Erickson draws parallels between theology and the disciplines of history, physics and economics

Communications Staff — March 13, 2008

History, physics and economics allow people to clearly examine theological truths, just as reading glasses enable one to explore Scripture said Millard Erickson during the annual Gheens Lectures at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, March 4-6.

Erickson, distinguished professor of theology at Western Seminary, is perhaps best known for his systematic theology, “Christian Theology.” The professor used the example of glasses allowing one to read Scripture to illustrate the role history, physics and economics play in theological understanding.

“This [the Bible] is our authority for all matters of faith and practice,” he said. “This is my authority for what I believe and how I live. Without my glasses I would not be able to access Scripture. The corrective lenses of my glasses enable me to read the fine print in my Bible. They do not change the content, but they do enable me to read it.”

In his opening presentation, Erickson said theology can learn from history in three main ways.

First, history provides a correct perspective on the examination of theology. Erickson noted that someone watching a football contest at field level cannot see the game as well as an announcer in a press booth high above the field. In the same way, a study of history allows one to step back and examine theological developments objectively, he said.

“Because we are so close to certain events, we have trouble really seeing what is really going on,” he said. “History gives us that perspective.”

Second, history allows people to accurately evaluate theology, Erickson said, by providing a full sample of theological trends and movements.

“Sometimes short periods of time make it difficult to accurately judge an event,” he said. “We could consider the race between the tortoise and the hare. If you only watch the first portion of the race, you might think the hare won. But of course, eventually, the tortoise won the race. That which seems so insignificant in the short run, could become much more important over a long period of time.”

Finally, history exerts a calibrating influence on theology, Erickson said. History allows people to objectively measure theological changes and adjustments over periods of time, he said.

“It is possible to error both to the left and to the right, theologically and otherwise,” he said. “In every area of measurement, there has to be calibration. When we set our watches, we have to have an objective standard by which to set them. I have an atomic clock in my office that I use to set my watch.

“Can we find baselines by which we can tell what kind of movement has been made? History allows you to decide who has changed over time and to determine who has moved from their previous position.”

Several recent concepts from physics suggest possible ways for Christians to understand events in Scripture, Erickson said.

The concept of hyperspace argues that more than three dimensions of space may exist. Just as the actions of a three-dimensional being would appear miraculous to a two-dimensional being, perhaps God is able to perform miracles because He exists in more than three dimensions of space yet acts on our three-dimensional world, Erickson said.

Hyperspace could explain such passages as John 20:19 and Luke 4:28-30, where Jesus passed through people or objects, he said.

Ideas from physics on the nature of the future may help combat open theism, Erickson said. Perhaps God is actually remembering something that is past for Him when he knows our future, Erickson speculated.

In the end, we cannot commit ourselves to any speculative theories about God and must cling to what the Bible teaches, he said. Still, physics may be one useful field to provide us with ways of picturing some of Scripture’s most difficult teachings, he said.

“We are in the process of using our minds to understand God,” he said. “We will never fully understand God, at least within this life.”

In his final lecture, Erickson drew parallels between theology and economics. He used the example of the law of supply and demand, an unchanging axiom that is always true, to illustrate that the things clearly taught in Scripture must never be changed when one is carrying out ministry.

While ministers may use new methods of spreading the Gospel, those methods must always be weighed on the scales of unchanging truth, he said.

“Let us be wise and discerning, so that we simply do not try to preserve the way of doing things of another century,” he said. “You can’t reach the people who died a hundred years ago, they’re gone. Let us be prepared to change those things that we are free to change, but let us be sure not to change the things that are fixed and unchanging, that are based upon the unchanging Word of God and upon Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.”

The audio files of all three addresses may be downloaded at http://www.sbts.edu/resources/Audio_Resources/Gheens_Lectures.aspx.

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