A Fractal Theory of Everything

For those of my readers who don’t know what a fractal is, this short video explains it in a very compact and non-technical way, and I highly recommend you see that video before you read the rest of this post. I was talking with my father about fractals, and he alerted me to the explanatory powers of fractals. His idea was that no matter how small we go in quantum particles, there always seems to be a smaller kind of particle that makes up the next layer down. So my father theorized that atoms are fractals and that the number of particles one could find is actually endless. Then he combined that theory with the macro level in astrophysics. No matter how far out we go in space, there will always be more to explore. In other words, the universe has fractals in its DNA code on both the micro and the macro level. Mind you, this is only a theory!

I immediately started thinking of the way I had been studying history recently. I used to read generalist history books that were supposed to give me a grand feel for the scope of everything. I found them unutterably dull and boring, because they never adequately explained cause and effect for specific events. So I decided to switch my tactics and read enormous tomes about small events, to see if I could actually learn something about smaller fields of historical knowledge. I found the books infinitely more satisfying to read. I felt that I was really learning something.

All that about history is background to this paragraph. What I have discovered is that history is enormously more complicated than anyone likes to think. Even to describe the major causes why something happens involves enormous research. All historical writing inevitably over-simplifies the cause and effect relationships. Suppose that over-simplification is also infinite? Suppose the causation for any given act of history is actually a fractal? Certainly, cause and effect would go backwards in time to the very beginning. However, wouldn’t it also branch out going backwards? Can we say that a given event only had one cause without that cause being caused by a whole complex of further causes? Wouldn’t causation itself branch out in a fractal manner?

It doesn’t take much of a science fiction boost to this idea to see how it works in forward historical progress. As most people know, a very small change in present circumstances can drastically change the future. The possible futures branch out in a seemingly fractal way as well.

Then I thought about knowledge itself. Knowledge has been fragmenting ever since the Enlightenment. Kant wanted to separate the world of faith from the world of knowledge. In Kant’s world, there is a ceiling that prevents the noumenal world from being known (Kant rejected the idea of revelation, the noumenal world revealing itself to the phenomenal world). But if theology is not the queen of the sciences, as it was in the Middle Ages, then knowledge becomes very fragmented. Suppose, however, that knowledge itself is a sort of fractal? Obviously, it couldn’t be a fractal in the physical sense. However, if knowledge has a fractal-like aspect to it, then we can expect the specialization of disciplines to go on ad infinitum. Certainly, this would be true in the STEM fields if reality itself is fractal. If reality is fractal, then our knowledge of it would be so also. If we reject Kant’s construction, however, then the noumenal world is open to knowledge as well. God can reveal Himself to us, and we can know Him.

On this understanding of the physical world, the historical world, and the world of knowledge, there would be a super-fractal that connects these three worlds together. I believe that super-fractal is the Bible. It binds all knowledge, all history, and the physical universe together. If I am right about the Bible, then there will always be more in the Bible to discover, since it itself is a fractal. It will always have the same general shape of revelatory word following and explaining creationary or redemptive deed on God’s part. However, our understanding of that revelation will always be refining itself, not into something complete different, but in a deeper understanding of the same truths once for all revealed to the saints.

Flavel on Theological Encyclopedia

Although it is a bit of an anachronism, it is relevant to the question of the unity of all truth. I haven’t seen many Puritans directly address this issue (and even this is a somewhat rudimentary treatment, as the four-fold division of theology into exegetical, systematic, historical, and practical is still some ways off), but Flavel has some wonderful things to say here (sorry for the length, but I couldn’t really cut anything):

A young ungrounded Christian, when he seeth all the fundamental truths, and seeth good evidence and reasons of them, perhaps may be yet ignorant of the right order and place of every truth. It is a rare thing to have young professors to understand the necessary truths methodically: and this is a very great defect: for a great part of the usefulness and excellency of particular truths consisteth in the respect they have to one another. This therefore will be a very considerable part of your confirmation, and growth in your understandings, to see the body of the Christian doctrine, as it were, at one view, as the several parts of it are united in one perfect frame; and to know what aspect one point hath upon another, and which are their due places. There is a great difference betwixt the sight of the several parts of a clock or watch, as they are disjointed and scattered abroad, and the seeing of them conjointed, and in use and motion. To see here a pin and there a wheel, and not know how to set them all together, nor ever see them in their due places, will give but little satisfaction. It is the frame and design of holy doctrine that must be known, and every part should be discerned as it hath its particular use to that design, and as it is connected with the other parts.

By this means only can the true nature of Theology, together with the harmony and perfection of truth, be clearly understood. And every single truth also will be much better perceived by him that seeth its place and order, than by any other: for one truth exceedingly illustrates and leads another into the understanding. Study therefore to grow in the more methodical knowledge of the same truths which you have received; and though you are not yet ripe enough to discern the whole body of theology in due method, yet see so much as you have attained to know, in the right order and placing of every part. As in anatomy, it is hard for the wisest physician to discern the course of every branch of the veins and arteries; but yet they may easily discern the place and order of the principle parts, and greater vessels, (and surely in the body of religion there are no branches of greater or more necessary truth than these) so it is in divinity, where no man hath a perfect view of the whole, till he comes to the state of perfection with God; but every true Christian hath the knowledge of all the essentials, and may know the orders and places of them all.

And as it serves to render the mind more judicious, so it causes the memory to be more tenacious, and retentive of truths. The chain of truth is easily held in the memory, when one truth links in another; but the loosing of a link endangers the scattering of the whole chain. We use to say, order is the mother of memory; I am sure it is a singular friend to it: hence it is observed, those that write of the art of memory,. lay so great a stress upon place and number. The memory would not so soon be overcharged with a multitude of truths, if that multitude were but orderly disposed. It is the incoherence and confusion of truths, rather than their number, that distracts. Let but the understanding receive them regularly, and the memory will retain them with much more facility. A bad memory is a common complaint among Christians: all the benefit that many of you have in hear, is from the present influence of truths upon your hearts (Works of John Flavel, volume 1, pp. 21-2).

The King of Knowledge

James Thornwell, referencing Aristotle and John Locke, said it this way:

(B)oth Aristotle and Locke regard it (theology, LK) “as the comprehension of all other knowledge,” so that without it all other knowledge is fragmentary, partial and incomplete (Works of Thornwell, volume 1, p. 25).

When the Enlightenment came along and dethroned theology from its rightful place at the head of all knowledge, then the rest of knowledge immediately started breaking up into smaller and smaller fragments, as it is today. Bits of knowledge float free-form and utterly isolated from anything else.

Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology Considered Again

We will take as our starting point the following well-known quotation from Vos’s Biblical Theology:

The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much as Systematic Theology makes the material undergo a transformation. the sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical Theology this is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology it is of a logical nature. Each of these two is necessary, and there is no occasion for a sense of superiority in either. (Biblical Theology, p. 14).

What can plausibly be laid against this claim by Vos is that the Bible is more inherently historical than logical, and that therefore BT is a “better fit” than ST. Even if didactic portions of Scripture are acknowledged to be less historically organized than other portions (Proverbs comes to mind), the historical framework of the Bible still remains in place. What I wish to do is to answer this plausible objection.

Firstly, it is clear that certain portions of Scripture are less historically organized than others. Proverbs, for instance, is better organized topically than historically. It has been shown in some recent scholarship that Proverbs presupposes the historical covenants. Fair enough. I agree that Proverbs is not “secular” wisdom, but holy wisdom, however much certain parts of it might resemble Amenemope. However, the organization of the text itself is still better done topically. This means that making Proverbs undergo an historical transformation in order to fit BT categories would require a greater transformation than an ST treatment would.

What this means for the broader question is just this: BT might be a smaller transformation of historically organized texts than an ST treatment would represent. However, an ST treatment of other texts, like Proverbs, would represent a smaller transformation than BT would. In other words, genre differences are a factor in how much transformation a given text would undergo in BT or ST guise.

Secondly, ST is not somehow incapable of assimilating historical change into a logical locus. Surely, ST treats the locus of covenant theology with reference to the historical progression of the various iterations of the covenants! As Dr. Richard Gaffin once said, ST is like a plot analysis of a novel, and BT is like a plot summary. BT cannot ignore the logical relations entirely. Nor can ST ignore the historical progression of revelation. Each has to take the other into account. As a result, BT and ST must be completely interdependent, even while they can be distinguished.

Male and Female Souls?

Posted by Paige (Yes, I’m still around sometimes!)

Here is a set of crowdsourcing theological research questions for my scholarly minded brethren:

Are you familiar with the teaching that men and women have gendered souls? That is, the idea that the differences between us (and perhaps the roles we are to play) are so essential that they are located originally in our souls as well as in our biology?

Can anyone give me the historical pedigree of this idea? What religions or sects have emphasized this teaching since ancient times? (Googling it brought up kabbalist and New Age spiritism, but I’d like to go deeper than blog posts if anyone knows of a decent resource.)

How have Christians historically interacted with this teaching? How does it comport with generally orthodox Christian teaching on the imago Dei, gender, and gender roles? What Christian thinkers, if any, have engaged or taught this idea?

Finally, how do you personally react to the idea that men and women have distinctly gendered souls as well as bodies? Do you think this is compatible with an orthodox anthropology? Would you teach this to your congregation? What would be your biblical supports?

I have encountered this idea in Christian teaching only recently, so I am not familiar with how it fits into the historical context of biblical and Reformed thought. I’m presently doubtful that it does, and I wanted to see if I could locate the idea in the history of theology and other religions in order to understand it better. 

Thanks abundantly in advance for your thoughts and any resources you can point me toward.

The Rift Between Exegesis and Systematic Theology

Some exegetes believe that systematic theology (ST) has no place in exegesis. There are various reasons why people might believe this. Some might believe that ST would artificially narrow down the valid exegetical possibilities (horror of horrors!). Others believe that because ST is not their specialty, that therefore they cannot venture in to that field when they are doing their exegesis. Still others believe that exegesis is for the academy, while ST is for the church (and never should the two meet!). I will answer these objections one at a time.

To the first objection, I would answer that ST never narrows down the number of valid exegetical possibilities. One must define “valid exegetical possibilities.” For some exegetes, this would mean (in line with reader-response criticism) that they can understand the text to mean whatever they want the text to mean. So, when one comes to the text in Numbers 23:19 “God is not a man that He should lie,” a valid exegetical possibility for the reader-response critic might even be “God is just like a human, and is quite capable of lying; in fact, He often does.” What exegetes fail to realize in this regard is that we already have a ST grid of our own that narrows down interpretive options. So, the question is not whether we will have an interpretive grid, but which grid we have. The people who claim not to have a grid are the ones with the most fiercely narrowing grids of all. The reason for that is that they are not even aware of their own grids. And it is the invisible grids that are the most pernicious.

This also answers the bit about ST not being someone’s field. If one is a theologian, then ST is part of what we do. Period. Just because an exegete might not have read all the ST’s ever written in history does not mean that he is exempt from engaging the aspects of theology that fall under the rubrics of ST. ST is not just for the specialist. We all do it anyway. The question is whether we will be honest and upfront about doing it, or whether we will pretend that we are not doing it, when we really are.

Thirdly, exegesis is, most obviously, not just for the academy. Actually, most exegetes recognize this. Some merely think that their own exegesis is for the academy, and not for the church. The gulf between academy and church is particularly huge and disturbing. One expects the gulf with unbelieving scholarship. However, even some exegetes who believe in Christ as Lord and Savior also posit a huge gulf between academy and church, thus refusing to love what Christ has loved. I do not understand how believing scholars can do their work for the academy and not for the church, unless they are motivated by the fear of man, and the idol of prestige and honor among men.

An Open Letter to Doug Wilson

Doug Wilson is older than I. I am therefore hesitant to write this, since it could be perceived as arrogant. However, I am fairly confident that older men than I who are critics of the FV would agree with either all or part of what I am about to write.

Firstly, I want to note that responses I have seen to Wilson’s post are generally skeptical. Wilson has not really moved in his theology, though the responses are also acknowledging gratitude for Wilson’s distance from Leithart. The critics want to see some movement in Wilson’s theology towards the Westminster Standards, though, not just in his terminology. Some still see Wilson’s post as yet another example of slippery language. It’s possible, although I want to leave the door as wide open as possible for Wilson to move towards us.

Secondly, I think Wilson needs to do some rebuilding, specifically, of his theology. Wilson does not have a seminary degree. There is something about a wholesome seminary education that allows one to see the virtues of one’s theological tradition in a holistic way. In the past, I have seen Wilson (and others in the FV tradition) cherry-pick the Reformed tradition, looking only for statements that seem to support their position, ignoring the vastly more solid (not to mention voluminous!) majority of what the Reformed tradition has to offer.

How does one rebuild a Reformed theology? It should happen in an encylopedically sound way. By this I mean that all the theological disciplines need to be seen as interdependent (this is what the science of theological encyclopedia is all about, especially in non-Enlightenment driven, confessionally Reformed circles). In other words, the best works in each discipline ought to be the building blocks that one uses on top of the foundation of Scripture itself (which nothing can replace, of course).

What would these building blocks be? Well, the most encyclopedically sound approach would be to take the best representatives of Reformed systematic theology and read those. The advantage of this approach is that not only do the best systematicians have an eye towards the other disciplines, but also one can have a much better opportunity to learn what “vanilla confessionally Reformed” theology is from its best proponents. The systematic theologies of Calvin, Turretin, Hodge, Bavinck, Vos, and Berkhof come immediately to mind as non-idiosyncratic representatives of the Reformed tradition.

On certain topics, additional focus should be given. The three main topics of the Reformation should have a certain priority after general dogmatics: doctrines of Scripture, justification, and worship. On Scripture, William Whitaker’s Disputations and Richard Muller’s volume 2 of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics will cover most of the important bases. On justification, besides the excellent treatments in the systematic theologies listed above, essential reading is volume 5 of John Owen’s Works, as well as Buchanan’s treatment of justification. J.V. Fesko’s recent book will cover all the modern debates from a confessional perspective. On worship, authors like Calvin, Gillespie, Old, and Johnson seem to me to be the most important.

I have recommendations on commentaries (see the indices), so that leaves biblical theology, church history, apologetics, and practical theology. In biblical theology, one cannot do better than Vos, Beale, Goldsworthy and Clowney. For church history, there is Kuiper’s history of the church, which, although brief, is exceedingly good. One will have to go outside the Reformed tradition a bit, however, if one wants more depth in general church history. There is d’Aubigne, of course, but even he does not cover everything. Nor does Schaff, who is somewhat idiosyncratic, as good an historian as he was. For apologetics, one reads Van Til, Bahnsen, Oliphint, Pratt, and Edgar (Wilson is already an accomplished apologist). For practical theology, one needs to read the Puritans, the Puritans, and a little more of the Puritans. Owen, Brooks, Bunyan, Goodwin, Flavel, Sibbes, Manton, and Edwards come to mind.

So, suppose Wilson answers by saying, “I’ve read all these, what more must I do to inherit eternal life?” My response would be, “How did you read these?” Did you read them in order to confirm what you already hold by virtue of listening too much to the modern FV proponents, Girard, and a few other authors? I suspect not, in which case they need to be reread. Read for the center of confessional Reformed theology. Dig deeper, not sideways. Ditch the Joint Statement entirely. Don’t go for idiosyncratic, but instead go for the vanilla. The whole Reformed world would welcome you back.

Seeing Christ In All of Scripture

I received in the mail a copy of this little gem from my alma mater. It is a fast read. I read it this morning.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to have about 35 endorsements on a book that is only 87 pages long. However, in this case, what you get is actually a snapshot of scholars who agree with the trajectory that WTS is establishing (and has established in the past). I found these statements interesting and, in some cases, revealing (see John Frame’s puff, for instance).

The book has four essays, by Vern Poythress, Iain Duguid, G.K. Beale, and Richard Gaffin, Jr, all preceded by a good little introduction by Peter Lillback. Also included are three appendices. The first is Machen’s essay on the purpose and plan for the Seminary. The second is the document of affirmations and denials that the seminary promulgated in response to the recent debates at the seminary. The third is Dr. Gaffin’s short piece on biblical theology at WTS.

Dr. Lillback can now say that there is a “harmony among the theological disciplines at Westminster” (p. 1). This wasn’t the case when I was attending. The exegetical departments were, in general, at odds with the ST, AP, and CH departments. I, for one, am grateful for the present unity among the faculty and disciplines.

Dr. Poythress’s point is that true biblical hermeneutics is a spiral, not a circle, that needs to start from a self-consciously Christian perspective. In this context, he says that God’s “presence and his special work in inspiration do not make human beings less than human. Rather, he transforms sinful humanity toward humanity as God originally designed it” (p. 13). Some advocates of other hermeneutical approaches seem to suggest that if God had anything to do with revelation at all, then that “interference” would make the humans automatons, and thus less than human.

Duguid’s point is that Christ is the whole point of the Old Testament. Period. It is a book about Christ (p. 17). Against the Christotelic interpretation, Duguid writes, “It is not that the New Testament writers were creatively assigning new and alien meanings to these old texts. Rather, the force of Jesus’s statement that it was ‘necessary that the Christ should suffer these things’ (Luke 24:26) suggests that a proper reading of the Old Testament expectation of the messiah necessarily compelled them to recognize Jesus Christ as its true fulfillment” (p. 21). While the OT prophets were not fully aware of the complete meaning of what they wrote (p. 20), we must not overstress their ignorance (p. 21). Again, taking direct aim at the Christotelic view, he says, “In other words, our astonishment will not be because the fulfillment differed from the promise, or because some parts of the promise proved to be dead ends, but because we had not begun to grasp the height and depth of the wisdom of God that is at work for our salvation in Christ” (p. 23).

Beale’s essay addresses New Testament hermeneutics. Context is king in Beale’s hermeneutics, but that context has to be defined as including more than the immediate literary and historical context. It also includes its canonical context (p. 26). Biblical Theology is given a thoroughly Vossian definition (pp. 27-28). New Testament interpretation of the Old is the correct way to read the Old Testament.

Gaffin’s article addresses the place of Systematic Theology in relation to Biblical Theology (a hallmark of his entire career). Some money quotes: “Systematic Theology, accordingly, does not have a ‘special’ hermeneutic of its own but one it shares with all other theological disciplines (p. 39). “Negatively, the difference (between ST and BT, LK) is not, as is too often maintained, that biblical theology considers the Bible purely in terms of its humanity and historically diverse make-up, leaving systematic theology to attend to whatever may be said about its divinely qualified unity (p. 49). Instead, biblical theology always presupposes the unity of God’s speech (ibid.). “At any one point in actual practice, the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology is reciprocal” (p. 50). I might add something here to Gaffin’s remarks, and note that it is always reciprocal, whether the interpreter realizes it or not, and even if the interpreter denies that it is reciprocal.

It is clear that Machen was a Vossian. No doubt this quotation is why the essay was included: “[A]n error should be avoided: it must not be thought that systematic theology is one whit less biblical than biblical theology is” (p. 57). This is pure Vos.

The affirmations and denials are available online here, but it is good to see them in print, as well. They are extremely sophisticated, and yet very clear. I commend them to your perusal, especially the parts about private interpretation (p. 68, for example). It has some very important things to say about Ancient Near Eastern background, as well (see p. 71, for instance).

Gaffin’s last piece is a response to Clair Davis’s lament over the supposed fall of biblical theology at Westminster Seminary. Gaffin says that the reports of biblical theology’s death at WTS have been greatly exaggerated. This is the money quote from that piece: “There can be no objection to ‘Christotelic’ in itself. But Scripture is Christotelic just because it is Christocentric. It is Christotelic only as it is Christocentric, and as it is that in every part, the Old Testament included. Or, as we may, in fact must, put the issue here in its most ultimate consideration, Christ is the mediatorial Lord and Savior of redemptive history not only at its end but also from beginning to end. He is not only its omega but also its alpha, and he is and can be its omega only as he is its alpha” (p. 86).

This short book clarifies the doctrinal issues surrounding the recent debates at Westminster like no other resource of which I am aware. Get a copy of it.

New Online Resource for Biblical Literacy

(Posted by Paige)

Compass Rose 1I am pleased to invite you to visit the Grass Roots Theological Library, a newly minted website housing the creative debris of a very busy mind.

Not at all intended to rival this worthy blog, my site is meant to be a collection of free, excellent, user-friendly resources for those who are serious about promoting and pursuing biblical and theological literacy for themselves and for others in their spheres of influence.

For pastors, teachers, and other leaders there are original, elder-tested Bible lesson plans and “Reviews of Books You’d Rather Not Read Yourself” . . . For the self-feeding autodidact who may lack professors or peers for the journey there are numerous resources, essays, talks, and lists to help. My goal with all of this is to offer worthy, unpretentious and unique contributions to the never-ending task of nurturing Christian literacy.

Suggestions are always welcome, and new material will keep showing up as time goes along. My personal favorite stuff: over 500 original text-based questions to ask when studying the book of Hebrews . . . weekly brief “Bible Journal” posts sharing some lively commentary on whatever I’m studying . . . my wall maps (you’ll see!).

Intrigued? The proof of the pudding is in the eating – please visit and glance at the Library so that you can know better what I am talking about. If you like what you see, please Bookmark or “Follow” so that you don’t forget about it (you can follow on Twitter also, @GrassRootsTheo). I promise you’ll only get notifications when I post a new Bible Journal piece. And please share this with those in your circles, whether leaders or learners, who would benefit by it!

Welcome to the Library!

Vos on Creation

It is indeed wonderful to have available to us for the first time Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics. Vos is often co-opted (and misinterpreted!) by people who love biblical theology, but hate systematic theology. Unfortunately for them, Vos does not go along with them. It is starting to become better known (now that his Reformed Dogmatics is being published) that Vos taught systematic theology at Calvin Seminary before he went to Princeton to teach biblical theology. Does his Reformed Dogmatics give any ground to those who despise systematic theology in our day? Not an inch.

Vos would also be extremely uncomfortable to those (often the same people!) who want to relegate Genesis 1-2 to the realm of myth. The idea that these chapters are myth is not a new idea. It was around in Vos’s time. Here is what Vos says about the genre of Genesis 1-2:

How many kinds of interpretation are there of Genesis 1 and 2? Mainly three: the allegorical, the mythical and the historical. The first two views, however, are untenable because within the narrative of Scripture the creation narrative is interwoven like a link in the chain of God’s saving acts. God does not make a chain of solid gold, in which the first link is a floral wreath. If the creation history is an allegory, then the narrative concerning the fall and everything further that follows can also be allegory. The writer of the Pentateuch presents his work entirely as history (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 161).

Fancy that: the father of Reformed biblical theology (and who was the greatest precisely because of, and not in spite of, his unified encyclopedia) rejecting the mythical interpretation of Genesis! May those who are motivated by the desire to look respectable in the world of academia take note that Vos was not afraid of what others might say, and he feared God rather than men.

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