Friday, August 19, 2005

The Purple Papist

Jonathan Prejean has now cobbled together his basic objections to the Evangelical faith, in a post entitled “Argument from a hypothetical Evangelical”:

He takes as his immediate point of departure some statements by Jason Engwer and myself. I do not, of course, speak for Jason, and he does not speak for me. So he is not responsible for the particulars of my reply.


This is essentially the commonplace argument that God "accommodated" Himself to human language so that we ought to be able to "know" what He meant with "reasonable certainty" using "ordinary methods for interpreting historical documents."


It is important to be clear on what I mean by divine accommodation. It is not that God has accommodated himself to human language. Human language is, itself, a gift of God. He endowed us with a capacity for speech. God is the author of human language.

So it is not as though he is having to adapt himself to human language. Rather, he is making use of a medium which he himself originated in the first place. Language is adapted to God, not the other way around. Human language is preadapted to speak to God and about God, just as God can speak to us—as he has spoken through the prophets.

And, yes, Scripture was given to be understood. The primary point of divine self-revelation is, after all, to disclose man’s duty to God and to his fellow man.


My objections fall into three basic classes: epistemological, philosophical, and historical.

1. Epistemological

The common feature of every one of the arguments above is that they assert greater knowability associated with the reliability of a particular method as evidence for greater certainty. One big problem: greater reliability is something that is established by empirical practice demonstrating that a method actually works. Another bigger problem: an argument from the need of a method to the existence of the method is fallacious. Essentially, the argument above says that because God gave us a written revelation, we must be able to extract everything that we need to know from that revelation according to a reliable method, which doesn't follow.


Prejean is mashing together a couple of quite distinct issues: in particular, he is confounding a hermeneutical method with an apologetical method.

I can understand the source of the confusion inasmuch as the debate over at Crowhill went back and forth on these two issues as though they were synonymous, but they’re not.

i) The hermeneutical question is the question of how we ascertaining the meaning of a document—especially a document from the past, whether the Bible or the church fathers or a church council or a papal encyclical, &c.

That’s what the grammatico-historical method (GHM) has reference to.

ii) The apologetical question is how we verify or falsify the truth-claims of a document.

Historical evidence (evidentialism) may figure in the answer, especially in the case of historical revelation, but that is not at all the same thing as GHM.

As I understand him, Jason drew a couple of distinctions:

a) He didn’t deny that verification might require more than historical evidence alone; rather, he denied that it might require less than historical evidence.

b) He didn’t deny the value or occasional necessity of metahistorical considerations; rather, he denied the necessity of debating the rules of evidence unless the rules of evidence were wrong, or were challenged.

So he regarded historical verification as a necessary, but insufficient condition, depending on the person-variable nature of the apologetic encounter.

iii) GHM and evidentialism may intersect at various points. This can happen, for instance, when GHM is used to ascertain the meaning of a documentary truth-claim, while evidentialism is then used to verify or falsify that truth-claim.


In particular, the grammatical-historical method (GHM) makes a number of assumptions about texts that are dubious in the case of the Bible, such as the meaning of the text being limited to that which the author was trying to convey and its logical implication, which cast into doubt the applicability of the method to extract the "true meaning" of the text.


Unfortunately, this is an assertion bereft of a supporting argument or concrete illustration, so I don’t know exactly what Prejean has in mind or how he’d defend it.

But I’ll take a stab. The use of Hos 1:11 in Mt 2:15 came up fairly often in the debate, so maybe this is the sort of thing he has in mind. If so, the following remarks are in order:

i) We are not using allegorical exegesis to isolate this example. Rather, we are using the GHM. If we were using allegorical exegesis, then we could take Mt 2:15 to mean anything we please. So the very appeal to a verse like this, far from disproving GHM, assumes it.

ii) Mt 2:15 is an instance of typology, not allegory. Allegory is literary whereas typology is historical. Typology is a relation between events, not a form of exegesis or alternative school of hermeneutics.

iii) And while it is true that Mt 2:15 goes beyond original intent, it does not go beyond the logical ramifications of the passage.

Fulfillment doesn’t add to the meaning of the original. What it adds is the outcome, and the circumstances surrounding the outcome. But that is historical, not semantical.


Conversely, the application of the method to Scripture imports all sorts of factors extraneous to the GHM, such as the supposed "inspiration" of Scripture (not a factor that I've seen discussed in my historical texts about Abraham Lincoln, for example), "authority" of speakers, interpretation of texts in light of the writing of other authors (effectively treating Scripture as a single "book"), Scriptural inerrancy (whether factual, moral, or theological), etc., etc.


Unity, inerrancy, inspiration, and authority are exegetical results of applying GHM to the text of Scripture. They figure in the self-witness of Scripture. When we exegete Scripture, using sensible and responsible methods, we discover what it has to say about itself as well as other things. These are not theological assumptions, but exegetical end-results of the GHM.

The fact that this doesn’t come up in a historical text about Abraham Lincoln is irrelevant to the method. It doesn’t come up, not because the methodology differs, but because no such claim is lodged in the text.

To repeat: there are two distinct issues here:

i) The identification of a truth-claim, and:

ii) The verification of a truth-claim.

(i) is a prerequisite for (ii).

It’s odd that Prejean is so hostile to the GHM. This isn’t just a Protestant thing anymore. It’s pretty mainstream stuff in Catholic scholarship as well, viz., Brown, Fitzmyer, Johnson, Lagrange, McKane, Meier, Murphy, Vawter, &c. Same applies to contemporary Jewish scholarship, viz., Cassuto, Levine, Milgrom, Sarna,

What’s his problem, anyway? Is he just not up on contemporary Bible scholarship? Or does he view it as a threat to Catholic theological method?


2. Philosophical

This could actually go on for days in terms of particulars, but for the moment, I'll stick with the philosophical question of proper theological method. First, I think that the notion of God "accommodating" Himself in Scripture is incoherent in the way that it is asserted. If one accepts any sort of notion of God's transcendence (not even the correct apophatic method, but any method at all), it is de fide that God's infinity cannot be comprehended by finite human reasoning. But in the practice of Evangelical interpretation, terms are interpreted as if they could be applied univocally to God, with any incoherence being chalked up to "tension."


i) Pure apophaticism is incoherent. You can’t know what something is not unless you have a standard of comparison. Knowing what is supplies the frame of reference.

ii) From a Protestant standpoint, “proper theological method” takes its cue from the revelatory event itself. What does God say about himself in Scripture? What can we learn about exegetical theology from the intertextual example of the inspired authors themselves as they comment on one another?

Prejean is plucking out of thin air a wholly ersatz definition of divine transcendence rather than taking his cue from God’s actual self-revelation.

We Evangelicals reapply to God the terms that he has chosen to apply to himself. We have revealed warrant for doing so. By the same token, we have revealed warrant for making every necessary adjustment as we distinguish between divine and human attributes.

No one is supposing that human reason can exhaust the infinitude of God. But there’s a difference between infinite knowledge and knowledge of the infinite.

One could spend a lot more time on this, but because Prejean is so terribly vague, there’s no point marshalling specific answers to nonexistent particulars. One would need a much more precise idea of what he has in mind.

I happen to agree with him that a lot of the talk about points of tension is a cop-out. And he would be hard-pressed to find the same tensions in my own theology.

By contrast, there are plenty of tensions in Catholic theology, beginning with the perennial effort to square the circle of merit and grace.


Second, the philosophical premises used to justify the GHM particularly in the Scriptural context strike me as entirely unbelievable.


I’m happy to agree with his awful examples, but I don’t see that the GHM needs a heavy-duty philosophical justification.

It’s based on the common sense principle that God revealed himself in a different time and place, language and culture than our own.

And we also have Scriptural warrant for GHM. The Bible is quite sensitive to cultural and historical distance. When, for example, Moses is writing about conditions which no longer obtain, he throws in an editorial comment (e.g., Gen 13:10).

Mark explains Aramaic terms. NT writers quote for the LXX for the benefit of Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews. The whole transition from a Hebrew OT to a Greek NT is an exercise in recontextualizing the message. And there are many other examples in the NT of adapting Jewish expectations to a Gentile audience.

When a Bible scholar, using the GHN, tries to bridge the distance between past and present, he is simply emulating the practice of the canonical writers as they endeavor to bring the reader up to speed.


In both cases, one's certainty is rooted in the ontological presence of God in objectively perceptible manifestations, so that you can go where the Sacraments are.


This assumes what it needs to prove regarding the real presence and baptismal regeneration. It also substitutes philosophical verbiage for anything resembling an actual philosophical argument. Rubber checks pay no debts.


Evidently, before conservative Evangelicalism decided to make a comeback into serious scholarship against the tide of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism (which, BTW, was mere decades ago), this method simply didn't exist. I guess all that bit about God "accommodating" Himself to human limitations meant 20th century human limitations.


Actually, the GHM is a throwback to the Antiochean school of exegesis, which enjoyed a comeback with the Renaissance, and which, in turn, spurred on the Reformation. Calvin, for one, was a practioner of the GHM.

Archeology has done a lot to beef up the method, but the method has been around since day one.


St. Augustine screws up on baptismal regeneration because of the noetic effects of sin, OK. 99% of every Christian of whom we have records?


Whoever said we have to attribute his misinterpretation to the noetic effects of sin? Not me! It’s simply bad exegesis, that’s all. And given the institutional church, errors quickly become institutionalized.

As to the numbers game, we’ve been over this ground before. Only the educated classes could even read. And only the well-to-do had any books to read. There was no Bible for most folks to misinterpret.


Yes, we can quibble here and there, but if I am going to give even my ordinary level of deference to historical scholarship, this is a no-brainer. If there were Christians out there who denied baptismal regeneration, the apostolic succession, and the consecrated bread and wine as the metaphysically real Body and Blood of Christ (entitled to adoration), I don't know where the heck they were; I can't honestly read the historical record and think that they even existed, much less played any substantial or continuous role in Christian history.


Once again, we’ve been there—done that.

You might as well argue that Stalinism was true because the dissidents were few. The Inquisition, imperial pogroms, and the like, served as a fairly effective enforcement mechanism for keeping most folks in lock-step.

In is no accident that the expansion of doctrinal diversity coincides with the contraction of the church’s temporal authority. The potential for widespread dissent was always there just beneath the surface.

This last-ditch appeal to the vox populi merely exposes the fact that Prejean can offer no direct and exegetically sustainable argument from the only source that counts—which is divine revelation. If apostolic succession, baptismal regeneration, and the real presence were clearly revealed, then there’d be no need for this pitifully circular appeal: we should believe it cuz others believe it. Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists would be more than happy to help themselves to Prejean’s faux-populism.


  1. Well, I suppose that Basil of Caesarea was too much a forerunner of the enlightenment, given his rejection of allegory and "common sense" hermeneutic...

    Basil of Caesarea (Ad 329-379): I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to snake them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense…Shall I then prefer foolish wisdom to the oracles of the Holy Spirit? Shall I not rather exalt Him who, not wishing to fill our minds with these vanities, has regulated all the economy of Scripture in view of the edification and the making perfect of our souls? It is this which those seem to me not to have understood, who, giving themselves up to the distorted meaning of allegory, have undertaken to give a majesty of their own invention to Scripture. It is to believe themselves wiser than the Holy Spirit, and to bring forth their own ideas under a pretext of exegesis. Let us hear Scripture as it has been written. NPNF2: Volume VIII, Hexaemeron, Homily 9.1.

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  3. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."