Forums
Featuring guest Oliver Crisp

Oliver Crisp | Truth Apt Truth Aimed

Theology is a tool we use to better understand God. But how does it work? How do we know when a theological claim is true?


Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
1 Comments
1 Comments
reflection of sky on lake with mountains behind

Theology is a tool we use to better understand God. But how does it work? How do we know when a theological claim is true?

Description

Theology is a tool we use to better understand God. But how does it work? How do we know when a theological claim is true? Jim asks these questions to professional theologian Oliver Crisp. Oliver’s search for theological truths has led him think and write about topics like Adam and Eve, sin, and the fall and he talks to us about how other disciplines, including science, have informed this theological work.

This interview was made possible as part of the TheoPsych Project, hosted by Fuller Seminary’s office of Science, Theology, and Religion.

  • Originally aired on November 14, 2019
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.

Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Oliver:

We have to deal with these texts as we find them and in light of the kind of historical situation that we find ourselves in. And that includes, of course the kind of cultural baggage that comes along with that. And I take it that the kind of the place in history that we find ourselves in,  includes as part of that cultural baggage, how we think about these texts in light of the contemporary natural sciences and their findings and archeology and the unrelated sciences. I’m not afraid of that. I don’t think Christians should be worried about that. I think we should embrace that because if God is the author of all these things, then all truth is God’s truth. And ultimately, even if we find tensions between what we read in the text and what we think about the natural sciences today, if all truth is God’s truth and those things must ultimately be reconcilable.

I’m Oliver Crisp and I’m professor of analytic theology in the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

Jim:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. For today’s episode I have a conversation with Oliver Crisp. I spoke with Oliver last summer at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where he was professor of systematic theology. Since then he’s taken a new position at St Andrews University in Scotland. As you might have guessed from his accent, Oliver is from the United Kingdom, where it is not every lad’s dream to grow up to be a professional theologian. We learn how that happened for him, and then get into theology. 

Before engaging theological questions themselves, we try to break down what theology even is: what is its goal, how does it work and progress, how do you know if you’re correct in your theological conclusions. Then we venture into the deep end of some theological topics like original sin and the image of God, and talk about how these doctrines stand in a long tradition of Christian thinking, but also look different to us today given what we know about the world, particularly from the sciences. Oliver doesn’t shrink back from engaging these topics, but admits there are no easy answers.

Of course we have a lot of resources related to our discussion on our website–even a few articles by Oliver himself. Find the links in our show notes.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Segment 1: What is Theology?

Jim:  

You’re a professional theologian… 

Oliver:

So I’m told yes. 

Jim:

How did that happen?

Oliver:

Kind of, not exactly by accident, but it was one of those fork in the road moments. We could’ve gone one of two ways. I was actually a minister, a Baptist minister for three years or a minister in training. At the end of that three years I’d finished my PhD and we had a decision to make, do we stay in the church or do we try to go the academic route? And so I applied for both sorts of jobs. 

Jim:

Where were you at the time, by the way? 

Oliver:

Just southwest of London in England in a little commuter town called Guilford, which is a very pretty little town. So I applied for both sorts of jobs. We were in conversation with the church on the other side of London and I was applying for academic things and the academic job came up first and we took that as providence. And so we moved up to Scotland to St. Andrew’s where I taught for a few years and the rest is history.

Jim:

Can you go back even a step before that then? What was like your faith background growing up that even took you to that particular fork in the road?

Oliver:

Yeah, well I grew up a baptist in a Baptist church and Baptist tradition and then had a kind of teenage flirtation with the charismatic movement. I met my wife to be, as it were at that point. And ended up going to study fine arts. So initially I wasn’t on a theology track at all. I had wanted to be an artist. This was the great idea, but quickly discovered that there wasn’t much money to be made in art. So I switched from art to theology because there’s a lot of money, money to be made in theology. We’re rolling in it in theology it’s unbelievable. I actually thought, well, maybe I could study theology and be a minister or something like that, which, you know, you can tell I didn’t have high fiscal aspirations in my life. So I did study theology in Aberdeen, Scotland which were the four wonderful years of my life. And then I came back down to London where I’d grown up and we got married and I trained to be a schoolteacher not a minister at that point. And then I was a school teacher for three years and then did become a minister in training for three years before moving into academic life. So, I suppose you might say that what I do for living now is my third career.

Jim:  

Most of us in the US have this view of the UK as this great, godless, post-Christian place. But it sounds like you grew up in a fairly traditional Christian family in that regard?

Oliver:

Yeah, in some respects, I mean it is, godless in many ways I have to say is a post Christian society. And increasingly so, although weirdly enough, we’ve still obviously got state churches which have a sort of strange place in British society. And there’s a kind of residual civic religion in some parts of the UK, I suppose, but it is increasingly secular. But I did grow up in a largely Christian family. My father wasn’t a Christian as I grew up, but he did become a Christian in my teens, but my mother was a faithful Christian from the get go and she brought us up in the faith and we went to the local Baptist church. And, so I was very fortunate in that respect.

Jim:  

Oh, so let’s talk about theology a little bit. BioLogos is this science oriented organization and I think a lot of our audience has a good idea of the methodology of science, right? We all had this scientific method ingrained in us through school. And even if it is a little simplistic, the general picture still works where there’s some observations that make us wonder why things are that way. We might suggest a hypothesis and then we test that hypothesis. Is there some analog to that in the methodology of theology where you make some observations, make a hypothesis, test that hypothesis?

Oliver: 

It, maybe in a way, I mean theology works very differently from the sciences in some respects. In as much as the way that we carry on involves a reference to a kind of body of tradition. A body of tradition that’s authoritative in various ways. So you have to argue in relation to that tradition in a way perhaps is slightly different from science in some respects. But I do think it’s true that theologians, whether they’re cognizant of doing so or not, tend to think about the projects that they go about in terms of, Oh, here’s an idea or here’s a thesis that might make sense. How can I give some argument for the conclusion that I want to reach and can I appeal to various sources of authority in order to make good on this argument and so on.

So, I mean, there’s some overlap, but I think that in many respects, the way the two disciplines or magisteria go about their projects is somewhat different given the way that they’re kind of set up. I mean, theology is looking back to, to some extent, looking back to some deposit of divine revelation. I don’t imagine that scientists think of what they’re doing in quite in that sort of way.

Jim:              

I heard your talk one time about teaching new students theology and the difference between understanding theology as this contemporary attempt to provide an explanation as opposed to reflecting on the doctrines that have been passed down, say. Can you unpack that a little bit more? What that difference is and where you land?

Oliver: 

I think there’s a tension in theology, because you’re in conversation with a long tradition that’s two and a half thousand years old. But you’re also in the contemporary context trying to provide answers to contemporary questions, some of which are perennial questions, they’re age old questions like the problem of evil or the hiddenness of God, some of which seem more contemporary—questions like, you know, what do we think about, for example, transhumanism or, or some sorts of bioethical questions. And so the theologian is, is in this interesting position of sort of being on the front end, if you like of being on the cusp of this two and a half thousand year old tradition with which we’re in conversation having to look forward as well as backwards, backwards to that tradition and being in conversation with it in a constructive way but forwards in a way that makes sense of that tradition or that depositive material in a contemporary context. And that’s a tricky thing to do, it seems to me, because you’ve got to, you’ve got to be kind of Janus faced. You’ve got to be looking backwards and forwards at the same way and you’ve got to somehow make sense of this ancient faith in a contemporary context sometimes. Sometimes that can be challenging, difficult, but that’s the way it is.

Jim:   

How do you know if a particular theological claim is true?

Oliver:

Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I mean, and that depends on all sorts of things that you think about your relationship to this tradition and what you think that the theological project is about. I think that the theological project is about the search for truth. Not all theologians think of it in that sort of way. But if you’re the kind of theologian who thinks, yeah, theology should be both truth apt and truth aimed… 

Jim:

Explain that a little bit. 

Oliver:

So, in other words, you think that theology is the sort of enterprise that is capable of making claims about things that are true, turned out to be true, that, that refer to things that are true or false and that the theologian is trying to give some account of some mind independent entity, namely God. If you think that that’s what theology is fundamentally about, then you’re likely to think that theology should orient itself towards truth and be a truth seeking enterprise and not all theologians think that’s what they’re doing.

Jim: 

So just by way of comparison, what do other theologians think they’re doing then?

Oliver: 

So suppose there are some theologians who think not that truth’s, not, not important, that’s not what they think. They just think either theology isn’t about, if it’s not about truth in the same way that you might think poetry is not about truth. Or they think that theology is not an enterprise that’s capable of making truth claims. Perhaps because we’re not in a kind of position where we’re able to, from the kind of advantage that we have as limited human beings we’re not able to get at the truth of the matter when it comes to theological claims in the same way that we are about, say, empirical claims. So there are going to be some theologians who are just very skeptical about whether we’re in the kind of business as theologians that enables us to get at the truth of the matter. So there might be, there might be good and principled reasons for thinking that theology is not truth apt or truth aimed. I’m not disparaging that sort of way of thinking about things. I can see why someone might be attracted to that sort of view, but for my own part, I am the kind of person who thinks that if theology is not an enterprise that’s about truth and you know, we kind of need to give up and go and do something else.

Jim:

Okay. Let’s talk about some of the particular theological topics that you’ve been interested in over your career. What have been sort of the high points of these are the topics that you’ve dedicated yourself to trying to understand and unpack.

Oliver:

Yeah. Well, a lot of my career thus far has been focused on what you might think of as fairly central and traditional theological topics. Namely the incarnation of Christ, the atonement. So the personal work of Christ as theologians call it. Some, some work on the doctrine of God, and some work on the doctrine of sin. So I’ve deliberately tried to focus my work on kind of core issues in Christian theology that hopefully applies to a broad range of people.

Jim: 

Let’s talk about sin. This is one of those topics that has a fair amount of contact with the sciences. And I’d like to talk eventually about how we might understand sin in natural history. But let’s start with sin itself. What is it? The discussions and allusions to sin in the various parts of the Bible don’t seem to all treat it in exactly the same way, do they? So what, what do we understand today as this is what sin is?

Oliver:

Well as with many theological topics, there are numerous answers to that question depending where you stand in terms of the Christian tradition and the sort of a part of that tradition that you belong to. The part that I belong to is the reformed tradition, part of Protestantism and within that tradition, and we tend to think of sin as a kind of want of conformity unto or transgression of the Law of God as it says in Westminster shorter catechism.

Jim:    

Say that again. This time in 21st century American English.

Oliver:

Yes. So it’s a…sin as a kind of dereliction of or wandering away from God’s law, a failure to live up to God’s commands. A missing the mark. That’s another way of thinking about it in a kind of archery way. You’re failing to hit the mark that you should be hitting. So I think that, I think of sin in that kind of way, it’s a, it’s a kind of moral failure of some description. Whether sins of commission or omission, you know, whether you’ve actually done a positive act as it were or failed to do an act that you ought to have done.

Jim:      

All of those descriptions seem derivative on a more positive conception that we’re failing to live up to that we’re missing the mark. Right? So do we need to have an understanding of what that ideal is that we’re somehow..? 

Oliver:

Yeah, yeah. And I think the ideal is the good creation that God has made and the moral law that God has ordained those two things together, which are intimately bound up in Christian theology, though distinct.

Jim: 

So here’s the part of the show where I push you to speculate a little bit. Christian theology has this inescapable historical element to it, right? We believe it to be of profound theological importance that there really was a Jesus of Nazareth and he died and he resurrected. On the other end of the spectrum maybe the historical reality of Job is not as crucial or central to many of the Christian doctrines. Where in that spectrum then do we put something like Adam and Eve and a historical fall since we’re talking about sin?

Oliver: 

Yeah, this is obviously a point of contention in contemporary theological circles or depending on which circles you move in I suppose, but it is a contentious issue. I tend to think that when we begin to think about the creation accounts in Genesis one to three, we need to treat them in a way that’s appropriate to the kind of genre of material that they are and not expect too much of them. It would seem to me that it would be inappropriate to look at the Genesis stories of Genesis one to three, the creation, the two creation narratives there and expect them to deliver for us the same sort of information that you get from a scientific textbook that’s just a category mistake. And in a way it seems to me. So from my point of view, I think we have to begin by thinking carefully about the, the nature of the material that we’re having to deal with in the, in Genesis one to three for example, I think we are dealing with stories that have been generated by you know, the Hebrew people in order to give some account or some etiology, some story about the origins of the world, which of course we as Christians think of not merely as nice human stories, but rather as conveying to us something about divine revelation. But that it seems to me it’s perfectly consistent with treating these stories as sort of, not necessarily entirely historical narratives, but as sort of like a kind of saga or legend or something like that.

Jim:     

So one of the ways the argument might go though is to say, Yep, if we were just reading Genesis 1 through 3 on its own terms, we might come to that conclusion. That’s the way, say, many Jewish scholars would read those stories, right? But now we’ve got the apostle Paul who seems to read them in a little different way and give different kinds of import to them. Do we look then at the New Testament reflection on those stories as somehow normative for us that the way or I guess there’s two questions there. Did Paul read them in that same sort of saga way or did Paul seem to read them with more historical import? And then the followup question to that is, are we beholden to what Paul would have thought?

Oliver:

Yeah, those are good and proper questions. My view on that is of course we need to read scripture as it’s given to us canonically, we need to read it as a whole. We need to treat the different material that we have in scripture appropriately. And we need to bear in mind the fact that there are many different authors involved in the writing of scripture over a very long period of time. So there will be tensions and difficulties in these documents. We have to, we have to face up to that. But from my point of view, I’m also of the view as a Christian theologian that, though there are many different human voices that are telling very different accounts of God and his ways in creation, nevertheless, behind all these human texts stands a divine author who’s seeking to communicate to us by means of these different human authors and different human texts. So yes, I do think that what we find in the New Testament, we have to treat as seriously as we do with respect to the material of the Old Testament. And that we need to try and find some way of ascertaining how these things work together in some coherent account of the creation narratives. With respect to Paul in particular. I think that it does seem like Paul thinks of Adam, or at least on the face of it, it looks like Paul thinks of Adam as something like a historical character, although it’s not clear to me that one has to hold that view in order to treat Paul seriously, to treat the kind of theological content of what Paul’s saying seriously.

So for example, one concrete example, Romans 5:12-19, which is his famous Adam Christology where he compares Adam with Christ—as in Adam, so also in Christ and so on, which is really important for a kind of Christian account of sin and how we understand and sort of interpret what’s happening in Genesis one to three. In that way of thinking you might think, well, it looks on the face of it that, he is treating Adam as a historical figure just as he’s treating Christ as a historical figure. And I, for all I know that might be the appropriate way to think of how Paul is dealing with this material, but it doesn’t, it’s not clear to me that we as Christians today must treat the material must make those kinds of historical assumptions in the same way that Paul does in order to understand what Paul’s saying. And the reason is that I think that though Paul is the human author, there’s a distinction between what the human author is conveying to us and what the divine author is seeking to convey by means of the human author’s words.

Jim:     

So is this one of those areas then when contemporary findings, say from the sciences, that paints a different picture for us of the ancient world history and of the history of human beings starts to influence the way we’re reflecting on these doctrines that have been received.

Oliver:

Inevitably, I mean, I think you cannot deny your own historical situatedness, whatever, whatever place in time you’re in that you bring that to the texts of scripture. You can’t leap over history and go back to how the first century readers would have read Paul’s epistles, or the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. We have to deal with these texts as we find them and in light of the kind of historical situation that we find ourselves in. And that includes, of course, the kind of cultural baggage that comes along with that. And I take it that the kind of the place in history that we find ourselves includes as part of that cultural baggage, how we think about these texts in light of the contemporary natural sciences and their findings and archaeology and the unrelated sciences. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s what I want to say. I’m not, I’m not afraid of that. I don’t think Christians should be worried about that. I think we should embrace that because if there, if God is the author of all these things, then all truth is God’s truth. And ultimately, even if we find tensions between what we read in the text and what we think about the natural sciences today, those, if all truth is God’s truth and those things must ultimately be reconcilable.

Jim:    

So that’s not a bad thing, but it does seem to make the process a little bit messier. Right?

Oliver:

Of course it does. But that’s all part of the fun. I mean, if it was straightforward, then you know, where’d be the intellectual journey? I mean, I, again, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. We have this task of trying to reconcile different sorts of data, different sorts of material, different sorts of approaches to the same sorts of questions. I delight in that. I mean, I’m the kind of person who thinks that it’s a really fascinating, interesting, life-giving sort of thing to do rather than something that’s depressing and oh my goodness, this is a disaster and all those sorts of things.

[musical interlude]

Niki:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the show. 

Segment 2: Sin, Adam & Eve, and the Fall

Jim:

Can we push back even further here? So we, we seem to have this fairly credible understanding of the origin of Homo sapiens now and I want to return to the understanding of sin as missing the mark, right? How do we integrate that understanding of sin with what we think we know now of, of natural history, where we have a species developing over time with increasing cognitive capabilities, what we would sure look like increasingly morally responsible in various ways. Is there some point at which we have to say this species that we have very good archeological evidence now for that developed over time with increasingly sophisticated sort of cultural and societal groups, but one point in time before which none of it was sin after which it’s all sin when it looks that way.

Oliver: 

My own view on this is that the kind of jury’s out on which view is the right view of this, theologically speaking. And I think that the, as I’ve tried to indicate in my previous answer, I think that the theological issues are distinct from the particular issues with respect to human development that are currently under discussion in the relevant sorts of natural sciences. There could be one of several different stories about human development across time, which would be commensurate with an account of sin and original sin, even a pretty robust account of sin and original sin, it seems to me. So much depends on which of those existing narratives turns out to be the right narrative. And I think it would be perhaps a little bit precipitant for theologians to commit themselves to one over the other of those narratives given that there is still much that’s up for debate.

But it certainly seems to me that one could tell an account of human development according to which there’s some human original human community that emerges out of some earlier hominid species, uh, where there’s some kind development, moral and spiritual development a point at which they become aware of God and begin to think about God’s purposes of the transcendent sort of question and where there’s some sort of dereliction, some sort of break in their relationship with God as a community that leads to the kind of effects of sin that we see in subsequent human history in which we will participate. That’s one what seems to me at the moment a plausible way of thinking about these things. It doesn’t necessarily require there to be a single event that makes this difference to humankind. It’s consistent with a much more general sort of account. So my tendency here is not to be too specific and I think there are good prudential reasons from a theological perspective for not for not being too specific at the moment.

Jim:         

Traditionally Christian theologians though have understood that sort of punctiliar event of original sin or that the first sin that then results in this condition of original sin spreads to the rest of humanity. You’ve done a fair bit of work on this too. Can you talk about that in relationship again to the natural history that we think we understand?

Oliver:  

Yeah. I can provided we think of it as a kind of just so story. So here’s a story that for all we know is true given what we understand at the moment of human development. It may be that this needs to be tweaked or changed in light of future evidence. I, again, I’m not particularly worried about that. I think whatever the true story is, we’ll figure that out. But yeah, we can, we can tell a story that seems to make sense. It seems to me of much of what traditional Christians want to say with respect to original sin. It would be something like this. You have this developing species of homosapiens that evolve out of earlier hominid species. It may not be a clear break. It may be that there’s various sorts of competing hominid species that may even interbreed with one another at early stages of human development.

But at some point, there’s an early breeding group that emerges and which begins to have these sorts of moral intuitions about God and begins to be in touch with God begins to develop in such a way that they’re able to have that sense of the transcendent. Whatever story one tells about that moral development, there’s a point that is reached in this early human community where they’re in a relationship with the creator, with God. But at some point there’s this break in that relationship, this kind of violation of that relationship, this dereliction, as I’ve called it, from that relationship. Which leads to an estrangement from God and, um, that estrangement is what yields original sin. However we think of original sin, I’ve got views about that. I think original sin is something like, not exactly the same as, but something like a kind of genetic inheritance in the same way that we receive a genetic inheritance from our parents and their parents going back and back and back the generations, which includes all sorts of things good and bad.

So perhaps we receive from previous generations a kind of moral inheritance, moral dispositions, something like that that goes along with this genetic inheritance and maybe original sin is something like that. The disposition to act in a certain sort of way, which expresses this disrupted relationship with God that needs to be healed. And maybe it’s that that we receive from previous generations and that, that Paul is expressing in his Adam Christology in Romans 5:12-19 “as in Adam, so in Christ.” We need Christ to intervene in order that we might be reconciled to God and be in right relationship with God.

Jim:       

Just to be clear, are you saying then that that genetic inheritance, something like this genetic inheritance requires actual a genealogical relationship with this original community that first suffered that break from God, such that if there were other groups of homosapiens somewhere else on the planet that were not at that moment, at least related to the descendants of that original group, would they be affected by this?

Oliver:  

Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’m not exactly sure what to say about that, but it’s, I certainly think it’s, it’s not inconsistent to think that there’s a kind of metaphysical whole that is humanity that is scattered through space time in different parts of the world that God treats as one for certain theological purposes, both for the purposes of the transmission of sin and for the purposes of the transmission of redemption.

Jim:      

The second Adam didn’t need a genealogical relationship to the people he was affecting.

Oliver:

Exactly, exactly. That’s my point. That this really is only a problem if you’re going to carry the genealogical issue through consistently. And I think that there’s no reason to think that you have to do that.

Jim:        

Does doctrine of the Imago Dei work in a similar way as we try to understand this deep history of our own species. And as you alluded to, it appears now that there were other species that we classify as homo, whether that’s neanderthal or denisovan or it seems like a few others that were around and I’ve been deliberately using the term human a little bit vaguely in relationship to homo sapiens as I think in contemporary parlance in the scientific literature, you get people claiming that there were five or six different species of humans alive at the same time where sometimes theologically we want to reserve that term human to mean more specifically the image bearers. What do you understand and realize in relation to that with God bestowing his image onto a certain species?

Oliver: 

There’s a long history to the discussion of the image of God that falls broadly into two groups. One which says that the image is something substantive in human being. Something about our essence or certain properties that all human beings have that distinguishes from other sorts of entities. Traditionally that’s often been construed as something like an intellectual deposit that we have that makes us different and makes us able to reason and, and reflect and so on. That’s like God. That has its problems, it seems to me. And most people have moved away from that way of thinking these days. The second sort of way is to think of the idea of the image of God as something functional. Something that we do or some function that we perform that marks us out in relationship to God, perhaps in, in recent biblical studies, perhaps that the idea there is that we image God to the extent that we’re God’s images on earth.

We are God’s actors. We are kind of little gods as it were, who perform certain functions with respect to the rest of the created order and thereby imaging God. People like Richard Middleton have taken this sort of a view. I wonder whether there’s a way of combining elements of both of those views in a third sort of account, which owes much to the, some of the early church fathers, who seem to particularly identify the image of God with Christ, who of course in some of the later New Testament material is spoken of as the image of the invisible God. And the way that I’ve thought about it in recent times is that perhaps Christ is the prototypical human being and this again ties up with the Adam Christology to some extent of Paul, perhaps Christ as the prototypical human being.

Perhaps Christ is a hub between divinity and humanity. Much as we might have—this is combining two different ideas—much as we might have a prototypical car and then a production line model car based on the blueprints of the prototype. Perhaps Christ as the prototypical human being and we’re the production line models of humanity in God’s grand design. And perhaps God has brought about the world in such a way that you need a kind of hub between divinity and humanity for us to be truly united to God, whether or not we sin. Perhaps Christ is that kind of hub—the prototypical human and divinity fused together in some way or, or united together in some way. Much as we might need a kind of wireless hub to connect our laptop computers to the worldwide web. Perhaps Christ acts in a similar sort of way, receiving the radio signals and transmitting them so that we human beings as it were, can be hooked up to the divine by means of the hub of Christ.

Jim:         

That’s an analogy that church fathers probably didn’t draw on.

Oliver: 

No, exactly. No, but I mean, I’m trying to sort of just give a modern account of something like, or tease out something like what they seem to think about Christ being this prototypical human and being the first human in the purposes of God and the one by means of which we might be derivatively images of God. Right? Now if you take that sort of view in some respects that has a func that could potentially have functional elements, it might also have substantive elements like these, these two older ways of thinking about the image of God. But I think also it avoids certain problems with ways of thinking of the image that are too substantive and then seem to exclude certain sorts of entities that we would want to include within the image of God. And I think it was also porous enough to include within the image of God certain things that we’re just not sure about. Right. So just how far does the image extend? Does it extend to all sorts of early hominid groups? Does it include other sorts of Simeon entities? I don’t, I mean, I’m just not sure what to say about that, but potentially they might be included by means of this prototypical image that we find in Christ.

Jim:        

Hmm. In several of these areas, it sounds like you’re doing your best to hold to theological positions that are flexible enough to be able to respond to or encompass science as we know it now. Science as it may develop in the future. Is that an intentional stance on your part with respect to science?

Oliver:

Absolutely. Absolutely, I think that some years ago when I was an undergraduate, we read some work by Arthur Holmes who taught for many years— he was an Englishman, I think—taught for many years at Wheaton. And one of his claims, I’m sure it’s made by other theologians, but it’s where I first came across the claim, is that all truth is God’s truth, as I’ve said already in this interview. That for me was one of those penny drop moments when I saw that it made me think, wow, that totally transforms how we think about theology in relation to all the other different intellectual disciplines there are, particularly the natural sciences and the social sciences because it makes me think, well, if God is really the author of all these things, then even if it seems puzzling to me that certain things are being said in the sciences that seem to be in tension with certain things that we say theologically, ultimately there must be some resolution to these things.

And that has shaped my way of thinking about theology in fundamental ways. It seems to me to be a mistake to try and do theology in isolation from other intellectual disciplines. And it seems to me the appropriate way to try and do theology is in conversation with these other disciplines because they’re definitely truth-seeking disciplines as well. And if we conceive of theology as truth apt and truth aimed, as I have said I think we ought to, then we should be working together to try and to understand the mind of God as it were or to think God’s thoughts after him with respect to this great created order that he’s given us.

Jim:      

I think what worries some people in that regard is that it feels like the relationship or the dialogue between science and theology is more of a one way street where science gets to set the parameters and dictate the terms within which theology then has to come up with its doctrines. Is there any sense in which the dialogue moves the other direction where the work of theologians ought to have this sort of influence on the sciences or these other truth-seeking disciplines in ways that affect the kinds of things that they’re allowed to say?

Oliver:

Absolutely. I don’t think, I mean, I think you’re right that it’s often painted as a one way street, but it isn’t a one way street and it ought not to be a one way street. People who are working in the natural sciences often have to work under the assumption of a methodological naturalism that is to say in their methods, assuming only sort of natural phenomena and causes are things that are at work and should be taken account of. But if you’re a scientist who has, is also a person of faith, then presumably at some level you’re also cognizant of the fact that you’re dealing with issues and problems and phenomena that belong to a created order that’s been fashioned by the creator, the creator who comes to us incarnate in Christ. So that immediately it seems to me to present a very different way of thinking about the kind of natural science project.

One that’s conditioned in very important respects by metaphysical claims that are fundamentally theological. As soon as you allow that there is a creator who creates and sustains and interacts with the world and that he comes to us in the person of Christ in order to redeem us. You are making enormous theological concessions in the way that you think about whatever other intellectual discipline you’re involved with, including the natural sciences. For some reason that’s very seldom brought up in these sorts of discussions, but I think that is a very significant theological control on how we think about the natural and social sciences.

Jim:           

One final topic here then. We’ve been talking about a lot of abstract, heady, you know, very conceptual ideas. Is there some sense in which these have much more practical import in the life of the Christian? How does, let me ask it this way, how does theology affect the kind of relationship one has to God? And maybe you want to answer that broadly, the way we had hoped that it does for everybody or even more personally. How has the study of theology influenced your own relationship to God?

Oliver:

I often, when I’m asked this by students, answer in this sort of way that you can carry on as a Christian, knowing very little theology, I suppose. You don’t need to know a lot of theology in order to be saved. And in fact, probably very little theology at all. If the thief on the cross is anyone to go by. Nevertheless, if you’re in relationship with someone, it’s a natural thing to want to know about the person that you’re in relationship with. Particularly if this is someone who you’re close to, that you love in some way. It would be an odd sort of relationship where you said of the person that you were in a relationship with, I kind of, I like spending time with you, but I didn’t really need to know much about who you are in order to continue to do that.

That would seem to be an odd and strange way to go about a relationship. So I think of theology as providing a means of fructifying, bolstering, making more fruitful, deepening the relationship that we have with God because it’s a means of us knowing God better. And if you’re a Christian, if you’re a person of faith, then it seems to me that theology is something that you ought to find a very attractive prospect because it gives you more information about this person that you’re in relationship with. So although you don’t have to have theology, it would seem to me to be an odd sort of a Christian who doesn’t care about theology. And even those Christians who say they don’t care about theology in a way really do care about theology, they just think of it in, in other ways perhaps, or they carry on their theologizing without really being cognizant of the fact that they are theologizing.

In my own life theology has been really part of the kind of warp and weft of who I am from pretty much my earliest memories really, I can’t really think of a life without pondering and reflecting on these fundamental questions. And at some point along the way, I came to understand that these fundamental questions that I had were theological and philosophical in nature and that they, there was a great tradition of thinking about these things and people who’d written books about these things that you could sit down and read and be in dialogue with and so on. And, and that began this journey that I’m still on today. So for me, in some fundamental sense, these are existential questions to go to the root of who I am. I can’t really conceive of a life without thinking about these issues.

Jim: 

Thanks for talking with us, Oliver.

Oliver: 

Thank you very much for having me.

Credits

Mulder:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks.


Featured guest

Oliver Crisp

Oliver Crisp is professor of analytic theology as a member of the Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology in the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews. Before that, he was a professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He was born and raised in West London, England, and educated at Wimbledon School of Art; the University of Aberdeen (BD, MTh); and King’s College, London (PhD). He has taught at the universities of St Andrews, Bristol, and Regent College, Vancouver, B.C., and has held post-doctoral fellowships at Notre Dame and CTI, Princeton. He is a past Secretary, Society for the Study of Theology, UK; Past committee member, British Society for Philosophy of Religion; Founding editor, Journal of Analytic Theology; series editor Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology; and co-founder/organizer of the annual LA Theology Conferences. He serves on editorial boards of International Journal of Systematic Theology, and Jonathan Edwards Studies. He currently serves on steering committee of AAR Christian Systematic Theology Section and the Analytic Theology Consultation for ETS. He is the author of nine books, and (co-)editor of ten other books, as well as over 80 articles and essays. His most recent publications are Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Fortress, 2014), and Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians (Eerdmans, 2015).

1 posts about this topic

Join the conversation on Discourse

At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

Join the Conversation