Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Old teaching habits die hard

As someone who just loves teaching, I can't bring myself to abandon any teaching endeavor if there's any chance that I might actually present the lesson more effectively. It's a weakness, and I'm not sure that it's wise, but I'm ridiculously optimistic about people being teachable, and I can't really apologize for that. :-)

So let's see if I can educate Steve Hays, a bright guy who nonetheless seems to be missing something:

Hays writes:
All he has done now is to document the fact that he was aware of the connection between Antiochene exegesis and the GHM all along. Fine. I don’t doubt it. But that does nothing to harmonize his former statement with his latter statement. Indeed, what he’s done is to document the contradiction.

As to the substance of is objection, this does indeed, go straight to the heart of his objection. His objection is that Evangelical distinctives represent a theological innovation in the history of the church. They are without precedent.

That is in fact my conclusion, but Hays doesn't get my argument. This becomes evident here.

But if, by his own admission, GHM is a direct descendant of Antiochene exegesis, then he can no longer use that particular objection. He can use other objections, but not that one.

Note that I never admitted (and I don't believe) that it's a "direct descendant." I believe that certain hermeneutical techniques from the Antiochene method have been picked out in the context of a drastically different theological method, and that the one's that were so picked out are exactly the ones that functioned most poorly (i.e., the application of Antiochene methods to speculative theology).

But, of course, the GHM is logically and historically independent of Heidegger and Gadamer. It antedates German phenomenology. And it can be embedded within a very different conceptual scheme.

As I’ve said before, it operates with the common sense principle that when we interpret a historical document, we try to enter into the historical horizon of the original author and audience.

And this is simply nonsense. Unless Hays is advocating some kind of Aristotelian apriorism about rationally discerning the "proper method," the GHM operates on the same footing as every empirical method of investigation: application of demonstrably reliable methods based on believable assumptions produces trustworthy outcomes (and incidentally, I'm arguing from an empirical perspective throughout; if reliability can't be shown, I reject the method). If there's some area where the assumptions don't hold or contradictory assumptions prevail, the method is simply inapplicable. More or less, the assumption of the GHM is a human author, because that's where we have some common experience. And the reason I suspect German phenomenology is because the GHM is obviously being applied in an area where its assumptions are not applicable, which suggests that the application is driven by the demands of a philosophical-theological method rather than any empirical justification for its effectiveness.

Divine authorship is sui generis; there's no reason to even expect that the assumptions of the GHM would hold identically, unless you assert what you're trying to prove (namely, that the GHM is a suitable theological method). It's not just Marxists and pomos that reject this kind of reasoning; the uniform testimony of Christian history has been that this sort of reductionistic reading of Scripture to exclude traditional readings leads to heresy. Constantinople established that the application of such reductionism in the area of speculative theology about the doctrine of God doesn't work, because all of the condemned parties were quite faithful adherents of the Antiochene method in the areas that they got condemned. It's not that the Antiochene method is wrong per se; it has important areas of utility, and Hays's construal of my treatment of St. John Chrysostom as a "mere moralist" imputes a degree of contempt for the Antiochene Doctor's vocation that I don't share. My point is only that St. John is an exemplar of right usage of the Antiochene method, given that he deliberately refrained from engaging in excessive theological speculation in areas where the Alexandrian Christological hermeneutic was better used, while Nestorius, Diodore, and the two Theodores are examples of where it can be misused.

This puts into sharp relief the fatal equivocation at the heart of the Evangelical argument made by Hays, Jason Engwer, and Frank Turk that I "have to use the GHM." The problem is that I only use the GHM to the extent it appears reliable and no farther. So I've crafted an analogy to illustrate exactly why this is a problem.

To put it into perspective, the Evangelical use of the GHM is no more convincing to me than an astrologer's use of planetary motion. I have no reason to believe that the application of a proper observational method (such predicting planetary orbits based on gravitational calculations) would have any utility in the area of predicting the future. Essentially, the argument repeated by Hays, Jason Engwer, and Frank Turk is equivalent in my mind to "my astrological calculations are based on absolutely reliable planetary motion calculations; even you have to use planetary motion calculations, you know!" Well, yeah, but I don't use them to predict the future, so why does that my matter?

Then comes the inevitable response "well, how else can we reliably predict the future?," to which I would obviously retort "What makes you think we can?" I have no reason to even *suspect* that there is some independent way to get at divinely revealed meaning apart from the Church; Evangelicals just assume that there is and argue from this perceived necessity to the existence of a method. Maybe the astrologers are right that God wouldn't leave us without some method of predicting the future as well, but suffice it to say that I'm not convinced.

The difference between Catholics and Evangelicals on this point is obvious; Catholics don't apply the GHM outside of the area where it is necessarily persuasive. What we mean by the "literal sense" is exactly what the GHM applied in and of itself can tell us definitively and nothing more. No external criteria, nothing except what an ordinary, uninspired, first-century author (or set of authors, depending on one's pet theory of authorship) with that author's finite knowledge would have written on a particular subject trying to communicate from point A to point B. Beyond that point, the GHM just isn't "sure," and accordingly, the theology formed based on the GHM isn't "sure" either. Thus, you won't see Raymond Brown or Joe Fitzmyer *stopping* in their theological conclusions at the text; they isolate what they can definitively know from the text, and then they move on to how external church teachings can inform exegesis where the conclusions are not definitive. The application of the GHM is the same as Protestants, but the way they draw theological conclusions from it couldn't be more different. Their use of the GHM is the equivalent of predicting the future using planetary motion in a responsible way: e.g., predicting where planet X is going to be at time t, not whether Aunt Bessie is going to win the lottery on May 6th. Beyond those limits they refrain from speaking more definitively than they ought to speak. Now, I may disagree with them on how they practice the method in the first place (e.g., I object to the presumption that miracles cannot be accepted as historical events), but that is a separate issue.

So perhaps I will simply rechristen what conservative Evangelicals do "the astrological hermeneutic." It takes a reliable technique, applies it in an area where you wouldn't even expect the technique to produce reliable results, and treats whatever comes out as reliable. By contrast, I use grammatical-historical methods where they are reliable (viz., discerning the meaning of a human author trying to communicate directly with another human recipient) to empirically observe what hermeneutical method was actually used and deemed reliable by Christians of the past, which I would argue is exactly the Alexandrian Christological hermeneutic of Ss. Athanasius and Cyril. In identifying who is and isn't a Christian, I am not using any particular vaporous or subjective criterion (which "correct belief" would be); it is simply based on the records we have of a relatively well-identified population from a sociological perspective.

Some other points Hays raised:
As I also said, we can find many examples in Scripture itself in which a later writer tries to close the gap between then and now for the benefit of his audience. And for a Protestant, that is sufficient warrant.

This comes far from showing what Hays needs it to show, which is that the generalization is appropriate. It is only "sufficient warrant" in the sense that someone's purely subjective criteria for what is "sufficient" prevail.

BTW, notice that Prejean his contradicting his own methodology. He has argued that Evangelicalism errs by beginning with a doctrinal criterion (a credible profession of faith) and then applying that to identify Christians. He has argued for the reverse: reason from practice to doctrine.

Now, however, he wants to judge the GHM by reference to a philosophical framework as his point of departure.

On the contrary, I want to judge the GHM by the empirical criteria that give it reliability. The reason the GHM is empirically trustworthy is because of demonstrably reliable methods applied to believable assumptions. Depart from the assumptions, and you depart from reliability.

Regarding Chalcedon, Hays said:
This is the Chalcedonian formulation. It consists in a positive statement regarding the relata, followed a negative statement of the relation:

i) Relata:One and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures.

ii) Relation:Inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And how one can infer that "Chalcedon offers precious little regarding a positive statement of the hypostatic union" on that basis is quite inexplicable. Unless you buy Harnack's naive interpretation of Cyril as a Monophysite whose view had to be corrected; more on that in a moment.

Finally, Prejean defends himself by appeal to something he posted a month ago.

But what he does there is to illustrate just how arbitrary his argument really is. He begins by cherry-picked his preferred historical outcome—a Cyrillic or Cappadocian Christology.

Keep in mind that the historical process doesn’t privilege one outcome over another.

He then cherry-picks his authorities, discounting such historical witnesses as Dioscorus, Eutyches, Theophan--as well as such church historians as Aloys Grillmeier, Jaroslav Pelikan, Adolf von Harnack, John Meyendorff.

He then cherry-picks the particular version of the allegorical method he likes, as practiced by Athanasius and Cyril, in contradistinction to Origen, on the one hand, and Antiochene exegesis, on the other hand--while Chysostom is conveniently set aside as a mere moralist.

This is simply error after error after error. First, the historical process does privilege one outcome over another; that's the entire point of competing historical theories. Second, I haven't cherry-picked anyone. I'm following John McGuckin's argument on this subject practically to the letter, and he explains exactly why he thinks that Dioscorus, Eutyches, and Theophan misinterpret St. Cyril, and demonstrates it to boot. Moreover, he directly engages Grillmeier (identifying him as the root of the mistaken view of Chalcedon as Leo's compromise between Alexandria and Antioch), Pelikan (calling Pelikan's stance "inexplicable" and noting that it is thoroughly unjustified by any argument of Pelikan's), and Harnack (who is now almost universally conceded to have been wrong about St. Cyril, primarily through sheer neglect of his exegetical commentaries. And note who is producing the liberal historian now!). Meyendorff is more charitable to his opponents in not going after his opponents' arguments directly, but his conclusion is clearly identical to McGuckin's: he believes that Cyrillene Christology was vindicated by Chalcedon. Ditto Norman Russell and John Romanides. Third, I'm not cherry-picking methodology either. I'm arguing specifically that Alexandrian allegorical method was excessive, but that the Christological hermeneutic (along with a stiff dose of metaphysical humility by way of apophasis) applied by Ss. Athanasius and Cyril provided a correct curb to allegorical excesses of the Alexandrian method, and it was this moderate Alexandrian method that produced orthodox theology as against the more restrictive Antiochene answer to excessive allegorization. So don't tell me that my argument is "arbitrary;" that's nonsense to anyone who is actually reasonably well-educated on the subject.

Again, vapor against substance, and again, I am unimpressed. You don't know this stuff as well as I do, and being intelligent doesn't cover for lack of knowledge.

He talks about “the attempt to rehabilitate the Antiochene view by glossing the condemnation of Antiochenes,” although he has no difficulty attempting to rehabilitate the Alexandrian method by glossing the condemnation of Origen,” and I’m sure he’d be more than willing to gloss the condemnation of Pope Vigilius.

On the contrary, I don't even attempt to rehabilitate Origen's allegorical method; I doubt both its accuracy and its metaphysical premises. Ss. Athanasius and Cyril clearly provided a corrective to Origen's exegetical method, and it is this method that I endorse. And the cheap resort to a tu quoque on Vigilius is simply a distraction.

So this is how the game is played:
i) Arbitrarily privilege your favorite outcome.

... like the use of the GHM to interpret Scripture as some kind of necessity (without any proof that it is). And unlike what I have done with the Christology of St. Cyril and St. Athanasius, which has a solid historical case in its favor.

ii) Discount any authorities who disagree with you.

... like Hays does when he says that only Marxists, feminists, and "queer" theologians would ever dare to question the GHM, discounting the massive witness of people who disagree with that notion. And unlike what McGuckin did with the scholars with whom he disagreed (i.e., documenting specifically and precisely where their arguments erred or were unpersuasive).

iii) Pick out the historical precursors who just so happen to chart a pathway to your preferred outcome, to the exclusion of all other precursors and historical outcomes.

... like what Hays did in calling the GHM a "throwback" to Antioch. And unlike what I did, simply letting the historical method tell me what types of hermeneutical methods were used in the church of the past, and how they correlated with the respective orthodoxy and heresy of various sects.

Notice, again, that the historical process does not, of itself, yield any particular outcome or select for one over another.

Prejean is applying his selection-criteria to church history rather than deriving his selection-criteria from church history.

I beg to differ. The entire point of the historical process is to provide a crucible for historical theories, weeding out the less likely in favor of the more likely. It's history, the factual record, that selected out McGuckin's theory as against Harnack, Pelikan, and Grillmeier, and the growing consensus on his conclusions only make that point out more strongly.

Notice the burden of proof; not: is this a revealed truth, but: does this contradict revealed truth.

And this goes to the fundamental divide between Catholicism and Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism begins with the premise that Christianity is a revealed religion. Hence, revelation is our source of information. To go beyond revelation is to go beyond what we know and have good reason to believe.

Once we leave the settled ground of revelation, we have just gone over the cliff and find ourselves walking on thin air. For his part, the evangelical prefers something firmer underfoot.

Many untruths are consistent with revealed truth. It is consistent with the Bible that John Kerry won the 2004 presidential election. Even though that proposition is a falsehood, it in no way contradicts the Bible.

IMHO, you started on thin air the minute you moved from your "premise" to the application of the GHM outside of its sphere of reliability. ISTM that it's a far more objective to study revelation by what is revealed (IOW, look at the people who revered Scripture, and observe how they treated it) rather than by some philosophical pontifications on what is necessary for a revealed religion. Again, you start with philosophy and reason to method, while I judge methods the same way I always do: by their empirical reliability. You've philosophized the GHM into theological correctness, but your argument isn't grounded in reality. It's nothing but a castle in the sky: thought built on thought.

P.S. There are plenty of Protestants out there who don't agree with this type of calculation either. Note the ornery kid at Metalutheran, who has a post dead on point.