Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Who dwells in inapproachable light

I'm going to make some addition comments on this post:

I'll be quoting Nate Shannon, then responding:

I think you’re leaning toward something Helm seems to say, which is that history is merely this: pulling back the curtain to reveal the decree. That’s hyper-Calvinism. I fear you’ll lose the free offer, and history itself (if consistency is the order of the day). 

From a predestinarian standpoint, what's wrong with understanding history as pulling back the curtain to reveal the decree? History is the eventuation of the decree. A spatiotemporal transcription (as it were) of the timeless decree. The decree is in advance of the fact, but we discover the contents of the decree after the fact by observing what actually happens.  

Shannon falls into the familiar trap of acting as if predestination is synonymous with fatalism. But predestination doesn't make us passive spectators. The decree includes our actions and reactions. Our predestined participation contributes to the appointed outcome. 

If we say God is God (a se), and we can agree on that I’m sure, then what does Ex 19 say? Nothing of significance? Epistemological apparitions only? Phenomena ‘improperly’ called ‘God’ (I won’t give this ground to Kant)?

Who is claiming that a symbolic presence is "improperly" called "God"?

The distinction between appearance and reality hardly began with Kant. That's not a uniquely Kantian distinction. When I see a mountain at a distance, I perceive the mountain at eye-level. I seem to be as tall as the mountain. Does that commit me to Kantian epistemology? Does Shannon believe I really am as tall as the mountain?

Or perhaps that God condescended by way of covenant? The question is, at the end of the day: does God do what Ex 19:20 says he does? My concern is that some philosophico-theological commitments impose upon such passages a hermeneutic such that Ex 19:20 cannot say what it in fact says.

i) Shannon acts as if his interpretation is metaphysically neutral. As if he brings no presuppositions to the text. He just takes it as is. But that just means he's oblivious to his own unexamined filter. 

ii) There's a rudimentary distinction between what a text says and what it means. Take sarcasm, where what the speaker means is the opposite of what he says.  

I don’t disagree with this excerpt from Turretin, except for this description: “. . . a symbolical presence, when under some visible symbol he manifests himself to believers . . .” I don’t think Scripture will allow us to say that the pillar or the fire or the burning bush were symbols but NOT the presence of the Lord. Put it this way: I disagree that we must, a priori, disallow the ‘spatio-temporal’ presence of God such as that described in Ex 19:20. I am not saying that God cannot be present only symbolically or metaphorically or anthropomorphically (though I do think this language is often just window dressing for ‘not actually there’ – denial of what Scripture plainly teaches); but the hermeneutic I’m uncomfortable with does indeed proscribe a priori the sort of divine presence described in Ex 19:20. It won’t allow God to be present non-symbolically. So if anyone is in the position to launch a Job 38:2 response, it’s me, on behalf of Scripture.
The incursion of natural theology into our theology proper precludes, that is, a priori disallows, a faithful reading of Scripture where it clearly teaches that the LORD was present on the top of Mt. Sinai. 

i) Shannon operates with a face-value hermeneutic. One problem with his approach is that we've been down this road before, with Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd, et al. How would he ever win an argument with an open theist, or even a Mormon? They make the same hermeneutical claims. 

ii) His hermeneutic is jejune by the standards of narrative theology ("the poetics of narrativity"). For instance, our first impression in reading Genesis might be that God is a bungler. Yet the reader is expected to interpret the historical action with the benefit of hindsight. There's a distinction between the hidden plot and the apparent plot. As we look back on the sequence of events, God's providential guidance emerges from a retrospective reading. 

iii) It doesn't occur to Shannon that he himself is making a priori demands on the text. He has a preconception of what God's "presence" must entail. Take a comparison: Suppose a wife tells her husband, "I spoke to Ken [their son] this morning."

That could mean she spoke to Ken face-to-face. Or it could mean they spoke over the phone. Did she really not speak to Ken if she only heard his voice in the receiver? If you wish to be pedantic, you could insist that that wasn't really his voice, but an electronic simulation of his voice. Does that mean it's false to say she spoke to her son? 

When Ken speaks to his mother by phone, is he "present"? Well, he's not present in person. He's not in the same room with her. Yet he has a projected presence. He's present to her in a way he wouldn't be if he didn't speak to her at all, whether in person or over the phone. Because they stay in contact, they aren't cut off from each other. It's a matter of degree. 

Now perhaps Shannon considers that an inadequate model of presence. If so, that's a reflection of his preconceived notion. 

iv) Ezekiel's prophecy opens with a classic, extended theophany. But consider how Ezekiel's qualifies the event:

"Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord" (Ezk 1:28). 

Does Shannon think the Lord was present with Ezekiel at that particular time and place? "Present" in what sense?  Notice the buffers. There's the "Lord," then there's the "glory of the Lord," then there's the "likeness of the glory of the Lord," then there's the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. 

In Ezekiel's interpretation, the Lord is several steps removed from Ezekiel's experience. Ezekiel didn't experience the Lord directly. He didn't observe the Lord in himself. Rather, what he saw was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. 

Ezekiel goes out of his way to introduce these distancing formulas to distinguish the theophany from the Lord. Yet Shannon's hermeneutic collapses that transcendent inaccessibility. 

Or take Paul's classic doxology:

"who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen" (1 Tim 6:16).
In Scripture, there is no unmediated divine presence. Rather, when God makes himself "present" to his creatures, that's refracted through natural media. 
But the point is that a priori, a Chalcedonian proper says that the LORD can be present ‘in the flesh’, or spatio-temporally; and a posteriori, if you like, we may find in Scripture that in fact he is (on the top of Mt. Sinai, for example).

That's confused on several grounds:

i) It confuses the order of being with the order of knowing. Even if in light of the subsequent revelation of the Incarnation, we identify the Sinai theophany as a Christophany, God wasn't present "in the flesh" at Sinai.  

ii) If, moreover, Shannon thinks God can be present in that anachronistic sense, then the Incarnation is superfluous. 

iii) Furthermore, the Incarnation doesn't mean God qua God "enters" space and time. Ironically, it's not classical theists who resort to metaphors at this point. Rather, it's folks like Shannon whose conceptual scheme is unconsciously metaphorical, but they lack the critical detachment to appreciate the picturesque metaphor they are using to conceptualize the event. 

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