A Pastor's Notes

notes, comments, and sermons — sometimes even mine

Ontological and Metaphysical Preconceptions, Part 3

Let us begin with the basics: it is a given that we humans hold to particular ontological and metaphysical commitments.[5] These commitments provide the framework our understanding of the world hangs upon, for both individual humans and collective bodies. Some such commitments (usually ontological) are shared by nearly everyone, and are regarded as certain or nearly so. Few, if any, would doubt the existence of the moon as an actual physical object, with fewer still denying ontological status to a rock thrown directly at their head. Some other commitments (most often those concerning the underlying, metaphysical structure of the world) are assumed without the possibility of direct confirmation.

These commitments tend to directly affect our actions, as well as forming and directing other beliefs we hold, even if they are unprovable. This is as true for theologians as it is for busdrivers. Our ontological and metaphysical assumptions both govern the endpoints and set the boundaries for our theological thought. The primary error stemming from this tendency (which of course leads to more, and deeper error) is the understandable, and more-than-common assumption that one’s own metaphysical beliefs are, or at least are in correspondence with, the truth of things. In Christian contexts, this truth is assumed by those committed to it to be obviously, certainly in agreement with Scripture; this truth is then in turn, quite naturally, found in Scripture.[6]

Error does not reside in the simple fact that we do hold such assumptions; we need not only a story of who we are but a set of beliefs about what the world is and how it functions, and we have to have such assumptions to function on a day-to-day level. These frameworks are also necessary for humans as groups, given how they are constructed and embraced by both societies and individuals; we set down stories, narratives to explain how our world works beneath even what we can examine, past what we are able to prove. The fact that such stories exist and are used is not what causes the error examined here; error instead comes from our unintentional, though mistaken, tendency to take those beliefs as true maps of reality — maps which we can then follow, unproblematically, to other, deeper truths.

Perhaps the most notorious example of this is the Lord’s Supper. In the Lord’s Supper we see a clear instance of ontological assumptions governing the understanding of Scripture on both sides of the question, with the Lutherans standing in the middle; this is not because Lutherans tend to “split the difference”, find a “middle way”, or are “comfortable with paradox”, but because we are, on one hand, happy to let Scripture interpret Scripture, and on the other, (sometimes consciously, oftentimes unconsciously) unwilling to impose a world-structure other than the structure of the Word between the text and its interpretation.[7] Lutherans have ontological categories and metaphysical assumptions, just like everyone else; at their most “Lutheran”, however, those preconceptions are jettisoned when they are found to be in conflict with the plain Word of Scripture. There ought not be explanations as to why our assumptions really are in line with Scripture; instead, when those assumptions come into conflict with Scripture, Scripture wins.

[5] For instance, see W. V. O. Quine’s, “On what there is”.

[6] Such error may perhaps reveal its presence in how clear the citations used in its defense from Scripture are when set in relation to the assumed truth. Red flags ought to rise for us (and klaxons sound) when the verses cited in support of a doctrine require arguments that they are indeed connected in some way to the matter at hand.

[7] A contemporary example of someone whose assumptions are on their sleeve (and, while acknowledged, are left themselves essentially unexamined) is that of John Milbank, whose philosophical preconceptions plainly condition his reading of Scripture; his adherence to Aristotelian categories lead to their natural end in his arguments. See especially his Being Reconciled.


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4 January 2018 at 11:53 am

Ontological and Metaphysical Preconceptions, Part 2

Why is an understanding of the method used by the arguments found in the Augsburg Confession useful for (especially) Lutherans? While we have been trained to examine materials with a watchful eye — extremely helpful in the general case — we too-often let our guard down once our large-scale filters have done their job. For example: it is easy to look out for Reformed presuppositions when reading works from Reformed sources. Equally problematic non-Reformed presuppositions in those same works, however, may pass through the mental sieve unnoticed. The same is true for materials which come out of our own circles: they may very well use Lutheran language, and Lutheran vocabulary, but familiarity and a feeling that this-must-be-OK can keep us from noticing that their presuppositions are anything but compatible with Scripture.

As we move along in this discussion, it will be useful to keep in mind that it is, at least in part, an examination of what the real-world consequences are of adhering to sola scriptura. Far too much time has been spent on the question of inerrancy when that matter cannot be properly mapped out until we have a grasp of what it means to hold to Scripture alone. Until it is, all we will do is continue to make laps around the same course time and again.

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3 January 2018 at 2:15 pm

Unconsidered Ontological and Metaphysical Preconceptions and the Difficulty of Progress in Inter-Christian Theological Dialogue

Ismistics [1] are useful shorthand. In the context of the Church, they allow the identification of some particular reading of Scripture as Calvinistic, the result of Postmodernism, tending towards Pietism, and so forth. These appellations often give us useful starting points for the critique or understanding of such readings. What they do not do, however, is give us an understanding of why a particular ismistic is attractive for those who tend its way.

New thought-patterns or world-views are not readily adopted unless there is something inherently compatible between the newly presented thought-structure and that which is already in place. The same is true for how one reads Scripture; for example, many who “swim the Tiber” speak of “coming home”[2], and this language is no accident[3], for those who speak this way find in Roman thought something that feels right to them, something that is in line with their notions of how the world functions behind the scenes. Other approaches to the text are ruled out once they are comprehended — not because they are necessarily wrong, but because they do not fit.

It is that something which must be found, that at-home feeling which most often causes the trouble brought about by the application of an ismistic. Shorthand is useful, but unless we understand what underlies (and often connects) these thought-patterns, we will either end up running the same path over and over again, or surrendering to a position without understanding why.[4] Reliance on a broad category, such as Nestorianism, is useful so far as it goes; yet the application of a category in broad strokes to a current argument or position does not, and can not, get to the root of that particular problem, or the reasons that a specific thought-pattern persists and draws adherents. Few actual Nestorians are to be found today, yet there are many whose beliefs and arguments share characteristics or portions of actual Nestorian arguments and positions. Identification of a general position is useful for categorization and narrow down a list of possible remedies, but that an argument or position or belief has a general feel or look of resemblance about it to another position or belief or argument does not mean that it is that same thing, even if its general outcome is the essentially the same as the category position. Internal structures and features of arguments and positions make a difference to those holding it, and are not always visible to those on the outside. Remember: it is nigh impossible to argue against feeling, especially when what is embraced feels like home.

It is a truism to state that the assumptions we hold, consciously known or not, determine or shape the conclusions we reach. A Christian theologian who brings the assumption finitum non capax infiniti to the table will almost invariably end up with a theology that is near-kin to certain points of Calvinism. Another Christian theologian, assuming grace to be a thing, will, more likely than not, come to conclusions concerning grace falling in the neighborhood of the Roman Catholic position, or that of one of its (often enthusiast, often so-called “Evangelical”) cousins.

There are thus, it seems, two means of resolving conflicts between theological positions: to use unassailable argumentation to bring others to a position (which, for reasons stated above, will almost never work — arguments are, sadly, 99.9% of the time, useful for those who believe them already); or to go the route of the burning bosom, appealing to what feels right in combination with helpful appeals to history, or a preponderance of evidence through sanctity, or miracles, or what have you, which serve to buttress positive-towards-the-new-position-but-still-wavering feelings.

What if there were a third means of resolving such conflicts, one which does not appeal to the most airtight argument or to the feeling in one’s belly — or which does not rest on prior (agreed-on?) metaphysical assumptions? Here I suggest that there is already a model and example of such a way, one which has been hiding under our noses for at least five centuries, which has been constantly studied, used, and referenced, but which has had its method — unlike its content — left, rarely examined, by the wayside.

This post is the first in a series of posts on the relationship (if there is one) between metaphysical presuppositions and the Augsburg Confession.

[1] *ism + *istic. An ugly neologism, to be sure, but useful nevertheless.

[2] Thus, the Coming Home Network International.

[3] As there would be no groups with such names if this were not a common feeling for already-Christian converts to Roman Catholicism.

[4] Most official ecumenical dialogues resemble the former; the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is an example of the latter.

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3 January 2018 at 2:04 pm

Allergic to the Word of God

Look over the history of the Church: when a teacher within the Church, such as Luther, is flatly rejected by many of their peers, it is almost always for one of two reasons. The first is that there are those who are plainly not teaching in line with Scripture; so much so, it must be said, that it cannot be denied or retconned into believability, and they are ruled right out. The second is that there are those — again, to use Luther as an example — who are teaching in line with Scripture, and do so by taking Scripture seriously for what it says, and not for how we might wish it to speak. These are rejected because they refuse to go along to get along, to let whichever popular scaffolding around the text speak for the text, and demand that the Word be listened to. Pay close attention to what is pointed out by those who have been rejected for this second reason.

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2 January 2018 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Weekly Notice


It is worth taking time to consider that the northern kingdom retained the name “Israel,” while the southern kingdom did not. It is not unusual for the least faithful party to retain the most faithful name.

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3 November 2017 at 6:21 pm

Posted in Weekly Notice

People Get Excited

The fewer the number of relevant Bible passages concerning an issue, the more ink is spilled.

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3 November 2017 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Weekly Notice

Redemption / Forgiveness / Justice / Desserts

Of course our age is one in which there can be no redemption for (especially) public figures, no forgiveness. When there is no belief that justice can ever truly be brought about, or will be brought about, everything goes code red. For where there is no justice, the scales are left unbalanced, and me or mine may very well come out on the sadder end of things. Everyone should get their just desserts, and if they don’t get them when they live, their memories must be destroyed except as examples of what happens to those who need destroying. This is the world without Good News. This is a world that needs it, yesterday.

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28 October 2017 at 11:53 pm

Posted in Weekly Notice