“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. –Ephesians 4:18
Paul said that the Gentiles do what they do “due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18). The Authorized Version calls it “blindness of heart.” The Greek word (πώρωσις) means callous, stubbornness, obduracy. To understand what Paul was talking about we need to keep ourselves from slipping into the habit of thinking that we already know what he was talking about, because he was talking about this very thing, this habit of taking a fixed position in our analysis. Hardness of heart produces fixity of opinions.
Because we identify ourselves as Christian we think that we don’t do what Paul accused the Gentiles of doing—but we do! We have seen how this issue of not being like the Gentiles has continued to be a problem in the most Christian nation on earth over the centuries as we have briefly examined some U. S. Constitutional issues and the ongoing struggle between two groups of Americans. Christians are by and large guilty of hardness of heart or taking and holding a fixed belief about reality. Christians pride themselves on this and call it faithfulness.
The most dedicated Christians work hard to study the Bible in order to come to a fixed theological position that purports to account for the whole of the Bible. We do this because we understand the Bible to be whole, to not contradict itself—and these things are true and good. We work to develop a system of thinking that accounts for all of the diverse biblical data, to “get our arms around it,” as they say. Academicians tend to approach the Bible as they approach science: examining the evidence, and proposing a theorem to account for it. Over time, science provides more evidence about the Bible in a variety of ways, and as that evidence is considered, the biblical theorems are adjusted to account for it.
This is not a bad or evil process. It is necessary in order to make sense of the Bible in the light of our own social, scientific, and Christian maturity. The problem comes when people adopt a particular theorem as final, as if it were not subject to improvement—and then look at all attempts to improve it as heresy, apostasy, and/or speculation. When people cling to outmoded biblical or theological ideas to the point that they deny the reality or benefit of new data, they suffer from what Paul called “hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18). The problem is that when we can get our arms around God’s Word, so to speak, that very process of encompassing it tends to keep us from the growth and maturity that continue to unfold in history, because in order to get our arms around God’s Word, we tend to treat our theology as fixed rather than dynamic.
I’m not suggesting that people not develop biblical and theological theorems or positions. Indeed, theology is too important to neglect. The only thing that is worse than clinging to an outmoded position in the face of genuinely new data is not having a position to cling to in the first place. Indeed, this clinging is an act of faithfulness. And the art of faithfulness is mastered in the ability to develop what the theologians call systematics, but to do so in a dynamic way that conforms to the ongoing flow of history, the development of theology, science, and technology, and the developing maturity of personal and corporate spiritual growth. At the point that a person stops growing in this way s/he is guilty of hardness of heart.
I am not suggesting that Christians do not or should not have an enduring commitment to God. However, the idea that God is immutable is more Greek than Hebrew.1 Of course, there is a sense in which God doesn’t change, but it refers to God’s purpose and person. We must always keep God’s Trinitarian character in mind, and ask whether God changed when Christ incarnated in human flesh and died on the cross for the propitiation of sin. God’s purpose did not change, but His means did—He sent His Son. Of course, He always had this in mind, but when He actully did it, things changed.
As history continues to unfold and more and more people get swept into God’s kingdom, God Himself does not change, but His kingdom grows. And growth requires change. Again, God’s purpose, God’s love, and the intent of God’s covenant with humanity does not change, though everything else in the world does. God does not change, but people do. People see things differently over time. People grow.
Paul accused the Gentiles of ideological fixity or stubbornness. It’s a condition of the mind, a kind of belief that gets stuck in a rut. It stops growing, stops maturing, stops interacting with the data of reality, and imposes an ideological structure or framework upon reality that keeps a person from seeing and/or accepting new or previously unseen data.
Systematic theology is particularly prone to this problem because people work very hard to come to a systematic understanding of Scripture, and the claims of systematic theology are so great—claiming to comprehend the wholeness of the Bible, being able to explain every apparent contradiction by some system. The natural consequence of a systematic structure is calcification, the hardening or fixing of the system as being congruent with God’s understanding. Indeed, the hardening or fixing of a system is necessary for its explanation. However, the moment a systematic structure becomes fixed, it ceases to be dynamic. And to associate a fixed systematic position to God is to remove the life from God, because life is dynamic not fixed.
This reality regarding God and fixed theological understandings presents a huge difficulty for serious students of the Bible. Fixed systematic understanding is necessary for communication about God, yet at the same time, fixed systematic understanding of Scripture will always fall short of conveying a true understanding of God’s dynamic character. The only option is continual growth and reformation of understanding.
Fixity first shows itself in biblical history with the Serpent in the Garden of Eden—Satan. Not only did Satan plant doubt about God’s Word in Eve’s heart, but he thought that he knew what God knows.
“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).
The Serpent believed that he knew what God knew and knew it as God knows it, which means that he thought that he was able to “get his arms around God,” to understand God as God understands Himself. And the only way to do this is to condense God’s thoughts into a comprehensive system, a fixed system. While it is true that we must do our best to accomplish this, to understand God to the best of our ability, the fact is that the more we believe we have accomplished this, the less true it will be. It is good to make this effort, to strive to understand the world as God does and to understand God to the best of our ability.
But when we think that we have succeeded, when we believe that there is no better way of understanding God or His world than what we have created, we have at that point fixed or frozen the development of theological systematics in such a way as to exclude any further development. Doing so will always result in a system that falls short of God’s reality, and we will be guilty of following Satan rather than God. God is dynamic, alive. When we think we understand Him on the basis of some fixed system, we will always be short of the mark.
Again, this does not mean that the effort to systematize our theological understanding is evil or without merit. It is very useful for spiritual growth, sanctification, and maturity. However, we must always be able and willing to modify our system as the progressive revelation of Jesus Christ in history provides more light. Again, I’m not talking about progressivism, but about the growing manifestation of Christ in history.
(from Ephesians—Recovering the Vision of a Sustainable Church In Christ, forthcoming, 2014)
1The idea of immutability is more abstraction than substance. For a discussion of the doctrine of immutability see: Beecher, Edward. Concord Of Ages—The Individual And Organic Harmony Of God And Man, Phillip A. Ross, Editor, Pilgrim Platform, Marietta, Ohio, 2013.