Saturday, January 26, 2008

Sources of Truth: The Bible, the Church, and the Spirit

4.1 Introduction
How do you know that you know what you think you know? In the last chapter we mentioned three "tests" that people use regularly when deciding whether something is true or not.
  • Does this claim correspond to the evidence? (correspondence test)
  • Does this claim make sense or does it contradict itself? (coherence test)
  • Does this claim work in the real world? (pragmatic test)
The last chapter provided us with the tools of logic to see whether claims make sense--whether they are coherent claims. We will explore the scientific method--which is a formalized version of the correspondence test--in chapter 8, "Faith and Science." We will take up the pragmatic test again in chapter 16, "The Postmodern World."

This chapter asks a slightly different question, namely, what are valid sources of truth. We have some sense of how to evaluate claims with these three tests for truth. But where do the claims come from? What paths to truth work best? That is the topic of this chapter.

4.2 The Bible, The Church, and the Spirit
You may know a children's chorus that says, "Jesus loves me--this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Historically, Christians have believed in several sources of truth that hold an authority higher than that of mere human reasoning or experience. The Bible certainly comes immediately to mind, especially for Protestant churches.

Yet we might also mention groups like Pentecostals, charismatics, and holiness churches for whom spiritual experiences have often played an equally strong role in hearing God's voice. Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches would further point out the role of the church in understanding the Bible and God's ongoing will in the world.

Although different Christian groups have different formulas for how they work together, all would officially acknowledge a role for these three distinct sources of Christian truth: Scripture, the Church everywhere throughout the ages, and the Holy Spirit. For example, Catholic and Orthodox traditions affirm the authority of Scripture. Where they differ is their sense that the Church (as they understand it) is the only reliable guide to which interpretation of the Bible is actually authoritative.

Similarly, while charismatic traditions put a premium on direct revelation from the Holy Spirit, they believe that some of the most authoritative revelations come when the Spirit speaks through the words of Scripture. Finally, even a "Scripture only" tradition like the Reformed Church sees a role for the Holy Spirit and the Church in helping believers know how apply the Bible appropriately to today.

As we saw in the second chapter, it is the nature of philosophy to ask "meta-questions," questions that follow up on the kinds of claims we have just mentioned. For example, one crucial meta-question in this discussion is, "What is the meaning of words in general and the words of the Bible in particular?" You do not have to drive far in any city in America to discover dozens of different churches with the names of different groups on their signs. No doubt the Bible plays a role in almost all of them, yet they have differing interpretations and often quite different beliefs.

This fact has long played a role in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox critique of Protestantism, where giving each individual the opportunity to interpret the Bible has resulted in a massive fragmentation of Christianity into tens of thousands of individual groups. Further, it has played into certain Protestant critiques of "spiritual" uses of Scripture where the words of the Bible can almost come to mean as many different things as such individuals think the Spirit is saying to them through the words.

It is beyond the scope of this book to delve very deeply into the philosophy of language, also known as hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is that branch of philosophy that asks about how communication takes place and what it means to say some "text" means something.<1> Just a few thoughts will have to suffice.

[textbox: hermeneutics]

One of the most convenient ways to think of communication is in terms of a text, its author, and its reader. Of course a text need not be written. A smoke signal is a text, as are the motions of sign language. As such, the "reader" could actually be someone listening to you talk or a blind person who feels a braille text.

Hermeneutics asks second order questions about the relationships between authors, readers, texts, and meaning. It asks questions not only about how these relationships work, but about how they should work. Believe it or not, there is a lot of disagreement about the answers to these questions, even among Christian philosophers of language.

On the one hand, most Christians probably do not realize how flexible the words of the Bible can be. Some would call the way most Christians read the Bible pre-modern in the sense that most Christians are not fully aware of the glasses they bring to the biblical text.<1> However, it is more helpful to say that most people are "unreflective" in the way they understand words. The process of interpretation takes place almost completely on a subconscious level without the reflection of conscious thought.

[textbox: pre-modern, modern, and post-modern]

For example, most Christians throughout history have read the words of Scripture with the idea that God is the author or speaker of the words and they are the reader or audience of the words. A little reflection on this way of viewing the Bible quickly explains why there are so many differing interpretations.

First, each individual reader brings to the words of the text certain "definitions" for the words that they have absorbed from their own world. An African reader brings a slightly different sense of words like father, son, and even "me" to the text than a Westerner or Asian. It is thus no surprise if that person hears slightly different connotations and implications to the Bible's words.

Secondly, even if we believe God inspired the books of the Bible, the Bible itself tells us God did so as ancient individuals like Isaiah or Paul addressed ancient communities like Israel, Thessalonians, and Romans. If these "original audiences" understood the words, they understood them not as a modern African or European, but as ancient Israelites, Greeks, and Romans.

Key to this discussion is the realization that a text by itself is simply a set of squiggles on a page, sounds in the air, or in general, a set of signs of some sort located within a system of signs. The signs themselves--the individual words, for example--do not have intrinsic meanings. They have meanings that a particular group or group has assigned to them. Communication cannot take place unless both the author and reader are operating with the same understanding of those signs.

[texbox: linguistic signs]

What we also find is that language in general limits--prunes down, if you would--how meaning can be communicated. It forces an author to convert his or her thoughts into a string of words, a code that a reader can then reconvert into thought. Texts can thus be ambiguous in meaning. And in the case of the Bible, when we are talking about ancient languages whose immediate authors are not around to question, its text can be very ambiguous to us indeed! We do not have an ancient dictionary in which to look up the meanings of these words.

So when we return to the three groups we have mentioned, we begin to understand more clearly the nature of their differences on how the Bible, the Church, and the Spirit function as sources of truth. In "Scripture only" traditions like the Reformed and Lutheran churches, we tend to find optimism about our ability to reconstruct the original meaning of the biblical text, as well as a strong sense that those meanings will translate fairly straightforwardly into our world. Meanwhile, the Spirit is not allowed to change the meaning from what it originally meant.

Kevin Vanhoozer writes,

The Spirit "does not contravene the intention of the human author but rather supervenes on it ... the role of the Spirit is to serve as the Spirit of significance and thus to apply meaning, not to change it"<2>


"The Spirit may blow where He wills, but He does not blow what He wills"<3>

By contrast, the Roman Catholic tradition has often pointed out the potential ambiguity of Scripture since Martin Luther--the "father" of Protestantism, debated with a Roman Catholic by the name of Erasmus.<4> Postmodernism has only accentuated the issue, as we will see in chapter 16.

Here is a paraphrase of Erasmus' response to Luther:

"You say, 'What does an assembly of the church have to do with understanding Scripture when not one of them may genuinely have the Holy Spirit?' I reply, 'What, then, does some independent group of a few have to do with it, in which it is even more likely that none of them have the Spirit?' ... Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry wants you believe him when he says he has the Spirit of the gospel."<5>

On the other end of the spectrum, charismatic and revivalist traditions have tended to embrace the idea that the Spirit speaks through the words of Scripture to every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Indeed, the Spirit may have distinct messages in the same words to several different people. The danger here, as Erasmus and the high Protestant tradition has pointed out, is that it becomes difficult to know whether such an individual is truly hearing the Spirit or the consequence of whatever they had for breakfast.

What we can say is that all three--Scripture, the universal Church, and the Holy Spirit are in some way appropriate sources of truth from God. Further, we can say that Christians since the very beginning have placed the primacy on Scripture, even in the Roman Catholic tradition.

Further, we can see that no matter what Christian tradition you are from, human reason and experience are involved in "processing" this truth from God, this divine revelation. Christians do believe that the most authoritative sources of truth over them come from the Bible, the Church, and the Spirit. But these sources do not come with your brain, like a program on your hard drive that came with your computer. We think about the meaning of the Bible and of Christian tradition, and we interpret our experiences of God.

[textbox: revelation]

<1>See chapter 16, "The Postmodern World" for a more detailed exploration of terms like pre-modernism, modernism, and postmodernism.

<2>Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 265.


<4>We find the best known instance of this debate in Luther's treatise "On the Bondage of the Will."

<5>Paraphrased from Erasmus and Luther: Free Will and Salvation, E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1978), 42.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

In thinking this morning on a developmental view of man....If image-bearing is important in childhood (correspondence view of truth); cognitive reason in adolescence (coherent view of truth); and identification and service in adulthood (pragmatic view of truth), then, the postmodern view of truth is for the adult...because the pre-modern understanding was a correspondence view (what happens in this world is what represents God or is God's doing)...while the modern view is a coherent view of truth (a reason to hope in the mystery of God). The postmodern view is the pragmatice view (where one is concerned for the "other", is convinced in their mind of the reasons, and identifies with the community in service)....

Question: In reading about children of divorce, it is my understanding that research has shown that these children/adults sometimes leave the faith altogether....I wonder if it is because their identification has been undermined by a lack of image-bearing (mentoring)...or a search for security is found for them in theological reflection, which inevidentdly results in unanswerable questions....identification and commitment then becomes difficult for these people because their foundations were never reinforced... foundations based on "tradition" and social and cultural identification...
postmodernity is a post-foundational understanding of truth...and resolves the questions of life with individual subjects who have grown past a need to "be right"...but has developed their interests where they know where to "be" and what to "do" or "represent" is the individual fully "made in God's image" because it is not based on a universal...children and adults of divorce find themselves floundering because they have not internalized ther identification factors..

How does it affect a child who is in the midst of other children who have been orphaned because there is a "culture" of orphans, there is no self-concious comparison, so self-recrimination is absent and there is a more open attitude toward "self" and "world"..while those who have grown up in a culture where their experience was "taboo", then have self-recrimnations and condemnations that inhibit their development and ability to become...Childern develop to become responsible citizens because of parents, teachers, community leaders, etc. that take an interest in them.
What happens to those children of divorce who have had no mentoring? As adults, are they developmentally underdeveloped? If so, how do these individuals becomes "developed"? The Church???

Angie Van De Merwe said...

By the way, I do believe we construct meaning in the things we choose to do....after we understand that meaning does not reside "out there" but is a interchange of reason and experience... within a cultural context...

That is not saying that there is not an original meaning of the letters of the N.T....nor that the testimony of meaning that the Gospels give...nor the meaning given to the symbols in the Jewish religion are not "real"...but the "problem" lies in bringing all of those "meanings" of that time and culture into various cultures within our time...