Thursday, September 17, 2009

The blind leading the blind

An apostate has responded to something I posted on Mt 23:2-3:

“This is an interesting theory. If you bring to the text some assumptions about authority and holiness then you are lift with a real puzzle to solve.”

Well, I quoted from John Nolland who, in addition to his own comments, quoted from Mark Allan Powell. Nolland is Anglican, so I don’t think the assumptions he is bringing to the text are necessarily prejudicial to a high-church polity. Likewise, Powell is a Lutheran ecumenist and member of the Catholic Biblical Association. So I doubt that his operating assumptions are especially hostile to a high-church polity.

“The same goes with Matthew 16 where Jesus tells Peter, ‘On this rock I will build My church’ in one moment and in the next story He is saying ‘Get behind me Satan’. What is going on? Jesus does not see a problem. Men can have a legitimate authority from God and still be quite sinful. In fact, sinful men are all God has to choose from so you can be sure all Christian leaders will be sinful.”

One of the problems with this statement is the fact that we do have moral qualifications for church office-holders in the NT:

1 Tim 3:1-7:

1The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

Tit 1:6-8:

6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.

Paul was obviously aware of the fact that “sinful men are all God has to choose from,” yet that doesn’t make questions of character or conduct irrelevant to church office.

The fact that all men are sinners doesn’t mean we should hire someone convicted of graft or embezzlement to be the church treasurer.

So even if we’re going to recast the issue in terms of sinful office-holders, which is not the correct way to frame the interpretation in the first place, that hardly means we can brush aside questions of character and conduct with glib platitudes about the universality of sin.

“God solves this problem by establishing an office that transcends the office-holders. Holier men make the office more powerful but ‘blind guides’ cannot ruin the office.”

i) An obvious problem with that solution is that Mt 23:2-3 isn’t describing “office-holders.” “Pharisee” was not an office, like high priest or procurator. Someone who happened to be a Pharisee could also be an office-holder, but that’s incidental to Pharisaic identity. Many or most Pharisees were laymen.

The closest thing you had to a religious office in Judaism was the priesthood, and you didn’t need to be a priest to be a scribe or Pharisee. It was possible to be both, but that was not a job requirement.

ii) Indeed, the Pharisees were opponents of the religious powers-that-be (i.e. the Sadducees).

iii) And even if, for the sake of argument, you said they were office-holders, that doesn’t mean they’re office-holders in the specialized sense that Catholicism ascribes to the episcopate or papacy. The Archbishop of Canterbury is an office-holder, yet Catholics don’t ascribe the same authority to him that they do to Roman Catholic prelates.

Likewise, we still have rabbis and chief rabbis. Yet Catholics don’t regard the chief rabbi as their pope–even though they are religious office-holders as well as heirs to the 1C Pharisees.

“Powell, and Steve, come to this text with the notion that this is an impossible thing for God to do and therefore Jesus must be talking about something else.”

This is something which our apostate pulls out of thin air. I never said it was impossible for God to use sinners in positions of authority. That was not a presupposition of my interpretation.

The problem with the Catholic interpretation is that Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees “blind guides” (cf. vv16-17,19,24; 15:14).

What that pinpoints is not a lack of character, but a lack of judgment. A “blind guide” is an oxymoron.

The point of hiring a guide if you go on safari is to keep you from getting lost in the jungle. But if the guide were blind, then you’d both be lost. Indeed, Jesus himself explicates the implicit results of the satirical imagery:

Mt 15:14:

Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit."

Moving along:

“So they invent this notion that Jesus must simply be talking about the reading of scripture.”

There’s nothing particularly “inventive” about that notion. Why were the scribes called “scribes”? Because they copied the Scriptures. As a result, they acquired an accurate and detailed command of the text of Scripture. The Pharisees also read the Scriptures in their original language and committed large portions to memory.

In an age when illiteracy was widespread, and access to books was limited, this interpretation is grounded in the concrete circumstances of the audience.

“That makes sense until you go back and look at what Jesus actually said. Verse 3 says, ‘So you must obey them and do everything they tell you’. The word ‘So’ indicates the reason for the obedience is in the preceding clause. What is that reason? The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Jesus could have said they read from the word of God or they read from the scripture. He didn’t say what they read was trustworthy. He said the position they occupy is trustworthy. That is the reason. So Powell flatly contradicts the plain meaning of the text.”

Since “Moses’ seat” is a metaphor, it has no “plain meaning” to contradict. Quoting a metaphor proves nothing. Metaphors are open-textured. So you need to unpack the metaphor. What does it stand for?
“He goes on to say ‘they do not practice what they preach.’ Again this makes no sense if Powell is right. Preaching and reading scripture are different things. Jesus clearly says they are preaching. That is going beyond the words of scripture and explaining what they mean. He could have said they don’t obey the scripture they read. He did not. He said ‘preach’ because he meant preach.”

i) Our apostate is not making a serious effort to envision the real-life situation of the audience. Suppose a Jewish husband is dissatisfied with his wife. He wants to know if the law of Moses permits him to divorce her. So he asks a scribe or Pharisee what, if anything, the law of Moses has to say in reference to his situation. That’s his source of information.

Sure, the scribe or Pharisee will also volunteer his interpretation. Or the husband may even ask them what they think the text means. But that’s a separate issue from knowing what the text says.

ii) And, remember, we need to construe 23:2-3 consistent with what Jesus also says about “blind guides.” You can’t properly gloss the text in isolation to that recurring theme–which occurs in this very discourse. You need a unified interpretation which considers the text in relation to the context.

What would it mean to follow the “authoritative” lead of a blind guide? By definition, a blind guide is misguided. If you follow him, you will both lose your bearings.

iii) To take a really obvious example: if we construe the text the way our apostate did, then the Jewish rank-and-file were justified in denying the messiahship of Jesus since most of the Jewish authority-figures did. If the “interpretive authority” of the scribes and Pharisees, lawyers and Sadducees were truly binding, then it would be an act of godless insubordination for any Jew to credit the claims of Jesus.

iv) Our apostate also overlooks the obvious fact that Pharisees and Sadducees and other schools and rabbis often differed on the correct interpretation of the OT. When authorities disagree, it isn’t even possible to accept their interpretation on authority, since there’s no one interpretation to accept. What you have, rather, are a set of mutually exclusive, but equally “authoritative” interpretations. And that’s the reductio ad absurdum of our apostate’s position. An appeal to authority can’t broker a disagreement if the authorities disagree.

Our apostate might try to trump this by appeal to the pope. But 1C Jews didn’t have a pope.

1 comment:

  1. I reply here: