Against Being Simple

Being simple is the natural state, as immaturity is the natural state and needing diapers is the natural state. It is romanticism of the worst sort to believe that being simple is somehow superior. Wisdom cries out to the simple and urges him to come to her to be delivered of simplicity. It is not a state to be preserved. It is instead something from which insight delivers us and to which prudence is the alternative.

One of the reactions to sophisticated doctrinal debates that provokes me is this cry of simplicity. “Why must we be philosophical?” The alternative, it is suggested, is to be biblical. The alternative is, however, to be unphilosophical, and the problem is that the careful complexities of philosophically informed doctrine were developed to prevent our being unbiblical. Christian theology is not complex in order to repel the average believer or to baffle the uneducated. Christian theology is complex because interpreting divine revelation requires it.

Why should our doctrine, after all, be simple? There is no reason to believe that what God reveals about himself is exclusively obvious and easy. Some of it is, but most of it is not. There is no reason to assume that the Incarnation can be properly spoken of without special care. It is a wonder: it must imply difficulties. And there is no reason to think that a thorough understanding of our salvation will never require precise distinctions and specialized vocabulary. For its very survival Christianity has plundered the intellectual resources of antiquity, has recorded elaborate and difficult theological mediations, and has gone so far as to develop that most intellectual of institutions, the University.

The confrontations of the Ancient Church required philosophical sophistication and even new concepts (personality, for example; which is why the Apostle Paul never formulated the doctrine of the Trinity: in human language there was no way at that point to do it). The stabilizing order that the Christian society of the Middle Ages achieved required the expansion and technical refinement of theology. The consolidation of the soteriological and ecclesiological clarifications of the Reformation made theology so complex that it could not be engaged without very precise reflection on the nature of theology itself.

That is to say, Christian doctrine at the end of the seventeenth century was so complex that its transmission by then depended on a very thorough education. That is why it is standard to require a graduate, academic degree for the average work of the pastorate. It is not a luxury, and, in fact, for the preservation of the Christian faith in itself this requirement is not enough.

If what I have said is true, then to the degree that we fail in that thorough education, we lose some of what we intend to transmit. That is why being simple is not a good alternative. What is ridiculous, however, is that it goes on at an academic level. I’ve just read an academic book (evangelically rooted, critically engaged, I notice as I glance to confirm, says the publisher’s contradictory slogan) accusing the Reformed Scholastics of distorting theology by an excess of logic. To what is such a risible conclusion owing? This historian has dismissed the situation the Reformed Scholastics faced, misunderstood and as a result distorted their achievements in the name of correcting history. To what, we may coincidentally ask, is the ascendancy of Unitarian teaching in protestant denominations after the 17th century owing? A curriculum which no longer included Aristotle, that is what.

That is why pastors with mastery in divinity are not enough. We have at least to maintain seminaries. In fact, Christianity cannot now be maintained without universities unless we are willing to have a diminished Christianity. I think a diminished Christianity is what many actually are willing to have. But that is not prudent. The conclusion is not the result of insight; you don’t reason carefully about this subject and arrive at the conclusion that we need a simpler rather than a more complex body of doctrine. Rather, that desire is already a symptom of a diminished Christianity.

The words of Wisdom in Proverbs are not suggestions. Wisdom does not stand in public places promoting useful tips. The alternative to simplicity is complexity.

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