Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Rewriting history

Jonathan Prejean has a postscript to our recent exchange. Let's run through his reply:


UPDATE -- Hays responded here. I anticipated these objections some time ago here (so much for the argument that it "just occurred to me" that Evangelical exegesis was Antiochene). The claim of continuity with the Antiochene method is well-known among Evangelicals and well-known to me personally; see, e.g., David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now; Gerald L. Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present.

Anyway, I only bring this up as more evidence of what I mean by not getting substantive responses. Here, my arguments were entirely compatible with each other, but my interlocutor wasn't even willing to apply the epistemic charity required to assume that I wasn't directly contradicting myself. There's no way I can possibly make myself so clear that people determined to misunderstand can't do it, but that doesn't change the fact that responses based on such misinterpretations don't touch the substance of my objection.


Let us compare this with what I was responding to. This, once again, is what Prejean originally said:


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.


All he has done now is to document the fact that he was aware of the connection between Antiochene exegesis and the GHM all along. Fine. I don’t doubt it. But that does nothing to harmonize his former statement with his latter statement. Indeed, what he’s done is to document the contradiction.

As to the substance of is objection, this does indeed, go straight to the heart of his objection. His objection is that Evangelical distinctives represent a theological innovation in the history of the church. They are without precedent.

But if, by his own admission, GHM is a direct descendant of Antiochene exegesis, then he can no longer use that particular objection. He can use other objections, but not that one.

And this, in fact, is exactly what we see him trying to do—to raise the precedential objection, then drop it, without admitting as much, then shift gears to an outcome-based objection:


The fact that the Evangelical method picked out old techniques doesn't demonstrate any continuity of reason for selecting those techniques (with Antioch or with the Reformers), but the fact that the particular techniques selected failed to pick out an orthodox Christology in the past surely does say something about the wisdom of using the Evangelical method to pick out techniques in the first place.


So which is his criterion—history or orthodoxy?

He then tries to harmonize his contradictory claims in this fashion:


But regardless, the overall philosophical-hermeneutical framework in which hermeneutical techniques are adjudged useful (viz., the method by which one determines what techniques to apply) appears to be primarily a creature of 20th-century German phenomenology (so much so that Bray considers knowledge of Heidegger's Being and Time and Gadamer's Truth and Method to be essential for understanding modern Evangelical hermeneutics), so I stand by my statement that the modern Evangelical method is of recent origin.


This, though, wavers on a palpable equivocation by confounding the origin of the method with the origin of a philosophical framework.

But, of course, the GHM is logically and historically independent of Heidegger and Gadamer. It antedates German phenomenology. And it can be embedded within a very different conceptual scheme.

As I’ve said before, it operates with the common sense principle that when we interpret a historical document, we try to enter into the historical horizon of the original author and audience.

The only general challenge to this principle is coming from Marxist, feminist, and queer studies, where the commentator consciously offers a reading which cuts against the grain of the text.

As I also said, we can find many examples in Scripture itself in which a later writer tries to close the gap between then and now for the benefit of his audience. And for a Protestant, that is sufficient warrant.

BTW, notice that Prejean his contradicting his own methodology. He has argued that Evangelicalism errs by beginning with a doctrinal criterion (a credible profession of faith) and then applying that to identify Christians. He has argued for the reverse: reason from practice to doctrine.

Now, however, he wants to judge the GHM by reference to a philosophical framework as his point of departure.

Moving along:


And not because it has anything to do with the subject but just because I nearly rolled off my chair laughing when I realized this, Hays claimed that Chalcedon "offers precious little regarding a positive statement of the hypostatic union" and that it "affirms the respective relata, and disaffirms, by way of negative formulations, reductionistic models of the relation." By miraculous coincidence, this turns out to be exactly what Hays considers the purpose of systematic theology: "to avoid reductionistic formulations that minimize the revealed truth of the respective relata--in making Christ less that human or divine, and in making the members of the Trinity less than personal or divine." What a remarkable coincidence! I suppose that's one alternative to Newman's old "to be deep in history" aphorism: swim to the shallowest interpretation! I guess historical methods for documents are always applicable, except when they aren't... ;-)


This is the Chalcedonian formulation. It consists in a positive statement regarding the relata, followed a negative statement of the relation:

i) Relata:

One and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures.

ii) Relation:

Inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, Prejean defends himself by appeal to something he posted a month ago.

But what he does there is to illustrate just how arbitrary his argument really is. He begins by cherry-picked his preferred historical outcome—a Cyrillic or Cappadocian Christology.

Keep in mind that the historical process doesn’t privilege one outcome over another.

He then cherry-picks his authorities, discounting such historical witnesses as Dioscorus, Eutyches, Theophan--as well as such church historians as Aloys Grillmeier, Jaroslav Pelikan, Adolf von Harnack, John Meyendorff.

He then cherry-picks the particular version of the allegorical method he likes, as practiced by Athanasius and Cyril, in contradistinction to Origen, on the one hand, and Antiochene exegesis, on the other hand--while Chysostom is conveniently set aside as a mere moralist.

He talks about “the attempt to rehabilitate the Antiochene view by glossing the condemnation of Antiochenes,” although he has no difficulty attempting to rehabilitate the Alexandrian method by glossing the condemnation of Origen,” and I’m sure he’d be more than willing to gloss the condemnation of Pope Vigilius.

So this is how the game is played:

i) Arbitrarily privilege your favorite outcome.
ii) Discount any authorities who disagree with you.
iii) Pick out the historical precursors who just so happen to chart a pathway to your preferred outcome, to the exclusion of all other precursors and historical outcomes.

Notice, again, that the historical process does not, of itself, yield any particular outcome or select for one over another.

Prejean is applying his selection-criteria to church history rather than deriving his selection-criteria from church history.

Finally, Prejean says the following:


Unless such an interpretation is so absolutely and definitively contradictory that there is no way that the interpretation can be reconciled with the text, then a Catholic will view the interpretation as permissible, and the probabilistic techniques of the grammatical-historical method will not be convincing.


Notice the burden of proof; not: is this a revealed truth, but: does this contradict revealed truth.

And this goes to the fundamental divide between Catholicism and Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism begins with the premise that Christianity is a revealed religion. Hence, revelation is our source of information. To go beyond revelation is to go beyond what we know and have good reason to believe.

Once we leave the settled ground of revelation, we have just gone over the cliff and find ourselves walking on thin air. For his part, the evangelical prefers something firmer underfoot.

Many untruths are consistent with revealed truth. It is consistent with the Bible that John Kerry won the 2004 presidential election. Even though that proposition is a falsehood, it in no way contradicts the Bible.


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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)."