Two meta-theological questions

I’m not entirely sure how the term meta-theology is defined in general, but for the sake of this blog we’re going to define meta-theology as “thinking about theology”. Now sometimes, in systematic theology (defined a little later) we think about things like inerrancy and knowledge about God which, I guess, involve thinking about theology in some sense. So, by my definition, meta-theology shares at least some content with normal theology. I’m not really too fazed by this though.

Moreover, we’ll define applied theology as “thinking about how our theological conclusions apply to current social, political and economic issues”.

To get a better idea of these concepts, consider how we can categorize the following questions into either meta-theology, theology or applied theology:

  1. Is God omnipotent? (theology)
  2. What should a Christian’s position on gay marriage be? (applied theology)
  3. Can we say we know the results of our philosophical speculation about God? (meta-theology)
  4. How can God have control while we have free will? (theology)
  5. What should our systematic theological method be? (meta-theology)
  6. How should Christian’s balance someone’s need for the gospel and their need for food? (applied theology)

The two meta-theological questions in that list are the two that I’m going to try answer here.

Theological Method

In theology, we have a number of different approaches to Scripture (which I unhelpfully tend to call theologies). The question is how we order these in terms of priority and temporally. The approaches I have in mind are given in the following list:

  • Exegetical theology is where we consider a passage (say Mark 1:1-15 or Romans 5:1-11) and try and understand what the author is saying there.
  • Biblical theology is where we consider a theme that spans and progresses as we move through the Bible. Examples of this are “the Law and how it applies to us in the Christian era” and “the progressive revelation of the Trinity”.
  • Systematic theology is where we consider a topic that Scripture touches on and try to develop a systematic summary of its teaching.
  • Perfect being theology is where we take advantage of Anselm’s key insight that God is best understood as the greatest conceivable being. Thus when coming up with a systematic summary of a topic, we assign the greatest possible attributes to God.
  • Natural theology involves what we can know about God solely from creation and not from any special revelation. The theistic and atheistic arguments are included here.
  • Philosophical speculation involves making use of philosophical methods and ideas to give possible models for certain doctrines. Thus it is included in the “systematizing” stage along with perfect being theology. For example, here we might develop models for the Trinity, God’s providence and so forth.

Now the question at hand is “What should our theological method be?” What this question is asking is things like “Which of the theologies mentioned above should submit to the others?” or “What order should we use these approaches?” and “How do we group the above approaches?”

My suggestion (which isn’t all that novel) is that we group the approaches into “Special Revelation” and “General Revelation”. The first three (Exegetical, Biblical and Systematic) make use of the special revelation we have directly from God in Scripture, while the second three make use of the general revelation which is available to everyone, from every culture and (sometimes) time period.

As for priority, it strikes me that the theologies should submit to one another in the order I defined them. It seems natural that general revelation should submit to special revelation, since our reasoning is fallible, and if God has told us something about himself, then it seems he’d be right 🙂

When we further think about ordering the theologies themselves (and not just the two broad groups they fall into), we couldn’t possibly study a theme that spans biblical passages (Biblical) without having an understanding of those passages (Exegetical). Likewise, we can’t make a systematic summary of Scripture’s teaching (Systematic) without first understanding what Scripture says (Exegetical and Biblical).

Likewise, it seems only natural that our Philosophical Speculation should be guided by the more concrete results of Natural Theology and Perfect Being Theology. Deciding how Perfect Being Theology and Natural Theology seems a little less obvious than the others. However, it seems to me that Perfect Being Theology is closer to the theologies in Special Revelation than Natural Theology and for that reason, I tend to prioritize it above Natural Theology. Admittedly, though, I wouldn’t mind if we put the two of them on the same level.

Ok, so that answers one of the questions. Now onto the second.

Knowledge of speculation

The question here is “can we say we know the results of our philosophical speculation about God?” Consider a case where we’ve come up with a number of philosophical models to make sense of some systematic doctrine. For example, it could be that there are multiple, equally effective, ways to make sense of God’s providence and human free will, or to make sense of the Trinity. It seems that in the case where we have multiple equally plausible philosophical models, that we can’t know which one of them is correct.

But what if there’s only one plausible model? Or what if one model is better than all the others? It seems to me that even in this case it’s possible for that model to be wrong. Say, for example, we might think that the Trinity Monotheism model from Craig and Moreland is the only model that properly makes sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. Surely it could still be the case that the actual nature of the Trinity is different from what this model describes, and in fact is beyond any human description? In this case, we’d be wrong to say that “We know that Trinity monotheism is correct”, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that “We know that Trinity monotheism is the best understanding we have of the Trinity”.

So it seems that it’s possible for our philosophical speculation to be wrong, even in the case where one model far outshines the others. But does it follow that we can’t know the results of our speculation? This is the same question that the skeptic raises when we talk about knowing [see note 1] anything. After all, it’s possible that we’re mistaken about any of the beliefs we hold. Take the belief that there is an objective, external world as an example. We could simply be brains in vats having the images and sensations simulated for us, making us falsely think and perceive that there’s this external world around us. It is possible, then, that we’re wrong in thinking that there’s this external world. Roughly, the skeptic concludes that the possibility of us being wrong about anything precludes us from knowing anything. The particularist correctly responds by noting that the mere possibility of us being wrong doesn’t mean we are actually wrong. He recognizes that just because we can’t know that we know something (like the existence of the external world), it doesn’t follow that can’t still know that something. To put this another way, the particularist realizes that to know something does not require us to know it with certainty (ie. know that we know it).

Now if someone were to say that we can’t know the results of our philosophical speculation because it always remains possible that we’re wrong, we could respond just like the particularist does to the sceptic in the general case: just because we don’t know that we know some model, doesn’t mean we don’t know it. After all, for all we know, the model might be true!

So I think it’s safe to say that we can, in general, know the results of our philosophical speculations about God, even if we don’t know which ones we know. So perhaps our model for providence is wrong (even though it’s the best one) and so we can’t know it but our model for the Trinity is true and so we can.


Those are my thoughts on these two meta-theological questions. Perhaps in the future, I will stumble upon some more and comment on them too. In the future, I hope to give answers for the two applied theological questions. In the near future, though, I hope to talk about God’s providence (like I promised in my first blog post). I think it’s about time I started talking about that.


1. As an interesting aside, we used to think that to know something means to have a justified true belief. Roughly, to be justified in a belief means to have some rational reason for the belief. I say we used to think this was a sufficient analysis for knowledge, because a guy called Edmund Gettier (in 1963) came up with thought experiments (called “Gettier-type counterexamples” or “Gettier problems“) in which someone has justified true belief of some proposition, but still doesn’t know that proposition. Sometimes philosophers will define “warrant” as that thing that turns a true belief into knowledge. So, to know something is to have a warranted true belief. Regardless, philosophers agree that truth is a necessary condition for knowledge, which is all that is needed for our discussion here.

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