Addressing racism as a white male

April 3, 2019

Update: If you read this post a little while ago, there was an error in the formatting of my notes that messed up this post. Problem is now fixed.

Racism scares me. I don’t mean just the history of and the idea of white supremacy. That deeply concerns me after Christchurch taught us that it can manifest itself in the form of terrorism, because there is great danger in people who feel entitled not getting what they think they deserve. But my fear goes further than that. The very matters of racism can scare me some.

They don’t scare me because I am a white male. I recognize and acknowledge the way my background situated me to think about people, particularly African Americans in a way that implicitly communicated race, rather than geography and economics, as the primary explanations for the reports of crime in the news in Jackson, MS.1 I recognize the way that two or the four most personally vulnerable events I have ever felt in my life, one time by a cult leader on my college campus and one time in a near mugging, were done by people with brown skin and I have to deal with those feelings in such a way to not allow those individuals and my memories of them to determine my views of African Americans.2 While I don’t like the reality of such thoughts in the back of my head, I know such doesn’t make me a racist. Racism comes when we ignore and rationalize away the problem, not when we acknowledge it.

What makes me scared about racism, however, is the way in which many people try to address the pernicious effects of race. Although, me fear isn’t how African Americans try to address matters of race. Due to their experiences, most of them are able to differentiate between degrees of racism. The safest people I have ever felt to talk to about matters of race with is African Americans, in fact. From the conversations I have had and from what I imagine, they appreciate someone being willing to have that conversation with them. One of my highlights from my time in ministry were the few chances I got to be a part of Mission Mississippi, a ministry headed by Neddie Winters that tries to accomplish racial reconciliation through building relationships across racial lines. There was a chapter in the Mississippi Delta, a place where the history of racism has left its deepest mark in social organization even as most of the white supremacist elements have passed or gone underground.3 Relationships were being formed that I regret I did not get the chance to more deeply establish due to personal struggles with my energy level due to my own condition and then my leaving to move to Scotland after only two years.4What scares me about racism is about the ways in which white people like me try to address racism.

From my own observations, experiences, and learning, the two most common responses are the white hero and the white denier. The white denier is the one we are more readily familiar with. They come with various degrees and intensities, but they grow readily uncomfortable when discussing matters of race. Bring up social scientific findings, such as how a person with a black sounding name is less likely to be hired than a person with a white sounding name, even after all the qualifications are the same, and they engage in various forms of minimization and diversions. The motivations behind such can be diverse. It can be cloaked racial hostility, but I don’t think, or at least I don’t want to believe, that is the motivation much of the time. Rather, I think there are at least three big other motivations behind minimizing the idea that racism still has a real impact in American life: 1) discomfort in recognizing one’s own privilege, 2) fear of being devalued, and 3) troubles integrating conversations with race with the portrayal of race presented to them the news and their experiences.

The first one is much of what operates behind the rhetoric of “white privilege” and the resistance to the concept. (White) American culture inculcated a sense and value for being a person who works hard, which stems back to the Protestant work ethic that Max Weber. American and Protestants are not the only people who recognize the value of hard work, but it became a driving value during the period of economic and social expansion in European and American history. The result is that hard work was for white people very fruitful in improving one’s position and life. To tell a white person that they are ‘privileged’ isn’t just to say something about race: it is an attack at one of the moral ideals that many white Americans have been inculcated with a sense of. “White privilege” is not intended to deny the role that a person’s hard work contributes to their well-being, but it more so points out how one’s hard work becomes more successful than for others because others are more likely to be negatively judged in virtue of ethnicity. But that isn’t what many white people hear: they hear people denying people’s hard work and industriousness.

The second motivation behind denying and minimizing the realities of racism stems from the social and moral fear people have when they feel they are being labeled with some sort of moral wrong or evil. To be a “racist” is a heinous sin in most of the West, and makes one deemed worthy of derision and contempt. This stems from the fact that our prototypes of racism stem from slavery and Jim Crow laws in the American South along with Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany. As a consequence, there is a latent anxiety with being in any way associated with such evils, when the realities of racism that are more prevalent are the forms of more implicit and stereotype judgments, but most people would reject and be horrified by any sense of racist supremacy. And this is not a fear without basis: as with all forms of morality and ethics, they are those aggressive types who will try to use charges of racism to tear others down.5

The third motivation is more so the type of problem that we all face when it comes to knowledge, our understandings are situated within the life perspective we have. White people who live in white communities, which largely emerges as a result of economics although race can play a factor in some ways, often have a very limited experience of people with black skin. They may have some distant connections with some African Americans that they know (“I have black ‘friends’.”) but their experience and conversations with them are very limited. Consequently, their understanding about race and ethnicity is more impacted by the correlations they see and witness in the news and media. However, statistics courses often have to warn people “correlation is not causation” because we are biased to think correlations suggest a causal relationship. This is even more likely to happen when we are not consciously aware that our thinking is influenced by the correlations within our life experiences. As a consequence, when you expose white people who have been largely insulated from the experiences of black people, it is hard to square away with what they have “learned.”

In other others, the white denier can be motivated by cultural values, fears rooted in self-protection, and the dissonance that exists when one incorporates information from a different perspective than one is accustomed. Sometimes, hatred can be a motivation for such denialism, but the optimist in me wants to believe that these other factors are a much more prevalent factor. However, I do need to make a note of sober caution and mild fear that the tactics of white denialism can, in the context of racial hostility, lead to the emergence of hatred. So, while the motivations behind the denial of the present realities of racism are complex, and most of the time do not lead to hatred for most people, addressing these conversations about race are important for the long term well being of race relations in the United States.

But this leads me to the problem of the “white hero.” Latent within this is one of the common characteristics that comes with being privileged: the opportunity you feel to come to save the day and then reap the benefits of such an action. To be clear, the problem isn’t trying to help other people, including people of different ethnicity, social classes, etc. The problem is associated with the social status of acting like a “hero” conveys.

One motivating factor for becoming a “white hero” is the issue of white guilt. But I want to be clear how I am using the phrase “white guilt” here before progressing onwards. I am not referring to the way the concept of “white guilt” has been used to explain away all forms of political advocacy that conservatives felt problematic. I want to sift the substantive, emotional content of the concept without feeling like I need to fit my intuitions into a conservative point of view. By “white guilt” I am referring simply to the negative emotions white people feel by association to other white people who committed heinous evils. “White guilt” becomes particularly pronounced the more people talk about the problem of racism in terms of “whiteness.” All of us white people who have some sense of moral conscience will feel at least a twinge of guilt in virtue of this association, although it can be amplified based upon the conversations and political discourse. Insofar as we are allowed to think and recognize with social pressure that this feeling of “guilt” is a very normal and healthy feeling that distances us from evil, but is not intended as a slight on one as a person or because of one’s whiteness, white guilt can be a very pro-social emotion that motivate us towards empathy towards those people who by association and due to history have borne the consequences of evil done by white people.

The problem comes in, however, when we don’t respond to such white guilt well. For the white denier, this can lead to an attempt to protect oneself from moral incrimination, as already discussed. This tendency can intensify if one consciously or unconsciously feels any sort of negative feeling towards a minority ethnicity, particularly black people. The combination of white guilt and the (sub)conscious awareness of negative thoughts can lead to a cascade emotional guilt and a personal need to “protect” or “purge” oneself from this feeling of moral guilt.

However, in many cases, rather than being a white denier, being a white hero can also be a way of not adequately addressing the feelings of white guilt. This can lead to some of the political characterizations that have existed around the concept of “white guilt,” but again, I don’t want to try to say all the conservative understanding of “white guilt” is accurate. Principally, I want to avoid that because this feeling of associational guilt can lead people to very helpful responses to the problem of racism and that can lead them to advocate for some “progressive” or “liberal” causes, even if they are politically conservative.6 But, I would suggest more often than not, this form of response isn’t that of the “white hero.”

For the white hero, they have a tendency to use their advocacy against racism beyond any sense of compassion for black people from one of two motivations: 1) to compensate for their guilt and 2) to achieve greater status.

When we act to compensate for strong negative emotions, we tend to engage in exaggerated behaviors that would seem far out of proportion to what most people without such a feeling would normally see. So, a person feeling white guilt would be more likely to compensate through a) projecting their own feelings onto people to emotionally purge themselves of this feeling that creates guilt, b) virtue signal how concerned they are about racism, and c) exaggerated attempts to not appear racist. Now a small degree of this would be a bit normal part of the process of dealing with such guilt, but white heroes take this step further. By people heroic in how they fight against racism, that try to purge their own problems through what they do.

However, there is a second, and I would suggest a much more pernicious problem: that of achieving social status through being the white hero. It can be joined to a feeling of white guilt and compensation, but it can also be a manipulation upon a) the idea of being against racism and b) upon the white guilt in other people. I would refer to this type of behavior as a “moral narcissism” in that people exploit certain moral values and feelings for their own gain. However, it is possible that this “moral narcissism” can be part of a person’s own response against their own feelings of white guilt.

In this scenario, a white person actively tears people down other white people for being racist. It is a way in which they can manipulate their own white privilege to speak against racism to benefit themselves, as it is much safer to speak against racism as a white person than as a black person. The severity with which such accusations are made varies, as some people are only mildly motivated by needs for social status whereas others focus almost exclusively on it.

However, beyond the moral negatives that comes with any form of narcissism, it presents two problems in addressing the realities of racism. Firstly, it treats minorities as a tool for the white person to benefit. The status-driven white hero is not concerned about the benefit of the people they supposedly advocate for; they will not remedy the problem of privilege insofar as it is not something people will notice. Rather, they will accumulate more privilege and status for themselves in the name of fighting racism. Secondly, however, these type of people also lead to greater defensiveness in white people to accept the realities of racism, as they have experience the rhetoric of race in such a threatening and hostile manner. It literally feels less safe to think and speak about matters of race.

It is this aspect that creates the most fear about racism for me. Maybe it is my vigilance because I was the victim of a status driven attack on me many years back by a fellow white person (although, it did not address the matter of race, to be clear and fair). But for me, I have found the majority of black people I have talked to about race to be amenable, even if they are direct and express their anger, but I have found in personal experience and in other observations a reason to find the role of the “white hero” to be one of the biggest barriers to racial equality moving forward into the future.

To bring this to a theological conclusion, I find Jesus’ own beatitude of being “poor in spirit” to be a useful way to approach the realities of race and race relations. Now, I don’t want to try to appropriate ethnicity in the phrase “black in spirit” for a whole host of reasons. Nor do I want to make a direct equation with being black and Jesus beatitudes as I think Jesus speaks to poverty for a reason. And I don’t want to foster a sense of dependent attitude as if black people have to rely on white people that the language of poverty can convey. But, just as Jesus never acted the crusading hero of the poor, but rather he lived with and loved them, empathized with and even identifies with their struggles, an attitude by which whites can live with, love, empathize, and identify with some the impacts of racism on African Americans is a healthier way to address the feelings of guilt. However, this takes time and doesn’t come through the strength of one’s actions or one’s arguments. One doesn’t accomplish it by being the white hero or trying to defend yourself from any feeling of guilt, but allow the feelings of associational guilt to motivate one to hear, to listen, to learn, and to grow together.

The theological importance of language

April 2, 2019

Of the early Church Father’s that I have found I am in the most agreement with, based upon my limited knowledge of them, I have always been drawn to Irenaeus. His recapitulation theory of the atonement had a profound shaping on my understanding of the atonement during my seminary years and afterward, even if I felt it was a bit overstated. I have also found the concept of the Son and the Spirit as the two Hands of God to be a useful conceptual tool to use in thinking through my research in a Trinitarian epistemology in 1 Corinthians, although I would not turn that into a doctrinal confession. While I have not read all of Adversus Haereses, it is certainly on my radar in the future.

However, I have found one place where I developed my thinking independently of any direct influence from Irenaeus,1 but have found my thinking reflect is in his preface to Adversus Haereses. Here is how he starts:

Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.] These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein. By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions respecting the Demiurge; and these simple ones are unable, even in such a matter, to distinguish falsehood from truth.2

Now, my hope is not to try to commend an attitude of suspicion and vigilance that is demonstrated in Irenaeus’s opening. Much as Barth’s harsh response to Brunner should not be imitated, but understood as part of the challenges of the historical period, I would not commend Irenaeus’s attitude as the general attitude we should take when it comes to defending orthodoxy. Irenaeus was dealing with a specific challenge of his time, and this should be recognized, but we should not let such a theological vilgilance color our general demeanor towards theology. To appropriate the Ecclesiastical proverb: There is a time to be at peace and there is a time to be vigilant.

What, however, I find particularly relevant in Irenaeus’s preface is the role that language and plausibility has in misleading people.

Human thinking and language is a complex phenomenon. However, precisely because it is so complex, our conscious thinking is masked from the various effects our thinking and language can have on us; we can not possibly observe and systematically understand the entire experience of thinking and language. In fact, we are disposed not to because in thinking and language, we are disposed to pay attention to the often implied goal in thought and communication, but not the various other functional effects such thinking and communication can have. We are not even naturally disposed to consider the connections we make from one thought and one statement to the next and consider the chain of reasoning that leads to a specific conclusion.

As a consequence, it becomes easy to smuggle in new ideas within a community without conscious detection. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because there are many ideas that are of great benefit. Nor is the possibility of intellectual challenges from new ideas a problem. Sometimes we have beliefs that have serious blind spots. Rather, the problem comes in, however, when a smuggled idea comes in that legitimates itself as a part of the tradition but then simultaneously creates a contradiction within the traditions of the community; combine this with reputed expertise from the people presenting what is ultimately a contradictory and dissonant idea and you have a recipe for a form of cognitive trickery. However, this can happen with or without anyone’s intention, so it doesn’t mean the people are necessarily malicious or manipulative in intention; it could be that they themselves don’t truly understand the heart of the community but are really more outsiders that think themselves insiders. Nevertheless, while intentions do determine the type of actions people take, they do not determine the actual impact of person’s actions, and as such, there are times to be vigilant about the consequences of certain speech, even if we should chasten any sense of hostility to how we treat such people as persons.

I would suggest this is part of what is happening in Irenaeus’ day. He isn’t dealing with simply new ideas. Nor is he dealing with a critical challenge from the outside that motivates a different type of response. He is addressing a problem of teachers who have set aside certain matters taken to be central truths of the Christian faith, but yet acting as authoritative expositors of this faith. Soon afterward, Irenaeus will use the metaphor of wolves in sheep’s clothing to describe such people because “their language resembles ours, while their sentiments are very different.”3

Now, some people upon hearing such a response might begin to feel their skin crawling, because they themselves have been recipients and victims of people who in their theological hyper-vigilance have attacked and slandered people for things they did not say, reading into ambiguous statements the worst possible consequences and outcomes. This is a very real problem, and why I would suggest we don’t need to simply adopt Irenaeus’ attitude in any sort of unthinking manner when it comes to protecting orthodoxy.

There are multiple ways one can try to protect against heresy, or any other category of unacceptable theology one uses, but they tend to be broken down by the combination of two different frameworks: epistemology and hermeneutics.

In a pure epistemic option, you set from the beginning a system of knowing and knowledge by which you comparing everyone’s reasoning and claims to. This system becomes absolute, in that you assess the basis of the claims based upon how much it conforms to the epistemic framework one works with. This leads to the subjugation of any interpretive work to the epistemic frameworks and cognitive patterns one has established as normative; one’s interpretation is reducible to litmus testing by which one focuses simply on conformity. We can label the pure epistemic option dogmatism, although I say this with the understanding that I am not wanting to direct this towards the historic Christian tradition but to the broader patterns that can be manifested in those who oppose the dogmatism of the historic Christian tradition, such as the way human experience is highlight as a necessary and essential criterion in some forms of progressive theology, or one’s theology becomes guilty of the “heresy” of being “harmful” or “dehumanizing.”4

There is another drawback from the pure epistemic option, however, that stems from the practice of litmus testing. What if one’s theology passes all the filters; then it becomes consider safe. You want to know one of the best ways to try to transmit new ideas into the Christian tradition without regards for its impact on the theology: make it sound Trinitarian by using Trinitarian sounding words and phrases. Then, the doctrine can more easily gain acceptance and credence, without consideration for what the true implications of the doctrine are. We see this in social Trinitarianism, where the emphasis is on understanding the persons of the Trinity as persons in our modern language. Theologians like Karl Barth detected concerns with such reasoning and tried to find a different way for describing the ontological status of the Father, Son, and Spirit as “modes of being.” For a hypothetical example, imagine someone a) included into the definition of personhood a sense of inviolable personal autonomy that was used to describe the persons of the Trinity that then b) is used to apply to human persons by application of the Trinity to human relations. What is one consequence of such a theological move? The absolutization of personal choice on all matters, and thus one erodes any sense of community including on ethical matters. But it could seem to have all the hallmarks of Trinitarian doctrine.

The pure epistemic option does something to us: it makes us rather poor and unimaginative interpreters. It reduces interpretation to an act of pattern matching.

However, if we are people who belong to a specific tradition that we think has some truth-bearing properties, it is necessary to some degree that we establish some epistemic framework by which we work with, lest we abandon our traditions as simply a heritage of ideas for us to use and appropriate for whatever purpose whatsoever. What do we do then? We focus more on interpretation and hermeneutics than simply theological knowledge.

Again, allow me to state that I think theological epistemology IS important; my dissertation research is focused on it, albeit from a somewhat different angle than is commonly done in traditional epistemology. But for me, such knowledge presents resources that provide truth, although expressing how they provide truth is not always so simply done, but we never consider ourselves as having come to some system of knowledge that allows us to judge the rightness and wrongness of any and all things apart from the careful consideration and deliberation about the theological claims that are being made. The sins of dogmatism and epistemic certainty isn’t the act of making judgments, but the way judgments are made based upon superficial and stereotyping features that avoid dealing with the complexities contained therein. Dogmatism insulates people with a sensee of ill-conceived confidence that prevents them from engaging with the fullness of what someone is saying or doing, but force fits them within set categories at the beginnings stages of perception and interaction. Dogmatism determines guilt at the investigatory phase, or even before an investigation, rather than allowing judgment to be rendered at a trial.

The intellectual cure for this: a deep appreciation and understanding of how language and thinking function. Language and thinking are complex p processes, and because of this, it can be easy to smuggle in bad ideas, but also because of this, it can also be easy to see bad ideas being smuggled in due to the categorical stereotypes our dogmatism as formed in our own head. A deep understanding of language allows us to see the complex and diverse ways meaning emerges, without having to necessarily prejudge positively or negatively the various possibilities.

The challenge with this cure, however, is the initial uncertainty of it. It means we have to let go of the feeling of certainty and justification that our epistemic dogmatism have created in us and rather allow God to be the one that justifies us and creates us anew.5 It means we place our trust first in the wisdom and power of God to lead us and the Church into faithfulness, truth, goodness, and grace and then place our epistemic task as subservient to and formed y that trust, even as our trust in God does not obliterate our responsibility in the epistemic task. It is why I consider the epistemic concept of the warrant as a candidate for knowledge is a useful way to understand our movement towards theological knowledge, without becoming insulated and entrapped within the boundaries of needing absolute justification and certainty.

It is attention to the various hermeneutic possibilities in linguistic and discursive understandings combined with a basic epistemic commitment to the real possibility of moving towards truth, which we see in various forms of critical realism, that allow us to address the complexities and ambiguities that operate in our modern, theological crises created by a post-modernity that has not simply accepted the validity of the diversity in human experience, but insulated knowledge structures emerging from human experience from any and all challenges. So, we now live in an intellectual world that is buzzing with a vast diversity of ideas, conceptualizations, frameworks, etc. that is next to impossible to make meaningful sense apart from the employment of stereotyping if we operate from a position of epistemic dogmatism.

If you look at the patristics, it is commonly an understanding of how language operates that often moves theological development. For instance, reading Gregory Nyssa’s “On ‘Not Three Gods,’” one can see the role this understanding of language works has in defining the problems of calling the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gods. However, to be clear, his logic does have some defects as William Hasker mentions in Metaphysics & The Tri-Personal God. This probably in part stems from the formalist way that Gregory construes language as a formal system that has a right way of functioning, which is often the consequence of trying to fit language into a specific epistemic framework such as Bertrand Russell’s and many of the positivist’s formalist account of language and proper meaning. Nevertheless, we see here and other places in the patristics that language is a central role of making sense of the account of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Of course, the risk epistemic dogmatism can still exist in virtue of understanding language, one can get caught up into an inflexible metaphysical system that functions as an epistemic framework. William Charlton in Metaphysics and Grammar notes how the emergence of grammatical understanding in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle contributed to the emergence of Western metaphysics; we see a similar pattern in the early Trinitarian debates as the focus on language does lead to the emergence of a metaphysical system that then becomes taken as foundational for later Christian theology. Although, to be clear, I don’t find the problem to be the emergence of metaphysics, but how all thought and language becomes tried by the litmus test of a metaphysical orthodoxy. This perhaps stems from a sense of linguistic prescriptivism that says there is only one right way to speak and all others are considered fundamentally wrong.6 Such a strong linguistic prescriptivism can lead to an epistemic dogmatism of metaphysical beliefs. In other words, there seems in my mind a strong correlation between strong linguistic prescriptivism, inflexible metaphysical systems, and epistemic dogmatism.

But to be clear, my critique here is not the place of metaphysics, preference for certain ontological schemas, nor a sense of epistemic understanding that provides truth, but rather how the way a narrow understanding of language and meaning that correlates with inflexibility in metaphysical construal and epistemic dogmatism leads to fundamentally erroneous claims about other people’s thought and language.

One solution is to the acceptance of linguistic diversity as descriptively true, even if it violates our own sense of normativity about language, and make judgments after considerations and deliberations. Yes, it becomes a lot messier and more ambiguous, but I would suggest this is a necessary response in light of the modern age, where the degrees of diversity of thought and language is incalculably complex due to the strong interconnections that have formed with various cultures and identity groups through common informational mediums of the internet. Epistemic dogmatism is not just simply unable to address such a worse of high complexity, but I would contend it fundamentally leads to higher rates of error and falsehood. While a tendency towards epistemic dogmatism was not harmful for an emerging church that had limited political power in the days of Irenaeus or even post-Nicea,7 today the protection of orthodoxy through epistemic dogmatism in a period of hyper-diversity can lead to serious errors that can have many negative effects. It is like trying to entrust your physical well-being to someone who knows a book on medicine inside out rather than to a physician that has been entrusted to deal with many of the complexities of the human physiology.

But, it as the point of understanding language that we can address many of the theological challenges that we face in the modern world. And perhaps this is my extolling the virtues of my own choice to think about linguistics, particularly cognitive linguistics, in my personal time and the value I have found in analytic theology to help address various difficult and knotty theological contentions. But, I find in Irenaeus words the most suitable direction for how the Church can deal with the challenges to orthodoxy in our modern world. 

Something of a partial autobiography

April 1, 2019

I loathe talking a lot about myself. I don’t mind doing it in the sense of a friendship, but the idea of writing a lot about myself has always seemed a bit of on the narcissistic side. Certainly, there are times to make something known about oneself, such was when one is in need or if you feel other people can benefit from such a personal disclosure, but self-disclosure for me is something that bothers me. And to some degree, if self-disclosures bother you, then you are a normal human being with a sense of humility and propriety. While one should ideally be able to be break through such a discomfort, particularly with people you wish to be close to, it is a good thing to have such inhibition to a degree, I think. In a culture of authentic fakery and manufactured celebrity, a sense of propriety won’t make you the most popular person, but it will prevent you from getting caught in the trap of routine self-absorption that our present culture poisons us while treated it as a healing balm.

The reason why such self-disclosure can be uncomfortable is that we wear masks. We all wear masks, to one degree or another. Sometimes we are doing so manipulatively, sometimes we are doing so innocently, sometimes we are doing so without awareness, but we all wear our masks. No one is a totally open book, if even for the reason that we do not fully understand ourselves. To that end, it is often others who help us to unmask, whether by force, by providing a space to do such, or providing insight. And it is Jesus Christ who I believe will ultimately unmask all the secrets of our hearts in the future eschaton, but with the Spirit occasionally doing such at moments in the present time. 

There are two masks that I have worn in my recent years. Neither of them are morally salacious. Rather they are masks of a different sort.

The first mask is the masking of my pain that has been unmasked in recent months. I have had a lot of pain and suffering in my life. Not so much that I can say my life has been as bad as possible, there have been blessing intermixed within it as I have parents who care about me and financially support me in my studies, a mind when is functioning as it can be is really sharp, and some great opportunities like my present one at the University of St. Andrews. But at the same time, a life of having being bullied, losing a brother to suicide, being forced into sex at one point and then at a later point of life being sexually harassed, and the various struggles with loneliness and isolation of various forms these events have occurred is a lot to carry. And I masked not because I want to project this image of being super strong, but I masked because I did not want other people to be burdened by my burdens; I am all too aware of the pernicious effects of secondary trauma and I much prefer to be careful not to put that onto others.

However, there is another mask I wear. It is the mask I wear about the reason for the journey and direction I have taken in my life. I have masked my calling, and when I say calling, I mean the actually calling and not the thing towards which I am striving towards. While up to this point, various people know bits of my story, no one knows every bit of the story as I have always masked away parts of it. This blog post is my act to unmask this and to let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, and let whoever does read this do with it what they will.

My whole life I have always felt different, even in grade school and middle school, I felt different. I acted differently. This was no doubt part of the reason I was picked on so much by the popular kids. If I can define my life my one word it would be “separate”

I was not supposed to be born. I was my mom’s third pregnancy. Her first was my brother Evan. Her second, however, was miscarried. As my mom was reaching later in her 30s, it looked like she would only have one child. But then I came along. I was, in her words, her “miracle baby.” Then, as she told me, she was trying to figure out boy and girl names for her baby, and then one night she had a dream where a lady handed to her a baby and said “His name is Owen.”

But, there were complications late in the pregnancy. My mom had felt me stop moving around for a couple weeks and she was beginning to get worried. She expressed her concern to her doctor, and initially he told her there was nothing to worry about. But then, apparently, he called back later and asked if she wanted to come in and she did. They discovered that I had managed to get my umbilical cord stuck under my arm and I was not getting the oxygen that I had needed. They induced labor, and I was born on May 30, 1984, the day of the last full solar eclipse in North America of the 20th century. 

When I was pretty young, around 3 or 4 years old, my parents, my brother, and I went to the Smokey mountains. One day, we happened upon one spot for my dad to take pictures. My mom was not feeling well that day, so she decided to stay in the car and as my dad, my brother, and I went out to explore. While my dad was taking pictures, I had managed to sneak away and was exploring a fast moving water trench that flowed down a bit into a water mill. My being the adventurous explorer I was, I began to peer into the water in the trench. Meanwhile, back in the car, my mom got a real uneasy feeling and she decided to come out to check on us. As she was approaching she saw me peering over and thought that she needed to hurry over to me. But it was not too much later that I had slipped and fallen into the water trench. As chance would have it, I had on overalls and the strap on my shoulder had gotten caught on a limb hanging over the trench so that I did not get rushed off into the wheel of water mill. However, my head was stuck under water. My mom, seeing this reached for me but the way had made my overalls slippery and I slipped out of her reach. Now, I was not held back by the limb and I start to go down the trench and my mom, in a desperate attempt to get to me before there was no return, manage to grab a hold of me and pull me out. Just like the physician changing his mind to save my life, my mom had a sudden intuition that caused he to act to save my life.

Then, fast foward to my freshman year of college. I had overcome a lot of problems in my life in my primary and secondary education, but I had made it to college and was going looking to trek into the beginnings of adult life. That spring, I went on a leadership retreat with the campus ministry I was going to at the time and while there I had a mental vision that I was going to be a leader of people. (Imagine that! Going to a leadership retreat and thinking you would lead) While I had gone to church since my freshman year of high school and I had a semblance of what I would call repentance and faith during my time in the youth group, it was at that point that I was deeply moved to what I would call a fullest sense of repentance and I first understood what faith as trust in God was about. It was after this point that I, without trying to specifically stop specific behaviors, saw a dramatic change in my life as a lot of the pain and anger that stemmed from my past went away. Additionally, many feelings of same-sex attraction had begun to develop from my senior year of high school (though I never identified as gay or bisexual) and from that point, I only experienced any real attraction for women. It was a profound change that I didn’t anticipate or seek, but it just happened.

Then, the summer after my freshman year, I had two events occur with a little over a week that radically shaped me, even though I never really came to comprehend it. One night, I was alone at my college apartment asleep. Then, at one point, I suddenly jerked up and I heard the words “Follow me.” I look back and I wasn’t quite sure if those words came from my mouth or if they were from somewhere else, as it was all such a rush. Then, a little over a week later, I was at my home with parents. It was a little after midnight, and I was upstairs and on the opposite side of my house where my parents were asleep (I didn’t know they were asleep at the time). I was walking around and I suddenly heard a voice speak “Owen” in a clear tone. Initially thinking it was my dad calling out to me, I called out “Dad.” No response. Frustrated, I walked downstairs and to the other side of the house to my parent’s bedroom, as I walked in, I discovered that my dad was sound asleep and not making any noise, besides his usual snoring.

I present this is in a more ‘objective’ manner, but when I look over the events of my life, I have a profound sense of God’s hand and guidance on my life, although it is something I don’t comprehend or understanding. On the one hand, I have often wondered if I was hallucinating and all the coincidences and happenstances of my life were just the dice randomly rolling that way in my life. And yet, there seems to be a pattern and trend to all the events that give them a greater coherence than just the luck of the draw.

But the part of me that accepted what had happened was from God, which grew more and more over the course of time, felt even more isolated and separated as a result of these experiences. I was familiar with the stories of the Bible of people having such similar events, and I am familiar with many of the parallels, but these were people of the Bible. Who was I? And why was I of all people have

Meanwhile, the only stories I ever heard of anything remotely similar disturbed me. I was a young child when I remember the story of the siege in Waco in 1993. The leader of the cult of the Branch Davidians, David Koresh had reported some sort of vision during his time in Israel, although I forget the details of it now. When I learned about that during college, I looked at everything that had happened with fear, wanting nothing to do with that life even if I felt called to be a minister. Then, I recalled a preacher who came to my college campus that berated and spoke of God’s hatred and judgment towards many people, and I recounted him feeling some sort of calling experience himself (though again, I don’t remember the details). I saw the cultish and controlling way he treated others, including how he tried to wrap me in it, and I wanted nothing to do with that sort of stuff. My experiences scared me of my calling. I wanted to make nothing of it. And yet, it was still something to it I felt. But the more I held onto it without talking about it, the more alone I felt.

I have had many experiences in the years that followed that I can only point to the leading and direction of God. There are things I don’t understand. And even now, I don’t even understand it as I approach 16 years since that summer. I am confident I wasn’t just “hallucinating” in the clinical sense and that there is something that God is doing, but I haven’t the foggiest clue. I don’t feel like I have any real special “gifts” that seems to match the “gravity” of such events, although I do recognize that I have a blend of creativity and intelligence, for whatever that is worth.

But I have hidden it because I thought in sharing, I would be even more isolated and separated than I would be in masking it. Not to mention, it is safer to keep it hidden. Plus, I never wanted to try to pull any sort of “spiritual rank” to say “you should listen to me because of what happened.” All I ever wanted after being faithful to God was to simply no longer feel alone and so different. But, life is not about what we want; I have learned that over my years of pain that it is best to accept that not everything you want will come to pass.

So, I share this with no expectations. I am not asking you to do anything or think anything of me. I am open to questions from anyone curious but do respect that I don’t want to just share anything and everything for any reason. And please, if someone happens upon this at any point in the future, please don’t think I have some great secret to give you or that I am someone who you need to treat as some vaunted authority. But if there is something you see in me, then listen to this one thing and act one accordingly to it: one of the places where I have learned to have faith and I do take great comfort in is that God enables many people by His Spirit for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and even if I do have some rather profound and unique experiences, I am simply one of the many of the Body of Christ and I am no way in a superior or elevated position to anyone else. To that end, it is my appreciation of the giftings of the Spirit that alleviate my anxieties, even if I still feel like I am somehow way different.

And no, this is not an Aprils Fools joke. I felt lead to write about it today, for whatever reason.

The problem with “revelation”

April 1, 2019

If anyone of a theological background reads this that also knows me and my (chastened) appreciation for Karl Barth, I figure the title might sound shocking. But rest assured, I am not in writing this to abandon the concept of revelation in a theological sense, but rather to present a couple of  problems that comes when it comes to New Testament theology. I would summarize the two problems as follows:

Firstly, there is no singular technical term for revelation in the New Testament. There are two verbs that refer to what we might call an act of revelation: φανερόω and ἀποκαλύπτω. While these two terms are synonyms, which a comparison of Mark 4.22 and Matthew 10.26 would show, they are not exact synonyms, but function a bit differently in the contexts in which they are used.

Secondly,  revelation is often used in one of two senses: 1) a general class of events or 2) a single, all-encompassing event. However, while the usage of φανερόω and ἀποκαλύπτω is used to refer to multiple different events (contra #2), one can not draw any generalization about understanding about these events apart from the a) the God is the initiator and b) the most general epistemic sense these two terms convey (contra #1). In other words, there is no point of unification and classification all things we would call revelation, except that it emerges from God: this includes even the person of Jesus as I will attempt to demonstrate.

In regards to the first problem, I would contend that φανερόω and ἀποκαλύπτω refer to two different aspects of “revelatory” events. ἀποκαλύπτω is used in contexts where some people are let in on something that was not previously publicly accessible and known.1 While not every use must be force fit into this exact description, at stake with ἀποκαλύπτω is the notion of privileged access as God “uncovers” it to them. On the other hand, φανερόω gets used more to describe what is actually seen and understood.2

Romans 16.25-26 is evidence of this difference, as the noun ἀποκάλυψις is used in reference to a previously non-accessible mystery, whereas φανερόω refers to what is made known in the Gentiles. Furthermore, what this passage suggests is that an act of ἀποκαλύπτω is a once-for-all event in a point of history whereas an act of φανερόω occurs repeatedly from that point onwards. That is to say, that once an “unveiling” (ἀποκαλύπτω) has been specifically made, it then becomes accessible through the testimony of the one(s) to whom it has been “unveiled.” Hence, this is why in 1 Cor 2.1-13, Paul will refer to specific teachers receiving an “unveiling” from the Spirit, but then in 14-15 speak of those who hear it, and say that those who accept it are said to be Spiritually discerning it. The “unveiling” is a non-repeatable event that then has lasting epistemic implications through testimony to others.

This is not to suggest that an action of φανερόω that is not traceable to an “unveiling” it is simply a product of testimony and the persuasiveness of the testimony. It is only to suggest that something can be “disclosed” (φανερόω) even if it is not being “unveiled.” That is to say, God can and does act to disclose something about His will and purpose, even if it is not really a secret. Thinking historically here, what can we say about Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. I would not call it an “unveiling” as it was something contained in the Scriptures, but it was “disclosed” to Luther.3 

I bring this up as a concept by which we can understand the possibility of revivals. It would be problematic, if not even dangerous, to suggest that revivals are somehow containing some sort of unveiling of something new. While I don’t want to exclude the possibility of God doing such a new unveiling, it would be dangerous to expect that revivals will entail such. However, I do think it is helpful to think of revivals as a fresh disclosure of what God has already unveiled. We might think of this as the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

The implications of this distinction is important in other way. For instance, many people in recent years have been pining for some sort of new Protestant Reformation, particularly as it comes to sexual mores. In their minds, we have progressed to a new understanding and God is teaching them this. Many of these people would also claim some sort of prophetic status, although not necessary for that specific reason. The problem is that from a reading of Scripture as we have it, such a view is untenable. Perhaps there is something vital that has been overlooked and ignored when it comes to matters of sex that God may re-disclose to us, but when God discloses something that is through an unveiling, the disclosure is understandable in virtue of what is already accessible but such claims of change on sex are incoherent with what we presently have.

However, we do believe such an event that has changed ethical understanding as happened in the history of God’s relationship to Israel and the world: in the person of Jesus Christ. While Jesus never nullified the Torah, with the advent of Christ and a new covenant, revelations were made to the apostle that lead to the conclusion that the Torah obedience was not necessary for the Gentiles. Something dramatic necessitated the people of God move to a new ethical understanding. However, this revelation did not occur in a vacuum, but it occurred as part of what was happening in the person of Jesus Christ; Paul refers to his own ministry to the Gentiles coming from God who was “please to unveil his Son to me.” (Galatians 2.16).

Thus such a change and move in regards to sex would need to be more than just simply a “disclosure” but an “unveiling” on a similar manner to what happened in the early Church. However, firstly, on what basis is such a revelation made? The change from the Torah was made in light of what happened in the person of Jesus. Who has come in the name of the Lord to necessitate such a change in understanding today? Or in what way has the Spirit demonstrably made Himself known that there is a clear unveiling of this new truth?

Secondly, the thing about “unveiling” is this: it is not accepted by others in virtue simply of the testimony, but there is something inherently demonstrable in what gets “unveiled.” An “unveiling” makes itself apparent to those who are able and willing to receive it. But if people outside the Christian circles are more willing to receive it whereas there is greater resistance inside the Church, this means the outside world is more open to this truth. Thus, this has been continued to be “veiled” to many Christians but not to those on the outside. While it is certainly possible, to claim that this has been “unveiled” would certainly seem to suggest leaving behind those who refuse to accept it, just as the early Christians did not seek to persuade all the Pharisees, and form a community on the basis of such a conviction if it is that absolutely necessary condition of one’s faith.

Thirdly, such an “unveiling” does not entail any prior progression or development to the idea, lest it becomes something that was accessible but overlooked, but it arrives without precedent, even if one can after the fact see it pointed to from what has already been given to know.

In other words, no sensible reading of the Bible would disclose a change in the views about sex and to promote any sort of unveiling would be to make strong claims that are deeply inconsistent with the actions taken by those advocating for such a change. While such a theological epistemology is probably not in the minds of most people advocating for a change, for those of us who take the pattern of God’s unveiling and disclosures as testified by the OT and NT seriously, such a dramatic change in the historical belief of the church would fall short of being God’s disclosure or God’s unveiling.

However, nevertheless, such a change is certainly within the purview of possibility. Why? Because we can not derive any sense of pattern about God’s unveilings and disclosures that would give us some advance knowledge and notice about specific unveilings in the future. Revelation is not a science by which we analyze past revelations to determine the shape of future revelations. They are given as is, we learn from them as they are, but we are not given a sneak-peek into further revelation in virtue of them. God’s act of unveiling does not give us the ability to unveil anything further in virtue of any disclosure already given to us. We are still left with the same epistemic dependence upon God’s actions for historically new disclosures to be made, which includes the possibility of new unveilings. However, we can look from God’s past disclosures and find some sense of understanding of future disclosures that are not conditioned upon a new unveiling, as this is taking what is already given to discover afresh more about what has been given.

So while we can accept the possibility of a new “unveiling” from God, we can not anticipate it nor specifically prepare for it in advance. The most that can be done is, like John the Baptist, to prepare the way for the Lord in repentance. But this still relies upon what has been disclosed, with a receptivity to what God can bring, but not an anticipation of the specific shape or form of what God will bring.

To summarize, the problem with revelation is that it as a concept on its own is ill-equipped for us to construct a theological epistemology for the matters of Christian life and faith that coheres with the witnesses of the New Testament. Rather, a two-fold understanding of “unveiling” and “disclosure” where the two are intrinsically related but are not phenomenologically the same thing, can allow us to insights into the nature of revivals or historically unprecedented changes in teaching and how we should approach such.

As for me, while I can accept the possibility of new unveilings I see no reason to think such has been given, but I can anxiously expect and look forward to the possibility of fresh disclosures for the Church in the West.

Jesus, Paul, and Second Temple Judaism as a hermeneutical religion

March 30, 2019

In his book Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, Richard Longenecker observes the following about what was held in common between Jewish interpreters of Scripture of the first century:

Jewish interpreters, no matter how different their exegetical methods, agreed on four basic points. In the first place, they held in common a belief lief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. This meant for them that the words of the Bible had their origin in God and were, in fact, the very words of God – a doctrine qualitatively different from all Greek notions about a divine possession or an inspirational factor seizing the poets and seers, whose words, while lofty, remained purely human. Secondly, they were convinced that the Torah (whether the Written Torah alone, or both Written and Oral) contained the entire truth of God for the guidance of humans. The transmitted texts for the Jew of the first century, therefore, were extremely rich in content and pregnant with many meanings.’ Thirdly, because of the many possibilities of meaning in the texts, Jewish interpreters viewed their task as one of dealing with both the plain or obvious ous meanings and the implied or derived meanings. And finally, they considered the purpose of all biblical interpretation to be the translation into life of God’s instruction – that is, making the words of God meaningful and relevant to the lives and thought of the people in their present situations. These are matters that were axiomatic to all Jewish exegetes no matter what other allegiances they may have espoused or whatever interpretive procedures they may have used, and they will be repeatedly illustrated in the discussion that follows.1

This common religious ground in 1st century Judaism stands to functionally distinguish Israel from the surrounding Greco-Roman society. While at the level of cultural meanings, Israel was distinguished due to their belief one God, one significant explanation (although not all-encompassing) for this cultural distinctiveness in meaning is the cultural practice of reading and understanding the Torah and other Scriptures that reinforced believe in one God.2

When Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.22-23 talks about the different reasons Jews and Greeks reject his proclamation, the Jews are expecting “signs” (σημεῖον) whereas the Greeks expect “wisdom. For the prevailing wisdom of the Roman Imperial era, most notably Stoicism and then a lesser degree Epicureanism, their way of coming towards wisdom would be closer to our modern practice of science, albeit not exactly the same.3

By contrast, the language of “signs” strongly points to the ‘hermeneutic’ practice present within Judaism. Although in saying this, need to extend our traditional definition of hermeneutics to being about the interpretation of texts to relating the present world to the texts: “signs” most likely refers to evidence that God is being faithful to his promises as in the Scriptures, such as God bring down Israel’s enemies.

One might be tempted to try to fit this difference between Greco-Roman philosophy and Judaism into our modern division between science and religion, but this won’t do at all. Rather, it is more appropriate to consider Stoicism and Judaism divided along specific epistemic and hermeneutical practices and where attention and focus is given between knowing and understanding.

In our modern day, Hans-Georg Gadamar and Richard Rorty have argued that epistemology and hermeneutics are opposites; I fundamentally disagree with this conclusion as it is expressed as I think the act of knowing and understanding are fundamentally integrated in normal human unconscious experience. But I do think there is a basis for the division in that in reflect of cognitive processes, we can not simultaneously analyze how we generate meaning through interpretation (hermeneutics) and how we validate meaning (epistemology) as our conscious reflection is limited to what it can “probe” in our unconscious thinking. Consequently, when social networks develop normative, deliberate practices to offer guides on how to think, there will be a predilection towards either hermeneutic or epistemic considerations.4

Hellenistic philosophy inherited an epistemic emphasis. This stems back to Socrates and is exemplified in his argumentative practice of rely upon a single definition that incorporates all uses of the term (such as a single definition of justice that explains all the uses of the word “justice”). For Socrates, it was more important to have a single concept to judge the legitimacy of all uses of such concepts. But contrast a more hermeneutic approach, which was more amenable to rhetorical and the true Sophists that existed underneath the Platonic stereotype, would not collapse all thinking to a single concept to judge its legitimacy, but consideration should be given to the specific usage. While Second Temple Judaism is not a religion of rhetoric and sophistry, there resemble the Greek Sophists in one sense: they were concerned about God’s “speech”, that is, His Word and how God speaks through that whereas the Sophists would be more concerned about the rhetoric of human speech.

I am speaking in rather broad, overarching terms to bring a point: to understanding Second Temple Judaism, one has to understand that it is a culture and society that is as influenced by the idea of hermeneutics, just as the epistemology of ancient philosophy had a profound influence on Greco-Roman society. While it would be deeply misleading to try to divide Jewish and Hellenistic society in 1st century A.D. as Martin Hengel has aptly demonstrated, there is still, I would suggest, a substantive difference at the level of the hermeneutic-epistemic axis between Greco-Roman and Jewish the generate profound differences. Philo, the prototype of Jewish and Greek synthesis in the 1st Century, is still profoundly hermeneutical in his approach. Meanwhile, the most theological of the Roman Stoics, Epictetus, whose language about God can resemble that of Jews, places a huge emphasis on rational deliberation to come to right knowledge.

So, if all of this is correct, what Richard Longenecker mentions about 1st century Judaism is not simply an interesting observation about Jewish practices of interpretation. It is a critical feature of understanding 1st century Judaism.

One way to exemplify this can come from the application of a specific social axiom I have observed: people tend to formally distinguish themselves based upon the themes that are salient within their social networks. The salience of epistemology in Hellenistic philosophy generated the Stoic “rationalists,” the Epicurean “empiricists”, and the Academic “skeptics.”5 By contrast, we can see differences in the Jewish religion based upon diversity of hermeneutic frameworks. The Sadducees only considered the Pentateuch authoritative. Rabbinic traditions about the house of Hillel and house of Shammai suggest the house of Shammai had two different styles of interpretation and application of the Torah, with Shammai being more strict. The Qumran community was notable for giving prominence to the “Teacher of Righteousness” who helped them to interpret the Scriptures. If both the social axiom I presented and the characterizations of Hellenistic philosophy and Jewish religion are accurate, then that would favor that Jewish society was deeply formed by its hermeneutical practices.

This then provides a backdrop to make sense of much of Jesus teaching and engagement with the various Jewish ‘schools’ in the Gospels. Jesus was taking head on the hermeneutic practices of the day, both in the interpretation and application of Torah. But Jesus was addressing hermeneutics at a deeper level; he was engaging at how the human motivations of the heart fundamentally affect interpretation and practice. When Jesus highlights the two most important commandments, He wasn’t making an epistemic move of saying “all you need are these two commandments.” Rather, He was prioritizing the love of God and the love of neighbor that was foundational for understanding the rest of the commandments of Torah. When criticizing the religious leaders for how they search the Scriptures because they contain life in John 5.39, Jesus was hitting at the motivations that are foundational for how they understand the Scriptures. When Jesus speaks in parables that shield the true meaning from the crowds but at the same time using it to give understanding the disciples, Jesus is working with a deep understanding of how people interpret. When Jesus in Matthew 23.23-24 criticizes the Pharisees and scribes for overlooking the weight matters of justice, mercy, and faith, Jesus is focusing on how much attention and emphasis the Pharisees give to matters of tithing over these more pressing concerns.

What most exemplifies Jesus criticism of the religious leadership at the hermeneutic level is contained in Mark 7.9-13:

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”6

Now to be clear here, there are three things I am not suggesting. Firstly, I am not suggesting that Jesus ministry should be reduced to concerns about hermeneutics. Jesus was not acting as a professor in homiletics trying to espouse a specific framework that people should accept. Rather, Jesus was targetting the root causes of the problem with the failure of the religious leadership of Israel to guide, teach, and lead the people.

Secondly, I am not suggesting that the problem in the Gospels is that the religious leaders have the wrong hermeneutic framework, as if the way to serve God is to just get our hermeneutics perfectly correct. For Jesus, the problem rests fundamentally with how the hearts of the religious leadership, particuarly the Pharisees and the scribes, fundamentally determined what concerns they had in understanding and applying the Torah.

Thirdly, I am not suggesting epistemology does not matter when it comes to the Gospels, or the New Testament more broadly. Only that concerns about how one obtains knowledge are not front and center in most of the Bible; epistemic considerations tend to be assumed rather than debated. They occasionally get addressed in parts of the Old Testament7 and come up in certain places in the Gospels and the Pauline epistles. However, we can see epistemic considerations taking front and center by how the language of knowledge gets used. Rather, we should be attentive to not try to fit the meaning of Jesus, or even the Bible, into modern epistemic frameworks unless we have good reason to do so: when it comes to the way the New Testament addresses the way people think, it is better to assume hermeneutic considerations are at stake unless given explicit signals otherwise.

For instance, to shift from Jesus to Paul, one of my present critiques of Douglas Campbell’s work is how he tries to situate the Pauline epistles with epistemic frameworks. In The Deliverance of God, he considers that Paul’s epistle to the Romans is understood as Paul giving the views of a hostile teacher and then his own responses. In so doing, Campbell analyzes the unnamed teacher that Paul opposes as essentially being an epistemic foundationalist. And while one might consider epistemic concerns being at play with concepts such as revelation and Paul’s occasional references to knowledge in the epistle, that doesn’t mean Paul is focused upon epistemology. In contrast to 1 Corinthians 1-4, where there is pretty clearly strong epistemic considerations due to repeated recurrence of epistemic terminology,8 there is not a commensurate emphasis upon that in Romans. I would suggest Romans is better understood against a hermeneutic backdrop, where Paul seeks to counter the way some Jewish Christians in Rome are interpreting the significance of Jesus and the Scriptural narrative, including notably Abraham, to make sense of their present status under Roman power that would motivate their future actions. Paul presents Jesus’ resurrection in the context of suffering and calls for Jewish Christians to live by faith in virtue of their union to Christ’s death and resurrection, instead of an arising, Maccabean-like zealotry that would highlight Torah obedience.

Or, consider how Campbell references J. Louis Martyn’s work in 2 Corinthians 5.16-17 in his chapter “Apocalyptic Epistemology” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination to flesh out an apocalyptic epistemology. Yes, epistemic language is used in this context. But I would suggest this stems from the way the Corinthians are concerned about philosophical and epistemic considerations. What has priority for Paul is not how one comes to possess divine knowledge, but rather what people use to identify people: are people understanding people based upon their fleshly appearances or based upon their resemblance to Christ. How the Corinthians interpret specific teachers and leaders are a significant concern in 2 Corinthians, and Paul wants the Corinthians to focus on the resemblance to the person of Christ rather than to any specific claims to knowledge one might have: hence, he minimized the role of his own vision in 2 Corinthians 12. This fits more within a hermeneutical focus on how the Corinthians understand people in relation to the person of Christ than how it is they arrive at some knowledge. In fact, I would suggest part of the problem in Corinth is that they are so focused on knowledge, they fail to see how it makes them arrogant towards each other.

Now in making this critique of Campbell’s reading a theological epistemology into Paul’s letters, I am not ruling out the place of theological epistemology. But the exegetical concern is that epistemic matters is not the primary way Jews in the first century would construe the concerns about thinking.

Meanwhile, there is also a theological and spiritual concern in how people’s finding a sense of epistemic justification often creates an arrogant spirit, which only gets amplified when we start talking about God. While a form of epistemology that focuses more on warrant9 as candidates for knowledge can be of great use in theological epistemology in my opinion, any attempt to try to develop a clear, precise framework for what does and does not constitute theological knowledge is at risk of arrogance, and to present a Foucault-like critique, can be a veiled attempt at power. Consider Barth’s response to Emil Brunner as it comes to natural revelation. Barth’s response could be considered downright arrogant and my first time reading it I thought it was quite narcissistic, although in Barth’s defense it was quite understandable given the evil of Nazi power that he was seeking to resist. But when this emphasis upon theological epistemology gets produced without modification, particularly in the reading of Scripture, we begin to get into the sort of problem that Paul warns against in 1 Corinthians 8.1-3.

This is not to suggest that the practice of hermeneutics is “undefiled” from power and arrogance. Any look at the way creation “scientists” use literalist hermeneutics to keep other Christians away from the scientific understanding of evolution, thereby giving them as “scientists” a place of legitimacy as expertise within their own communities can show that hermeneutics, and not just epistemology, can get into power plays. It is not uncommon that teachers of Scripture will presuppose a priori a hermeneutic framework to give the result they want; this is so much at the heart of preachers with progressive theological convictions in their rejection of the authoritative inspiration of the Scripture. But even in these two instances, I would suggest there is a bit of the epistemic instinct underneath these practices as claims to what is intellectually right, that is epistemically justified, rational, etc., do often impact hermeneutic considerations.

But, this is to suggest hermeneutics is the magnifying glass we can use to reveal our epistemic arrogance, particularly when it comes to reading the Scriptures. But not just any hermeneutics, but a hermeneutics conjoined to matters of the heart that unmasks the motivations behind our epistemology. As the sophists were in opposed to the type of knowledge that would typify Platonism, as the post-modernists threw the modernist foundations of the Enlightenment into question, so too does the Jesus who engages in matters of heart and hermeneutics call into question the foundations of knowledge and the motivations that lie beneath them. To this end, hermeneutics does not oppose epistemology but rather chastises it like the prophet chastises the king and the priests by focusing on seeing and understanding what is really, truly there. It brings forth the treasures of truth and understanding that epistemic structures and rationalizations had long forgotten and overlooking. If I may suggest, hermeneutic works in conjunction with an epistemology of warrant to show that what is consider knowledge really isn’t so, but without falling into some deconstructionist skepticism that simply leads to a radical revolution if realized as a society. To this end, perhaps Gadamar and Rorty are right: hermeneutics is opposed to epistemology when epistemology is about getting a clear, fixed framework for determining what must be right and wrong prior to engagement.

And in this way, perhaps we can make significance of what Jesus does to the Jewish religious leaders by targetting the body of legal traditions and interpretations that emerge from the way in which the implicit epistemic claims that the Scripture witness to God’s will is used to legitimize the hermeneutic practices of the religious leadership that culminate in the various legal traditions that became poor readings of God’s instruction to Israel and of Israel’s story and place in the world. The socio-political motivations of that day and the personal motivations of the teachers took a stranglehold of how the Scriptures were interpreted and applied, with the implicit assumption that their interpretations were legitimated in virtue of it coming from the epistemic source of knowledge about God’s will, the Scriptures. With this in tow, we can avoid the tendency of early Protestant Judaism to caricature the doctrinal teachings of the Pharisees specifically and Judaism in general, and rather focus instead on the way social relations and personal motivations lead to the (mis)use and application of the Torah in the eyes of Jesus.

The challenge of integrating analytic theology/philosophy and Biblical exegesis

March 28, 2019

I am approaching a year and a half as part of the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews, whose mission in part is to try to bridge the fields of analytic theology (and by implication of analytic’s theology employment of it, analytic philosophy) with Biblical exegesis. As the one person of my original cohort that most represented the Biblical Studies side of things based upon personal interest and prior education in that field (there was one other who would compete with me on this), I felt a particular challenge as being somewhat alone on trying to integrate analytic theology into Biblical Studies. The papers where I made the best grades were the one I did what I do best, exegesis and tried to figure out how to bring in some analytic-styled conclusions into my work. I didn’t witness quite the struggle form my more theological and philosophical oriented cohorts. Meanwhile, many of the discussion had with theologians were readily accessible to others even if it is difficult to penetrate into the fullest implications of the ideas, whereas one had to sometimes penetrate deep into the rabbit hole to really bring exegetical discussions up as such discussions inevitably gets into matters of methodology (whether directly or indirectly in the type of evidence one presents).

I don’t mention this to present a “woe is me” attitude. I have tremendously benefited from my time at the Logos Institute and I am a better at Biblical exegesis, much more knowledgable about the specific topics and ideas at stake in theology, I have become more proficient at my style of thinking, and I will hopefully even a better communicator once I have the time to let all the work settle. Rather I highlight to present that there are some unique challenges from the Biblical Studies side of things when it comes to integrating with analytic theology.

Firstly, is the challenge of the necessary skills. In analytic theology and philosophy, the skill sets one needs includes the ability to read academic English, see the structure of arguments, parse analytic concepts, etc. By and large, the primary skill sets relates to proficiency in one’s native tongue, if you speak English, and the ability to think in a rigorous and logical manner. However, engaging in Biblical exegesis requires a bit more diverse skill set. One does not have to be as proficient in academic English, but proficient enough to understand and communicate. Nor does one have to excel at logical coherence and rigour, although one does typically need some degree of these skills. However, in addition to those skills, there is the need for some form of proficiency in an ancient language, in historiography. This entails being able to imagine a way of thinking and living that diverges dramatically from the modern ways of life.

This isn’t to suggest that Biblical exegetes are superior intellectual to analytic theologians. Far from it. Biblical exegetes operate more in an interdisciplinarian fashion in their approaches, almost by nature, whereas analytic theologians can give much great attention and focus to mastering a narrower range of intellectual skills. The end result is that in the dialogue between Biblical exegetes and analytic theologians that I have witnessed, the exegetes tend to take a more contrarian role that undermines the conclusions of theologians whose conclusions are normed to Scripture. However, the Biblical scholar does not generally approach the level of rigor, clarity, and precision that the analytic theologian does. The Biblical scholar has a wider swath of knowledge that allows them to a) understand the Biblical texts deeply while b) being able to understand and dialogue with analytic theologians which also provides a broader epistemic base to challenge the conclusions of the analytic theologian. It can sometimes feel a bit like the tensions that can exist between analytic and continental philosophy.1

One option for someone aspiring to study Scripture is to focus more so on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Here, one does not need to devote as much time to trying to interpret within the historical context and linguistic usage, but focus more on the intellectual content that one can presuppose is a part of the text. I myself was tempted to go in that direction, but I realized that my skill set was best for the more traditional for of exegesis based upon my greater familiarity and adeptness in historical, anthropological, sociological, and linguistic fields.

Another option is to relish the contrarian, if not sometimes deconstructionist, role that the Biblical scholar can play with the analytic theologian. But this doesn’t do much to actually further the advancement of bridging the fields of exegesis and analytic theology.

I have come up with another conclusion. The Biblical scholar will just have to take more time to mature in doing analytic theology before they can engage proficiently at the analytic task. Something that I have found can help is trying to incorporate some of the work of analytic philosophy or theology into one’s own exegetical work. I have done this a bit with my research in 1 Corinthians. However, at the end of the day, that knowledge of the analytic content tends to end where its usefulness for the exegetical task ceases. Consequently, the Biblical scholar will have to be satisfied with feeling a bit out of place in the discussion of analytic theology for a while, with hopes that in the spare time they can afford to give to analytic theology independent of exegesis that they will grow over time. I have had to accept this limitation in myself.

However, there are some useful principles I have discovered in the differences between the two tasks that pertain to the style of thinking. Broadly speaking, analytic theologians and philosophers start from basic concepts and propositions and build their argument from that point. By contrast, Biblical exegesis starts from trying to figure out what the most appropriate concepts are for understanding the Scriptures and which ideas one should take from the text. Very VERY roughly speaking, the central task of Biblical scholarship ends up generates concepts and propositions from their interpretation of Scripture whereas for analytic theology it builds inferences from concepts and propositions. The end result is that whereas the Biblical Scholar is concerned about understandings that are a good fit with the texts they analyze, the analytic theologian is concerned more so about precision and logical coherence.

We can understand this distinction in accordance to four different forms of coherence I have found to be operated in Biblical scholarship and analytic theology: discursive coherence, historical coherence, conceptual coherence, and inferential coherence.2 The first two are particular concerns in Biblical scholarship. In my own research, I have placed a large emphasis of finding the most coherent understanding of Paul’s discourse in 1 Corinthians 1-4 in general and chapter 2 in particular. THis is often a winding journey as 1.18-3.20 is structured more so like a Jewish homily that goes from diminished the role of the experts in wisdom in God’s day, to the way in which God educates the Corinthians through human agents, to how the Corinthians should perceive the roles of Paul and Apollos. While there is a coherence in the content, it is not approached in necessarily any strict, logical or linear manner.

For instance, concepts like wisdom can be used differently from one context to the next: whereas “wisdom” is employed in reference the educated forms of philosophy and religion in 1.18-25, it becomes associated with religious mystery in 2.6-16, and then applied to Paul’s metaphorical artisanal role in 3.10. Wisdom goes from matters of education to inspiration, then to skills in specific tasks. A conceptual analysis of wisdom would not be able to describe the polysemy with which Paul employs the language of wisdom. A person more concerned about logical coherence might accuse Paul of equivocation, but that would undermine Paul’s purpose which isn’t to define wisdom as wisdom, but to define the Corinthian’s relationship of their own understanding to the power and direction of God. The definition of wisdom is more superfluous to the pedagogical task of guiding the Corinthians towards deeper faithfulness to God rather than the Greco-Roman (and Jewish) customs about power and wisdom.

Then, there is historical coherence. Paul’s discourse about wisdom does not emerge from thin air, but it is embedded with the various discourses and practices of other practitioners of wisdom in that day. While Paul is capable of appropriate and using these concepts for his own discursive and pedagogical goals, the premise of being understandable to the Corinthians necessitates that Paul’s own ideas have some degree of coherence with the surrounding culture, even if the most significant elements of Paul’s discourse is in how contained in how his ideas are different from the surrounding culture the Corinthians inhabit and are influenced by. This leads to consideration of plurality and diversity as there are various forms of wisdom in that day and age that philosophers, Jewish religious scholars, and rhetoricians would claim to have. This leads to a messy sort of coherence emerging from abduction that doesn’t always seem so methodical but can be somewhat haphazard.

The point is that these two forms of coherence are messier forms of coherence. Loose ends are not always tightly tied together; it isn’t even obvious where the loose ends are. By contrast, the other two forms of coherence that emerge in analytic theology are much more capable of clarity and rigor in presentation and argument.

Conceptual coherence is the manner in analytic philosophers and theologians take special care in the analysis of concepts and to define them appropriately. This might entail coming up with a specific definition of wisdom that says “wisdom is a type of reliable knowledge about the complexities of day-to-day life”3 They would then craft their argument that pulls from examples and analysis of that specific concept. In conceptual analysis, the content of the argument is coherent around the concepts one wishes to analyze and discuss.

Inferential coherence, or what is regularly known as logic, places value upon the coherence between the various arguments and conclusion one presents. For instance, imagine an analytic theologian or philosopher took the definition of wisdom above. After demonstrating the validity of that concept for describing how ‘wisdom’ is generally used, they make the argument that in virtue of wisdom being a reliable knowledge, it entails that wisdom is derived from a reliability epistemology. The seemingly intuitive connection between reliable knowledge and a reliabilist epistemology is not automatic as one can imagine other forms of epistemology provide reliable knowledge. Instead, the analytic theologian/philosopher would need to present arguments in favor of this, such as the manner in which people derive wisdom from experience rules out all other forms of epistemology except a reliabilist epistemology. Is there a logical, inferential coherence between the reliable knowledge, the experiential derivation of wisdom, and a reliabilist epistemology? 

If you don’t see the pattern, allow me to demonstrate. The forms of coherence in Biblical studies are messier forms of coherence that commonly rely more upon more abductive forms of reasoning. Biblical scholars operate more like scientists who construct hypotheses and then test them. By contrast, the analytic theology will engage in more deductive and occasionally inductive forms of reasoning that provide a clear, more concise and rigorous picture by comparison. To continue the scientific analogy, analytical theologians are like scientists when they draw their conclusions from the observations and then present their theories.

I don’t compare Biblical studies and analytical theology to science because I feel science is superior standard by which we should measure and analyze the Christian faith and the intellectual study. Rather, I present it to show the way in which Biblical scholarship and analytic theology can fit together. Scientific starts off messy and unclear, but through the process becomes eventually refined and precise. However, good science never diverges too far from its epistemic source in observations, but always comes back to them to test, confirm, and challenge. Perhaps what makes science what it was capable of was the way it bridged the various forms of human reason in powerful manner. Likewise the integration of Biblical studies and analytic theology: it can start off messy from is epistemic base of Scripture (assuming that Scripture is at least one norm for the analytic theologian) through deriving an adequate understanding of it, but as the understanding of Scripture becomes more “tested” through exegesis, it can generate the ideas that analytic theology can work from to refine these ideas. However, at the same time, as the ideas become more refined, they will always need to be “tested” again against the Biblical “data.”4

However, in order to become an expert within an integrated practice of Biblical studies and theology, one would likely need to restrict the specific topics and the relevant passages. One could not be an analytic theologian of the New Testament, for instance, with ease. Much as scientists have to pick a specialty, all but the most exceptionally gifted and disciplined, would need to focus on a specific area of integration, such as (to make this somewhat autobiographical) on theological epistemology and Biblical passages that present epistemic implications (such as part of the Gospel of John, Romans and 1 Corinthians). One could branch out in either Biblical Studies and or analytic theology in other topics; an analytic theologian of New Testament epistemology could branch into the understanding of the wider Pauline corpus, such as the way Paul subtly cools a latent, Maccabean hostility in Romans, but it would be particularly taxing on time and mental energy to then try to integrate that into some analytic analysis on top of an analytic theology of New Testament epistemology.

Long story short, there are many complexities when it comes to trying to bridge the gaps between analytic theology and scholarly exegesis. IT is certainly doable, albeit quite challenging. At the same time, maybe it is best for those who are not as intellectual gifted as people like an N.T. Wright (the exemplar of a Biblical Scholar who does theology) to aspire to master one field and simply be in conversation with the other field, and more so create a collaborative enterprise between the two fields rather than integrate them into a single task. However, even then, knowledge of how the distinctive tasks operate can be useful for figuring out how to facilitate that collaboration.

If theology were done my way…

March 20, 2019

As an aspiring Biblical scholar who a) dabbles in theology and philosophy and b) considers the confessional and pedagogical importance of norming our theology to the Scriptural witness, I am often left frustrated with performing the task of theology. This is not the usual banter and and riposte, if not sometimes hostility, expressed between Biblical scholars and theologians. I love theologians (and Christian philosophers!) and their ways of reflecting on matters of Christian faith and I think they are integral to performing the intellectual tasks of the Christian Church. Nor am I implying that Christian theologians don’t consider Scripture normative; many, though not all, do. Rather, the critique stems from how I from my angle would prefer the field of theology to be categorically structured and taught.

If you were to open up a systematic theology, you would find it structured by thematic topics the nature of God, Christology, soteriology, eschatology, etc. In this way of dividing up the theological task, one construes theology being divided up into specific content determined by a singular theme. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, it allows for clarity in one’s theological reflection to know you are talking about a specific topic and to focus one’s cognitive powers towards that singular theme. Just like specialization pays off dividends in economics, it is also useful in the task of thinking. Secondly, when it comes to matters of protecting orthodox Christian faith, it is very useful when dealing with heretical or heterodox doctrines as it allows identification of specific problems in teachings; you can identify the specific topic they have deviated from with relative ease. Thirdly, from a more pastoral angle, if a parishoner were to ask a pastor a question about a specific topic that the pastor did not know, it is easy for the pastor to do a search on the specific topic. So, I recognize the many benefits that the current way the theological task can be arranged provides.

However, for these benefits, there are also costs. For one, I think it is lead to the idea that theology is normatively about ideas centered around singular themes in content. For instance, when we try to understand and develop a comprehension of Christology, we don’t necessarily think Christology also implies Pneumatology. Some theological thinkers recognize that Christology and Pneumatology go together, but I am not aware of recognizing the way we categorize theology is a contributor to this (some may have observed this; as I am not an expert in theology, I can not testify to the lack of awareness on this point but only my lack of familiarity on this point).

Secondly, by organizing theology around a single theme, we engage more so in what Jerome Bruner refers to as paradigmatic thinking, at the neglect of narratival thinking. To take the Christology and Pneumatology example, we might be inclined to understand the resurrection of Jesus as first telling us something about Jesus, that He was vindicated, that He is Lord, etc. However, if you pay close attention to Paul’s arguments in Romans, resurrection in Romans 1.4 and Romans 8.9-11, he does not understand the resurrection in isolation from the Spirit of God. Even when Paul does talk about the resurrection apart from the Spirit in Romans as in Romans 4.25 and Romans 10.9-13, he then talks about it in references to believers. The resurrection is not construed as an event that simply says something about Jesus, but it says something about Jesus in relation to the Spirit and to believers. Paul’s discourse about Jesus does not emerge from an isolated event understood paradigmatically on its own, but it is construed narratively and relationally.

Thirdly, separating theology into a singular theme leads to what I refer to as the balkanization of theological reasoning within the life of the Church. If we are wanting to propose a way forward on a specific topic, we are inclined to justify our view by the virtues of an argument we draw from theology from a specific domain. For instance, in my United Methodist denomination, we were considering a shift to an ecclesiology that would shape our denomination by convictions on matters of marriage and ordination to the local and annual conference levels.1 Arguments made in favor of such an ecclesiology commonly appealed to a notion of what you might refer to as a “Wesleyan tolerance.” Wesley’s theological views were reduced down to a singular idea on a specific topic, forcefully appropriated from the context it ignored, to be offered in favor on the view. Or, arguments in favor of change views on marriage commonly stem from appeals to a singular theme as a hermeneutical theological level by making observations of how the Bible has been used to justify oppression in the past. The logic here was could be in some ways be boiled down to this: If you can find an argument from one domain of theology, one had justified reasons for one’s own stance that others should change their views on (And not merely a warrant that was still highly defeasible). Rather than considering a change in denominational structure based upon a more comprehensive theological analysis, arguments in favor were reduced to a singular theme. Meanwhile, traditionalists had a relatively well developed theological meaning system, which while not expressed in every instance, generally has a comprehensive structure to it. The point I am drawing here is that while the division of theology into separate categories is useful for protecting theological integrity, it is also useful for tearing down the whole; in other words, what protects theological integrity also threatens it.

Which leads me to a hypothesis for another reason why theology is structured as it is: it has been formed based upon the theological conflicts of the past based upon specific topoi. This very way of structuring theology has conflict and contention at the center of it; it subtly reinforces an antagonistic dialectic where people focus on the specific questions and topics in direct contention. Decisions between conflict ideas are hard to settle between various, complex systems of thinking; we thus pragmatically reduce conflicting proposals down to its most salient and significant themes, setting the way future theological disagreements will come down. For instance, the emergence of Christology has an independent category of intellectual, theological analysis emerges after Nicea, witnessed by the later Nestorian controversy then digging even further into the topic of Christology. Or consider how Arminian theology emerges from contention along the specific topic of predestination from the Belgic Confession and Heidelburg Catechism, both of which was arranging on a similar, thematic division on the content of the topics the addressed.

Allow me to clarify my thoughts on this matter, however: the problem as I see it isn’t that such divisions into separate categories as is commonly done. Rather, it is how the defining understanding of Christian faith is construed through such a division. When such a manner of dividing theological topics permeates down to the confessional level as it did in the Belgic and Heidelburg Catechism, treating theology as the exposition and answers to specific themes and ideas, we have encoded into Christian theology into a convention that was inculcated by theological division as it also reinforces it.

There is a certainly a place for theology divided by topic outlines, but the earliest authoritative confession we have in the global Church, the Apostles Creed, is structured more so in a narratival fashion: beginning with God as creator, moving into a sequentially order accounting of Jesus’ birth and ultimate ascension, finally moving into soteriological and eschatological dimensions of the work of the Spirit. While yes, Father, Son, and Spirit are mentioned in their different subsections, the Apostle’s Creed is more so a narrative confession than it is a paradigmatic one. But we see in the Nicene Creed a move more towards focusing on the individual parts of the confession rather than how the confession as a whole holds together in a narrative fashion. For this reason, I am a bigger fan of the Apostles Creed for worship settings, even as I embrace the Nicene Creed as a doctrinal standard.

So what would I propose instead the whole of theology submitted to the ideas of this aspiring Biblical scholar? It wouldn’t entail the rejection of the division of theology according to thematic content, but it would more consciously place it at a later part of theology. Rather, my ideas stem more so from how I believe Paul understood the faith, spiritual, ethical, and intellectual development of Christians as represented in 1 Corinthians 2.1-3.4, where there are three broad phases of development: matters of faith, matters of ethics, then matters of (intellectual) wisdom.

At the core for Paul was the most fundamental confession of the early teacings of the apostles about 1) what happened to Jesus in the cross and resurrection, 2) the significance of this event for people drawn from the OT Scriptures, and 3) the testimonies to Jesus’ resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15.1-12). This list is not intended to be reductive of the limitations of the kerygma, as my sentiments believe the Holy Spirit was part of the early preaching based upon 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 and then 1 Corinthians 15.15 in comparison to Romans 1.4 and 8.11, but merely representative. The kerygma is thus principally concerned about what we would likely refer to today as evangelism in addressing what about the Gospel is preaching and how it is preached. A kerygmatic theology would be focused on understanding what exactly the content of this kerygma is. For instance, is it essentially existential, apocalyptic, cosmic, or a blending of these dimensions?2 Thus, kerygmatic theology is principally a historical, reconstructive task that lays the foundations for what follows, although there is certainly some room for consideration of how different contexts could shift the manner of proclamation. In addition, a kerygmatic theology considers why type of beliefs necessarily emerge from or are dissonant with the kerygma; it is here where we begin to get into dogmatic questions such as the Christological questions of Nicea and Chalcedon. But this branch of kerygmatic theology is not determining what the fundamental proclamation is, but rather why type of beliefs would either violate or work against the kerygma.

Then, after that, there is the task of Biblical theology, but of a specific sort. Rather than a stereotypical Biblical theology sorted by specific topics that one mines the various texts and collates together to give specific views on specific topics, it is a Biblical theology that explores the various themes that branch off from the fundamental kerygma. What is the significance of Jesus becoming Lord? How does one understand the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead in relationship to the theme of New Creation? This form of Biblical theology is essentially tasked with trying to “contextualize” the kerygma with the larger Biblical narratives. Other considerations would also be considered relevant, such as matters of theological interpretation of Scripture in light of critical questions such as the Trinitarian relations (which becomes more particularly prominent at a later phase). However, what is principally at stake here is situated the kerygma within a larger theological structure that can be used to generate further reflection and insights down the line.

One key point that this Biblical theology would point towards then is the branch of Christian ethics. However, my understanding of Christian ethics would not simply be reflective but also pedagogical. Not only does it address the question “how is it we should live in light of the redemption in Christ?” but also the questions of “how it is that God accomplishes this redemption?” and “how it is that we learn and live out this redemption?” However, at this point, the ethical frameworks used for analysis should be considered consistent with the fundamental understanding and significance of the Gospel of Jesus as contained in the kerygma.

Then, emerging from that would be questions about theological epistemology in the more formal reflections on how is it that we come to know about God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit? From the start, this question is situated within the kerygma and why and how it is that Christians comes to know God through that proclamation, but it also serves as a foundation for addressing the epistemic base of all knowledge about God and not just the kerygma. This is placed here, rather than earlier, due to the fundamental conviction that we learn through doing before we learn through thinking, and so a more formal reflection of epistemic matters should follow, and not precede, ethical reflection and praxis.

Finally, we get into the branch of thematic theology, which addresses the various points of contention that emerge throughout history on different matters. It is here where we get into metaphysics, ontological, and more in-depth eschatological considerations, etc., etc. In other words, this is where much of the tasks done in more academic theology operate and function.

Two things to note about this schematization of theology. Firstly, is recognizes the two-way relationships between the various parts of theology, but it recognizes that it is ultimately and fundamentally grounded on the kerygma. All other matters that are deeply inconsistent with the kerygma are considered problematic, rather than trying to understand the kerygma in light of later theological reflections. Thus, while this way of doing theology makes room for the intellectual virtues, it also presents a hedge against over-intellectualization by grounding theology to the specific form and content of the kerygma.

Secondly, in this form theology takes on greater concerns for coherence in theology. The one real “foundational” element is the kerygma and the OT Scriptures that provide the significance to the kerygma, but this element cannot be readily broken into analyzable cognitive “parts” which serve as foundations for theological inferences; rather inferences emerge more creatively from apprehension of the whole of the kerygma and then tested against the kerygma. Thus, a greater role for creativity is had in theology, but a creativity that is disciplined by the need for coherence; consequently it looks closer to a scientific form of hypothesis and testing (but without a collection of measurable data) than it does deductive rationalism. Consequently, the greater concern is how the various ideas fit together. The primary concern then is with how our reflections about theology fit together as a whole with the epistemic foundations of God’s own disclosure to us, rather than simply drawing theological inferences without consideration for how those inferences impact the whole. This conviction rests of the idea that even human thinking is part of God’s forming us into the Temple of the Holy Spirit through the bringing together of understanding through various, Spirit-led teachers and thinkers. Prioritization of coherence rather than the implicit often epistemic foundationalism that has commonly been employed.

To be clear, this is only a sketch on a relatively inchoate idea. However, it is a different way of doing theology, which if done, could make the various parts of the theological task more focused and possibly even less susceptible to protracted conflicts. In addition, it provides a place for theology frameworks that don’t have the systematic approach of thematic theology, such as Wesleyan theology, which operates in my mind somewhere between ethical and epistemic concerns (but definitely shading more towards ethics).

Origin of metaphysics and Temple

March 19, 2019

One of the most pressing philosophical questions I have been working through in the back of my head is the origin of metaphysics. The curse or blessing (depending on how you look at it) of being a person who likes to put mental puzzles together while also being intentionally interdisciplinarian in one’s approach is that my mind is swirling around with sometimes upwards of 10 different ideas from different interconnection domains of thinking that is going on in the back of my head. Yet each of these different ideas are connected to a specific task I have before me, although the connections may not always been immediately apparent on the surface. Metaphysics is one of those problems. It’s immediate application is to thinking about the doctrine of the Trinity and the emergence of the Nicene doctrine.

However, I am left with one difficult point that a theological thinker like Barth had to struggle with. The degree to which metaphysics is used in Christian theology there is a corresponding risk of replacing God’s revelation with an abstracted metaphysical scheme. However, it certainly seems like metaphysics is somehow necessary to some degree to make sense of the theology of Christian faith. However,  I don’t think a clear understanding of metaphysics is contained within the beginnings of faith; there may be some shadowy notions such as God, oneness, etc., but these rudimentary metaphysics are not conceptual systems with a clear, fixed sense of meaning, but rather are primarily referential. Since Christian faith is a matter of who we trust is doing what for whom rather than what to believe, this means any sense of normative metaphysics for Christian theology needs to emerge after faith. But if faith in God through Jesus and the Spirit is the essential, unchanging foundation, then any defined sense of metaphysics that goes beyond mere referentiality needs to be conditioned to the grounds of faith and not treated as axiomatic itself.

Consequently, to provide a metaphysics for Christian faith entails a notion of emergence, where some novel concept or premise emerges from what is already there. In other words, the domain of metaphysics is a domain of creative expression. Granted, it is not a form of creativity we would typically think of as creative, as we associate creativity with things such as art, technological innovation, or maybe even in some academic fields like Biblical Studies, theology, and some fields of philosophy like ethics. But metaphysics creative? For the vast majority of people, it would seem like a dull, lifeless field.

But sitting in on lectures from Peter van Inwagen at the Logos Institute last year taught me something. Firstly, I am a neophyte of neophytes when it comes to the philosophical field of metaphysics. However, as I am not a neophyte when it comes to language and thinking, I saw something else: it is a domain of thinking that requires intense focus and clarity on a special domain of concepts. This matches the phenomenon of “flow” talked about by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I will never try to type that name again: he will henceforth be known as MC, but without a hammer.) To do metaphysics well entails being able to have a clear vision of a specific set of concepts that we can not directly refer to anything within our word (like event, time, process, causation, etc.) and to elaborate on those concepts based upon how they are used to draw novel understandings about those concepts.1 This entails a type of creative focus, but of a very special sort.

When we direct our creative attention towards something like a video game (think Minecraft) or a piece of art, our attention is directed towards something that we perceive that we attached meaning to. We are thinking about an activity. Or, if we were to direct our creative attention to science, we would have some object to test or some data to see patterns in; we would be thinking about an object or information. But when one engages in philosophy, the focus is on thinking; one thinks about thinking. This is known as meta-cognition. In a sense, we might say much of philosophy is simply the outworkings of human meta-cognition to a more heightened scale that most people engage in.

Now, if I am doing the philosophy about ethics, I will think about my ethical reasoning. But at the end of the day, I have something to compare my thinking to, whether it be the Bible, my relationships, the news, etc., etc. If I am thinking about the philosophy of science, I have the field of science to compare it to. If I am thinking about the philosophy of language, I have the usage of language to compare my thinking about it to. In the end, the metacognition of these fields is then paired with more ‘normal’ cognition.

But there are a couple domains of philosophy that are further removed from another domain to compare itself to. Logic and metaphysics. In the philosophy of logic, one reasons about reasoning. The only thing else I can compare my reasoning to is more reasoning. However, even then, at the end of the day, somewhere along the lines, I can perhaps compare my metacognition on reasoning to how my reasoning has functioned in the past. I can compare the products of metacognitive activity about reason with the products of reason itself.

But in metaphysics, this is not the case. Because metaphysics focuses on concepts that we can not place anywhere within our domain of existence, we can never directly compare the products of metacognitive activity about metaphysics with the products of metaphysics itself, as there is nothing within our experience that we can actually point our metaphysical concepts to except when we use the concepts. But it is different from metacognition about reason because in metacognition about reasoning, I am comparing it with something accessible: myself. But in metacognition about metaphysics, I can not directly compare my thoughts about metaphysics to any actual instance of something metaphysical; I can only associate my thinking about metaphysics with how I use metaphysical concepts. There is no separate, independent source of metaphysics that I can directly compare my thinking on metaphysics with. Metaphysics is the result of metacognition focusing purely on non-sensory, non-cognitive2 concepts as concepts. There is nothing called an event or time to causation that I can point to and say “study that” either out in the world or within myself.

However, that there is nothing I can directly compare my metacogniton about metaphysics to doesn’t mean that metacognition doesn’t emerge from sensory experience and thinking. In fact, perception and thinking is what leads to the emergence of the concepts that we then consider as metaphysical concepts. It is for this reason that I reject the existence of Kant’s synthetic a priorii, in a qualified sense. I do accept the analysis of such concepts may not occur empirically in the sense of an orderly examination of experience. However, I would say the metaphysical concepts do emerge as a result of experience but that we are not necessarily aware of the connection between past experience and the concepts we designate as metaphysical.

However, at this point, I have to accept the judgment on Kant on one thing. I am not an empiricist in that I think all knowledge emerges solely from the seedbed experience. Rather, as I ascribe to the idea of embodiment cognition by authors written about by scholars such as Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff, I think our biology structures our cognition. Consequently, there are certain cognitive structures/concepts that emerge not from sensory inputs, but from the way our biology structures our thinking, including even our neurobiology. The consequence is that our biology repeatedly structures our perception and thinking over time; there is an emergence of cognitive concepts that come from how we function in our various experience, but is not definable to any experience within the domain of our conscious attention. Put differently, there are certain set of concepts that are basic, primitives of human speech and thinking (See Anna Wierzbicka’s Semantics: Primes and Universals for more information about semantic primes) that we only know of because of the effects they have upon our thinking but not direct perception of what causes these cognitive effects. Whereas I can build a link between my concept of an apple and a direct perception of an apple or my concept of my emotion of anger and the direct perception of my own physiological state, certain cognitive concepts can only be known by the effects and not observation of their causes (unless the cause is thinking about the concept). At best, the cause of these cognitive conceptions are left to be inferred.

What this means is that there are certain concepts that emerge from our experience of the world. I would contend that through repeated activation of these concepts over the course of time, then they begin to become cognitively entrenched and becomes an automatic part of our thinking. Ronald Langacker describes the process as follows:

Automatization is the process observed in learning to tie a shoe or recite the alphabet: through repetition or rehearsal, a complex structure is thoroughly mastered, to the point that using it is virtually automatic and requires little conscious monitoring. In CG parlance, a structure undergoes progressive entrenchment and eventually becomes established as a unit.3

In other words, when a concept becomes automatized and entrenched, it becomes a default way we think about something. For instance, we by default make a connection between two events that we automatically think of a relationship between them as causal.4 We don’t reflect on two events and think “we need the concept of causation.” We just employ the concept of causation automatically. And we readily employ this same concept again and again in a variety of different domains (such as physical causation of a pool ball hitting another pool ball and social causation in one person’s speech motivating another person to act) meaning it operates as a unit.

What is especially significant about this definition is that entrenchment occurs however now just in unconscious thinking, but can also emerge from more conscious thinking of more complex structures and processes. In other words, the very act of metacognitive reflection on metaphysical concepts itself serves to reinforce the automatization and entrenchment of the cognitive schema within the thinker. Entrenchment is not just a low-level process of perception and construal of the world, but it also operates at higher-level processes of critical thinking, interpretation, and reflection. In fact, I would hypothesize that all concepts of higher ordered thinking go through entrenchment at two levels: the unconscious implicit level and then once it becomes solidified there, it can become entrenched at the conscious, explicit level of thinking also.

Hence, where the conscious focus of cognitive flow comes into this. By thinkers engaging in a flow-like state about metaphysical concepts that entails repetitive thinking about such concepts, their thoughts about the concept becomes entrenched such that they become automated patterns of thinking. Now here is where the real trick comes in. Because it becomes more automated, it means that the metaphysical concept becomes more apparent and intuitive to them without any real need to verify its existence. This sense of intuition cannot be readily connected to any specific thing in their experience, so it appears more and more to not be empirical but just a given about the world. But this is an illusion generated from the combination of biological structuring of human thought and the cognitive processes of entrenchment, neither of which we directly perceive but can only infer.

However, because such thinking is a form of creativity, the thinker about metaphysics will bring their own idiosyncratic views to the metaphysical concepts they think about. The end result is that for ever N metaphysics, there are N+1 metaphysical systems out there. Metaphysics as a heightened focused sense of creativity that does not emerge from shared experience, but only from the creative analysis of a metaphysical concept means that there is little common ground between the concepts of metaphysicians except the biological structures that are common to all of them.

However, these biological structures are expressed in and mediated through the usage of language. I am not a Chomskian who believes that language is a special module that is separate from other forms of human cognition. In line with my subscription to the field of cognitive linguistics, I think the processes of language are generated from the processes of human thinking. What happens is that in language some of the biological structuring of human thought become grammaticalized, such as the way that verbs emerge from the way our neurobiology makes sense of change in our environment.5 When this occurs, these concepts become more entrenched through repeated usage again and again within the wider, language proficient populace.6 This form of entrenchment, however, occurs as the more implicit, lower level of cognition.

However, once that language begins to become an object of study and thinking itself, then we proceed to move toward the possibility of these concepts becoming entrenched at a higher level. This is William Charlton’s thesis in Metaphysics and Grammar. Charlton proposes that Western metaphysics emerges in connection with the emphasis upon thinking about the grammar of the Greek language as exemplified in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, among others. By consciously conceptualizing the grammatical structure of Greek, the possibility of Western metaphysics began.

The implication of this is that metaphysics emerges from the repetition of certain cognitive concepts that we can not clearly point to anywhere within our fields of experience, including through the usage of language.

However, if my hypothesis about the origin of metaphysics is right up to this point, this means that while entrenchment of higher cognitive processes through the conscious deliberation of language is a sufficient condition for the emergence of metaphysics, it is not a necessary condition for such. Any repetition of any form of complex, higher level cognitive process can lead to the emerge of metaphysical concepts, although without language the existence of such metaphysical concepts may not be as clear as it is with language. Metaphysics can also emerge from complex behaviors, such as complex thinking about behaviors, such as rituals7 and ethical deliberations.

Which FINALLY leads me to my hypothesis about the New Testament. N.T. provocatively proposes the idea that writer of the Gospel of John was writing a theology of Temple.8 However, the notion of Temple is more widespread than simply in John. Paul uses it to describe the reality of believers as a result of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 4.16 and 6.19; also Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 13.12 and 2 Corinthians 3.17-4.6 resembles the temple language that Seneca attaches to Pythagoras in Epistles 94.42.9 Hebrews describe a heavenly temple that the earthly Jewish temple resembled but was not exactly equivalent to, reminiscent of a (middle) Platonic metaphysical thinking about forms. Temple seems to be a pervasive phenomenon in the New Testament in such a way that we might think that Temple operates as a metaphysical category.

If this is indeed the case, where would it emerge? More broadly, it could emerge by a combination of the reading of the OT Scriptures that make repeated references to the tabernacle and temple and engage in careful, deliberate reasoning about how things are to be there. Secondly, the ritualistic praxis of worship of God at the Temple would certainly bestow a sense of gravity to the Temple. And since the concept of there being one God entails the metaphysical concept of divinity (however that is construed by Israel), the Temple by association with God would take on a metaphysical significance. Thus, through the repetition of Temple in the Scriptures and in praxis, the concept of Temple could become deeply entrenched into the Jewish religious consciousness.

However, there is a third possible source here for the NT usage of Temple in a seemingly metaphysical way. Jesus’ own discourse. In John 2.19-22, Jesus says a sign of his authority to act as he does in the Temple at Jerusalem is that he will “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Here, Jesus uses the Temple not to refer to the physical Temple as others thought, but his own body.10 At this point, Jesus is referring to his own sense of identity as he is as a person. If metaphysical categories can emerge as a result of creative, focused thinking on a certain concept (and Jesus justification for acting in purifying the Temple certainly do suggest Jesus had thought about Temple), then we who believe that Jesus is the Logos from God could suggest that Jesus’ own metaphysical characterization of his body as a Temple comes from his own idiosyncratic thinking as the Logos, the unique Son of God. Thus, the metaphysics of Temple in connection to the body for Jesus could be said to emerge from His own being as lived out.

Consequently, the significance that the Temple had in John, in Paul’s epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation could be explained as coming from Jesus own’ statements (hence, John includes it in his Gospel). If the function of Temple in the NT emerges from Jesus,11 then it can explain why these three sources which employ the idea of Temple in their discourses are also the most explicit parts in the NT about the exalted (and I would say divine) role that they assign to Jesus (as the presence of God as represented by Temple language).

In short, if my hypothesis and ruminations about the emergence of metaphysical concepts is true, then I would contend the metaphysical role of Temple is the most feasible and parsimonious explanation of Christology in the New Testament and is the conceptual seedbed that other concepts, such as the equality of Jesus with God, Jesus as Logos/Wisdom, etc. emerge from.

Gnosticism and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

March 18, 2019

“Gnosticism” is term in the Christian theological lexicon that often is used as a heretical boogeyman. There are historical roots of this, as the heresiology of the early Church fathers lead to the formulation of a category of “gnostics” to refer to a collection of false teachers that they broadly defined by a supposed emphasis on the importance of ‘knowledge’ that ended up contradicting the core teaching of the early Church. However, today, the term is most commonly used to refer to the denial of the goodness of creation and the devaluation of the body.

Unfortunately, as Michael Allen Williams has recognized in Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for the Dismantling of a Dubious Category, the “gnosticism” is a rather poor, misleading term that has lead to caricatures and anachronism of what “gnostics” taught. While some persons in these movements self-identified as gnostics, this was not in reference to a specific system of belief or sect, but rather a quality of the person. As a consequence of the misleading usage that “Gnosticism” can convey, Williams advocates for “biblical demiurgical traditions” that refer to the specific class of beliefs about the creation of the universe by a demiurge that mediates between God and the world.

However, we are stuck with the term “gnosticism” in the Christian tradition because of our heritage, even as historical and social analysis manages to free itself from the term. Consequently, it is perhaps better to clarify two different patterns within “gnosticism,” the ideological and social pattern.

The ideological pattern is what William’s new category refers to: the system of beliefs about the creation of the world through a Demiurge. Frequently associated with this belief was the belief in the inferiority or badness of the material world, rooting all the way back to Plato’s exaltation of the world of the Forms over the concrete world one observes and experiences. Middle Platonism took this distinction between the two “worlds,” associating the world of Forms with divinity and necessitated a mediator to go between the two. 

This belief seems to naturally blend together with the Jewish and early Christian distinction of a transcendent God who was distinct from His Creation. However, whereas the transcendence of God was used to maintain God’s distinctiveness/holiness from the Creation in Jewish and Christian theism that ruled out the practice of idolatry, Middle Platonism was in part an explanation of the evil nature of the world. In other words, while Jewish vs. Platonic transcendence looks similar on the surface, they served different ideological purposes; for the former transcendence was a doctrine pertaining to the appropriate nature of worship, whereas in the latter it was a distinctly ethical doctrine.

While certainly, the appropriate worship of God for the faith of Israel would blur into social relationships, the holiness of God was not distinctively employed for ethical considerations until the New Testament, when the holy God had made Himself known in Jesus. Even here, the idea of holiness and transcendence was rooted in worship and reverence. God is the source of all that is good that can not be possessed or encapsulate in any part of the creation.

However, within Middle Platonism, transcendence allow a dualistic separation of the spheres of the divine and material realms into good and bad, respectively. Consequently, there would be different Aeons, of which Jesus could be considered, that would mediate between God and the material world, often redeeming the people from the evil demiurge who was responsible for the evil of material existence.

My point here isn’t to draw a perfectly reliable picture of what all or even most gnostics believed, however. The diversity is something that eludes overarching description, even if I were an expert on the material. Rather, the point is to draw a connection between the ideological patterns and the distinctive social pattern: “gnosticism” employed many of the intellectual resources of its Greco-Roman milieu to explain its view of God, cosmology, redemption, etc. to rationalize its ethical and moral view of life. Gnosticism was associated with a form of intellectual elitist thinking.

As Williams observed, “gnostic” was in the heretical literature was a self-designation of some religious individuals of the type of person they were, not their religious identity. While their influenced waned during the 2nd century, the Roman Stoics were largely responsible for inculcating the image of a sage who possessed a type of knowledge that far exceeding anything the common person could possess. To have knowledge in this Stoic sense was to have an overarching, systematic knowledge about how everything works, both in human affairs but also in the affairs of the gods. As such, to claim to possess “gnosis” would be a claim to an elite form of knowledge and understanding that allowed one to interpret the whole of all that exists in reference to the knowledge one possesses.

At the social level then, “gnosticism” would seem to be the heresy of the (aspiring) intellectual elite. This may be reflected in 1 Corinthians. It has been used to try to explain the Corinthian wisdom that Paul opposes in 1 Corinthians, although this is historically dubious as an origin of the content of their wisdom; it was most likely a conglomeration of Stoic philosophy, Greco-Roman rhetoric, and the Jewish sapiential traditions. However, as Gerd Theissen has noted, “analogies between Corinthian gnosis and later Gnosticism could be found that in both instances a typical recasting of Christian faith is evident with its rise into the higher classes.”1 I would suggest the analogy is that in Corinth, due to their aspirations for ‘gnosis’/knowledge, they too draw on the influential intellectual resources of their age to try to explain the Christian faith and tried to under the roles of Paul, Apollos, etc. as presenting wisdom in the patterns they were familiar with. Even though the proclamation of the cross of Christ and the power of the Spirit had demonstrated that the wisdom of the educated, elite experts of their day was actually foolishness, the Corinthians insisted on thinking the wisdom of the world had value for understanding the things of God.

In other words, the social pattern of “Gnosticism” is contained in the following: 1) the aspiration towards knowledge of an elite status that 2) draws from the intellectual heritage of the surrounding society that is then 3) used to interpret and make sense of the significance of the Gospel. Consequently, this social pattern is more generalizable from one period to the next, even as the intellectual and ideological understandings shift from one period to the next. But allow me to be clear, the problem is not an education, even of an elite level, lest I become a hypocrite in my own studies.2, Rather, it is how those who deem themselves to possess a knowledge that puts in a superior position such that they can evaluate the foundations of the Christian faith in a way that the people without such ‘knowledge’ cannot possess.

However, for Paul, it is the person of Christ who suffered the cross and was raised from the dead that serves as a fundamental understanding of the Christian faith. Yes, Jesus ethical teachings do matter, but for Paul one started from faith and then moved to what we might call ethical formation and instruction. Yes, Jesus more intellectual teachings in the parables and proverbial sayings do matter, but one must become a spiritually mature person through the way one lived before the deeper, spiritual utterances and mysteries would be understandable from the leading of the Spirit. All ethics and wisdom were ultimately understood in reference to and in virtue of the cross of Christ and the soteriological significance of this event for how God is at worked in His people.

But in an intellectual “gnosticism,” there is a tendency to try to fit the cross of Christ into some other ideological pattern. For instance, among some circles, it can be popular to understand the significance of the cross by reference to some ethical ideas about pacifism, being a moral exemplar, resisting unjust powers, etc. etc. While such ideas may be true of Jesus’ crucifixion, this was not the significance attached to the cross of Christ. The cross was not an ethical demonstration before it was a demonstration of the shape and pattern of God’s love. I present this as only one example that can occur.

What stands at the core of ‘gnosticism’ then is the belief that one can obtain some vantage point to make sense of the cross of Jesus Christ apart from the OT Scriptures that testify to the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To interpret the meaning and significance of God’s Word by reference to any form of knowledge that isn’t from God Himself amounts to the impulse of gnostic heresy.

However, I want to distinguish this from the manner in which one comes to faith. In coming to faith, we may have ideas and beliefs about God that are not perfectly reliable. God may decide to accommodate to our ill-conceived understanding to make Himself known to us, but it is in such a way that once perceived, changes the criteria we used to perceive and understand God. God’s disclosure can come in the midst of human ignorance about God and then through that change the criteria we use to understand God. My target of “gnosticism” is more a criticism of the processes of reflective reasoning about God rather than a doctrine on when, where, and how God discloses Himself. To that end, I distinguish myself from the Barthian stream of the topic of revelation as I accept its critique as it pertains to the intellectual reasoning about the Christian faith, but allow God’s freedom to make Himself known when, where, and how He wishes. In the case of the former, there is a crystalized, stable knowledge that is used to reason and reflect about God that persists over the course of the time, whereas in the latter case, God can simultaneously disclose Himself to the hardened as they are hardened while also breaking their hardness.

This crystalization of knowledge that is used to analyze and reflect upon the significance of the Christian faith in parts emerges as part of the process of cognitive entrenchment, where the act of intellectual study requires intense dedicated focus to specific ideas again and again. As these cognitive ideas and concepts become activated again and again in our neural structure, they became more habituated as part of thinking and eventually become taken for granted in construal and interpretation. This is good in many ways as this is part of the process of developing a cognitive mastery in a specified field that allows one to become an expert: the ideas of the field become entrenched in one’s thinking, allowing efficient dedicated of cognitive resources to more complicated and difficult questions.

While this is of great benefit in dealing with perilously difficult and abstruse questions about incredibly complicated and complex material, it is a problem when it comes to the theological understanding of God. God is not ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ in the same way that studying the history of theology is complex. While understanding God may defy easy comprehension, it is for different reasons. The plethora of materials in Christian theology creates such a complexity, whereas the “complexity” that comes in understanding God is rooted in his own distinctive holiness and transcendence that means we can not be readily understood by the patterns we observe in the world around us. Whereas the complexity of theology emerges from the source material, and thus the cognitive processes of entrenchment can serve as a benefit to more efficiently understanding the material, God is complex is virtue of natural human ignorance.

However, this difference and distinction in the reasons for such complexity and difficulty in comprehension is rarely, if ever, noted. Consequently, when developing an entrenched set of understandings that come from intellectual mastery and expertise, it is easy and tempting to transfer this mastery to knowledge about the person of God; this is especially the case if one’s mastery is something like Biblical or theological studies because both the Bible and theology take God as the primary object of understanding. However, Biblical Studies is about mastery of specific texts, that is the SCriptures, other historically relevant materials, and the secondary sources that discuss them. Theological studies is about mastery of the various theological thinkers of the past and their understandings of God. They are not about God per se.

The blurring of our mastery from one domain that leads us to believe have an understanding of God and His purposes in virtue of that entrenched, and often unconsciously so, knowledge is where we begin to move towards the social pattern of “Gnosticism” which I refer to as the gnostic impulse. It is here where we use the intellectual resources of our era to then gain a vantage point to comprehend the significance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, whenever we see an over-intellectualization of foundations of Christian faith, we are witnessing a movement that was consistent with the social pattern of gnosticism, even if it diverges in the ideological pattern of historical gnosticism.

The presence of education is not, however, a sign of the gnostic impulse. For instance, in the Logos Institute at the University of St. Andrews, there are many professors and students here who are well-trained and educated that are sympathetic to the limits of human education and expertise to understand God. Rather, gnostic impulse is evident in at least two different patterns:

1) The first pattern developmental impulse that suggests Christian faith is invalid if it does not evolve with the times. To be clear, here, I am not criticizing the idea of development within Christian theology. Sometimes there are things Christians and our specifical theological traditions have gotten wrong. However, when development towards some ethical and intellectual idea that resides in the surrounding culture is treated as a necessary criterion to be authentically faithful and Christian, you are likely dealing with a gnostic impulse that is taken some cherish intellectual idea from the society that they seek to intellectual establish within the Church. It is the cross-shaped redemption of humanity through Jesus Christ that defines the Church and presents the conditions for human faithfulness through the Holy Spirit; Christian praxis and non-kerygmatic theology emerges from that, but is never the condition of it. Any movement that treats some ethical or intellectual idea as the necessary condition for being faithful is at risk of flirting with a gnostic impulse.3

2) A division of the people based upon adherence to certain intellectual ideas that one uses to determine the superiority of one’s Christian’s status. Division within the early Church was a part of the church; some people were known to be more spiritually mature than others, as the very way the New Testament employs the metaphor of maturity and the stages of life suggest. There was no idealized vision of pure equality in the early Church. Rather, the criteria for the stages of spiritual maturity seem to be the ability to discern between good and evil. But this needs careful qualification: growth in terms of good and evil emerged through putting into practice instruction and learning from that, most notably God’s instruction. Discernment emerged from more tacit forms of learning, rather than abstract, reflective schemes. However, when the spiritual maturity of Christians is thought to be determined by their adherence to specific intellectual frameworks, at this point we are dealing with the social gnostic impulse of elitism masquerading as spirituality. The Corinthians probably evaluated maturity based upon the intellectual foundations they had, whereas Paul in 1 Corinthians 2.6-16 leads them to believe they are among the mature who he teaches wisdom to, only to switch the tables and say “you are but children because of what you do” in 3.1-4. When the acquisition of specific intellectual foundations is considered normative for determining maturity within the Church, including those intellectual foundations used to determine in a top-down what is good and evil, one is witnessing the gnostic impulse.

To be clear, these two patterns are the fruits of the gnostic impulse, not the seeds of them. Thus, this is not intended to say “If you aren’t doing either of those two things, you are not guilty of a gnostic impulse.” It is rather to identify when the gnostic impulse has permeated our Christian contexts as a social movement.

However, the gnostic impulse begins to emerge whenever we submit the significance of the cross-shaped foundations of Christian faith to the shape of various intellectual frameworks. It is the occupational hazard of Christians who seek and possess education, particularly of a level of education that allows one’s thinking to be largely uncontested and thus allow one’s thinking to crystallize and entrench itself. This particularly emerges when the education one possesses is seen as having a level above the diverse and widely distributed spiritual gifts of the Spirit that build and edify believers; when the educated defines themselves above such a work of the Spirit, it becomes easy to get entrenched. To that end, the “safest” place for a Christian intellectual to avoid the gnostic impulse is in a Christian community that takes seriously the gifts of the Spirit, whether it is formally “Charismatic” or not, where they receive and are accountable to the work of the Spirit in others that can “un-entrenched” their entrenched intellectualism.

In other words, the most powerful hedge against the ‘gnostic’ re-appropriation of the cross of Christ for other ends is the Spirit who forms the Church in conformity to the power of God demonstrated in Jesus’ cross.

Why I am not a univeralist

March 13, 2019

Christianity Today has put up article from an interview with Michael McClymond on the topic of Christian Universalism (CU) and his book The Devil’s Redemption. It is interesting reading and has put the book on my to-read list for the day that I am no longer researching for my dissertation. But amidst the theological conversation, it has provoked a simple question within me: what is it that as an aspiring Biblical am I not a universalist? In asking this question, I am not excluding theological considerations from the horizons because a person of faith can never truly separate professed theology from Scripture, as much as they might try and appear to do so on the surface.

The question is pertinent because I myself have fully transitioned away from the exclusivist view of salvation that came from my Southern Baptist, evangelical background that said that only people who had a belief in Jesus would have eternal life.1 I was motivated out of a deep sense of pain that this view had placed upon people to consider if exclusivism, or at least the branch of exclusivism that had been taught, was wrong. With this motivation in tow, I did find Scriptural reasons to consider more than the set of all believers will stand at God’s judgment. Why then, with this motivation, did I never move to universalism, but rather find universalism to contain a deep theological error and actually a form of injustice?

Now, on the surface, the answer might seem stunningly simple: because of the passages about judgment. For instance, Matthew 25.31-46, John 5.25-28, and Romans 2.6-11 point to a judgment at the arrival of the final eschaton that divide the lines between humans as those who sought what was good and those who sought what was evil. We have no Biblical mention of a further judgment that comes after that judgment. However, this answer is rooted in matters of epistemology and truth value as it relates to the theology authority of Scripture. My own rejection of universalism runs deeper than that.

So why is it that I think universalism is a problem of a deep error? For a long time, I could never express this beyond the type of answer I gave above. But it is recently that I came up with the reason. If universalism is true, then suffering for the sake of the Gospel becomes a deeper matter of injustice to those who suffer for its sake. Allow me to explain.

The idea of perseverance, endurance, and faithfulness under conditions of suffering and persecution is a prevailing theme throughout the Scriptures. It occurs in some places in the Old Testament, but it becomes a prominent them in the New Testament. According to Martin Hengel in On the Atonement, there is a sense of people who suffering and are harmed on behalf of other people in the Greco-Roman world that diffuses into Judaism such as in the Maccabean martyrology. This sense of suffering was connected to the well-being of the nation of Israel. Jesus then takes this sense of martyrdom and radically redefines it around the idea of servanthood in his own faithfulness to death. Similarly, in the Beatitudes, Jesus describes what is probably a framework for spiritual formation that climaxes with a person being a peacemaker and then suffering for righteousness sake. Thus, this form of suffering was purposive suffering on behalf of others for their benefit. This called to a purposive, self-sacrifice on behalf of others in the Gospel finds itself throughout the New Testament epistles.2

So, here is the premise: if God can and will redeem all people and if God’s people are called to suffer for the sake of the Gospel for the benefits of others, then God is asking others to take on a great pain and harm that will be otherwise accomplished without that suffering.

Imagine a boss telling his employees that they must spend the next six weeks working perilously hard in overtime, minimizing breaks, all for the sake of the companies future through a tough time they need to survive through. Then, when the deadline approaches, the boss simply presses a button on a computer that all their problems. The boss asked for people to make extreme sacrifices that could have been simply solved by pressing a button. Do you think this would be right? This scenario is much like the scenario that CU portrays: the call to suffer on behalf of the Gospel for the love of and service to others is not only unnecessary; it is deeply unfair to those who suffer.

This is not to mention that such a vision recapitulates the persistent nature of injustice in human societies: the suffering of some while those who do not suffer reap the benefits. The image of CU is actually more akin to the deep sense of injustice about Western liberalism: we will all be treated “equally” while there is the privileged class and the suffering class. But “equality” is not what Jesus preached, but rather a status reversal, where the first are last and the last are first.

On top of it, it trivializes the role of human sacrificial love. To suggest that God does what we can not is certainly an important part of orthodox Christian faith. But to suggest that what we do doesn’t REALLY matter for the sake of others is trivialization. One might be tempted to rationalize this to say “But the suffering was still good for your own soul.” But I find this to be the antithesis of Christian love, as it makes my suffering about my own formation, status, and achievement, rather than another’s well-being.

In summary, it seems to be CU recapitulates the very problems of injustice that the world already faces. It is not a solution to the problems of human injustice, but perpetuates it. The problem isn’t that God saves everyone, but how God places burdens upon people to suffer that then have no real significance for others as it would happen one way or another. A just CU would not ask people to suffer for something that will happen even if they don’t suffer. But such as a “just CU” begins to look further and further away from the Scriptural foundations as they address matters of God’s judgment, love, and justice. Thus, as an aspiring Biblical Scholar who takes Scripture seriously for my faith, CU has many deep epistemic and moral problems associated with it.

Furthermore, there are the possibilities that the modern motivations behind CU are more antagonistic in its origins. It is one way that some people express not simply their love for all people, but their antagonism towards the ideas of conservative, evangelical theology. It is a way of escaping, if not even getting a social upper-hand upon, “evangelicals.” It is common that when our intellectual efforts engaged in for what ultimately amounts to antagonistic purposes that we begin to engage in cognitive polarization and dualism, where one seeks to look as unlike one’s opponent as one can. So, CU can be embraced because it looks so different from exclusivist portrayal in conservative evangelicalism. Thus, it is certainly useful for matters of social influence, status, and persuasion, but not so much for questions of truth, justice, and love.

However, I think it is important to clarify that I don’t deem CU as heresy. I have a very narrow definition of heresy as pertains to beliefs which, if accepted, are diametrically opposed to the foundations of saving faith.3 Consequently, CU does not amount to my view of heresy. But, like the history of the Church, it operates more in the domain of heterodox belief.