Fr. Kimel at Eclectic Orthodoxy has been posting a lot of great stuff recently on concepts of God. His most recent post contrasts “theistic personalism,” which views God as, essentially, a person writ large, with “classical theism,” which has a less anthropomorphic understanding of the divine being. He comes down, with some help from Edward Feser and David B. Hart, on the side of classical theism.
My one worry here is that the more you “de-personalize” God, the less clear it becomes how the biblical narratives can be truthful representations of who God is. The Bible clearly portrays God as acting in specific ways to bring about certain purposes, as loving us, as hearing our prayers., etc. I’m not learned enough to adjudicate this issue, but there seems to be a tension in classical theism’s efforts to combine biblical personalism with Greek-influenced metaphysics (this is hardly an original observation).
Maybe my impression here is due to the fact that the major theologians I’ve read most recently are Schleiermacher and Tillich. Both of their systems strongly emphasize the inadequacy of applying the categories of finite being to God. But both also end up with a God whom it’s difficult to imaging acting in specific ways or answering individual prayers. This could be an idiosyncrasy of their thought, or it could be that they are more thoroughly consistent as classical theists. I’m honestly not sure. Clearly theologians have always qualified some of the Bible’s more blatantly anthropomorphic images of God, and in fact Scripture itself seems to do this in various places. But at want point does the personal nature of the biblical God die the death of a thousand qualifications?
I’m less attracted to modern revisionist forms of theism (e.g., process theology) than I once was, but it still seems to me that they point to some genuine problems in the classical understanding of God.
(I wrote about this issue previously here.)
I don’t have much invested in the debate over biblical “inerrancy.” It strikes me as largely an intra-evangelical debate, one driven in large part by a very conservative, Reformed strain of evangelicalism. But I do have something invested in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. I think that a “liberal” view which regards the Bible as just one instance of great religious literature is inadequate for Christian faith.
So it’s no surprise that I appreciated this post from Ken Schenck, who is the dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He argues that much evangelical hermeneutics are driven by a “most difficult common denominator” approach. That is, individual difficult passages or verses are allowed to overturn the broader trajectory of the biblical message.
Schenck notes that in pre-modern times, “problem” verses were often interpreted in ways that were almost certainly contrary to the meaning intended by the original authors if they seemed to contradict more fundamental biblical principles.
He thus recommends viewing the Bible in a two-level fashion: there is the original, historical meaning of the individual books, passages, and verses; and there are the overarching themes and message as Christians have commonly understood them:
If we return to the sense of Scripture’s truthfulness before the Princeton Calvinists, we look rather to the “greatest common denominator” of Scripture. What is the central teaching of the Bible on this topic? If there are other passages that seem to pull in another direction, you set them aside as unclear. After all, we don’t know all the history to interpret the original meaning of the Bible fully and certainly anyway.
Chalk it up to contextual uncertainty. Reinterpret it like a good premodern or just put an “unclear” tape on it. Invoke the notion of progressive revelation or situational particularity. However your tradition deals with unclear verses, do that. But don’t let the problematic trump the central principles of Scripture.
So, for example, the Canaanite genocide should not control our understanding of God’s nature, and an isolated verse in 1 Timothy shouldn’t determine our view about women in ministry.
One thing that sets Schenck’s proposal apart from a more strictly pre-modern approach is that he recognizes that we can’t go back to a pre-critical consciousness. Some of the Fathers may have thought that an allegorical interpretation of a particular passage provided the “true” meaning; but we now think that the original meaning of a text is its intended meaning in its historical setting. We may reinterpet it, set it aside, or just deem it unclear or irrelevant, but we at least need to acknowledge its original meaning (to the extent we can determine it).
It should be noted that the New Testament authors themselves often play fast and loose with the original meanings of the texts from the Hebrew scriptures that they quote or reference. It’s clear that, for them, God’s acts of salvation in Jesus provide the interpretive lens for understanding Scripture. And the Church Fathers had no apparent qualms about reinterpreting parts of the Bible if they seemed to contradict the Gospel.
In light of this, Schenck’s position seems more consonant with the mainstream Christian tradition than some modern forms of inerrancy. Christians have always regarded some parts of the Bible as more central or authoritative than others, no matter what their theory of biblical inspiration may say. The gospels and the Pauline letters are more central than the pastoral letters or Revelation; Isaiah and the Psalms are more central than 1 and 2 Chronicles or Obadiah, etc. And this priority is determined in part by a rule of faith, such as the creed, that provides a summary of the essentials of the Christian message.
This doesn’t mean that we can just ignore the parts of the Bible that we don’t like. But it does mean that our interpretation is shaped by the faith of the Christian community. A different rule of faith would undoubtedly result in some different interpretive choices (as modern Judaism demonstrates). But there’s really no getting around that. After all, the canon of Scripture itself was established in the light of such a rule.
In a post yesterday, Daniel Silliman quoted historian Molly Worthen arguing that biblical “inerrancy” became an entrenched position among evangelical Christians only when it seemed necessary to shore up beliefs that were under attack by theological modernists. Prior to that, evangelicals held a variety of views on the inspiration of the Bible.
He specifically mentions the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition’s emphasis on the “sufficiency” of Scripture:
[S]ome theologians of the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, including important figures in the early history of the Church of the Nazarene, rejected inerrancy. The ultimate revelation of God, they wrote, was not the Bible. The ultimate revelation was Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Bible was to be thought of not as an authority but as a guide to the revelation of Christ.
It’s “sufficiency,” rather than inerrancy, was emphasized.
This remains the official position of the United Methodist Church, which of course also traces its roots back to Wesley. The Methodist Articles of Religion, which were adapted by Wesley from the Church of England’s 39 Articles and are shared by a number of churches in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition, include this statement on the “Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”:
The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
While this says that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible, it does not say that everything contained in the Bible is necessary for salvation. This at least opens the door for a non-inerrantist understanding of biblical authority.
It’s probably not wise to try to hang too much on this statement, since the origin of the 39 Articles was in Reformation-era disputes, not contemporary questions about biblical inspiration. The question for them was more about where ultimate doctrinal authority was to be found.
Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that inerrancy is not the only–or even historically the most common–way of understanding the Bible’s authority.
This was the perfect medium for changing the way most Americans thought about the nation’s founding acts. Lincoln does not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster did. He makes history. He does not come to present a theory, but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, with an emotional urgency entirely expressed in calm abstractions (fire in ice). He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken–he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.
–Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg
The address itself, delivered 150 years ago today.
This is a cool “mini-episode” leading in to the upcoming Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.” It marks the return of Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor, who’s only appeared on screen one other time–in a made-for-TV movie from the 90s that was meant to revive the franchise for an American audience. It failed, but McGann’s performance was generally well regarded. His version of the Doctor is considered “canonical,” and he’s gone on to play the role in a number of audio stories.
The episode also provides an origin for John Hurt’s “War Doctor,” a heretofore unknown incarnation of the character who plays a pivotal role in ending the “Time War” between the Time Lords and their ancient foes the Daleks (an event referred to a number of times in the current BBC revival of the show). Hurt’s character is going to appear alongside the tenth (David Tennant) and eleventh (Matt Smith) Doctors in the 50th anniversary special.
I haven’t seen the 1996 TV movie, but this is enough to make me wish McGann had been given more opportunities to appear onscreen.
The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright has a thought-provoking review of Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Greene used scans of people’s brains to examine their responses to the famous (famous by the standards of professional philosophy, anyway) “trolley problem” thought-experiment. In the thought-experiment, people are asked whether they would divert a runaway trolley about to hit five people onto a track where it would hit just one person. Most people think this would be the right thing to do. But when the conditions of the experiment are changed, people tend to respond differently. For instance, many people say they wouldn’t be willing to push someone onto the track to prevent the trolley from hitting the other five, even though the utilitarian moral calculus (one life for five) is the same.
Greene found that MRIs showed that people who said would be OK to push the one man onto the track were using the portions of their brains associated with logical thought, while those who said it wouldn’t were responding more emotionally. He concludes that emotional bias–inherited from our evolutionary past–clouds our judgment. Because our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, we’re good at group solidarity, but bad at inter-group harmony. Pushing someone to their death is the kind of thing you could be blamed and swiftly punished for in a small group, so the idea of doing that lights up some deep-seated moral aversions. Green concludes that humanity needs a global moral philosophy that filters out these atavistic types of responses can “resolve disagreements among competing moral tribes.” And the best candidate for this is a form of utilitarianism.
Here’s Wright summarizing Greene:
One question you confront if you’re arguing for a single planetary moral philosophy: Which moral philosophy should we use? Greene humbly nominates his own. Actually, that’s a cheap shot. It’s true that Greene is a utilitarian—believing (to oversimplify a bit) that what’s moral is what maximizes overall human happiness. And it’s true that utilitarianism is his candidate for the global metamorality. But he didn’t make the choice impulsively, and there’s a pretty good case for it.
For starters, there are those trolley-problem brain scans. Recall that the people who opted for the utilitarian solution were less under the sway of the emotional parts of their brain than the people who resisted it. And isn’t emotion something we generally try to avoid when conflicting groups are hammering out an understanding they can live with?
The reason isn’t just that emotions can flare out of control. If groups are going to talk out their differences, they have to be able to, well, talk about them. And if the foundation of a moral intuition is just a feeling, there’s not much to talk about. This point was driven home by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt in an influential 2001 paper called “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail” (which approvingly cited Greene’s then-new trolley-problem research). In arguing that our moral beliefs are grounded in feeling more than reason, Haidt documented “moral dumbfounding”—the difficulty people may have in explaining why exactly they believe that, say, homosexuality is wrong.
If everyone were a utilitarian, dumbfoundedness wouldn’t be a problem. No one would say things like “I don’t know, two guys having sex just seems … icky!” Rather, the different tribes would argue about which moral arrangements would create the most happiness. Sure, the arguments would get complicated, but at least they would rest ultimately on a single value everyone agrees is valuable: happiness.
Whenever I see someone arguing that “science” can tell us which moral framework to adopt, it sets my Spidey-sense tingling. Simply saying we should all be utilitarians dodges a bunch of important and contested philosophical questions, like
–What is “happiness” (or “utility”)? Is it just the net balance of pleasure over pain (as the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, thought)? Or does it include “higher,” more complex elements (as Bentham’s protégé and critic John Stuart Mill thought)?
–Assuming we can define happiness, can we quantify it in such a way that allows us to determine which course of action in a given case will yield the most of it?
–Even if we can define and quantify happiness/utility, might there not be other things that are good and whose promotion should enter into our moral calculus? What about beauty? Truth? Should those always be subordinated to happiness when they conflict?
–Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. But can we know what the likely consequences of our actions are ahead of time? Can we even specify what counts as a consequence of a particular action with any precision?
Wright says that Greene studied philosophy, so presumably he knows this. And it’s not that utilitarians don’t have responses to these questions. But they don’t all agree among themselves on what the answers are. And these are properly philosophical questions, not questions that the natural sciences (including neuroscience) can answer in any straightforward way.
To Wright’s credit, he is skeptical of Greene’s advocacy of utilitarianism as a kind of “moral Esperanto.” And he notes that some of the most intractable conflicts in our world aren’t necessarily conflicts over ultimate values, but over facts. For instance, most Americans are, at best, dimly aware of our history of meddling in the internal politics of Iran, so they attribute Iranian mistrust of the U.S. to irrational animus or religious fanaticism. The problem is that we are all afflicted with a self-bias that inclines us to filter out facts that our inconvenient to our cause and which makes it difficult for us to view a situation from the perspective of our opponent. Christians would call this a manifestation of Original Sin.
UPDATE: At Siris, Brandon offers some thoughts on the Atlantic article and utilitarianism in general.
I sometimes wonder what the people who were first exposed to Johnny Cash via his angsty late-90s output (the “Hurt” video, etc.) think of his super-earnest religious songs.
Personally, I love it all.