In the middle of an essay discussing the philosophy of Edmund Burke, I found a philosophical truth that rings true in our walk of faith too. The author of the essay, Gertrude Himmelfarb, was expounding on Burke’s dislike of the metaphysical philosophers of his day. He thought metaphysics “represented the ‘Principle of Evil.’” Because there was danger in the abstraction. He thought they “falsified reality by reducing it to such an incorporeal, pure, unmixed state.” To put it in the words of Burke himself, “I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.”
Beneath the old fashioned phrasing and complicated sentence structure, these authors are trying to communicate something that is both beguiling and unstable whether it is the late 1700s, the early 1950s, or now: isolation.
On the one hand there is something attractive about the idea of the hidden truth that might lay at the heart of an idea, an emotion, a political theory, if it is only isolated from the corrupting influences of that which surrounds the ideas etc. If we could only get to the essence of something then we could understand it without confusion and know the truth.
The problem is, everything is influenced by something, everyone is influence by someone, and every reaction in our emotions is influenced by past experiences that our hearts remember and apply to the present. How can you know the meaning of a quote without a bit of context? Or a society without some of its history? How can we understand the people we love without knowing a bit about their family or place of origin?
Ironically in search of the essence, insight and understanding are lost until the “hidden truth” is just whatever we want it to be. Our minds infer a meaning that suits us onto the “naked abstraction.” There’s no art without mixing the colors and there’s no understanding of truth without interrelation and context.
That’s why Burke thought it was so dangerous. Any cause could be blown out of proportion and create imbalance in government. Potentially leaving one people group vulnerable in favor of another, all in the name of metaphysical essence.
It can be just as dangerous in theological studies and biblical studies. We can take one aspect of God or the Christian faith and make that aspect the defining point of a theology. We can remove all context and connection until this one aspect stands alone, perhaps above, all other aspects. When, in all likelihood, that aspect wasn’t meant to be above all others. It had a purpose when it was in context, once isolated it can’t perform what it was meant to do, therefore losing its purpose.
For example, I grew up in a pentacostal church. One of the teachers in my youth group taught on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This person emphasized the gift of tongues, ultimately saying if you didn’t speak in tongues that meant you were not filled with the Holy Spirit. Saying that this one spiritual gift was the only way of knowing you had the Holy Spirit with you isolated it from and above the other spiritual gifts. It became the “essence” of spiritual gifts.
At the time I was mortified, because I did not speak in tongues. Up until that point I was sure I was filled with the Holy Spirit, that I knew Him. Here I was at a charismatic church with my ties to the Holy Spirit, the superstar of charismatic tradition, in question.
I don’t know if the actual doctrines of the pentacostal denomination say that about the gift of tongues or not. I never had the heart to look it up. But that is what my old youth group teacher taught and it cast doubt onto my relationship with God for years. The isolation of the gift of tongues was a destructive force in my young life.
The bible says something totally different about the gift of tongues. Paul says it is the lowest of the spiritual gifts. It’s meant to help you pray when you don’t know what to pray and for edification for you, or if there is a translation, for others (1 Corinthians 14). The absolute best teaching I have ever heard on this subject was given by Bill Cahusac, a pastor at Emmaus Rd church. It can be found on the Emmaus Rd website in past teachings, sermon series “(Super)natural.”
It was this practice of isolation that lead to heresy cropping up in early churches and church writing. I haven’t studied the Ante-Nicene Fathers (theologians from the time before the Nicene Creed) very closely, but what I have read, they spent most of their time combating heresy and trying the keep the gospel of Jesus true to His word.
We still see this vulnerability today with popular theologies like the “prosperity gospel” or the blending of religions in Universalism (also known as Pluralism). Both these theologies would call themselves Christian, yet when closely inspected many things are out of order. The disorder changes the overall message, until it’s not really the same thing.
Let’s take the prosperity gospel, the isolation of prosperity elevates the blessing promises of the Old Testament above all else until God’s only living to make His people rich. Which is not what the bible teaches, it is not what those promises meant. Those promises were attached to a relationship with the living God. They were a part of the outpouring of love from God to His people when they turned their hearts to Him and lived their lives in such a way that allowed Him to get close to them. The promise of blessing and prosperity was connected to many things that all worked together to reveal the nature of God.
Without context, those promises lose their message. They become empty promises that give us empty hope. The point of those passages in the Old Testament was God. The blessing was God in our lives. Prosperity was a byproduct, peripheral to the main event. If prosperity is pushed to the center through isolation, that means God is pushed to the side and made peripheral, which is a problem. If God is the point, prosperity gospel misses the point.
All I’m saying is, be careful of the temptation to isolate verses from the rest of the chapter, or the chapter from the rest of the book, or the book from the rest of the bible. It all relates to each other. Keep a doctrine within the context of the whole theology. Find a church, pursue God with others. Find relational context with other followers of Jesus. We are, after all, the people of God.
Victorian Minds. Gertrude Himmelfarb. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Random House of Canada Limited. New York, USA; Toronto, Canada. 1952. Page 16.