Monday, November 24, 2008

Practical Theology: Decision Making

There are at least three dead-end approaches to decision making that I see in the evangelical world. And there's only one approach that fits with what we theoretically believe about God, life, the universe and everything.

The first dead-end is pragmatism. Pragmatism says "we should do X, because X will work". It crops up all over evangelicalism, often in the form of imitation - it worked over there/for them/in the 16th century, therefore it will work here and now. Who you imitate will depend on what evangelical tribe you belong to, but it doesn't really matter whether you're copying Calvin or the church up the road. When pragmatism isn't imitation, it is usually sparked off by one person's "big idea". That person is usually an activist - pragmatism appeals to activists. But the key thing is that for the pragmatist, the right thing to do is what works.

Problem: as you are not God, you do not know the end from the beginning. You don't know what will work. You cannot ascertain what the results will be. So how can you decide what to do?

The second dead-end is mysticism. Mysticism says "we should do X, because God told me so", or perhaps "I feel led to do X, therefore I should do it". Mysticism is rampant amongst evangelicals of all flavours. Sometimes it is just a cover for something else - there may be pragmatism lurking under there - but often it is a genuine feeling that the Spirit is pressing us in a particular direction. And I don't what to knock that entirely; I know that sometimes God guides in this way. But there is a...

Problem: mysticism is entirely subjective, and therefore inherently individualistic. If you feel led to do something, how can I critique your "leading"? What if I think you're wrong, on other grounds? Can we even have a conversation about the decision any more?

The third dead-end is biblicism. Biblicism says "we should do X, because it says so in Leviticus 18:4". (Don't look it up, I have no idea what it says). Biblicism is popular in evangelical circles because it seems to show right regard for the Bible, and because it acknowledges what we all know to be true: that Scripture should guide us. But often a veneer of biblicism is added to pragmatism or mysticism - we decide what will work, or feel a sense of leading, and then find a Bible verse that matches up. Even when this isn't the case, biblicism tends to basically mean taking one verse or passage out of context and basing my decision on it.

Problem: the Bible is not like a horoscope, where I can dip in and out for personal guidance. It doesn't function that way because it isn't meant to, and when it is used that way it is being used illegitimately. You can sanction almost anything with a bit of biblicism.

The only genuine help with decision making is theology. Theology looks at the whole scope of the Bible's witness to Christ, and tries to ascertain the character and shape of what God has done and is doing in the world. The good theologian will seek to meditate on the whole plan of redemption as it unfolds in Scripture. The good theologian will look to understand the Bible as a whole, with all its apparent difficulties and paradoxes, and that will mean understanding it as a unitary (though diverse) witness to Christ.

Then, and only then, the theologian looks to the situation in which he finds himself, and asks "what decision fits with the programme outlined in Scripture? What decision rings true with the overall direction of the drama of Scripture? What decision tends to make true, out there in the world, what is true in the pages of the Bible?"

We should do X, because the gospel applied to this situation means X.

Of course, that is much harder work. We will need to be continually steeping ourselves in Holy Scripture, because we surely won't have time to do all the work just before we make a huge decision. And we will need to be in conversation with others who can pick up our blind-spots and show us things about Christ we would have missed.

But this is ultimately the only God-honouring way to make a decision.


  1. hi dan. helpful reaction, but a bit of a caricature wouldnt you say? Do you have some particular kinds of decisions (eg about "christian" activities) in mind?

    - your dismissal of pragmatism seems like a pretty devastating doctrine of the fall to me; whatever happened to proverbs & wisdom?

    - you're right that "God led me" can radically divide individuals off from each other & styme discussion. So how do you think it would have worked in the early church? (eg test prophecy, hold on to the good, Ananias in Acts 9:10-12, or Paul explaining why they should go to Macedonia...)

    - totally with you on "the bible isn't a horoscope". Spot on, but this seems to be a contradiction with your post on "yes-but" theology?

    Although I find these emphases helpful, as someone who has the time & opportunity to spend a week in theological reflection, I'm suspicious of saying "this is ultimately the only God-honouring way to make decisions". Guess I'm too aware of my ability to legitimise myself and delegitimise what doesnt come so naturally to me.

  2. You've really got me thinking how I would work similar material. Perhaps rather than saying "theology is the appropriate way to make decisions", we should say that all 4 (pragmatism, mysticism, biblicism, & ?worldview-ism?) are theological?

    - Pragmatism helps because we can trust the world (created order). Pragmatism doesnt help because we can't always trust people

    - Mysticism helps because God's speaking spirit lives in us. Mysticism doesnt help because we forget the spirit lives in us.

    - Biblicism helps because the words are windows onto God's world & invite our trust. Biblicism doesnt help because God's world has changed and will change.

    - Worldview thinking helps because all truth is God's truth. Worldviews don't help because we only see the world around us.

    I'm aware (a) I've probably misunderstood what you meant by "theology", and (b) I've probably misunderstood the kind of decisions you were commenting on. But thanks for a stimulating post. Hope you're well. Did you meet Natasha on Sunday? Chris

  3. Dear Dan,
    I think I stumbled onto your blog via Bish...

    Following up on the thought that all this is hard work... I've been doing some thinking about how we create our theology. Have a gander.

  4. Interesting post, and I probably agree with you, but can't "theology" can be misused just as much as individual texts can be? Just as a poorly chosen "proof text" can give people an excuse to avoid looking at theology as a whole, so arguing using a theological system can give people the excuse to avoid looking carefully at individual texts.

    e.g. infant baptism is usually argued along the lines of so-called "covenant theology". People have developed a theology, and think use it to argue that infants should be baptised, but without any individual texts to support the practice (not when they're exegeted properly anyway).

    Surely decisions should be made based (a) on an understanding of where the issue fits into Biblical and systematic theology, but also (b) by looking at specific texts-in-context?

  5. Thanks for comments gents. Y'all raise good points, which I won't attempt to reply to in full. But just a few notes:

    Chris, I think I probably do hold a pretty devstating doctrine of the fall! I'm also desperately nervous about "trusting the world", and about mysticism. I guess I think that all right thinking begins from revelation. When it comes to proverbs and wisdom etc, I think that Israel's wisdom (whilst it may at first glance look similar to other cultures) is different because it starts with revelation and ends with worship - possibly a post in that for another day.

    On the Bible thing, I don't think I'm contradicting myself - a theological reflection on the gospel doesn't have to (mustn't!) try to iron out all the differences I talked about in my previous post - again, a whole post somewhere in that.

    I should qualify that I'm probably only talking about "big" decisions, or at least those are the ones I had in mind. Pragmatism works fine for deciding when to catch the bus etc.

    Sam, thanks for reading, and I may well drop a few comments off at your place when I've had a chance to read it properly.

    Steve, you're absolutely right (and loving the casual dropping of baptism into the conversation). The text of Scripture is the source of our theology, and sound exegesis is therefore the foundation of viewing the world rightly. So specific texts have to be allowed to challenge the system - absolutely. And people should stop dunking babies - quite right. ;o)

  6. hi dan. interesting, but unless you're talking about very "christian" decisions, what you say is totally unliveable. Again, just as theology wasnt in doubt, neither is revelation. The question is who, how and where.

    - proverbs is founded more in the created order of things, in God as creator than redeemer (although it points that way, as the wisdom literature develops - proverbs becomes job & ecclesiastes; and we head toward the cross). Interesting that in "Israel's wisdom", you find whole chunks of proverbs completely lifted from foreign wisdom & other kings.

    I know it's silly but "what tool should i use for this nail/screw" is a completely pragmatic decision process. If you didnt think you could trust the world to give expected results, you'd have no reason to try a hammer over a feather. Likewise, Proverbs gives us tons of general ways the world tends to work - even a sinful world - so what you can expect from a sluggard, or a greedy fool...

  7. Dan,

    This is a quick note to say that I agree with you.

    God told me your post was really good.


  8. Thanks again for further comments. A brief response...

    Chris: I think what we're seeing here is actually much broader than the subject of the post and represents a clash of two theological vocabularies/schools/approaches. In particular, this sentence: "proverbs is founded more in the created order of things, in God as creator than redeemer" raises my hackles! I will post on this subject in future (maybe even tomorrow if there's time), but for now suffice to say you are playing Brunner to my Barth.

    Mr Hames: you're a funny man. Just not funny ha-ha if you know what I mean. ;o)

  9. Anonymous11:08 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Anonymous11:08 pm

    fair comment :) - didnt mean to shortchange God there - creator "rather than" redeemer, but i still maintain proverbs generally finds its roots in creation more than in redemption.

    if you narrowed the scope down to decisions concerning wise evangelism, I'd be much more inclined to agree.

    look forward to learning about brunner.