Having taken the award for most time betwixt two portions of a book review, I’ll round out the summary of Westphal’s book Whose Community? Which Interpretation? and conclude with some critical reflections. With chapter six Westphal commences his presentation of Gadamer’s view of interpretation, underscoring Gadamer’s notion of tradition:
We belong to tradition by virtue of our thrownness into it, our immersion in it, and our formation by it. This is an ontological claim about our being and an epistemological claim about our understanding of ourselves and our world (70).
Westphal notes three features of the role of tradition: 1) it enables the enterprise of human thought by giving us a place from which we can explore and attempt to understand the world; 2) each of us is shaped by multiple traditions; 3) tradition cultivates prejudice, or pre-judgment, rendering every interpretation of a text “relative to the traditions that have formed the perspectives and presuppositions that guide it,” though this doesn’t entail “anything goes” relativism as some interpretations remain more illuminating than others (71). Westphal also unfolds three theses that are corollaries of Gadamer’s take on tradition: 1) the alterity thesis (texts are voices with an otherness from which we must be willing to learn); 2) the authority thesis (the traditions that shape us deserve a measure of respect and deference); 3) the fallibility thesis (the traditions that shape us are subject to error and may be critiqued and revised over time).
The seventh chapter centers on the inescapability of the relativity of the reader. Authors, say Gadamer and Westphal, cannot free readers from their relativity for two reasons: 1) authors are unable to deliver determinate textual meaning because they lack the wherewithal to discern fully what it is they’ve actually written; 2) authors can’t deliver determinate textual meaning because the power of tradition is ever unconsciously operative in the author’s labors, which reinforces the author’s limitations indicated under reason one. Similarly, while method remains important, it too cannot rescue readers from their relativity for several reasons: 1) the emphasis on deploying a scientific method itself arises under the contingency of a particular tradition; 2) rigorous application of method can lead us to honor only our own conclusions and thus blind us to the findings of others; 3) total distanciation is impossible for us since we remain situated within our traditions.
In chapter eight, Westphal highlights Gadamer’s appeal to the humanist tradition. Probably the most significant item here lies in the proposition that the being of a thing reaches its full flowering only when it is understood by human knowers. The presentation of something “does not stand like a copy next to the real world, but is that world in the heightened truth of its being” (95). Indeed, “[t]o be is to be shown, manifested, revealed” (96). For texts in particular, this means that interpretation belongs to the very nature of the text.
I’m in between two parts of a review of Merold Westphal’s introduction to philosophical hermeneutics and have been reflecting on the importance of approaching Scripture according to its peculiar nature and subject matter, whatever may be gleaned from a general theory of texts and textual interpretation. In keeping with those musings, I came across this comment from Irish Puritan James Ussher (1581-1656) in his defense of the clarity of Scripture:
Scripture is our Father’s Letter unto us, and his last Will to show us what Inheritance he leaveth us. But Friends write Letters, and Fathers their wills, plain (A Body of Divinity [Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007], p. 18).
Ussher gestures toward something that we would do well to remember in a time when we are keen to avoid the appearance of epistemic arrogance or crudeness, namely, that the Bible is a covenantal book originated and commandeered by someone who actually wants us to understand it and, indeed, as our Creator and Lord, is eminently capable of accomodating his speech to the human intellect. The subject matter, the divine authorship, and the redemptive, covenantal telos of Scripture compel an admission of its perspicuity, even in an era rather skeptical of human noetic prowess. To vie for the possibility of real textual understanding vis-a-vis the biblical texts is not to sink into “modernism” but to think theologically about Scripture and to keep in step with the emphases of classic Protestant bibliology.
In the volume Life in the Spirit (see previous post), Bruce Hindmarsh suggests that evangelicalism be seen as a school of spirituality. I think this is interesting. I think this kind of delineation would explain why evangelicalism seems to be more interested in lifestyle and experience than in doctrine. What do we think about this? I think there is a lot of traction in seeing evangelicalism as a school of spirituality rather than a school of doctrine or a sociological movement building on the revivals or something like that. If this is right, it makes sense that we see a return to Spiritual classics, since those were the very texts used to start this school. When we read Scougal, Wesley, Edwards, etc., we are seeing reflection on Fenelon, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Thomas a’ Kempis.
I wonder if this could help to explain why evangelicalism has always seemed to stand at ends with dogmatic theology and much of Reformed/Lutheran theology/ecclesiology? Is there a sense where this school bought into the idea that this spirituality, rather than being monastic was supposed to saturate life (be the city on the hill) and also attract outsiders?
I’m still thinking about this but would love to hear some thoughts. What are the downsides to this kind of categorization? Upsides?
I read a paper in Glasgow at a conference last year which is now being turned into a book. My paper was on the beatific vision in Jonathan Edwards, and as I revisit the topic I’ve been thinking more and more about the tradition which uses the beatific as an organizing principle. I wanted to start a conversation here about this kind of teleology of the Christian life. What are its upsides? What are the pitfalls? Richard Bauckham notes that this tradition can lead to an individualized and intellectualized account of glory, and by implication, life under God in general, but notes that this isn’t necessary. What are the competing options, and do those offer a more holistic account of the Christian life?
This volume is Westphal’s contribution to Baker’s The Church and Postmodern Culture series, edited by James K. A. Smith. For those interested, the series’ namesake blog can be found here. Westphal announces in the preface his hope that the book will prove beneficial to academic theologians, pastors, and lay persons, whose labors in biblical interpretation tend, respectively, to be written (i.e., published), oral (i.e., preached), and silent (i.e., developed in private Bible study). The subtitle, Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, is indicative of the author’s aim to explore potential contributions of philosophical reflection on interpretation in service to the ecclesial task of attending to Scripture. Westphal defends his foray into the realm of philosophical theory by suggesting that, when theology resists acquaintance with philosophy, it is then most susceptible to being unwittingly ensnared by a particular philosophical tradition. Moreover, he says, philosophical hermeneutics may well possess positive resources for the project of biblical interpretation. As one of Westphal’s purposes is to familiarize readers with the influence of presuppositions in interpretation without sliding into relativism, the preface also anticipates charting a course between “hermeneutical despair (‘anything goes’)” and “hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation).”
In the first chapter Westphal chides naïve realism’s “claim to immediacy” in understanding reality in general and textual meaning in particular. He suggests that no one denies realism’s fundamental acknowledgment of mind-independent reality but invokes Kant to caution against claiming that said reality is pristinely mirrored in the mind of the knowing subject. For Kant (and, apparently, Westphal), the external world is filtered through the mediating categories of the human mind; the act of “just seeing” belongs to God alone. Against realism’s intuitive grasp of things in themselves, Westphal avers that, in view of human finitude, “theists…have a sound theological reason for being Kantian antirealists” (19). Though he sympathizes with the desire to deny the inevitability of interpretation in the name of preserving objectivity in knowledge, Westphal has in mind to curb the “rush to immediacy,” using the story of the elephant and the blind men to underscore that perspectival diversity can signal complementarity rather than relativism.
The spring issue of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology is out. Kyle and I have reviews in it, but I guarantee neither of us said anything remotely as cheeky as Oliver O’Donovan in his review of John Milbank’s latest book, The Future of Love. Ouch!
Given how much Milbank’s thought revolves around the themes of beauty, art, and the poetic work of thought, it is strange that he should constantly express himself in prose that is ill-formed, congested, and inexpressive, giving the appearance of being simply spilled onto the page. `One should exhibit and offer a ruin’, he tells us, justifying the incomplete character of his thought. As those who live in Scotland have reason to know, ruins may be beautiful; Milbank’s, most of the time, are not (p. 107).
Other reviews of note are D. Stephen Long’s devastating review of Jay Richards Money, Greed, and God, Kim Fabricius’ punchy review of Michael Pasquarello’s We Speak Because We Were First Spoken, and I. Howard Marshall’s review of a new introduction to the New Testament.
Mention of the two kingdoms schema of the Christ-culture relation often educes among evangelicals two judgments: 1) the two kingdoms doctrine is peculiarly the stuff of Lutheran theology and 2) it is seriously inadequate with respect to understanding the biblical concept of the kingdom of God and prodding Christians properly to discharge their duty to influence society. In other words, it lacks credentials vis-à-vis catholicity, biblical theology, and theological ethics. For example, in D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, the section devoted to the two kingdoms doctrine is entitled “Luther and His Heirs” and expresses concern about the doctrine undermining “a unifying approach to knowledge” and either pushing Christians out of the public square or legitimizing a state church (pp. 210-12). N. T. Wright is more severe in his criticism, musing that traditional interpreters of Paul doubt Wright’s exegesis because Luther’s two kingdoms theology has suppressed the Pauline notion of ecclesial unity as a politically suggestive witness to the powers (Justification, pp. 173-74). Add to this mix the fact that a younger generation (my generation) of Christians has fiercely taken an interest in the concept and pursuit of “social justice” and we have a seemingly unstoppable impetus against the two kingdoms framework. “Christ the transformer of culture” is the more attractive option these days.
Regarding the historical theology dimension of the discussion, it is worth noting that Calvin advocates the two kingdoms doctrine in Institutes (see esp. 3.19 and 4.20). In other words, Luther is not alone. In fact, David VanDrunen’s book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought makes the case for a two kingdoms thread persistently running throughout the Reformed tradition.
Leaving aside for the moment the historical theology question, I would like to venture some comments pertaining to the two kingdoms take on the biblical narrative and cultural and political engagement with the aim of commending its explanatory power and practical import and with the hope of generating some conversation and feedback. Some of these thoughts will be more controversial than others, so let me know what you think.
In the movie High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character reflects upon his life and recognizes he suffers from a certain kind of neurosis – one which assumes at the youthful age of 25 that his present singleness is inevitably unending. I, like many others, tend to assume the same thing about theology. Present ignorance somehow leads to the belief that I must give myself to an onslaught of neurotic reading habits to somehow make up for lost time – lest I be “single” (read ignorant) forever. This disposition is enslaved to a subconscious belief that there is a hidden wormhole in the fabric of the creature-Creator distinction which I can access through sheer fortitude, and, in a moment always eluding my grasp, will one day deliver me to an infinite knowledge of all things.
But, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, there is a sabbath rest for the people of God. Sabbath, for those of us who suffer from this kind of theological anxiety, is a submission to finitude – a time to rest in our calling as broken witnesses and to put down our strategies to undo our creatureliness. It is a sacrifice of our desire for transcendence and an acceptance of the real messy, broken finitude of our existence. This, I suggest, should be spurred on by our relation to the ecclesial community in which we partake as theologians – feeling the weight of the mundane as we secretly wish to disappear to our office and read something interesting (as opposed to, to use Eugene Peterson’s example, talk to some lady about her cat). Continue reading
I noticed that Tony Jones has a new book out called: The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing & Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. The basic gist of the book is that the Didache provides a helpful way to think about community life. Which, in and of itself – fair enough. I’m not really concerned to comment on the volume itself (as far as I know it is insightful), but instead the reactions from the volume. It is a worth while exercise to go to Amazon and look at the comments, just to get a feel for what many evangelicals think about theology and, more importantly, ecclesiology. The general concensus seems to be that Jones’ volume is not a work of theology (which is why it is deemed valuable), but a practical work which goes beyond the point in time where everything went wrong (Nicea?). It is hard to know what the issue here is, but this is such a standard failure in theology by evangelicals that it needs to be noted – that if we could only find a really really old document, then it would be correct. I would point out the errors but they are just too obvious.
So, it would seem, that this is just theology fail at its finest? But not so fast. I think what Jones and guys like McLaren are doing is true prophetic utterance – not in achievement but in error. In other words, theology fail is prophetic utterance, because it should expose the wrongheaded notions of an a-theological approach to, well, theology. I think their voices are exactly what the evangelical world needs to hear, because their errors are simply the errors of the bulk of evangelicals. I have no doubt that we are close to one of these guys picking up Strauss, but now utilizing the Didache (or fill in the blank with whatever cultural assumption you want) as the “criteria by which to distinguish the unhistorical in the Gospel narrative.” This would be remarkably similar to McLaren’s recent project which, in the words of one of his more generous interpreters, is simply von Harnack reimagined.
So why are children of evangelicalism returning to accounts of ecclesiology, Scripture and theology proper that fail to start with specifically theological Christian commitments, looking instead to reconstruct and baptize a time in history that was too early to have lost the plot (as it were)? This, again, is the prophetic utterance of judgment on the horizon of evangelicalism unless it is willing, like Ninevah, to repent, and in the case of evangelicalism, repent of a biblicism absent from any theological moorings.
Anyone defending their dissertation dreams the viva (defense) will reward all the blood, sweat, and tears with challenging but fair questions and the coveted “minor corrections.” Leading up to the viva, the expectation and sense of foreboding is incredible. In the British system, until that fateful meeting, until you walk through those doors, your examiners have given you zero feedback; how your dissertation has been received is a total mystery!
Well, I am delighted to report — and I never doubted it would turn out any other way — that Kyle successfully defended his dissertation, received minor corrections that were speedily completed the next day (modifying a few section headings and the like), and is now Dr. Kyle Strobel. Congratulations Kyle and job well done!
A little about Kyle’s labor of love. His dissertation devoted itself to a trinitarian reading of Jonathan Edwards’ theology of redemption, and he describes it as follows:
This thesis has a threefold structure which provides a “top-down” read of Edwards’ theology. In advancing Edwards’ theology as fundamentally trinitarian, we start with God in se, as the “fountain” from which history and reality flows. Second, we place God’s economic movement in creation in parallel with the saints’ participation in the beatific life of the Godhead in eternity. God’s act and purpose in creation parallels his act and purpose in consummation, thereby bracketing and governing the work of redemption. Lastly, we broadly answer the question: “How does God redeem the elect?” by addressing spiritual knowledge, regeneration and affection. By addressing the nature of the triune God with this God’s purpose and aim in creation, we offer a systematic reconstruction of redemption.
We all look forward to reading it when it hits the presses buddy!
There is a theology conference on at the University of Aberdeen this July, which will, in their words: “…explore the dynamics of prophetic difference by asking whether controversy is integral to the Christian church.” Click here for more info. It should be good, among the presenters are: John Webster, Robert Jenson, Carl trueman, David Bentley Heart, Brian Brock and Peter Leithart.
For those of you out there that might be interested in 20% off of Alban Books including free postage, click on this link and check out the special offers on the right.
I have been perusing some of Bloesch’s thoughts on Scripture and wanted to offer a quote for some interaction. I’m quoting from volume 1 of his Essentials of Evangelical Theology in the section where he is railing against rationalism. He states, “The Bible is not directly the revelation of God but indirectly in that God’s Word comes to us through the mode of human instrumentality” (76). This comment is the result of the incarnational analogy Bloesch develops with worries of Christological heresies applies analogously to the various views of Scripture. Bloesch continues by grounding the conversation in his broader analysis of revelation:
Revelation is better spoken of as polydimensional rather than propositional in the strict sense, in that it connotes the event of God speaking as well as the truth of what is spoken: this truth, moreover, takes various linguistic forms including the propositional. Objective intelligible truth is revealed (though not exhaustively), but the formulation in the Bible is one step removed from this truth even while standing in continuity with it. The truth of revelation can be apprehended through the medium of the human language which attests it but only by the action of the Spirit. Those who reduce the content of revelation to declarative statements in the Bible overlook the elements of mystery, transcendence and dynamism in revelation” (76).