Sometimes at Christmas, when we stay at my parents’ house, we do a massive jigsaw over the festive week. My Mum makes them harder by insisting that looking at the picture on the box is cheating. We have to put the pieces together with only a vague recollection of what the finished picture looks like. The other time I get to do jigsaws is with the children. I think I enjoy it more than them! It’s so satisfying joining the pieces up together. Sometimes one of us links two pieces together that don’t quite fit. As we add more pieces the picture gets rather distorted; we have to force more bits together in implausible ways and we are left with unused pieces. Finally realising our mistake can be a real Eureka moment. As we near the end, inevitably some of the pieces of the puzzle are missing, and we cry out together “there is a missing piece, a missing piece!”. We all start frantically hunting around for it. Sometimes it’s under the sofa, sometimes someone is sitting on it and sometimes someone has deliberately hidden it in order to get the glory of being the one to put the last piece in place! Sadly sometimes it’s a lost cause and the piece is nowhere to be found. It will lie there behind the sideboard, kept in stasis until some future generation stumbles upon it while fitting a new kitchen.
Systematic theology is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. We try to put all the fragments of truth contained in the bible together to build up a faithful picture of what God is like; his character, plans and purposes. The trouble is we don’t have all the pieces and we haven’t seen the picture on the box. Somewhere we have to begin linking the pieces together and make an educated guess as to roughly where they sit. If we think we have all the bits then we can be tempted to force things together, linking large chunks up where they really don’t fit and producing a distorted smaller picture. We piece together something on the sovereignty of God over here, then join up all our bits about human responsibility from over there but they don’t seem to go together very well. The fact is there must be some missing bits that we simply do not have. Down in one corner we have a “god is one” chunk of the picture. We also have some “Jesus is fully God” pieces and a “the Holy Spirit is God” grouping, but again they don’t seem to fit together unless we tear off some blobs and repaint the edges. In truth we simply don’t have all the pieces. God is sitting on them, or holding them in his hand ready to put them in place at the end.
Knowing that some pieces are missing is a great help when doing the puzzle and stops us trying too hard to join things up. I find that very helpful when piecing together the truths I find in the bible. God has revealed some truth but not all. The bits he has revealed are usually very clear in terms of their application but not their systemisation with other pieces. The bible is the word of God but written by men for various reasons on various occasions and in various styles. I read it and obey it as God’s word but I also read it and understand it knowing it’s written by men. Unless I am mistaken there are a few bits missing that join the two bits up but the application is clear. I can see roughly where they go in the picture and live in the good of them. Same goes for God’s sovereignty. A large part of the application is clear in that we can trust him to work things out according to his good, perfect and pleasing will even if there are gaps in our understanding and questions that we just can’t answer. Same goes for our responsibility. And as far as I can work out these two are on opposite ends of the picture with lots of missing pieces in between. Some of the missing bits we could try to guess at or makeup ourselves but the more there are the harder it’s going to be.
Finally, maybe you don’t believe in God but have been having a clear out in your life or perhaps some big change has been forced upon you and things have shifted around. Just sometimes in those moments you stumble across a strange little bit of a puzzle. Maybe, just maybe it’s part of an amazing picture showing you the nature of God and his wonderful purposes for your life.