Monday, February 26, 2007

The Bones of Jesus?

Many of you no doubt noticed the story about the coming Discovery Channel documentary claiming to find the burial place of Jesus and family. I wasn't even going to write on it, because someone's always coming up with something like this to make some money. Hey, if I lived in Jerusalem I might be tempted to snatch some discarded ossuary (1 year burial box) and carve Jesus' name on it.

But since I rarely pass an opportunity for biting sarcasm, why not write about it? By the way, you can find some good comments on this at

Ben Witherington:

and Scot McKnight:

And now, the top 10 reasons why you should laugh really loud when you see this story in the paper:

10. Everyone has DNA. Horrors! They found DNA in someone's burial box and it's related to the DNA on the other burial boxes in the tomb! Wait a minute--most of the people in my home have related DNA too! I must be Jesus!

Seriously, it's not like we have any DNA from Jesus for anyone to be able to link it to the DNA in this tomb.

9. They claim that the DNA in this tomb is related to the DNA in the (discredited) ossuary of James. But wait a minute, in a recent hoax trial on this one, a picture taken in the 70's shows the James ossuary. But this tomb wasn't discovered until 1980. Hmmm. I guess there's a fair chance that both bones were Jewish. That's related, eh?

8. Eusebius and others indicate that the burial place of James was a solitary burial place. That is, no one else was buried at the site where James was--300 years after James' death. I guess the keepers of the grail put his ossuary back in the secret tomb after Constantine suppressed the truth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene... yeah right.

By the way, it is generally accepted that the James box came from a different location than this tomb.

7. How did Joseph's bones get to Jerusalem? My money's on burial in Nazareth. It was the Illuminati who secretly brought it down.

6. Funny how Mary Magdalene, Jesus, his son Jude, his father and mother, and all could be all buried together and no one in the New Testament seems to know about it. They must have kept it all a really good secret.

In fact, the disciples must have been really good liars about where the body of Jesus was hidden. I bet Peter was really regreting that when they were crucifying him. Silly of him not to confess when they were about to kill him. "Just kidding guys. Can I go home now?" Then again, maybe he really believed Jesus rose from the dead. It might explain how he went from running away to dying in the name of the resurrected Jesus.

5. James Tabor, the respectable scholar cameo (he is a respectable scholar), actually published a book last year with a completely contradictory theory. Fickle, thy name is Tabor.

4. This discovery was found over 25 years ago and has been published on (1996) with the Jewish (not Christian) scholar finding no likely connection. Now with Titanic director James Cameron involved, suddenly Christianity is in crisis. Did I mention to you that I was abducted by aliens last week too?

3. The names here "Mary," "Joseph," "Jesus" were extremely common names. On just the names we know, about 21% of women at the time were probably named Mary. Joseph is the second most common name found. Jesus the 6th. Witherington likens the names to Smith or Jones. Assuming that these are all authentic names in an authentic location, it is not at all unlikely to find such a conglomeration (along with about 6 other names) together.

2. I find pretty implausible the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. And it isn't because I think this would be a big crisis for faith. On the contrary, it's precisely because I don't think this would have been a problem at all for the faith of the NT authors that I don't see any conspiracy here. We only find out incidentally that Peter was married. It just wasn't an issue.

1. The empty tomb tradition remains the most likely conclusion of the literary evidence whether one has faith or not. Mark in the earliest form we have dates from the early 70's at the latest and there is no body in the tomb. The earliest tradition of empty tomb denial appears in Matthew--that the disciples stole the body. Yet this non-belief implies that there is no body in the tomb it was expected to be in. To have a family tomb of this magnitude elsewhere requires a conspiracy that is very unlikely given the suffering of the early Christian leaders. Luke and John also point to an empty tomb.

But to me the strongest historical evidence for the bodily resurrection/empty tomb is the way that Paul talks about the resurrection body. It is in continuity with the corpse, which is like a seed planted in the ground that dies before bringing forth life. Since Paul connects Jesus' resurrection with our resurrection, the implication of 1 Corinthians 15 is a continuity between the dead corpse of Jesus and the resurrected, glorious body of Jesus. If there was a conspiracy of this sort, Paul wasn't in on it in the early 50's, less than 20 years after Jesus' death (and he became a Christian within three or four).

Hey, honey, look what the cat drag in with today's newspaper. Just put it in the trash. I'll take the bag out later.

Review Part 1: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

I've finished the first two chapters of Bauckham's new book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses in which he is arguing that the gospels were based on eyewitness testimony. That may seem obvious to many, but is in fact somewhat controversial in that much of twentieth century scholarship pictured a "long" oral phase between Jesus and the writing down of traditions in the gospels. This phase was often spoken of in terms of wild developments strongly detached from the original eyewitnesses to where Paul knew almost nothing of the historical Jesus and might better be thought the founder of Christianity. Bauckham would of course not be the first to take on what I think was a ridiculous mode of operation.

Bauckham's work is strongly based on the recent work of Samuel Byrskog, who has argued that ancient historians had a strong preference for eyewitness testimony. Bauckham works two very important distinctions. The one is between oral history and oral tradition. The general flavor of discussion of oral tradition speaks of the gospel writers drawing on oral traditions that were passed on from the collective memory of Christians telling the stories. Dunn recent work Jesus Remembered, like Bauckham's, argues for much stronger continuity with Jesus than many used to picture. But it would be on the other side of Bauckham in seeing oral tradition as a collective memory rather than some straightforward eyewitness testimony.

Oral history, in contrast to the idea of oral tradition, relies heavily on eyewitness testimony. Ancient historians were critical of those who relied on written sources in deference to a desire for firsthand knowledge. Bauckham also gives reference to passages that indicate that the word tradition often could refer to eyewitness testimony.

I'll say at this point that I am open to what Bauckham is saying here but I am also a little suspicious that he is going to drive a truck through it. Like it or not, the gospels do not fit very neatly together as verbatim accounts. My initial biases are that Dunn's approach fits what we actually see in the gospels better than what I suspect Bauckham is going to do.

Nevertheless, Bauckham is always insightful and always shines light in corners few others do. By far the most delightful reading in these two chapters for me is Bauckham's discussion of the second century Christian writer Papias. Talk about a potential Da Vinci Code if someone dug his work up. Unfortunately, all we have are the quotes people like Eusebius made from his work (early 300's).

Bauckham interprets a famous statement in Papias' prologue to the effect that Papias, who lived in Hieropolis, about 100 miles east of Ephesus, collected the testimony of Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, or Matthew as remembered by those who had heard certain anonymous elders who might come through town. The disciples themselves were already dead at the time around AD80-90.

But Papias also collected the testimony of Aristion and John the elder, at Smyrna and Ephesus respectively, who were also disciples still alive at the time. Bauckham dates the actual writing down of Papias' work around AD110.

I agree with most of what Bauckham argues here with three possible exceptions. First, Bauckham dismisses the dating of Papias implied in a later author called Philip of Side. Papias is usually dated to 130 or 140 because of this statement. Bauckham does provide some evidence that Philip messed up, but it's hard to know definitively.

Second, I agree with Eusebius over Bauckham that the elders to which Papias refers are probably Peter, Andrew, etc. themselves. That is, Papias listened to those who had actually heard these. This actually helps Bauckham's case because his sources are thus those who heard these disciples themselves, not those who heard elders who heard them.

But third, I'm not sure that we should picture Papias meticulously collecting data in the 80's. Maybe that's right, but I picture a very curious youth in the late 80's or early 90's who loved to hear the stories of anyone coming through town about Jesus. By the way, two of the prophet daughters of Philip apparently were some of Papias' sources, although I have a hunch Philip himself was dead by the time Papias came around. Yet these all ended up at Hierapolis where Papias was.

It is speculation, and I imagine Bauckham will get to it later in the book, but my hunch is the same as his with regard to the authorship of the gospel of John. My hunch is that the Gospel of John preserves the reminiscences of John the elder who was still alive in Papias' youth rather than those of John the Son of Zebedee. Martin Hengel thinks the same (The Johannine Question).

I'm really looking forward to the rest of the book. We are sure to end up with a lot of hunches that are, really, unprovable. But we will enjoy them because we thirst to fill in the gaps with secret knowledge ;-)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Witherington on Rob Bell

Scot McKnight's blog pointed me to some thoughts on Rob Bell on Ben Witherington's blog:

I'm so bad at reading the culturally important, so what I know of Bell I know second hand. But interestingly I had a conversation just this week with Adam Thada about Bell and about how accurate some of his biblical/cultural comments are. My impression has been that he does what so many popular preachers do--he gives very memorable insights, "secrets" if you would, into the original context of the Bible that really drive points home... but they usually are a little off. This is a pervasive preaching phenomenon from Spong on the left to some holiness preachers I've known who really impress their audience with these little secrets that even the biblical authors didn't know ;-)

Adam and I were talking about him saying something about having to take a mark in the days of Domitian to buy or sell. I don't know of any evidence for anything like this and have never seen it in anything I've read on Revelation in the scholarly or popular domain. There is good reason to think the book of Revelation's imagery might connect strongly to current events in the late first century in Rome and Ephesus. But I really don't think this is one of them. I've wondered if this comment had something to do with the use of Roman coinage at this time, which indicated that Domitian was a god.

Witherington's review is overall very positive toward Bell and this is my current feeling toward him too. But Witherington has confirmed my impression as well, that Bell's knowledge of ancient culture, history, and context is not always all it's cracked up to be.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

"Dust you are and to dust you will return."

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, forty days until Palm Sunday. Protestants of my stripe are not much into Lent--too "catholic" in feel. And I'll confess as a Wesleyan that I'm never really comfortable with an assumed need for constant post-regeneration confession ;-) ... particularly the ritualization of the confession of sin. We affirm the power of the Spirit to give consistent victory over temptation!

But Lent is the practice of the church universal, and I have to take it seriously: forty days of repentance and of the foreboding of sorrows. It is a time to remember that we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. It is a time to remember God's grace and our never ending need for it.

This generation is a strange combination of qualities on this subject. On the one hand, this generation is quicker than any to believe that "we're all sinners." And yet it takes that statement perhaps the lightest of any generation.

Here's an experiment, go up to someone in your church and ask them,

person 1: "Should a person judge others in the church"
person 2: "Of course not."

person 1: "Why?"
person 2: "Because we're all sinners. We've all sinned. All sin is sin so no one is any better than any other. We can't judge others because we're just as guilty as they are."

person 1: "So you're a bad person? You deserve to go to hell? You're a worm? a wretch?"

I believe at some point in the pursuit of this question most people will begin to feel uncomfortable at what you're suggesting. Most people feel pretty good about themselves. As one prof once found after a survey of his class, 80% of the class thought they were in the top 20% of students.

This is a generation that believes they are sinners... and that's not too bad.

If there is no God, then we are just animals, nothing more. And if there is a God, as we believe, then we are not God. Next to God, nothing is really anything.

It is only the fact that God loves us that makes us--and in fact God's whole creation--extraordinary. The authors of Job, Ecclesiastes, and many of the the psalmists understood this better than us because they did not yet know about the resurrection. We are dust and to dust we will return (Eccl. 3:20).

Before Christ's resurrection, this is where we are. Before the resurrection, we are without hope. Before the resurrection, we are of all people the most miserable.

Remember your death... then remember your Creator.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Book Review: The Pre-existent Son

I have finally finished reading Simon Gathercole's new book, The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. First, let me summarize Gathercole's argument in the book. It basically proceeds in the following orderly fashion:

His Argument
1. In chapter 1, he reviews the majority position of biblical scholarship that Paul's writings and Hebrews already believe in Christ's pre-existence. He extends the discussion into Jude.

2. In chapter 2, he shows how exalted and how much power and authority Jesus has in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here he is not arguing that this authority proves Jesus' pre-existence, only that it certainly fits with a heavenly background for Jesus. It does not prove pre-existence but fits with it.

3. In chapters 3 through 7, Gathercole gives his signature argument for the book, namely, that the "I have come" statements in the synoptic gospels are best understood as statements of movement from x to y for a purpose. Further, that the only really appropriate location of x is in heaven, meaning that Jesus is saying that he has come from heaven for the purposes he sets out. The train of thought basically amounts to this:

a. Previous explanations for the "I have come" statements don't work (chapter 4).

b. The closest background parallels are when angels say they have come from heaven for some particular purpose (chapter 5).

c. Signature chapter: I have come from heaven... (chapter 6).

d. Chapter seven then suggests that if this is true, then comments about Jesus being sent would have the same connotation, even though in themselves they don't prove pre-existence.

4. The rest of the book then warms down. Chapters 8 and 9 critique the path that most scholars have taken previously to argue for pre-existence in the synoptics, namely, some identification of Christ with pre-existent wisdom.

a. In chapter 8 Gathercole dismisses most of the arguments that Matthew identifies Jesus with pre-existent wisdom. These commonly made past arguments see Matthew drawing from images in Sirach and editing Q in various ways. Simon questions these commonly made arguments.

b. In chapter 9, then, he does see a strong implication of pre-existence in Matthew 23:37: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... how often have I desired to gather your children..." In order for Jesus to have often tried to gather Jerusalem's children, he would have to have been around throughout Israel's history.

Simon is also sympathetic to the idea that Luke-Acts is well on its way to considering Jesus to be the logos.

5. In the final argument chapters of the book, chapters 10-13, Simon goes through the titles of "Christ," "Anatole" (rising or growth), "Lord," "Son of Man," and "Son of God," to see what light they might or might not shed on the pre-existence question.

a. In chapter 10, Simon rightly looks at a key passage, Mark 12:35-37, where Jesus asks how David can call the Christ "Lord" if in fact the Christ is David's son. He also thinks that when Luke 1:78-79 speaks of the Anatole coming from "on high," this probably means that Jesus came from heaven. Zechariah seems to use the term in a way Luke would have taken messianically.

b. In chapter 11, Gathercole is less certain that the term Lord indicates pre-existence in the synoptics. He does raise a question that has predominantly been raised in German scholarship. When the gospel writers quote conversations like Psalm 110:1 (the LORD said to my Lord) and Isaiah 40 ("Behold I am sending my messenger"), they are picturing conversations between God and Jesus. If so, they would be conversations had before Jesus came to earth and thus pre-existence conversations.

c. In chapter 12, Simon looks at the "Son of Man" title, which of course brings Daniel 7:13 into the discussion, as well as passages from 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra. As elsewhere, Simon believes that the idea of the coming of the Son of Man points to his coming from heaven. Perhaps more significantly, he points to various background literature like the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra where the Son of Man seems to pre-exist in heaven. Especially in Matthew, this might imply pre-existence.

d. Chapter 13 then finally addresses the "Son of God" title. As before, he finds the sending of the Son as the clearest indication of pre-existence, and particularly brings in the parable of the wicked tenants as an indication of this where the land owner finally sends his only son. But Gathercole does see an incredibly exalted divine identification between Christ and God in the Son title, particularly in Matthew 11:27.

6. In chapter 14 and the conclusion, Gathercole addresses contemporary theological debate, notably Karl-Josef Kuschel's Born Before All Time and Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology. He believes that contrary to the majority opinion, the pre-existence of Jesus is a significant element in the theologies of the synoptic writers.

1. First, I want to commend Simon thoroughly for his command of the literature, particularly German scholarship. All NT scholars are supposed to be competent in German and French. But probably the majority just skirt by. Not Simon! His mastery of German scholarship is exemplary and runs the gamut.

2. The early argument of the book is that Paul sees Jesus as pre-existent and thus why wouldn't the later gospel writers do so? This is a good argument. I myself don't think the pre-existence of Christ plays as great a role as Simon thinks it does in Paul's writings or Hebrews. It is usually evoked in poetic contexts where the language seems somewhat figurative. But the argument is very strong that Philippians 2:6-7 imply the literal, personal pre-existence of Jesus, so Simon's argument here probably stands.

3. However, I find the "lay of the land" curious in terms of what Simon accepts as pointing to pre-existence and what doesn't. He rejects many of the arguments previously used, only to offer arguments that I find less convincing in many cases.

So I find the idea that Matthew has a wisdom Christology compelling (arguments relating to Sirach, Q, the book of Wisdom, and the Similitudes of Enoch), while Simon seems to downplay this idea. I wonder if the reason is because a wisdom Christology plays fairly easily into a more figurative sense of pre-existence, while Simon is arguing for a strongly literal sense of pre-existence. So I wonder if he downplays this line of argument for this reason.

4. Simon places the bulk of his argumentation in the idea that when Jesus says "I have come," he is using an idiom whose closest background is the visitation of angels and that he implies he is coming from somewhere, with heaven as the best option.

I have several questions about this argument. First, I don't think Simon allows enough (at least in writing) for a mixture of senses for this phrase. So, Jeremias saw an Aramaic idiom behind the phrase. Others see it as Jesus coming from Nazareth or Capernaum. Perhaps these suggestions do not explain all the occurrences, but they might apply to some.

Second, I'm not sure that the statement "I have come" need imply much thought at all about where a person has come from. We would criticize those medieval theologians who asked who the ransom of Christ's death was paid to. This was overreading the metaphor of ransom language. In the same way, I believe Simon has many passages where Jesus says "I have come" because he has asked a question these statements were not meant to answer.

This relates to my fourth point below, namely, that I believe Simon has a literalistic bias that leads him to underestimate the poetic and metaphorical depth of some of this material. I find particularly bizarre that scholarship that sees pre-existence in the way certain OT texts are brought to bear on Jesus' life. To me this takes beautiful and subtle literary allusions and echoes and makes them flatly literal. A. T. Hanson, admired by Gathercole, was in my opinion an English equivalent to those German scholars who have this bizarre line of thinking. Do we really suppose that Paul thought the rock that followed Israel was literally Christ? What does that even mean?

Third, I believe one of the weaknesses of German scholarship has perennially been its tendency to insist we find the meaning of words and phrases in some background corpus--so called "parallelomania." The Kittel generation chronically committed the overload fallacy and I'm not convinced that Simon hasn't caught the disease in a weak form.

Most of the examples of angelic coming that Gathercole mentions post-date the NT. And to compare the "visits" of an angel (a few minutes?) with the visit of Jesus (thirty-three years) seems a bit of a stretch, to say the least.

Fourthly, Simon seems to take the most pertinent "I have come" statements in a strongly realistic way without even considering other possibilities. On the one hand, he claims to be addressing the question of what the synoptic writers believed. For obvious reasons, he does not want to stake any of his argument on what the historical Jesus himself might have thought or said about himself.

Yet the hidden assumption of his "I have come" argument is that even within the narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the "I have come" statements are meant to be statements of physical coming in one way or another. But what if some of the times when the synoptic writers present Jesus as saying, "I have come," the authors are really not making statements of Jesus movement through space but making poetic, theological statements about who Jesus is and of their understanding of Jesus' significance?

Thus Simon assumes that Matthew means us to take "Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, ... how often have I wanted to gather you..." as a geo-spatial statement made by Jesus--even if a Matthean rather than historical Jesus. Simon has argued against the conclusion I lean more toward, that Matthew might mean this comment as a picture of Jesus speaking as God's wisdom for Israel. This would make sense if Simon is wrong about Matthew thinking of Jesus as God's wisdom for Israel. I personally am not convinced that Simon has the right understanding of Matthew's intention in such comments. I wonder if he has read some of these statements too narrowly.

4. On the other hand, to me, the strongest arguments for Jesus' literal pre-existence in the synoptics are not the "I have come" statements but a) the "how can the Messiah be David's son" passage, b) the Transfiguration, and c) Son of Man tradition.

a) It is hard to know what Jesus means when he asks how the Messiah can be David's Son when David calls him Lord, that is, unless this is a statement of pre-existence. Jesus could of course just be playing with their minds. But pre-existence is a strong possibility too. We won't want to take Bultmann's suggestion that Jesus really wasn't descended from David and that this was a defense of how he could be Messiah and yet be of Galilean descent.

b) The transfiguration certainly points to a heavenly identity beyond Jesus' earthly appearance. The question is whether it is looking foward to the resurrection or implying something pre-existent as well.

c) Finally, 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra both see the Son of Man as pre-existent, although there might be some debate about whether this is really a personal pre-existence. There is also the question of dating. 4 Ezra post-dates all the gospels. The section of 1 Enoch which strongly parallels Matthew, the Similitudes, are not among the fragments at Qumran and thus probably date either to the first century BC or perhaps are even contemporaneous with early Christianity.

I think that much in Simon's argument does not stand scrutiny, but enough does to support his basic conclusion. I do not think that the pre-existence of Christ plays a significant role in the synoptic gospels. But I think it may very well be peaking out of Mark at the transfiguration and in Jesus' question to his opponents. It seems to peak through even more strongly in Matthew, although with strongly figurative wisdom overtones. I find it personally the weakest in Luke-Acts, where I believe it is only present in material taken over from Mark.

But the conclusion is arguably right: the synoptics seem to believe that Jesus was pre-existent in some way. Assuming that Paul understood Jesus' pre-existence as personal pre-existence, then we should also take such pre-existence in the synoptics to be personal pre-existence.

Monday, February 12, 2007

1 Timothy 2 and Women in Ministry

1 Timothy is significantly different in several ways from Paul's other letters. I'm not just talking style, although it is true that the Greek vocabulary and style of 1 Timothy and Titus are significantly different from Paul's other letters. Luke Timothy Johnson suggests Paul may have used a different amanuensis. Some hypothesis of this sort seems necessary to explain the differences if Paul was in fact its author.

Of course the majority of scholars think these letters are pseudonymous and thus written long after Paul was dead. I will not link my argument to that interpretation for several reasons. And of course, even if 1 Timothy were pseudonymous, it is in Scripture and therefore must be treated as authoritative in the manner of Scripture all the same.

However, the differences are real whether we go with pseudonymity or not, and they have bearing on how we integrate 1 Timothy with the rest of Paul's writings. It is my hermeneutical contention that no single passage of Scripture holds unfiltered authority without taking into account the rest of Scripture. It is easy to show that everyone does this in their appropriation the Bible, no matter how conservative or literalistic one may claim to be in interpretation. But this is not the place to show this.

1. The advice to widows in 1 Timothy 5 is a good example of changes from 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians, Paul very clearly prefers that widows remain single (1 Cor. 7:8-9, 39-40). Indeed, he puts his own singleness as the ideal for ministry "because the time has been shortened" (1 Cor. 7:29). He is living under the expectation that Christ will return shortly and marriage is a distraction. In 1 Thessalonians 4, he plays catch up on the topic of resurrection--apparently he focused so much on the coming of Christ that he did not talk much about what happens to believers who die in the meantime.

Not so in 1 Timothy. In 1 Timothy, it is only widows over sixty who are to be put on the list of those supported by the community as "true" widows (5:9). Assuming Paul as author, he has apparently become very pessimistic about the ability of widows to stay single. Now younger widows are counseled to remarry so that they do not become gossips and busybodies (5:13-14). Married women are urged to take care of younger widows until they remarry (5:16).

Again, assuming Paul as author, what has happened here since 1 Corinthians? For one thing, Paul does not have the same heightened sense of Christ's immanent return that he had in 1 Corinthians. He now can distinguish "later times" when people leave "the faith" (4:1, here using faith in a different way than he normally does in his earlier letters). Paul himself would belong to the early times of the faith, so he is presumably thinking of a time after he has passed from the scene. He talks of people forbidding marriage in those later times--an interesting change of trajectory again from 1 Corinthians 7. In 1 Cor. 7 Paul's trajectory is away from marriage. In 1 Timothy it is toward marriage.

Assuming Paul as author, 1 Timothy 5 has all the feel of someone who has been burned by experience. No longer optimistic about widows staying single, he pragmatically caves in to advise them to remarry. 1 Timothy 5 is thus highly practical and, given its obvious shift from Paul's earlier writings, cannot be taken as absolute in character. It is rather a very pragmatic application of principles to a particular cultural situation.

2. What we are seeing here is a move toward insitutionalization. Evangelicals usually date 1 Timothy to a time after Paul's release from Rome in the final years of his ministry (I find this dating highly problematic, but will go with it). In that sense, Paul sees that he will no longer be around to mediate the Spirit's voice to his churches. In that light it is understandable that the Pastorals begin to focus on the "example" and "deposit" of "teaching" (1 Tim. 1:10, 16; 4:6, 16; 6:3, 20) Paul is leaving to the church after him--a focus and vocabulary we largely do not find in his earlier letters.

Just to mention another difference between 1 Timothy and Paul's earlier letters, 1 Timothy 1 talks about the law in an unusual way for Paul. Here the law does not show us our need for faith in order to be justified or saved (1 Timothy does not seem to use any of these words in the typical Pauline ways). Rather the law largely refers to the 10 commandments and is an ethical standard that righteous people keep and criminals don't (1:9). It is a de-Judaized law that amounts to a moral code of behavior. In a way, such an approach seems to fit the institutionalization of Christianity, buckling down for the long haul of history.

The structures that 1 Timothy 3 sets down fit into this basic feel to 1 Timothy. Now we need standards for leaders, here overseers and deacons. Those against women in ministry often note that these lists are oriented around men. We no longer have the pneumatic world of the early Paul, where women seem to be part of the ministerial cadre (Priscilla, Phoebe, Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche). Given the rest of the tone of 1 Timothy toward women, we are probably right to see these lists as leaving women out of church leadership.

But it is equally important to realize that this is a change from the earlier Paul. Romans 16:1 refers to Phoebe as a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea. This is a word with a masculine ending, the same word as 1 Tim. 3:8 and the same word used of Timothy himself in 1 Tim. 4:6. When we look at the big picture of Paul's writings, 1 Timothy is the departure from the norm, not the other way around. The person who uses 1 Timothy as the lens through which to understand the rest of Paul does great violence to the rest of Paul.

3. When we now approach the passage on women in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, we should do so with this sense that 1 Timothy as a whole is a different bird. Assuming Paul as author, this is still a different Paul than we have seen before. He is preparing the church for a time when he will not be there and he is probably creating structures that will avoid pitfalls that he has experienced.

For those evangelicals who read 1 Timothy as a pseudonymous writing, it is a presentation of Paul's authority to a later generation where the characteristics of the "later times" are in fact the present (4:1ff). It is a time when all the apostles have died and free wheeling charismatic prophesy is a major source of false teaching. It is a world where itinerant teachers are a major problem.

In fact, we should see such false teachers as an element in the equation even when we assume Pauline authorship (cf. 1 Tim. 6:3-10). 2 Timothy 3:6 speaks of "weak willed women" who serve as conduits for false teaching. Perhaps this is the type of widow that 1 Timothy 5 has in mind. A connection between women being easily deceived (1 Tim. 2:14) and false teachers would be natural. One might hypothesize a situation at Ephesus where women are a major element in the false teaching equation.

1 Corinthians 7 and 11 may already deal with certain wives who were causing tensions in the Christian community because of their new found empowerment in Christ. Were some of them wanting to use Christianity as an excuse to leave their husbands (1 Cor. 7:10-11) or at least to stop having sex with them (1 Cor. 7:4)? Were some of them taking their veils off in worship (1 Cor. 11:5)?

The importance of wives being in subordination to their husbands becomes institutionalized in 1 Tim. 2:9-15. These verses are usually translated as "women" rather than "wives," but the overall sense of 1 Timothy pushes us to see wives primarily in view. Their primary identity in the world of 1 Timothy is formulated in relation to a husband. The word gyne can mean either, but the cultural assumption here clearly pushes us away from seeing a woman having significant identity independent of a man.

Further, the argument of 2:13-15 presupposes a married woman. A wife is not to teach a husband because of the relationship between Adam and Eve--a husband-wife pair. And the woman will be saved from transgression through childbearing--obviously a wife in view here. I therefore believe the current majority skews this passage when they treat it primarily in terms of male-female relationships in general. It is woman-as-wifed who is primarily in view, since this is how 1 Timothy conceptualizes woman.

The proper woman/wife thus looks like the person of 1:9-10. The proper woman/wife learns in quietness and submission. And the proper woman/wife does not teach her husband. She certainly does not take the authoritative role. Apparently gone are the days when a Priscilla might teach an Apollos (Acts 18:26). Assuming Pauline authorship, Paul has apparently learned better. But the variance between Paul's earlier context and 1 Timothy shows that these structures cannot be timeless--Paul himself apparently has not always followed them. They have to be a concession to pragmatics.

4. The arguments used to substantiate these roles for husband and wife are the creational order of Adam and Eve and Eve's propensity to be deceived. Here we should note that biblical arguments are often as enculturated as biblical injunctions are. Who today would put speckled rods in front of animals in the process of giving birth to try to result in speckled offspring (Gen. 30:37-43)? And how does the fact that God is one imply that the mediation of angels makes the law inferior to Christ (Gal. 3:19-20)?

But we do not wish to link the women in ministry issue with the question of male-headship. Is it possible for a wife to be a minister without "taking authority over her husband"? Certainly--especially in our culture even if it was far more difficult in theirs! The priority of Adam over Eve can be retained with a female minister even if one does not see husband-headship as a cultural matter.

The question of wives teaching is slightly different. Here 1 Timothy 2:14 argues from the fact that Eve rather than Adam was the one deceived. The logic seems to be that women are more easily deceived than men and thus that they should not instruct men.

But clearly this is not always true. We mentioned in our post on 1 Corinthians that patriarchal cultures--including the biblical culture--generally had room for the woman who was "male-like" in her leadership. We would thus go against the precedent of the rest of Scripture to make this an exceptionless principle anyway.

Also, the argument in 1 Tim. 2:14-15 is blasphemous if we take it too strongly. "The woman, having been deceived, has come to be in transgression. But she will be saved through childbearing if they remain in faith and love and holiness with sobriety." The picture is one of all women being in a state of transgression entered into by Eve (perfect tense), a state from which childbearing "saves" them.

Clearly this is an allusion to the consequences of Eve's sin in Genesis 3:16, which included subordination to her husband and painful childbirth. Painful childbirth is obviously here to stay until the eschaton, and we can lightly take 1 Timothy 2:14-15 as an allusion to it. But we cannot take the continuance in transgression very strongly at all, for Christ atoned for all sins, including the sins of Eve. To suggest anything otherwise is blasphemy! It is an offence to Christ to locate women in any particular role as a result of Eve's transgression!

Assuming Pauline authorship, here we might note that Hebrews goes one step further than the rest of the NT in the way it considers Christ's atonement to be universal and transtemporal. Acts depicts Paul going to offer a sacrifice even near the end of his ministry (Acts 21:26). To the degree to which the transgression of Eve might stand behind the logic of 1 Tim. 2:14-15, to that extent this injunction is not as far along in the flow of revelation as Hebrews.

And the deceivability of Eve seems to be the primary typos behind women/wives not teaching. This fact seriously locates this particular structure before Christ. Women cannot be held accountable for the sins of Eve ("the soul that sinneth, it shall die"--not the soul of all her descendants). To the extent to which women are not easily deceived, to that extent there is no reasonable prohibition against them being teachers. And clearly women are far more educated today than they were in the time of Paul.

In that light, the argument of 1 Timothy 2 appears strongly like a number of other arguments in Scripture with clear cultural characteristics. As speckled rods don't make cows have speckled calves, Eve's gullibility does not make all women gullible. Those who mindlessly apply this Scripture to today would appear to be the ones who easily misunderstand and shouldn't be teachers!

My purpose above has primarily been to interpret and locate 1 Timothy. The picture that emerges is one in which Paul (or the heirs of Paul) are shifting from a more charismatic and pneumatic environment where women have few spiritual boundaries to one where the church is buckling down for the long haul. 1 Timothy is a departure in several ways from the church of Acts and Paul's earlier writings.

The Scriptural question for today is thus in how we integrate these teachings and then appropriate them. It is surely significant that women largely did not minister until the late 1800's--remembering that we see throughout church history the usual exceptions we noted of the OT. This was the consensus of the church of the ages, which followed the precedent of 1 Timothy rather than Paul's earlier writings or Acts.

What what of the Reformation underway today? Is it of God or a passing cultural trend itself? That is a topic for our final post.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

1 Corinthians 14 and Women in Ministry

It's time for my bi-yearly visit to Constance Cherry's women in ministry class to talk about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Whether by providence, chance, or a division chair's design, the women in ministry class always is scheduled at the same time that I teach 1 Corinthians and David Smith teaches 1 Timothy. So Constance has each of us come for a day and share on the only two verses in the entire Bible of any potential significance at all against women in ministry: 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15.

I have the really easy one. I always start out with the same line: "What does 1 Corinthians 14 have to say against women in ministry? Absolutely nothing!" But to fill up the rest of the hour, I go on anyway.

Headship Passages
There are a few places where we find "household codes" in the NT where the wife is said to be subject to her husband: Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3. But these, in the end, are irrelevant to the women in ministry question. Why?

1. Because husband-headship does not preclude a wife, let alone a single woman, being a minister.

[I might say that I personally view husband headship as more of a cultural than creational matter, but I don't want to muddy the waters of this particular discussion with a more controversial issue. Even assuming that husband-headship is "transcultural," it is, in the end, irrelevant to the question of women in ministry.]

For one thing, a husband could not legitimately use headship authority in a way that went against God's authority. So if God calls a woman to ministry, the husband-head would not have the authority to countermand it. "You tell whether it is right in God's eyes to obey you rather than God" (Acts 4:19).

And what if (just imagine, ye feeble of mind) a husband as head obeyed God and endorsed and supported God's call on his wife. Certainly then a wife in ministry would not contradict male headship now would it?

So if a husband supports his wife in ministry, husband-headship does not contradict women in ministry. And if a husband does not support his wife in ministry and we can show that God does, he does not have the authority to oppose his wife in ministry. In either case, the husband-headship issue is irrelevant to the question of women in ministry.

2. A second reason why these passages are irrelevant to women in ministry is that the Bible treats these sorts of patriarchal structures as "most of the time" structures. That is to say, the Bible does not treat these roles as absolute structures without exception.

How do we explain the occasional Deborah or Huldah? And why does Paul's mode of operation as found in Acts and his early letters seem to involve women working with him with no specification that they only worked with women or children?

Even Aristotle, whose household codes precede and say similar things to those in Colossians, Ephesians, and so forth, allows that there are women who are a "departure from nature." This, I submit, was the patriarchal view of biblical times. Men are usually the leaders, but there are women who occasionally depart from the norm. And to get off track again, Acts 2 seems to imply that we should expect a whole lot of these "departures" in the age of the Spirit, for "sons and daughters will prophesy" (Acts 2:17) and "in Christ there is not 'male and female'" (Gal. 3:28).

Side issues, but here to make it clear that it really all comes down to 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15 as the only possible objections to women in ministry. Wow! How completely whacked out of focus Grudem and friends are and all the well intentioned people they've misguided!!

1 Corinthians 14:34-35
1. First thing I note about these verses is that they primarily seem to picture a husband wife relationship. The words for woman and man here also mean wife and husband, and that is the relationship that seems primarily in view.

So when 14:34 mentions "the Law" saying that women are to be subjected, what is it referring to? I think by far the best candidate is Genesis 3:16, where Eve is subjected to Adam in consequence of her sin. I'll overlook the blasphemy of applying this verse to the time after Christ, it only says, "as even the Law says"--a light comparison without teeth.

Why would it be blasphemy to apply this verse to the husband wife relationship? Because Christ atoned for all sins, not just some or just the sins of Adam! A redeemed women is no longer under the condemnation of Eve. She is in Christ. We can argue over a creational order of male and female, but not over a post-Fall order. That's blasphemy, as if someone were saying, "Nice job, Christ, in atoning for most sins. Too bad you couldn't take care of all of them." Blasphemy!

But the Genesis allusion points to a husband wife relationship, as does the comment, "let them ask their own husbands at home."

2. The second thing I note, and this is the most important, is that Paul cannot be talking about spiritual speech like prophecy or he has contradicted himself within the space of three chapters. In 1 Corinthians 11, he is discussing women praying and prophesying in church. Any woman praying or prophesying with uncovered head dishonors her "head," that is, her husband.

This chapter is the first of four that deal with interrelationships within the church at Corinth. Later in chapter 11 Paul will discuss communion. Chapters 12-14 deal with spiritual gifts and tongues in particular. In the early part of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is dealing with women in the congregation who are apparently causing conflict and tension by praying and prophesying without their hair veiled--the sign of a single woman. They were dishonoring their husbands before other men, angels, and God the Father. The context and the nature of the problem--prophecy isn't something you do alone--lead us to see this as a worship issue.

But if women are praying and prophesying before other men here, then the silence 14:34 enjoins cannot be silence of a spiritual sort. It has to be noise that causes disruption to the worship. Indeed, the noise at issue would seem to be questions addressed to men who aren't their own husbands (let them ask their own husbands--not someone else's). Philo the Jew talks about a worship service where women and men were segregated--a plausible scenario for other synagogues as well. The disruption of asking questions with such segregation would also contribute to our understanding of this passage.

And so this passage cannot address spiritual speech by women. And thus this verse has nothing to say against women in ministry. That simply isn't something these verses address.

Textual Issues
I want to end this snippet as a scholar. Perhaps most scholars take 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as original to 1 Corinthians. But a significant minority, including myself, do not think they come from Paul's hand. This is not a conservative-liberal issue, for faith filled scholars like Gordon Fee and Richard Hays agree with me. And of course conservative-liberal labels have nothing to do with truth. The truth is the truth period and doesn't care what label you attach to it.

And anyone who uses a modern translation de facto accepts that there are any number of places where the medieval Greek text (the one behind the KJV) has readings that were not the same as the first editions of these texts.

I have not based my appropriation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 off of the textual question because then someone might dismiss my argument on this issue. As you can see above, the conclusion stands or falls regardless of whether these verses were original.

But I think it is not very likely that they were original. Why?

1. These verses are displaced in a few manuscripts. They appear somewhere in all manuscripts, so they externally have very strong evidence in favor of their authenticity. Indeed, I think they must have been added before the end of the first century (someone might argue that Paul himself put them in the margin about the same time he wrote 1 Timothy, being sorely ticked at certain women in Ephesus).

In some manuscripts they appear after verse 40. One explanation for this phenomenon is to suggest that they were placed in the margin and then later copyists put them in at more than one location in the main text.

2. In keeping with the displacement, the train of thought works much smoother without them present. 1 Corinthians 14 is about prophesy and tongues. The wife comment is a digression if original.

Here's how it would read:

"The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints. Or did the word of God go out from you alone or meet you alone? If someone thinks to be a prophet or spiritual, let that person acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the command of the Lord."

The comment on women being silent is a digression from the train of thought.

3. The church at Corinth is a church at Corinth. It is not a group of churches, plural. It therefore makes little sense for Paul to tell the Corinthian church for them to let women be silent in the churches. They are not churches and Paul is not addressing churches. This minor anomaly bespeaks transplanted material.

4. Verse 36 similarly returns to a masculine audience--the word for alone is masculine plural. That works okay, but it was women that Paul said earlier to let be silent and to ask at home: "let women ask."

5. Finally, there is the tension between these two verses and 1 Corinthians 11. I have suggested that these verses cannot be talking about spiritual speech or Paul has contradicted himself in the space of three chapters.

But these verses sure sound like a total prohibition of speech--"it is shameful for a women to speak in church." In other words, if these words are original, it seems almost impossible to fit them together with what Paul has said earlier. Given the other evidence, the near impossibility of fitting these words together with what Paul has said earlier leads me to conclude that he probably didn't say them at all.

[I might add tangentially that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to play out such a scenario in a church today and keep the more central principles of the gospel, although it was probably more possible in Paul's day]

And so I end where I began. The only verse in the entire Bible that potentially offers any substance against the idea of women in ministry is in 1 Timothy. Certainly 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 provide no argument against it.

Hallelujah for the dawn of the new covenant and the age of the Spirit, an age when our sons and daughters prophesy!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Postmodern Trickle of Semi-Consciousness

So what are we to do with postmodernism? The greatest value of postmodernism in philosophy is the way in which it draws our attention to how little we really and truly know. Of course this idea is not new. We have seen that Socrates and others recognized this centuries before Christ.

But postmodernism points us to the ultimately "mythical" character of our knowledge. We argued in our chapter on the birth of philosophy that we do a disservice to ancient myths when we think of them as "bad science," as if the myths primarily served to explain how the world works. Rather, myths were far more poetic expressions of the mysterious workings of the world. Our scientific equations today are really just very precisely tuned myths. It is not at all clear that they tell us about the world.

What science and math do is express the mysteries of reality in very precise ways. But we have no way of knowing how they might relate to some reality-in-itself. So the distance something travels is the speed it is going times the amount of time it travels at that speed. This formula works very well to tell you how far you have travelled since the last pit stop. We can say that this myth really works when you're talking about things like cars.

But does it really tell us what the reality of these things is apart from us? What is distance, really? Is it a thought in the mind of God? What is time, really? Einstein told an even more precise myth he called relativity. It works even better than the myth above. Perhaps it will prove to be such a great mythical expression of how things works that we will never replace it.

Our attempt to arrive at what is true is our attempt to find the most accurate myths that we can to express the way the world works. We can believe all sorts of things about what is behind the way the world works--or not believe that there is anything behind it. But a good myth and one worthy of being called a "true myth" is one that accounts for the way things work the best.

Where does God and Christian revelation fit into this picture. Because we are stuck in our heads, it does not change the process by which we reach toward truth. As we saw in our chapter on a Christian View of the World, whether we like it or not, revelation still must pass through our reason and experience to get into our understanding.

But as believers we believe by faith that God exists and that He is involved in the world, that He is involved in the process of our understanding. This does not mean that God works around our myth-making ways. We find equally godly people in all the different forms of Christianity--and God lets them go on believing different things. We see over and over throughout biblical and Christian history that God's people have also formulated their understandings of God in ways that were deeply influenced by the culture of their day.

In short, God apparently does not reveal by showing us absolute truth removed from our worldviews and paradigms, our "myths." Rather, God's consistent mode of revelation seems to meet us where we are at, to meet us in our "myths" and make them work far better than they did before. He makes them far more true than they were before.

But the only One with a God's eye view on reality is God. Only He knows all the data of the universe in all of its relationships to all the other data of the universe. We see an infintesimal portion of it and comprehend the interrelationships of that portion only in part and in fact further as skewed by the perspective from which I can never fully free myself.

We are thus all myth-makers. All the words in this chapter are indeed attempts to express the myth-stery of life as precisely as possible. Derrida and Foucault were themselves mythmakers, as are other philosophers like Heidegger or Rorty. Those who urge us to stop thinking of ourselves as knowers and the world as that which is known are only urging a different myth that they think expresses the mystery better. And those who would urge us to stop talking "meta-talk"--talk about talk--are themselves only urging a different myth.

The key is not to mistake these stories philosophers tell themselves for reality. I will continue to use meta-language, and I will continue to discuss myself as a subject reflecting on reality. I do so not because I am committed to a particular subject-object metaphysic or epistemology, but because this mythical construct works really well. I use this language with an eternal footnote that says, "You should not think that I mistake this language for the actual nature of the world in itself." You foolish Lyotard to think I mistook these things for reality. The meta-myths never left the field you story tellers thought you captured.

Another thing that works is a movement toward greater reflectivity. I may not be able to become absolutely reflective, but I can point to places where I have become more reflective. The problem with modernism is that it thought it was more reflective than it was. It labeled the lack of self-awareness of those before it pre-modernism.

But we are all at the same time some mixture of reflectivity and non-reflectivity. The postmodern truth is that we are never fully reflective. We see through a glass darkly. A healthy dose of postmodernism will not lead us to give up on the idea of truth and reflectivity altogether. After all, that approach to life certainly doesn't work. It is to know what we think we know humbly. To listen and learn from others, from all those around us, from all those of the past. Ironically, experience is the best path to greater reflectivity.

When God's kingdom comes, we'll see far more of the puzzle. Perhaps God will miraculously undo the egocentric predicament. Or maybe God will then enjoy watching how our myths become more splendid than anything we might currently imagine.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Postmodernism Etc...

Since the 1980's it has become common to consider ourselves in a "postmodern" age. But what exactly does that mean? Probably the best way to start exploring the question is to recognize that "post" modern surely means in a most basic way "after" modernism. Apparently, we best define postmodernism not so much in terms of what it is, but in terms of what it is not. And what it is not, is modernism.

Now to be sure, we can describe postmodern culture without reference to modernism. Postmodern culture is pluralistic, it emphasizes not only the tolerance of all ideas but professes them all to be just as valid as each other. There is less a sense of an overarching right or wrong. Everybody's business is their own business. Whatever floats your boat is your own business. We could play out this Zeitgeist in all sorts of areas ranging from art to ethics.

But to understand postmodernism as a philosophical development, we best look at what it is unraveling. In the philosophical sense, you can hardly be a post-modern if you have not at least passed through the fires of modernism. Historians of Western thought usually point to Rene Descartes as the father of modern philosophy because of the way he turned philosophy's attention on me as a knower. He asked not what is certain in general, but how can I know what is certain.

This development in philosophy roughly paralleled the rise of science and the decline of the church as sources of truth. The focus in the quest for truth comes to be evidence and the goal objectivity, the ability to look at the world without bias or preconception about where the evidence will point. Stanley Grenz likened the goal of modernist epistemology to Spock in the late 60's TV sitcom Star Trek. [A Primer on Postmodernism] Spock was half human and half Vulcan. He struggled to keep the emotions of his human side under control so that he could think objectively about things.

Grenz considers the transition from Star Trek to Star Trek the Next Generation a metaphor for the transition from modernism to postmodernism. If Spock has emotions but does his best to bury them and keep them from affecting his thinking, Data in the Next Generation has no emotions because he is an android, but he covets them and finally receives them in the first Next Generation movie.

Therefore, postmodernism in the philosophical sense is a movement that recognizes the vast limitations of human objectivity. Such reactions vary among thinkers "after modernism." Some would throw out the concept of truth altogether. The meaning of a text is a free for all, whatever you want it to mean. There is no such thing as reality, I can make my world whatever I want to make it. Then there are those like me, the author of this chapter, who believe that we can still speak of truth and of more and less objective understandings of it.

Reality After Modernism
In some senses, postmodernism on reality is simply a different trajectory than Descartes and Kant took. Descartes concluded that the only thing I couldn't doubt was that I exist because I am doubting. We should revise his answer. Whatever it is I am calling doubt exists. Whether I exist as a person thinking the doubt is a different matter.

Descartes then rebuilds reality with confidence, bringing God in as a deus ex machina, the god of the ancient play who swoops in on some mechanism and rescues the person in distress. Because we can trust God, we can trust that the world basically is as it appears. Kant makes a similar move almost two hundred years later. Sure we can only know the world as our minds process it, but God has made the mind software, so it must work properly.

This tendency among believing philosophers to bring God into the mix highlights the fact that faith is always involved with our belief in reality and in what we know about it. Apart from believing that something exists, everything else that we believe, to one degree or another, requires faith, where faith is belief in the face of varying degrees of uncertainty. In saying that faith is always involved, we should not assume that faith is always blind faith. Blind faith is when we believe in something for which there is very little or no evidence at all, but we choose to believe anyway. Faith is belief without absolute certainty. Most of the time faith is not blind.

So does reality exist? I'll have to admit I can't prove it. I could be a brain attached to wires in a vat somewhere. I could be a sophisticated computer program like the Matrix. I suppose I could even be dreaming (although if so, this is the most vivid dream I've ever had). My belief that I actually exist on a planet called earth in the early twenty-first century requires faith--in some senses an immense amount of basic faith.

But it is a faith that works very well. In the 1700's, Thomas Reid became the "father" of what we might call the school of Scottish Realism. He called it "common sense realism" and others call it "naive realism." This is a sense that we actually do know the world directly through intuition. Over the last two hundred years several philosophers have suggested in one way or another that Descartes set us up for confusion by making the hard and fast distinction between ourselves and the world, the distinction between me as subject and the world as object [see the last chapter].

There is a great appeal, especially on a popular level, just to take the world as it is. I would argue--and because we are talking postmodern now, I intentionally bring myself as the writer of this chapter into view--that this common sense realism is fine as long as it acknowledges that this is an item of faith. Because I can brainstorm other possibilities that the common sense realist cannot disprove on her own terms she must concede that faith is involved. [this also applies to the phenomenologist that we will discuss in the final chapter]

A slightly different perspective that arrives at an ironically similar destination is pragmatic realism. These are those that consider questions about what is truly behind reality as largely irrelevant. What is real is the way things work in our world. Some, like Hilary Putnam, are more optimistic that what we are seeing might have some sort of reality beyond our interaction with the world. Others like Richard Rorty don't think there is any meaningful reality beyond how we function in the world. It seems to me that we are on good ground to accept at least this much. We may not be able to prove or demonstrate much of anything about the nature of the world beyond our interaction with it, but it is not incoherent to operate by faith as if it exists.

We as Christians might want to exercise even more faith and consider ourselves critical realists. We recognize that because of the fallen state of the human mind after Adam (whatever this might mean), we do not see the world objectively. But we have faith in a God who is a God of truth and thus that there is a reality out there that is real. We are critical of our own apprehension of that reality, but by faith we believe in reality.

Truth After Modernism
If Richard Rorty is perhaps the major postmodern philosopher to know in relation to reality. Michel Foucault is probably the one to know in relation to the topic of knowledge. For Foucault, "knowledge is violence." That is to say, all knowing of the world is an imposition on the world.

We might call Foucault a "post-structuralist," because he believes that all the patterns and structures we think we "find" in the world are really ideas we are forcing on the world. In one sense, Foucault's idea here makes sense. The world is an almost infinite collection of individual bits of data. Our finite minds cannot master even the smallest portion of that data, let alone have anywhere near a complete sense of how each bit relates to every other bit.

The result is that our knowing of the world requires us to "select" certain bits of the world as more important than others, which we then implicitly "deselect." We prioritize certain data and "rip" it "violently" from reality. Then we usually claim to have discovered the pattern in reality. Foucault suggests we are rather forcing the pattern on reality.

Truth for Foucault is thus not real but is a matter of power. What is true is what I can convince or force others to "see" with me. Ironically, Foucault studied a number of patterns in history that seem to "work" very well. He not only studied the history of sex but also the history of crime and of insanity. His constructions of reality are at many points very convincing. So he argues that sexuality as a distinct aspect of a person is a fairly recent way of structuring knowledge. And he shows how the punishment of crime has moved in the last century from a technique of public shame to a private revenge ceremony.

In the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn seems to embody this approach to truth well. Kuhn has argued that scientific paradigms or ways of interpreting specific subjects are constantly changing and do not really point to any fixed truth. So at one time the "normal science" perspective was that the sun went around the earth. When Copernicus then argued that the earth went around the sun, his math was not at all the clear winner in the argument. But, in a Foucaultian way, we was able to convince a group of scientists who eventually had enough power to overthrow the geocentric paradigm. It was only with Johannes Kepler that the math actually superceded the other side.

Normal science resists paradigm change. Instead, it uses its power to maintain its status as the dominant paradigm. But there is almost always data out there that doesn't fit very well into the paradigm. I like to call it "naughty data." Eventually, someone notices this aberrant data and rather than using their intellect to try to fit the data into the present paradigm, they brainstorm a completely different one. They generally face resistance and opposition. But if they can gain power in the guild, their ideas might get a hearing. If the younger scientists go for the idea, the older scientists will eventually die off. Viola--a new dominant paradigm!

The history of science seems filled with examples of this process. We have already mentioned Copernicus and the question of whether the sun goes around the earth. We could also mention belief in the existence of oxygen, relativity, and quantum mechanics in physics. This last paradigm shift is particularly interesting, because in its case Einstein was one of the "normal scientists" who didn't accept the new paradigm.

Quantum mechanics operates on the idea that when an electron is moving from one charge to another, it simply jumps--it doesn't pass through all the theoretical charges in between. This shift in thinking entailed all kinds of differences between the way Isaac Newton did physics and the way nuclear physicists do today. Einstein was one of many who opposed many aspects of quantum mechanics.

But he's dead now. Today we find almost no competent physicists who would agree with Einstein. But Kuhn would say they will get theirs eventually. Eventually someone will come along with another paradigm shift. Some would say that string theory may bring a similar revolution, although it hasn't yet. Kuhn initially took a very "pessimistic" view of paradigms, as if no paradigm was ultimately any better than any other. In the second edition of his work, he allowed for the possibility that some paradigms might account for data better than others [Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Ironically, it was the topic of evolution that pushed him to make this allowance. He did not want to allow for the possibility that creation science might be an equally valid way of understanding the scientific evidence]

Texts after Modernism
We might finally mention how postmodernism has played itself out in relation to the meaning of texts. Here the key player is Jacques Derrida, the "father" of deconstruction. Deconstruction is a movement that believes there are no fixed meanings in any text. As soon as you try to construct the meaning of a text, it unravels or "de-constructs" before you.

The following illustration is a caricature of the deconstructionist idea. Let's say I want to know the meaning of the previous sentence. I go to a dictionary and look up each of the words. But what do I find? More words! I could spend the rest of my life looking up the words in the definitions of the words in the definitions of the words in the definitions of each word in that sentence. Meaning becomes like a dog chasing its tail.

Now this illustration does not do justice to Derrida, but it points us in the right direction. The main idea is that words have no meaning in themselves. We find the meaning in the difference between this word and that word, or as Derrida liked to put it, in the differance between them, in the "traces" of meaning left in the movement from one word to the next.

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, Derrida is not as pessimistic as we might make him sound. After all, he wrote books and wanted others (at least some) to understand him. But he seems to bring up a valid point. Take the word gift. What does it mean? If you are an English speaker, you no doubt think of a present of some sort. But if you are a German speaker, you will see here the word for poison.

The meaning of a word does seem to be a function of the mind looking at the word. To be sure, we don't just invent our own individualistic meanings to words. Stanley Fish has pointed out that we get our "dictionaries" for words from the communities to which we belong. Ludwig Wittgenstein put it a different way. The meaning of a word is a function of the "language game" we are playing in a particular "form of life."

If I say, "fire" in a crowded theater, the language game tells me that this is a command to run for your life. If the form of life is a firing squad and I am holding a gun in my hand pointed at someone, I am being told to shoot the person. If a boss tells me "you're fired" or I am on a deserted island and finally someone has managed to rub two sticks together enough to get a spark, all of these situations have different games that tell me what meaning to take from the word fire. The word has no intrinsic meaning apart from a particular context.

So Wittgenstein is also known for asking the question, "If a lion could speak, would we understand it?" The answer he is looking for is "no," because even if you could put its words into Google and translate it, we would not know the language game needed to understand it because we do not know the forms of life that pertain to a lion.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Intro to "Stuck in Our Heads"

I'm writing something for my philosophy class to read. I thought I'd share some of it.

The idea of definite, unchangeable truth has come on hard times in some circles these days. For one thing, the Western world has seen so many developments in science these last decades that most Westerners have come to expect constant change and development. Throughout most of history, changes like these have taken place so infrequently that it was always easy to affirm that "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Most cultures deeply admire the elderly, because they are the ones who have been around the longest and thus know the most.

But Western culture has seen some significant changes in these attitudes. We expect new "truths" to come and overthrow old "truths" on a regular basis. In technology, "Moore's law" expects science to shrink the size of computer circuits in half every two years. The elderly are now the least likely to be able to operate our iPods and laptops. Our children frequently go further in their education than we did and often have much wider exposure to the world than we did by far at their age. In the words of Louis Armstrong, "They'll learn much more than I'll ever know." ["What a Wonderful World"]

One of the most significant scientists at the turn of the twentieth century was initially advised not to go into physics. The one advising him thought that all the major discoveries in physics had already been made! [to Max Planck] Was he ever wrong! And the "truth" everyone knew in the early years of the 1900's was that you couldn't split an atom. After all, that's what an a-tom was supposed to be, something "un" - "cuttable." But Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved this idea wrong under a devastating mushroom cloud!

It is somewhat popular these days in some Christian circles to pinpoint the problem with Western culture as its failure to believe in absolute truth, universal truths that are true no matter who you are or where you go. Ironically, there are also plenty out there who are more than happy to deny that absolute truth exists--that there is only what is true for me and what is true for you. As usual, both sides in this debate are usually guilty of sloppy thinking.

For example, if I were to say, "There is no such thing as absolute truth," I have made a statement of absolute truth. But I cannot make a statement of absolute truth if there is no absolute truth. My statement is therefore false as I have worded it. But the fact of the matter is, it is really only in certain areas that most people don't believe in absolute truth. For example, most people do not think of math as a subject where the answers are a matter of opinion. We tend to think of 2+2=4 as a statement that is absolutely true. No one would say, "Well, 2+2 may equal 4 to you, but it equals 7 to me." It is mostly in areas like religion and ethics where we start to become "relativists" about truth, people who believe truth depends on who's talking.

By the same token, the current relativistic Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, is not just the product of evil hearts and cultural brainwashing. The world has become much smaller than it used to be. When sub-cultures--including Christian subcultures--used to isolate themselves from everyone else, it was easy to attribute differences in beliefs and practices to the "evilness" or stupidity of the other groups. But the convenience of traveling the world, not to mention the internet, has made it much harder to think this way about everyone else outside our group. Rather than being able to dismiss "straw men," simplistic caracatures of other people's ideas, now we regularly come "face to face" with others who disagree with us.

The result is real uncertainty about what is true. Students who have been raised in the church and who go to Christian colleges travel the world and find others who have completely different presuppositions and perspectives on religion and life. Faith crises sometimes ensue. Even among Christians, we get to know godly people from other churches with different Christian perspectives. We find ourselves thinking, "This person is as close to God as anyone from my group, but she doesn't believe the same things I do." One preacher has one interpretation; another has another. Who is right? Is there a right answer? A certain segment of the church today, the emergent church, has accordingly come to espouse what it calls a "generous orthodoxy," one that tries to major on the major and not worry about the kinds of things that specific groups have tended to argue (and kill) over in the past. [Brian McClaren]

So do we abandon the idea of truth altogether? It's hard to imagine that Christianity could be Christianity if we did? What about fixed and definite truths? Again, it seems like Christianity would become something else if it did. At the same time, if God is a God of truth, then surely hiding our head in the sand in the face of legitimate challenges is no good either. If we have true faith, we shouldn't fear asking these questions, at least in theory.

These are all the challenges of post-modernism, the philosophical age in which we find ourselves. It would be bad logic to dismiss all of its challenges simply because of this word, this label. There are aspects to the post-modern challenge that Christians will want to reject. But there are also aspects to the post-modern challenge that seem legitimate. This chapter is about these issues of truth that Western culture is currently facing. How can and should we think about truth in the age "after" modernism?