Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What did God mean by calling His creation "good"?

Lately I have been pondering about the meaning of "good" when God said that what He had made was "good" in Genesis chapter 1. In the past we have discussed in Bible studies that the definition of good and evil in Hebrew is often thought of in a concept of function and dysfunction (

Lamentations 3:38 talks about how God issues good and evil or in other words "function" and "dysfunction". This view of good and evil gives a new picture. It is not that God is morally "evil" in His actions but in order to bring about full functionality in creation sometimes dysfunction is necessary. At this point in time I think about God flooding the earth in Noah's day - it was an act of dysfunction. It was not ultimately God's intended end or ultimate outcome to cause death, but it was necessary to do in order to reach His intended and ultimate outcome for His creation (justice and salvation).

Coming back to the title of this post, I have been wrestling with God's definition of "good". How can something that is "good" become evil? If it is good or functional, then where is there room for it becoming bad or dysfunctional? If something is good would it not be completely resilient to evil? These questions came from an understanding that when God made everything good, it meant that it was perfect in a present complete sense.

But these questions have brought me to a new understanding of what is "good" in His sight. I believe that "good" to God is like a painting that He has begun and delights in the intended outcome or conclusion. When God created the world I don't think that He was surprised that mankind fell. I don't think that Christ was plan B. He was before the foundation of the world and was intended for sacrifice and salvation from the foundation of the world (John 1, Revelation 13:8, 1 Peter 1:18-20). The gift of Christ and therefore the fall of man is plan A.

So if Christ was God's intended outcome, in order to reconcile man to Himself, then Adam and Eve in their "perfect" state were not perfect at all in God's eyes in a complete finished sense. It is interesting to note that Paul said that Adam was of the dust and Christ is of heaven; first comes the natural and then the spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:45-49). Adam was not complete without Christ, even before Adam "fell".

So why did God intend or allow dysfunction (the fall) in His overall "good" functional picture? I wonder whether in order for mankind to experience the fullness of love, grace and sacrifice, then a negative or dysfunction is necessary. In order to know the difference between functional (God's best intended complete outcome) and dysfunctional then we as mankind need to experience both. Thus the tree of the knowledge of "good" and "evil" is necessary in order to appreciate what is truly functional. Adam was of the dust, and before the fall he was not yet aware of dysfunction, nor was he aware of the aspects of complete function. This complete function was the act and demonstration of love and sacrifice modelled by Christ. It is important to note that currently, mankind as a whole are able to experience aspects of function, such as love etc, alongside dysfunction. But mankind have not yet experienced God's full intended functional end-outcome, where dysfunction does not exist.

What is this end-outcome? To become like Christ Himself, valuing what He values. To die in order to have life more abundantly, and to experience dysfunction in order to become and appreciate complete functionality.

I will leave you with this verse from Romans 8:18 "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory, which shall be revealed in us" - KJV (Some versions say "to" instead of "in", but I believe it means "in" or both).

Isn't it cool that the glory will be revealed "in" US?! God is moulding and developing us into His masterpiece and suffering is a part of it! (Romans 5:3-4)


  1. Daniel,

    A neat and different view. Thank you for sharing this. Reminds me of the verse where Jesus said, No one is good but God. Are all the places the word good is used the same translation from "tov"? I went to the Greek and the word kalos came up. This could be translated as beautiful. So another way to look at this is beautiful and flawed (good and evil). We are beautiful spiritually but flawed in the flesh.

  2. I know "tov" can mean beautiful and in a way I would agree with you that God's plan is beautiful. But I am not sure about evil (in God's plan) being flawed because flawed implies a bad design. Somehow I think that God planned dysfunction to bring about function so evil is a part of His plan. I couldn't say that His plan is "flawed" because His plan is perfect.
    But I still would say that evil ultimately is not God's intended outcome, but within His plan it is His intention to bring about His desired outcome. I hope you follow me :)

  3. Hi Daniel, I like your thinking in this post. I'll have to think through the function and dysfunction perspectives a bit, but I would add that in creating a good world God created a world that is - perhaps counter-intuitively - subject to evil. The greatest good, in my understanding of scripture, is a people who freely walk in the ways of the Father. This to me requires, as you have said, a true potential to do evil and experience and chose the mercy and grace of God instead.

    I guess the danger is when we think that we can somehow justify our own evil acts on the supposition that there will be a good outcome. This to me is not what God did and definitely not what he modelled for us to do in Christ. When we fall into this type of pragmatism we are falling for the temptation Jesus faced to do evil (worship Satan) that good may come (possess all the kingdoms of the world).

  4. Thank you Tim and Clive for you comments. I actually am not sure how to reply to your comments Clive lol.
    I think I see exactly what you are proposing. In other words you could potentially say that a good creation is a creation where one cannot have loyalty without the opportunity to be disloyal.

    I totally agree with your second paragraph. Though there are acts that God does that I don't think would be right for us to do. Like God flooding the world as judgement. He does these things because He is righteous and we are not. We have too many planks in our eyes that need to be removed :)

    But a potential point where I disagree with your first paragraph is in regards to words used such as "freely" and "potential". If creation remained in its current state forever where evil exists as a potential or free option, then I can not see how that is "good". The allowance of evil (dysfunction) to happen has to have the goal of in the end providing more and complete functionality where there is no opportunity for evil (or else how can God say there will be one day no more tears? Rev 21:4). Colossians 1 talks about how God is reconciling everything to Himself, implying that He intends to leave no loose ends or "potential" loose ends. So God uses the historical experience of mankind's separation from God in order to make the reconciliation of creation more significant, and not that He finds value in a state where mankind can forever choose evil or good as desired.

    Lately I have been wrestling with the idea of "freewill". I think it might be helpful to pose a question before I suggest more thoughts. What exactly does "freewill" mean?

    1. Hi Daniel, I guess the Bible teaches that the new creation/ resurrected world (which is a huge discussion in itself) is not subject to the curse and not subject to sin in the way that we currently understand sin as corruption and dysfunction (unless you take those verses in Revelation about the leaves being healing to the nations as indicators that there are still others who don't know God around at that time). However - does that assume a world where we are more or less in the image of God? I would assume a world where we CAN NOT sin would make us less image bearers than those who can CHOOSE not to sin because we are free from corruption and know that the ways of our Father are genuinely superior to the ways of sin. I have heard it explained that as image bearers we are all given our own little "kingdom" of autonomy and authority. Our choice is whether we use that "freedom" under God's kingdom (which will produce real freedom - as per Paul's slave analogy in Romans) or will be use it to form our own independent "kingdom" apart from the reign of God which ultimately will see us enslaved to our own appetites.

      Interestingly Israel means "one who wrestles with God"! It is cults and empires that demand unquestioning, unthinking obedience. God seems happy to wrestle with us - if he removed the ability to wrestle surely that would be making us into less not more? One of the things I enjoy about my now adult children is that they will challenge me and question me rather than just accepting everything I say. This is part of maturing relationship. How this looks in the new creation I'm not sure :). Maybe someone can think of some examples.

      Thanks for the opportunity to be included in the conversation by the way. I find this stuff a great learning opportunity. Clive

    2. Hi Clive, you are right I believe, in regard to our future stance with God, it will be different to how it is now. It is another big debate as to how that will happen. It could be that we still "fall" but through Christ we are still perfect and experience full forgiveness as we still endeavour to become more like Him. Or it could be that we don't fall and that we truly have transformed and sin no more. I tend to prefer the second option :)

    3. But back to the key question of "freewill". I understand your belief in a necessity to be permitted to reject God and follow our own desires, as I covered in the original post. It may come as a shock but I don't actually believe in "freewill" as people commonly understand it. I am also not sure that I believe in God's "freewill" as people commonly believe.

      Let me explain myself :) There are many things that God CANNOT do that I can do. He cannot lie (Hebrews) whereas I can lie for example. Does this mean that because God does not have the "option" to lie that he is not a free agent to perform all His will which is truth-speaking? No I don't think so. We (and God) do not need to have the equally free option of having the ability to choose variable options at any point it time.

      You were saying before that we have all been given our own autonomy, which I agree with. But we must ask what is this autonomy and what does it mean?
      I believe that God has a nature that makes Him God and He will always follow that nature. I don't think that it is possible for God to be morally evil because it is against His nature, He doesn't have a "free" option to choose evil at any one time but is free to perform His nature.

      I believe it is the same with us as people. Yes God created us with autonomy but to me that would be in the form of "free agents", not "freewill". In a similar way as expressed before we will always follow our nature/character that God has given/developed in us.

      I can give an example of this. Say if I placed two options before you, "A" and "B" and I told you to pick A or B; which one would you choose? Now the answer would depend totally on what? It would depend on your character at that time. The option that best aligned with your character would be the one you WOULD ALWAYS choose and not the other. But if our decisions are not based on who we are and that they are totally free and we can equally choose A or B; how is that different from being completely random? I know that God and us as people are not completely random and so we will always follow one path of expression. It does not mean that we cannot "entertain" the other options but who we are will limit us to choosing what best fits our character at the time.

      So does that mean we are completely and exactly as God has designed us? I would say yes, HE is totally sovereign. This is how I believe God knows the future, He knows us inside out and knows every decision we will make, because He made us. If we had "freewill", or in other words "random" then God could not predict the future... but I guess that depends on whether you believe God is outside of time or not :D

      This way of thinking is often known as a variation of determinism where a previous event will always make a certain event and those events created are not random.

    4. This will probably leave you wondering... God has designed us to sin?! In some aspects I would agree with that statement, though the nuance is not really the focus of scripture. Determinism is no different to God's responsibility for everything that happens in the world under the concept of "freewill". If we have freewill and sin happens, God still designed it to act this way and caused it to happen. The same is true for determinism. God allows us as free agents to act out our characters, which includes sin. But by God allowing this, it is ALWAYS for a good purpose, whereas with freewill it seems like some things are out of God's control, and this means that some things happen just because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We would in other words all be relatively loose cannons.

      I don't believe we are loose cannons and I do not believe God is a loose cannon. So in regards to my original post, you may read it with different eyes. I believe there is value in God allowing us to follow our own and unique individual characters. He lets us experience following a will-path where we (for a time) worship our own existence. He does this in order to show us, draw us and mould us into characters that find our pleasure in Him.

      It is important to note that even though God intended for us to act in certain ways, it is still us actually uniquely acting it out. Just as God acts out His character and does all He desires, we do the same.

      In the end, I prefer to be subject to a sovereign design of God intended for good rather than having "freewill" with possibility of being a loose, random cannon and surprising God lol. I cannot see how logically the common understanding of "freewill" makes any sense.
      But I am open to suggestions :)

  5. Hello,Daniel,
    God said that what He had made was 'good' at the end of the sixth day, not at the end of the second day when, according to Genesis ch.2 vs.5-7, the first Adam (fleshly Adam) was formed. I have a theory on this which I posted on my blog on 22/11/2011 called Let us make man in our image. You may be interested in reading it.

  6. Daniel,

    God certainly did not make a "flawed" creation, but as you were saying He allowed dysfunction. I was saying that since man fell then he became flawed or allowed flaws. His creation was beautiful, tov, functional, good but due to free will we chose to be flawed, whatever is opposite of tov, dysfunctional, and evil.

    I will keep thinking about this.

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  8. Hi people's. Clive and I are discussing in the "reply" section of my previous comment to Tim and Clive... not sure if it automatically opens. So feel free to chip in with your thoughts as you have been :)
    Brenda, I will check out your post sometime soon, sounds interesting!

  9. Hi Dan :)

    I really agree with this post. Regardless of your approach to determinism vs free-will, you HAVE to deal with a God who deliberately and actively chooses a reality where He KNOWS sin and evil result.

    Some say evil is necessary as an undesirable side-effect of some greater cause. God values free-will high enough to allow these things. OR God values the complexity of creation that demands some negative side effects for the greater good. Both of these say that one of God’s desires trumps His desire to prevent evil. He then salvages evil and uses it as best He can. The problem with this view is that God is limited, and unable to work all the counsel of His will or all his desires to full fruition all the time.

    Another way to maintain the necessity of evil, is to claim that it is directly required in the causal chain of ultimate goodness - it is illogical to think about the goodness occurring without evil, because evil IS part of the goodness, or the means to this goodness. This allows God to work all his purposes at once to full fruition, without being limited. Temporal Evil IS one of His purposes.

    People have a problem accepting that God is the active author of evil, despite Scripture stating that He is (at least some times). He even ordains extreme sin (e.g. the murder of His son). The reason we don't like the idea of God authoring evil, is that we don't want to fear God. We don't want uncertainty about our future with Him - how can we be certain it will be without evil, if He makes it here now? This objection is easily answered by Scripture. But We also don't want God to judge people who He made to sin - how can we be certain He won't do this to us?

    This second objection is more difficult to answer. But the idea of free-will does not answer it any better. As Daniel mentioned, any ability within us to do ANYTHING without a basis (i.e. in a way God can't control or predict) - to wrestle our will away from our character, or to mould our character against the influences God has allowed in our life - this ability is nothing short of randomness. If I choose to sin outside of God's deliberate influence in my life, it is merely ‘bad luck’ that I didn’t choose something else (e.g. holiness), and nothing to do with something fundamental within me.

    Free will does NOT answer the problem of certainty about sin and God's judgement. How can God possibly be just when He punishes people for this? How can I be certain that I won't do this myself at some point? In addition, it adds the problem of uncertainty to every other area of life, because God has limited his sovereignty. And it makes evil something that needs salvaging, rather than part of a glorious 'good' intentional plan.

    The ‘free agency’ view also explains how we can be ‘good’ both before the fall AND after glorification in heaven. At all times our nature was the same - without God’s sustaining influence on our characters we will fall, but with it we will be drawn to Christ. This is part of God’s ‘good’ creation, and is only good/evil when HE operates with it in a certain way.

  10. Hi Daniel, Josh and Tim....A quick comment LOL:

    I think one way out of the determinism/free-will debate is to step back from a cause and effect view (broadly speaking a mechanistic/ Enlightenment perspective) to a more organic/relational view (which is really how the Biblical writers and the culture they were writing to... although the roots of reductionism were certainly there in Greek culture). In other words, does the universe really operate in terms of input/output, cause and effect? We are so trained in this mechanistic/reductionist view of reality that to think there could be any other way seems absurd to the Western mind. And of course it has it's place, but when it becomes the absolute plumb-line for truth we assume that we can out-think God, or at least understand the universe if we try hard enough. But we end up (in my opinion) asking the wrong questions and becoming tangled in ways of thinking that may not be all that helpful. The basis of assuming a relational view of reality is Romans 1... When we fail to acknowledge God and are not thankful to him we take the position of arbiter of Truth - we test the Lord our God. Because we are image-bearers we have many attributes of God, but in a finite way. Therefore we can know, we can have power, we can be self-aware, we can love... but all within boundaries. When we take the place of judging and testing God we are stepping out of proper relationship, our foolish minds are darkened, we fall into depravity.

    From a relational/organic metaphor of reality we might firstly admit that there are things simply beyond my capacity to comprehend because of my finite nature but I will trust, thank and acknowledge God and ask a relational question instead: What is God's nature? From my reading of the Bible there are two key attributes of God - mercy and faithfulness (other concepts fit around this, grace, love, truth, righteousness, but these two are a good summary). Applying these two to determinism/freewill...
    a) God loves his creation and his tender mercies are over all he has made
    b) in his faithfulness he will bring all things to wholeness - summing up of all things in Christ
    c) his mercy means he does his upmost in reconciling all to himself - even to giving his own son
    d) in his faithfulness he wil also put an end to evil - but never in a vindictive way - mostly through his own self-sacrifice
    e) he has everything completely in hand and he will do what is best by every person - he knows our situations, our struggles, our history and wishes everyone to be reconciled with himself to the uttermost - such is his mercy
    f) there must be consequence for human sin - otherwise Christ's death would be unnecessary - so sin must be real and the consequences of sin for ourselves and on other people are real - not some sort of construct or cosmic game
    g) our job is not so much to KNOW as it is to BE - to be like Christ
    h) there is such a thing as absolute truth - but only for God - we know in part and we speak in part - one day we shall know fully - but for now we walk by faith in his mercy and faithfulness

  11. Hi Clive, so glad ur on the site! You're great value. Please stay :)

    I totally agree with most of your last comment. Specifically, it is SO important to maintain the priority of relationship and trust over a abstract propositional knowledge. Especially when it comes to painful / confusing realities like sin and suffering. Your list of points is an excellent list to keep in mind when grappling with this- these things are what actually matter! If we fail at this we become like Job's friends - saying heaps of mostly correct logical stuff, but with wrong nuances, wrong motives, wrong application, and bad outcomes. And I can slip into this role all too easily. So a timely reminder thanks!

    However, Scripture says stuff for a reason! The whole point of logic is to support the relationship you discussed. Abstract knowledge and complex logic (think of Paul) is useful BECAUSE it works toward the higher aim. God's own nature includes the basis for logic - he is consistent, expressive and knowable, and purposeful. God created us to understand reality this way. Every society uses forms of logical reasoning (though not strictly cause-effect logic, which I DON'T agree is our approach at all - we are very abductive in our reasoning, and see God as sustaining everything including any cause-effect we observe, in line with his character). Even your argument to be relational is based on logic! Our highest aim is to KNOW Christ (eternal life) - this knowledge is experiential and much deeper than abstract acceptance of propositions, but it definitely includes a conscious awareness of WHAT has been experienced- and a desire to see, understand, and experience it more and more!

    The scripture never commands or advocates avoiding logical delving (the opposite in fact!). It does condemn pride, deviance from his revelation, lack of grace, and misplaced priorities. I don't think scripture OR secular science is unclear about determinism. I don't think we create unnecessary confusion. And I think it is important for the sake of relationship and grace! Satan also utilises it to his advantage, so it is important to combat bad logic (or bad assumptions, or unhelpful avoidance of beautiful logic).

    What is special about this debate that makes us want to avoid logic and be content with 'mystery'? (I'm not saying you are doing this, but I certainly have felt the urge and I know others do!) I think it is mainly a discomfort with the idea (or difficulty creating the necessary but entirely new categories in our mind). This is a terrible basis to not delve into the depths God has provided for us in scripture! We just need to ensure we maintain humility and trust, reliance on God, and a focus on the important outcome - a relationship with God.

    Practical examples of the usefulness of these discussions abound. Firstly it reveals more of what God is really like, which is cool full-stop, and definitely fans my love for him into flame. But the implications abound to change how we approach evangelism, prayer, loving your enemy, glorifying god in suffering, etc. If you know that God has a purpose, that things are not merely salvaged but designed, that you are free to express yourself but NOT to take god by surprise (or force him to salvage something) that Christ was His main aim and not a backup, that all things truly will be reconciled to Himself (that was his aim for them from the start!) - knowing more of Gods character and methods and motives should invigorate you in the right direction, and deepen your trust, humility, dependence on Him.

    One final note about Christs death. The scripture teaches that it was plan 'A' from the beginning, with purposes that extend beyond the existence of evil and sin, to demonstrate the very fullness of God. Christ's death was NOT cause-effect, but an expression of gods nature. This thus gives purpose to sin, rather than sin giving purpose to Christ's death.

  12. Hi Josh - thanks for the great and lengthy response! The discussion about logic and mystery is interesting considering Paul was a man who bridged these brilliantly - being trained in both Hebrew and Greek thinking is incredible. I think where we tend to miss God is that we focus too much on details and miss the big picture (specialisation without context) or just get lazy and neglect to study and question - and slip to the cultural status quo. This is where I think a good study of history is incredibly helpful - when we can begin to see our present culture and ways of viewing "truth" as simply one way that happens to be flavour of the century and not the only way at all.

    I am often amused at Christians who think "Eastern" religions are suspect because of their embrace of mystery and the supernatural. Christianity is an "Eastern" religion! The Christianity they think is the real deal is post-Enlightenment, post-Reformation, Western rationalist, systematic theology - probably 90% of what passes as "Christian" today would be unrecognisable to Paul! Not that Knowing is unimportant, but as you mentioned the biblical words for knowing imply a relational knowing. In Hebrew thought there was no knowing that could be divorced from relationship, as we have done in our reductionist world. Even science is coming to discover now that the idea of a detached, disinterested observer is absurd - we are all players on the stage with God, creation and one-another.

    As I said in my last post - when we step aside from a relational view of knowing we actually get shut out of true knowing (as per Romans 1) - even our most clever logic becomes dark and futile, God becomes object not subject. It's only when we humbly submit to our finiteness, and the willingness to embrace mystery and acknowledge God that we can truly think logically in my opinion. I think that most great scientists are humble people who willingly acknowledge their limitations.

    Ironically, I'm finding that the more I come to see the world by way of an organic metaphor rather than a mechanistic one, I see how everything is connected and begin to "get" much of the Bible that was mystery to me previously. I also see the limitation of words. I see words (language) as an attempt to describe reality. They are not reality but are a way to try to communicate it, just as art or music or poetry are ways to try to describe reality. But the reality behind the words is what we are really after - and this is not found logically but relationally. Jesus doesn't ask his followers to study so much as to follow - to "come and see". Jesus himself is the Word of God - we see the Father revealed in Christ. As you said eternal life is to know him. Paul talks about the goal of our instruction not so much being knowledge (which puffs us) but love from a pure heart. I think the challenge God has for us is also to be able to invite the world to "come and see" - as the Father sent me so I send you Jesus tells us. Jesus talks about the heart being where the real life is - I see this as equating to the 90% of the iceberg below the waterline. The cognitive mind is only the 10% that we are aware of - which is why the inner life is so important to God and is described like soil that must be constantly cultivated and nurtured (I am into studying soil at present - don't get me started!).

    So basically I am agreeing with you :) Good to talk...

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  14. The key I think, is getting out of a mindset of dividing the west from the east and choosing to live in one or the other (which is a western thing, to compartmentalise reality). Both has its values. You can't live life without logic and you cannot experience life to its fullest through a purely logical fashion. We need relationship, experience and emotion.

    Regarding your thoughts on Jesus asking us to follow Him instead of "studying". To me this could be potential compartmentalising where it is not necessary to. Yes, Jesus is the Word of God and that means we need to relationally follow Him in His ways, but often in order to do so, we need to logically understand His reasoning first. Many a time in scripture, God qualifies Himself to us as to why we should see Him as God. Acts also talks about the need to be diligent and study the scriptures (Acts 17:11) to determine what is true. In this particular scripture, the people were excited by the message but also studied to see if it was accurate. They put reason and relation together. From memory Jesus didn't disagree with the Pharisees for "studying" the scripture, He only stated that they arrived at wrong conclusions.

    I reckon the balance between logic and relationship lies in your last sentence with your reference to soil. Your study of soil and how it works has enhanced your experience and understanding of who you are and your relationship to God. For many, studying logical explanations of how God relates to us, such as determinism, is like you studying soil. It provides a framework for further understanding our relationship to God, SO THAT we can have a closer, less irrational relationship with Him. Usually when people study something and want to understand it, it is because they adore what they are studying and want to adore it more.

    Sitting in one camp or the other, or not appreciating the full value of each logic and relationship, has its consequences. If we were all relationship and experience focused, and no logic, we would be following whatever whim or belief we wanted a relationship with, whether it was true or not (Like the invisible pink unicorn :) ). Logic by itself may be cold and hard with a lack of emotional attachment. But put logic and relationship together and they provide an experiential truth about, and relationship with God.

    Maybe this is what an organismic way of thinking is… a complex arrangement of consistent laws capable of experiencing relationship. If the organism isn’t logical then it would fail to be an organism, it would be a random happenstance of thought.

    I know Clive you are not against logic per say, but I wonder if it is potentially damaging for people’s relationship with God, to suggest that trying to understand things logically is not the best way. For some people it may be helpful. I wouldn’t say that we need 50% logic and 50% relationship, I would like to think that we should pursue 100% logic and 100% relationship. I say “pursue” because, we were born in this world knowing nothing and we learn things as we go along, but we don’t know everything at any one time. Maybe this is the process by which God is leading us into a relationship with Him… through growing to understand Him and at the same time growing to love Him.

    Thanks Josh and Clive for your comments! And I agree with Josh... hope you stick around Clive :)

  15. I did a class with Tim Keel while I was at Laidlaw and he had the most helpful way of looking at this that I have come across. He had a grid with 4 parts - Knowing, Being, Doing and Relating. Basically it seems that human experience fits in these 4 areas, and the Bible has much to say about each. Different people tend to emphasise one or two and neglect the others, as do different cultures. Western culture has tended to overemphasise knowing and doing. I think God would challenge us to strengthen our weak areas. I'm passionate about studying (Knowing) and I'm a busy Doer, plus I love working on the inner life and worship (Being) but I have been very challenged in the Relating area - and to me that is actually the end-goal of God, but built on the foundation of the others of course.

    Would you agree?

    1. Hi again :) I think the divisions you define are helpful, and I agree with all four areas you mentioned, and that God intends each to be 100% saturated with and moved by and focused on Him. But this is the very basis for disagreeing that 'relationship' is primary.

      It gets tricky to discuss these because the words mean different things to everyone, to each Bible translation, and to the original languages. Each concept, when taken to its fullness, necessarily includes and enhances all of the others. You can't have true full relationship without full abstract and experiential understanding, and without being and doing the relationship. Therefore each word can be used (in a specific sense) to describe the whole experience. Thus I don't believe relationship is necessarily primary to the others, although relationship can be used to describe the whole. Knowing God also describes the whole and is explained as the primary 'end in itself' in the scripture. So is being Christlike, and glorifying God. I don't believe it makes biblical sense to divide the four up and say one is the main goal, supported by the others.

      This is similar to my approach to biblical error in general (as Nathan and I discussed recently). Rather than restrain something in an effort to avoid error, we should hold 100% passionately to every aspect in scripture at once - because they form a cohesive whole that CANNOT contain error in its completeness.

      Therefore I believe - along with advancing our weak areas (such as 'relationship') - we should continue to push logic. This means we will reach full relationship, knowledge, being, and activity as an integrate whole. Rather than simply being strong on a relationship devoid of full abstract understanding, or knowledge devoid of being and doing, or doing devoid of being, or being devoid of relationship.

      In addition, I believe logic is a weak area of westernism, not a strength. We've got it very wrong, and it is one of the main strengths of Satan for deception. Although we need to be careful of the pitfalls you mention, I also think this adds urgency to our efforts to provide a god-saturated counter force.

  16. Hi Josh, I agree these terms are pretty flexible depending on how we are defining them, and also agree that all four facets are essential (in fact there are scriptures that rebuke each when taken without the others - "if I have all knowledge but do not have love" for instance. The reason I say that relationship is perhaps the end-goal is scriptures like "the greatest of these is love" and "God is love" - of course this is expressed in actions and knowing and being, but if had to pick one I would say that God wants us to know, do and be that we might relate to Him, to others and to his creation in love. But of course all are essential together for that to happen.

    Logic is a useful tool but as you will be aware it is not the only way we know. I was thinking about how I have changed my own personal view of how I "know". One way of doing theology (or indeed science) when we want to understand is to go into more and more detail to try to find the answer - reductionism basically - thinking that if we understand the components we will then be able to piece this together and understand the whole. This is the opposite to what I now see as the basis for understanding in a holistic way - which is closer to the Jewish way - where when we wish to understand we instead go to the big picture of God, creation, fall, covenant, Christ and so on. This way of knowing is able to embrace mystery and our finiteness while allowing us to know and be logical, but in a relational rather than a reductionist way. The big picture makes sense of the details. This is maybe what you are saying about Western logic being weak in that it is reductionist. "Biblical Theology" as opposed to Systematic Theology takes this view of scripture (not sure if you heard the term) - it looks at the Bible as narrative and makes sense of the detail in the light of the overarching story rather than getting bogged in detail. Systematics - though very helpful - tends to be reductive. A more narrative view of scripture has helped my tremendously in my own study. Do you see what I mean?

  17. I think love can be defined 'primarily' as each of the four aspects (when each is interpreted as being full of the other aspects). I think the knowing, doing, and being are presented as being both valuable in themselves AND in order to enhance each of the others (not just the relating). I also feel like the concept of 'relating' is poorly defined in my and your heads - we have to remember that when splitting things into four aspects, the 'relating' we talk about is distinct from the whole experience with knowledge, being, and doing. My argument is not against a 'full experience' definition, which places full emphasis on all aspects and can describe the ultimate goal from each perspective.

    I have long been working on a theory of epistemology which addresses the weakness of simple reductionism. The relational nature of getting a more full view of reality (again I'm not sure we're being very clear with our definition of relationship here - but I get what you mean!) IS in fact a form of abductive logic, and other related ways of thinking. I agree this is vital, and it leads to being comfortable with what a reductionist view sees as mystery. But the relational-logical view of reality is comfortable with this BECAUSE it has 'stuff to fill the gaps', and can continue working on expanding its view of the world despite it, including getting more details about the mystery. In theology we call this reasonable faith. It does not have anything to do with avoiding or minimising the seeking of detailed truth through logic (including abductive logic).

    Again back to my ideas on avoiding error - every true idea needs to be balanced by holding fast to OTHER true ideas. Narrative theology may be very useful, but so are details and systematic theology, and semantics. They ought not be separated and pushed separately as they are all part of the same reality-knowledge-seeking endeavour. This is where much of the extreme end of the emergent church has lost its way, despite having revived a much needed true idea that the West had lost.

    Back to the main topic of the article - while I am comfortable with mystery when needed, I also enjoy knowing where possible. And I think the scriptures and logic (including narrative theology and abductive logic) support the notion of determinism, free agency, and God having 'good' purposes for being (in at least one sense) the 'author' of evil and sin. I believe that these ideas enhance our relationship with God when understood properly, and have massive implications for how we act and sustain our faith and love. I also believe that this view continues to contain mystery, and that the alternative views have much mystery which is unnecessary, and also much which is not recognised.

    But being finite we are really keen to hear alternative ideas, including your hearty defence of embracing mystery! It has reminded me of keeping my focus on the right things, for which I am grateful ;)

    1. Hi Josh,

      I'd love to hear more of your theory. I'm reading a very interesting book at present by Wendell Berry called "Life is a Miracle" where he is discussing the limitations of the reductionist/materialist viewpoint - specifically as it relates to the efforts of some scientists to bring all knowledge within that sphere. Have you read any of his work?

      My own developing theory of epistemology is about looking at the historical movement of how we have arrived at Truth through pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity lenses, and contrasting these to what I consider to be a more Biblical way of describing Truth, which I would summarise as incarnated truth (or perhaps as "relational truth"). My interest in this is I guess from a missions perspective. My passion for theology has to do with how it outworks in a context i.e. missions. I did an essay about this - the focus of which was looking at the weaknesses of the present Western church in terms of its missional impact - how it has been influenced by the epistemology of the age. See my blog post at Let me know what you think. You will see I have been influenced by a number of what you might call emergent leaders (Scot McKnight, Leonard Sweet and Tim Keel) but also have drawn extensively from missiologists like Alan Roxburgh, Robert Webber and Leslie Newbiggin. I have enjoyed the emergent conversation very much but like most newer movements it has lots of extremes, but it has been helpful to me to see that there even are different ways of knowing.

      The limitations of language (and time!) make it had to explain all that we want to, for example in defining "relating". I guess what I mean by that is in seeing afresh the importance of the Body of Christ - that we all need one-another and we are not really autonomous. God is relational in Trinity and wishes to draw us into relationship with himself and with each other - over against a mechanistic world-view which sees people more as components in a machine. I fear that the Western Church has adopted this perspective many times - applying metrics of numbers and money and results rather than the immeasurable value of life made in the image of God and how we are held together, as Paul says, by the love that every joint supplies. There is no mass-production possible in the Kingdom of God, but kind nurturing that is only possible through small-scale, enduring relationships.

      Thanks for your response - I find the conversation very interesting and great to find other people who are passionate about this stuff!

    2. Hi Clive,

      I’ll get round to my post on epistemology eventually ;) Am really keen to hear your input then. No I have not read any of Wendell Berry’s work - I might look him up some time.

      I agree that materialism can’t account for all knowledge - both in a ‘adequately justified true belief’ sense, but especially in a Jewish ‘understanding by intimate acquaintance’ sense. However, regardless of the kind of knowledge you are pursuing, ‘reductionism’ (stripped of all unnecessary associations, such as materialism itself, or even a ‘western’/‘post-modern’ idea of truth) is a legitimate and essential tool - and has been throughout history.

      Regarding your article - I really like it! But I picked up a lot of dichotomies and conflicts that you perceive, which are common in our culture, but which I don’t believe need to exist. The most important was the idea that ‘Truth resides in relationships, not in principles and propositions’. I understand and embrace the sentiment, but not the conclusion.

      There is a clear distinction between truth (reality), our perception of it (belief, understanding, knowledge, intimacy), our means to informing our perception (pure sensation, receiving propositions, reason, active relationship), and our expression of it (active relationship, giving propositions). Jesus IS reality, not our perception of it or our means of obtaining it or our expression of it. He is NOT relationship nor propositions. Even our perception of reality (knowledge-intimacy) is separate from relationship and propositions! However, relationship AND propositions are required - both to inform our ‘knowledge’, and empower our expression of it.

    3. Hi Josh,
      Yes I think I see where you are coming from... you are challenging perhaps the idea that truth ONLY exists in relationships. This isn't what I was trying to express and I don't think the writer I was quoting was trying to say this was the exclusive domain of truth either. However I think it is a lot closer to the Biblical way that truth is expressed rather than our propositional forms. I see truth/reality as something too big to be contained in words, or any other container for that matter. Words and mathematics and even poetry and art are all attempts to describe reality, and all have their own place (that's why the Bible uses poetry, metaphor, narrative, epistle and apocalyptic forms so much - because they are much better ways of expressing truth than propositional forms). Things can be said through art that cannot be expressed in words. We even see this in different languages - there is just no way to adequately translate some concepts because language is more than language - it embodies culture with it' shared memories and experiences.

      It seems the only container God was able to use (after communicating in part through angels, prophets, law, sacrifice and so on) was through a person - Christ. And Jesus communicated the Father to us through deeds, stories, questions and his sacrifice. So it follows that the only way that the world is going to come to know the Father is through Christ incarnated through his Body in the power of the Spirit. Jesus did this relationally so it seems that would be the blueprint for us as his Body.

      So although I agree that our perception of truth in Christ may be inaccurate and our character, deed and actions may fall far short of portraying the Father, this is nevertheless the way that God has chosen to communicate truth to a world stumbling and groping in darkness, grasping onto faint perceptions of reality and making their patchwork attempts at truth. Greeks ask for wisdom and Jews for signs but in weakness and fear and foolishness yet with power and love we proclaim Christ (to paraphrase Paul).

      I do agree that reductionism has its place - in fact in order to make any sense at all of the world we do need to create sets and classes and types. It's just that this has been elevated by much of modernity to the primary way of knowing/discovering which I think is foolishness - when we see the world as something that can be reduced to its smallest components and everything can be explained by physics and mathematics eventually we get what we have now got, a materialistic, dehumanised, determinist world where faith, love and hope are meaningless concepts.

      Even an over-emphasis on the Bible as propositional Truth can I think, through an Enlightenment/Reformation lens become a source of error. This is why I enjoy narrative/biblical theology - it doesn't over-analyse and try to reduce. It leaves space for the unknown but instead looks at the bigger picture of what God has done/is doing/will do in Christ in terms of the summing up of all things in Christ in heaven and on earth. We will always see through a mirror dimly in this present age, details will remain elusive, but even in the dim mirror we can see the big shapes and plans of God and walk in them trusting the Spirit to fill in our gaps. Not an excuse for sloppiness but for me a slightly more relaxed attitude and a more simple walk with God.

  18. We hear you Clive, the big picture is very useful and is able to be accepted by many. But I would say that it still is subject to failing when explaining details, unlike what you said here "The big picture makes sense of the details", this is where systematic theology is useful for pulling together the loose ends. The reason people look into details is to piece together the big picture where it contradicts itself (for example, Man's "freewill" vs God's "freewill" - predestining), so for some people the big picture doesn't hold water.

    I like how you mentioned Paul stating that love is the greatest. It is interesting that Paul used love as a qualifier or enhancer of knowledge and gifts. For example, knowledge and gifts without love are not useful, nor is knowledge and gifts together without love. But put love with either or both of these together then they really become something. But the question is, can we have love without knowledge, or without gifts? I wonder that love is greater than the other two, not because it should be emphasized more, but simply because the others are useless without love. You often get people who focus so much on love that it appears to be their god, because they lack knowledge of sin and judgement. We often even need knowledge to understand what real love really is!

    And I am not saying that we shouldn't believe until we have all the details, but I am claiming that we should not be afraid of using our heads to further understand the revelation brought to us from God. In our search for and understanding Him, it is then that we draw nearer to Christ because we are entering a relationship with Him, learning more about Him and aligning ourselves with His character.

  19. It seems that we agree on a lot so I will go back to where we originally disagreed.

    Here is a quote from you further up where I think is where we disagree...

    "I think one way out of the determinism/free-will debate is to step back from a cause and effect view (broadly speaking a mechanistic/ Enlightenment perspective) to a more organic/relational view (which is really how the Biblical writers and the culture they were writing to... although the roots of reductionism were certainly there in Greek culture). In other words, does the universe really operate in terms of input/output, cause and effect?"

    The Bible talks about concepts of determinism and "freewill/free agency" so I believe (if it intrigues us) we should try to understand it, rather than blur it and say it is best not to. I was just talking to my wife about the comments on this thread. We considered that since we are the bride of Christ, we need to have that relationship with Him as Clive was emphasizing. It wouldn't be relationship to wake up in the morning and instead of relating with our spouse, we head straight off to debate club and start defending our spouse's cause. We need to spend time with God, not just in study about Him. Though study is so important, because if we spent loads of time talking to our partner without really listening to who they really are and learning about them then we wouldn't really KNOW them to relate to them. We would be constructing a one sided image of them. Spending time with our spouses means listening to (study and listening to the still small voice), and talking with (prayer), which results in relating with God.

    The exciting thing is that God could have made us already full with the knowledge of Him, but He didn't. He made us knowing NOTHING at birth. He raises us so that we may know and talk with Him. Through getting to know and talking with Him, we develop a historical relationship with Him full of memory and development, which is invaluable.

    If we see an issue or struggle within the understanding of our spouse, then wouldn't we want to try understand what makes them tick? Or should we just blur the lines and accept that we don't/won't understand them?
    In saying that, it would be sad to develop systematic understanding of our spouse that we make them fit into. We need to be humble about our understandings of our spouse and have an "organic" understanding of them.

  20. Hi Daniel,

    Sorry for the delay in getting back - just doing Christmas stuff :).

    Thanks for bringing us back on topic and to my initial comment about whether the freewill/determinism debate is perhaps asking the wrong questions. I'll try to clarify... We have (in our reductionist thinking) reduced the gospel down to it's lowest common denominators in an attempt to make it logical and clear. In extreme this is like the 4 spiritual laws, the Roman Road or other gospel presentations I have been taught over the years. The reduced versions of the gospel rely on either convincing people that they are sinners and need what Christ has done or that they are missing out on a great life that only Christ can provide or a combination of the above. Out of this comes some fairly obvious questions that most thinking people ask - if God is all powerful and created everything why does he hold me responsible for what I've done? Surely he knew what I would be /predestined me to be exactly what/who I am? So we ask the freewill/determinism questions and get into the Calvinism/Arminianism debates with all their degrees of subtlety.

    But what if we back up and re-look at the gospel we are presenting? If you have read any of NT Wright you will know his argument that the gospel isn't a set of principles to steps to follow to have a new spiritual experience, but a "royal announcement" that there is a new King which has resonance both within Jewish prophetic literature (especially Isaiah) and the contemporary Roman world where Caesar claimed to be "son of God", "saviour of the world" etc and the announcement of a new Caesar was proclaimed as "good news" (euangelion). Gospel is therefore the announcement of the ascension of new King, who is Israel's expected messiah, hope of all nations, attested to by his life death and resurrection and witnessed to by followers who are beginning to display his character and works. This way of looking at gospel doesn't deny the other, but is a much larger cosmic story that involves the putting right of injustice, the obedience of the faith and the reconciliation of the world through this King. To me the question of determinism/freewill takes a much lower priority in this case. Other questions become more significant. It also takes it out of the realm of debate - challenging God as to we has made things like this - into the realm of wonder... why would God come to earth and suffer like that? There must be something dreadfully wrong. It's an event that asks questions of the hearer rather than a proposition that invites argument and defensiveness. Do you agree? Do you think this view of the gospel might change the question to be more background than foreground?

    I'll come back on this as I'd like to talk about the cause and effect assumption as that's a massive area that would be fun to explore.

  21. Hi Clive. I hope you have had a fantastic Christmas holiday so far; I'm surprised you came back to continue discussing these topics during such a busy time!

    So the question is, do I think "this view of the gospel might change the question to be more background than foreground?"

    I agree that focusing on the big picture of the gospel without asking the detailed questions, does have its merit at times. But it all depends on who we are representing Christ to. I don't think it would be valuable going into questions around determinism with every person we meet, simply because it probably wouldn't be in their best interest to. Yet, Paul said that we need to become a Jew to a Jew and a Greek to a Greek. This makes it my responsibility to address questions asked by all cultures, those questions will vary, and therefore my answers.

    I find it sad when people from a western culture are asking their cultural questions about God, the Bible and the Gospel only to have "big picture" answers that don't really answer their questions. As I said earlier, the Bible doesn't just speak about eastern organic issues, but it also ventures into western issues of reductionism.

    I sometimes wonder whether, in an effort to get away from an emphasis on western thinking, we jump so far the other way that we try to place eastern thinking on westerners, which isn't always helpful. If we bring the gospel to a culture, we need to bring it into a context they will understand or comprehend.

    An example of this was one preacher I really appreciated listening to growing up, and this was David Pawson. Even though I don't agree with everything he preaches, I appreciated him because he would ask and try to answer the questions that I was asking. I want to be able to do the same in my life, and on blogs like this. If I can help someone to answer the questions that I too have been asking, then I am meeting someone in their context. I am not saying that we should always think in a western way when in a western culture, I am saying that we need to be relevant to the needs of each culture. Sometimes those needs will be questions they want answers to, and sometimes those needs are for an introduction of foreign questions and answers that may be helpful for them and their relationship with God.

    You are right in that the big picture is valuable and important, in fact I would say that the big picture is where reductionism should lead to. If we stayed at a reduced level we miss the value and intention of the complex systems... or nature. But my point is, for some people in order to understand the big picture, a reductionist understanding is helpful.

    Yes, discussing cause and effect is a fun exercise and a rather controversial one. But I would be so bold as to say that it is more than an assumption, it is a truism. That doesn't mean I would not be happy to discuss it :)


  22. Hi Daniel,

    Had a great Christmas thanks. Nothing I like better than thinking theology though :).

    I just want to challenge a statement above: I don't actually see how reductionism can lead to the big picture, to me it is more likely to read to wrong conclusions. Good exegesis, as I understand it, starts with the big picture - say of we are studying an OT prophet. We read the whole thing first and try to get the overall thrust of what the writer is getting it before we get into the details, we look at the historical context...what was going on, who were the writer's contemporaries, what was their intention in writing and so on. Then we start to go into a little more detail about the some of the themes of the book, and look at how those themes are treated elsewhere in the scriptures, how this book fits into the sweep of God's purposes. Then we start looking at the details of what is being said, asking questions of the text, especially things that challenge our current assumptions, perhaps focussing on key words and their meanings, other translations perhaps. Then from that perhaps read some commentaries to compare our findings and thoughts to what other writers have said, how the text has been viewed in different historical and cultural settings. Always we need to keep in mind the purpose and big themes so we don't get bogged and sidetracked in the details. Finally we start looking at some applications for our lives and for today. (For an example of what I think is reasonable (but brief) exegesis see my article of Malachi - when we reduce Malachi to a text for "tithing" we actually miss the whole point and end up with false doctrine :)

    A couple of thoughts about the emphasis on Western or Eastern thinking: Firstly, our pluralistic culture is beginning to see other perspectives. Being a "spiritual" person is now cool and even necessary as the Western world is recognising the shallowness of materialism. Even University Psychology now teaches that people with a spiritual dimension do much better than those who don't. So post-modernity is upon us, and the church is called to respond - theology in context. Missiologists pretty much agree that the old styles of propositional evangelism that worked in modernity only probably work (and then hardly at all) with those who have been raised in Christian homes. Unfortunately the church many times has responded with a needs-based, entertainment/consumer culture - industrial-grade Christianity (see the article on my blog that I wrote about "What is truth?")

    Secondly, I believe that it has been the reading of the Bible through propositional/reductive/mechanistic filter that has given us so much trouble in the Western world. As I said above in my reply to Josh, the Bible isn't written in poetry, prose, epistle, song, narrative and apocalyptic styles because they were too primitive to write it as systematic theology, but because these forms are far superior ways of conveying truth. And ultimately the best way of conveying truth was and is incarnation. We have made a crazy distinction between faith and works for example in our reductive culture. Belief that isn't incarnated into what we do is obviously not real belief. We have been able to divorce the head from the heart and live lives inconsistent with what we say we believe and not even be aware of it.

    Thirdly, to understand the cultural issues we face in NZ, particularly around social justice and the Treaty of Waitangi, we need to understand different worldviews, those of small-scale oral societies (Maori and Pacific Island) which are actually a lot closer to Jewish thinking than they are to Western thinking. So we can learn how to better read our Bibles by seeing how other people think.

    Lots of controversial points raised again no doubt. I do appreciate the conversation and hope that I am able to contribute something of value. We will come back to cause and effect...

  23. Hey Clive,

    I think we actually agree with each other, but we must have different focuses at this point in time lol. I really like your method of studying scripture and I agree with it, as long as we are able to put the time into it anyway :)

    But what I don't get is why you have a problem with reductionism, or at least the type of reductionism I am talking about. What you said here We read the whole thing first and try to get the overall thrust of what the writer is getting at* before we get into the details
    Isn't this a prime example of reductionism? Look at the big picture, glean useful information from it, then reduce it down further to glean more understanding about it (especially where there is contradiction etc), and so on and so forth until we reach clearer understandings about scripture as a whole.

    You are right about the east entering the west in certain ways. Post modernism is well and truly here. As you know I am studying social services at the moment and a big part of their teaching, is to place an importance on the holistic nature of people, even the Psychological aspects. Though the ideas about what "spirit" means, varies hugely!

    Reducing should help, NOT hinder the big picture.

    I love what you wrote here
    As I said above in my reply to Josh, the Bible isn't written in poetry, prose, epistle, song, narrative and apocalyptic styles because they were too primitive to write it as systematic theology, but because these forms are far superior ways of conveying truth..

    I think that it would have been less valuable to people in life for God to have written a text book about everything i.e. chapter 1. God the Father. Chapter 2. God the Son etc. There is something special about learning through stories and relational language about how to live life. Also there probably isn't two events completely the same in which God wants us to act a certain way. But at the same I still believe a systematic theology is valuable as long as it doesn't lose the big picture. The Bible in its own way has a systematic theology type about it. It starts with creation (the bottom/beginning) and works its way up to the end or beginning of the next age... depending on your theology :) And throughout the scriptures there are arguments and systematic reasoning's to justify different doctrines and ways of life.

  24. Ah, I think I see a source of confusion here.

    I personally don’t like the concept of ‘propositions’ - it implies a discrete set of detailed information, which I think is an unhelpful Western Philosophical construct, which doesn’t actually exist anywhere.

    ‘Propositions’ are an attempt to convey specific detailed information about our perception of reality-truth (our belief-knowledge-intimacy system). Due to the nature of perception, expression, and language, we can never have an infallible ‘proposition’. ALL language (even non-verbal language) embodies a huge set of assumptions (e.g. shared culture, as you mention). In other words, ‘propositions’ only infallibly convey the details of our belief-knowledge-intimacy system, IF they are interpreted in the context of the complete assumed belief-knowledge-intimacy system (which undoubtedly is MOSTLY similar to the one which gives rise to the ‘propositions’). We can do our best by attempting to understand/empathise/assimilate the authors complete belief-knowledge-intimacy system.

    Since my idea of ‘knowledge’ embodies relational/emotional/spiritual concepts, I have no basis to limit ‘propositions’ from also attempting to embody these things. In fact, with a more system-based view of ‘knowledge’, it becomes very hard to define what a ‘proposition’ is at all. Attempts to give a stirctly ‘verbal factual’ proposition inevitably carry so much non-verbal, non-factual (or meta-factual), assumed, ‘knowledge-system’ based baggage - they start losing their identify anyway. The lines between them and ANY intentional conveying of specific details about a belief-knowledge-intimacy system (including art and relationships), becomes blurred and seemingly arbitrary. It becomes difficult to divide a message into discrete ‘propositions’, because it is so closely related to a complex system behind it.

    I really don’t like the concept of propositions! I guess you could say this is a form of anti-reductionism, but it is only anti-MODERN-WESTERN-reductionism. This form of reductionism doesn’t delve into (or even accept) the underlying belief-knowledge-intimacy system of materialism. Everything is subconsciously communicated and interpreted in this context, and so the idea of propositions makes sense (only facts exist in any meaningful sense), and the details of life can more easily be separated from the big picture - hence most people are not aware of their own worldview/knowledge system.

    The reason I defend reductionism, is because I believe the details about our belief-knowledge-intimacy systems are incredibly important and beautiful when interpreted appropriately in context. And because I believe that factual information and logical arguments are incredibly important and beautiful (though not in isolation). When I say that it is difficult/impossible to separate details (factual, emotional, spiritual, relational) from the underlying system, I am NOT saying that the details do not exist, or that we can’t conceptualise them, or talk about them, or find them useful. Its simply that they need to be conceptualised, discussed, and used IN THE CONTEXT of an underlying system. Reductionism attempts to interpret exactly what the details (including relational, spiritual, emotional details) being conveyed are, what the required belief-knowledge-intimacy system is for interpretation, and what ISN’T being conveyed. The aim is to really understand (in a factual +/- relational way) the details the ‘author’ wanted to convey.

    1. I see the whole Bible as a set of intentional specific details (some would say ‘propositions’), which are intended to be interpreted as a whole system. There is NOTHING in the Bible where they don’t care what is conveyed - if the message is ever something like ‘the details about this don’t matter’, or ‘relationship is most important here’ or ‘keep the big picture about this in mind’ - EVEN THAT is a specific and intentional message about the details of truth/reality. MOST of the Bible is actually a set of factual propositions (as most people seem to understand them), including poetry and history. But a huge amount is not at all ‘factual’ in its primary intention, and the rest is also intended to be more than factual. But nevertheless, they are all ‘propositions’, and reductionism (as I defend it) can act upon them usefully.

      Now obviously the conveying of factual information can occur without the conveying of other intended forms of ‘knowledge’, usually because the required belief-knowledge-intimacy system is not there, or because the facts were intended to make sense of an experience. I don’t want to minimise relationship/etc when used properly, merely when used at the expense of useful reductionism.

  25. I'll try to answer you both (in part at least) as to what I see as the negatives of Reductionism. What's I'm not saying is that we shouldn't analyse and categorise to gain understanding. I'm doing this by looking at the word "Reductionism" to try to understand it for instance. What I'm saying is that the reductionism as a philosophy is wildly opposed to a biblical worldview, in it's origin and much of it's current application in science, social sciences, economics and most likely theology.

    Wikipedia says: "Reductionism is a philosophical position which holds that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents.This can be said of objects, phenomena, explanation, theories, and meanings." This theory came out of Enlightenment and scientific revolution supported by the teachings of Descartes (who assumed that all non-human creation were essentially machines and could be explained as such) and Newton. The reduction of the world to its constituent parts was supposedly going to lead to a utopian society where everything could eventually be understood in terms of mathematics and physics. At the start there was still a place for God and human freewill, but this very thinking lead to the separation of the "spiritual" from the "scientific", "belief" (in a romantic sense) could be tolerated but "truth" was the domain of scientific Reductionism.

    Wikipedia: "Philosophers of the Enlightenment worked to insulate human free will from reductionism. Descartes separated the material world of mechanical necessity from the world of mental free will. German philosophers introduced the concept of the "noumenal" realm that is not governed by the deterministic laws of "phenomenal" nature, where every event is completely determined by chains of causality. ...To insulate theology from reductionism, 19th century post-Enlightenment German theologians moved in a new direction, led by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl. They took the Romantic approach of rooting religion in the inner world of the human spirit, so that it is a person's feeling or sensibility about spiritual matters that comprises religion."

    Of course now scientists such as Richard Dawkins are not so polite as to try to include God anymore and attack anything that falls outside of their Reductionist view of truth as absurd and evil.

    My other criticism of Reductionism is the fruit of treating the world as if it is a machine. I believe that the Bible teaches that life is more than the sum of parts, humans are more than chemicals and electrical impulses. The fruit of Scientific Reductionism has (supported by other related philosophies of course), has been gross exploitation of people and creation in the name of Industrialisation and Colonialisation that view people and creation as merely resources. It justifies unbridled individualism and greed because it firstly moved faith into a private internal world that wasn't qualified to challenge the ruling economic and power structures - so even people of faith can be one thing in Church and something else in their work. Then, carried to it's logical extreme (when Western culture - including the church has been conditioned to think entirely on it's terms) it denies the entire validity of any other way of perceiving truth, and Christians are left culturally apologetic (not in a good way!) and backed into a corner intellectually.

    Sorry for the long post again - we should probably put a word limit on responses :) But I hope I've started to explain what I see as the dangers of Reductionism as a philosophy. Anyone interested in further reading I would suggest Lesslie Newbiggin, Wendell Berry, NT Wright, Paul Hiebert for starters.

    1. Right, that does clarify things a little :)

      Reductionism can also refer to a method rather than a position. Since neither of us holds anything close to a Reductionist position, I assumed this is what you were referring to.

      I'm surprised you thought either of us were Reductionist (in the sense of a philosophical position). Unless, of course, you are referring to ANY position that holds that some aspects of some ‘systems’ can be theoretically be explained - in terms of description, purpose, and/or causes/influences.

      If this is the case, every single position is ‘reductionist’. Even those that claim that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, have explanations of how it is greater, and are in fact describing an ‘additional part’ to the ‘whole’. Those who deny even a theoretically possible explanation in terms of cause/influence, are accepting that things can happen which befuddle even God Himself, AND the instigator (if they originate in the will of another).

      I believe that an analysis of the components will never give understanding of the whole (even in a materialistic modern Western ‘justified true belief’ form of knowledge). This makes me a far cry from ‘Reductionism’ as a philosophical position.

      However I believe that Scripture supports the notion that EVERY aspect of the whole (including those aspects that are only obvious when examining all the parts in interaction as a whole) can be theoretically explained (e.g. by God Himself) in terms of description, purpose, and cause/influence. We can conceptualise the interactions between components adding ‘extra components’ to the system, which then have their own ripple effects. Only by knowing the system as a whole AND in its components, along with its interactions, will we have complete understanding. This also applies in a powerful way to relational/intimacy and spiritual knowledge.

  26. Yeah that is helping a little Clive. Like Josh said above, I don't think that determinism, and cause and affect necessarily lead to the conclusion that the meaning is simply the events of the smallest parts. What this original post was intending, was to reduce down to smaller parts in order to build a greater meaning as a whole; not to reduce the meaning of the whole down to small events of causation. The latter seems to me to be the philosophical position of reductionism which I hope I don't hold to. But even if the conclusion of philosophical reductionism is simply meaning within each individual part, I don't have a problem with its method. Nor do I say that it is the only method to finding truth, it is merely a useful and consistent way to establish truth.

    We need to be careful of "appeals to consequence". If reductionist methods potentially lead to bad theology (such as devaluing our human-like spiritual nature), it does not necessarily mean that it leads there.

    I intend to read N.T. Wright sometime, as Nathan recommended him also :)

  27. I'm not making these points because I assume you guys are rabid materialists or reductionists, just to add another perspective to the discussion which I find is stimulating as we learn from each others insights:)

    Just to answer a couple of issues raised above:
    a) It's hard to separate the philosophy, common accepted practice and consequences or fruit. I find that as I study the negative fruit in our lives and in the world it all goes back to belief systems - usually received at a subconscious level (you have probably struck this in CBT or REBT Daniel) that outwork in practices. And theologically these belief systems usually relate all the way back to the garden, Israel in the wilderness and Jesus' temptations.
    b) The assumption that we can arrive at truth without a humble heart, simply by using the skills of deduction, reduction and scientific rationalism is straight from the serpent... we are testing/tempting the Lord when we assume the place of judging him from our reason and intellect. God is allowed to test us but when we assume that role with him we are in serious trouble. I'm not implying that this is what either of you are doing of course - just making a point :)
    c) This is the reason I think post-modernity/deconstructionism is onto something - it is taking a position of humility sadly lacking in scientific rationalism. As I said earlier there is such a thing as absolute truth, but only for God. When we assume absolute certainty (except perhaps our faith in the person of Christ) I think we are overstepping our human bounds. briefly back to cause and effect - I noticed that the wikipedia article on Reductionism linked it into an assumption of causality. This is because of the mechanistic worldview that Reductionism assumes. Where I'm going to with this is that I think the whole work of Christ blows causality out of the water. The act of forgiveness disrupts causality (I know you can argue using substitutionary atonement at a deeper level of causality). Jesus forgives his executioners, Stephen does the same. The act of forgiveness destroys ground from underneath the principalities and powers. The whole world system is based on "you owe me"... respect, money, honour, allegiance etc. The Lord's prayer - to me the central text of the Christian life - encourages us into this life of breaking the chain of causality... forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. The simple act of walking in grace - giving what is not deserved, receiving what isn't deserved (and not receiving what is deserved) is to me the best picture of the Kingdom of God.

    Sorry for the rushed reply (again) - I'm sure I could make much more sense if I had time to edit a bit :)

    1. Maybe I'm being a little defensive. I thought you were saying the free-will discussion wasn't fruitful, simply because it sprung from a 'Reductionist' position, which seems both an unfair and narrow premise and conclusion. As straightforward balancing perspectives, however, I completely appreciate and agree with your points :)

      I guess I’m also keen to offer my own balancing perspective. I disagree with the general sentiment of an increasingly popular ‘extreme emergent’ mindset, which seems to value undermining any solid basis, methods, aims, or conclusions in the legitimate search for Christian ‘knowledge’ - without then providing its own solidity (I use this word in an emotional rather than philosophical sense).

      I would argue, for example, that God doesn't merely ‘blow causality out of the water’ with forgiveness. Rather he adds a meta-causality system (which can only be appreciated through faith and spiritual-intimacy knowledge of Himself), and overrides materialistic causality in mind-blowing radical ways. The Scriptures are full of arguments for WHY we forgive (Eg because it is an extension of Gods character, because our reward will be great, because vengeance is Gods, because He WILL BE righteous in substitutionary atonement, or because true justice is not primarily about merited reward/punishment, etc). In other words, there are logical ‘reductionist’ reasonings offered - only acceptable in conjunction with relationship - to strengthen our ability to forgive, and to trust God to be faithful to Himself in the midst of forgiveness.

      It's about broadening and deepening and changing our system of 'knowledge' (incorporating reductionist methods) with God saturating everything, rather than merely ‘blowing causality out of the water’! I know this is not what you are saying, but many who use your arguments do more than exaggerate them to these conclusions, but seems to have the ‘undermining of solidity’ as their primary love and motivation, rather than Christ Himself!

      True Christian ‘knowledge’ is thus being attacked from two fronts - very faulty modern Western materialistic ‘reductionism’ (which needs redeeming), and post-modernism in the secular and emergent Christian sphere. Both require a hearty defence of God-saturated, robust, holistic ‘knowledge’ (embracing reductionistic methods and relationship).

      Back to the free-will debate - if this is done from a merely Reductionist position, it results in cold-hearted, relationship-less, intellectually arrogant ‘Christian’ theology (often Calvinistic, but also Arminian and Universalistic). OR it confuses the guts out of people and makes them question God. But if done in true relationship, with the big picture in mind, and good Scriptural God-saturated logic - it enhances our view of God’s sovereignty and power and wisdom and love, deepens our trust and admiration and love, and empowers our evangelism and prayer and steadfastness in suffering.

  28. I am not sure that I consider modernistic thinking as arrogance. Often it is a humble attempt to understand the world around. Since coming to a more deterministic understanding, I have found the opposite to be true in fact. I am more humbled by the idea that my life has been allowed/intended/designed by God and not by me. Any "good" ideas are there because God ordained them and not because I ingeniously thought them up. When I see someone else in a bad circumstance I don't think so much... "stupid people", but more like I wonder what good outcome God can work from this situation, and how can I help?
    Have you ever read C.S. Lews' "Miracles"? I am currently reading it and finding it quite interesting. In it he claims that it is a privilege of humanity to be a step back from mere responses to stimuli, and are able to "see" the whole picture (dimly, but temporarily) because we are made in the image of God. So reason is a God given privilege that other beings of nature do not enjoy.

    I agree that we can not currently understand everything about God or His ways... He is far above us. But I am not sure that He never wants us to question aspects about Him. As I said earlier, there are places in scripture where God does acts to demonstrate His glory or power. There are appeals to the wonders of God in scripture, which implies that there is a need for God to qualify Himself to us. This is where a method of reductionism helps us, it helps us to comprehend details at a larger scale by piecing together the evidence. I know I am using extremes which none of us believe, but I reckon that God would be rather disappointed, if we didn't use our heads and merely followed what "felt" right in whatever we relationships we may develop.

    Regarding forgiveness and causality, it is not that clear to see how forgiveness defeats causality. I suppose for some Christian reductionists it would be a "proposition" that all sin has to be paid for. For some people it may be, but I would suggest that it is possible for a methodical "reductionist" to believe that generally sin has to be paid for, but in some particular circumstances it may not be God's best intention, and may choose mercy and forgiveness.

    It sounds like we really agree on a lot of points, Clive; but merely disagree on what should be emphasized. Just as Josh and Nathan would say, which ideas have the greatest potential for error?

    1. Hi Daniel, Just to quickly go through your comments; modernity as a worldview that as I understand it (given that there are masses of manifestations and definitions) flows out of the Enlightenment, which in turn had it's roots in Greek philosophy which assumes at best a distant deist god and at worst (flowing through to more current manifestations such as the new atheism) of no need for God or gods. As I've mentioned earlier I think Romans 1 nails this - failing to acknowledge God they became futile in their speculations. To me this can only be described as arrogance with its consequences. Of course scientific enquiry has its place, but I still certainly stand by my statement that when it is claimed that everything is discoverable and knowable by scientific method we are actually in great danger as a society (and there are many writers, not just Christian, who would agree with this. This concern has triggered a search back to ask "what then is the basis for knowing if the scientific knowledge isn't it?" To me this a good question that opens conversations around the way Jesus perceived and communicated truth... a post-modern world is to me much more open to the gospel than the mind contained within modernity.

      We haven't really talked about God's sovereignty in any depth, and you might be assuming that I am opposing it, but on the contrary I too am very glad to know that I am totally held in his sovereign will, yet somehow also given the power to submit to that will or not... my comments made further up I think from Cornelius Plantinga about how we are all given "our own little kingdom" that we chose to submit to God or not, but subject to limitations imposed on us in our humanness by God. But certainly God has allowed us to understand much of the world and there should be no sense of belittling of in-depth enquiry of education as some Christians may seem to advocate. On the contrary the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. I would argue that good science starts with a knowledge of its limitations and, as aI have said, a humble heart. I am not challenging reductionism that is a necessary part of this, just the reductionism that blinds us to the big picture and to the consequences of our discoveries (as I mentioned, Wendell Berry "Life is a Miracle" is excellent on this).

      Regarding causality, forgiveness doesn't defeat causality at God's level - obviously we can forgive because Christ as forgiven us - but Jesus defeats our perception of causation, and the whole world system of our understanding of cause and effect. Newbigin I think calls it "the Myth of justified violence" hereby we must respond to wrong with anger, sin with punishment, debt to payment etc. Jesus in his ministry often surprised by breaking their perception of causality ("who sinned, this man of his parents? Neither...", "Shall we call down fire on them? You don't know what spirit you are..."). The great heroes of faith and history all break the patterns of causality and choose forgiveness rather than retribution... Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu, Ghandi, To Kooti - all influenced directly by the teachings and example of Christ.

      So you are right, I'm not really disagreeing with you, just throwing in some different perspectives and insights from my studies you may wish to consider :) I don't think its a question of what has potential for error, its a question of rightly dividing the word of God and understanding our cultural context. We also need each other as I believe Biblical Truth isn't the possession of individuals but resides in the Christian community as we fellowship and study together. As I think I mentioned before my interest is in applied theology i.e. mission. Most of what I have been talking about is about understanding our cultural context.

  29. The more I think about it, the more I realise that the post-modern position is an inevitable and useful (though extreme) reactive stance against the modernistic position (with all its obvious flaws). This happens throughout history as the prevailing ideology becomes more and more extreme and intolerant, leading to various societal problems. Because any philosophical position / worldview is an entangled collection of obvious/subtle and conscious/subconscious beliefs/methods, it can be difficult to decide which (if any) of them are 'wrong', or are responsible for the negative impacts on society. Universalists often say that it was a faulty doctrine of hell that led to the Crusades.

    The point is, you can't separate beliefs / methods out like that - all you can do is point to knowledge/beliefs and connections that have a large or immediate impact WHEN part of that particular worldview. (Incidentally, I think beliefs about church/state separation, gnosticism vs grace, materialism, church unity, and general greed and power were behind the crusades MUCH more than a faulty doctrine of Hell). So although I react against a modernistic position (and completely empathise with post-modernism), I am more than happy to adopt many components of the modernistic system into my own, including reductionistic techniques and systematic theology. Likewise, although I adopt many post-modernistic components and methods into my system, I reject the popular stance as a whole (both secular and emergent Christian).

    Clive, I'll use a lot of our discussion here to inform my (eventual) post on epistemology. There are a lot of really good points you draw out, which I'd like to emphasise myself. And a lot of what I believe needs to be stated more clearly and carefully.

    I like this post (, although I think he also make a false distinction between 'relationship' and theology. But he states that people can use systematic theology without even knowing it, or focussing on it, or finding it beautiful - even though it is foundational and useful (much like math or a person's skeleton). I believe we will all grow toward finding delight and beauty in every aspect of God (including logical understandings), ultimately onward to eternity with Him. We enjoy these discussion here both for their own beauty AND for how they strengthen other aspects of our 'knowledge' or experience of God. But others have different strengths and gifts and journeys with God - many (currently) ONLY find logic good because it supports other aspects of 'relationship', which they find much more beautiful. Its good to remember that when talking with them :)

    1. Hi Josh,

      So true - that philosophical/worldview positions are often a reaction to the previous extreme. The mistake I think I have been trying to emphasise is that Western modernity has an inbuilt assumption that it is superior to all that has gone before and it is the final word about how the world works and how to view that. Post-modernity is I think an inevitable reaction to that. The classic definition of post-modernity revolves around the rejection of all meta-narratives (modernity having rejected the previous traditional/faith-based narrative whereby power and truth resides in the authority of the church and state - replacing this with power and truth residing in knowledge - specifically "scientific" knowledge - relying on it's own meta-narrative of meaning). The post-modern discarding of meaning and knowledge and truth-claims as inherently abusive is I think understandable but has lead to nihilism and despair. I think where we can learn from it is in it's re-embrace of doubt and deconstruction of certainty. This allows for a re-look a the more mystical/experiential forms of Christianity. I have found that this actually helps me to understand the Bible better - without having to intellectually evaluate it so much as experience it. Of course the Bible is a meta-narrative - and this I think is where it has a challenge and answer to post-modernity in that it gives meaning and hope, but not in the way of power but of a story of grace in which we are invited to participate.

      The result is - in my opinion - a more robust faith; not resting on doctrinal certainty but on something deeper. I compare this to a building that stands up in an earthquake - it has flexibility but it's foundations are deep, versus a rigid structure that easily crumbles in times of shaking.

      Like the evaluation of any culture, there are things in pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity that reflect the nature of God and things that oppose it. I agree that as good theologians we are called to evaluate all in the light of the gospel.

  30. Hey Clive, it is great to discuss these topics with you! It has been really helpful, and reminds me not to get too carried away with needing to "know" everything.
    Sad that it has ended up as two on one more or less, but what you have contributed has been very useful; and I likewise hope these discussions have been for all of us :)

  31. Thanks Daniel. I've learned a lot from the discussion. Great to have people who think about these things deeply.