Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Inspired intent

I’m going to comment on some recent statements by William B. Evans over at Ref21. For the most part I will avoid commenting on the correct interpretation of Gen 1. Instead, I will focus on the correct methods and assumptions we should bring to the interpretation of Gen 1. Evans illustrates his claims by making certain interpretive moves, and to the extent that this goes to the question of correct methods and assumptions, I will comment on his exegesis. But in the main my comments are more programmatic in nature.

I basically agree with what he said about “the perspicuity of scripture” and “exegetical populism” in his initial “Perspicuity, Exegetical Populism, and Tolerance: A Reply to G. I. Williamson.” To be sure, he had more in mind than he actually spelled out at that juncture, but confining myself to what he stated in that particular post, I agree with him. The issue is how he subsequently developed those otherwise unobjectionable points.

Moving along, he says:

And finally, in practice nobody consistently regards authorial intent as decisive.  For example, there are those who champion the Westminster regulative principle of worship and yet see no contradiction in singing hymns (something originally understood to be precluded by that principle).  I'm also struck by the way that even the most ardent sabbatarian today does not observe the Sabbath with near the rigor that is implied by the language of WLC QQ. 115-121.  The confessional reasoning behind the 1722 deposition of a minister by New Castle Presbytery for bathing in a creek on the Sabbath is undoubtedly closer to authorial intent.  Finally, WLC QQ. 124-133 clearly assume the British class system of the seventeenth century (and would not have been written apart from that social context), and yet I do not hear the strict-subscriptionist champions of authorial intent, who tend to be quite Whiggish and republican in their social sentiments, calling for confessional revisions here. In short, a focus on authorial intent at the expense of subsequent interpretive history and the authority of the believing community results in an unfortunate selectivity as intent is appealed to when it is convenient and ignored it when it is not.

This fails to adequately distinguish two distinct and separable issues. Perhaps that distinction was implicit in what he wrote, but if so, it needs to be explicated:

i) Is original intent normative for the interpretation of a document?

ii) Is original intent normative for the application or enforcement of a document?

Suppose (arguendo) that the Westminster Divines meant to say that God made the world in six consecutive calendar days. If so, then that does bind subsequent generations when it comes to the interpretation of the Confessional text. We should exegete the Confessional text according to the intent of the framers. What it means is rooted in what they meant to convey by their words. And that principle holds true for inspired and uninspired writings alike.

Evans has also said it can be difficult to ascertain original intent. We can’t interview the dead. And that’s true, although it overlooks the fact that one reason people commit their beliefs to writing is to preserve a posthumous record of their beliefs. Put another way, one purpose of writing is to make a personally unavailable writer available to the reader. For instance, that’s why St. Paul writes letters to churches when he can’t address the audience face-to-face. That one-to-many dynamic applies both in time and space. It makes dead writers available to the living via their writings. The dead aren’t directly available to the living, but indirectly available via the thoughts they commit to writing.

Over and above the meaning of the text is the question textual authority. Do the intentions of the writer bind the belief or practice of the reader? Does the writer have the authority to impose his viewpoint on subsequent generations?

That’s a different issue than the interpretive issue. For instance, even if (arguendo) the Westminster Divines both meant to teach a particular timeframe for creation as well as to mandate that teaching for posterity, those are distinct and separable issues. In principle, you can say, “Yes, that’s they understood their own words, but I simply disagree with them.”

That would be an honest disagreement, which–however–allows the writer to speak in his own voice rather than ventriloquize what the reader would like him to say if the reader were the writer. Can a writer impose his views on the reader? Can a reader impose his interpretation on the writer? Different questions.

But unlike (i), where the same principle applies to inspired and uninspired writings alike, there is a distinction with (ii). An uninspired writer cannot ipso facto impose his views on the reader. He lacks that inherent authority. Of course, if he happens to be right, then the reader ought to assent.

In the case of an inspired writer (or speaker), by contrast, whatever the writer means to inculcate does have the authority to obligate the reader’s assent. And this, in turn, can generate psychological tension if a Christian reader happens to think original intent is mistaken.

But there is also a deeper issue lurking here in this hermeneutical apotheosis of the common man, and that is the role of ANE historical data to this discussion.  For example, would the average person in ancient Israel read the text in the same way that Matt Miller does?

That’s a valid distinction as far as it goes.

Given that the cosmologies assumed are quite different, there are likely to be significant divergences as to details.  I dealt with this question in the article I cited in my first post on this topic.  In it I wrote: "In recent months, I have perused a number of Reformed defenses of literal 24-hour, six-day creationism.  Sadly, all of these works have failed to take any stock of the enormous amount of data from comparative studies of ancient Near Eastern literature suggesting that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of a cosmology quite coherent to the ancients, but which we ourselves do not share.  Now this is quite important, for none of us believes in a literal 'firmament,' or in 'pillars of heaven,' or in 'windows of heaven,' or in 'fountains of the deep,' at least as these biblical terms were apparently understood by the ancients.  In short, we must face the distinct possibility that none of us is truly a 'literalist.'" (William B. Evans, "The NAPARC Churches and the Peculiar Challenges of Our Time," Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 27/1 (2001): 10-11).
We have known for quite some time how people in the ANE construed the structure of the cosmos.  They, and other primitive peoples more recently, thought that there were the "waters below" (after all, if you dig down into the earth or travel far enough in any direction you are likely to encounter water) and the "waters above" (after all, the sky is blue and rain comes down from the sky).  Restraining the "waters above" was a barrier known as the "expanse" (ESV) or "firmament" (KJV).  The Hebrew term translated here (raqia) has the sense of a hard vault or dome or canopy (see the massive body of ANE and anthropological data compiled in Paul H. Seely, "The Firmament and the Water Above. Part I: The Meaning of raqia in Genesis 1," Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991): 227-240; and "The Firmament and the Water Above. Part II: The Meaning of `The Water above the Firmament' in Gen. 1:6-8," Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992): 31-46), and such usage meshes well with other ANE documents where the same conceptions are evident.   Other portions of the narrative, such as the creation of the sun, moon, and stars on Day 4 and their placement "in the expanse," fit well with this ancient phenomenological conventional cosmology, but severe aporias result when we try to pull this narrative without remainder into a post-Copernican scientific cosmology. 
As we probe the interpretive significance of this cosmology the key terms here are phenomenological and conventional.    This understanding of the world is phenomenological (the way the world appears to those unencumbered by knowledge of modern science) rather than mythical, which explains why similar notions occur in a wide variety of ancient and primitive cultures.  It is also conventional in that it was shared by people in that cultural context generally, and in that it was not a rigorously systematized understanding.  For example, sometimes rain is said to come when the "windows of heaven" in the expanse are opened (Genesis 7:11; 8:2; Isaiah 24:18; Malachi 3:10), while at other times rain is said to come from clouds (Judges 5:4; Proverbs 16:15).  For these reasons, the term "cosmology" is likely a bit pretentious for what we are talking about here.  This was simply the conceptual furniture of the ancient Israelites, the way the average person thought, and it likely did not occur to them that things might be otherwise.
The fact that the narrative is framed in terms of this ancient phenomenological and conventional understanding of the cosmos places some limits on how literally we can interpret at least some of the details of Genesis 1.  But it is quite a leap to maintain that the recognition of this ancient cosmology somehow undermines the Evangelical and Reformed doctrine of Scripture.  That the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms that would be understandable to the original audience rather than in a modern scientific idiom hardly means that the text is teaching the truth of that ancient phenomenological and conventional cosmology (more about this below).

This raises a host of issues:

i) Not only is Evans suggesting that the narrator of Genesis 1 “framed” the account in terms of an obsolete cosmology, but that he understood this cosmology to be true, that his audience understood this cosmology to be true, that he therefore intended to convey as a true description of the world what we now know to be false. I don’t see how Evans can salvage an orthodox doctrine of inspiration from that position.

ii) He says “it was not a rigorously systematized understanding,” noting the alternation between rain from clouds and rain from the “windows of heaven”–fed by a cosmic sea. But doesn’t this invite the explanation that rain clouds” were understood literally whereas “windows of heaven” (fed by a cosmic sea) were understood figuratively?

iii) He seems to use “phenomenological” as synonym for figurative or nonliteral. If so, that’s incorrect. Take the phenomenological description of the Ascension in Acts 1:9-11. That’s narrated in observational language, from the perspective of ground-based eyewitnesses. Yet that hardly renders it figurative. For that’s how a ground-based observer would actually perceive the Ascension. That’s how a real event like the Ascension would appear to him, from his vantage point.

To be sure, that’s relative. If you saw the Ascension from a helicopter, that would be a different perspective on same event. But both phenomenological descriptions would be “literal” or representational.

iv) Apropos (iii), Evans says “This understanding of the world is phenomenological (the way the world appears to those unencumbered by knowledge of modern science)…” But 2nd millennium AD observers inhabit the same “phenomenological” world as 2nd millennium BC observers. The sensible world appears the same way to us as it did to them. Our scientific knowledge doesn’t change appearances. It doesn’t alter our sensory perception of the world, or the perspective of a ground-based observer. We may interpret the sense data differently, but the sense data remain the same.

v) Likewise, in relation to a ground-based observer, we perceive the sky higher than the surface of the earth, while lakes, oceans, &c. seem lower than the surface of the earth–because that’s really the case. Take someone who goes to Jacob’s well. The well water seems to be lower than ground level because it really is. There’s nothing unscientific about that perspective. Likewise, take a fisherman on the sea of Galilee. The lake seems lower (or deeper) than ground level because it really is. There’s nothing unscientific about that perspective.

By the same token, when birds fly in the air, over our heads, they really are above us. That’s not figurative.

vi) Evans says “This was simply the conceptual furniture of the ancient Israelites, the way the average person thought, and it likely did not occur to them that things might be otherwise.”

Is that true? Think about that for a moment. Imagine yourself in the situation of an ancient Near Easterner. You can see storm clouds precipitate rain and hail.

Conversely, if the world was basically a closed-system, like a fish tank, then wouldn’t the water table continue to rise after every heavy rain? Wouldn’t coastal flooding be permanent? Wouldn’t “groundwater” rise to the surface over time?

Likewise, you’d have occasion to climb the local hills or mountains. Once you got to the summit you could see for yourself that a solid dome of the sky didn’t rest on the tops of the hills or mountains–like pillars supporting a roof. The air on the mountaintop wasn’t enclosed by a “hard vault.”

If the celestial luminaries were embedded in a hard vault, how would an ancient observer account for sidereal motion, synodic motion, or even retrograde motion?

vii) It’s unclear how Evans relates the “phenomenological” category to the “conventional” category. Does the conventional idiom codify the phenomenological perspective? Or is he setting “conventions” in some sort of contrast to phenomena?

viii) For instance, Gregory Beale take the position that the “triple-decker” universe is a conventional architectural metaphor. Bible writers depict the world as a building to foreshadow the tabernacle and backshadow the cosmic temple. Cf. The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (Crossway, 2008), chaps. 6-7.

On that interpretation, this is consciously figurative or analogical. The narrator intentionally compares the physical world to a building to trade on connotations with sacred space. That would also account for the “lights” on day 4, which prefigure and parallel the lamps in the tabernacle. Cf. W. Vogels, “The Cultic and Civil Calendars of the Fourth Day of Creation (Gen 1,14b),” SJOT 11 (1997), 175.

ix) Apropos (viii), is raqia a “hard vault”? That’s disputed. For instance, Victor Hamilton, in his standard commentary, argues otherwise. Cf. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Eerdmans, 1991), 122.

But even if that’s the imagery which the term conjures up, this doesn’t necessarily mean the narrator thought the sky was actually a solid dome. Rather, he may be using architectural imagery to foreshadow the tabernacle. An intertextual Pentateuchal parallel.

x) Appealing to other ANE literature merely pushes the same interpretive questions back a step.

xi) It’s unfortunate that Evans uncritically cites two articles by Paul Seely without addressing the counterevidence. Cf. Noel K. Weeks, “Cosmology in Historical Context,” WTJ 68.2 (Fall 2006): 283-293; V. Poythress, Redeeming Science (Crossway, 2006), 96n8.

He quotes a statement by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield:

They are written in human languages, whose words, inflection, constructions, and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error.  The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.

But this is odd. For idiomatic usage is normally understood to be idiomatic (i.e. a figure of speech) by a native speaker and his target audience. So how would that indicate an erroneous conception?

The biblical authors wrote to an audience that knew what things like trees and clouds and the Euphrates River were, and they expected readers to use that background of knowledge in the interpretation of the biblical text.  In fact, we cannot begin to interpret any text, let alone the Scriptural text, apart from the matrix of knowledge and experience that we possess (most of which is not derived from Scripture).

But there’s a difference between what constituted background information for the narrator and his target audience over against what may constitute background information for a modern reader. It would be anachronistic to reinterpret Gen 1 in light of modern science. 

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