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.

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