Too Much

There must have been a time when it was possible to be a complete Renaissance man — to have within one person everything known to man. (I’m guessing it must have been in the Renaissance.) Well, perhaps not know everything exactly, but the state of the art in every known field of endeavour. Modern-day scientific specialization has certainly made that impossible now; there is no scientist that could claim to know all of physics, all of biology, all of chemistry, all of mathematics — not even close, and much less all of everything. What I wonder is when will the human race reach the limit of scientific endeavor?

At some point it will not be possible for even a very smart person to reach the frontiers of knowledge within the span of a human lifetime. At some point before that, researchers will have to be students for much longer than now, before they are prepared to understand and solve the problems that are left (IMO, this will be a good thing, because the youngest academics will not be forced to have their highest teaching and research burdens dumped on them simultaneously at the start of their careers).

On the other end of the spectrum from empiricism, Christians are faced with an opposite (yet strangely similar) dilemma. From the beginning, the magnitude of God’s truth has always been more than any man could master within one lifetime, nor thousands of lifetimes! When it comes to the problems of the human heart, ‘there is nothing new under the sun‘. For millenia, Christians have all had the same dataset to work with; namely the Bible. Accretions of human wisdom piled on top of that have twisted and perverted the plain teaching of scripture, but a return to sola scriptura caused a Reformation that shook the Western World.

In one way, it is a blessing to have the wisdom of Calvin, Luther, Augustine, and other church fathers, so that we modern Christians may get a leg-up on understanding scripture. On the other hand, despite the fact that there exists such good, reformed, systematic theology, there still exist seminaries, so there are people out there with an imperative to justify their jobs and publish ‘new’ theological research. Yes, there are and always will be some errors of the past (and present) that need correcting. But I think most Christians would/should agree that we’ve got this Christianity thing pretty well figured out; what remains is the eternal cycle of personal maintenance and training of new generations — there are no remaining cataclysmic new paradigms to come (don’t dispensationalists even agree that we are in the final dispensation of God’s revelation?).

Science, on the other hand, would never make a claim that there can be no more paradigm shifts, but I wonder whether anybody has done any thinking about when science might reach a point in which it has grown so large, so complex, so ponderous that it can grow no further, but just manage to maintain status quo by continually training new generations, whose goal must be to not let anything known to fall into unknown-ness, rather than our current goal of finding new things to know. As far as I can remember from reading I must have done 15-20 years ago, this is the situation depicted in Asimov’s Foundation novels, where the concept of scientific research is completely lost, and ‘scowlers’ do nothing but look up other people’s writings, and make conclusions from their past studies.

Well, I’m at that point in a ruminative post where I don’t have any pithy conclusion to offer, so I’ll just sit back and wait for you to make some conclusions for me…

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9 Responses

  1. It was at this point

    despite the fact that there exists such good, reformed, systematic theology, there still exist seminaries, so there are people out there with an imperative to justify their jobs and publish ‘new’ theological research.

    and this next one

    But I think most Christians would/should agree that we’ve got this Christianity thing pretty well figured out

    that you lost me. Could you clarify what it is you are saying about seminaries or the profs that teach at them?

    Also, I would think that your own blog should serve to demonstrate the opposite of your assertion regarding having things figured out. No?

  2. “pretty well figured out”: five points, five solas, bada bing, bada boom. Westminster, Heidelberg, Belgic, Nicene, Apostle’s, etc. The foundational specifications of the Reformed (true) understanding of the bible have not changed for hundreds of years; and more importantly, the word of God itself has never changed, and never will.

    As for seminaries, they are academic institutions, staffed by professors, whose job is to publish papers, and to teach students. You can (and should) always teach students the same thing every year, but you can’t publish the same paper you published last year. So seminary profs have to struggle with the tension between the need for saying something new, and the reality that there isn’t anything new to be said which is of much consequence. Those that are not satisfied with the same old understanding that has been passed down from Augustine, Luther, Calvin, … can be tempted to find something new and of consequence, which is why we now have NPP and FV. (I won’t lump Theonomy in this category as well, because I don’t think it’s particularly new, as Theonomists will gladly demonstrate from the original, un-American Westminster confession and Calvin’s example).

    As for my blog, I am engaging (myself and others) in the practice of cramming as many fine points and subtle distinctions onto my ‘pretty well figured out’ as will fit during my one alloted lifetime.

  3. I guess I have to disagree, R. Why shouldn’t sem profs bring fresh insights to their classes each year? Math profs, the good ones at least, (for example) do! I would cite N.T. Wright as a contemporary Biblical theologian whose fresh insights have created an exciting stir of new understandings that build on all the old ones, even the ones they to some extent subvert.

  4. Fresh insights perhaps, but into the same truths. In seminary and math class. The problem is seeking a paradigm shift in a domain where none is possible. I haven’t read any writing by N.T. Wrong himself (but obviously I feel entitled to mock him!). Everything I know about NPP I learned from here, and what is presented there I definitely don’t like; I think it does violence to a fundamental biblical understanding of justification by faith, and the transcendence of gospel and grace over law and legalism.

  5. A lot of what goes on at WSCAL is teaching orthodoxy that while it ain’t new, is filling in the meat (as opposed to milk) that isn’t available anywhere else . The other thing that goes on at WSCAL is combatting abberations (even up to the point of combatting heresy). Of course, that is my point of view and obviously I have bought into WSCAL’s covenant theology hook, line and sinker.

    I am not at all convinced that WSCAL has a publish or perish attitude WRT its profs. I see WSCAL seeing itself as “publish (defend the faith once delivered) lest the Church perish” kind of mentality.

    On the N.T. Wrong dig, I once coined the nickname “Tom Terrific” and was seriously castigated for having done so. I don’t think he is the 20th century rejuvinator of NPP or FV but seems to have bought into it pretty hard.

  6. Read NTW for yourself then and be amazed at how his insights into the milieu of Jesus expand your sense of what he came to do! I’ll bring a copy of my favorite (short!!!) book when we come, a written form of the lectures we heard at the first IV grad conference in 1998.

  7. Expanding might be ok, but this quote: “Paul…was not protesting self-righteous efforts to merit favor before God” attempts to contract my sense of what Jesus came to do.

  8. I don’t have time to chase this down today as I am determined to finish a draft of chapter three, but have you checked the NT Wright webpage? He has bunches of stuff posted about this controversy.

  9. Has he posted any retractions? Let me know if he does.

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