Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Reader and The Text

Man, in his fallen condition, is said to be dead in his tresspasses and sins. (Eph. 2:1) As such, his mind is held captive by Satan and he is not only unwilling, but incapable of understanding the things of God. (1 Cor. 2:14) The truth that he knows about God, he willingly and ignorantly perverts. (Rom 1:18-19) To deny this fact is to deny the very word of God. This is what Scripture reveals to us about the nature of fallen man without equivocation. Outside of this startling revelation, we cannot know the real impact of sin on human nature. Hence we are in need of a remedy. Thanksfully, God has provided just such a remedy for those whom He has graciouly chosen to salvation in Christ. Redemption comes through the blood of God's very own Son. Due to the work of applied redemption, regeneration comes to us, via the gracious ministry of God the Holy Spirit. Hence, Christ's redemptive work, along with the work of this applied redemption through the Spirit, results in the possibility of knowing God intimately once again.

But there are those who argue that man is unable to attain objective knowledge about reality due the contamination of his own subjective existence. Nietzsche contended for the death of metaphysics by asserting that the world is really a network of distortions and interpretations for which no interpretation and no text provides a basis (Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, pg. 95). It was not necessarily the case that Nietzsche denied reality, but that objective knowledge of reality was beyond the grasp of man. Futhermore, this philosophy has secretly made it's way into the minds of many in the Christian community. They may not go as far as to say that we cannot know anything, but the impact of thier modified, dressed-up, so-called Christian version, has no less devastating effect on the truth of God revealed in Scripture. When men make such arrogant assertions, dressed as they may be in a false intellectual humility, the best response is to turn to Scripture for the answer. The subtle shift in the mind of the typical Christian begins with the displacement and degradation of Christian doctrine and progresses into a full-blown, reworking of orthodox Christian teachings that offend the modern and postmodern senses. But Paul adopted an entirely antithetical view to the one outlined above.
"For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God." [Eph. 5:5]
From this verse it seems rather obvious that the apostle Paul believed that we could know particular truths with certainty. The Greek syntax involved in exegeting this text is somewhat techincal, so I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that exegetes agree that the expression in question, "ISTE GINOSKONTES," indicates that we can know this particular truth with surety. And if we can know this particular truth with certainty, it follows that we can know other truth with certainty. After all, postmodern thinking has a problem with the very idea of absolute knowledge, not just that absolute knowlege about certain things may be possible. Contrary to postmodern scholars of literary theory, the text apparently contains within it, 'real meaning' apart from that which the reader brings to it. How could the believers in Ephesus know with certainty that no immoral person can inherit the kingdom of God? From whence did this knowledge come? And how can they know it for sure? I would submit that all knowledge, in order to qualify as knowledge in any sense of the word, must be certain knowledge. But since we are fallen sinners, existing in a world contaminated by sin, possessing a mind that is terribly affected by sin, how can we be sure we know anything? How can we know that the knowledge we claim to possess is not merely a projection of ourselves? Can we be sure that when we look down into the well of God's text that we are not simply looking at our own reflection? Is the text really other? If so, how do we come to know it without turning it into the same? Into what we want it to be? In effect, into us. We begin with faith, as does every other hermeneutical method and philosophy. Vern Poythress writes,
"In short, valid hermeneutical principles show the implications of God's Lordship and our servanthood. They instruct us on how to submit ourselves to what God actually says rather than reading in our own autonomous desires." [The Supremacy of God in Interpretation, 7]
Every position expresses a faith commitment to one degree or another. Modernism commits to the self-sufficincy of human reason. This philosophy argues that man is capable, apart from God, of advancing his cause on his own terms. Man can attain knowledge of truth by reason of his own intellectual dexterity. He is independent, self-sufficient, and fully capable of interpreting reality apart from revelation, and apart from God. Hence modernism expresses an unjustifiable reliance on the ability of the human being. Furthermore, the epistemoloical approaches of science and reason alone are themselves propped up by certain faith commitments, or call them foundations, or ultimate commitments, that are assumed with extreme prejudice, to be true. This reliance has managed, like nearly all misguided philosphies, to penetrate the ranks of the visible church. Arminian theology is heavily influenced by modernism's over-exaggeration of fallen man's ability to interpret reality and life apart from God.

The truth is that the "text" is a stranger among readers. The two are not the same. This being the case, the text is entitled to the kind of ethical treatment we would afford any other stranger among us. We have not the right nor the authority to treat the text any way we please. After all, this text is not just any text. It is the text of the Sovereign Divine. And we are His subjects, having a moral obligation to respect that which He has sent to us in the instrument we call the text of Scripture. Will we impose ourselves on the virtuous and holy text of God? Do we think to ourselves that we have the right to approach the text with the same light regard for it as we have for everything else in our culture? Or will we treat it with the dignity and respect that its nature demands?

Kevin J. Vanhoozer sums it up far more eloquently that I ever could:

Bereft of sound doctrine, the church is blown about by cultural fads and intellectual trends. Indeed, this has largely been the story of the church, and of theology, in the modern world. There has been an atrophying of theological muscle as a result of too many correlations and accommodations to philosophical and cultural trends. [Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical and Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, pg. 3.]
Without a Christian text, Christian theology is impossible. And without Christian theology, Christian living is impossible. Hence, without Christian living, the Christian God is reduced to irrationalism of the most profane sort. Let each one of us regard the text as holy, and the reader as fallible, sinful, selfish, contaminated with idolatrous desires which lead us away from the Creator who has full right to our obedience in all places, at all times, and in all circumstances.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Regarding the Text

Over the course of my life I have experienced tremendous transformation. I suppose the one constant in humans in general, is change. But the kind of transformation I have experienced is distinctly rooted in the teachings of the Christian community. Specifically, my change is the product of the impact of the activity of the Holy Spirit as He has graciously and efficaciously illumined my mind to the content of Sacred Scripture. I was regenerated at the age of 14. The outward conversion of this regeneration initially expressed itself at the Crawley Creek Church of God in Crawley Creek, W.V. For a time my beliefs were closely aligned with Classic Pentecostal theology. Very early on I was instructed to make God’s word my only standard against which I should measure my understanding of the biblical text. As I engaged in this practice, I slowly drifted away from one Pentecostal distinctive after another until I no longer held enough in common with that theological system to continue referring to myself as distinctly Pentecostal.

But my transformation wasn’t complete. I was still a staunch Arminian. The transformation from Arminianism to Calvinism took much longer to complete. But gradually it came just as my move out of Classical Pentecostalism. The common thread that produced this change is best articulated by Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s book: Is There a Meaning in This Text? Dr. Vanhoozer talks about interpretive virtues. Outside of the core virtues of faith, hope, and love, he distinguishes the virtues of honesty, openness, attention, and obedience as the four necessary virtues for ethical treatment of the biblical text. I think it right in his proposition.

The word ‘regard’ has a range of meaning in the English language. Here I wish to use it in the sense of respect and affection or esteem. As I look back at my transformational experiences (which are continuing to this day), I attribute them to the activity of the Holy Spirit by which He created within me a desire for truth and a willingness to surrender my most cherished beliefs in exchange for complete and total submission to the biblical text (and no, I am not there yet). I first had to accept the fact that normative thinking and living were defined by the sacred text alone. Moreover, if one is to order their life according to that which is really true, then admitting that neither you, nor your understanding is the actual standard from which truth emanates is essential. Hence a fresh appreciation for the nature of the biblical text was called for in my case. I had to be honest about my biases that I brought to the text when I was in it. I had to admit that I could be wrong and this required a new level of openness. This required that I return to paying strict attention to the biblical text as I engaged it. This was a “starting over” for me in terms of my theological views. I have since learned that good interpreters of the biblical text start over every time they enter it. Finally, I had to learn to read the text the way the author actually intended. By learning how to approach the text in this manner, I became more sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit in my mind and heart and as a result, transformation has become a way of life for me ever since. In fact, transformation is the Christian way of life.

It is my conviction that the Bible as a text is the text of God Himself. It has God as its ultimate author and creator and man as the agent through which He brought it into existence. By using man in this way, God intended to communicate to us in various genres, using a variety of literary styles and devices along the way that we are capable of adequately apprehend. But this variety requires that we pay due attention as we interact with the text. And paying attention requires mental discipline, something our culture terribly lacks. Perhaps this is why I am commanded to love the Lord my God with my whole mind.

There is a laxity around hermeneutics in the Christian community in modern times. A casual attitude with regard to how we approach the sacred text of God that would almost lead one to believe that people really don’t view the text as sacred, but common. I think this is partially attributable to the cultural prevalence of the idea that we should not take anything too seriously, and partly to an abuse of grace that permeates the church. The former can be attributed to the autonomous desires at the bottom of post-modern thought, while the later is mostly attributable to a deficient anthropology brought on by misguided Pelagian thinking and compounded by the idea of libertarian free-will in Arminian theology. Somehow we have adopted the view that grace equates laxity. Since God is so loving and merciful, kind, longsuffering and filled with grace, it matters not how badly we behave, He will dismiss it, understanding that we are just fallen, broken sinners. Hence the love of God displaces the justice of God. Much of this has to do with intellectual apathy. Our culture is a lazy culture when it comes to the discipline of critical thinking. It is my opinion that one of the reasons people reject the abstract and criticize those who do exercise their intellectual gift is because they are lazy. I hear it almost every time I teach. Knowledge for knowledge sake is bad. Or, the Bible has to get to your heart, not just your head. And while these statements are true, the fact that I hear them so often causes me to pause, if for no other reason than that we are living in an age when biblical ineptness is at historic highs. We interact with the biblical text in an effort to arrive at its meaning, that meaning intended by its author. This is, after all, the hermeneutical imperative. And once we understand the meaning of the text (illocution), we appropriate it to our hearts and lives (perlocution). It is in appropriation of the meaning of the text that Scripture transforms the reader. But without an adequate understanding of what the text says, transformation is impossible. Hence a right understanding of the biblical text is a fundamental prerequisite to experiencing biblical transformation in life. Knowledge is indispensible to wisdom. Moreover, without a healthy regard for the biblical text, our approach to it will not yield the kind of understanding adequate to produce profound transformation. In this sense, regard for the biblical text is the starting point for what, in the final analysis, is a radically transformed life. We need radical transformation in order to understand the text that radically transforms. Yes, this is circular reasoning, but the circle is not vicious. And in the end, all human reason is circular.

In the end, one must decide who is master and who is servant. Is the biblical text, God’s self-disclosed revelation, Master over your reading? Or are you, the reader, Master over the biblical text. Is the text there to serve the reader? Does the reader have the ethical “right” to find whatever meaning in the text they wish to find? In this sense meaning is no longer discovered, but created. But creating belongs to God. I submit that the reader is to serve the text, to respect it and regard it for what it is. The aim of the reader is to humbly approach the text for the other that it is. The text is God’s truth and as such is there to transform lives by imparting a living knowledge that is to be lived! Unless the text is handled with great regard, we run the risk of not only violating the sacred other, but of also nullifying its transformative intent. We invalidate the word of God through our interpretive autonomy (Matt. 15:6).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reformation Rhetoric

Of Bearing The Cross - One Branch of Self-Denial
John Calvin

1. THE pious mind must ascend still higher, namely, whither Christ calls his disciples when he says, that every one of them must “take up his cross,” (Mt. 16:24). Those whom the Lord has chosen and honoured with his intercourse must prepare for a hard, laborious, troubled life, a life full of many and various kinds of evils; it being the will of our heavenly Father to exercise his people in this way while putting them to the proof. Having begun this course with Christ the first-born, he continues it towards all his children. For though that Son was dear to him above others, the Son in whom he was “well pleased,” yet we see, that far from being treated gently and indulgently, we may say, that not only was he subjected to a perpetual cross while he dwelt on earth, but his whole life was nothing else than a kind of perpetual cross. The Apostle assigns the reason, “Though he was a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered,” (Heb. 5:8). Why then should we exempt ourselves from that condition to which Christ our Head behoved to submit; especially since he submitted on our account, that he might in his own person exhibit a model of patience? Wherefore, the Apostle declares, that all the children of God are destined to be conformed to him. Hence it affords us great consolation in hard and difficult circumstances, which men deem evil and adverse, to think that we are holding fellowship with the sufferings of Christ; that as he passed to celestial glory through a labyrinth of many woes, so we too are conducted thither through various tribulations. For, in another passage, Paul himself thus speaks, “we must through much tribulation enter the kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22); and again, “that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death,” (Rom 8:29). How powerfully should it soften the bitterness of the cross, to think that the more we are afflicted with adversity, the surer we are made of our fellowship with Christ; by communion with whom our sufferings are not only blessed to us, but tend greatly to the furtherance of our salvation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Deconstructioinism: Theology's Black Hole

Realism is the metaphysical position which asserts that certain things are mind independent. Hermeneutical realism is the position that believes meaning to be prior to and independent of the process of interpretation. For example, take Gilbert Kaplan’s recordings of Gustav Mahler. Gilbert Kaplan was an American business man, former journalist, and amateur conductor. Kaplan was so wealthy that he was able to teach himself how to conduct, and to hire, his own orchestra. He had a passion for authenticity. He desired to recover the original works of great composers like Gustav Mahler. He hired his own orchestra to perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. After studying Mahler’s manuscript (which had cost him $300,000) he reinserted an F-note which had been emended to E-flat by conductors before him. Kaplan was clear, “My goal was to come as close as possible to what Mahler had in mind.” Kaplan also came to believe that Mahler’s famous Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony was actually not a dirge as so many before him thought. Instead, he saw in it an expression of love. He stated, “All I’m saying is that this piece has to be played in a way that is consistent with the composer’s intention. It’s not just enough to read the score.”

So it is with the task of hermeneutics. Our goal in examining the biblical text is to recover the meaning intended by the original composers of the sacred text itself. However, there is a toxic poison that has entered the interpretive landscape. This poison denies the slightest possibility that anyone can get to the intended meaning of the author. This is because such a meaning doesn’t really exist. In her work, The Comical Doctrine: An Epistemology of New Testament Hermeneutics, Roselind Shelby wrote,
“The ontological dimension is presupposed—that nothing short of realism is adequate in Christian theology and idealism can only arrogate to the human mind decisions which it is not entitled nor qualified to make.” [Selby, R. M. (2006). Comical Doctrine: An Epistemology of New Testament Hermeneutics (11). Milton Keynes: Paternoster]
 Yet for the hermeneutic non-realist,
"There are no facts, only interpretations." [Neitzsche, Will to Power, par. 481]
E.D. Hirsch, a champion for the determinacy of meaning in a text writes,
"A word sequence means nothing in particular until somebody means something by it...There is no magic land of meaning outside human consciousness." [Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, pg. 4]
I stated at the very onset of this blog that Hermeneutical realism is the position that believes meaning to be prior to and independent of the process of interpretation. For non-realism, which is what Shelby criticizes in her remarks above,
"human language and thoughts do not correspond to the objective realities or to stable meanings. What we cavalierly call “reality” is rather a human construction, at least in part." [Shelby, 48-49]
If this is true, then truth itself vanishes from the scene. All that is left are signs and texts which come from nowhere and lead to nowhere. Humans become enslaved to some mysterious form of communication, about which they know nothing. All they can do is exist in this state without any hope of arriving at any meaningful understanding of what it is to be human in the first place. As one writer put it,
“The doctrine largely imported from Paris would have it that persons are simply linguistically encoded machines and that, far from being the impresarios of language, they are its slaves.” [Scott, The New Trahison des Clercsi, 417]
Hence, the metaphysics of meaning are destroyed by this idea. There is no longer a meaning in the text. The author dies, along with his authority to control the meaning of his own text. Hence, the text itself becomes a playground for the reader to take as much liberty with it as he or she pleases. In effect, the authority of the author must make way for the autonomy of the reader. No longer will the reader be enslaved to the traditional idea that interpretation involves a slow, tedious, and methodical process of getting to the intended meaning of the author! Moreover, the reader will no longer be a slave to the principle of single meaning. Instead, the reader is liberated to use the text, in whatever way they please, to enhance their life in whatever way they please. Truly, in deconstructionism, it is all about the reader! But while deconstructionism promises liberty, what it delivers is quite the contrary. It would appear that the reader has simply exchanged one prison for another. He has moved from the prison of author authoritarianism to the prison of meaningless and an authoritarianism about which he can know nothing other than the fact that he is a prisoner and that any hope for escape is futile.

As one might imagine, such views spell doom for Christian theology. Like a black hole that destroys everything it touches, deconstructionism destroys every text and all meaning that lay within its path. Moreover, the fact that it is coupled with the powerfully seductive force of reader autonomy makes it a formidable foe for any defender of biblical truth. William Robertson Smith was tried for heresy because he denied the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. He was removed from his professorial chair in Aberdeen in the late nineteenth century. Those responsible for his removal seemed to understand this basic principle all too well: without authors, texts have neither authority nor determining sense. The death of the author has grave consequences for biblical truth and authority. Without the authoritative revelation in the text, we have no stable, reliable knowledge or understanding of God. And without any reliable understanding of God, there is no understanding of self. And if hermeneutics is about self understanding as much as it is about understanding the other, then it follows that hermeneutics becomes an impossible task. Hence, it follows that if hermeneutics is impossible, theology becomes a field littered with relative ideas and speculations about God, none of which are reliable, let alone authoritative. Theology is sucked into the black hole of deconstructionism.

But this seems quite alright with those who argue as of late that doctrine or theology is unimportant. What really matters is relationships! But there is a glaring inconsistency in this view. For the very fact that relationships are important is itself built upon the abstract notion that humans, above everything else, are relational beings designed to relate to one another in very specific ways.

Truth is unavoidable. This is due to the nature and fidelity of God. After all, this is HIS creation and it bears HIS fingerprint. Try as we may, human beings will never be able to erase the fingerprint of God from anything in His creation, most especially, His most valued creation; mankind, whom He created in His very own image and His very own likeness.

Grant R. Osborne writes,
“Yet human efforts can never properly divine the true message of the Word of God. While Karl Barth wrongly taught that Scripture possesses only instrumental authority, he was certainly correct that it speaks to humanity through divinely controlled “flashes of insight.” We must depend on God and not just on humanly derived hermeneutical principles when studying the Bible.” [Osborne, G. R. (2006). The hermeneutical spiral : A comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation ]
What is needed for an understanding of truth, of God, of self, is faith: the kind of faith that is the result of God’s regenerating power. Secondly, divine illumination of the Spirit must provide the necessary foundation upon which to build an adequate knowledge of God, self and reality.

"What we have in God is an agency and intelligence that stands outside language and controls it, making sure that words correspond to the world and guaranteeing the reliability and truth of speech." [Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?]
 The apostle Peter warned that anyone found guilty of twisting the intended meaning of the author, Paul, did so to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). In interpreting Christian Scripture we are bound by a higher ethic; a hermeneutical ethic which translates into a regard and respect for the text and the intended meaning of its author. The great commandment, “You shall not bear false witness” comes to mind when I think about how we are witnessing to the meaning of any given text of Scripture. When we bear false witness against the Scripture, we are bearing false witness against God. The words mh genoitai come to mind: may it never be!

In the final analysis, the main goal of hermeneutics is communion with God. This is not an exercise of the purely abstract. What good is it to understand what one should do if one in fact does not do it or even intend to do it? Zimmerman writes,
“Thus a proposition in the biblical text can be fully understood only when it is grasped in light of the meaning the divine author gave it: and this meaning is always one that demands the context of communion with the Divine. Understanding does not merely entail the grasping of propositions but includes their appropriation. Both the understanding and the general attitude toward the text must be changed before a genuine dialogue with the Divine is possible.” [Zimmerman, Recovering Theological Hermeneutics, 106-107]
In order to truly understand the meaning of the biblical text, it must be appropriated, and weaved into our thinking and actions. Otherwise we truly do not understand it. And this requires the work of the Holy Spirit who creates within the human being the capacity for faith. Augustine said “I believe in order to understand.” Vanhoozer writes,
“Interpreting Scripture theologically involves more than dealing with biblical words, more even than rules for textual interpretation. Interpreters must have receptive sprits as well, a possibility that depends on the work of the Holy Spirit.” [Vanhoozer, First Theology, 11.]
Deconstructionism then is the desire for absolute literary autonomy. What needs to be understood is that autonomy, in order for it to be true autonomy, must be total. That is to say, it must extend to every area of the human person. Any authoritarian elements always risk the loss of, not just some autonomy, but of total autonomy. Moveover, autonomy by definition must be total, otherwise it isn't autonomy. What deconstructionism is most concerned about is the metaphysical impulse to totalize. Totalizing sets out to acheive a unified perspective, to gain mastery over something by reducing it to the size of something one can grasp. [Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in the Text?] Derrida and Neitzsche held that the desire for totalizing was a desire for power. Then reason deconstrucitonism resists "the author" is because it rightfully views authorship as an authoritarian concept to which it does not wish to submit. Hence the ultimate desire of deconstructionism is to undergird the human desire for absolute independence, or autonomy.

James 4:7-10 provides us with clear instructions regarding autonomy: 1) Submit to God; 2) Resist the devil; 3) Draw near to God; 4) Cleanse your hands; 5) Purify your hearts 6) Do not be found rejoicing in your ungodliness; 7) Humble yourselves in the presense of the Lord!

The goal of hermeneutics is recovering the intended meaning of the biblical text. The goal of understanding the meaning of the biblical text is to develop a system of right beliefs, which we call theology. The goal of theology is praxis. That is to say, it is to practice right beliefs in our daily thinking and acting in all matters. The reason wrong beliefs are so dangerous is not only because they run the risk of bearing false witness against the revealed truth of the biblical text, but because people practice what they believe and if their belief is wrong it follows that their practice will be as well. Oswald Chambers says it well:
"We are not meant to spend our lives in the domain of intellectual thinking. A Christian’s thinking ought never to be in reflection, but in activities. The philosopher says, “I must isolate myself and think things out”; he is like a spider who spins his web and only catches flies. We come to right discernment in activities; thinking is meant to regulate the doing. Our destiny as spiritual men and women is the same as our destiny as natural men and women, viz., practical, from which destiny there is no escape." [Chambers, O. (1996). The Moral Foundation of Life, pg. 189]