Reading the Bible historically

October 7, 2017

In his monograph The Aims of Jesus (recommended by N.T. Wright in class), Ben Meyer attempts to address the tension that is contained with questions of faith and history as it pertains to the historical study of Jesus in the Gospels. In writing, he overviews the critical questions one must engage in in order to be able to maintain the “integrity of faith and reason.” In response to the first question that pertains to “the integrity of faith” he observes:

If the New Testament be taken to define normatively ‘the integrity of ‘faith, the question remains how to intepret the NEw Testament. To begin, we might differentiate in ‘knowledge’ between a final ‘phase of truth’ (intended by questions calling for ‘yes’ or ‘no’) and an anterior ‘phase of meaning’ (intended by all other questions, e.g. “What?” or “Why?”).1

One might redefine Meyer’s distinction between truth and meaning as a descriptive question of “What is being conveyed?” and a prescriptive question of “Should we accept this as true?” However, while the latter is more laden with certain values, particuarly of an epistemological variety, than the former, but the former is not excised of all value judgments. Nevertheless, there is a certain difference between description and prescription, or being meaning and truth, that if not separated prevents engaging with history on it’s own terms. If we do not distinguish the phases of our critical inquiry, then questions of meaning becoming controlled by highly value-laden assessments of truth. Put more simply, only in recognizing the separation of “phases” of analysis can we push against motivated interpretations that can alter interpretation of meaning to cohere with the positions we either want to affirm or push down. In this instance, “historical” inquiry becomes almost entirely reduced to simply a complex game we use to win or lose where no one controls the rules, where the way we play the game is defined by the precommitments we have already made and the rules are adjusted to fit the precommitments accordingly. The unquestioned mixture of meaning and truth in our analysis is a fertilizer for the straw we need to create men out of. While separation of phases doesn’t eradicate such potential, it certainly minimizes it and reduces it.

For instance, in addressing the question of sexuality in the Bible, modern socio-political trajectories can inculcate within us a need to define the Bible’s view of sexuality in certain, motivated ways, to then either defend or denounce it. Progressive views of sexuality may draw conclusions that Paul saw everyone as heterosexual to subtly denounce it since we all know that isn’t teh case now (while still retaining a respect for Paul in that he was mistaken). However, such an interpretation of Paul runs far past the evidence available; it smacks of a motivated reading. If, however, Paul’s understanding of flesh/’sarx’ and heart/’kardia’ could operate with the notion that some people may be attracted to those of the same gender, then the dissonance between Paul’s prohibitions and progressive views of sexuality becomes more stark; Paul can not be as easily respected while critiqued in this reading because he is not “ignorant.” Thereby, a motivated reading is more amenable to the resolution of dissonance between Biblical, or at least Pauline, views of sexuality. Separation of the questions of meaning and truth would prevent someone from projecting onto Paul a view that the evidence does not bear, while at the same time allowing for a rejection of the meaning as true. But this perspective takes courage for people who are both of Christian faith that wants to retain the SCriptures as normative and progressive sexuality that wants to uphold a different view of sexuality.

Alternatively, the presumptive way the Bible is read by conservative Christians as it pertains to sexuality also becomes problematic, as it is frequently assumed that because God created sex for between a male and a female, therefore God is all about martial fulfillment. Given the desires and urges that the majority of the population feel, both the general population and the Christian population more specifically, it is easy to read the Bible through the lens of making life about sexual reproduction. The question of conservative values for traditional marriage and children bleed through into the assessment of the meaning of the various parts of the Bible when it addresses sex, marriage, and reproduction; the Bible is read as a statement about the goodness of marriage that everyone should participate in (also, the Church gets reduced to a source ritual celebration of said acts of marriage and reproduction, that is wedding and baptism of children). Here, the failure to separate meaning and truth (or meaning and values, if one wants to be more post-modern), leads not to dissonance as within progressive sexuality, but the dissolution of dissonance by overlooking the value that Jesus and Paul assign to celibacy. Even when this awareness is brought up amongst conservative, evangelical churches, there is the tendency to suggest that celibacy is no better than marriage, when in fact Jesus and Paul both highlight it as a better option if one can live that lifestyle (speaking as someone who does not feel such a gift, I can be tempted to want to deemphasize the importance of celibacy myself). The reinforcement of ‘conservative’ values projects our sense of values and truth onto the meaning of the Biblical passages.

However, sexuality is not the only topic this applies to; it is simply the most salient in the present society that disagrees and fights over the merits and demerits of differing sexual norms. It applies more across the board to a broad variety of questions, such as the role of women in apostolic church and today. While Meyer’s work is principally aimed at understanding the historical Jesus as the Christ of faith, since his observations is a work engaged with the questions of history in general and since reading the Bible is an act of historical interpretation (unless one takes a strong post-modern stance that renders historical questions as unknowable therefore unnecessary), Meyer’s distinctions certainly bears upon how Christians can understand the documents to which we appeal to for faith and understand.

The paradoxes of the Christian faith

October 7, 2017

There are some days where I realize it takes a lot of faith to be a follower of Jesus Christ. If I were to have attempted to come up with a rational, coherent set of ideas about God, I would not have arrived to the Christian confession. There is much about it that seems unsatisfactory from an epistemological framework that values clarity, consistency, and coherency. These three virtues are incredibly important and powerful virtues for addressing the material world which we directly observe and interact with, so our scientific world gives such virtues a privileged epistemological place for understanding the totality of truth, rather than just understanding the range of readily observable, effable, and measurable experiences that science works with.

What can feel unsatisfactory in a world enculturated by these three powerful virtues, if not even offensive to some, is the number of paradoxes the Christian faith puts forth, although the more skeptical may label these are outright contradictions. God is one and yet three at the same time. God is a good and powerful and yet evil exists in the world. Jesus as Lord of all creation is the one who was crucified as being among the least. Etc. At the heart of orthodox Christian faith is the acknowledgment paradoxes that we can not found a way to unravel that provides clarity, consistency, and coherency.

But beliefs and knowledge containing paradoxes are not inherently wrong or useless. Classical, Newtonian mechanics was incredibly useful, even it if lead to paradoxes such as Gibbs paradox. Few would suggest that classical mechanics were fundamentally erroneous. They were incomplete, as Einstein’s relativity hypothesized and was later verified. However, the paradox could be unraveled and a new way of understanding offered precisely because more information can be gathered via the combination of creative thinking, development of new observational and measuring instruments, and fortuitous circumstances. However, this is precisely what is not readily available from the Biblical perspective; knowledge about God, except for the broadest statements of natural theology, is not available except by God’s free choice to self-disclose himself combined with a transformation of the human heart to accept said revelation. Short of something dramatically new from God that is effably clear, paradoxes will remain.

This isn’t to shun the explanatory virtues of clarity, consistency, and coherency, virtues that are highly valued in analytic philosophy and theology. That there do exists paradoxes within Christian faith is not a statement that Chrisitan faith is entirely and solely a set of paradoxical beliefs. However, it does mean that many, if not all, of the paradoxes will never be resolved in a satisfactory fashion. Sometimes, a resilience in the face of ambiguity is necessary to hold to Christian faith in a faithful way.

Clarity, consistency, and coherency are frequently more instrumental virtues in service to a higher virtue; they are valued because they allow us to reduce ambiguity. This is certainly important if one is trying to develop a master and control of the world; ambiguity is a hindrance to effective, pragmatic action. However, this attempt to reduce ambiguity can itself become a virtue that directs us even when the sources are not there to truly alleviate ambiguity. A mind searching to end ambiguity will become convinced of the rightness of the logic employed because it satisfies the goal of resolving ambiguity; a person wanting absolute clarity, consistency, and coherency will overlook the need for a sufficient amount of data to validate one’s reasoning.

The end result is that in addressing Christian faith and theology, there are three responses to the resolution of ambiguity we are frequently tempted into:

1) Satisfactory resolution of the paradox – If this can be done, this would be great. However, as mentioned above, I would suggest there are few, if any, paradoxes of Christian faith that can be resolved, sans new revelation.

2) Absolute generalization of paradigms – Another way of address ambiguity is to take some schema, some idea one holds to, and treat it as true in all possible instances of application. For instance, in response to the presence of evil in the world, a strong Calvinist may emphasize that God will’s all good and evil in the world; God’s sovereignty gets applied absolutely. Or, those within the theological traditions that emphasize human will and morality may suggest that God never brings bad, tragic events into the world; a definition of moral, human will get projected onto God. Both are trying to resolve paradoxes, but often times in distinct contradictions. To suggest that God wills all good and evil events makes God the author of evil, or leads to a contradiction to avoid such attribution. To suggest that God never will’s bad events is to overlook the entirety of the prophets of the Old Testament, not to mention many other instances scattered through the rest of the Old Testament and the New Testament.

3) Deny one side of the paradox – When it comes to the Trinitarian confession, this is a frequent tactic. In the Western world where polytheism is not taken credibly, the threeness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is frequently denied by monotheists (to deny oneness would be to advocate polytheism). Or, when it comes to the problem of evil, skepticism rejects that God exists, or that God is either powerful or good.

The problem is that due to the mystery and holiness of God from the Biblical perspective, #1 is rendered implausible, #2 is arrogant, and #3 is faithless. All attempts to overcome ambiguity by resolving paradoxes about divine nature and will begins to run counter to the Biblical portrayal of faith, where one does not fully see what one trusts. While not entirely shunning the virtues of the modern, scientific world, Biblical faith recognizes the limits of clarity, consistency, and coherency as it applies to the One who is not known in the same way that the visible, material world is known; sometimes paradox is all that there is to have after God’s self-disclosure, and it is for this reason I can accept the validity of paradox, because it would be worse,  more vicious paradox to suggest that all that is true can be known with clarity, consistency, and coherence.

Grappling with the purpose of theology

September 19, 2017

Michael Rea in his introduction to Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology engages with the work on Merold Westphal, who posits that onto-theology (that is, the notion that theology can properly tell us something about God, is a major sin to be avoided.1 Rea quotes from Westphal, emphasize the reference to Martin Heidegger, who believes that the purpose of theology is to serve “concrete Christian existence.”2 In other words, theology is envisioned as a program of exploration that is about impacting one’s own way of life; the focus of theology is decidedly humanistic. Practicality is the main criterion of theology. By contrast, analytic theology has a proclivity towards engaging in questions of truth about God Himself3. Amidst theology, there is an all too familiar class between the “theoretical” and “practical,” or as it is experienced in the context of the Church, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

However, the division between the two appears quite foreign to the New Testament and more particularly the Pauline literature. The Apostle Paul’s prayer in Colossian 1:9-144 cuts right to the heart of the division that we are so familiar with.

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (NRSV)

This prayer is offered up in response to the joy that PAul has in the growing of the gospel among the saints of Colossae, along with the rest of the world. Paul was hearing witnesses to the work that God’s love had been producing and he was eagerly seeking for this growth to continue; it is the very thing they had “not ceased praying for” (v. 9) Furthermore, the request for “wisdom and understanding” (I will come back to this in a minute) serves a purpose of “lead[ing] lives worthy of the Lord.” At one level then, we can be inclined to see the practical, orthopraxic focus within Paul’s prayer.

However, the request of the prayer itself does not easily fit within a “concrete Christian existence.” It is directed towards not a practical knowledge and capacity to live pleasing to God, but it is ‘onto-theological’ in seeking for the saints the “knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” One may certainly try to append onto the words knowledge (‘epignosin’), wisdom (‘sophia’) and understand (‘synesei’) an assumed practical (practical knowledge, practical wisdom, practical understanding), but this will not do for Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul’s usage of these words are described in relationship to God5, the Spirit6 and even Christ.7 Furthermore, PAul’s prayer transitions in the panegyric of Colossians 1:15-19, where there is little notion of human practicality; it is a praise of the all-encompassing, divine nature of Christ. That Paul follows this with the implications of Christ’s stature being the saints reconciliation through Jesus death in 1:21-23 only solidifies the notion that the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding is no mere ‘practicality.’

That Paul seemlessly sees the interconnection between what we might categorize as orthodoxy/theory and orthopraxy/practice suggests something deeper is happening that ‘transcends’ the normal human experience of the differing modes of thinking. Whether the theory-practice distinction is a cultural byproduct or a human universal, it does not in Paul’s mind have anything to say to the saints of the Church. Theology has both a ‘practical’ and ‘noumenal’8 dimension to it that interweaves together. Being inspired by Paul’s panegyric, one might even say Christ inhabits both the practical and theoretical dimensions.

That there is a relationship between the two ‘modes’ of thinking points to philosophical perspectives that rejects the implicit dualism that make strong distinctions between various modes of life and thinking in abstract and concrete ways, such as Descartes distinction of mind-body and Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal. Philosophical perspectives that take into consideration embodiment cognition as propounded and popularized by Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff offer a way of understanding the interconnection of the abstract with ‘concrete,’ embodied experience and, therefore, can incorporate theology having both practical and analytic goals that interweave together. This is not to mention the implication an embodied philosophy would have to overlap with the understanding of the Incarnation.

What is analytic theology?

September 16, 2017

Since getting accepting into the MLitt program at the Logos Institute, I have continuously asked myself: what have I gotten myself into? This question became more foregrounded as I arrived and visited with other people in the program and saw their various educational skills and backgrounds. There is a feeling of intimidation that has overwhelmed me these past few weeks. In discussion with one other student, I know there is that feeling coming also. But as with many feelings of trepidation, it is sometimes fueled more about not knowing rather than not being able.Surrounding coming to this program is a very important question: what is analytic theology?

It isn’t simply enough to talk about theology. What theology really is hard enough to describe as it is, eliciting almost as many answers as there are theological traditions. To prefix that with the word “analytic” brings images of cold, hard academic rigor, strong skepticism, and abstruse terminology. In my first discussion before applying with one of the teachers of the program, Dr. Andrew Torrance, I probed into what it meant to pull analytic philosophy, invented by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore and propagated by later positivists like A.J. Ayer, into theology. I asked with a hint of skepticism given the nature of their skepticism about God that the early analytic philosophers had and a bit of trepidation considering the mathematical genius of people like Russell and Frege (who is a precursor to the development of analytic philosophy). Should analytic philosophy and theology mix? And more personally, can I who focused more on Biblical Studies with only a passing training in philosophy, and most in the Continental and American Pragmatist traditions, actually do this work? Dr. Torrance’s answer and the answer in some of the readings for the class can help alleviate some of the questions and concerns.

In the Introductory chapter of Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, Michael Rea outlines a broad vision for analytic theology by describing the “analytic style,” as containing the following:

P1. Write as if philosophical positions and conclusions can be adequately formulated in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated.’

P2. Prioritize precision, clarity, and logical coherence.

P3. Avoid substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content.’

P4. Work as much as possible with well-understood primitive concepts, and concepts that can be analyzed in terms of those.

P5. Treat conceptual analysis (insofar as it is possible) as a source of evidence.1

While these criteria are certainly not beyond question2, it does present a brief, yet formalized picture of the work done in Analytic Theology. However, to a neophyte in analytic philosophy/theology, these propositions come across as hard to really grasp.

To put it into a less precise description (and potentially overly narrow), it seems that analytic theology is about using the available philosophy resources in analytic philosophy to come to understand what one is really trying to say about God and whether it is reasonable or not. The tools and methods challenge us3 to see what is happening underneath the hood of our expression and reasoning. Much of our talk about God can easily devolve into appellations to vague, undefined concepts that we then employ in various, equivocating ways.

For instance, the language of grace can easily diminish into some broad, touchy-feeling notion of acceptance while also making appeals to some divine power coming at the cost of the sacrifice of Christ. The concept of grace can be appropriated to justify non-judgmental acceptance of a person while simultaneously used to talk about the power of God to effect personal, spiritual transformation. While these two notions need not be bounded off from each other as unconnected, that these two semantic functions can appear in the same sermon, writing, etc. and switched between without clarification can lead to some murky confusion. Sometime this confusion may even lead to a contradiction/tension within the concept itself. Insofar as the aspect of grace that entails God’s power of transformation entails a certain standard that a person is transforming into, it can be undercut by the aspect of grace that is understood as unconditional acceptance, where the standard is overlooked (or vice versa).

Given the object of knowledge of Christian theology, God as revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, is not an object of inquiry that is knowable via the same methods as the physical, material world is, it is necessary that our talk about God would necessarily be ambiguous and fraught with potential equivocation. The appropriation of the tools of analytic philosophy ushers our own theological expressions as well as other’s we engage with into a greater scrutiny, challenging our ideas at a level that we are not typically accustomed them to being challenged. It is quite easy to become immune to the criticism of opposing theological perspectives. For instance, I as a Wesleyan am quite immune to any appeal by a Calvinist that says giving God the greatest glory entails unconditional election. However, in providing a more rigorous critical base to work from, it is harder to develop a mental immunity to a deeper level of criticism,4 hopefully prompting a greater openness to understand the total work that God is doing in Christ through the Holy Spirit in His Church and throughout the world. So, as a Wesleyan, how one defines “free will” in the Arminian/Calvinism debate impacts how one assesses its viability for determining soteriological discussions. If “free will” is simply defined as the ability to make a choice that is not wholly caused or determined by previous events, then Wesleyan-Arminian theology is left with a void of neither empirical evidence validating it nor Scriptural texts talk about such an abstract matter. As a Wesleyan, a deeper understanding of the definitions of the terms I am using pushes me to know more specifically what I am talking about and considering how reasonable it is. In light of such a challenge, I am inclined to qualify my adherence to free will as a freedom from God’s unilateral determination of my choices, which may be more justifiable within the canon of Scripture, rather than making broad, metaphysical and psychological claims.

While my knowledge of the field of analytic theology is certainly only at the beginning stages, I can fairly confidently say that it is more about refining than it is a whole brand new field of thinking. It is like learning how to use power tools after you have been accustomed to a hammer and handsaw. Power tools may be overkill if you simply need to put a nail in, but they are certainly helpful if you are trying to build a whole house. Likewise, analytic theology is overboard if one is simply trying to deepen’s one devotion to Christ, but if you are building a whole theological system of beliefs5 then it behooves us to use the best tools at our disposal. But the same work is being done as in the past, only with tools that do it differently; analytic theology isn’t a new branch of theological belief as much as it is a discipline to include with our other disciplines that train our hearts and minds to follow Christ.

So, the task is certainly exciting; while intimidating still, it is intimidation from knowing the rigor of the work to be done, rather than fear of inability.

Hello from St. Andrews!

September 16, 2017

Life has taken quite a turn. Just last week I moved to Scotland to attend the University of St. Andrews; I am here to study a Master of Letters in Analytical and Exegetical Theology as part of the Logos Institute. It is fitting that as I make a new stage in life in a journey across the Atlantic, I make a new start on this blog (although, I will admit that this blog is restarting due to negligence to renew my hosting and domain fees; this wasn’t planned!).

So, I am rebooting with the hopes that this time will be a little bit more focused in my blogging. My problem in the past has been that I am so incredibly interdisciplinary in my desired approach to learning that I lose focus and therefore motivation to continue to write. However, being back in an academic setting that is interdisciplinary, combining Biblical Studies, theology, and analytic philosophy, while have a particular focus should prove beneficial to me, if for no other reason than I have something specific to keep my focus on in learning.

In light of that, I hope this re-reboot of this blog to be much more focused, principally on the field of Analytic and Exegetical theology; while I don’t plan for it to be exclusively dedicated to that, I definitely feel it is a good direction for my writing. Blogging, when done well and not for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, can be an effective catalyst for expressing inchoate thoughts into a more expressible and manageable form. Engagement with other serves as a bonus to refine one’s ideas, both in content and expression.

But while the idea of Analytical and Exegetical Theology may evoke notions of stodginess, I hope for the writing I do on this blog to be a bit more vibrant by engaging the resources of Biblical Studies, theology, and analytical philosophy, along with my other interests in cognition, linguistics, continental philosophy, etc. to address more immediately pressing and seemingly pragmatic questions. Even though I am not presently serving as a pastor, I am still focused on the prevalent theme of my Wesleyan background: God’s sanctification transforming us towards a holy life lived before Christ. So, I hope this blog does not simply engage the pressing questions of the theological academy, but also the focal points of engaging the whole of life in light of Christ. Hence, the title of the blog remains Pistis Christou, a reference to the Pauline Greek phrase translated as “the faith(fulness) of Christ,” as it is Christ’s own life that through the Spirit we recapitulate within ourselves as the Church.

So, here goes for a new stage of life and blogging!