Friday, July 15, 2005

Seeing red

Jonathan Prejean, of Crimson Catholic fame, has penned a brief reaction piece something I wrote in response to Enloe:

<< This post wasn't really pointed in my direction, but I think it gets right to the heart of most interreligious difficulties among the main Christian denominations. >>


<< Personally, I doubt it, and that's not a particular criticism of Scripture but of any attempt to reconstruct an ancient document. You can make a good run at it, but the degree of certainty one might have about the meaning is less than absolute, and there is likely going to be a massive amount of disagreement about how probable any particular person's conclusions are with regard to several important issues of interpretation. I think generally you can make pretty good guesses about meaning, but in lots of particular instances, you're probably going to have to throw up your hands and say "we just don't know for sure." It appears to me that the Magisterial Reformers recognized that and evaluated dubious cases (such as paedobaptism, rebaptism, and heretical interpretations) according to tradition, which they considered binding (even if not infallible) in areas where the Scriptural witness was unclear. >>

Prejean raises some fundamental issues here which are well worth raising:

i) I agree with him that in many individual instances, all we can offer is an educated guess--although some guesses are better than others.

ii) In this respect a Catholic commentator like Brown or Fitzmyer is in the same boat as a Protestant commentator like Bruce or Bauckham or Cranfield.

iii) Having said that, historical distance cuts in more than one direction:

a) A modern scholar will understand less about any particular book of the Bible than the original audience for that particular book.

b) But by that same token, historical distance also applies at an intracanonical level. The audience for Genesis is not the same as the audience for Daniel, which is not the same as the audience for John.

c) As a consequence, it is possible for a modern scholar to understand more about the Bible generally than the original audience did. For example, an Egyptologist or Assyriologist has a better handle on some OT books than Josephus did.

iv) Due to the level of doctrinal redundancy built into the Bible, there is a high degree of certainty attaching to the broad theology of Scripture which is fairly independent of the low degree of certainty attaching to certain verses in particular.

v) Apropos (iv), one of those widely-attested doctrines is the special providence of God.

As such, we don’t need to be equally sure about everything as long as we’re sure that God is sure of everything, and will secure his purposes for his covenant community.

vi) I reject the principle that tradition should function as a makeweight in dubious cases. If, to use some of Prejean’s examples, a preponderance of the evidence fails favor either inside in disputes over baptism, then our level of confidence ought not rate any higher than evidence warrants. We should frankly and honestly admit that dubious cases are just that—dubious.

We can live with an element of doubt on many things as long as everything isn’t doubtful. For uncertainty is, itself, a relative concept--relative to something which is more certain.

And, in that event, matters of policy and practice ought to be left to individual conscience and freedom of dissent, although like-minded individuals are at liberty to form religious associations which do come down on one side or the other.

<< False dichotomy. There's no necessary relationship between whether the Bible means ONLY what it was meant to mean for the implied reader and the target audience and whether human language is an adequate vehicle for divine revelation. The standard Christian account of revelation for centuries was that it was written by God for the Church collectively, not simply a fixed message between an author and a receiver at the time. The literal sense was always considered true, of course, but not limiting. The Bible was clearly written to be understood, but understood by whom and when is an entirely different question. >>

Several more issues to sort out:

i) It’s true, as Prejean points out, that my questions are not deducible from one another by strict implication. Keep in mind, though, that they were never intended to be that tight-knit. I was not attempting to offer a systematic presentation of my own position, but pegging my questions to Enloe’s position. To that extent, I was allowing him to frame the questions.

ii) To say that the Bible was written for the church is ambiguous. The Bible was written for the benefit of the church at large, but the various books of the Bible were addressed to men and women living at the time the books were written. They were, in a sense, writing for posterity, but they were not writing to posterity, as if the writers foresaw our individual topical circumstances. Rather, their words were directed to their contemporaries.

As far as posterity is concerned, we can only rightly know what the Bible means for us by knowing what it meant to them, in terms of what the author meant it to mean, consistent with the cultural preunderstanding of the day. Inspired intent and objective implication are never at loggerheads.

In the providence of God, old words are applicable to the future. History repeats itself. Nature and passion never change.

iii) To reiterate a distinction I’ve drawn elsewhere, there is a difference between intent and implication. For example, a statement may contain incidental information which has nothing do with the main point. The speaker includes the background details in his statement because they supply the setting for how he knows what he does or what exigent circumstance occasioned the statement in question. So the statement may include information about the time of day, or the weather, or who he was with.

Such asides and parentheticals can come in handy when we try to reconstruct the historical context in which the statement was originally situated.

Or, to take another example, the Mosaic code consists both of general norms (the Decalogue) and case law. Now, from the case law it’s possible to infer general norms, and it is also possible to apply the general norms to special cases not illustrated or envisioned in the Mosaic code.

Notice, though, that these implications do not export more from the text than they can find in the text.

iv) To draw another distinction: the Bible is full of divine promises. In many instances, the recipient is told what God will do, but not how or when he will do it.

At a metaphysical level, both the ends and the means are assured. And at an epistemic level, the end is assured, but not the means. That is to say, the recipient can be certain of the fulfillment, but he cannot be certain of the historical contingencies by which the promises will be facilitated and fulfilled. Indeed, he may be totally in the dark on that logistical question.

So there is a core of epistemic uncertainty surrounded by a shell of epistemic and ontological certainty.

<< If you're interested in the God-inspired meaning, both (at least according to the traditional account). If you neglect either, you cut off part of the intended meaning. If you adopt either extreme, it's hard to see how you haven't strayed into some kind of Christological error regarding how the divine and creation intersect. The former idea particularly seems to view the divine and human qualities of Scripture as separate, which is analogous to either Nestorianism or Arianism/Adoptionism (if it's simply God's use of human instruments). The latter view is analogous to Docetism, neglecting the historical reality of the Scripture. >>

I regard this Christological comparison as committing a two-way level-confusion:

i) It commits a top-down level-confusion. There are analogies between inspiration and Incarnation. But the two are not directly related. Rather, they are indirectly related to each other by being directly related to a higher-level abstraction. Each one is, as Prejean rightly points out, a special case of the way in which the divine can interface with the human.

But by that same token, Christology cannot supply the framework for Bibliology inasmuch as Incarnation/inspiration relation is not a set/subset relation.

To see this you need only turn it around. Would it make any more sense to treat inspiration as the framework for Incarnation? No.

ii) It commits a bottom-up fallacy. Christology is a theological construct. So is Bibliology. The one is not inferred from the other. That would be another level-confusion. Rather, each doctrine is inferred from the relevant exegetical evidence.

Now, once each theological construct is complete, having been derived from its own data-base, it is then possible to move to the next level and compare the two, and relate the two, on a logical and systematic plane of analysis and synthesis.

And comparing like doctrines may generate additional supporting arguments. But one doctrine doesn’t furnish the interpretive grid through which another is strained and filtered.

<< If we knew for a fact that Dante knew the end from the beginning and providentially ordered things so that the significance of part of his writing would be realized centuries later, then sure, we might interpret him in light of Hubble and Einstein. That's the difference between the author being God and the author being Dante. :-) >>

The fact that Scripture is inspired can and does mean that it is able to anticipate inferences and eventualities not consciously or unconsciously foreseen by the human author.

However, any given text of Scripture still contains a finite amount of information. My extrabiblical inference cannot validly export more from the text than the text implies.

Now, the context of fulfillment can supplement the original context inasmuch as the fulfillment will supply the missing information—the who, what, and when. But that’s a case of progressive revelation, bearing witness to the historical futurition of promise.

<< That defines the objective content of Scripture, but not what is received from Scripture (the subjective Christian belief that ought to be taken from it at a given time). In other words, asking the question "What would a first century Christian have taken this to mean?" doesn't exhaust the possible meaning that God intended. Exegesis gives the former, but only the witness of the Church through the ages gives the latter. >>

To some extent I’ve already dealt with this in the above-drawn distinctions.

There is a sense in which the life of the church tells you something about God’s overarching purpose in the revelation of Scripture. However, Scripture remains the criterion, not the church, for you would need to know which church is the true church to know which church truly exemplifies God’s purpose for the church. And, from a Protestant perspective, no one church, even among the truer churches, ideally exemplifies that correspondence.

Once again I’d like to thank Prejean for a civil and beneficial exchange.


  1. We have got to stop having reasonable conversations. People will think we're dating.

    Unfortunately, what you say is presented far too reasonably and charitably for me to rant.


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