q: How important is it to fight for certain theological terms regardless of the cultural setting?

A: It is important that we preserve the essence of the term. With that being said, it may be such that the term used for a particular doctrine is so concise that it is the only word that is able to express the essence. For example, the term “born-again” has now been hijacked by those who believe in reincarnation. Of course they have been born again and again and again. We should not naively assume that we all mean the same thing. Yes, we should fight for historical terms.

Q: How much can we know about God? If nothing, then why even try?

A: This is a common question I get whenever I do these lectures. Allow me to use an analogy to help explain. Let us say we are looking at two sides of a roof. They meet somewhere above the clouds where we can’t see. I believe we should seek to see as far as possible. You would be surprised by what people think in your churches. Never assume certain things are not a problem for your congregation because it is not a problem for you. If it is a problem for someone in your church, then it is a problem for you as well.

Q: What kept you going whenever you experienced “dark nights of the soul?”

A: Allow me to again use an analogy to explain my answer. Let’s say you are walking on a plank between two points. It is a narrow plank, but you know it is there because you can see it when you step onto it. However, you can’t see the rest of it so you continue forward based upon your faith that it is there and it is secure. There are times when you don’t feel as though God is near, but because of your previous experiences, you proceed based on your faith.

I honestly have not experienced any great moment of those “dark nights of the soul.” I do believe it is a harder question to deal with when trying to discern God’s will. In these instances, I again draw on past experiences. For example, I can remember a time when I missed getting hit by a tanker truck in an intersection because I took an unusual look to my left. After that truck went through the intersection, I drove through and immediately pulled over and thanked God for all those other times that I was not aware of my “near miss.”

I guess my final answer to this question is solid and regular fellowship with believers and continual personal devotions in the Word.

Q: When you speak of getting at the essence of a doctrine, I am concerned with the preaching aspect of safe guarding our language from the essence. Sometimes the word as the essence gives us our thought pattern for preaching. Could you speak to this?

A: The writers of the Bible and even Jesus Himself used different imagery and languages to say the same thing. Sometimes it is important to sneak up on people with the truth. Take for instance Nathan’s approach to David. A direct approach would not have worked. In some settings you have to sneak up on people because “they already know what it means.” There needs to sometimes be a sense of drama. They tune out of the story because they know the prodigal returns home. We need to build this drama into our message. This takes creativity in preaching.

Q: Could you please give us the working definition of “hyper-space” as you used it in this morning’s lecture?

A: The hyper-space theory simply posits the possibility that there are multiple dimensions beyond the three we know. Those three dimensions are height, width, and depth.

Q: Where is the balance between learning from philosophy and exchanging one set of boundaries for another?

A: I believe we need to protect ourselves from chronocentricism–the belief that we finally understand all there is to know about X and now that we got it right, it will never change. We must always be looking to see how we should modify our thinking. All we need to do to see how this effects our ministry is look at the bus ministry and the seeker ministry and the coffee house ministry. Our methods are always changing but our message, the Gospel is not.

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