Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sampling the Bible/Theology Divide

John Drury gave a wonderful comparison of John Wesley and Karl Barth's interpretation of Matthew 5:48 at our weekly Theological Seminar (3:30 every week in the CM building if you're interested).  It highlighted to me again the contrasting use Christian interpreters of the centuries have put to Scripture versus the original meaning.  Three quick examples come to mind of late.

1. Barth has a rather sophisticated understanding of Matthew 5:48--perfect means brought to its appropriate goal, which would of course differ in specifics between God and humanity.  For Wesley, of course, this verse hinted at Christian perfection.  Both are wrong in terms of the original meaning.  Perfection in Matthew 5:48 simply means to be complete, to go the whole way.  Love your enemies and your neighbor.  Be complete.  The completion is exactly the same for God and for humanity in this case.

2. A student email asked of the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God.  Apparently, this is a well worked out distinction among Christian interpreters.  In Matthew, however, they are synonymous, with the phrase "kingdom of heaven" being a matter of Matthew's style.

3. Salvation for Paul is future oriented (with the possible exception of Ephesians).  It is to escape God's coming wrath on the Day of Judgment.  Theologians of the centuries, I think however, have focused more on salvation in the present.

Because of the flexibility of language, I accept the validity of both types of interpretation, the original, contextual one, and the truths Christian theologians have heard in the words over the centuries.  The truths they see do not necessarily contradict the original meaning.  They are just interpreting the words differently.

But I'm never quite sure what to do with the difference.  If you want theological enrichment, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley are wonderful.  But don't go to any of these if you want the original meaning.  They were not oriented or equipped to read in context and their interpretations regularly fall far wide of the mark from an inductive standpoint.

My problem is that I find it distracting.  Barth is incredibly profound, as are so many theologians.  I feel like I should be able to listen to him or Wesley for the truth God gave to them on their own terms.  But I am left wondering what to do with the fact that they sometimes do their dance based on misunderstanding. Perhaps this is my problem and one that shouldn't be.

9 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ken,
Is what you are really saying is that all these theologians "settled" themselves on a particular way of "seeing" or "understanding" life? Your "language" happens to be geared toward another way of "seeing" or "understanding" life, which is oriented specifically in the text itself. And since the text has it "own problems", it is best to just accept all the interpretations as "ways of seeing, understanding and living" in the world?

Theology is a literary way of "understanding" while textual criticism is a scientific investigation of history, or what we can know of history by those means.

JohnLDrury said...

Insofar as I agree that this distinction is genuine, I have no reason to argue that Barth or Wesley got the original meaning right. However, I seemed to have completely failed to explain Barth's position, insofar as your description of the "original meaning" is pretty much exactly what Barth says, i.e., that perfects means going the whole to love not only our friends but also our enemies, just as God does. God and we are oriented towards the SAME objective (i.e., enemies), though of course we accomplish this differently than he does (e.g., we don't send our the messiah). Again, I won't pretend for a minute that this is the same thought world as Matthew. But, it seems pretty close structurally to what you said, and so it seems to me that you are making a mountain out of molehill with this one. Perhaps I'm just being touchy since you are riffing off my presentation. If so, please ignore.

As for your other two examples, there are tons of theologians who defined salvation as future, perhaps even the majority. And I've never heard anyone work out the kingdom of heaven / kingdom of God distinction before. Perhaps I'm just ignorant on that one, though I suspect if it was "a well worked out distinction among Christian interpreters" I might have heard of it by now. In both cases, you seem to regard specific instances of contested "theological" interpretation as standard, normative readings. But the tradition does not speak with one voice! Anyways, it seems like more molehills into mountains here. Why can't we all just get along? ;-)

Ken Schenck said...

More than happy to get along ;-) These seemed to be instances that demonstrated the heart of the age-old tension. If my examples are bad, I think the line of thought demonstrates what the fuss has been about.

I sometimes wonder when I am teaching about things like the overload fallacy if I am in fact pulling in the opposite direction of what theology actually trains students to do. I say this not to diss the practice of theology, which I not only consider legitimate but even more distinctly Christian than Biblical studies of the inductive sort.

My second and third examples come from discussions with theologians. Perhaps they were giving their opinions or thoughts from a particular segment of Christianity.

I hope you heard nothing negative toward your presentation here!

JohnLDrury said...

I certainly heard nothing negative towards my presentation. I took it as occasioned by it rather than as a response to it. As for the overload fallacy, I would quickly admit that theological reflection is overwhelming guilty of this, and that such thinking is operative in the Wesley and Barth texts under discussion yesterday. I guess it just doesn't stress me out very much if the basic structure and substance of the meaning of passage makes its way through such dated and admittedly weak argumentation. Then again, original meaning is a powerful tool for mediating between contested "overloaded" interpretations. So your thought that your teaching and my teaching run in the opposite direction both pleases me (because that's part of the tension and accountability of the various seminary disciplines) and troubles me (because said tension may undermine the sort of integrative approach we are working towards). Definitely something for me to reflect on. But for now, back to grading....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ah, yes, John, "let's just get along", by "loving our enemies" ;)! Don't ire me up, mind you. There are rational reasons, for me to not "love" my enemy. Perhaps, I really think my enemy is wrong, but won't be corrected, as they also believe their theological understanding is right. So, my going to Pakistan, Iran or Egypt won't bring "world peace".

Others believe that rational reasons are not to be trusted, because faith isn't based on reason, but irrationality. One should DIE to prove their love for their enemy! that means, that these believe THEIR theological understanding is REAL LIFE and REAL TRUTH, that EVERYONE SHOULD believe. NO One else has a handle on Truth like they do!

Hence, we have our religious "wars", the war of words. Others think by doing humanitarian aid will "warm" the enemies hearts. How much money has America spent in servicing our "enemy"? Has it softened hearts? No, they look at us like they think of "dogs" because they do not admire peace and good-will, really. They admire strength and will bade their time and strategically plan their "way of entrance", which is happening before our eyes.

When a well-known Western journalist goes to one of these Islamic States to cover a story, he decides to go to a movie. He was horrified when the movie showed the stoning of an adulterous woman. But, what was more horrifying was everyone in the theatre started clapping and cheering! He wrote about his incredulous feeling that he was in a starkly different culture that was so foreign, he could not imagine how they think...or view the world.

How does one love cruelty, inhumanity, absolute authoritarianism, and a lack of critical engagement in a culture?

One cannot be naive about those that hold such beliefs that are sanctioned by GOD, himself! These are not tolerant cultures, like ours, no matter our experiences with fundamentalism. And those that think that Islam just wants to be a voice among many voices in a free and open democracy, are naive'. Islam is NOT like Buddhism, where the more educated are more philosophical and tolerant, while the uneducated are more literal in their understanding. No, this is a political ideology and if we do not understand the danger and warnings of those that have been exposed and have the experience, then we will all suffer the consequences of such naivete'.

Wasn't it Jesus commendation to be wise as serpents, but harmless as doves? We seek peace, but we cannot be naive'.

Mirce said...

John W. explains in his note about Matt. 5, 48 that this is referring to »ALL that holiness which is described in the foregoing verses, which our Lord in the beginning of the chapter recommends as happiness« is this not a complete understanding of the scripture?

For the sake of an example read it yourself: »Therefore ye shall be perfect; as your Father who is in heaven is perfect - So the original runs, referring to all that holiness which is described in the foregoing verses, which our Lord in the beginning of the chapter recommends as happiness, and in the close of it as perfection. And how wise and gracious is this, to sum up, and, as it were, seal all his commandments with a promise! Even the proper promise of the Gospel! That he will put those laws in our minds, and write them in our hearts! He well knew how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, this is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of him to whom all things are possible.«

I dont understand why are we making wars about different words, if we can »overcome evil with good« and John Wesley was mostly doing this great, because he is useing different words to explain the essentials.

Ken Schenck said...

Mirce, I hope it's clear to all that I am not dissing Wesley here. I'm trying to have a dispassionate discussion of differing interpretive methods. The inductive Bible study rule is "See no more meaning in a word than is necessary to understand its meaning in the biblical sentence." The overload fallacy is when one reads a word within an ideological framework.

Wesley as a pre-modern interpreter, as the majority of interpreters, often saw theological systems in words. For example, when he saw a word like "perfection" or "holiness," he often inferred his entire system of entire sanctification. I am not finding fault with his doctrine of entire sanctification. Indeed, I am not finding fault with "theological interpretation" of this sort. I am simply pointing out that this is not the original meaning of these texts, arrived at inductively.

Think of it this way. One word is one word. The meaning of a word in practice, in use, in one instance in a sentence, might easily be defined sufficiently by one carefully chosen synonym, by one other word. If we think of the definition of a word in use as the selection of one synonym out of a collection of synonyms that constitutes the range of meaning for that word, we have begun to understand how words really work. This is not a perfect thought experiment, but it begins to get at the distinctions I am drawing.

Wesley 'Whitey Lawful' Mcgranor said...

At what point does loving your enemy and neighbor become perverse and naive? As a consequence such compassion is detrimental to one and their relationship with God, those that are not their enemy and those that are truly friends? When compassion leads to disdain and discrimination shall we be fools and ignore the congnitive and emotional discernment?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Wesley,
I think whenever someone has taken discriminatory actions, there is a reason. One must understand why was there discrimination.

Distain happens whenever there is a repulsion of some kind that registers in the brain. Perhaps, a memory of some kind, or an aversion to the "symbolization" of what the other has represented in action, attitude, choice, or values expressed. Such revulsions are protected by avoidance, and osterization. And sometimes such psychological types are prone to feel more protected by laws that defend their particular belief. Such are the blaspehmy laws.

I really don't think one should respect/defend such laws, as these are in opposition to freedom of speech.

Laws that hinder free speech and information are bent on oppressing opposition. This is the foundation of a free society, diversity.
But, those that are staunchly opinoinated about thier beliefs, as if these beliefs were absolute are not to be won over. Such believers have an absolute terror of leaving, and/or strong attachment to such belief systems.