Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Quoting Sailhamer

"One finds the meaning and message of the Pentateuch not in asking why it was written or how, but in asking what was written as the book itself. The author of the Pentateuch surely had specific reasons or motives for writing the Pentateuch, but those reasons should not be identified with the meaning of the Pentateuch. The meaning of the Pentateuch as intended by its author lies in its 'verbal meaning,' be that the literal, figurative, realistic or spiritual sense."

The Meaning of the Pentateuch, pp. 74-75

Whose historical setting?

Continuing with Sailhamer, he notes in chapter two of part one of his book, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, that evangelical interpreters of the Bible who desire to inform their understanding of the text by referencing the historical setting or context in which the text is set often make a rather unfortunate blunder in their assumptions about whose historical setting is appropriate for comparison.

Sailhamer's example is the historical setting of Genesis, and in particular, the narrative of the tower of Babel. Evangelicals agree that Moses is the author of the Genesis narratives, and that Abraham was a third millennium B.C. historical figure. Therefore, in interpreting the text concerning Babel in its historical context, they trace the tower of Babel back to structures found in third millennium Ancient Near Eastern culture, the Sumerian ziggurat to be precise. What Sailhamer points out is that this attempt at interpreting the text through its historical context is actually conflating two different historical settings: that of Abraham, the character in the text, and that of Moses, the author writing the narrative. Whose historical setting ought to be prominent in understanding the elements of the story and the point of the story? For Sailhamer, as we might expect for most Evangelicals, is that it is the author's setting that matters, for it is the author's meaning for the author's audience that is the first concern of interpretation. But if that is the case, then third millennium Sumerian ziggurats are probably not the image that Moses is desirous to conjure, since little or no awareness of these structures would be known to him or his audience, and even if such awareness was had, the significance of these structures would be only anecdotal. The question to ask, according to Sailhamer, is not "what is the historical setting of the characters in the story," but "what is the historical setting of the author of the narrative."

A simple point, but one of profound implications when it is abandoned or ignored.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Composition of the Old Testament

I've just begun reading John H. Sailhamer's magnum opus entitled, The Meaning of the Pentateuch. In the introduction, he makes a point about the way in which the Tanak (the original compilation and organization of the books of the Old Testament) is a theological, and more specifically, a messianic arrangement and commentary upon the Scriptures. In a very interesting turn of higher critical scholarship for evangelical use, he argues that the late "additions or edits" to Scripture are actually the commentary of later prophets upon former prophets, in the exact fashion that the apostles of the New Testament commented upon the OT Scriptures in light of their fulfillment in Christ.

The clearest example of this is in Deuteronomy 34, which chronicles the death of Moses. Even evangelical readers recognize that Moses probably did not write about his own death before it happened, and so the question is when was this account rendered? Sailhamer proposes that it is at a time when prophesy in Israel had ceased (though we need not follow him in this conclusion to accept his general point), for in 34:10 there is this statement: "But since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face" (NKJV). Sailhamer argues that this is later commentary upon the prophecy of Deut. 18:18, which says: "I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and HE shall speak to them all that I command Him." (NKJV). The later prophet is indicating that this Messianic promise has not yet been fulfilled. Indeed, in Acts 3:22-23 Peter preaches that Jesus is the fulfillment of Deut. 18:18, confirming its Messianic character.

The upshot of Sailhamer's proposal is that reading the Old Testament is not fundamentally different from reading the New Testament. What we have is later writers looking back upon older Scriptures and using them to evaluate the Messianic promises in light of the current situation. Thus, Hannah in her prayer to God in receiving Samuel in 1 Sam. 2:1-10 can look toward the anointed king promised in Numbers 24:7 (see Sailhamer, p. 16). Thus the entire canon of Scripture is a continual unfolding of promise, expectation, reflection, and fulfillment, wherein the process is one of continually going back to the Scriptures in order to evaluate the present redemptive and revelatory moment in light of what God has said. With a closed canon, of course, this unfolding is no longer revelatory in the sense of God's Word speaking anew, but it is revelatory in the sense of always understanding our present circumstances in light of the promises, expectations, reflections, and fulfillments of God's redemptive history as set forth in Scripture.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lewis and I on Education and Social Struggle

Imagine your son coming home from an all boys public school after a long term away. As his father or mother, you are naturally interested to know what's been going on in your son's life. What sort of things has he been learning? What friends has he made? Has he received any recognition or joined any social groups? After talking about a few of these things your son lets slip that he is a Tart. What is a Tart, you say? A Tart is a catamite. The Tart is but one of the categories of young men who had the privilege o public education during C. S. Lewis's time as an adolescent at Wyvern college.

What could be worse that pederasty in public school? Such rampant sexual manipulation is surely the worst conceivable sin an institution of education for young men can tolerate, is it not? Not in the least, says Lewis:

Spiritually speaking, the deadly thing was that school life was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation of adult life as well. . . .And that is why I cannot give pederasty anything like a first place among the evils of the Coll [Wyvern]. People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than this. But why? Because those of us who do not share the vice feel for it a certain nausea, as we do, say, for necrophily? I think that of very little relevance to moral judgment. Because it produces permanent perversion? But there is very little evidence that it does. The Bloods would have preferred girls to boys if they could have come by them; when, at a later age, girls were obtainable, they probably took them. Is it then on Christian grounds? But how many of those who fulminate on the matter are in fact Christians? And what Christian, in a society so worldly and cruel as that of Wyvern, would pick out the carnal sins for special reprobation? Cruelty is surely more evil than lust and the World at least as dangerous as the Flesh. The real reason for all the pother is, in my opinion, neither Christian nor ethical. We attack this vice not because it is the worst but because it is, by adult standards, the most disreputable and unmentionable, and happens also to be a crime in English law. The World will lead you only to Hell; but sodomy may lead you to jail and create a scandal, and lose you your job. The World, to do it justice, seldom does that.

The cruelty attendent upon the social struggle for significance and achievement (a struggle that, Lewis points out, was not based upon class at all, but upon physical prowess, intellectual prowess, and beauty and personality) was more destructive to the minds of the boys--who by it were either pushed into conformity with a system that glorified vanity while accusing all transgressions as undue vanity, or pushed into defiance of such conformity by developing a sense of priggish arrogance and condescension toward the herd. Ironically, Lewis argues, the very thing some might consider the worst sin of Wyvern was actually one of the few places where the besetting sin of social struggle was mitigated:

If those of us who have known a school like Wyvern dared to speak the truth, we should have to say that pederasty, however great an evil in itself, was, in that time and place, the only foothold or cranny left for certain good things. IT was the only counterpoise to the social struggle; the one oasis (though green only with weeds and moist only with fetid water) in the burning desert of competitive ambition. In his unnatural love affairs, and perhaps only there, the Blood went a little out of himself, forgot for a few hours that he was One of the Most Important People There Are. It softens the picture. A perversion was the only chink left through which something spontaneous and uncalculating could creep in. Plato was right after all. Eros, turned upside down, blackened, distorted, and filthy, still bore the traces of his divinity.

Without getting into Lewis's view of Eros, I think it is safe to say that he would agree that the function of pederasty for easing social struggle was equally weighty for sustaining the loss of fatherly Eros toward these boys. At any rate, It isn't Lewis's controversial (but not really) softening of pederasty that is germane to my interests. So often those who speak about public schools as places of danger because of the violence or sex that goes on there are blind to the far more pervasive and destructive effects of social struggle. It may look different than it did at Lewis's Wyvern, but the pressure to simultaneously "stand out" (be athletic, smart, beautiful, witty, etc.) and conform to the often highly specialized and routinized group norms ("this is how we talk here," "this is how you act here,") produces in children the worst sort of pride--"I matter because I'm like these VIP people," and "I matter because I'm NOT like those VIP people." Instead of identifying talents, which could benefit the community and glorify God, children are taught to use their gifts for self-advancement, manipulation, and even overt coercion.

Not social setting is immune to the tendencies of social struggle (how many churches have split over this very sin??), but it isn't merely hard, but quite implausible to expect any child to avoid corruption when the status quo of social struggle is not only tolerated, but lauded as the very purpose for pursuing public education (as it was in Lewis's day, and as it is still in ours). "Kids need to be socialized!" is one clarion call. The very fact that humans are by nature social beings ensures that socialization will occur--even on a desert island with no fellow humans the solitary individual will adopt social values and obey social norms. The question is what sort of socialization one desires, and all education appoints a standard for producing citizens of a certain ilk, and where that model citizen is not envisioned as the image of Christ, built upon the standards of His Gospel, what God-respecting parent could in good conscience send their child to what is by default a factory for producing antichrists? There is no room for neutrality, and the best one could hope for would be a deveined, disempowered presentation of Christ that puts His sovereign Lordship on par with every other autonomous individual--one more voice in the crowd, take it or leave it.

Many well-meaning Christians wish to consider public education an acceptable option among others; one in which several categories are considered together (quality of curriculum, safety of the children, teacher to student ratio, etc.) and maybe even weighted for importance. Let it be known that such approaches implicitly or otherwise accept that education is an addendum to the spiritual formation and maturation of a child, that information transfer is the only purpose of instruction, and that parental influence is prima facie stronger influences than peer group social pressures. Let it also be known that such approaches implicitly or otherwise accept that Christ's claims to explicit Lordship are not universal, since one can, with no negative loss, learn science, mathematics, physics, history, philosophy (ethics, metaphysics, epistemology) law, politics, art, and even religion without Christ's Sovereign authority recognized or applied through the propositions of His self-revelation in Scripture. Let it be known that the image of Christ into which parents wish their children to grow is made narrow and irrelevant to most of their intellectual and social concerns upon such a view, for the subjects they study and the peers with which they interact need not acknowledge or abide by His sovereign authority and command.

Lest I rail only upon advocates of public education, Lewis's warning is just as applicable to homeschooling families and private (including private Christian) schools. If families and churches can and have imploded in their efforts to honor God as a result of the pressures of social struggle, exchanging intellectual foundations and methods of instruction does not ensure that the exchange is immune to the same vices and dangers. What parent hasn't struggled against the motive to build up a child's image based upon how well the child reflects the parent's own prideful aspirations? What church hasn't struggled against using arbitrary social norms as standards for acceptable or even salutatory membership value and recognition? In other words, if one's goal is to have children grow into the image of Christ, it will take more than an acceptable brand label and rejection of non-brand labels; more than a zealous spirit and puritan work ethic. It will require taking every thought captive to the impeccable and all-sufficient authority of Christ, believing that Scripture may not provide a specific command for every decision, but it nevertheless commands how we are to approach to making every decision, which is simply to say that even decisions of Christian liberty, so frequently appealed to for support in argument, are to be brought into conformity with commands that are binding (for example, one is free to eat four meals in a day, but one is not free to do so gluttonously). A choice of Christian liberty that entails subverting the claims of Christ's Sovereign Lordship over all is not an exercise of liberty, but licentious treason.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Christianity and Education

I've recently been embroiled in a debate at Tim Challies' website on the topic of public education. The assertion of Challies and most of the other commenters is that the choice of education for Christians is a matter of Christian liberty, the adiaphora discussed by Paul in his letters to the Romans and the Corinthians. One minister argued that Scripture is unclear on the matter of education, and therefore anyone claiming education as adiaphora is not subject to providing justification for the claim's truth. Aside from the fact that he did not establish the previous claim that Scripture is indeed unclear on the matter, in a debate concerning whether or not education is adiaphora, both sides are obligated to at least present a prima facie case. In any case, I posted an argument in propositional form in order to establish the clear position of Scripture for an epistemologically Christian education, which excludes public education in its current form from qualifying as such. I thought it might be of interest to those who read my blog, and so I'm reproducing the argument here. Others interesting in reading the full exchange may go to Challies' blog.

Let me give you a formal argument with which to interact, and with the additional purpose of providing to all who read it that the position is not derived from "questionable deductions and extrapolations" but upon "unambiguous directives" regarding the education of children unto the Lord.

1. Deuteronomy 6 commands parents to disciple their children to know, love, and therefore obey all the commandments of the Lord.
2. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that all Scripture is useful to make the man of God complete, equipped for every good work.
3. Given that parents are commanded to train their children in godliness, and Scripture is useful for the completion of equipping the godly, it follows that Scripture is all-sufficient for the training of children in godliness. (implication from 1 & 2)
4. Colossians 2:3 tells us that all wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, therefore it is only through Christ that knowledge and wisdom may be found.
5. Because all Christian thought and life is to be directed toward godliness, and because godliness depends upon knowledge and wisdom, and because knowledge and wisdom are found in Christ, therefore all education that is not grounded upon the knowledge of God and directed toward godliness is antithetical to the law of God. (Implication of 2 & 4)
6. Parents who educate their children apart from the knowledge of God in submission to Christ as the revealer of wisdom and knowledge contradict the revealed truth and commands of Scripture, and therefore stand in disobedience to God. (implication of 3 & 5)
8. Insofar as homeschooling, private schooling, or public schooling depart from grounding education in the knowledge of God in submission to Christ, they too are in disobedience to God. (Implication of 5)
8. All public education is non-Christian by it present definition and purpose, by the very by-laws of the government, and therefore it does not accept the knowledge of God and His law as true or binding upon education.
9. All public school stands in disobedience to God and cannot therefore be an obedient option for Christian parents who wish to train their children in the way God has commanded. (implication from 6 & 8)

Anyone who wishes to argue that Scripture is 1) unclear, 2) silent, or that public school is 3) a choice obedient to Scripture ought to either deny one of the premises above (giving justification for such denial) and/or show the contradiction or other logical error sustained in the argument presented above.

Just because an individual or group of individuals claim that Scripture is silent or unclear does not itself constitute an argument that Scripture is in truth silent or unclear. I maintain that any claim of silence or ambiguity in reference to the education of children is false, according to the argument here presented.