Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bad Responses

Here is one category of things that I see a lot in papers (or even in print) that annoys me. I also often here people say these things as well. Usually, people use these sayings as an excuse or escape hatch to avoid having to actually think about or critically evaluate the issues at hand or as a rationalization for avoiding having one's beliefs challenged. In these sorts of cases, it's really a kind of intellectual laziness that gives rise to these. Now, don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that these are never the right things to say. There may very well be times where one of these actually is the appropriate response. But it takes a discerning, critical mind to tell when it is appropriate and it more often than not actually isn't. Indeed, to come to one of these as a conclusion about some matter ought in most cases to be a hard-fought, carefully won conclusion - not something that one should simply assume at the outset or use as an escape hatch from the conversation. I've written these up for my students in hopes that some of it will sink in and grouped them according to a few different types.

Lazy objections or responses to get out of having to actually think about the subject:

Gotta have faith - 'You just have to have faith', 'Everything they say is just based on faith', etc.

Who knows? - 'There's no way to prove either side', 'We'll never be able to figure this out', 'No one can understand this issue', 'No one has any evidence/proof either way', 'Not everyone agrees with this', etc.

Just obey - 'Don't question God', 'Who can understand why God does things?', etc.

I'm confused - 'What they say confuses me', 'What they say is vague/ambiguous/unclear', 'The other person's argument is easier to understand', etc.

Who died and made you king? - 'Who's to say/judge that p is the case?', 'What right have we to say that p?', etc.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Some Teacher's Proverbs: Thoughts Thought While Grading a Bunch of Papers

Never underestimate your students' ability to misunderstand, misinterpret and confuse.

If you want some awful papers, ask your students to write about the nature of morality.

If you want some awful, confused papers, ask your students to write about God or religion.

If you want some awful, confused, torture-to-read papers, ask your students to write about the nature of morality and God or religion.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dispensationalism and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 2: Prophetic Literature

This series, introduced in my last post, is about (big surprise!) dispensationalism and the interpretation of Scripture. The sorts of traditional views common among dispensationalists of various stripes include the following:

  • A belief in multiple "dispensations" or administrations of God's salvation or providence throughout history
  • A strict separation between Israel and the Church, God's plans for them, God's ways of dealing with them, and the Scriptures talking about them (and perhaps a strict separation between the covenant appropriate to each)
  • A very literal interpretation of biblical prophecy and a focus on a modern day return of the Jews to the land of Israel (thought by many to have been fulfilled with the founding of the modern state of Israel) and in some cases an eventual reestablishment of the temple and sacrificial system when Christ returns
  • A belief that the church is a kind of parenthesis in God's plans (more common among older versions) - the Jews being the real focus
  • Premillenialism (Christ will return bodily to earth and then visibly reign for a literal one thousand years before the Final Judgment)
  • Pretribulation rapture (the Church will be removed from the world with Christ's secret, invisible first Second Coming and taken to heaven - after which will follow seven years of very bad stuff called "the tribulation" during which an Antichrist will gain control of things)

Not every dispensationalist agrees with every one of these points in every detail (though I believe that all of them believe in the last two at least). Not everything I say in this series therefore will apply to every dispensationalist, though at least something will! To avoid having to talk about every kind, I'll stick to a version that subscribes to the theses above as I've written them - a kind of generic dispensationalism.

The topic of this post is about prophetic literature in general and how the dispensationalist Hermeneutic of the Literal goes wrong in interpreting such writings. The key idea here is that a presumption in favor of literal interpretation, when applied to such writings, is just plain wrong. Prophetic literature is a highly symbolic form of literature and it is often just as likely that a symbolic meaning was meant rather than a literal meaning. In some cases - apocalyptic, for example - the presumption is rather the other way around and one must presume that what is said is meant symbolically unless there is good reason to think otherwise. All of this is not a matter of preference but simply a matter of the kind of literature this is - literary genre and the conventions and uses for such a form of literature. To treat it otherwise is to ignore the genre and the conventional use to which language is put within such a genre. But once we recognize the genre and its conventions and the symbolic use of language within it, dispensationalism's house of cards quickly begins to crumble.

Here are just a small few of the key symbolic or otherwise interesting uses of language throughout the prophetic writings (and indeed used elsewhere in the Bible as well) which the dispensationalist hermeneutic generally simply does not take into account:

  • Fall, curse, slavery, exile, and final judgment are all spoken of in terms of each other and using symbolism derived from others. Similarly, creation, restoration, exodus, return from exile, and final vindication or justification are all spoken of in terms of each other and using symbolism derived from others.
  • Numbers are generally symbolic rather than literal (especially numbers like three, seven, ten, or twelve - or multiples thereof such as 144,000 or 1,000)
  • Imagery of grand cosmic events (like the eclipse or "the sky being rolled up like a scroll") are generally used to talk about earthly events - especially sociopolitical ones - that are of great theological or spiritual significance.
  • Prophecies are not always concerned with single events that are to happen all at once but often present us with a single vision which is really of multiple events that are to happen at different times - that is, prophecies are not necessarily always fulfilled completely all at once but one bit or aspect may be fulfilled at one time and another at another time. Indeed, prophecies or prophetic books are not necessarily even in any kind of chronological order at all (except perhaps for the chronological order in which the prophet saw his visions) and may even be speaking of the same event or sequence of events more than once within a text using different images or visions to get at the target in multiple ways.
  • Israel is spoken of as a vine, vineyard or olive tree. It is also spoken of as a woman, wife, or mother and as priests, chosen or elect, saints, a holy nation, God's son, God's anointed, etc.
  • The Messiah is spoken of using imagery or titles that apply to Israel (since, of course, the Messiah is the true Israel - Israel's representative and fulfiller of its destiny).

Previous posts in this series: Part 1

Further posts in this series: "Modern Israel and Biblical Prophecy", "The People of God, Israel and the Church" and "The Tribulation and Rapture"

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dispensationalism and the Interpretation of Scripture Part 1: Two Kinds of Hermeneutic

How are we to go about interpreting Scripture or some particularly troublesome passage of Scripture? Here's one thing we shouldn't do that lots of people seem to think is a good idea: interpret all of Scripture metaphorically, or at least those sections of it the literal meaning of which we don't particularly like (in particular, those which seemingly contradict our theological position). Call that the Hermeneutic of the Metaphorical ("hermeneutic", as I'm using it, refers to a method of interpretation). Here's another thing we shouldn't do that lots of other people who oppose the Hermeneutic of the Metaphorical seem to think is a good idea: interpret all of Scripture literally, or at least those sections of it which support our particular theological position (those that do not being interpreted metaphorically instead). Call that the Hermeneutic of the Literal.

Notice that these two hermeneutics are of a kind - they are both incarnations of a larger hermeneutic which we can call the Hermeneutic of the Present. Both ignore lots of relevant historical or literary facts or traditions of interpretation in their interpretation of Scripture, basing their readings instead on their own narrow contexts, interests, and theological positions. Both privilege a certain kind of reading (literal or metaphorical) over another (metaphorical or literal) but do so ultimately only arbitrarily and where it suits them (or their theological view) since to interpret everything consistently with the espoused principles of the hermeneutic would be implausible or inconsistent - some passages cannot be taken other than literally and some passages if taken literally would contradict each other. The key, unspoken principle of the Hermeneutic of the Present is that the text means what I (or my fellow countrymen or fellow members of my church or etc.) would have meant by it. Liberalism follows the Hermeneutic of the Metaphorical and Classic Dispensationalism follows the Hermeneutic of the Literal. But both are wrong, as the Hermeneutic of the Present is in general a misguided, me-centric way of reading the Scriptures.

Contrast now the Hermeneutic of the Present with the Hermeneutic of Context which tries to place the meaning of a text within its textual, historical, theological, grammatical, semantic, pragmatic, cultural, religious, sociological, anthropological, narrative, symbolic, scriptural and literary context and use that as the determiner for deciphering the original meaning of a given text. In the Hermeneutic of Context, one can go just as wrong in interpreting a passage literally that was meant symbolically as in interpreting a passage symbolically that was meant literally. The key is to look at the evidence of the context.

Principles like "interpret literally unless there is an overriding reason not to do so" or "interpret according to the plain meaning of the text" are overly simplistic and generally unuseful - which is why they are almost always espoused by those who ignore at least parts of the complex of context within which a given text was originally situated. These principles are the watchwords of the Hermeneutic of the Literal - principles not followed to a t but instead too often followed only insofar as it bolsters the theology of the interpreter. The former principle is not helpful since one must have evidence in interpreting a text of literary genre before one knows whether it is to be interpreted literally or otherwise - it is that which in large part decides whether it is to be interpreted literally, not this principle of literalism. The latter is not helpful since plainness differs from person to person and yields contradictory results. What is the plain reading to one person contradicts the plain reading for another. "Plainness" is, after all, a relational concept - it involves a relation between an interpretation and a person and so will differ from person to person. Indeed, sometimes a text has no "plain" interpretation at all and is in fact generally puzzling (one reason why there are so many debates and conflicting interpretations among well-meaning Christians).

So ultimately, the Hermeneutic of Context is preferable to the Hermeneutic of the Present in either of its incarnations. It promises to get at the original meaning of the text with less interference from one's own context, interests, or theological point of view than is found in the other hermeneutic. It is also truer to the way actual interpretation of texts in general proceeds anyway.

Further posts in this series: "Prophetic Literature", "Modern Israel and Biblical Prophecy", "The People of God, Israel and the Church" and "The Tribulation and Rapture"

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Some Criteria for an Adequate Moral Theory

From some notes I made for tomorrow's Phil 1 class I teach (anything else I should add?):

The more plausible a moral theory is, the more it should…

1. Give plausible answers as to which actions are right and which are wrong.

2. Give the right reasons for why an action is right or wrong.

3. Make moral thinking rational in some sense.

4. Help guide us in doing the right thing.

5. Be the sort of thing that can be followed by a perfect human being leading a full human life – it shouldn’t require us to be omniscient or omnipotent.

6. It should be difficult – morality should not be too easy but should be stringent and should set a very high standard for us to achieve. If a moral theory says we aren’t very good people, we should take that as an impetus to improve ourselves not to reject the theory.

7. Allow for error – sometimes we go wrong.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Simon Gathercole in Christianity Today on the New Perspective on Paul

In the latest issue of Christianity Today, the cover article is a piece by Simon Gathercole, a lecturer in New Testament, on the "New Perspective" (NP for short). For those who aren't up to speed on what the NP is, it's a new way at looking at and interpreting Paul's writings on Israel, Church, the Law and works of law, salvation and justification based on a new understanding of what first century Judaism was like. This new (or newish - it's been around for around half a century now) take on the Jewish milieu of Jesus' time has it that the old caricature of Jews and first century Judaism as ancient Jewish versions of Pelagius or Medieval Catholics who are trying to earn their way into heaven through doing good stuff is simply mistaken and that Judaism at that time was far more grace-based (God chose Israel out of sheer grace, for instance) than modern commentators have generally noticed. They then take this new understanding and use that to reinterpret Paul in this new, purportedly more accurate context.

The NP has taken the world of New Testament and Paul studies by storm and even those who disagree with it have been necessarily influenced by it at least to some degree. More and more evangelicals have hopped on board the NP bandwagon, this being facilitated in large part because a well-known evangelical, N. T. Wright, is one of the principle proponents of the NP.

I was a little surprised to see an article of this kind in CT. This is supposed to be a general magazine for evangelicals and to see a movement within biblical scholarship which doesn't seem to necessarily deny any portion of "mere Christianity" (or even any of the pillars of evangelicalism) criticized is a little odd. Hopefully, I'd like to see some sort of article in response defending the NP by some evangelical, fully orthodox member of said movement.

So what exactly were the criticisms? Gathercole lists six. The first is that the NP wrongly insists that Judaism in the first century didn't think in terms of salvation as something to be earned or gained through obedience to Torah. Here he gives some quotes from some non-canonical literature of the period which are supposed to support this contention. But these quotes weren't quite so clear as they were supposed to be - they seemed to me easily capable of being interpreted through an NP lense. Even if they weren't, it's not clear how damaging it would be to the NP if some Jews thought in terms of earning salvation if the majority didn't (some NPers, in fact, seem willing to concede as much). The use Gathercole wants to make of this, however, is that, given that some Jews thought that obedience to Torah would be rewarded in the end times with salvation, that "Paul's understanding of justification makes sense, then, as a criticism of law observance as the means to eternal life (see Romans 3:20)". But it equally makes sense - NPers would argue more so - as a criticism of law observances as the membership badge for or way of staying in God's people. Gathercole continues, "Many of Paul's contemporaries seem to have believed that obedience was possible without a radical inbreaking of God. For Paul on the other hand, salvation was impossible without...Cross, Resurrection and Pentecost". As if this was a point against the NP! NPers could perfectly well agree with this (at least qua NPers). At least Dunn and Wright seem to agree, if not all NPers generally. So I don't see any real problem necessarily for the NP presented in this first criticism.

The second criticism is that "works of the law" in Paul means doing the law as a whole, not just the particularly Jewish stuff. But, with many NPers, one could perfectly well interpret "works of the law" as meaning primarily the Jewish stuff but also maintain that Paul thought failure in any part of the law meant a failure to uphold the law period and as such meant one was under a curse. One needn't reject the latter to think the former, as Gathercole seems to me to think.

The third criticism is that many NPers throw the personal baby out with the individualistic bathwater when it comes to matters like salvation. But, again, not all NPers do in fact fall into this trap (Dunn and Wright, again, don't generally).

The fourth criticism is that "the core meaning of justification by faith is about how believers, despite their sin, can be reckoned as righteous before God". Now I'm not sure exactly how Gathercole is understanding what he says here, but on at least some understandings of it not all NPers fail in this regard. And since not all do, his final two criticisms, which are based on this one, also do not apply to all NPers.

All in all, Gathercole seems to paint with too wide a brush (a common failing in writings attempting to critique the NP) and all his criticisms either aren't entirely persuasive or aren't so much criticisms of the NP as of specific pockets of scholars within the NP (there are a lot of non-evangelical, non-orthodox biblical scholars after all). It's a little hard, indeed, to see what all the fuss is supposed to be about. A lot of what he says in the rest of his article is of this nature as well. NPers qua NPers can agree with the essential spirit or points of what Gathercole says, for instance, about justification and righteousness even while having a different account of what these things mean. NPers can perfectly well reject any kind of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, accept Christ's death as a propitiating sacrifice and even accept full blown five-point Calvinism all the while being an NPer. In the end, this article unintentionally comes across as an attempt to poison the well against NPers like Wright by offering criticisms that apply mainly only to others within the movement (something, again, that happens far too often).

Sometimes (though I'm not saying Gathercole does this) the anti-NPers seem to be mainly against Wright or the NP as a kind of reactionary move - they do not like the shift in how their old theological language or ideas are being used. Often, people seem quick to condemn anything that sounds different from the traditional formulas from their favorite dead theologians without stopping to try to see how everything in the new view actually fits together and how it jives with the biblical witness. Vitriolic accusation of heresy, indeed, seem to fall at the drop of a hat. If you don't believe me, check out some of the Reformed writers who are violently anti-NP on the Internet. Or read about the Reformed folks who are campaigning against the "Federal Vision" theology (a Reformed theological movement which has been influenced by many NP ideas and has been viciously and unfairly attacked by many of the fellow churchgoers). To see a dissenting voice, check out this piece here which argues that Wright's theology fits the Reformed view quite well.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Divine Hiddenness and the Problem of Evil

The problem of divine hiddenness, roughly, is this - if God's so keen on us believing in him, even to the point of possibly staking our salvation at least partly on it, why does he remain so hidden from us? In other words, how can a reasonable person be blamed for not believing in God if God hasn't made it as obvious to that person as it could possibly be?

For the purposes of this post, I'll leave aside the objection that God's existence is immediately obvious to everyone and so nonbelief is indeed always blameworthy in that sense. What I want to discuss is how distinct this problem really is - is this a problem that's somehow uniquely troublesome to Christians and similar sorts of theists? My answer is no. I'm not really sure what all the fuss has been about surrounding this issue of late (of course, I'm not as up to date on the literature on this topic as I'd like) - in my mind, the problem of divine hiddenness just seems to be one particular case of the problem of evil, albeit a somewhat striking one. Any answer to the problem of evil, it seems to me, will generally do just as well or just as badly as a response to the problem of divine hiddenness.

Now, why do I think this? Well, for one thing, divine hiddenness is just one example of the bad stuff that exists in our world - we were made for direct, "face-to-face" relationships with and knowledge of God and that lack is a bad thing. In that sense, divine hiddenness is just one more evil which God allows and yet which also perhaps results in people being punished, just like God's allowal of murder or rape. The connection with evil becomes even stronger if we take the biblical stance that sin has damaged and does damage our abilities to clearly perceive God or to assent our will to him or his truths. If that's so, and without sin we would in fact perceive God clearly and wonderfully, then the explanation for divine hiddenness lies in part in the explanation of sin and fallen, sinful state - that is, a solution to the general problem of evil. And if we're responsible for that bad stuff and it's that bad stuff that prevents us from knowing God then perhaps we are in fact responsible for any divine hiddenness we experience since it is brought upon us by ourselves.

This seems to me a much better way of approaching the topic than the well-worn answer I've heard some Christians give. According to some, God remains hidden because otherwise, (if, say, he started really obviously revealing himself to people, writing the gospel in the clouds in English, etc.) people would have to believe in him and so would have no free will. There's a couple things people could mean by this. If God revealed himself in this way then...

1. People would have no choice but to believe that God exists and so would have no free will.
OR 2. People would have no choice but to follow God and so would have no free will.

Now 1 is simply not true. Maybe people wouldn't have any choice but to believe that God exists, but that doesn't mean they have no free will. Free will pertains to willing to do something, not necessarily willing to believe something. There are all kinds of things we don't seem to have any choice (or at least very little) but to believe in it yet we still are free. Besides, believing that God exists doesn't necessarily change anyone's behavior - as James says, after all, even the demons believe - and shudder.

But neither is 2 necessarily true either. Why think that this would follow? Adam and Eve were in direct contact and fellowship with God and yet they still chose to disobey God and not follow him. So clearly the obviousness of God doesn't necessarily hinder our will in any way and still allows for us to reject him. Maybe there are some kinds of revelations that would do this, but I'm not sure what that would be or that anyone has ever experienced it (Paul perhaps?) and clearly God can be very obvious without things being like this (he walked with and had direct fellowship with Adam and Eve after all). So in either case - 1 or 2 - I think this sort of objection fails and that a better strategy would be to subsume the divine hiddenness problem under the problem of evil in general.