A few months back I wrote the following:
Eco also draws his reader’s attention to the manner in which a number of thinkers imposed preconceived conclusions upon the evidence that they encountered in their different fields and activities and failed to appreciate the manner in which the evidence actually undermined their familiar categories. For example, Marco Polo discovered the unicorn, but also discovered that it was black rather than white, had hooves like those of an elephant and a pelt like that of a buffalo. He was only able to speak of the unknown in terms of what he had expected to find. ‘He was a victim of his background books.’ It seems to me that this is a mistake that we have all made at some time or other. I am tempted to make a remark about certain theological debates at this point.
I will resist no longer.
Mark Horne’s comments on Van Til really resonate with my own experience. I feel cheated by the way that many of the Reformed authors (Van Til being a perfect example) that I have read in the past have represented those outside of the Reformed tradition. A large proportion of the Reformed tradition seems to be quite incapable of truly encountering the ‘Other’ — the position that falls outside of our own categories.
When Reformed people encounter positions that differ from their own they tend to do one of two things. They either domesticate the position and paper over the real differences that exist or demonize the position and deny or marginalize the existence of real commonalities. They seem to be unable to call the sufficiency of their own categories into question.
Such a way of looking at the world has given us Augustine and Luther as great heroes of the faith (which they were) despite their holding to supposedly dangerous doctrines such as baptismal regeneration. Rather than acknowledge the importance of such doctrines in their theological systems these doctrines are marginalized and treated as if they could be lopped from their theological systems while leaving the rest intact (the way that Warfield neatly separates Augustine’s ecclesiology from his soteriology is a perfect case in point). Augustine and Luther are domesticated and reduced to being the same as us. They merely echo our own voices. We lack the ability to treat them on their own terms.
The same is frequently done with Calvin. From my reading of Calvin I do not believe that he can easily be claimed by any of the parties in contemporary disputes in Presbyterian circles. We really need to learn how to read people like Calvin without presuming that we already know what they are going to say. Domesticating someone is just as effective a way of silencing someone as demonizing them is. We do not although ourselves to be confronted by the ‘other’.
The other tendency is that of demonizing people who differ from us and denying or marginalizing the things that we genuinely have in common. By demonizing people in this way we absolve ourselves of the task of being attentive to what they have to say. Once again we presume that we already know what they are going to say. A tradition that treats people in such a way is self-obsessed and self-absorbed. All is polarized into positions of varying consistency with one of two diametrically opposed systems.
It is, frankly, infuriating to be at the receiving end of this. I have been in this position far too much over the last few years. People try to force you into traditional categories in order to silence you. Once they have put you into a familiar category they don’t bother paying attention to what you are saying. They hear what you are saying without really hearing. They merely hear what they expect to hear. You are a unicorn, no matter how loudly you point out the things that identify you as a rhinoceros.
On the one hand you are told that you are just saying what the Reformed tradition has always said. This protects the tradition from ever being confronted with anything outside or beyond itself that might challenge it to change. On the other hand you are told that you are utterly rejecting the Reformed tradition and that anything that you continue to have in common is a matter of ‘blessed inconsistency’. Once again, by dismissing you in such a manner, the tradition is freed from the task of engagement with the ‘other’. Unicorns only exist in the imagination, as do many of the theological positions that Reformed Christians categorize in terms of (Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, Judaism, etc.).
This is one of the reasons why questioning the helpfulness of the categories of our confessional documents is important. Reformed people have been seeing unicorns in the writings of the apostle Paul, for example, for far too long. Much of what they are seeing is there (just as unicorns share certain prominent features in common with rhinoceri), but we really need to question whether our traditional confessional categories are really sufficient.
Recent years have witnessed a growing awareness of the ‘otherness’ of the apostle Paul and a realization that the tradition has domesticated him in various ways. At this time the tradition should be cultivating a new attentiveness to what the apostle was really trying to say. Whilst this has been taking place in many circles, there has been a significant reaction in others. To those who do not have categories sufficient to deal with the rhinoceros, to deny that it is a unicorn is a clear and inexcuseable denial of the truth. In response to this reaction many have sought to reaffirm their agreement with the traditional confessions and have admitted that it really is a unicorn. What difference is there between a rhinoceros and a unicorn anyway? In so doing they risk domesticating both Paul and themselves.
Whilst I will acknowledge that, in terms of the categories that they thought within, the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformed did as good a job as could have been done of representing Paul’s position, I believe that these categories are seriously deficient and need to be significantly improved upon if we are really serious about the need to be attentive to Paul. I believe that those who recognize the manner in which traditional categories fail to do justice to Paul should be far more cautious in the way in which they assent to the confessions. Whilst acknowledging the genuine good contained in the confessions, there should be a willingness to be honest about the serious insufficiencies of the categories of the confessions.
At the very least it would help us to know what to do if we were ever to meet a rhinoceros.