Consistent Theology: The Problem of First Premises

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Consistent theology refers to a system of beliefs about, and postures toward, God that is as consistent as possible within itself. The more pieces you add to a system, the more complicated it becomes. The more complicated it becomes, the harder it is to keep it consistent.

I talked about that in my other post, Consistent Theology, but I didn’t talk much there about why it’s difficult to have a consistent theology. To understand that, I think we have to talk about first premises.

What Is a First Premise?

A first premise is the beginning or starting point of a line of reasoning. Definitionally, that’s a pretty easy concept. If I say, “bananas are good,” then I can build all kinds of logical arguments about bananas and believe all kinds of things about bananas and how they relate to me or fit into my lifestyle — arguments that are built off of this idea that bananas are good. This is the kind of approach that people use every day to reason about almost anything. “Bananas are good” could be considered a first premise, the place from which we’re beginning our train of logical arguments.

Sometimes, a first premise is so ubiquitous in our cultures or our contexts that we don’t even need to articulate it. If I offer my coworker a choice between a banana or some chips and my coworker responds, “I’m trying to eat more healthy food,” I’ll hand my coworker the banana. I take it for granted that people in my context know that a banana is healthier than some chips. I don’t need to first explain to my coworker the premise that bananas are healthy.

The Trouble With First Premises

Some of you may have noticed that my examples aren’t really getting at a first premise. The trouble with first premises is that most people don’t dig deep enough to actually find them. Instead, we use a superficial premise, such as “bananas are good,” and then take it for granted that everyone else operates from that same premise. Unfortunately, bananas are good is not a true first premise.

What makes bananas good? I say bananas are good because they contain no processed sugars and contain micronutrients. I can dig deeper still by pointing out that I believe processed sugars can lead to unnecessary, negative health effects, while micronutrients can lead to health benefits. I could even jump a few steps further by pointing out that I believe it’s inherently good when human beings take care of themselves. Now, though, you could ask why I think it’s good for humans to take care of themselves. You can see how getting to an actual first premise can be challenging (arguably impossible).

The idea of a first premise for a consistent theology, of a starting point that is truly the beginning of how we reason through our understanding of God and the world, is incredibly elusive. The more we examine our beliefs and attempt to isolate a first premise, the more aware we (hopefully) become that our reasoning isn’t actually linear. It’s more of a circle, if not a web or lattice. One can jump into a line of reasoning at any number of different points, none of which is ever truly the beginning. Our understanding of things and our reasoning through things is always multifaceted.

Even in the somewhat silly bananas example, one can already see my search for a first premise branching into at least two different lines of thinking: “some things that I can put in my body are bad for me” and “some things that I can put in my body are good for me,” such as processed sugars and micronutrients, respectively. Either of those branches can lead to multiple other branches as we encounter my beliefs about what “good” and “bad” mean and how I understand the human body.

This is probably one of the reasons why it’s so easy for us to fill in the gaps about other people’s beliefs. Beliefs and theologies are complicated because we’re often building on complex lattices or webs of understanding that we probably don’t fully understand. You may sometimes hear this referred to as a hermeneutic.

What’s A Hermeneutic?

Simply put, a hermeneutic is that lattice structure of understanding on/through/in which we build our theologies (or any of our understanding). Hermeneutics as a practice can also refer to the study of hermeneutics (think of it like the term “biology,” which can refer to one’s physiology, behavior, and other characteristics or to the study of one’s physiology, behavior, and other characteristics).

Your hermeneutic is the lens through which you filter new information. It’s the house of your understanding to which you attempt to add new rooms as your knowledge grows. I hope that at least one of these analogies is helpful to you.

Our hermeneutics are deeply ingrained in us and informed by our cultures and contexts, and that makes them very difficult to identify. Even if we can identify them (or parts of them), they are so much a part of who we are and how we see the world that it’s impossible to separate ourselves from them.

For example: among other things, I’m a half-white, male American who has lived through the 1990’s and early 2000’s. That inevitably informs how I see things, whether it’s society, economics, Christianity, God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit, standards of living, etc. I can’t separate myself from that; I can only add more information and new experiences. The new information doesn’t override any aspect of my hermeneutic (e.g. being a half-white, male American), but new information and experiences can inform other aspects.

If you’re interested in exploring that idea more, I use myself as a case study in another post (White Privilege and Racism: A Personal Exploration). Letting other voices enter into conversation with our own can be a practice of exploring our own hermeneutic.

Everything in how we understand and interpret information is always interconnected. Therefore, how we reason through and build our theologies is always multifaceted rather than linear.

So what’s the problem of first premises? The problem is that they don’t truly exist. It’s the chicken and the egg dilemma multiplied indefinitely.

If First Premises Don’t Exist, Why Are We Talking About Them?

We’re talking about first premises because people think they exist. We use assumptions all the time in conversation, as well as in self-reflection. For example: in this article, I’ve assumed that you have at least a little understanding about what “theology” means. I explained it a bit in my previous Consistent Theology article, but I didn’t even touch on it here.

When someone says they’re a Christian, I assume they know what the Bible is. Most Christians I know go even further and assume everyone else’s Bible looks essentially the same as theirs. Christians and non-Christians alike often assume everyone is operating from the same basic understandings of who Jesus was, what Jesus’s life and ministry were doing, and what Christian metaphysics makes room for when in reality, some of you might not even know what metaphysics are, let alone how they relate to Christian theology.

What’s problematic is that many people assume they’re working from a first premise. They assume that their starting point is a fundamental belief that can’t be boiled down any more. When we get into that first premise mindset, we stop evaluating our own motivations and understandings. We stop looking for the reasons we believe what we believe, which makes it hard to understand why others disagree with us.

We can’t subscribe to a linear, first premise and still continue to pursue a consistent theology.

Pursuing Consistent Theology

A singular, true first premise doesn’t really exist. We can operate (and do operate) from specific premises when we engage in reasoning or conversations, but we should always be aware and respectful of the fact that no premise can truly exist in isolation. Premises are necessarily informed by the entirety of how we understand things (our hermeneutics).

Because of this, we should never assume that someone else is operating from the same premises as ourselves, nor should we blindly base our theology on the understandings of others. Even if we agree on something, it might be for different reasons. In other words, pursuing a consistent theology should always be a self-imposed boundary; we should never try to force our understanding of what’s consistent onto others.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t evaluate the consistency in someone else’s belief. It does, however, mean that we should exercise humility in doing so. We’re only ever seeing or hearing pieces of someone’s hermeneutic and theology, so our evaluations are always incomplete.

On the other side of that, we should resist the temptation to take anyone else’s evaluation of our own theology as definitive. Allow yourself the freedom to explore others’ critiques and criticisms in light of the full lattice of your hermeneutic. Let their thoughts be in conversation with as many different pieces of your theology as you can. Then you’ll be better able to evaluate if their critiques are truly questioning the consistency of your theology. It may be that they’re simply assuming a different “first premise.”

If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.

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