October 28, 2020

The “Map” Discussion

map-london.JPGIn the aftermath of reading Alastair’s “The Denominational Church,” A discussion took over my group blog, “The Boar’s Head Tavern,” for most of two days. That discussion, prompted by Jack’s use of the metaphor of a “map” for the various confessions and theologies that distinguish various denominations and traditions, was one of the best all-time BHT go-rounds I’ve ever been part of. Thanks to BHT fellow John H who turned the discussion into a “top down” document that you can now read here at IM.

You won’t understand it all, and some of you will likely be offended. I don’t know why, but it’s a certainty where the BHT is concerned. It’s hard to drop down in the middle of anything at the BHT and totally get it, but I think there are some really helpful, even exciting aspects to this discussion, and I want to share it with you. The poster’s name occurs AFTER their post.

Has the church spoken on FV/NPP?

The BHT’s resident theologian says that the church hasn’t spoken, and we might want to take a deeper look at what the denominational churches claim about themselves.

Posted by: Michael Spencer

Jim actually has some interesting things to say about being “post-christian”, but I think he did a lousy job of explaining it. As he explained it to me, the church over the years has given us a map of reality. When we find that reality does not coincide with the map, we tend to blame reality and try to make it fit the map, rather than acknowledge that the map from which we are attempting to navigate is useless. Even an accurate map can be unhelpful if it is not the right kind of map. For example, a map of all the bodies of water in Maricopa County can be completely accurate and still utterly useless if I am lost in far northwest Phoenix and need to navigate my way back home. In the same way, the “map” of reality that the modern church has bequeathed to us – at least to Jim and me – has proven to be spectacularly unhelpful. That’s not to say it is inaccurate, but it certainly hasn’t helped to navigate the territory in which we find ourselves. I have pretty much given up the map of reality that the church passed on to me over the years, not because I didn’t like it but because it was completely useless to me; it was a topographical map when I needed a street map.

Theological arguments are merely disputes over who has the best map, and in the disputing, we seem to forget that – in Jim’s words – the map – no matter how – accurate it is – is not reality. The really amazing thing is that you can survive and even thrive in reality without a map, but you cannot live in a map whether it is accurate or not.

Posted by: JackAz

Y’know, if I brought a topo map into a city and got lost, I wouldn’t curse the cartographers. I’d look for a different map.

Posted by: Shea

A general point: reformation (in the sense of the “conservative reformation”) is not about remodeling or “repristinating” the church along some idealized lines, whether based on the 1st century, first five centuries, 16th century or the “old-time religion” (chortle) of the 19th century revivalists. It is about bringing the gospel to the church as it is.

As a general point, I’m not convinced Lutherans have thought through sufficiently what it means to bring the gospel to the 21st century church of praise bands and powerpoint slides, as opposed to repristinating that church along 16th century Lutheran lines. As a specific point, bringing the gospel to the 16th century church required (among other things) the abolition of Corpus Christi. I’m not convinced that bringing the gospel to the church today necessarily requires the same outcome, even though I agree with Pr McCain that individual congregations within a synod should not go branching off on their own on this.

Posted by: John Halton

John: I’m reading some comments at Alastair’s blog and it’s remarkable that some people have adapted their version of the Reformation story into the Gospel story. 16th century theological dialect, issues, sociology, etc. …all are apparently essential. We have to refight every fight and see every issue in the light of what was said then. What was said then is “Holy.” Why not put “Holy” on the front of the Confessional books if we’re going to act this way?

Leithart said something worth quoting in total, and it applies all around, not just to scholarship. (It even applies to the SBC and is similar to points Ed Stetzer made at Union U a few weeks ago.)

Imagine you’re a sharp young NT scholar of Reformed conviction, who wants to engage the latest NT scholarship fairly, critically, and appreciatively where appropriate.

Imagine you’re a theologian of Reformed inclinations who’s looking for a place to do creative theological work.

Imagine you’re a Reformed Old Testament scholar who wants his OT scholarship to inform his understanding of systematic theology in a vigorous manner.

Imagine you’re a theologian who thinks that there are still things to be discovered in Scripture even about settled Reformed convictions like justification by faith and election.

Imagine you’re a theologian who loves Luther and Calvin and the Puritans, and the Westminster Confession and Three Forms, and yet doesn’t believe they said everything or said everything that might be said.

If you were one of these, and you were looking for an ecclesiastical place to raise your flag, where would you go? What Reformed denomination would be attractive to you? What Reformed denomination would leave you room to serve the church in freedom?

The worst thing to do to the Reformation is make it “Holy” and use it like scripture.

Posted by: Michael Spencer

Michael: If we don’t make the Reformation Holy, then we can’t invest final authority in what it gave us, which is a canon-within-the-canon. A few comments of Paul are the exegetical center of the NT, and all other canonical text will be interpreted so as to fit around them. So Paul is, in fact, more canonical than James and Hebrews.

That other canon had comments so apparently, uh, disparate, it was just too hard to wrap the brain around and you couldn’t control people with it once the authority of the church was trashed.

Posted by: Tim @ 9:39 am

I think we should be careful to avoid going to the opposite extreme from “hyper-confessionalism” namely the tendency to denigrate the Reformation. Not everything that came out of the Reformation was good (Calvinism, for example – jn+++++), but the best of the Reformation confessions represent a summary of the gospel that still has great value today. The problem comes when they are used to shut down all reflection or discussion, or any attempt to use different language to that used in the sixteenth century (or the same language in a different way).

It should also be borne in mind that the Westminster Standards do not date from the Reformation, but from over a century later. They represent a systematizing tendency that is less in evidence in the 16th century confessions, where the emphasis was on protecting the gospel from the immediate threats posed by the errors of Roman Catholicism on the one hand and the excesses of the “radical” Reformation on the other. To read the Westminster Confession and then pick up the Heidelberg Catechism or the Smalcald Articles is to move into a different world.

For example, I don’t think any serious figure in the 16th century reform movements was as crudely negative towards James and Hebrews as Tim implies. (Even Luther’s infamous “epistle of straw” comment is making a more subtle point about canonicity than many today realise.)

Posted by: John Halton

John: All I mean is that in spite of what the Reformers did or didn’t intend, the Protestant world in fact does have a canon-let, it is comprised of about 3 sentences from Paul which you can recite in under thirty seconds, and these perennial struggles for “the heart of the gospel” are simply defensive actions to keep the literal meaning of other texts out of the canon-let.

You can even hear it in the metaphors: “heart of the gospel”? The instant you utter that phrase, you have a canonicity problem and you are about to whack a book or two off.

In the same way that the meaning of a poem is the poem itself, the meaning of the NT is the NT itself. It cannot be paraphrased, summarised, distilled, or focused without being falsified. When someone reads a great sonnet, and says “what does it mean?”, the only response is “here, let me read it again for you.” There is a tendency when stunned by a great work of art to want to mentally clutch it, fold it up, and take it with you; but you soon realize that in so owning it you will destroy it. So you finally understand that the only responses to art are acts: tears, laughter, your own art.

I realize I am among preachers here, so I hear the thoughts: “what — you mean we can’t say anything about the NT? How silly.” Of course you can: preaching is exactly art in response to art. When you preach you react to the gospel in front of people, by expounding, elaborating, exposing the Gospel’s bigness. Preaching is not making it clearer by articulating its “hear; it is letting it be as big as it wants to be.

There is a reflex to react to the gospel by trying to get your arms around it. So we write summaries and paraphrases, and kill it. The NT depicts Jesus and His news in a big sprawling mural. The great ecumenical creeds were refusals to choose one part of the mural over another (“both this and that”); the schismatic confessions (i.e. after the Schism) are the opposite of that, they are efforts to define the center of the mural (“not this but that”). The first is accepting the revelation in all its sprawling-ness, the second is actually an enthronement of human understanding.

Hear Leithart, in the spirit of the great creeds:

Justification by works: We are righteous before God by faith because we are united to Christ the Righteous. James says that we are “justified by works. I don’t know precisely how to take James, but I believe we must, in faithfulness to Scripture, affirm that we are justified by works in whatever sense that James means it. (bold mine)

Now that is sweet, sweet enough for poetry:


I don’t know

I don’t know precisely how

but I believe

I believe we must




the Word in whatever sense it means.


I affirm whatever it means; I believe so that I can understand. And when the gospel got corrupted (which all churches do about every 5 minutes) the Reformers did a good thing – “here, let me read it again for you” and a bad thing: the canon-within-the-canon. Which was simply trying to make the mural more understandable so we can believe it better and get more “assurance”.

Posted by: Tim

Michael: The post of Alastair’s is magnificent, isn’t it? About 30 years ago I was stunned when I read Watchman Nee argue that there is simply no biblical basis for dividing the church for any reason other than geography. Nee has been demonized in some evangelical quarters, but read his vision of overcoming denominationalism by working together in practical ministry, and be amazed.

Incidentally, this Become friends with people from other denominations in your area. (Alastair) is this:

“If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From that secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we can not do so by imposing the one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other — We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ. (Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965), p. 21.)

As you know, Merton set out intentionally to do this (not just write it) by his cultivation of such diverse friendships. He saw his friendships as ecumenical praxis, the propaganda of the deed.

What, Merton and Nee and Alastair saying the same thing? Yes, the saints always say the same thing. They just don’t always know they do, because they use different dialects.

Posted by: Tim

Tim: Man, you’ve got the emotions flooding into me today. That Merton quote is one of my favorites, and was for so long almost a model mission statement for me. Thank you twenty times for bringing it back to my conscious awareness. And your comparison of the Bible to a poem is magnificent, and the Reformation to a fresh performance even more so. (Capon would LOVE it.) The heart of the Poem isn’t the grammar of a particular sentence, or my accent when I read.

Posted by: Michael Spencer

Michael: Then these quotes will positively ravish you:

“when a poem is said to have two meanings, both are — in the poem — the poem is their union.

Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, 45


“The notion of symbol” has always been abhorrent to me — The symbolism racket in schools — destroys plain intelligence as well as poetic sense. It bleaches the soul. It numbs all the capacity to enjoy the fun and enchantment of art — In the case of a certain type of writer it often happens that a whole paragraph or sinuous sentence exists as a discrete organism, with its own imagery, its own invocations, its own bloom, and then it is especially precious, and also vulnerable, so that if an outsider, immune to poetry — injects spurious symbols into it — its magic is replaced by maggots.

– Nabakov, Strong Opinions, pgs 304-5, as assembled by David Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, footnote, p. 25, where Hart adds — God is a “certain type of writer”.


I just think the NT is what Nabakov calls a “discrete organism”, and what Williams calls the union of multiple meanings, and that this is what the word “canon” signifies, or it signifies nothing.

Posted by: Tim


Van Til here. I don’t think Michael is going to make it back for a while. He’s down like a fat lady at a Benny Hinn meeting.

Anyone want to go through his wallet?

Posted by: Van Til

Excellent, Tim. The mural imagery is great. When I took a seminar on interpretation with my first mentor in philosophy, he taught me the significance of the montage/collage for entering a text. I’ve always found that helpful when reading the gospels. Their synchronic presentation is like the presentation of a collage. But then the common aspects take the 2D and make it 3D, a montage. And then, you see that working throughout the Bible and even a 3-dimensional analogy is inadequate to characterize what’s there. It’s a montage/collage within a montage, etc.

Our attempts to rationally reconstruct (preaching, apologetics, theologizing, etc.), in order to bring attention to one aspect or one detail of the story, must needs temporarily exclude the richness and complexity of its setting in the montage. We can get so single-minded in our attention to the “heart” or the “core” or the “center” or whatever, that we’re no longer able to see the whole ineffable work, and we make what was a necessary gesture for the moment into a fixed habit of mind and perception. Ironically, that leads to comical occurrences of extraordinary irrationality, as the thread on Alastair’s post testifies. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. We need to be able to “contend” for the gospel without terrorizing ourselves.

Posted by: Joel Hunter

I’d say that the great antidote to turning the gospel into a 2D set of propositions with a single, defined meaning is the church. It is in the life of the church that the gospel finds its fullest expression in all its 3D, multifaceted glory: in proclaiming the gospel, declaring God’s promises of forgiveness, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in prayer, in the love of God’s people for one another and for others. Though of course, even listing things out like that is still reductive to some extent.

(And the fact that a one-to-one mapping can be made between those categories just listed and the headings in the Small Catechism is pure coincidence. Nothing to see here. Move along. (jn))

The church is that which proclaims and lives out the gospel; the gospel is that which is proclaimed and lived out by the church. Turning the church into an institution and the gospel into a set of propositions are both equally erroneous.

Posted by: John Halton

This gospel as poetry stuff is a little wack for me. I dig the whole post-liberal literary criticism thing and I think there are many insights that come from learning to read the Bible with eyes pealed for overarching narratives. But to return to Jack’s “down with cartography” post last night, my testimony is far different. I haven’t found 2D summaries of biblical doctrine “spectacularly unhelpful”. I have been spectacularly helped by them. The map is not the city. But the map is fantastically useful. The map is not the city. But there are more and less accurate maps and it is profitable to point out the inaccuracies in one another’s maps. And if someone is hawking a map that if followed will lead people to drive into the river, well then it’s good to point that out rather loudly.

Posted by: Shea

Shea: the city is the City. The map is the New Testament. The battle over the maps of the map has, objectively, been spectacularly bloody. I’m sincerely glad you’ve found a maplet helpful; note that, even on this very thread, others find the gospel-as-poetry-wack thing as helpful as you’ve found the opposite.

By the criterion of helpfulness, then — your criterion — they are at least equally valid approaches.

And I have no idea what post-modern literary theory on overarching narratives even means. Sounds like a map to the poetry, or like kissing your sister.

Posted by: Tim

Tim: So, if you’ve found anything helpful from your poem that seems to contradict what I’ve found helpful from my “maplet”, am I able to say anything besides “thanks for sharing”?

Posted by: Shea

Shea: if we’re both helped, there can be no contradiction. If there seems to be, then we just need to be better friends. The friendship itself would be the union of our two meanings. If I am a good friend, I will not allow your maplet to be wrong, just perhaps not big enough. If I seemed to suggest otherwise, I spoke poorly.

Posted by: Tim

Maps Leave Stuff Out

The map of the London Underground is perfectly accurate. So is the London A-to-Z. I can personally vouch for the veracity of both. But aside from being printed on paper, they look nothing alike. Only idiots and fools would argue that one is “right” and the other is “wrong”. Maps by their very nature leave stuff out.

Anyone who insists that their map of the City of God is the Only Valid Map of The City is either an idiot or a fool or both. The RC map may in fact be accurate, but it is not The City. The SBC map might be accurate as well, yet it looks nothing at all like the RC map. Both the paedo-baptist map and the credo-baptist map could be accurate, as could both the Real Presence map and the Signs & Symbols map. None of those maps are complete maps of The City because maps by their very nature leave stuff out.

In London, the Underground map helps if I am traveling from Turnham Green to Leicester Square via the Tube, but it is useless if I am taking a cab. The Underground Map wasn’t designed for cabbies, it was designed for Tube riders; Cabbies need the A-to-Z. The Underground map leaves stuff out that is useless to the tube rider. Furthermore, the underground map has the scale all wrong, the turns and twists are not accurate, the width of the tracks is all wrong, and the tracks aren’t really those colors. But none of that matters to the Tube Rider because the Underground map works for the Tube rider.

The A-to-Z doesn’t show the location of the underground tracks. It doesn’t show the location of phone booths or fish & chip shops. It has no demographic or topological information whatsoever. It leaves stuff out – a lot of stuff. But you won’t find a cabbie in London who doesn’t have an A-to-Z in his front seat because it works.

If the map I am using is getting me where I need to go, and your map is not helping me at all, is it not at least possible that your map can be both right and useless? Maybe I just don’t need your map.

I wonder if our time might be better spent if we would first assume that we are all using fundamentally accurate maps. We could then compare notes with one another to see how the overlay of our individual maps reveals realities of The City we all inhabit.

Posted by: JackAz

Couple of thoughts:

1) Parties can be holding virtually the same map and disagree violently on “What is the most important neighborhood in London? You may insist that if I haven’t been to certain long-standing tourist sites, I haven’t seen London, while “my London” may be a pub crawl or hearing some bands.

2) The process of map-making has to be considered. Is there a “Map-master” who can decree what will be on the map? Can the map err? If so, can it be corrected? Or is the process collaborative? Is there, from the outset, a realization that we need an “atlas” and not one map only? Does one map-maker have the power to labels other maps as “not really maps, but just representations?”

3) How much does reference to previous maps control the making of new maps? Can there be a map past the Second London Map of 1689? Or is that where we stop?

4) How much unity should there be around a map anyway? Shouldn’t there be a large “humility zone,” that starts out with “Maps are maps; human creations, etc.?”

Posted by: Michael Spencer

I totally agree that maps leave stuff out.

And that maps are merely human creations and humility is called for.

And that the map making process should be collaborative.

And that this analogy is enjoyable and useful.

What I can’t accept is that the contradictions between two maps can be so easily shrugged off. The RC map and the SBC map are not just describing two different aspects of the city. They contradict one another on whether some parts of the city even exist. How postmodern are we going to be here? Do we still believe in contradiction? Or have we sunk below Schaeffer’s “line of despair” that he describes in The God Who Is There?

I want to write another paragraph about Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation, but I’m late for church. Paging Dr. Hunter…

Posted by: Shea

Here’s your BHT map

Shea: I generally agree, and if you haven’t discovered the Jim/Jack postmodern area of the bar, then where was your BHT map? (jn)

Since I am currently living through the SBC/RCC thing in a way that few on here are or ever will, let me address your observation that these two maps seem sometimes disagree on the very existence of certain areas of the city.

Let’s take those 4th and 5th glorious mysteries of the Rosary. Are they on the map?

A close look at the maps will reveal that both maps agree on a surprising amount of material: Mary as the mother of Jesus, the words of the Magnificat that refer to Mary, the doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus, Biblical images of heaven, Mary as having a role in the story of redemption and so on.

What happens is quite interesting. The terrain experience is similar; the MAP MAKING process is not. One side sees the language of the New Testament alone and a certain stream of Protestant tradition as producing a map. There is a conscious effort to limit the map’s claims to minimums. The other side sees the map-making process as involving a far more open and elaborate reading of what is there, and entire questions come to bear on the process of making the map that never occur to the previous side.

It would be as if a map sought to be a bare reading of what is on a mountain, vs a map that included everything that had ever been claimed by anyone who had been on the mountain, synthesized and annotated. One is a map of the terrain, while the other is record of the interaction of the terrain and the map making process. (What if Jack’s London map contained annotations from various historical eras of London, for example, so that Shakespeare’s London and Roman London were overlaid and part of the map?)

One side (RCC) believes that limiting the map to the terrain is simply wrong; that the purpose of the entire exercise isn’t to get a minimal picture at all. It’s quite comfortable with the “expanded map” as accurate, while the other side believes that the plainest map possible is the most accurate.

I’m pretty sure that both are right and wrong in significant ways. The RCC map really frustrates me in some ways, but it also fascinates me in the sense that I know I’m not the only traveler, and the map-making history/process can’t be overlooked. I also know that my “plain” map has history and assumptions, too. Not as sensational as the 4th and 5th Glorious Mysteries, but my RCC friends would feel that my map was saying I was the only map maker and the only person to meaningfully travel the terrain, which clearly isn’t true.

So, in a Clintonesque way, some mapmakers are saying “What do you mean by something ‘being there?'” Or what do you mean by “map” at all? Remember, some Christians believe Christ and the Church are one in ways that definitely influence this analogy. If your mapmaking process gives you the ability to say what’s there- and whose doesnt?- then isn’t this what we wind up with?

Posted by: Michael Spencer

I also need to say that I don’t think either will “lead you off the cliff,” if the cliff means eternity without God because your sins are not forgiven. It’s possible to wind up in the wrong place with any map, and some maps are more or less helpful, but that “cliff” problem is a fairly major claim, especially in regard to FV/NPP proponents.

Posted by: Michael Spencer

“Since I am currently living through the SBC/RCC thing in a way that few on here are or ever will, let me address your observation that these two maps seem sometimes disagree on the very existence of certain areas of the city.”

To play with the analogy further, it could be that one map presents “just the facts.” Certain concrete details are there, with no embellishment. The other map looks more like an illuminated manuscript, with all kinds of fanciful ornamentation, and sea monsters on the border with things like “here be dragons” and the like. A critical map reader might see that and think that of course there are no dragons, but out on the edges lies the great unknown, and it’s frightening. Also, they like pretty pictures so it gets all marked up with stuff that isn’t part of the map in a map reading sense, but in a visually interesting sense.

That’s gonna break down all over the place, isn’t it?

Posted by: Jason Blair

“The map is not the territory.”

The problem isn’t that we have a choice between competing maps, one of which is the One True Map. The problem is that we have different maps made by different people, all describing something nobody has ever seen. We are arguing about the placement of objects in a topography that we can’t verify.

If you have a map of NYC that shows two tall towers in Lower Manhattan, and I have a map that shows a large hole in the ground in the same spot, we can settle our argument (assuming we’re at my house) by agreeing to take an hour’s train ride together. We can stand on edge of the hole, or at least at the chain-link fence that keeps people out of the site.

But if you have a map that says that Mary was assumed, or that the elements actually are physically transformed, or that what sounds like a bad fake Swahili dialect is really your cousin under the influence of the Spirit, and my map says you’re wrong, how do we settle it?

If your map says that the Rock Jesus talked about is Peter, and mine says that the Rock is his confession of Christ, what train do we take?

If we read the same map, but come to different conclusions, how do we settle it? Majority rules? First one past the bar? Tag-team wrestling? The Spanish Inquisition?

The conversation that start all of this – and it was an actual conversation, between Jack and myself – is all a part of what I call Post-Christianity. I’ve moved way past Post-evangelical. We need to have faith in the territory, not the map. And part of the mystery of faith is that we have to have it in a territory that we haven’t seen; and that we have to trust the occasional glimpses we get of that Territory, and not cling too tightly to the maps we have just because they seem to have aged well.

This isn’t post-modernism. It’s recognizing that our descriptions of reality don’t define reality. That’s different from saying that nothing is real Which no one expects, by definition.

Posted by: Jim Nicholson

I voted when I bought it

Jim: Love your idea, but don’t like the label. That is Christianity. Ask Abraham or any disciple who followed Jesus.

I don’t think there is any way to settle the “map” question. Look at Job’s friends. Unless God comes down and points at the WCF, it’s just going to be one version of a wrestling match, vote, etc. Getting your map customers together and having a vote about how great and accurate your map is really does a lot to help out this situation. (heavy sarcasm.)

I mean, hey, we all voted when we bought any map at all. We all have our own personal maps of the WCF, etc. At most, the whole darned enterprise is consensus politics. I’ll tell you right now that hauling out a stadium full of Texas-haired preachers doesn’t convince me of anything, nor does dressing up in funny costumes and having a lot of incense and Latin and a guy in a big chair. IF THE HOLY SPIRIT DOESN’T CONVINCE ME ON THE LEVEL OF MY LIFE, NONE OF IT WORKS.

A guy who’s never seen a map, but has lived in the place will probably not give a _________ about any of our maps.

I have a map I’ll call “mine” and “ours” and even “the most accurage.” But it’s my job as a Christian to understand the way the other guy deals with his map, to live by mine, and follow, worship and love Jesus. If anyone wants to stand and have a little hissy about map details, I’m going to have to tell you — my time is limited. I’m old. But I’m glad it’s working for you.

Posted by: Michael Spencer

This discussion on maps is making my head spin.

But what I will say is this: whatever we put in opposition to our “maps”, it cannot be the notion of a “simple” gospel reduced down to a couple of propositions (whether that’s “Jesus is Lord” or the Four Spiritual Laws or “no creed but Christ”). The various map-makers may disagree on many things, but one thing that is evident from their efforts: whatever is being mapped, it’s big and complicated.

And another thing: perhaps the church’s confessions are more like a shipping chart than a map. If you’re a passenger on a ship, you don’t need to understand and read the shipping charts – what matters is that you’re on the ship – but someone needs to do so or the ship’s not going to be heading where the passengers are expecting.

Posted by: John Halton

Another aspect of the Jim/Jack analogy I would nuance a bit:

All these maps are of something that’s never been seen in a way that makes a good map.

It’s obviously been seen, and I agree with Alastair when he says it’s simple and John H when he says it’s big/complicated. The Prophets and Apostles heard/saw it. Its glory is there for all to see. Pope Robert Capon I says that it is in the very fabric of creation itself and always has been.

But it’s not the sort of thing that makes a simple map. Maybe an icon 🙂

And, to go back to my original point, the process of map-making is an entirely other problem, one that, yes, can lead you to see postmodernism in a considerable different light.

BTW- I’ve obviously referred to the RC process of map-making a bit in this discussion, but we have LOTS of map making issues on our side. Rationalism for one. Or Henry Blackaby saying God speaks to everyone the way he spoke to Moses. Or Rod Parsley. And on and on. I believe a lot of progress in Christian unity could be made if we 1) came closer to the major landmarks on our maps and 2) worshiped, prayed and lived in some humility about our map-making abilities.

Posted by: Michael Spencer

Good grief: shipping maps, topo maps, underground maps. Westminster, Heidelberg, Augsberg, BFM.

The problem with maps is not when we haven’t seen the City. It really starts when we do. John, was that a lion or a lamb? Both, you say? You say you passed out for part of it? Well, what did the thunder say? Paul, were you in the body or out? Ezekiel, what exactly is a wheel within a wheel? Evangelists, was it like words, or the sound of many waters? Both, you say? Was it a fire or a mighty rushing wind? Both, you say?

Maybe if we just make our language ever more precise, with enough distinctions and metaphors, we will eventually make our committee text a one-to-one correspondence with Reality, such that everyone who reads it will immediately concede. One text, one tongue, we just need more time and we’ll get the ziggurat done.

Posted by: Tim

And some people have one of those big, cheap gas station maps that once you get unfolded you can’t fold it back up, no matter how hard you try.

Posted by: Brian


  1. This sounds like a choir of jack-asses. The particapants in this discussion(?)need to step out of their cubicle into the real world. You know, I wonder what pastors of the underground church in China would think of people talking this way. It is hard to be vague about what one believes if ones life might be endangered for that same belief. If this is what it means to be in the blogosphere, you can have it.

  2. jmanning says

    All this map talk is “cute” I’m sure as long as it is cool to be theologically fuzzy. What happens to all the gamesmanship when morality is on the line. We all want to agree on morality without the theology, but the two are linked. It’s easy to say that my view of the map allows for a view of “inspiration of Scripture” while someone else’s doesn’t, but what happens when someone says their version of the map allows slavery and another’s doesn’t….if we say theology is up for grabs, morality is up for grabs.

    In your generous view of “post-evangelicalims” what happens when our morals diverge as much as our doctrines? There will be a call back to certainty, because vagueness is only cool when we can talk about it in a pub abstractly…not when its wrecking our society…which by chance it seems to be doing about now….

  3. Well, since you’re obviously aware that there’s not a confession anywhere that endorses slavery, perhaps we ought to pick another example.

    But first, why don’t you explain why all true Christians agree on all moral issues. Start with……hmmmm….the war in Iraq. Most Christian communions are against it. Most American evangelicals are for it. Got a plan for certainty on universal agreement? Or how about environmental morality? Or access to health care morality? Or divorce? Can you enlighten us on how we’re all going to agree on the obvious so “our society” won’t be wrecked? If we’d just read our Bibles, it would all be so simple? Hmmmm?

    All theology may be up for grabs in the sense that we make our own maps (or if God has endorsed a confession, I’d like to have a copy with his initials) but the vast majority of Christians of every communion have agreed on the major theological landmarks for a long time. The amount of disagreement gets down to the details of the maps where a lot of disagreement is allowed among genuine Christians.

    Your comment about “cool” vagueness in an abstract pub…..What’s that about? Just need to vent a bit?

  4. I agree with you that their exists a Great Tradition of core theology throughout church history (Lewis’ Mere Christianity). I guarantee that if I sit down with you in conversation, I would agree with you on most things (and hey, we both have Southern accents). But my beef with this (and other post-evang;emerging;whatevever blogs) conversation is that it is vague and the dialogue is childish and downright stupid. This kind of stuff has no place in Christian conversation. Go to Scot Mcknight’s blog. He addresses theological issues in a serious (but not uptight manner) and intelligent manner. If someone who is not a beliver reads the blog, they find conversation that is not flippant but honestly searches for truth (i.e. what conforms to reality). Communication through words is a divine gift given to us that only we, God, and the angels possess. To use it in this manner is to desecrate something holy. I wish all Christians who use the web as a communciation tool would remind themselves about a certain wise man’s teaching concerning “idle” words. Paul thought he was out of his mind for writing as he did to the Corinthians. I wonder what his opinion is about Western Christians with their typepad that is set on fire by the fires of hell? Is this exaggeration? Read the epistle of James and God for the blessing of holy fear.

  5. Josh, I’m sure you are a really bright guy, but let me give you a suggestion. Why don’t you go up top the archives, read the titles of the last 25 posts on this blog and then come back.

    You’re trolling for a fight with what you think is the emerging church. You’re in the wrong place. No emergers in the conversation in this post. NONE.

    Don’t expect your next post to make it onto these comments if you keep chasing imaginary emerging blogs and calling me stupid.

  6. >This kind of stuff has no place in Christian conversation.

    Then I suggest you not read it. I’ve blogged for 7 years, and I have a few readers. If this is your assessment, then just say No.

  7. Don’t know if you’ve seen this, but Vanhoozer has an article in JETS (March 2005) that uses the map metaphor. See here.

  8. Michael, sorry to be vague earlier…
    Christians do not disagree on morality as much as the application of it. The war in Iraq is seen by some as an illegal occupation. It is seen by other’s as a liberation. But both sides would agree that the aggressive invasion of a country by the US and the slaughter of their people would be sin. There are difference perceptions of the war, similar views on morality.
    If Al Gore proves we are killing the planet, Christians will be against it.
    If we can say for sure that certain Rabinnic traditions do or do not apply to “divorce” as Jesus uses it, we will agree.
    Our disagreements are not mainly on the nature of morality, but on the application of it. Not YET at least…
    There is room for a divergence in the interpretation of the map, but when you start calling the map of Edinburgh “Lancaster” you have problems.

    Need to vent? Nope. You weren’t the only one speaking in that group, so maybe you were’t the sole target for my post. I hope you disagree with something that was said in that whole discussion you took part in. Some of those guys aren’t even looking at a map…more like an inkblot.

    It is only cool to talk about reality being fuzzy and vague when it is theoretical. It’s cool to talk about what Paul meant by “homosexuals”. When a man’s wife starts trying to reinterpret what fidelity means to her husband, the lines of morality suddenly become very solid because there is urgency involved.

    I’m not trying to pin you in a corner, I’m just asking… So I’ll restate my first question, since I’ve clarified my take on morality, and I’ve clarified that you aren’t the sole target, will you still be calling for such fuzzy adherence to confessions if our morality starts to diverge as much as our theology in Christendom?

  9. jmanning:

    I’m not confessionally committed to specific ethical stands. The Baptist Faith and Message doesn’t specify ethical stands per issue. Ethics is a deduction from the rest of what is believed. I don’t know of any confession that specifies ethical positions. They are deduced or implied, not confessionally spelled out. I believe churches have to be very careful in binding the conscience of a member in the area of ethic specifics.

    When you say “fuzzy adherence” to confession, you ought to specify what confession and what adherence means? The Baptist Faith and Message isn’t a subscribed confession. Even in my ministry at a Baptist entity I am not subscribed to it. You are talking as if you are in a strict subscription environment in some hyper-confessional church. The RCC has two inch thick catechism that covers a lot more territory than any evangelical or Protestant confession. You have to embrace it all without question to be an RCC. I don’t think that’s the way to go.

    I can’t figure out what you are talking about in a connection between differing confessionals and complete rejection of marital fidelity. I mean I do not get it. No one in the map discussion is suggesting anything like that at all.

    I’ll say it again: at the level of the vast majority of essentials, every “map” I know of is the same. If you want to make specific ethical positions on the same level as the Trinity, I can’t go there. There are way too many other factors to be considered in any case.

  10. Doesn’t C.S.L also use the map metahpor when explaining the tensnion between theological thought and “spiritual experience’? Or is C.S.L’s metaphor the basis upon which this discussion began over at TBH?

  11. i think he does use it, probably in mc.

  12. Nicholas Anton says

    Throughout the past 2000 years, the church in general has been quite agreed as to the integrety of the Christian map (The Bible). The problem has generally been the integrety of the process of interpretation. That is why Rome and Constantinople split. That is why the Reformation occurred. That is why we are in dire need of another reformation.

    I am frequently ashamed of being called an evangelical. It is one thing to become fools for Christs sake, but quite another to make a fool of Christ. Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have become very adept at this. I have read some of the arguments used by the “King James Only” group which are absolutely foolish. I have cross reffed all of Rick Warren’s Scripture passages in “The Purpose Driven Life”, of which at least half are used out of context. What we need is genuine Christian scholarship that is faithful to Christ and His Word, and yet honest. I have heard a pastor suggest that the author of the book of Jonah is the historical Jonah of whom it speaks, and with his second breath claim that the book was written sometime between 200 and 600 B.C. That is logically impossible! Others, who believe in the literal intepretation of Scripture seem to spiritualize the Bible, especially the Song of Solomon on par with Bernhard of Clairvioux.

    To those who believe in the integrety of The Word, please also practice integrety in the process of interpretation. An accurate map is useless if one fails to interpret it properly.

  13. It’s hard to take the idea of “fuzzy adherence” seriously, considering how fuzzy all the confessions are. Are we really supposed to understand things like the incarnation, the trinity, or the resurrection? Can we make sense of justification or sanctification?

    For that matter, we follow a fuzzy gospel that promises to let sinners off the hook, preached by a Fuzzy Evangelist who had no patience for the “faithful” of his day, but hung out with whores, drunkards and sinners, and promulgated by a fuzzy band of ex-fisherman and a myopic tent-maker with a serious attitude problem.

    We don’t have the foggiest idea who we believe in until we believe in Him, and when we do, the lies of modern church are obvious. Our marriages collapse, our children get hooked on drugs and have babies out of wedlock, our business partners run off with the company’s assets, our pastors and priests molest kids while our churches cover for them and shift them from job to job to avoid prosecution. If God was hoping to make friends, He needs to start treating the ones He has better.

    Let me steal a cue from “George Will”: Talk to me about confessional purity, about absolutes, about the basics of doctrinal purity. Go ahead. I’ll smile quietly, and if I like you, I’ll introduce you to my friend Chip. He’s 18 years old, and has profound impairment due to cerebral palsy. He loves Jesus, and sings his heart out on Sunday mornings. He holds my hand sometimes through the whole service. His electric wheelchair blocks the aisle during communion, and he’s run over more than a few toes on his way up to receive the elements.

    Nobody is really sure how much Chip understands of the gospel, or whether he understands it at all, but I’ll tell you this: If Chip isn’t going to be in heaven, I DON’T WANT TO GO. I can worship a God who would let my marriage fail, send me through hell on earth, and let my children suffer the horrible wounding they have in the past two years – at least, I can some of the time. But I can’t worship a god who requires that Chip understand the basics of the WCF or the Shorter Catechism or even understand as much as “Jesus Loves Me” before he can enter the Kingdom. That’s no god worthy of our worship.

  14. jmanning says

    The marriage issue was just an illustration to say when morality begins to crumble, suddenly we are really interested in “confessional clarity”. When marriage vows are said, they are vague, when they are broken, the offended party usually have a very definite idea of the infraction.

    I think Christians react the same way. When we are talking about confessions and creeds and doctrines we are fine being vague. But when morality slips, will be fine being so vague? There is the inevitable link between doctrine and morality. Paul always uses doctrine to prop up morality in the epistles.

    William Wilburforce attributed the rise of the slave trade in England with the decline of the Puritan doctrines. When people no longer used the Puritan “map”, the maps they used allowed slave trade in the name of “spreading civilisation to the heathen so they might be evangelised”.

    Whether or not the Puritan map is correct, our behavior is usually tied to our confessions. We can say like our SBC nest does “no creed but the NT” “I’m a biblicist” but we know those two statements are shaded by our map. The BFM is probably the most vague map there is, but there is an unwritten map surrounding it. You know that, I know that. I am not subscribing that we follow in step with the SBC, I’ve got my issues with them. But the basic pillars of Protestantism (most of it) is what I’m mainly advocating. Justification by faith in a forensic sense, progressive sanctification by grace of the same virtue that regenerates, priesthood of all believers, etc.

    When we relegate the big central doctrines of Protestantism to fuzziness, we will begin to see morality decline in the church. Both have already happened in most denominations.

  15. jmanning says

    I’d seriously consider worshipping God whether or not He acts the way you want Him to.

  16. Nicholas Anton says


    We are not propositioned in the Bible to know and understand all, but to both believe in and believe Jesus. This entails both the known and the unknown.

  17. Nathanael says

    At the risk of kissing jack-ass, I must say I THOROUGHLY enjoyed this dialogue. The whole map analogy is so helpful for me. I was part of a group who wrote a doctrinal statement for our church a few years back. And I was blown away by how people who agreed on so many theological ideas disagreed on how we stated what we believed in.

    Now I am part of a group within a church that is trying to navigate using that church’s map. And we are finding that the places we feel our Lord is leading us are forbidden zones on that map, which makes for some interesting discussions.

    Tim’s comment on our response to art being art was great. “…preaching is exactly art in response to art.”

    Good stuff, gentlemen, good stuff.
    Love wins.

  18. Michael,

    Thanks for posting this. I don’t read BHT very often because it’s sometimes hard to track the discussion of single topics. (Plus it’s career-limiting for me to try to stay current with it. 🙂 It’s nice to have an exchange like this available in forward-chronological topic-edited format.

    Yes, CSL did use the theology-as-map metaphor in MC, comparing the Christian life to a crossing of the Atlantic– good luck to you, he says, if you try without a chart! I’m afraid I can’t quote chapter and verse, though.

    Nothing else to add, other than “Yeah, what Tim and iMonk said!”. And also a thanks for your writing and podcast. Good stuff, keep ’em coming.

    – Greg

  19. I had been popping into the BHT for the past few days, had seen the discussion on “maps” and couldn’t focus (a lot going on in my world at the moment). Printed and finally read the IM post. I have to say it was a GREAT thread of discussion. I love the map analogy (which henceforth I shall refer to as the JimJack Proposition) and have found a couple of the posts very profitable. I’m loving Jim and Jack for putting it out there.

    Thanks for posting it, Michael.

  20. This really resonated with me, Michael. Thanks for posting this. Like others have said, I don’t even try to read BHT more than once or twice every few months because it’s too hard (for me) to follow. Seeing this post with its organized record of the conversation was a great read, though.

    (Actually, for me, the problem is that I never know how far back to find the beginning of the topics that interest me on BHT. By the time I finish skimming backwards I’m so confused!! hehe)

  21. PeahReigokeplaph says

    bvegjqbwcphcnysdwell, hi admin adn people nice forum indeed. how’s life? hope it’s introduce branch 😉