Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dispensationalism as a Model

"all models are wrong, but some are useful" George E. P. Box

Science is largely devoted to developing models. A model is a representation of the world to explain something. We develop models as explanations of the world around us. It has been famously said "all models are wrong, but some are useful". This is taken to mean that none of the models we create are the world we are trying to study, but they can still be helpful in understanding it.

As an aside, this is why "creation science" is a bogus effort, in my opinion. Science in and of itself is not good or bad, atheistic, theistic, or Christian. But science is limited to models, and models all fall short of reality. When an evolutionist says Christianity is "unscientific", he is perfectly correct; not because Christianity is irrational, but because we have assumptions in Christianity that are incompatible with assumptions in science.

Science can not disprove God. But unless God chooses to reveal Himself visibly in a physical way (again!), science cannot possibly find Him either. Science, in order to work at all, assumes a materialistic world. It has to: there is no possible way for us to scientifically (mathematically) account for the spiritual, the supernatural. As a result, we must assume in our scientific models that the supernatural doesn't exist. This isn't because we think that's necessarily correct, it's just that we can't possibly use scientific techniques unless we make that assumption. It's a pragmatic assumption to make a rigourous study possible.

So when a scientist uses science to conclude there is a materialistic explanation for how we and the world around us came to exist, it ought not to surprise anyone: it's petitio principii. Of course that is the conclusion! It has to be, because it is the starting assumption! But proving your assumption is not proving anything: it's circular reasoning. Since science necessarily assumes there is no supernatural, it can't possibly conclude there is one!

The problem comes in, when people confuse their model with reality.

What "creation scientists" have done is, demonstrate Christianity is reasonable. But they cannot prove it is correct. And when evolutionists appeal to science to demonstrate the world is purely materialistic, they prove nothing: they appeal to a pragmatic assumption, not a logically necessary conclusion.

But that is not what I wanted to discuss right now.

Theology is like science in the sense that it too is concerned with building models. Only unlike science, it doesn't build models to try and explain the real world: theology builds models to try and explain the Bible. Or it would, were it purely Bible-based. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt (heh).

Building a model is simply trying to build up a consistent explanation for known facts. It's like trying to play "connect the dots", but the dots aren't numbered. So instead of simply drawing a line from dot to dot, you have to try and determine the best shape that touches every dot. Of course, the word "best" makes it difficult.

Model-building gets harder as there are more and more dots. Any fool can see that there's really one "best" way to connect two dots: a straight line. But three dots get a lot harder. And 3,000 dots are very difficult indeed. And the word "best" gets ambiguous very quickly. There is a general principle out there called "Occam's Razor", which boils down to this: when there are two or more explanations for a known fact, go with the simplest. OK, that's not really what it says, but it's a decent layman's version. This helps incredibly in "connecting the dots".

In Bible study, the "dots" are the assertions (the propositions) that the Bible makes. God is love, God is eternal; those are two of the "dots". As we try and connect more and more of the dots, we get more and more complicated models. But just like in science, we need to be careful not to confuse our models with reality.

I am Dispensationalist. I'm not going to apologize for that: I firmly believe Dispensationlism is the model that best "lines up" with what the Scripture teaches. I've examined alternatives: Reformed Theology is the most popular contender (indeed, a much more popular model than Dispensationalism is), but there are others. I've looked into many of them, but I find Dispensationalism satisfies Occam's Razor the best: I firmly believe it is the simplest model to explain the propositions of Scripture.

I am sure Christ Jesus rose from the dead in the same body in which He was crucified. I am sure He ascended to Heaven to sit at God's right hand. I am sure the Church began in Acts 2. I am sure Jesus Christ is returning physically and visibly to earth to establish a literal thousand-year reign. I am sure He will come and take His bride away before Daniel's seventieth week (which I am sure has not yet started). I can accept the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70 was a foreshadowing---a partial fulfillment, if you like---of day of Jacob's trouble, but the real thing is yet to come. I hold to all these Dispensationalist beliefs, but I am endeavoring not to confuse those propositions (which I hold to be true from Scripture) with my theories on how that will all work out.

Of course, the important thing is not to confuse the model (Dispensationlism) with the reality (the Scripture). "All models"---even Dispensationalism---"are broken". But I find Dispensationalism is very helpful.

I remember when I first read J. N. Darby---frequently called "the father of Dispensationalism"---I was surprised by how little he clung to what I considered Dispensationalist dogmas. It took me a long time to realize that what he was doing was building a model; and he was able to see the difference between his model and the Scripture. He did a good (not perfect) job of distinguishing between the Word of God and his understanding of it. Whenever we adopt a model, we tend to try to force Scripture into it, rather than forcing it to fit the Scripture. This is confusing the model with reality, or worse; it's trying to change reality to fit the model.

So I've been endeavoring to keep the model subject to reality, and it isn't easy. All too often "exposition" means "explaining away", rather than "exposing". Too frequently I hear someone "teaching", who is really trying to defend his model. We can't move the dots to fit the shape we think they should make. We need to accept the shape because of the dots, not the dots because of the shape.

Sadly, I think Dispensationalists, who pride themselves on a "literal, grammatical hermeneutic", frequently act contrary to that. For example, many Dispensationlists restrict the Scriptures to Romans through Philemon, claiming these are the only Epistles to the Gentile Church. John's Epistles, Peter's, Jude, James, and the Gospels are all rejected as "not for today". It's not difficult to show the problems in this hermeneutic, but so many buy into it; with good intentions.

What we can't compromise on, are the propositions of Scripture. We sometimes have trouble figuring out how to connect them: they often seem impossible to connect with any shape, never mind a simple one. But they are correct, they are true. I may just fail to understand them correctly.

I was intending to write more specifically about some Dispensationlist abuses I've heard recently, but I think I'll stop here for now. Those will have to wait for another day.

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