I wouldn’t start from here…

I’m sure most will have heard the joke about the man who asked directions to a particular place and was told ‘If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here.’ When on a journey we are usually more concerned with our destination than our starting point, but in theology (& I guess any form of thinking) where you start is critical since it often determines where you end up. This is why we should not only consider what someone is teaching at a particular moment, but the trajectory of their teaching – where do those presuppositions usually take you?

I’ve just read Universal Salvation? (Eds. Parry & Partridge) and have found it both fascinating and disturbing, especially the chapters surveying universalism in Christian history, and the defence of Christian Universalism by Thomas Talbott. One thing I noted was Talbott’s philosophical presuppositions which then determine his trajectory. So, he writes… 

“There is a strong biblical case that God ‘loves all’ and therefore wills the salvation of all and likewise a strong biblical case that God’s loving will shall triumph in the end, then there is also a strong biblical case for universalism.”

In actual fact, the case for universalism is logical rather than biblical, but, more importantly, this belief has its basis in the following presupposition: Belief in a loving God and belief in an eternal hell are incompatible; God is love, therefore an eternal hell cannot exist. Consequently, having supposed this, Talbott fails in my view to give convincing explanations of straightforward passages concerning heaven and hell and finds himself outside the bounds of traditional Christian belief.
Similarly, the starting point for some well known evangelicals today (Steve Chalke, Rob Bell) is humankind’s original goodness:

“To see humanity as inherently evil and steeped in original sin instead of inherently made in God’s image and so bathed in original goodness, however hidden it may have become, is a serious mistake” writes Steve Chalke.

Agreed, the Bible certainly begins with humanity created in the image of God but its plot very quickly progresses to the fall into sin and its consequent curse. The primary story of the Bible is therefore not the release of innate goodness but the reversal of the fall. Consequently, I believe, Chalke and Bell find themselves on a trajectory which underestimates sin, minimises the cross, and ... let’s just say, easily tends towards universalism!
Of course, we all have a starting point and it’s naive to think we don’t. This is one of the helpful insights of Post-Modernity. Where Modernity supposed we could come to a text objectively, apply correct interpretive methodology and discover truth; post-modernity recognised that we all have presuppositions that we bring to the text shaping how we understand it. For this reason, Grant Osborne helpfully describes the interpretive process as a ‘hermeneutical spiral’ as we, with all our presuppositions, interpret the Bible and yet allow the Bible to shape our presuppositions before returning to the text once again.
Some however, not only recognise but even celebrate their presuppositions (for instance Liberation/Feminist/Black Theology), not allowing them to be shaped by the Bible. So, while it is interesting that, in the parable of the good Samaritan, the Liberation Theologian puts himself in the place of the victim in the gutter, Jesus’ intention was that we imitate the Samaritan, since he ‘loved his neighbour’. Once again, the starting point is not shaped by the plot of the Bible and the journey takes a wrong turn.
I find D.A. Carson very helpful in this regard. He writes:

“The Bible as a whole document tells a story, and, properly used, that story can serve as a metanarrative that shapes our grasp of the entire Christian faith.”

What Carson is saying is that our starting point for interpretation should not be a particular text or philosophical presupposition, but rather what he terms the ‘Bible plot-line’, the overall story of the Bible. We should continually be checking that our interpretation in the detail is in line with the overall direction set by the bible, because there is always a danger that, though we consider ourselves to have only taken a few ‘alternative’ turns (and where is the harm in that?), we have actually cut a new trajectory that leads to a false destination.

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