Saturday, December 8, 2007


Novalis once wrote:

32. We are on a mission. We are summoned to educate the earth. If a spirit were to appear to us, we would make ourselves master of our own spirituality at once ? we would be inspired, both by ourselves and by the spirit. Without inspiration, no apparition. Inspiration is both appearance and appearance given in return, both appropriation and communication.

Bernstein, Jay M.(Editor). Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics.
West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2002. p 208.

I am interested in what others might draw from the thought expressed here, without the context in which it was uttered.

Your thoughts?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Why I am a Christian

Aside from the fact that God has graciously saved me from the path of destruction through His loving election, there are a great many things in my every day living that confirm in my mind the Truth of God's glory and energize my will to pursue Him fully.

Here are a few that have been on my mind in recent days:

The majesty of God and the Truth of His glory has been revealed to me through the local assembly of Wesminster Presbyterian Church in Bryan, Texas. The church is by no means a perfect body, and in many ways we fall short both in our duties to one another and our duties to the community in which God has placed us, but these are areas for God's grace to grow us. What has been evident is the love of Christ in the midst of suffering. In the three plus years that I have been attending WPC, we have had a surprising amount of death and suffering for a congregation of little more than 300 people. The most recent include two fatal car crashes--one of a sweet older lady in our church and one of a local high school coach at the Christian school where several of our children attend. In the past year we have seen the miracle of two premature babies whose life hung on a thread for many months be delivered from death by God, to our great joy. Only four months ago our family pastor lost his 18 month old son in a tragic accident. Our church continues to grieve for Knox and I would encourage you to visit our website and listen to the sermon from Knox's funeral service. I have never witnessed how much God can be glorified in the death of a loved one until I was witness to Knox's death and the ongoing ministry of His saints even now.

Knox has been a continual influence upon me in these last few months. His mother keeps a blog devoted to memories of him. I hardly knew Knox before his death, but the love for this little boy has made his life in heaven as much a joy in my life as his life on earth was for those closest to him. That may sound like an odd statement, but it is less odd when you consider how often we are impacted by the lives of saints and missionaries. The odd thing is that Knox's "deeds" in this life were not characteristic of those we find inspiring in martyrs and defenders of the faith; nor of missionaries and preachers of the Gospel. The testimony of Knox's life is that he was a boy who loved and a boy who was loved by many saints in our midst. It would be easy for Knox's family to keep their grief to themselves, to hide in the solace of each other and keep others in our church at a distance. But instead this loving family has opened their lives to allow others to partake in their grief. Brothers and sisters this is the love of Christ. How else could it be possible for those whose hearts are broken to actually minister to those whose hearts are broken for them? And in opening their lives to others they have also been filled with the love of Christ through the works of His people who have cared for them in a host of ways--from the very practical and simple to the very deep and complex--and all in proportion to what gifts God has given and what relationship they have to the family of Knox.

The love of Christ in the midst of grieving is a local story that will spread into the world through the lives of believers who go on from WPC into other places, and those who stay and touch the lives of others in our community here (as we continue learn that it is also good to open our lives to those who are not yet of our assembly willingly, but whom God has prepared for us to find for His sake). But in the past year I have also been witness to a host of global stories through the various missionaries that we support, and in particular through the life of our former RUF minister who took his entire family to Peru last year to minister in a burgeoning project of growth that is truly a model of Christ's Kingdom. John and his wife Heather were a big part of my life here in College Station and continue to be a part of my life though they are at a distance. John is currently teaching apologetics to young and eager Peruvians who will tomorrow become the men who pastor parish churches that will serve entire communities in Trujillo and elsewhere. John is also preparing the beginnings of a college ministry (RUF) in Trujillo that will influence the thousands of Peruvians students who attend the several universities in the area. Peruvian Christians do not share the same culture as we do, and though they face their own spiritual depravity, they are outspoken and eager to make disciples of their fellow countrymen. The parish model combined with the training of indigenous ministers is an approach that takes seriously the commission of God to transform culture by the Gospel of Christ, and to ensure that most of what is translated is the Truth of God's Word and not the culture of white westerners. Peruvians know best what the ills are that choke their people, and they are also the most equipped to bring the light into their corner of the world. John, his family, and the other families (Peru mission is growing greatly!) are carving out parish communities, a seminary, and college mission that will eventually overtake the syncretistic, secularized Catholicism in Peru. The government is so happy that Peru Mission is willing to start Church-Hospital-School facilities that they have give over a dozen pieces of land them for free! God-willing the Gospel will spread broadly and deeply into Peru.

Brothers and sisters, I believe Augustine was more right than he was wrong. We, the City of God, are traveling side-by-side with the City of this World and though many seek to live on the border, or even to rent space in our city while holding allegiance to the world, I am convinced that God is not willing that His City should fail. It is His Church, His people, the inheritance of His Son, the One whom He loves and for whom His glory was manifest in us by the power of His redeeming love. There are many who look into the pages of Scripture and they see reflections of this present world in its pages--shades of deceit, colors of apostasy, the pallor of a people living in ungodliness. But what is too often overlooked is Christ. Not the Christ who saves us from our sinful state, who has become our righteousness and our intercessor--for that Christ is on all of our hearts and lips who sense our own sin and need of salvation. No, the Christ who is overlooked is Christ the King, Christ the heir of God, Christ the God of all Creation. We speak of Him, yet as though He were far off. We long for Him, as though He has not yet come to us fully. We pray for His power, yet we do not expect it to accomplish much until the consummation of all things. We have let the hope of the perfection of glory yet to come overshadow the work of Christ in us that is ushering that perfection in! The King does not work as an individual, but expends His power through those who are loyal and obedient to His rule and reign. We are His Church, we are His Body, we are His Hands and Feet in this world. We are building the City of God, but unlike the Israelites under the watchful eye of Ezra we are not working with a will to win, but we are like the Israel of Habakkuk, waiting for some miracle to occur, when God has equipped us with all of His power in the person of the Holy Spirit and the full revelation of Christ.

Brothers and sisters we lose sight of Christ if we bemoan our situation to satisfy our self-righteousness. If you see a problem in the world then find the place in your part of the Kingdom where you can stamp it out! The overarching problems we face are also the problems right in front of us.

Brothers and sister we lose sight of Christ's calling if we pretend that victory is at hand. The good we experience is but a taste of the glory yet to come. We are not working hard enough yet, nor will we ever work hard enough until Sabbath comes. Six days we shall work, and we know not yet which day we are in, so rest not yet for the hope of tomorrow, for the Jubilee shall come when the Kingdom has been flushed of its iniquity. The King's call has gone out, but who will answer it?

Brothers and sisters we have all of Christ in our presence. We are lifted up to Heaven each time we partake of His body and blood, the spiritual sustenance for the battles of the week. We are given our battle orders each time the Gospel is preached to our hearts. We are comforted in our afflictions when our fellow soldiers stoop to pick us up from the wounds of sin.

We have so much, so very much, more than all this world can fathom. Let us not squander it in ignorance and self-satisfaction.

Monday, October 8, 2007


I wrote some lyrics on my other blog and thought I'd share them here. The title and inspiration for the lyrics come from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"Y. G. B."

Youngster stern of conscience cold,
Once you felt for Faith's embrace,
Flying her train forthwith to heaven,
Till tarrying took its toll on you,
And lower thoughts became your leaven.

Rising in the dark, dark night fell,
Fell father's son, son of perdition,
Tradition marks your race,
Kept apace now graces gone,
Lost for good with a parting kiss.

See you now your idols wrought,
Bought in secret whispers soft,
Their own sins you see,
But not with eyes to see,
Not with hopes to flee,
Idols they at last shall be.

Rising in the day, day light falls,
Falling grand, father's son still,
Guilty vision colors your face,
Kept in disgrace now graces gone,
Lost for good in your dream's remiss.

Goodman gone without a word,
Unmarked stone stays the heart,
Pining away for fearful opining,
Your heart, like stone, hardened,
Unpardoned in its seething silence.

Rising in the sound, sound advice to all,
All who would heed, he'd speak out still,
Guilty goodmen can yet find grace,
Kept in goody Faith's embrace,
Found fastened with pink ribbon lace.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Existential Sensibility - Ethics - Job and Jonah.

Reader, please bear with me in this most recent edition. It has been too long since last I posted and there are many thoughts tossing around in the torrential sea of my mind. Sapience may not be meet with my words, but maybe, just maybe, my sea will turn and teeter from torrents into tremulous waters. Our skiff shall cut its swath through these waters with what skill as I am able to wrangle from the many and competing worldviews I am trying to hold together in this rumination.

(Translation: I am going to attempt to draw together several different pieces of writing, which I have been reading recently. The difficulty in doing this is that each piece of writing is difficult to relate because of their own ambiguity and by their divergent perspectives on the questions: who are we and what are we doing here?)

My aim is to reflect upon several contrastive writings, hoping to exposit a thought for your personal reflection as well as mine. The texts are as follows:

1. The Plague by Albert Camus
2. "Kierkegaard and Nietzsche," an excerpt of Existenzphilosophie by Karl Jaspers appearing in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre
3. "'Turning' Backward", an essay by John J. McDermott in The Drama of Possibility
4. The books of Job and Jonah from the Holy Scriptures.

If this selection seems too vast or disparate (or even, unfamiliar) I will try to do my best to make it recognizable.

Part I: Existential Sensibility and Ethics

The Plague
Camus's book is written as an historical narrative of one who experienced first-hand a terrible plague in the city of Oran. Without spoiling the story, the narrator is one of the main characters of the story and this colors the presentation of the story, appropriately displaying a worldview that is best called "Existential Sensibility." Throughout the narrative we find the juxtaposition of the inevitable, capricious, destruction of the plague and the efforts of the populous to make sense of what seems an otherwise senseless ravaging. The story is draining, but its lighter moments come in the form of philosophical reflections and the portrayal of an ethics of life in the face of utter biological corruption. There are contrasting viewpoints offered: the religious, which is presented in dogmatic form throughout, but which is also strikingly altered in the face of the corruption; the atheist, which takes various forms, but which boils down to a indefatigable humanism that pursues one of two ends: sainthood or health. Since the religious presentation is already critically deconstructed I will leave it be, for it is the two existential viewpoints of atheism that matter for us at present.

The saint seeks salvation of the self, not by an ultimate deliverance from the corruption of the world, but more like an achievement within the corruption of the world. It is not a rising above, but a passing through. Nor does the corruption become incorruptible in the passage (if it can make it through), but it is somehow mitigated without self-deception, bad faith, or a denial of all of corruption's devastation.

The physician seeks a less romantic, but nonetheless as difficult an aim--to heal the corruption where its effects are most severely felt. There is no passage through into peace, but is rather like a boat that floats on the tide of the ocean--now upon the crest of the wave looking down over the world with an uncomfortable calm; now down in the shadow of the implacable force of the sea (of existence) that threatens to demolish all in its crash. All eventually sink into death, swallowed by the undulating appetite of nature, but the physician, whose thirst for life is only quench in keeping as many afloat as he can, pursues what measure of amelioration his efforts are able to effect.

Both of these atheists embody the existential sensibility, which is ultimately an ethics of humanistic relief: do what one can to alleviate suffering and foster growth of the individual in whatever way is possible. This ethic is situational insofar as it views every instance as unique, but it does not seek for changing principles to meet this unique moment, since every moment is connected to every other so that some measure of consistency is maintained. Whatever this consistency is for the existentialist, it determines how he will respond to the unique moment. Reflection is there, but may come before hand, during, or after the moment. Subsequent moments are conditioned by reflection in such a way as to purify the ethics of superficiality (whether moral, experiential, intellectual, and so on).

The saint seems closest to the ethics of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the physician seems closer to the existentialists who live in the malaise of the 20th century in the midst of WWII.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
Only a few brief comments are required on this piece of writing to further develop the existential sensibility I am trying to portray. Jaspers focuses on the contributions to philosophy that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have accomplished more than their particular ethics or existential sensibility. Still, he says a few things that further expose what existential sensibility can be understood to be.

First, the questioning of reason and exposing the limitations of rationality. Both are irrational, but not the kind of emotional irrationality that we see in the temper tantrums of toddlers or in those grieving or enraged. Their irrationality is calm, considerate, and disconcerted by the ineffectual efforts of the "Enlightenment" to answer the needs of humanity. For all the pristine abstract systems that philosophy can and has built over the course of history, systems are incapable of nourishing the human being in his present existence (and existing) in the world.

Second, this ineffectuality of reason leads to a profound loneliness for both K. and N., which is only addressed through reflection. Reflection has been mentioned above, and it is key to existential sensibility because it is what enables human being to escape from the self-deception by which we seek to escape the reality of the human situation. The human situation is characterized by inescapable ambiguity in our "knowledge" of the world, the horrifying expression of humanity's destructive nature, and the ultimate death of all things and resulting nothingness which lies beyond death's pale.

Third, and where existential sensibility links up with Christian ethics (an odd pairing to be sure, but all things come back to Christianity at some point): a desire for what is most basic. Both K. and N. seek to remove all the edifices that human rationality has build upon what is truly basic. For K. the basic is found in the New Testament Christianity and for N. the basic is found in pre-Socratic Hellenism. In response to the ease and slumber afforded by "system" both K. and N. are radical in their explication of the basic. K.'s exegesis of New Testament Christianity is eros toward the absurd and concomitant martyrdom for the its sake. N.'s exegesis of pre-Socratic being is eros toward will to power and concomitant exile from the herd for its sake. Restated simply, K.'s ethics require one to pursue the plain morality statements of the New Testament (particular of Christ) with the most literal and complete rigor: forsaking all else for simple (but the most difficult) obedience. For N. there is no moral statements for one to obey, but rather than tossing up our hands or following blind passions we are to bravely choose our own way accepting all consequences (including those that systems of morality would consider evil) with joy.

Fourth, and naturally following from K.'s and N.'s explication of the most basic, existential sensibility sees human choice as the most excruciating and troublesome fact of existence, but also as its most inevitable and liberating possibility of existence. To be self-determining in the face of inescapable determinism is the contradiction which all existentialists must face, embrace, and walk hand-in-hand with into the ever-dawning day of death and the void that lies beyond it.

"Turning" Backward
Professor McDermott is a professor at Texas A&M and is my teacher for the course in Existentialism that I am presently taking. His essay is self-coined as a "jeremiad," which is a style, taken from the prophet Jeremiah of the Old Testament, that pronounces the present and impending doom, which we have brought upon ourselves and calls for a subsequent actions to resolve things before they become inescapably worse.

The important consideration of Dr. McDermott's essay, which completes my presentation of existential sensibility is the idea of a "turning." He takes the idea of a "turn" from the etymology of the Hebrew verb, teshuvah, "to recover" or as being "in recovery." He says explicitly:

It is a turn of the heart, not simply of the mind, even if there be such a phenomenon of the mind, on its own. A teshuvah is not primarily an enlightenment, as when John Dewey first read The Principles of Psychology by William James. Nor is it akin to the "dream" of Descartes, or to the separate, but equivalent, intellectually shattering discovery of Kant's Prolegomena by Nicholas Berdyaev and Martin Buber. We come closer if we think of the tolle lege ["take up and read"] episode in Augustine's life, or Kierkegaard's decision to "make trouble" as his Point of View.

Thus, a turn or a turning in the existential sensibility is a recognition of ("I was blind but now I see") and repentance from ("go and sin no more") what could be called the "sins" of: self-deception and bad faith. Self-deception is akin to those blind spots of the mind/heart and the will where we willfully or ignorant believe what is not really true. Bad faith are those willing actions against the truth that we know or suspect beneath what we are willing to admit. Thus, the turn is essential to any "ethics" of the existential sensibility because it exposes our deficiencies in such a way that we pursue a course of courage away from self-deception and bad faith--corrupting as they are in a corrupt existence.

Existential Sensibility can be summed up in the following expressions:
1. Sainthood/Healing: the aim of ethics is to pass through corruption into something purer or to heal corruption in a way that makes purity possible without the boldness to exclaim: holy!
2. Reason is incomplete to the task of living because no overarching system really answers our needs.
3. The inadequacy of reason leaves us "ontologically" lonely (that is, always lonely from the beginning and without escape).
4. Loneliness leads us to seek out what is truly basic to our existence in the hope of something real can be found in the fundamental.
5. What is basic is indeterminate apart from human choosing. You must be brave to choose for yourself what is basic and face without fear (and with joy) what necessarily must follow.
6. Essential to this choosing is experiencing a turning, which draws us out of self-deception and away from bad faith and into a less corrupting becoming in the world that must end in death and the nothing beyond.

Part II: Ethics, Job and Jonah

Introductory word
There are many places in the Holy Scriptures where one can turn to find ethical commands and principles. I take as my starting points two narratives, which have been taken by liberal theologians to be non-historical morality tales. While I do not share this conclusion with liberal theologians, I do think that this recognition represents a place of connection for unbelievers and for skeptics of the Bible and its supremacy and sufficiency for life and faith. In the stories of Job and Jonah we find exemplary ethical figures: exemplary not for their faith, but for their dogmatism. If this claim piques your interest and raises eyebrows, all the better. Because beside the exemplary ethical figures of Job and Jonah we find the defining ethical figure: God Himself. While I am no existentialist, I believe that the present world seems assured of the inscrutability of our existence in an increasingly globalized and yet fragmented world. In order to face these fears, we must as Christians own up to our own, true version of inscrutability: God's Hidden Will. Our certainty and the certainty of our ethics does not rest in our reason or its ability to formulate a comprehensive system of accounts for each and every jot and tittle of existence. Nor does it rest in our existential sensibilities. What it does rest in is our ability to humble ourselves before the revealed character of God and finding in Him our source of love, which is the only impetus for ethical action that does not founder in abstraction or fizzle in the feeble choices of men.

Contrary to what many believe, the central figure in Job is not the man Job, but the God who is Just and is Judge. Job the righteous is made a mockery by the malicious will of Satan, but by the superintending will of God Job is made an example of what it means to be humble before the only righteous One: God very God. Though with his lips Job did not sin against God in the immediate aftermath of Satan's attack upon all he owned and was, Job surely spoke without knowledge when he subsequently appeals to Heaven for God to act as Vindicator of Job. Job thought himself righteous, rather, Job KNEW himself righteous because of his impeccable obedience to God's law, and not just in a pharisaical fashion of creating man-made rules, but in the true spirit of serving the poor and widows and judging the unrighteous according to righteous principles. Job was the epitome of the Godly Christian, to use an anachronism. But in his obedience Job did not recognize the plight of humanity, he could not see the corruption that is ontological to our existence. In looking at his own holiness, Job could not see the incomparable holiness of God. But Job was made to see when God confronted him at the end of the narrative. God did not vindicate Job, nor did He gives Job the reasons after which Job sought. Rather, God gave Job a lesson in His character. Job could not see that his questions impugned faith. Not because they were foreign to his situation, for indeed they are the questions that all human beings would desire to ask in the face of immense loss and suffering. No, Job's questions impugned faith because he could not (until the end) relinquish his own righteousness before God to the Sovereign righteousness of God and His superior Will. In the end God restored to Job all that he had lost and more and Job's righteousness remained intact throughout, but now with a humility that would submit itself in faith to the inscrutable Will of God in bringing about His purposes in every detail, whether horrific to us or magnificent.

But lest we risk faltering upon an ill-proportioned picture of God's character that would only take account of His Justice and Judgment, let us turn to the figure who encountered the Mercy and Grace of God in an equally inscrutable fashion.

The story of Jonah is read on the highest holy day of the Jewish calendar. It is recognized as the perfect picture of God's grace and mercy upon humanity whose sinfulness, though bleak, is not irredeemable in God's eyes. The significance of Jonah in discussing ethics is not apparent upon a superficial reading of the narrative. The unfolding of the tale reserves important facts until after the events have been relayed to the reader. Why did Jonah disobey? It was not out of fear. It was not out of cowardice. It was out of a strong sense of two things. Jonah revered God's law so much that he was willing to flee God's command so that he could see God's just judgment called down upon the unrighteous people of Ninevah. But Jonah also knew that God's grace and mercy extended beyond the people of Israel, to the unrighteousness of all men who would repent of their sins before Him. Jonah knew that if Ninevah repented at his word from God that God would relent of His judgment and allow these unrighteous men to live without paying the full penalty for their sins. But God's grace and mercy is also extended to Jonah, as it was to Job, because God desired Jonah to understand the fulness of His character, and not pick and choose for himself what God would be. God uses the qiqqayon (plant) to show Jonah that God is at liberty to have compassion upon what is His own creation. Jonah did not work to cultivate the qiqqayon, but he enjoyed its work enough to be angry when it was destroyed by the worm. Jonah had compassion on the plant for which he did not labor or cultivate, but he was willing to have God destroy the Ninevites (and their animals) whom God had created and caused to flourish upon the earth. God, despite the utter disregard of the Ninevites for His character and law, would see them spared from their sin because of His great mercy and grace. It is inscrutable to Jonah why God would spare these sinners, especially when compared to the destruction that God enables Satan to wreak in the life of Job the righteous.

What are we to make of Christian ethics? Is there a Christian Sensibility that can respond to Existential Sensibility, which has long since grown cold to abstract explanations, but still clings to some kind of truth and authenticity in this existence? There are systematic theological answers to the questions raised by the stories of Job and Jonah. There are also responses that we are supposed to have in our own person to the presentation of God's character in these two God-breathed accounts. It is not enough to know that God works all things for good, that He is Sovereign, that He is Just and Holy and Gracious and Merciful. These characteristics are true and in the abstract they give us a system of understanding that allows us to give reasonable answers to those who seek to use logic against God and Christianity. But if we do not find the existential (in the sense of embodied living in the world with other human beings and time-bound circumstances) response to God's character, we end up looking like Job and like Jonah who were blinded by the certainty of their own self-righteousness. Acknowledging the inscrutability of God's Will does not impugn the veracity of the knowledge we can and do possess about His character and the ethics which He has clearly given us in His Word. God's Law is not tossed aside because we do not understand all that He is doing in bringing about His own glory. Nevertheless, we ought not to pretend that our attempts to explain God to those who suffer in this sinful world will approach humility and love if we do not recognize how little we really know about the particularities of God's Sovereign acting in every circumstance. We must, like the Job of the end of his story say:

"I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear now, and I will speak; I will ask Thee, and do Thou instruct me. I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes." Job 42:2-6

What we know we must speak with boldness. But we ought to be circumspect about knowledge and what it is we really know. If pretend to know more than Christ and Him crucified we risk our own self-deception and words spoken and deed done bad faith. Let what angels will dance on the head of a pin to our silent awe, and let what is clear be preached from our lips to the praise of God's glory and not our own self-righteousness.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Salem's Trials

In the history class I'm presently taking we recently finished a book about the Salem witch trials entitled In the Devil's Snare. Several of the history folk in class didn't buy the author's thesis, nor did they enjoy her attempt to write in narrative rather than analytic form. Whether this disdain was due more to the author's skill or to the personal preferences of the others is a question I'll leave you to decide for yourself. In other words, you should pick the book up if you have any interest in Salem. If you don't, the read is still quite instructive on another level of interest, that of human nature and our relationship to the immaterial.

In our modern world most of us have a difficult time reconciling the immaterial or spiritual world with our own. So steeped are we in empirical science and agnostic secularism that we find intolerable or unimaginable the presence of "other-worldly" influence in our every day lives.

Of course, one significant reason for this apprehension could be considered more broadly legitimate. Human beings have a responsibility to uphold the law and protect each other from harms that come out of our depraved nature. The government is given the authority to wield the sword and it is also given the responsibility for upholding justice. But the difficulty is that human beings only have their reasoning powers and a limited amount of knowledge with which to judge any given circumstances. Doesn't the imposition of immaterial considerations make it impossible for us to judge the material actions and circumstances that occur?

I would argue that the situation is much more dire than this question admits. In fact, without a fixed standard for knowledge, a theory of epistemology that does not change, we cannot even be sure that the material world which we evaluate and judge is really something we know at all. Though the immaterial world is not visible and though we have no methods or tools by which we can measure its presence or influence, does it automatically follow that it does not exist or has no, or less influence upon the material world? Affirmative answers to this question have already presupposed the absence of immaterial influence, though no empiricism can prove it so. They say it cannot be falsified and is therefore irrelevant: it is like trying to prove that unicorns exist or do not exist. But what they fail to recognize is that they cannot prove that their empirical methods arrive at true statements about the world, that is, statements that cannot be falsified. The best science is still a guess from a limited amount of examples using estimates of measurement. The fact that their work is thorough, the fact that useful information and practices come out of their work, and the fact that so many people accept these probabilities as true does not negate the fact that history shows that science changes its mind about every fifty to one hundred years since Copernicus, Newton, Einstein and so on into the future.

Science cannot answer satisfactorily any questions about the immaterial world. This is not to say that scientific methods do not provide useful, indeed very useful, information and practices for the benefit of human society and nature at large. However, science does not have any claims that can be validated with certainty, nor does it take a serious interest in anything that is not measurable by natural instruments or means. One cannot measure, for example, the extent to which the Holy Spirit works to heal our bodies when we pray and ask for healing. Unbelieving scientists that dismiss such questions as absurd or unfalsifiable reveal their presuppositions that refuse to account for the immaterial. But science is still full of unexplainable mysteries, and the paradigms by which science advances its conclusions are subject to radical change, moment to moment. In short, most of science is the creation of the human intellect developed from the partial conclusions of inductive experimentation. Useful, but not certain, and certainly not certain to the extent that modern scientists and most Americans seem to espouse.

Still, Christianity, with its robust theories of the spiritual world and the interaction of angels, demons, Satan, and the Holy Spirit presents us with a history of strange and bazaar conclusions as well as methods of understanding. Salem's mixed population of Puritans and others in the midst of a frontier that faced them with famine and disease, friendly and hostile native americans, internal divisions, and strange occurrences had its own strange methods and conclusions for what went on in late 17th century New England. Those Christian rationalists, with whom I might be lumped, have difficulty unpacking the events of Salem, and especially the reasons why learned and unlearned alike found veracity in the claims of such young girls's claims of victimage.

But one can see where deviation from Scripture, its principles, and those conclusions which can be reasonably deduced; combined with the emotions of fear, anxiety, and so on can lead even the most rational of men and women into error. When the most trying circumstances come, we are still best served to cast all of our thought and will upon the Truth of Scripture, pleading with God's Spirit for illumination as to what we are to think and do. There is no other foundation of knowledge that is certain, and no other word that is more meet for faith and living.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Schleiermacher and Hermeneutics

I just finished Frederick Schleiermacher's Hermeneutics and Criticism and decided that it would be good to post a few of my observations.

Schleiermacher is a big name in the history of hermeneutics and is often cited as one of the frontrunners in what is sometimes referred to as scientific hermeneutics. Prior to scientific hermeneutics and the disciplines of higher and lower criticism the Christian Orthodox approach to interpreting Scripture (from Augustine through the Protestant Reformation and up to today) follows the principle of faith leading to understanding. That is, the fundamental presupposition of the interpreter in approaching the text is to assume its divine inspiration, including its unity of meaning and absence of contradictions. This has commonly been referred to as a hermeneutics of faith. Schleiermacher departs from this approach and follows what is called the hermeneutics of suspicion, which assumes a critical stance in approaching the act of interpretation. While critical approaches have made orthodoxy more sensitive to historical, textual and psychological considerations, on the whole the hermeneutics of suspicion has led to posit an authority that is prior to and therefore higher than the authority of Scripture.

One can clearly see the effects of a departure from the presupposition of faith to understanding in Schleiermacher's work. He makes an admirable effort at an exhaustive, comprehensive, and careful consideration of those principles and methods necessary for understanding the meaning of any text, and the Bible in particular. However, because he approaches with a critical assumption, several difficulties and inconsistencies arise in his approach.

One of his principles of interpretation is called divination, or divining, which attempts to put oneself in the thoughts of the original writer. This process is obviously subjective, psychological, and without a general principle of operation. He labels it an art rather than a technique, the former being approximate and probable at best whereas the latter is deductive and certain. It is, of course, vital for the interpreter to seek an understanding of the author's own thought in seeking to understand his meaning, but under this principle Schleiermacher would seek in include the whole of the writer's being in history--his general history and his internal emotion and will. He rightly recognizes the impossibility of unearthing these details, but he nonetheless emphasizes the effort.

This effort is partly caused by an insufficient understanding of the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Schleiermacher picks on certain views of inspirations that regard it as over and against the author's human intellect and will, but the orthodox doctrine of inspiration does not fit this characterization. Rather it recognizes the writer's full and unhindered use of his intellect, will, including any emotional states in the construction of his thought and the transmission of it into writing. God's meticulous Sovereignty includes the ordaining of secondary causes as means of orchestrating His Will in the individual lives and actions of human beings. Was it not God's Sovereign design that Moses be drawn from the water and educated by the best Egyptian teachers in language, history, etc.? Was it not God's Sovereignty that saw Joseph through every circumstance, including the false accusations of Potiphar's wife in order that he might find his way into the graces of Pharaoh? Certainly the hardening of Pharaoh's heart was accomplished by those external and internal circumstances that shapes Pharaoh's character into the resolute and stubborn quality it revealed itself to be. The Holy Spirit spoke through the personalities and intellectual capabilities of the authors of Scriptures so that God's own meaning was identical with their own, and that without what many have claimed as the "flaws" of being human. In my human frailty I may not recognize every implication of any proposition of Scripture, and it was not required of every writer that they know exhaustively each implication either. But that they would understand the meaning of their particular propositions to the extent to which they were true and non-contradictory with the larger whole does not require that we assume they would make mistakes, errors, or otherwise and we have the testimony of Scripture that the Holy Spirit provided the words where they were lacking.

The incomplete acceptance of inspiration leads Schleiermacher to delve into human psychology in order to unearth what is erroneous or accurate, or what was the particular meaning to the particular audience without acknowledgment (in my estimation) of the unity of Scripture. No one can deny the difficulty of rightly interpreting the logical connections between Old and New, or between Paul and Peter, for example. However, tracing these comparisons is possible by the use of logic when one assumes a unity of the whole of Scripture. This task is impossible when one seeks the subjective mind of the individual authors against each other. This is where criticism has sliced the Scriptures into various competing and contradictory pieces. Schleiermacher himself opposes the historical knowledge of Paul (in quoting a passage in Isaiah as Isaiah's own) to the modern higher criticism of his own age. Thus, the authority is shifted from Scripture to whatever standards of method (be they scientific, historiographic, philosophic, etc.) are presently acceptable to the sensibilities of men.

Though I am sure that they would disagree with me, those who dogmatically rely upon historical-grammatical interpretation alone without also consulting the overarching unity of Scripture fall prey to the same unpinning error that Schleiermacher is making, namely, the opposition of the human element of the writers and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures constitute a logical whole because God's mind is without contradiction. Application of a grammatical-historical approach without any acceptance of inspiration leads to the piecemeal derivations of liberal theology such as the documentary theories of the German higher critics. Those who retain inspiration but rely upon the grammatical-historical method alone seek to harmonize the unity of Scripture as God's Word while retaining the liberal assumption of fundamental dichotomies brought about by historical and cultural change. But this assumption is not warranted by Scripture itself, since the authors of the N.T. not only quote the O.T. for its prophetic validity, but appeal to it as the sole authority for those Jews and Gentiles whom they proclaimed the Gospel of Christ toward with conviction. Dispensational hermeneutics treat all N.T. use of the O.T. as prophetic fulfillment, prophetic promise, or applications of the moral law. But presuppositions of dichotomy drive this approach, just as the historical-critical presuppositions guided a figure like Schleiermacher.

Does it not seem more properly basic to recognize that God's message, like His mind, would be given as a pristine and comprehensible unity? How else could the N.T. writers appeal to the authority of the law and the prophets not only for daily living, but for the very doctrines that articulate the purpose of God in relating to humanity, what the Reformation theologians recognized as the overarching form of covenant. Covenant theology does not deny presuppositions in its approach to Scripture, for to do so would be to deny the possibility of rational thought. As creatures who have not been made with exhaustive knowledge, there is no other way to proceed to build a system of understanding without beginning with unprovable first principles. Methods of interpretation, like any system, require unprovable first principles. For instance, the principle assumption that meaning is transferable from one individual to another cannot be proven from epistemologically basic ground. If the orthodox Christian seeks to derive principles of interpretation for Scripture he must first ask how it is that Scripture understands itself to be? That requires one to treat the entire set of 66 books as a single unity, or otherwise find some principle, some starting point outside of Scripture. The coherence of the Old and New testaments (there was no division of old and new in terms of how the disciples of Jesus spoke about the writings and the authority of the written Scriptures. All distinctions of old and new were regarding the administration of God's grace--that is, the relationship of the believer (Jew or Gentile) to the Law in light of the revealed Christ) rests upon the principle that they are all the Word of God, which requires us to examine the nature of God to know in what way He communicates. Eternal decrees in the mind of God make little sense when we cut the continuity of Scripture into dichotomous portions. When the eternal nature of God and His message are subordinated to the limitations of created time we risk reading the human into the divine, rather than reading the human through the eternal Word of the Divine.

But I digress. :-D

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction

I just finished reading Flynn's introduction to Existentialism. Although he mainly focused on Sartre, he discussed Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, De Beauvoir, Marceau, Merleau-Ponty, and a few others. This is the second of the Cambridge "Very Short Introductions" I have read and they provide a very helpful and (so far as I can tell) representative outline of the subject matter.

What is interesting to me about Existentialism is its contradictory poles of direction. One important result of Existential thought is the pervasive nihilism resulting from the inevitability of a fractured existence. But, the existential response to nihilism is not abandonment to it, but something of an "embrace," which accept the inevitability of existence while at the same time asserting the conscious choosing or willing to be what one is determined to be. Kierkegaard's "single individual" and Nietzsche's "ubermench" are examples of the will to be what "I" choose to be in the face of all other inevitabilities. Kierkegaard in particular felt the inevitability of what he called "Divine Governance" and because of its overwhelming presence in his mind he forsook marriage to his beloved as well as a quiet life pursuing a small parish pastorate.

But where Kierkegaard would emphasize a "better" way, many existential thinkers simply argue for the "different" way. Nietzsche denied absolute morality and thought that the true individual was free to choose whatever morality that individual saw fitting in response to the loss of any absolute directive. One would suspect anarchy to be the common denominator of such thinking, but existential thinking would deny this conclusion, because whatever common morality it might recognize at all must include the maximum freedom of choosing for each individual. Oppressive moralities would supposedly contradict this ideal construction and thereby be invalidated by existential sentiment.

So it would seem, on the face of it (and indeed, I think, at the bottom as well), that existentialism does not escape the necessity of positing absolutes when pressed to choose for themselves what ideal they would advocate under their philosophical title. And if they would deny this title it would still seem inevitable for them to choose an absolute. But perhaps the inevitability of such choosing it part of the pervasive nihilism ascribed to existence and though we are all to blame for "absolutizing" whatever morality we choose in the choosing of it over and against another choice, it is the existentialist who can push through the anguish of contradiction and the angst of guilt in asserting oneself over the other because at least the existentialist can recognize the seriousness of the situation and feel sorry for it.

But if my characterization seems too much like caricature, I can soften the blow by saying that I have much more yet to read before I can conscientiously come to any conclusions, tentative or otherwise. I do tend to pick on philosophies of life that assert, indeed hail contradictions as paradox, as mystery, or as the inescapable reality of human thinking. What would deny the necessity of clarity on deep questions of meaning and what would impugn certitude as prideful arrogance, while remaining certain of certitude's uncertainty as well as the pride of those who assert certitude as a thing to be desired, what would lead its followers into faith in the freedom to choose with conviction from a cesspool of arbitrariness deserves a bit of cheerful retort once in awhile, don't you think?

Friday, August 17, 2007

A brief emendation

I finished the last chapter of John Piper's Desiring God this morning. I still need to read the appendixes, but I need to retract my earlier criticism of his discussion of duty. In his concluding chapter Piper gives seven reasons why he wrote the book and addresses several remaining objections. One of the smaller reservations he addresses is what to do when our desire is not to do our duty with joy. He does not advocate refusing the duty, nor does he say that doing the duty in spite of contrary feelings is worthless, though he does admit that it is sin (to which I agree). He then gives a brief guideline for dealing with those instances when our feelings are thwarting our joy in doing our duty and one of the appendixes deals more fully with the question. So, I am recanting my earlier criticism of Piper's discussion of duty having been fully satisfied by his reply in the final chapter and probably abundantly satisfied by the time I finish the appendixes.

To finish off this brief emendation then, I'd like to share a verse from Ecclesiastes, which was expounded to me by John Ferguson during his sermons series on Ecclesiastes, and which I think fits well what Piper is getting at:

"There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from his who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God." Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

So to the one who finds joy in Christ shall more joy be given, but to the one who pursues joy apart from Christ that gain shall also be given to the one whose joy is in Christ. There is no enjoyment that is not given by God. All the pleasures of sin are far from joy, but are merely the fleeting sensations of the self before it is cast into destruction.

Monday, August 13, 2007

After Awhile

Recent events have prevented me from posting anything new for awhile, but I've still been reading. After awhile, it is now time for me to share a few thoughts on the books I've recently finished and have begun reading.

One of the books on my blog list is Historiography Secular and Sacred by Gordon Clark. Although it is not his most well-known book, nor perhaps his most beneficial I still found it to be exceptionally good. His criticisms of secular theories of history and his sharp criticism of unorthodox religious theories of history are still applicable today. Clark is not an historian, but rather a philosopher whose primary interest in this book is outlining an coherent and consistent philosophy of history. It took me awhile to get through all of the book during the busy period over the last few weeks, but of particular interest were the chapters on Marxism and Dialectical Theology's view of History. There is only one chapter in which Clark describes an orthodox Christian view of history and it is the chapter on Augustine's viewpoint described primarily in the major work, City of God. This work by Augustine is one I need to get my hands on to read. Serious historians will benefit from reading Clark's book whether or not they disagree with his conclusions, for his penetrating critiques force one to think carefully about the implications of one's premises and conclusions.

I also read a short biographical sketch on Augustine, Luther, and Calvin written by John Piper. The book is one of four in a series of books that were originally delivered as sermon lectures to pastors at a conference. The pastoral style is evident in Piper's writing, but that might be said of all of his books perhaps. I am almost through with Desiring God and have enjoyed Piper's insight and keen exegesis of Scripture. I don't really care for the "Christian Hedonist" label myself, and it does feel a bit redundant to me when Piper consistently claims this or that Scripture or this or that Biblical character is exemplary of Christian Hedonism. But this speaks more to my dislike for labels than it does for Piper's writing or indeed his purpose in using the label. My only serious gripe with the book was some of Piper's discussion of "duty" in the early chapters. I understand his use of the term and he tends to qualify it with affective adjectives, but I would have liked it better if he would have talked about duty from a positive standpoint rather than accepting the negative valence that sometimes persists in our culture. Duty can certainly be joyous and hedonistic in the sense that Piper is advocating, and I think Piper would admit as much and in fact does so implicitly in his book. And there is something to be said for doing our duty even when we don't feel like it initially, for it is sometimes in the doing, or in the taking up of the task, that we find the joy that we were missing in grudging the task before beginning. Although it is profitable to seek to have a right spirit and understanding before we begin anything, and especially when we have a bad attitude, I do believe that sometimes understanding is awaiting the step toward action in spite of the fleshly disdain. If I missed Piper's clear articulation of this very point then I recant, but it seemed that it was less clear than it was evident.

Another book that I read was the seventh installment of Harry Potter. The book was all that one could have hoped for it to be in my opinion. Although there were more deaths than I had expected and darker entanglements, these made the ending all the better. Most of my predictions about the book were realized, though very few came out exactly as I expected. My strongest opinions were concerning Snape and Dumbledore and I was glad to see that they were fulfilled. I do not know for certain if the book could have been as good otherwise, but I can't imagine how it could be if such had been the case. It was good to be at the end and it will be interesting to see what Rowling will write next and when. C.S. Lewis didn't write any popular fiction (though my favorite fiction book of his, Till We Have Faces, was written later) after Narnia, and J.R.R. Tolkien did not publish anything as successful as LOTR. But both of these writers had other great books and I think Rowling will as well if she chooses to write, regardless of whether or not they become as wildly popular as Harry Potter has. Her ability to weave the simplest details into the plot and her wonderful talent in creating charming and diverse characters with genuinely unique personalities and interaction is worth having in other stories.

Lastly, I just finished a recently purchased fiction book that came out this year. The Children of Húrin, written by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by his son, Christopher, is an expansion of one the legends told in brief in the Silmarillion and the Lost Tales (though I have not read the latter). The book read like a combination between Greek tragedy and Medieval romance. It combined the Greek elements of fate and hubris with the Medieval emphasis on virtue and the somewhat vaunted language of nobility. The plot was good and the characters drew my sympathy for their human blindness to the wisdom that would have delivered them from their ill fate. Stories with such elements remind me of how blind my own eyes are to see the future and the consequences of my choices and actions--whether well thought out or rashly done. It is a great comfort to rest in the Providence of God and His infallibly good purposes for those who are His chosen and that by His own good pleasure.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Justified for Christ's sake

I recently read Chapter XI of Gordon Clark's commentary or exposition on the Westminster Confession of Faith. The title of the chapter is "Of Justification" and follows the WCF's sectional delineation. The book itself is title "What Do Presbyterians Believe?"

In recent days a controversial issue has arisen in the Presbyterian Church in American denomination under the general label of "Federal Vision." I am not well versed enough in the controversy to explicate it mains points here and the proponents of Federal Vision are diverse and sometimes contradictory of each other on certain points of importance. One of the major concerns that was dealt with through a special commission of elders and addressed in a report to the General Assembly was the question of whether Federal Vision was amenable or consistent with the WCF's statement on justification. The decision was, generally speaking, that it was not consistent. Despite some honorable aims of several of the proponents of Federal Vision, the burden remains upon them to formulate a consistent and specific explanation of their position.

The central issue is what does it mean for individuals who are within the Covenant to be united with Christ. The assessment I have heard, but have not corroborated with my own reading, is that the Reformers did little to explain the details of the unbeliever's relationship to Christ within the Covenant. They spoke about the elect's union with Christ and its qualities and benefits, but their discussion of Covenant breakers--that is, those who profess and enter the Covenant but who fall away in unbelief or are revealed in the end not to be elect because of their unbelief--is relatively silent. Some Evangelical Presbyterians in recent days have sought to recover the vitality of the Sacraments of Baptism and The Lord's Supper in the communion of the saints upon the Lord's Day and in obedience to the requirements of the Covenant. I believe these to be important considerations, especially when taken in light of the culture of the larger Church of the United States, which contemns tradition, liturgy, and the foundations of Christian faith and practice. Modernizing and popularizing movements aside, the question of the relationship of unbelievers who are within the Covenant is an important one.

But beyond these contemporary controversial matters, the WCF's chapter on justification is one that has been a supreme encouragement to me and a source of recurrent reflection upon the goodness of Christ and the supremacy of God's purposes in glorifying the name of Christ, and therefore also glorifying His own name.

Clark is a writer who enjoys what I call dialectical writing. That is, he prefers to couch his statements in arguments against contemporary misconceptions, heresies, and inadequacies. In this sense his writing is both apologetic and pastoral. He addresses those weaknesses that are creeping in (or already have too strong a foothold) in the modern Church and provides encouragement to those readers who desire a consistently Biblical knowledge to understand their God and to defend Him against their own foolishness and the fools whom they inevitably encounter.

I particularly like Clark's description of "evangelical." He defines its original use as referring to those "who believed in justification by faith." The importance of this distinction is easy to miss because many people today consider faith as something against reason and/or as something that is their own production rather than the gift of God. But faith cannot be reduced to an emotional experience or a mystical "apprehension" (apart from understanding) of Truth. In another of Clark's books (Thales to Dewey) Clark argues that faith is assent, which includes both intellectual understanding (I know what proposition X means) and willful acceptance (I believe that the meaning of proposition X is true). The Bible is clear that our darkened minds (the word "heart" in Scripture predominantly refers to the intellect and the will) cannot agree with the holiness of God, therefore God saw fit to regenerate the minds of some in order that His name would be glorified. Regeneration precedes faith and faith is granted to the regenerate person by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Faith cannot be based upon intellectual acumen (for then humans could boast in themselves), nor of moral integrity (again, more reason to boast in oneself), nor of anything contained within the human soul. The WCF is clear on this point. And if we take seriously our "dead" condition absent of both righteousness and faith we must see that it is Christ alone in whom our surety of salvation resides.

In this realization comes another grand conclusion in the WCF--the righteousness which we possess by means of justification is a legal declaration, an acquittal, a statement of position rather than of essence. We are not made into righteous beings (this comes with our glorification upon Christ's return), but we are declared righteous being upon the substitution of Christ's righteousness for our own unrighteousness. This is the idea of imputation as opposed to infusion. Imputation recognizes that the believer is declared righteous, but has not yet been fully delivered from sin--the power of sin is broken because we can not deny our flesh and sinful desires, but the effects of sin in our bodies and upon our minds has not yet been removed. Infusion holds that the believer is either returned to a state of neutrality or of actual righteousness. The flaw in this view is that when one sins he is forced to either doubt the validity of saving faith (I sinned, thus I am not righteous, therefore I must not be truly saved) or doubt the perseverance of faith unto glory (I sinned, thus I am not righteous, therefore I have lost my salvation in Christ). Not only do these create psychological tension for the believer, but they make salvation contingent upon the believer's abilities (rather than Christ's sufficiency) and worst of all these contradict the statements of Scripture that indicate that those whom God has given to Christ shall be preserved by Christ until the end when they will be glorified fully (see John 17). The confession gives practical information about how the sins of the elect are dealt with according to God's holy Law--they too are forgiven and God has promised to sanctify His people and produce good works in them.

Brothers and sister, our hope is in Christ alone, of whom Scripture gives us all the knowledge we need to lead us to vibrant faith and godliness.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Language, Theology, and Aesthetics

This entry includes three separate items; two of which are books and on of which involves some thoughts I have been having as a result of a recent debate.

The two books are Language and Theology by Gordon Clark and Lessing's Laocoön by David Wellbery. The debate was about the appropriate content (in this case, nudity was the issue) for artistic expression, thus aesthetics.

Wellbery's book continues my research into the relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics. It is, according to my professor, an important book to read because of Lessing's contribution to aesthetic theory. Wellbery's book is an attempt to demonstrate that Lessing's conclusions about aesthetics depend upon an implicit theory of semoitics. The book is interesting, though it risks anachronism, and it does seem to show that empiricist theories of language undergird discussions of aesthetics. Reading Wellbery's assessment of Lessing led me to purchase and read Clark's book on language since the obvious point of interest is whether or not an empiricist theory of language can adequately explain aesthetics, or if Wellbery's assessment provides the best explanation not only for Lessing's thought (on which point the book seems strong) but also for Lessing's shortcomings (on which point the book seems lacking).

Clark's book is broken into two sections, the first dealing with secular theories of language, in particular the school of logical positivism, which I believe Wellbery connects to Lessing's work via semoitics. The second section addresses Christian theories of language, in particular the irrationalist forms. The latter half of the book is exceptional, but has less bearing on the topic of discussion for this post, so I'll have to unfortunately relegate it to silence for now. But Clark's discussion and critique of empirical theories of language (and therefore knowledge) is remarkable for its lucidity and for its (in my assessment) devestating arguments against any empirical theories of knowledge.

In connecting Lessing's work on aesthetics to a semiotics of language, Wellbery notes in particular that Lessing (and others of his time) saw language as an evolutionary development. It began in the basic needs of human beings who were just coming into consciousness and grew every more advanced and precise into the present age (that is, the age of Lessing and his contemporaries) and would eventually advance human beings to a point at which language would be unecessary for the understanding of knowledge. This is the expectation because Lessing had a sensationalist epistemology--not that it was outragious (though in a way it is that too)--but by sensationalist, I mean that he understood knowledge to be achieved through the use of our senses. Aesthetics is that field of production and reception whereby images in both art (including sculpture) and poetry (including prose) direct our senses to apprehend the full knowledge of beauty. Lessing believed that language was more adequate than art for accomplishing this end, which demonstrates his semiotic foundations, or so argues Wellbery.

Clark demonstrates that sensational epistemologies are untenable because sensation is inescapably solipsistic and that ideas are logically prior and therefore determinate of language, signs, and the propositions that seem to be drawn from our sense experiences. Sensation is solipsistic because no one has the same sense exprience as anyone else. There may be similarities granted upon the similarities of our sense faculties, but he gives several examples to show that sense information cannot be generalized into a universal conclusion--thus it is logically invalid in every case and therefore cannot provide any certainty, which is necessary for knowledge to be knowledge of anything at all. Some may quibble with this so-called restrictive view of knowledge, but without certainty anything one wishes to call "knowledge" is really nothing more than opinion, however well-tested that opinion is, because probable conclusions always have exceptions, and where exceptions exist only opinions can be concluded. Clark illustrates this limitation of the senses with the example of color sensation. Take any two colors, say, red and green, and paint them over a strip of grey. The color over the grey portion will not be the same in appearance to the color not over the grey portion. Thus, the background makes a difference in what is perceived. Similarly, optical illusions create distortions in our apprehension, as do hallucinations, etc. Sensation is untenable as a resource for knowledge on this point alone.

But that is not the only point at which sensation (and thus empicism) falters. There is no justification for the claim that from or senses we extrapolate ideas. This critique is aimed directly at the evolutionary theory of language. Some argue that language determines meaning, that our knowledge is constituted by the language we use rather than being constituted by the ideas we possess. This critique also aims at the irrationalists (and more directly so), but it also applies to Lessing and any empiricist theory of language. Rather than summarize his argument here, I suggest to readers that they read Clark himself.

As it relates to aesthetics and the Christian, we ought to ask: how does Scripture define and mark out the boundaries for aesthetic representation and consumption? Is it simply a matter of personal taste or are there certain limitations? What is the proper understanding of aesthetics?

Volumes could no doubt be written on this subject, but I think a few positive statements can be taken as premises:

1. The ultimate purpose of any activity whether productive or preventative is to bring glory to God and enjoy Him forever.
___a. Therefore any aesthetic theory must consider this chief end of man as its telos, or final purpose.

2. If aesthetics experience is chiefly a matter of the senses then we ought to define it in terms of pleasure rather than responsibility--for it seems that Scripture does not dictate any positive commands for aesthetic production.
___a. As a sense experience and therefore inherently subjective, a measure of liberty is afforded to Christian aesthetic production and consumption.
___b. Reservations to this liberty include those matters of production and consumption explicitly or indirectly condemned by Scripture as regards the pursuit of pleasure.

Where goes from these premises will chiefly depend upon one's understanding of how to deduce principles from God's Word and thereby recognize what injunctions it places upon our pursuit of pleasure. For example, it seems that nude depictions for whatever purpose in visual art are questionable at best and more likely condemnable on the face of it. Why? The Bible's descriptions of nakedness are directly connected to shame--note here that shame is not predominantly related to or limited to sexuality, but to the loss of innocence as a result of sinfulness. As fallen beings our wills are now dragged into bondage to the flesh, that is, the passions of our senses. When babies are hungry they cry. When we expect pain we may flee in fear. When we look at our own bodies we desire a certain standard of appearance. Qohelet calls these things vanity and Paul refers to his body as a body of death. Creation, all of Creation, including our bodies, have been affected by the curse of the Fall. This does not mean that all positive goods have been irradicated, but it does means that all positive goods are mediated through our sinful condition. The redemption of our spirit in the Lord Jesus Christ has occurred at the Cross, but we still await the redemption of our bodies at His return and our hope in this redemption of our bodies is based upon Christ's own resurrection and appearance in the incorruptable body in which he appeared to the disciples prior to His ascension.

Not only in aesthetics then ought we to be mindful of our "natural" desires and "basic" needs, for we know as Christians that the natural is tainted by the Fall and will not be fully restored until Christ has finished placing all of His enemies in subjection to His righteous reign and returns to finish for good what God had decreed from eternity past.

In this light it seems that a theology of art must submit itself to the theology of sin and of man, in particular the noetic effects of sin upon humanity.

Friday, May 25, 2007


I going to submit a short essay I wrote today on hermeneutics as a brief departure from writing any book reviews. Although, truth be told, the essay was in part influenced by the recent reading in Reymond's systematic theology on the close of the canon, inspiration, and infallibility. Here is the essay:

I did some more reading today on the concept of sensus plenior, which is a hermeneutic principles that historical/grammatical-only interprets often employ upon those NT quotations of the OT that are obvious departures from their OT historical/grammatical context. The justification for sensus plenior is based upon the historical hermeneutic practices of rabbinic Judaism, which employed multiple forms of interpretation, including several that involve a significance beyond the original meaning of the text. This article here explains several of these interpretive principles that match up with sensus plenior. These are:

(1) p’shat (“simple”)—the plain, literal sense of the text, more or less what modern scholars mean by “grammatical-historical exegesis,” which looks to the grammar of the language and the historical setting as background for deciding what a passage means. Modern scholars often consider grammatical-historical exegesis the only valid way to deal with a text; pastors who use other approaches in their sermons usually feel defensive about it before academics. But the rabbis had three other modes of interpreting Scripture, and their validity should not be excluded in advance but related to the validity of their implied presuppositions.

(2) Remez (“hint”)—wherein a word, phrase or other element in the text hints at a truth not conveyed by the p’shat. The implied presupposition is that God can hint at things of which the Bible writers themselves were unaware.

(3) Drash or Midrash (“search”)—an allegorical or homiletical application of a text. This is a species of eisegesis—reading one’s own thoughts into the text—as opposed to exegesis, which is extracting from the text what it actually says. The implied presupposition is that the words of Scripture can legitimately become grist for the mill of human intellect, which God can guide to truths not directly related to the text at all.

(4) Sod (“secret”)—a mystical or hidden meaning arrived at by operating on the numerical values of the Hebrew letters, noting unusual spellings, transposing letters, and the like. For example, two words, the numerical equivalents of whose letters add up to the same amount, are good candidates for revealing a secret through what Arthur Koestler in his book on the inventive mind called “bisociation of ideas.” The implied presupposition is that God invests meaning in the minutest details of Scripture, even the individual letters.

The grammatical/historical-only proponent will often argue (although the author of that article does not) that sensus plenior is reserved for the inspired writers alone (thus denying the Catholic uses of the principle) and thus modern day interpretation must stick to the grammatical-historical approach.

These same folks reject the analogy of faith that seeks to interpret the OT and the NT as one text, with each informing the exegesis of the other. This is, they say, a "spiritualizing" of the text that goes beyond "normal" hermeneutics and is subsequently dangerous because there is no fixed way of determining what is or ought to be "spiritualized."

The rub for those who would reject the analogy of faith and yet accept sensus plenior as a valid method today is that sensus plenior is a "spiritualizing" method when it departs from p'shat. The rub for those who reject the analogy of faith and limit sensus plenior to the NT authors alone face the fact that there are two valid hermeneutics for the NT authors and only one for us. Upon what foundation do they base this distinction? One could infer that NT injunctions against "adding to or taking from" the original word of the apostle could be applied, but this does not seem to be the case, since a sensus plenior interpretation is unpacking the significance of a text and not altering its original meaning. Thus, it would not be a "different" word, although it would be a "fuller" one. There seems to be not indication from the NT that sensus plenior interpretation ceases with the passing of the canon. Indeed, those who accept sensus plenior as applicable for today note that the NT gives no indication that these hermeneutic principles have been annulled.

But is sensus plenior truly a valid form? Those who would argue that the analogy of faith is dangerous should and probably would argue the same for sensus plenior interpretations, since they also fall prey to possible overextension or misapplications of texts. The failsafe is an appeal to consistency with the plain doctrines set forth in Scripture: no interpretation is valid that alters doctrine or departs from it. Those who use sensus plenior under this control seem to have little difference in their hermeneutic from those who employ the analogy of faith, provided one condition: that their interpretations are limited to the redemptive-historical purpose of Scripture. Sensus plenior interpretation that would seek to use Scripture to comment on history since the close of the canon would be a departure from the intention of Scripture itself, which is to present God's revelation of Himself and His purposes in Creation for His own glory.

But what of those who reject both the analogy of faith and the sensus plenior principle for today's interpreters? They must rely upon an argument from silence insofar as they accept sensus plenior for the NT writers and yet reject it for modern exegetes. This seems a very weak position to hold. Secondly, their method of grammatical/historical-only interpretation seems to not only give precedence to history over logic--that is, the Bible must be read as history first, then as a logical whole (which proponents of the analogy of faith would accept as well, since the immediate context precedes the larger)--but they deny a fully logical exegesis and deny the full harmony of the Old and New Testaments (and this despite the fact that any division of Old and New is purely arbitrary). The OT is a book for Jews only except in those passages dealing directly or indirectly with salvation of the Gentiles, whereas the NT is a book for Gentile Christians and converted Jews. But this does not account for the logical unity of Scripture as one message of God.

It is a logical contradiction to assume one message for two people, since those two people, it is argued, have separate eschatological destinies--thus, two distinct messages contained in the same whole. Where does Scripture give warrant for this bifurcation? In the NT we are constantly and consistently told that God has made one people out of two, calling Gentiles into the promise of God having been given full access to all the blessing that are in Christ. The grammatical/historical-only exegete cannot argue that we must stick to this method because it is the method the Bible uses, unless they are also prepared to reject sensus plenior, for it stands as an alternative method employed by the Bible according to some of their proponents. But if the sensus plenior is rejected and the analogy of faith is rejected then what are we to make of those NT uses of the OT that are departures from the historical/grammatical method? What the grammatical/historical-only exegete faces is an insoluble contradiction upon either premise: either (1) they must reject sensus plenior, which leaves them with a list of NT interpretations that contradict their historical/grammatical method, or (2) they must accept sensus plenior for the NT writer only (an argument from silence) and explain the unwarranted assumption of two messages within the one message of God.

On a final note of inquiry, I am curious how those who would accept sensus plenior would explain those NT passages like the one that indicates that Jesus preached the Gospel to Abraham? It does not seem to fit into the rabbinic principles discussed in the article I linked, but it is easily explained by the analogy of faith.

To conclude with my own position, I think that sensus plenior is not only unecessary, but is an implicit denial of sola scriptura insofar as it seeks to attribute rabbinic hermeneutics to the Biblical writers, who expressly claim that their knowledge is from Jesus (who explained the Scriptures to them without formal training) or from the Holy Spirit. Plus it involves an assumption that all of the NT writers would have been familiar with Rabbinical methods of exegesis, which seems doubtful. They did not claim to possess an authoritative interpretation based upon a hermeneutic principle, but upon the revelation of Jesus Christ. Sensus plenior is an attempt to avoid the analogy of faith while accepting the historical/grammatical-only position.

The analogy of faith is adequate and sound because it employs a grammatical/historical approach and it allows the entirely of Scripture as one message of God to one people of God to be taken as a logical whole rather than as two separate logical wholes (which MUST be done if you have two audiences who are receiving different eschatological destinies). The analogy of faith can be misused or misapplied, but this is a specious argument against it, since any method of interpretation, including the grammatical/historical can be misused or misapplied based on numerous factors (a lack of historical/cultural information about the audience or author, an obscure or imprecise grammatical phrasing or idiom, etc.). Those who reject the analogy of faith are really rejecting the logic of Scripture as one message in favor of historizing approach that must have two messages, two peoples, and a self-conflicting hermeneutic.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What Do Presbyterians Believe?: God's Eternal Decree

God's eternal decree was a very difficult concept for me to believe in with conviction. Gordon Clark states it well when he says, "these passages [of Scripture on predestination, foreordination, and God's eternal decrees] are not difficult to understand, though many people find them difficult to believe" (36). The logic of Scripture on God's eternal decree is undeniably simple, but it is there simplicity that is so offensive to the mind that seeks to exalt itself and other human beings above the glory of God and the revelation of His Will to men in His Word.

I was once one of these deniers, and I am certain that among a great many other doctrines I remain opposed because of pride rather than careful consideration and scrutiny. Nonetheless, God's eternal decree has become to me one of the most precious doctrines of Scripture. Why? What makes them so important to one's faith anyway?

The Westminster Confession of Faith answers this question for us in Section VIII of Chapter three:

The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.

Knowledge of God's eternal decree is the assurance of one's identity. History changes, emotions change, thoughts change, life changes, but the decree of God is determined from before the beginning. Not because of what we do or contingent upon any ability of our own, but because of who we are by His Sovereign choice.

Knowing this gives us the confidence to be what we are: children of God. The epistles are full of statements that say we are holy, that we are crucified with Christ, that we are new creations, but most of our experience in this world reveals to us that we do not live up to these statements. How are we to know if we are indeed the elect? There is assurance to those who believe and obey. How do we obey? It is by God eternal decree that we obey. Even our obedience is contingent upon God's Sovereign election, for it is He who has chosen, He who has saved, justified, sanctified, and glorified from before the foundation of the world.

When the believer stumbles into sin he has ammunition against the flesh and the world to declare: "I am held fast by the eternal decree of God that I am not bound by sin, nor are my members the master of my destiny, but I am wholly His who has called me to Himself and will provide for me all that is necessary to persevere in Him."

The opening verses of 2 Peter 1:3-9 are so beautiful:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in this world because of sinful desire. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For is these qualities are yours and increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.

It is God's divine power, that is, His Sovereign Will effectively purposed and revealed in His divine decrees that provides the believer with the confidence to know with certainty that he is a child of God, freed from the dominion of sin, called into the Kingdom of God to live in righteous obedience in the worship of God to the purposed end of His glory.

Clark continues by saying, "Aside from the fact that God has commanded his servants to preach all his revelation, one great reason for preaching on the eternal decree is that a knowledge of sovereignty, election, and predestination is necessary in order to understand many other doctrines" (47). He goes on to list the perseverance of the saints, effectual calling, the necessity and nature of regeneration, the gifts of saving faith, and "in short the whole gospel" (47). There is no doubt that without the eternal decree the best hope we have is in a God whose power is limited in the same manner in which our power is limited. His omniscience and omnipotence require that the eternal decrees exist and the certainty of the eternal decrees require the acknowledgment of God's omniscience and omnipotence.

To deny the certainty of the eternal decree is to deny the immutability, omniscience, and omnipotence of God. In short, it is to deny God's very nature and being. To affirm the eternal decree is to acknowledge the immaculate Sovereignty of God whose glory deserves all of our worship, devotion, and praise--and these are accomplished chiefly through the knowledge of His Word illumined by the light of His grace afforded by the Holy Spirit and faithful obedience to the knowledge we possess in Him by the power of His Spirit and through the ministering work of His Church.

Snippet from Reymond's Systematic

I was reading in Reymond's Systematic Theology last night. The topic was the reliability of Scripture, particularly the portion where Reymond gives the most pertinent Scripture passages defining and supporting the Divine inspiration of Scripture.

With the weight of Biblical evidence being so strong in support of its Divine inspiration I am reminded of how important one's premises are when endeavoring to do any sort of evaluation and thinking whatsoever.

For the individual whose premise is that the Bible is Divine revelation, there is no cause to doubt its testimony in the face of decontextualized "proof"-texting of the supposed "contradictions" of Scripture, no fear from scientific, linguistic, anthropological or otherwise man-made theories that seek to undermine the propositions of Scripture, no reason to back down from any argument that would question whether the Bible can speak faithfully for itself. When one begins with Scripture and studies it with faith to understand, it does not leave one without a defense--indeed, from its basic premises there is no surer defense!

The "problem" with Scripturalism and presuppositional apologetics is that people refuse to adhere to the fundamental principles of argumentation. If one is willing to allow a first premise or first premises to be advanced, then the validity of the position stands or falls by the consistency and coherence of the consequences of those premises when weighed on the scales of logic and fact. Archeology has been a science providing overwhelming factual validation for the testimony of Scripture and I have yet to see an opponent of Scripture show is logical inconsistency from its basic premises. No, rather, all proposed arguments against Scripture as God's Divinely inspired Word must begin from premises that are not accepted by the position they wish to refute. In argumentation, the opponent must show the errors of the position they wish to refute by first accurately representing the position itself. This most basic requirement of argumentation is the one breached by nearly (if not all) opponents of Biblical Christianity.

The premises of the Bible's critics are also open to criticism, for if they would wish to undermine the validity and sufficiency of Scripture it is incumbent upon them to provide a better replacement in the wake of their refutation. This they do, implicitly or explicitly, by simple assertion or by more adequate arguments, but careful scrutiny of their proposals will show that their premises cannot support their conclusions. Sciences based upon sensation, that is, the empirically driven induction, are not logically valid, though they may provide useful and pragmatic information. But if we are talking about the truth of anything rather than simply its usefulness, then validity is the standard by which we must judge, not pragmatics. Competing standards of truth thus require a prior argument of epistemology, which are almost never had amongst sciences outside of philosophy and theology, to their embarrassment, I think.

Regardless of the intellectual currents of our present day and irrespective of the linguistic gymnastics that scholastics participate in, the basic requirements of argumentation remain the same: an understanding of the premise(s), logically sound definitions (that avoid ambiguity and equivocation), and commitment to discover the consistency and coherency of one's system of conclusions. If you will take your interlocutor back to the basics, technical problems disappear (for if they understand them, surely they can explain them in colloquial language) as do secondary arguments. Just as grammar school must start with grammar before moving to logic and rhetoric, so too the apologist must encourage his opponent to face up to the basic requirements of argumentation.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lessing on Laocoön and the limits of painting and poetry

I just finished this short book by the 18th century German philosophy Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The book is the first in a project that promises to span about two years of my academic study, which will be focused on tracing the merging of rhetorical categories and the science of hermeneutics.

The book is touted as the first systematized treatment of aesthetics during the Enlightenment and it is considered remarkable because it is one of the first (and the most coherent of the first, perhaps) works to articulate the difference between poetic production (art with words) and painting production (art with physical bodies, including sculpture, painting, and architecture, etc.). Prior to Lessing and several of his contemporaries, painting and poetry were considered to be relatively synonymous in how they were produced, not functionally, that is, not with the physical techniques, but aesthetically, with the intellectual consideration and aims.

Lessing argues against this conflation by appealing to a particular ancient example that had been the subject of debate for quite some time: the Greek/Roman sculpture of Laocoön. Laocoön was a Trojan priest of Apollo who was destroyed (along with his two sons) by two giant serpents sent by the god Apollo. Variants on the details of the story exist, but the debate centers upon the account of Virgil in the Aeneid and the sculpture of Laocoön, whose date is also debated. The central debate is whether the sculptor relied upon the written record (Virgil's) for inspiration or whether Virgil relied upon the sculpture for his inspiration.

Behind this seemingly insignificant question is whether poetry and painting are independent arts, dependent arts, or interdependent arts of aesthetic production and whether they should be judged by the same standards or separate standards. Lessing's work labors to prove that poetry and painting are not dependent upon each other (though they do have similarities). Painting can depict certain qualities that poetry cannot (examples are below) and poetry too can depict certain qualities that painting cannot. Overall, Lessing seems to elevate poetic production above painting because the scope of its production is greater as well as its imaginative appeal to the senses.

One of the more interesting arguments and distinctions that Lessing makes, is that painting can only depict the singular moment, whereas poetry always depicts the object in succession. Thus, a girl laughing can only be depicted in one moment of its duration in painting (for example, this could be the initial smile, the height of the moment with an open mouth and closed eyes, or the closing of the laugh where the cheeks are flush and the smile is subsiding). Alternatively, the same moment could be depicted in its complete duration in poetry, emphasizing the physical, emotional, and intellectual content from beginning to end in whatever fashion seems most appealing.

Another example that shows the particular difference of painting to poetry is the depiction of Ajax's shield. Some commentators have said that the description of the shield given by Homer is an impossible object to have created in reality. Lessing rejects this conclusion, but he does argue that while painting could depict the full beauty of the shield all at once, poetry must describe the shield in successive depictions of its constituent parts, thereby removing some of the effect of the whole.

But Lessing goes on to argue that this does not diminish the value of poetry, but shows that the standards of judging painting are incompatible with the art of poetry and, to some degree, the converse is also true. One of the ways in which Lessing endeavors to show the superiority, or at least the broader scope of poetry is in its depiction of ugliness. His premise is that the highest goal of art for the Greek was Beauty. The only thing worthy of expression in poetry or painting was what is beautiful. Ugliness cannot be portrayed in painting because it is so obviously despicable that refined taste would be offended. However, the sequential and successive nature of poetry allows for the ugliness to be diminished by its description in parts, which delays the full experience of the whole before one's senses. Of course, poetry could express the truly despicable in ways that offend taste, but it is also capable of expressing something ugly in a beautiful way without offending the sense of the observer in the expression itself.

Lessing's arguments seem to be generally sound insofar as his premises are true, but it is doubtful whether this is the case. Not only does he omit any definition of Beauty, he does not sufficiently prove that this was what the Greeks considered the highest aim of artistic expression, or whether or not Beauty ought to hold this position. Subsequent to these most basic considerations are the assumptions of taste that support Lessing's conclusions about the quality of any given artistic production. Imitation is no doubt foremost in his judgment, which is to be expected and for the most part supported. Mimesis or imitation in art seems to me to be an inescapable factor when imitation is defined broadly as the expression of the idea one has in the mind. Of course, imitation has been defined in different ways, including the imitation of nature, of the Forms, or in Christianity, of Christ himself. But what standard of imitation is it that Lessing assumes? I assume it is Beauty, but here again we find that this work does not define what Beauty is.

And what observations can be made regarding the focus of my project, the relationship between rhetoric and hermeneutics? Well, admittedly little at this point, since the formation and systematization of aesthetics is a precursor to the merger of rhetorical categories and scientific hermeneutics. Still, it can be said that Lessing's division of poetry and painting into two distinct aesthetic categories does make a difference for rhetoric. The classical sphere of rhetoric was prominent in (but not confined to) public address, which would have had involved both poetic art (the choice and arrangement of words in succession) and painting art (the nonverbal delivery skills), both of which played a vital role in teaching, persuading, and moving and audience. The great Christian philosopher Augustine was the first to systematically use the tools of rhetoric in interpretation, but he nonetheless retained the delivery aspects since his work on the subject (On Christian Doctrine) was written for pastors who would be preaching to their churches.

Lessing's contribution furthers the independence of the written or verbal aspect from the delivery or physical aspect. In public speaking we have the combination of both poetry and painting, which would seem to pose a unique problem for Lessing's theory. However, with the separation that Lessing provides, the categories of rhetoric that are more specifically (but not totally) focused upon verbal production can be appropriated without consideration for their physical counterparts. Hermeneutics as a science of interpretation is most particularly applied to written works with an aim to understand their meaning. Rhetoric, as a science and throughout its history, has most often been applied to producing meaning for a general purpose to inform, persuade, or delight (and while these general aims overlap, their distinctiveness should be preserved I think).

My thoughts on the matter are, understandably, underdeveloped and relatively disconnected from a firm observation or argument that could be advanced. I'm looking forward to seeing what Wellbery's book will provide for advancing my own understanding of these issues.