Monday, March 18, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: Prolegomena Part 2

In my last post we began our prolegomena by sketching a doctrine of Scripture. In today's post we will look at some issues regarding hermeneutics. As I concluded in the last post, our job is to listen to the Scriptures. That stresses both posture and effort. This post will be a little technical. I apologize for that, but it is a technical topic.

I have learned a great deal from a variety of stances that could loosely be gathered under the heading of post-modern literary criticism. The biggest gain I see is the emphasis on voice and power. Whose voice are we hearing when we read a text? So often it's our own, or the voice of the tradition or social group we have aligned ourselves with. How, then, are these different voices using the text for their own ends? How do we think the author was using the text for his or her own end? The moment we begin to use Scripture for our own power plays we lose all hope of hearing God speak through it. Scripture is something to be listened to, together. For community, in all of its diversity and messiness, is the best safeguard against usurping the text of the Bible for our own ends.[1] At its heart, listening is about reading as well as possible, while hoping to encounter God. Philosophy of language and applied linguistics have given us some tools to help us read well.

A major breakthrough over the last fifty years in the philosophy of language is the realization that speech, oral or written, is an action. Human being write and say things for reasons. They are trying to do or accomplish certain things with their words. These intentional actions are part of the meaning of what we say and write. Utterances and writings mean things because by them we express intentional (psychological) states.[2]  That's another way of saying that utterances mean what speakers intend them to mean.

Therefore, if we want to understand what has been written, we must pay attention to the three elements of every utterance: the locutions, illocutions, and perlocutions of the texts as wholes.[3] Locutions refer to the propositional content of an utterance. If I say, 'the kitchen is clean,' then the propositional content is that the kitchen is clean. What am I trying to do by making that utterance (or what is my illocutionary force)? Am I using that propositional content to make an assertion or a complaint or both or something else? Last, look at the impact of the text. How do you feel reading it in context? What did the text accomplish? The significance of a text or utterance is part of the meaning (although certainly in a somewhat different sense). Also, when dealing with ancient texts we must ask how the earliest audience understand the text. Often reception history, especially during the first couple of centuries CE, is a clue back into what the author was trying to do with the text. To paraphrase Markus Bockmuehl, to understand what happened, look at what happened next and work your way backwards.[4] All of this must be taken into account to understand what a text means. Progressing through a text word by word seeking to understand lexical meaning is inadequate. Texts must be understood at the level of discourse and discourses are made up of speech acts.[5]

Everything I've said is all well and good but we will run into a few roadblocks that require us to be careful. We are not the intended recipients of any biblical text. It was written to someone else and intended to participate in some sort of conversation that we are not part of. We may not even know who either the author or the intended audience was. How then can we proceed?

Two things help us substantially. First, most speech acts have conventional ways of being performed. The text as it is should contain much of the material we need to properly interpret it. The author should, generally, make his aims clear.[6] We are not looking at detached fragments but at complete works. Bringing in literary tools appropriate to the genre will help us situate the individual utterances as a whole. Second, and most critical, we must do studies on background and comparative work. We must compare biblical texts to other similar biblical texts and to other texts both from within and without the Judeo-Christian tradition that are contemporary with the text we are studying. This will provide us with a range of possible uses for a given text, ruling out certain interpretations. For example, I firmly believe that when Romans is compared with both Jewish and Greco-Roman ethical treatises and when one understands first century Jewish attitudes towards the law and righteousness, it becomes clear that both traditional Catholic and Protestant interpretations, particularly of the first four chapters, are impossible.

Once we have understood both the literal content of the text and the aim of the author, we are left to react. We must ask, what is the proper response to the text?[7] How do we live and put into action what we hear God speaking to us when he makes the word come alive to us. As Vanhoozer has put it, how do we individually and collectively improvise on the text as we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit? Any interpretation that stops short of this point is incomplete.

For Further Reading:

On Biblical Hermeneutics:
Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works with New Essays by Anthony Thiselton
Essays on Biblical Interrpetation by Paul Ricoeur

On Speech Act Theory and Related Philosophical Issues:
Speech Acts - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Intentionality: An Essay in Philosophy of Mind by John Searle
Foundations of Illocutionary Logic John Searle and Daniel Vanderveken
Logics of Conversation by Nicholas Asher and Alex Lascarides**

[1] And by community, I don't have in mind only the level of the local church, but the church as a whole, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.

[2] Though the challenge to this view by Asher and Lascarides needs to be considered, modification here doesn't overthrow my overall argument.

[3] Here I think Asher and Lascarides - against Searle - are on the right track by insisting that we must view individual speech acts as contributing to a conversation and that the conversation is the basic unit of meaning.

[4] This paraphrase is from a line in Simon Peter in Scripture and Memory that I am unable to track down at the moment.

[5] In my own analysis I will be doing speech act analysis and inserting it into a discourse analysis that is in the spirit of SDRT as outlined by Asher and Lascarides. I will not make the analysis explicit in my writing on this blog but it will lie behind my presentations of my exegetical work.

[6] Even ironic texts like (I believe) the Song of Songs do make their intentions clear at points, otherwise even the original audience would miss the point. It gets dicier with satire.

[7] Is the proper reaction ever repudiation or a refusal to follow the leading of a text? I am not sure, but it's hard to see how not to push back against certain texts like Proverbs 31 or Ezra 9-10, for example. Resisting a biblical text is not something to take lightly and we must listen hard to hear how God might still speak to us through it. One would also have to make a convincing biblical argument against the said text. But I do not see any apriori reason why God could not move us in a direction in conflict with a 'problematic passage' just as the apostles were so moved at the Jerusalem council.

** Note: This work is extremely technical and is intended for specialists only.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Exploring the Christian Way of Life: Prolegomena Part 1

As I mentioned in the introduction last week, I intend to write a theology that is centered on Jesus, and I also took shots at the dominance of prolegomena in Christian theology. Among other things, prolegomena often includes discussion of hermeneutics and doctrine of Scripture. Hermeneutics is interesting but I don't see it as actually being a theological topic. Doctrine of Scripture is important, but I don't believe that the beginning is the place for full length treatment. At the same time, I do believe I need to inform my readers of how I approach Scripture at the start, as that will have an impact on the use of Scripture in developing theology. Part one of my prolegomena will lay out the basics of my doctrine of Scripture. Wednesday I will post part two, which will cover hermeneutics.

When one reads Karl Barth there sometimes is some confusion. Is Scripture the word of God or isn't it? The answer depends on what you mean by the word of God. What is the word of God? Is Scripture that? In what sense is the Bible inspired? How does Scripture function authoritatively? Below I will briefly outline my views with minimal defense. I am deeply indebted to Barth so I would commend you to his very full discussion in Church Dogmatics I.1 and I.2.

We will pick up those questions in order. The word of God is the self revelation of God. Or as Barth puts it, "God's Word is God Himself in His revelation."[1] Drawing from John 1, the word of God is God the Son, and in the incarnation, Jesus. Any encounter we have with the word of God is an encounter with the second person of the Trinity and an encounter that will not leave us unchanged. In this sense, it would be odd to call Scripture the word of God. Instead, I would say that Scripture is the authoritative witness to past revelation, authenticated by God and his primary means to continue to speak today. Scripture itself isn't the word of God, but it often does become it when God the Holy Spirit uses it to speak to us; when he actualizes it as God's word to us as a people and as individuals.

That brings us to the third question. Working from this understanding of the nature of Scripture and the word of God it becomes clear that the Bible does not possess the same ontological status or character as God the Son. Scripture is inspired as a witness to the word of God.[2] It arises from certain experiences that people in the past had of the Word of God. God revealed himself to them and they wrote what they heard and experienced. Scripture is inspired because the people who wrote, wrote in response to an experience of the living God. Inspiration is of the person, not something directly tied to the process of writing as is assumed under the popular notions of inspiration. The Bible is the primary inspired witness to revelation. 

The authority Scripture possesses, then, is derivative and must be subordinated to the authority of Jesus Christ himself, the head of the church. However, since it is the authoritative record of past revelation and the means that God uses to facilitate revelation today, there needs to be an attentiveness to it, a humility in approaching it, and a general respect for it. Our job is to listen to Scripture hoping to hear God speak afresh today. The process of listening isn't simple and a matter of plainly, 'putting into practice what the Bible says,' but an exploration of how to listen to the Bible is the topic of our next post.

For further reading: 
Church Dogmatcis Volumes I.1 and I.2 by Karl Barth

[1] Church Dogmatics Vol I.1 p. 295.

[2] As an aside, I believe this is what makes the doctrine of inerrancy unnecessary. The Bible isn't trying to give a perfect history in the modern sense. It's trying to witness to the character and actions of God. Of course this isn't always separable from history, but errors and contradictions in the text don't necessarily undermine the portrait of God revealed in the text. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Johannine Resources

As I mentioned previously, I am going to be starting work on the gospel of John soon. There seem to be a lot of very solid resources out there. For those of you who have done significant study, what commentaries would you recommend? Also what monographs should I read on important topics related to John?

For commentaries, I own the following: Brown, SloyanCarson, Keener, McHugh, and Michaels. I will shortly be purchasing the just released translation of Cyril of Alexander's commentary.

I am strongly considering: Calvin, Bultmann, Moloney, and Lincoln.

Any other suggestions? Any of these you think are a waste of time?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Trying to Navigate Heterosexual, Sexual Ethics

If you're on Google+ and know me personally you may have seen a couple of recent articles I linked to and made brief comments on. I have a fair amount of frustration with the predominate approach of conservative Evangelicals in heterosexual sexual ethics (I also have frustration with their homosexual sexual ethics too, but that's for another time). In this post I want to briefly outline what I view as problems and try to work toward some solutions.

Often, conservative Evangelical sexual ethics are patriarchal and dehumanizing. When a man looks at a woman with desire, it's very easy to turn her into an object of sexual desire (I assume the same is true when women look at men, but of course I can't know for sure) and fail to see her as a person who should not be violated in that way. It's dehumanizing. He's guilty of two sins, lust and dehumanizing the woman. Typically, Evangelical sexual ethics only deals with one of the two sins, and honestly the less important of the two. The way Evangelical sexual ethics typically work (implicitly not explicitly), it grants that women are sexual objects as a premise and then moves from there. The primary strategy is avoidance. Don't talk to women or even look at them. You don't want to be tempted by them to lust. Women, cover up your bodies, don't wear skirts above the knee, short shorts, bikinis, or pants that are too tight. This goes whether you're married or single. It doesn't matter if your husband would enjoy seeing you in a bikini at the beach. It's important that you control others' behavior. Their purity is in part your responsibility. After all, your body is the playground of their desires and you need to keep them off of it.

The situation gets even worse when we get to the emphasis on purity. The value of a woman to potential husbands is partially determined by her degree of purity before marriage. I find that so appalling that I don't even know how to respond. Jesus accepts us and draws us into union with him without requiring perfection in any area, why can't men do the same? The other issue in all of this is that it lets men off easy. There's no real change that has to happen here. Just avoid the temptation. It doesn't matter what the implications of your action are. There's also a double standard here. Unless they're pastors or elders, male sexual misconduct like watching pornography, while condemned, is almost assumed to have happened.

How do we go forward? Men need to take primary responsibility for their conduct. In my deconstruction above I am not advocating anything goes in terms of attire or sexual behavior. Women shouldn't dress with the intention of being sexually enticing or seductive (this is different from trying to be attractive or beautiful) to someone who isn't their spouse. But if you garner some looks from men, that's ok, it's not shameful. They're responsible for their own actions. You should not want to stumble someone, but in normal settings (i.e., not bars or nightclubs), few women (granted I do believe that number is growing) objectify themselves to the degree that stumbling others is unavoidable.

The focus needs to shift from purity to treating one another with dignity. This includes the manner in which a man looks at a woman and in which he doesn't look at a woman. There is nothing wrong with noticing the physical beauty of the person; it's an integral part of who they are. It's what happens from there that can become a problem. We need to have our vision and desire transformed so that we can interact with women in a way that treats them as people with inherent value, not as sexual objects. Avoidance strategies need to be tossed in the garbage. We need to begin the truly hard work of honoring one another above ourselves and mortifying our sexual impulse.