Sunday, May 06, 2012

The divine ironist

Today’s post is a sequel to this post:

Here I’m presenting an alternative framework.

I. Divine accommodation

i) Traditionally, Christians regard these depictions as cases of divine accommodation. God comes down to our level. Since we can’t relate to God on his level, he relates to us on our level–like a grownup talking to a child–or a specialist explaining technicalities to a layman.

ii) Open theists regard that as special pleading. An ad hoc excuse that disregards the plain sense of the text. An interpretation (or reinterpretation) driven by philosophical theology.

However, that’s not a fair characterization. Although traditional Christian theology was influenced to some degree by Greek philosophy, so is open theism. As Jeremy Pierce points out:

Now some classical theists who are philosophers will also give philosophical arguments for classical views about God. It might also be that some of them give arguments like the one you give. But that doesn’t mean it’s their basis, and it doesn’t mean that anyone giving such an argument is a classical theist. The neo-Platonists clearly were not, as Augustine would be quick to correct you on.
Open theists don’t derive their philosophical view from Plato as much as from Aristotle’s sea battle passage (an argument that I think Aristotle ends up rejecting when he shows its ridiculous consequences as he discusses it). I also see its antecedents in the ancient world in Alexander of Aphrodisias and Cicero.

Augustine explicitly contrasts his view of divine being with that of the neo-Platonists. That’s in fact the main place where he thinks they get it wrong. He regularly speaks of how they fail to capture some crucial elements of God when they say things that he does think amount to gesturing in the right direction of God. They just don’t get it remotely right, as he sees it (and I would agree).

iii) Moreover, the Bible itself ascribes lofty attributes to God, like omniscience, omnipotence, eternity, and immutability. To take a few examples:

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it?    Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Num 23:19).
He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind (1 Sam 15:29).
Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
 (Ps 90:2).
25 In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
    and they will be discarded.
27 But you remain the same,
    and your years will never end.
(Ps 102: 25-27)
I make known the end from the beginning,
    from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say, ‘My purpose will stand,
    and I will do all that I please.’
(Isa 46:10).
Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (Jas 1:17).
So when Christian theologians interpret certain passages anthropomorphically, they are still using a Biblical frame of reference.

iv) And this isn’t merely an inference from Scripture, although there’s nothing wrong with logical inferences. We also have concrete examples in Scripture. For theophanies (e.g. Isa 6; Ezk 1) present a paradigm-case of divine accommodation. Since God is imperceptible in himself, he reveals himself to human perception through symbolic manifestations.

Of course, open theists have their own prooftexts. My immediate point is that it’s deceptive to suggest that classical Christian theism has no biblical basis, and has to import its distinctive tenets from outside Scripture.

v) Furthermore, the Bible was revealed in a pervasively pagan culture with many humanoid or even bestial gods. Yahweh stands in contrast to the false gods of the pagan pantheon.

vi) What’s more, if God were the God of classical Christian theism, how would such a God interact with human beings? Wouldn’t he have to come down to our level and relate to us the way Yahweh is depicted in Scripture? Isn’t that what we’d expect from Scripture if classical Christian theism is true?

So I think the traditional explanation is fine as far as it goes. But it can be supplemented.

II. The audience

i) One thing open theists overlook is the implicit role of the audience in divine revelation. When God asks questions, dickers with Abraham and Moses, tests Abraham and Job, is that for God’s benefit? No. That’s for the reader’s benefit.

It’s easy for the reader to forget his own role. The reader is a tacit participant in this transaction. It’s like people who can’t find their glasses because they’re wearing their glasses. They don’t see their glasses because they see with their glasses.

Likewise, it’s easy for us to forget that these biblical accounts were recorded for our benefit. It’s like watching a play in which the actors relate to each other. The stage is lighted, while the audience is offstage, sitting in the dark. What the actors say and do isn’t to inform each other, but to inform the audience.

Consider some standard narrative techniques of screenwriters. Most of us have seen movies and TV dramas in which a character explains something to another character. For instance, a criminologist will explain a forensic technique to another criminologist.

When you think about it, that’s unrealistic. After all, wouldn’t a fellow criminologist already know that? So that’s not really for the benefit of the character. Rather, that’s a way of feeding information to the TV viewer or moviegoer without directly addressing the audience. That way the character needn’t step out of character and ruin the illusion by speaking to the audience.

Likewise, you have a scene in a squad car where one homicide detective is explaining his theory of the crime to his partner. Why does he do that? Is that really for the benefit of his partner?

No, that’s for the benefit of the audience. That’s a way in which the screenwriter feeds plot information to the audience. Say it’s a whodunit. By allowing the audience to overhear this conversation, the screenwriter is giving the audience a clue as to the suspect.

Of course, in murder mysteries, sometimes that’s a false lead. Sometimes the novelist or screenwriter is deliberately trying to misdirect the audience so that when the true identity of the killer is revealed, that will be surprising.

ii) I use that illustration to make this point: I think the Bible often uses this oblique narrative technique. And it’s not just a rhetorical device. Rather, God actually has these conversations, which he will later inspire Bible writers to record, for the benefit of the audience.

iii) Remember that at the time the Pentateuch was written, most folks didn’t have much background knowledge of the true God. The Pentateuch itself supplied the background information. The books of the Pentateuch were probably the first books of the Bible. This is giving readers the backstory. Filling them in on the nature of God, the promises of God, the creative and redemptive deeds of God.

This isn’t something the reader could take for granted absent the Pentateuch.

III. Divine irony

Open theism prides itself on taking the text if face-value. It accuses classical Christian theism of engaging in rationalistic exegesis. But open theism is tone-deaf to the rhetorical techniques of Biblical narrative.

1) Irony

For instance, OT narrative contains a lot of irony. Dramatic irony plays on a contrast between appearance and reality. The narrator and reader are conscious of the incongruity, whereas characters within the narrative are oblivious to the incongruity. The narrator and reader enjoy a God’s-eye view of the action. From our detached position, we can see their situation better than they can. That’s often the essence of comedy.

As one scholar explains:

Irony is distinguished from other perceptions of incongruity by two characteristics. One is the means of statement, which we may describe as understatement or a method of suggestion rather than plain statement. The other is a stance in truth from which the perception comes…Ironic criticism requires of its hearers and readers the burden of recognition, the discovery of the relation between the ironist’s “is” and his “ought.”

E. Good, Irony in the Old Testament (Westminster Press 1965),

Irony in narrative may take several forms. It may be punctual irony, the use of words and expressions of ironic intention at particular, more or less isolated, “points.” It may be episodic irony, the perception of an entire episode within an ironic aim or content. It may be thematic irony, the conjunction of a number of episodes all of which point to an ironic theme or motif.
The irony of a particular episode may arise from its conjunction with one or more themes of the wider context. Again, thematic irony may be recognized by a continuum of several episodes with ironic content.

Ibid. 81-82.

2) Hidden plots

Related to irony is the way narrators play off hidden plots against apparent plots. As one scholar explains:

The [Joseph] story illustrates particularly well the general tendency of biblical narrative to juxtapose hidden and apparent plots. The apparent plot is the foreground action–what appears to be immediately true for the character involved in the story. In the story of Joseph, the apparent plot is a series of disasters. Viewed in terms of immediate impact, most of what happens to Joseph is tragic.
The hidden plot is what we as readers are aware of and that characters in the story come to perceive. It is not immediately evident as events unfold but it’s the background story toward which events gradually move. The hidden plot in the story of Joseph is the story of God’s providence at work. It is a story, not of tragedy, but of redemption. At any point in the apparent plot, one could not predict a positive outcome to Joseph’s life. Joseph is first the outcast, then the slave, then the prisoner. In each case, the final triumph occurs because of (not in spite of) the apparently tragic events.

L. Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Baker 1987), 102-103.

3) Foils

On another related note is the distinction between normative characters and foil characters. As Ryken explains:

The central character in a story…is the protagonist…from whose viewpoint we go through the action. Characters arrayed against the protagonist go by the name antagonist. A foil character is a character that sets off or heightens another character, usually by being a contrast but occasionally by being a parallel.
Whenever a character goes beyond being simply sympathetic to being the spokesperson or embodiment of the virtue or viewpoint that the storyteller espouses, that character can be called a normative character (embodying the standards, values, or norms that the story itself is offering for our approval).

Ryken, ibid. 72.

Examples of foil characters are Lot to Abraham, Ishmael to Isaac, Esau to Jacob, Laban to Jacob, Saul to David, John the Baptist to Jesus, and Satan to Jesus.

4) Illustrations

Let’s take some examples from the Pentateuch.

i) There’s an element of duplicity in Abraham’s negotiation with God (Gen 18). Abraham doesn’t really care about the fate of Sodom in general. Rather, Abraham’s real concern is the fate of his nephew Lot. If he can convince God to spare Sodom, then he will thereby spare Lot in the process. So Abraham plays his cards close to his vest.

ii) Lot himself is quite ironic. When Abraham offers to divvy up the land, Lot imagines that he’s getting the better of the deal by taking the lush river valley. But in the end, Lot barely escapes with the clothes his back. 

iii) Jacob deceiving his blind father is a comedy of errors, in the classic sense (i.e. mistaken identity). Jacob, the narrator, and the reader know something Isaac does not. Jacob impersonates Esau. Pretends to be someone he’s not. Isaac is suspicious, but lacks the ability to detect the disguise.

iv) Laban is a foil to Jacob. Jacob is a conman. He cons his father and his brother. God punishes him by putting Jacob at the mercy of another conman–Laban. Jacob learns what it’s like to be on the receiving end.

v) Laban tricks Jacob into taking the wrong sister for his wife. Just as Jacob exploited Isaac’s blindness, Laban exploits the fact that Jacob is blinded by darkness. At night, he can’t tell which sister is which. The deceiver is deceived.

vi) In another comedy of errors (i.e. mistaken identity), Joseph’s brothers fail to recognize Joseph while he recognizes his brothers. And Joseph manipulates their ignorance to his advantage.

vii) When they assure Joseph that they are brothers of one man, and honest brokers (Gen 42:11, the irony is both bitter and acute. Little do they know how incriminating is their profession of innocence. They proclaim their candor to the very man they double-crossed. They appeal to their brotherhood in the teeth of the brother they betrayed. They reveal themselves in the effort to conceal themselves.

viii) When his brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph, they unwittingly fulfill the prophetic dreams (Gen 37) which they went to such ruthless lengths to thwart. It’s downright fatalistic.

ix) Open theists like to cite the Book of Jonah, but that book is laced with irony.

x) These are examples of punctual or episodic dramatic irony, but they also figure in the thematic irony of the Joseph cycle. God gives young Joseph a prophetic dream, in which he will rule over his family. But Joseph suffers a series of reversals. The setbacks seem to contradict the prophetic dream. That’s ironic. That creates a discrepancy between appearance and reality. On the surface, Joseph is experiencing the opposite of what the dream foretold.

Yet underneath the apparent plot of human action is the hidden plot of divine action, by which God is directing events behind-the-scenes to fulfill the dream in unexpected ways.

The narrator gives the reader three clues to perceive the hidden, overarching plot:

a) Three dreams (Gen 37; 40-41), which gives us a glimpse of God’s ulterior plan and providence. As Ryken notes:

They unify the story by foreshadowing the conclusion or climax. Already in the exposition (background action) of the story we can foresee its conclusion. As a result, a strong sense of providential destiny overshadows the entire life of Joseph.

Ryken, ibid. 101.

b) Joseph’s editorial interpretation of events, by which he credits God for the outcome (Gen 40:8; 41:16; 45:5-9; 50:20).

c) The story seen in respect, where the emerging pattern becomes clear in hindsight. We need to read Biblical narrative backwards as well as forwards.

5) The divine ironist

But we can take the principle one step further. For in OT narrative, God is both an onstage character as well as an offstage character. God is a player in apparent plots as well as hidden plots. He sometimes casts himself in the role of a shuffling, shortsighted character. Unprepared. At a loss to know what to do next. Like Columbo, he plays dumb. 

But the audience needs to read the narrative at two levels. Appearances notwithstanding, appearances are just that–what merely seems to be the case. Not to be confused with reality. The hidden plot interprets the apparent plot.

For this is the same God who not only predicts an outcome, but orchestrates a chain-of-events to realize the prediction in ways that demonstrate his absolute mastery.  Indeed, the convoluted path in which the prediction is realized, which it’s many seeming failures along the way, demonstrates divine prescience and power in a manner that a more linear fulfillment would not. Creating obstacles to knock them down.

For instance, in Gen 18, God is a foil to Abraham. In Exod 32 and Num 14, God is a foil to Moses. Abraham and Moses are cast as sympathetic characters (indeed, normative characters), whereas God is cast in the role of an unsympathetic character. The antagonist. In Num 14, Moses resorts to blackmail to dissuade God. God’s reputation will be ruined if he carries out his threat.

Scenes like this are highly ironic. Yet open theists have a tin-ear for the ironic overtones. They read these narratives far too straight. They miss the calculated incongruity. They see the apparent plot, but are blind to the hidden plot.

Making ample allowance for divine irony in OT narrative doesn’t require us to pit one book against another. Within the Pentateuch itself we can discern these rhetorical strategies.

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