This idea has been bouncing around in my head for a bit. It’s not fully-formed by any means, but I’d like to get it out there and hear what you think of it.

Here it is: “Mental Models” could be a helpful model for theology.

What is a "mental model"?

Definition of mental models

Put simply, a “mental model” is a concept used to help explain how the world works.

According to Wikipedia:

mental model is an explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person's intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems (similar to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.

Here’s a helpful video from Farnam Street explaining mental models (and giving an idea of how they’re usually appropriated these days for decision making and personal development):

vimeo.com/177585900

Examples of mental models

For example, the 80/20 Principle (20% of causes lead to 80% of effects) and the Eisenhower Decision Matrix (organizing things by importance and urgency to prioritize decisions) could both be considered mental models.

Another famous mental model is Occam’s Razor, the idea that the simplest hypothesis is preferable.

One of my personal favorite mental models is Hanlon’s Razor, the idea that one should “never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.”

*Mental models are TRUE/USEFUL, but also LIMITED*

This is, perhaps, the most important thing about mental models.

On the one hand, a mental model needs to be true and useful. It needs to accurately describe at least one thing about how the world works.

However, on the other hand, a mental model is LIMITED. No single model can accurately account for the way the entire world works!

So, instead of clinging to one mental model and acting like it’s somehow comprehensive, you’re much better off developing a “toolbox” or a “latticework” (to borrow Charlie Munger’s phrase) of mental models.

Examples of theological mental models

Theology is filled with statements and theories that, I think, work a lot like mental models. They are designed to accurately describe some aspect of theological reality. And yet, they are also limited. No single model/statement can account for everything about the person and work of the Triune God.

For one thing, many of the central themes of biblical theology [affiliate link] could be considered analogous to mental models.

  • Covenants
  • Divine Commands
  • Atonement
  • Servant of the Lord
  • Day of the Lord
  • People of God
  • History of Redemption

Atonement theories also tend to work much like mental models:

Also, consider the following Trinitarian theological mental models:

  • Inseparable Operations: how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to each other
  • "Rahner's Rule": "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity"

4 Reasons why mental models might be useful for theology

Again, here’s my idea: Mental models could provide a helpful model for theology. 

Why? 

1. Mental Models could help keep theologians humble

Remember, mental models are true, but also limited. Such is also the case, I would argue, when it comes to theological claims.

When we make a claim about who God is or what God has done, we are, in effect, proposing a theological Mental Model.

If the model is worthwhile, then it will be true. And we can test its truthfulness on the basis of Scripture (and tradition, reason, and experience - in that order of significance).

However, no matter how worthwhile the model is, it will always be limited! It will never FULLY suffice to PERFECTLY describe the Truth with a capital T.

Therefore, we should remain humble both when (1) proposing or (2) critiquing theological Mental Models.

2. Mental models could help keep theologians creative.

Because no single model can account for everything about the person and work of the Triune God, there is always more work to be done!

New models need to be proposed. Old models need to be critiqued, refined, and distilled.

This is why the theological conversation continues. We don’t just “arrive” at a list of correct theological positions. Instead, we delve deeper into the mysteries of God.

3. Mental models could help introduce theology to others.

Let’s be honest, theology can be quite confusing. One could easily wonder what all the theological fuss is about. Theologians have been arguing with each other for thousands of years. Why haven’t we figured everything out yet?

Thinking of and presenting theology in terms of a latticework of theological models might be a helpful way forward, because it helps to make it clear why the theological enterprise is ongoing. It could also help people to evaluate and adopt various theological statements/positions on their own.

4. Mental models could help us talk about the history of theology and the Church.

This is, perhaps, a corollary of the previous point. The history of theology and the Church can be quite confusing. How are we supposed to keep track of all the different figures and theological statements?

Thinking of theology in terms of mental models might help to clarify the discussion a bit. This is already done in many areas of theology, especially when it comes to learning the different “theories” of the atonement.

I think, however, that there’s room to expand the use of theological models throughout all of the different doctrines and figures in the history of theology. For example, when teaching someone about Martin Luther, we could emphasize an important “model” that Luther “discovered” - the distinction between passive and active righteousness.

I realize that this is already being done, but perhaps there’s room to make “theological mental models” (or “theological models”) more of a thoroughgoing model/framework for theology as a whole.


What do you think? Are mental models as useful for theology as I think they are?

Let me know in the comments below!