Abstraction is a thought process where characteristics are separated from actual objects to create a theoretical ideal which is then treated as if it were real. It is a means of simplification where concrete details are left ambiguous so that generalizations can be made in terms of the abstraction, which becomes the norm for the sake of discussion.
We all use abstraction in our thinking and conversation. If I said, “George Washington was a true patriot because …” I would be defending his patriotism in terms of a definition of patriotism. On the other hand, if I said, “The true patriot is one who …” I would be about to create an abstract definition of patriotism to which I would be holding others.
Abstract thought is valid in many circumstances. It is dangerous and potentially blasphemous when applied to theology.
Reason and Faith
Medieval Christendom had a very God-centered view of reality. Humanism, in the form of Greek thought, kept reviving to challenge this view. The Enlightenment was a reaction to the Protestant Reformation; it self-consciously returned to Greek paganism and celebrated man’s reason.
Sometimes we buy into this approach, so when a humanist accuses Christians of being irrational our tendency is to respond with, “No, you are irrational.” We then stand with the cynic on the presupposition that man’s mind is central and that man’s logic is therefore central.
The Christian must understand his faith implies limitations to both reason and logic. First, man is limited by his creaturehood and his position relative to his Creator. We could paraphrase Job 9:32–33 as, “God is not a man like I am, that I could challenge him or take him to court. Likewise, there is no one who could act as judge in such a context or exert authority over us as though the two of us were equals.” Man’s reason is part of his created being and can never be elevated above or even close to the level of the Creator.
A second limitation on man’s reasoning is the fall. Man is a sinner, so his reasoning is often the logic of rebellion. Satan, of course, used fallacious logic to tempt Eve, so man’s use of reason as a means of standing over God and His Word has that sordid origin.
A third limitation on man’s reason is his redemption, his call to be a new creature in Christ and to submit to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Man is called to submit the entirety of his being to God, and this includes his fallen mental faculties.
Reasoning is a Religious Activity
Man is rational in terms of his faith, his basic presuppositions. The Enlightenment saw humanistic man in terms of reason, but Scripture views man as a creature of faith. Man always thinks and acts in terms of what he believes. Adam and Eve rationally considered Satan’s words and chose disobedience because they first believed those lies; they were exercising faith in Satan’s promise. When man follows his rebellion against God, his reason works out the logical implications of what he believes, what he assumes to be true. Reasoning then, is a religious activity though not necessarily an ecclesiastical one (evolution is one of the most prevalent faiths of our era, though it is certainly not ecclesiastical). One of the reasons we see the continuing abandonment of Christian morality and custom, not to mention hostility thereto, is that our culture is becoming more consistently humanistic. Its faith is being acted on more systematically.
Faith and Dominion
Man’s drive to dominion is also in terms of his faith. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines the image of God in terms of knowledge, righteousness, holiness, and dominion. All these are perverted by sin. Knowledge becomes a confidence in lies, righteousness becomes a false justice, holiness becomes a separation not to God but to evil, and dominion becomes a lust for power and control. Sinners will think and act in terms of what they believe, so that un-Christian morphs into anti-Christian and ever more consistently so. Men are rational, but their reasoning is in terms of their faith. If we do not self-consciously hold a systematic Biblical theology, we will end up with the systematics of another faith. Theology (from theos and logos) means “God words,” and if our “God words” are not self-consciously Biblical, they will become more consistently non-Biblical. Faith and its expression will then be followed by action, by an exercise of dominion whereby men work out the implications of their beliefs.
Our thinking must self-consciously rely on God’s revealed words for theology. If God is the Creator, we are in a very small part of His reality; if we assume He is not the Creator, we will recognize Him as a small part of our reality. The danger is when very clever men create abstract ideas about God and equate those abstractions with theology. The academic study of theology, in fact, can encourage this tendency.
We cannot close God off into a category of our making or relegate Him to a place of our definition. We understand as we, by faith, assume God’s Word is true, that it is a consistent whole, and that we are subject to it because we are subject to Him.
God’s Thoughts and Man’s Thoughts
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9)
We cannot impose our reason on God. Contrast Isaiah’s words with those of E. J. Carnell who famously (and blasphemously) said, “Bring on your revelations! Let them make peace with the law of contradiction and the facts of history, and they will deserve a rational man’s assent.”1 This is “rational man’s” attitude: let me be the judge of God’s existence, reasonableness, justice, love, etc. Such reason begins with the supremacy of man and God’s accountability before the court of man’s judgment. Job knew better; modern man does not.
God’s word is transcendent; human reason is not. To impose our reason on God would be to counter Isaiah with, “No, God’s thoughts must be my thoughts; my ways must be God’s ways. God’s thoughts are not higher than my thoughts; God’s thoughts must be understandable to me.” Imposing our reason on God is tantamount to grabbing God, pulling Him down to earth and saying, “You’d better start making sense to me!”
Theology is faith based, and the believer must acknowledge that faith is itself the gift of God. Theology is not a branch of philosophy or logic. Theology is not a critical analysis or an intellectual or academic exercise, but “God words” that we receive by God’s grace from God Himself in Scripture.
We ask speculative theological questions all the time. It is natural for limited minds with limited knowledge to ask for more information, but our errors multiply when we try to answer such questions. The question that begins with, “Why would God …” should be answered with, “Unless God tells us we cannot presume to know the mind of God.”
We must not presume our human logic can figure God out where He has not spoken. In fact, we often cannot understand what He does say (the concepts of eternity and the triune God cannot be rationally understood). We must not presume that God or His transcendent truth should be comprehendible to us. Trying to probe the mind of God is presuming that He must operate in terms of His creature’s mental abilities and that our sin is not a further impediment to such efforts.
Speculative theology is human ideas about God, developed into abstractions and then imposed on God and His Word. At one time tomes were written on the area of theology known as lapsarianism. The idea has as its root word “lapse,” which refers to man’s sin. This great debate set about to create an order to God’s eternal decrees (creation, the fall, the decree to save some, election of some to life).
Some recognized that, because God is not limited by time and His decrees are one, this could not be debated as a chronological order. Still, they persisted in trying to arrange them in a logical order, a cause and effect order. The problem was in transferring man’s limitation of time and thought to God. Logic itself imposes a chronological order, but God is not limited by time, He is the great “I am.” Trying to impose an order to God’s thinking imposes time, a creation of God, on God. It also, of course, presumes man can understand the mind of God. One website tried to defend its lapsarian position in terms of the simile of computer chips that God programmed in the past. God is then viewed mechanistically. Once you assume to understand God’s programming code, you then are not afraid to make bold statements based on your logic about God. Note some of the statements such presumption led to (emphasis added):
“God cannot do anything for us until we become an entity; He cannot do anything for a non-entity.”
“No decree itself, therefore, opposes human freedom.”
“God is fair and provides for all. God doesn’t arbitrarily assign people to hell.”
“God is not unfair to any member of the human race; such a thought is blasphemous and unthinkable.”
What is the problem here? Note how this writer’s logic is applied to God, and God is then limited by the writer’s logic. He presumes to say what God can and cannot do based on his lapsarian logic. In speaking to his readership, the writer even used the second person (speaking to both reader and God) and laid down the law to man and God alike: “You cannot elect until you create. You cannot elect until you permit the fall.” I hope God is taking notes. And what is wrong with saying that God is fair? Note that his statements hinge on the abstract concept of that which he believes fairness consists. What is unthinkable and blasphemous by his definition? Apparently it is any affront to humanity by the writer’s abstraction of “fairness.”
All the various lapsarian arguments were presumptions. Each claimed to read God’s mind, to penetrate the eternal decrees of God on the assumption that God’s thought and action are comparable to man’s.
In Genesis 3 Satan claimed to know the mind and secret thoughts of God and challenged Eve to live in terms of these presumptions. Using Satan’s logic, Eve rationally chose sin, as did Adam.
We are commanded to read God’s Word, not His mind. We know God only as and to the extent He reveals Himself. We know His truths in the same way. To know God’s mind would necessitate having a mind equal to His, yet we do not fully understand ourselves, much less God. Faith calls for a confidence in God; it does not require us to explain about God what God does not explain.
God Is Not An Abstraction
The word “god” is used universally for any supreme being or concept of ultimacy. This is why “god” can be discussed across religious and philosophical lines. Men define their own “god” and profess belief in him. In modern usage, the term “god,” or even “God,” often has no reference to the Jehovah of Scriptures.
Scripture, however, presents God as a person, not an abstraction. This was John’s point of the logos in the first chapter of his gospel. He was not the abstract mind of the universe but a person whom John and others knew and loved. The God of Scripture, moreover, is a God who has spoken and has given us His written revelation of Himself. Creating abstract constructs and calling them “God” is a rejection of that revelation, or at least its subordination to the false god of our imagination. God’s name is holy and man has no proprietary use of it. The use of God’s name is totally governed, so ought not His works, nature, and His decrees to be guarded against speculation by presumptuous man?
Right after God gave the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20) He noted that the people were afraid of Him, and they begged Moses to speak to God so they would not have to face Him directly. God, to those people, was saying, in effect, “You are afraid because you know I am real; you know I am not a concept; I am not an abstraction.”
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” Scripture tells us. Fear of real danger can be a healthy attitude. When we see God for all the good things we like about Him—salvation, grace, mercy, love, etc.—and yet ignore His other very real characteristics—judgment, law, wrath, holiness—we have created an abstract God, one of our own creation. We must let God define Himself and His work and accept all that He is. We cannot cherry-pick what we like about God and present this abstraction of a deity as the God of Scripture. Neither can we try to supplement what God has said as though we were His copy editor supplying what He neglected and then pass it off as God-words.
We need to pay close attention to the difference between Scriptural “God words” and the “man words” that so often pass for theology.
1. E. J. Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 73. Quoted by Cornelius Van Til in “The Defense of Christianity” at http://www.the-highway.com/def...