Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Argument from a hypothetical Evangelical

In this post, I'll discuss what it would take for me to consider an Evangelical argument believable. To give a bit of context, I'll cite some Evangelical arguments that have come up in a recent discussion and explain what would actually need to be shown to justify the claim:

When the Roman Catholic Church dogmatizes something like the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary, and it commands all Christians to accept it and refers to the doctrine as an apostolic tradition always held and taught by the church, we're not dealing with a church father who reads the book of Genesis and comments that he sees some parallels between Joseph and Jesus. You'll find many Evagelicals doing the latter. No Evangelical, however, should do the former. The issue isn't whether we can go beyond the grammatical-historical method. We can, and Evangelicals often do. The issue is whether we can dogmatize on the basis of such unverifiable methods. We can't.

Tim, if you aren't going to limit yourself to the historical-grammatical method in forming a system of doctrine that's publicly binding, then how do you prevent people from reaching any conclusion they want? Do you appeal to the authority of the church? Then how do you know that there is a church, what authority it has, and what the church has said if you don't limit yourself to the grammatical-historical approach?
Again, the issue here isn't truth, but public verifiability. The apostle John may have intended Revelation 12:8 to allegorically communicate the fact that his favorite color is green. But how would we know that? It could be true without us knowing it or having any way of publicly showing it. 2 Chronicles 13:2 may be about blue monkeys living in the center of the earth. How do we know that and show it in a public forum such as this one? Not with allegorical interpretations.
The historical-grammatical approach is how we normally ascertain what a historical source said. If you want to take a different approach, then you carry the burden of proof. If we were arguing over what Abraham Lincoln believed, it would make no sense for you to demand that I prove that we can't interpret his letters allegorically. Since Jesus and the apostles are historical figures who gave a historical revelation, we would apply the standards to them that we apply to other historical figures. If there's some additional criterion somewhere that would result in the conclusion that some other method of interpretation should be applied to Jesus and the apostles, then you would have to prove that criterion. It's not my responsibility to prove that no such criterion exists anywhere.

If we can start out with allegorical interpretations, as you're suggesting, then why don't I just allegorically interpret Jesus and the apostles to be saying that I'm personally infallible? If you disagree on the basis that only the church can allegorically interpret Jesus and the apostles, then I would ask on what basis you know that. How do you know that there is a church in the first place? How do you know what authority it allegedly has? If I can allegorically interpret any document you cite in support of church authority, then how do you go about proving church authority?
How does whether the information you're trying to get is theological change the method by which we would get information from a historical figure? We know that we can arrive at probable conclusions about what a historical figure said or did by means of the historical-grammatical approach. If you want us to believe that we can get reliable information on the historical revelation of Jesus and the apostles by some other means, then you need to produce your evidence. It's not my responsibility to prove a universal negative, that there isn't any other method of ascertaining the historical revelation.

Or elsewhere:

6.Even if we accept the legal analogy, I’d take it in a rather different direction. In terms of Biblical ethics, the Bible contains a number of general norms. Their range of application varies with the concrete circumstances. A valid application is a special case of a general norm.However, unless the norm enjoys an invariant meaning, we would never know how it was meant to be variously applied.

7.In Evangelical hermeneutics, meaning is tied to authorial intent. It is tied to the secondary authorial intent of the human agent, which is, in turn, tied to the primary authorial intent of the divine agent who inspired the human agent.Now, the resultant text may contain logical implications which outstrip what the human writer was conscious of, but they may not contradict original intent.

8.Again, there’s a sense in which the original reader may complete the meaning. For the word was given with an implied audience in mind. It takes for granted a common cultural preunderstanding. More is assumed than is actually said, for writer and reader share a common referential universe of natural cues and social codes. And the aim of the grammatico-historical method is to recover that common knowledge.

9.It is true that certainty and authority are not the same thing. The question, though, is not about abstract possibilities, but the concrete question of what level of certitude the Catholic rule of faith claims for itself in relation to the Protestant rule of faith.

And we can find even more:

The grammatical-historical method of interpretation is a means of guaranteeing that we are hearing what the text says, not what we want the text to say. This is a vitally important point, especially when it comes to the Scriptures. When reading secular texts we are not nearly as tempted to insert a foreign meaning into the words of the author, since it is rare that such a text would be given sufficient importance to warrant the effort. We naturally apply sound rules of interpretation to such documents since we are not at all threatened by the results. But when it comes to the text of the Bible, much more is at stake. But if we are consistent in our beliefs, and truly want to hear what the Scriptures are saying and not what we want them to say or feel they should say, we need to have a means of reading the text that does not allow us to slip our own thoughts into the text under the guise of interpretation. The Bible needs to say the same thing in each language, in each culture, in each context, or it cannot be the means of communicating the truth to us that Christians believe it to be. The grammatical-historical method allows us to be both honest and consistent with the text of the Bible.

I bring these several examples (and I could have selected a lot more from Evangelical textbooks) to illustrate that it is not a question of objecting to a straw man or picking out some Evangelical's idiosyncratic pet argument. This is essentially the commonplace argument that God "accommodated" Himself to human language so that we ought to be able to "know" what He meant with "reasonable certainty" using "ordinary methods for interpreting historical documents." I put some of those terms in quotation marks for two reasons: first, that they are examples of a large number of equivalent terms that mean effectively the same thing, and second, that they are all points at which I find this argument thoroughly unconvincing. My objections fall into three basic classes: epistemological, philosophical, and historical.

1. Epistemological

The common feature of every one of the arguments above is that they assert greater knowability associated with the reliability of a particular method as evidence for greater certainty. One big problem: greater reliability is something that is established by empirical practice demonstrating that a method actually works. Another bigger problem: an argument from the need of a method to the existence of the method is fallacious. Essentially, the argument above says that because God gave us a written revelation, we must be able to extract everything that we need to know from that revelation according to a reliable method, which doesn't follow. Even if that argument isn't made in the strictest sense (and many times, it is), there's still the question of whether the need for a meaning leads to exaggeration in the certainty of the method, which plays into the first problem I raised as follows.

The reason that any historical method is persuasive is that it corresponds with experience; the farther away from the experential basis one extends, the less reliable the method becomes. In particular, the grammatical-historical method (GHM) makes a number of assumptions about texts that are dubious in the case of the Bible, such as the meaning of the text being limited to that which the author was trying to convey and its logical implication, which cast into doubt the applicability of the method to extract the "true meaning" of the text. Conversely, the application of the method to Scripture imports all sorts of factors extraneous to the GHM, such as the supposed "inspiration" of Scripture (not a factor that I've seen discussed in my historical texts about Abraham Lincoln, for example), "authority" of speakers, interpretation of texts in light of the writing of other authors (effectively treating Scripture as a single "book"), Scriptural inerrancy (whether factual, moral, or theological), etc., etc. The inclusion of any of these factors introduces distance into the experential basis that gives the GHM its accepted reliability, and thus, it undermines the very basis of certainty in which the appeal to the GHM is based. Combine that with the demonstrable tendency of people to make probable meanings certain and unlikely meanings probable out of the perceived need to be able to find a meaning, and, suddenly, the appeal to the "reliability" of the GHM in the context of Scripture evaporates. This is because the method to which you are appealing really isn't the grammatical-historical method at all anymore, but rather "GHM + theological assumptions," which can't legitimately claim the experential basis of the GHM itself.

The legitimate way to establish the reliability of how one knows would be to establish the reliability of the theological assumptions that one is dragging into the GHM, but that can't be done merely by appealing to the reliability of the GHM itself. Not to mention there's this fudge factor of the "noetic effects of sin" that explains away any mistakes that might be made. And obviously, the need for an objective method can't prove the objective method empirically exists, so the fact that it is the only method of interpretation recognized as usable on historical documents proves nothing about its accuracy in this case. Hence, while I'm perfectly happy to use GHM for coming up with reasonable interpretations of documents in a historical context, I have no idea how that justifies its exclusive use in the Scriptural context.

2. Philosophical

This could actually go on for days in terms of particulars, but for the moment, I'll stick with the philosophical question of proper theological method. First, I think that the notion of God "accommodating" Himself in Scripture is incoherent in the way that it is asserted. If one accepts any sort of notion of God's transcendence (not even the correct apophatic method, but any method at all), it is de fide that God's infinity cannot be comprehended by finite human reasoning. But in the practice of Evangelical interpretation, terms are interpreted as if they could be applied univocally to God, with any incoherence being chalked up to "tension." We read about the "tension" between God's general love and His elective love, the "tension" between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the "tension" between God's permissive will and His decretive will, the "tension" between God's wrath and mercy, etc., etc. Based on that, I've arrived a particular synonym that I substitute for "tension" to make its meaning clearer, and that synonym is abbreviated "B.S." As far as I've been able to tell, if the Evangelical had coherently affirmed God's transcendence in the first place, he wouldn't have encountered the "tension" in the first place (A great example of this particular brand of blasphemy in D.A. Carson's Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, which is one of the worst examples of this type of thinking I've ever encountered). Theological "tension" is one of the most pernicious pieces of sophistical nonsense I've ever encountered; ad hoc mystery if ever it could be seen. It may be the strongest argument against the existence of God one could muster.

Second, the philosophical premises used to justify the GHM particularly in the Scriptural context strike me as entirely unbelievable. Gadamer's notion of diachronic understanding through "fusion of horizons" after "distantation" is Heideggerian mumbo-jumbo as far as I'm concerned, as is the "hermeneutical spiral." All this subjective nonsense about getting into people's heads across spans of time is ridiculous. It's strictly a question of the amount of information you have and the experential reliability of the methods you apply to it; that's a hard limit to certainty, period. There's no dialectical process that can somehow bring you closer to the "true meaning," whatever that is, and the whole endeavor of "philosophical hermeneutics" is just metaphysics gone badly wrong. The critique of "onto-theology" might as well be nihilism (and I'd argue that it is nihilism) as far as being a basis for a worldview. Rooting metaphysics in the human episteme, without regard for God's transcendence or the ontological need for God, might as well be atheism.

Third, there are at least two metaphysical systems that have the virtue of being both coherently based in phenomenology AND affirmative of God's transcendence, those two being Cappadocian apophaticism and Catholic phenomenology. Given that I have at least two plausible metaphysical systems that each include their respective metaphysical bases for epistemological truth, why on earth would I concede that the GHM is necessary? By each of those systems, the GHM is not only not a necessary condition for certain knowledge, but fundamentally wrong in the way that it is applied, because it denies God's transcendence in Scripture. In both cases, one's certainty is rooted in the ontological presence of God in objectively perceptible manifestations, so that you can go where the Sacraments are. It may not resolve every cognitive problem, but it's a darn sight better than rooting truth in finite human reason.

Fourth, any metaphysical system must have at least the requirement of basic coherence on the possibility of God actually living as man on earth. If I have a choice, I'm going to pick the metaphysical system that I know can account for that in a reasonable way, and if it has the advantage of simultaneously explaining human salvation on that account, so much the better. If I have coherence that fully corresponds with the possible range of interpretation of Scripture as best we fallible human beings can reliably assess that range, you'd have a hard time convincing me to choose otherwise, and both of the systems I mentioned above can claim that.

3. Historical

This is, to me, is the objective destruction of all that is Evangelical, at least insofar as represented by the arguments above. Remember what I said above about the need for a reliable method. I'll throw in one revision: the need for a reliable method now. Evidently, before conservative Evangelicalism decided to make a comeback into serious scholarship against the tide of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism (which, BTW, was mere decades ago), this method simply didn't exist. I guess all that bit about God "accommodating" Himself to human limitations meant 20th century human limitations.

OK, maybe that's being a little acerbic. But the problem is extremely serious. The whole notion of rooting one's argument in the need for epistemic effectiveness in Scripture pretty much sticks you with epistemic effectiveness as a criterion for identifying who is Christian. St. Augustine screws up on baptismal regeneration because of the noetic effects of sin, OK. 99% of every Christian of whom we have records? The creeds of the councils? The creeds of Protestant denominations? So maybe you just need "a credible profession of faith." That's the minimum epistemic content of Scripture that must be conveyed, right? Except that won't work either; what was called orthodoxy in the patristic era would not qualify by any consistent standard that Catholicism or Orthodoxy would be disqualified. At some point, you have to ask the question if Scripture has no observable noetic effects, how can you argue for an epistemically "ordinary" revelation?

The ordinariness becomes particularly troubling when you start to consider just exactly who was carrying Scripture around, believing it, and professing even unto death the reality of that peculiar historical event that defines Christians as against all other religions: God's life on Earth. Is it possible that this objective revelation, which is supposed to provide epistemic certainty and assurance, was so universally misinterpreted by the people who revered it? Doesn't that call into question the very argument of God's "accommodation" to human limitations?

The bottom line is that you can't decline to offer a systematic historical theory of how revelation is received when one would expect there to be one. Sure, you can plead "noetic effects of sin" and "error," but that undermines the notion of Scripture as epistemically effective every time it's done. And honestly, I don't see how any theory can possibly explain the number of exceptions that would be entailed based on any reasonable reading of history. Yes, we can quibble here and there, but if I am going to give even my ordinary level of deference to historical scholarship, this is a no-brainer. If there were Christians out there who denied baptismal regeneration, the apostolic succession, and the consecrated bread and wine as the metaphysically real Body and Blood of Christ (entitled to adoration), I don't know where the heck they were; I can't honestly read the historical record and think that they even existed, much less played any substantial or continuous role in Christian history.

Moreover, I can't honestly read patristic scholarship and think that these issues are orthogonal to Christology, such that their belief in Christ could be analytically separated from these things. Maybe they varied in finer points or particularly complex applications, but the conclusions are so uniform (and so uniformly contrary to Evangelicalism on those particular points) that you have to start wondering how they could miss it. If it were a question of "ordinary" historical transmission, to which the "ordinary" GHM was being applied, such a theory would be rejected out of hand (they had no idea what this meant, but they just happened to appreciate its significance? Riiiiiiight...). Nor can I honestly read their writings and think that they meant GHM when they conceived of Scripture as an authority. They clearly understood Scripture as an objective authority within a society whose meaning was conditioned by the reception within that society, much like law, as opposed to GHM, which strictly limits binding meaning to the original cultural context.

Bottom line: I don't think the Evangelical arguments above prove their case on epistemological, philosophical, or historical grounds. In fact, I haven't even seen an Evangelical argument that addresses these problems specifically or provides any answer to them. And in the case of historical argument, I think that the theory espoused above obligates a historical explanation that Evangelicals have not even attempted to provide (i.e., trying to explain the massive historical deviations from even the most basic concept of the content of revelation). Until I see something hit these points, I can't even fathom considering Evangelicalism plausible.