Dr. Lothar Schwabe
This essay is an attempt to stir up a debate about the root of the current theological differences between the liberal and conservative camps. It is not sufficient to brand the different camps as revisionists or traditionalists. We do not understand the theological position of anybody unless we know where they are coming from.
What we see of a mountain depends upon where we stand. When we take a photo of a famous mountain others can tell where we took it from. Moving our position produces a different image of the mountain. The mountain itself will not change. We can change what we see of a mountain by changing our position. In a way, we are responsible for what we see.
That insight is imbedded in the language we use. Talking about somebody’s “point of view”, “angle”, “perspective”, “position (Standpunkt in German),” implies our awareness that what we see is determined by the position we take. When we talk about “taking a position” we state that we have chosen a particular point from which we will view an idea or object. We have no control of what we see, we can only control the position we take. Once we have selected a position from which we will view something, what we will see becomes predicable.
The theological implications of that insight are significant. All theology is positional theology. How a theology views God and humankind entirely depends upon the position it has taken. What is presented as theology often tells us more about the theologian than the Bible. Such relativism distorts the great truths of the Bible. A snap-shot type of theology should be identified as coming from a particular point of view and seen through particular lenses. It is not productive to argue a theological interpretation unless one begins by defining the position from which it is viewed. If I know your position, I can actually predict your theological interpretation.
The problem with viewing Scriptures from any human position is that it enables a person to use Scriptures to achieve ones own agenda. But we are not the first generation to study the Bible. We have the safeguards of a long history of theological interpretations. However, in the eagerness to make a certain point or to achieve a certain agenda such safe-guard is often ignored.
Jesus spent his ministry teaching people to see life from the perspective of God. Jesus taught us that there is a theology that comes from the position of God. Jesus taught what the Father had revealed to him. Jesus referred to Holy Scriptures as revealing God’s position. The Ten Commandments were a revelation of the position of God. A human position would lead to a different set of commandments. The prophets focused on letting people know what God saw from His position. God’s position is the only valid position.
Luther spent his ministry teaching people to view life from a position that is located inside the Bible. Viewing life from the position of the Bible produced a different picture than viewing is from the position of Tetzel, who sold indulgencies. There were no shortages of different perspectives which people could chose to take. There were political perspectives, business perspectives, philosophical perspectives, the perspective of tradition, and more. The reformation moved believers to view life and make decisions based upon taking a position that was anchored in the Bible. For Luther it was faith that moves a person’s position from outside the Bible to inside the Bible. The Holy Spirit reveals God’s will to the believer. It is only faith that can move a person to view something from the perspective of God. The analogy of the mountain that I have used in this essay therefore has its limitation. We can not move inside a mountain to get a better perspective of it.
Luther was aware that (as there are different sides of a mountain,) there is more to Biblical truth than can be described in one single statement. This led to the famous dichotomies in Luther’s theology. The law and gospel dichotomy is a good example. We can not mix or harmonize the law and the gospel. They are both legitimate perspectives. In reference to the law and gospel dichotomy, Luther introduces his explanations of the Ten Commandments with the dichotomy of fear and love, “We are to fear and love God”. Likewise, Jesus being totally man and totally God, and a Christian being simultaneously a saint and a sinner are dichotomies that reveal that God’s truth is greater than our minds can comprehend. Paul made that point in 1 Corinthians 13, 12, “Now I see in part”.
We, too, have no shortage of positions to choose from. We are offered sociological perspectives, psychological perspectives, historical perspectives, political perspectives, and a great variety of other human perspectives.
Then there is still that biblical perspective. That sounds simple, but that, too, is tricky because it now depends on how the Bible is interpreted. Theologians call that hermeneutics. Theologians have interpreted the Bible from different perspectives.
Like the view of a mountain, what theologians see in Scriptures depends upon their position. What theologians state sounds very logical as long as one views it from their perspective. Theological debates are all about convincing others to accept Scriptures from their point of view. When theologians succeed in getting you to see things from their point of view you are hooked.
It is useless to debate theology as if it were all about something anybody with half an eye could clearly see, when in effect it is all about where somebody is coming from. It would be far more useful and honest to begin all debates by revealing the position each participant is taking.
Is it then useless to dialogue about theology if what people see as biblical truth depends entirely from where they stand? Is all theology subjective? That all depends on whether we accept the notion that the Bible is the place where we can learn about God’s position.
Martin Luther took the position of letting Scriptures interpret Scriptures. Luther did not allow any other human perspective to distort what God had revealed to us in the Bible.
Luther articulated that it is only the direct, undistorted Word of God that can produce faith by saying, ”I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts . . . .” (Small Catechism, M. Luther)
Today’s theological controversies can only be understood if one understands where theologians are coming from. Any discussion between the two opposing camps is fruitless unless it is first clarified which position each one has taken.
How do we know that there is any objective truth to what Christians believe? There is a common experience Christians throughout history have had. Those who ventured into the Bible, often seeking to interpret the Word, experienced that the Word was interpreting them. They experience the Bible as a living and dynamic entity that engaged them at the core of their being. The Bible made sense of them and their existence. Luther’s encounter with Romans 3 is an example of that.
In these days of theological confusion we are challenged to experience the power of the Word and let it shape our reality.