Tag Archive for judgements

Preferences and Adiaphora

God reveals His will in Scripture in three ways.

The first is by explicit command or prohibition. God simply mandates certain behaviours and forbids others.
The second is by principles. Principles give truths, usually in timeless, axiomatic, or generalised form, which must then be properly connected to the specific circumstances that a believer is in.
The third is by allowing areas that He neither requires nor forbids explicitly in His Word. Theologians have called these things adiaphora, from the Greek which means ‘indifferent things’. These refer to matters where Scripture has not told us one way or another. Here careful judgement is needed. The meaning of the thing or activity in question must be properly understood, and then linked back to Scriptural commands or principles.

It is this third area that we must understand in order to correctly use the term preference. One characteristic of modern libertarian Christianity is its tendency to adopt an inverted legalism. In order to justify its ‘freedoms’, it makes an appeal to the letter of the law. That is, it shaves down the actual obligations of a Christian to explicit positive or negative biblical commands. It wrangles free of the implications of many biblical principles, claiming exemption from them with the post-modern’s motto: “that’s just your interpretation.” Finally, when it comes to adiaphora, it looks incredulously at the one seeking to form a judgement on any such matter. After all, if God hasn’t said anything about it, then the matter is meaningless, morally neutral, and without any serious moral implications. By a weird abuse of sola Scriptura, the only admissible judgements are the first category of explicit commands and prohibitions. The rest of life, it seems, does not matter to God. Finally, with rich irony, these legalists brand anyone who offers a moral judgement on any of the adiaphora with the term – you guessed it – legalist.

It ought to be obvious to us that God did not aim to write an exhaustive manual detailing His will on every possible event. The Bible would then fill several libraries, and be an ongoing work.

It ought to be equally obvious to us that God does want us to glorify Him in every detail of our lives (Col 3:17, 1 Cor 10:31). He has a perfect will, and He wants us to know it (Rom 12:2, Eph 5:16). Therefore, it ought to be plain to us that what God has supplied in the Scripture must be applied to life using information not contained in the Scripture.

Why are Christians so intimidated at the thought of getting grounds to apply a Scripture from outside the Scriptures? Probably because they have confused sola Scriptura with nuda Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture alone is the final authority for life and godliness. There is no higher bar or court of appeal than the Bible. There we find God’s will revealed. No information outside of the Scripture is to be considered as authoritative as Scripture itself.

However, nuda Scriptura is the idea that Scripture can come to us unclothed, apart from the understanding imparted from the believing community of faith and the Christian past, apart from the progress of theology through the centuries,  and apart from any other accompanying information from beyond the Scripture, even if it be true and given by experts or authorities in their fields. Scripture’s authority becomes limited to the naked black-and-white text, and nothing more than its own explicit applications will be admitted. In supposedly wanting nothing more than the unadorned statements of Scripture to guide his life, such a person ironically destroys the authority of Scripture to speak on life in general. Scripture’s protectors become its captors, not merely keeping competitors out, but keeping its own authority locked within the prison of its own two covers.

Most nuda Scriptura practitioners are unaware of how inconsistent they are with this attitude. They oppose abortion, but the Bible nowhere explicitly says that the killing of an unborn child is an instance of murder. They oppose taking God’s name in vain, but they cannot point to a single Scripture which gives an explicit application of that command. They regard recreational drug use as sinful, but cannot find a verse which links drug use to principles forbidding addiction or harm to the body.

And yet they oppose these things. That’s because they unwittingly violate their nuda Scriptura ethos, and supply outside (non-Scriptural) information to make a valid application. They find out from doctors that life begins at conception; they reason that using the actual name of God in an everyday slang fashion is to treat it in an unworthy manner; they find out information on the addictiveness and physical effects of the drug in question. In other words, Scripture does not give them either the application, or even the link to the application. They do, through the use of reason and outside information. We do this all the time, and God expects us to do so.

I think the disingenuous attitude of “the Bible doesn’t say that” really begins once a cherished idol is under fire. The person lives by sola Scriptura in every other area of his life. However, should one of his loves be challenged – his music, his entertainments, his dress to worship, his use of disposable income, his reading matter – suddenly he reverts to nuda Scriptura. Now he wants the Bible to speak explicitly to the matter under question, or his supposed devotion to chapter and verse will throw it out. This is a lying heart.

Adiaphora are not areas where the lordship of Christ does not apply, to be exploited for our own convenience. All of life is to be lived for the glory of God, including those areas where Christians can come to opposite conclusions.

Christians and Critical Judgements

Most Christians are happy to accept the authority of expert opinion. What is instructive to note is which domains of knowledge they are comfortable to refer to experts, as opposed to those in which they actively oppose expert opinion. To paraphrase what I wrote to one commenter, Christians are happy to listen to experts when they are biologists or geologists, and the topic is creationism/evolution. Christians are happy to turn to experts when they are neurologists and the topic is depression and the use of anti-depressants. The expert opinion that these men will bring, when submitting their findings to the principles of Scripture, is deemed helpful – and rightly so. For some reason, when the topic is the more critical judgements of art, the experts are disparagingly called “gatekeepers” or “elitists” or said to be “keeping out the unwashed, and allowing in the pure.”

Why is this so? I have no way of proving this, but I suspect many Christians have embraced the ‘double-storey’ view of truth. Immanuel Kant is really the central culprit here. He taught that human knowledge comes in two separate layers, or floors. The lower floor we might call “scientific” or rational knowledge. It’s the kind of knowledge we can work out using mathematics or measure with scientific experiments. The upper floor we might call “moral” or intuitive knowledge, and it refers to religious beliefs, morals, and judgements about beauty. Kant believed that only the lower-storey could be known with certainty, through empirical observation. The upper-storey was “impossible to know, but morally necessary to suppose”. What that translates to in the contemporary situation is the idea that science delivers hard facts, while art delivers neutral material which obtains only “personal” judgements, variable from subject to subject.

Christians seem to believe this. They believe we need experts to fight infection in the body, build aeroplanes, and program software – because this kind of knowledge is, to them at least, entirely “objective”. But determining if a song is sensual, if a poem’s rhythm is comical, if a film is subversive to Christian affections is no longer a matter of collecting empirical facts, and must then be “subjective”, a term which in their parlance usually means “arbitrary in meaning”. Of course, if this is so, an expert in these areas is not only an impossible vocation (for how can one person’s judgement be authoritative if no authoritative, universal judgement is possible), such a person becomes preposterous – like having a colour-inspector tell you if your interior decoration is lawful or not.

But Kant’s dichotomy is open to challenge, and few strict Kantians exist anymore. What Christians need to embrace is the truth that while judgements about music and art are indeed of a different kind to those of maths and science, they are all still judgements. All knowledge is a matter of judgement and interpretation, even the manipulation of numbers, or the direct observation of the universe. It is all performed by subjects, and in that sense, all knowledge is ‘subjective’. The difference between a judgement of art and one of science is not that one is exterior and the other interior, or the one discoverable and the other mystically unknowable. The real difference is that aesthetic, moral, religious knowledge is knowledge that pertains to persons, and so the judgement requires a more careful, critical judgement.

Ethical and aesthetical judgements are difficult. It’s easier to work out the circumference of a circle than it is to determine how Christians smuggling Bibles into a country should deal with the border agents. Such an ethical judgement is hard, but not impossible. It calls for the combined thinking of many Christians on the topics of truthfulness, governmental authority, civil disobedience, conflicting obligations and questions of greater goods and lesser evils. It’s a critical judgement.

Judging art and beauty requires a similarly critical judgement. Such judgement requires a thoughtful examination of form, and of the materials used in the art form. It requires knowledge of the symbols and metaphors within a culture. It usually requires historical knowledge, understanding the “conversation” that has taken place within the culture, so that it can place the work within that conversation. The critic, if he is doing is job, is not “forcing his preference” on us, nor is he “criticising” the work, in the sense of tearing it down. He is explaining meaning to us, using his knowledge of the form, his knowledge of history, and his own sense of perception. He should not tell us what we could not, with the right tools, see ourselves; that is, he is not some kind of mediator interpreting a language that no one else can understand. Nevertheless, he ought to possess a superior knowledge of art, and enough experience and insight to help us see more, and become better judges ourselves.

Certainly we live in an era when we lack a living tradition, and we feel more cut off from meaning in art than most generations before us probably ever did. In this atmosphere, we need critics more than ever, while suspecting rightly that the wrong critics have more power to mislead than ever. The solution is not to retreat to Kantian notions of the impossibility of knowing beauty. The solution is to choose critics immersed in the Western and Christian tradition. Unless we believe moral, religious, and aesthetic judgements are all arbitrary, it is entirely permissible and indeed, necessary, to turn to authorities in these areas, to help shape our judgements.