The difference between explaining and understanding.

Right now I’m reading The Word of God for the People of God: an Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture by J. Todd Billings. It is absolutely fantastic and should be required reading in catechism/for any Christian. There is a distinction he makes in the book I found profoundly helpful in explaining my frustration with Christians (also anyone I suppose) and how we read Scripture.

The distinction is between explanation and understanding.

Understanding a text (Billings means a written text, but I think it could apply to any ‘text’ like speech, events, etc) is transformative; it is an encounter that changes us. We certainly bring biases and preconceptions and presuppositions with us when we read. That’s what makes textual understanding possible in the first place! But we are not left as we are. An encounter with the text as ‘other,’ as something not totally under your control, presses back on us and changes us and our conceptions/presuppositions. This is especially so with reading Scripture, because it is the Holy Spirit that is active, piercing our hearts.

Understanding is knowing what Scripture is about (not just knowing about Scripture). Or, rather who it is about: Jesus Christ. Understanding recognizes the continuity inherent in the whole Bible, the large narrative sweep of God acting for our and the world’s salvation. Being open to such things is a vulnerability that submits oneself to being transformed into Christlikeness by the Spirit to the glory of the Father (Trinitarian theology is central in Billing’s account, and should be in any account of reading Scripture). We are not masters over the text, but are rather disciples awaiting instruction to which we can respond, “thy will be done.”

Contrast this with the role of explanation in interpretation. Since “texts do not fall from the sky as catalysts of transformation,” but rather “emerge through a process of creaturely production,” we need tools to enable us to really grapple with the text (p. 38). These tools, or methods, include things like historic and linguistic analysis, and sociohistorical and cultural research; in short, anything that explains “the contextually located features of the text” (p. 38). God, in His wisdom, has decided to work through human agents in communicating with us, ultimately becoming a human in Jesus of Nazareth that we may see the Father in the face of Jesus. Such study is necessary, especially since it should treat with seriousness that God really did become a human in Jesus.

According to Billings, proper interpretation is both understanding and explanation. However, I think explaining trips many of us up precisely because its lucidity and power appears all-encompassing; when we’ve explained the cultural context, we think we’ve “explained” the text and figured it out: now we know and have knowledge. For example, when we read the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7, we could do our historical homework and discover that Isaiah, at the time, assured Ahaz, king of Judah, of God’s presence and victory over enemies (see here). So is that it? Have we now explained and understood Isaiah 7? Hardly. We’ve explained, but not understood that the deep meaning of the text, since Scripture is ultimately God speaking, is God continuing His saving activity to right what has gone so wrong since Genesis 3. There is deeper theological meaning beyond the historical meaning since the Bible is a unity held together by the true Author: God’s Spirit

Since scripture is not like any other book, it cannot be reduced to its cultural features. However, neither can those cultural features be ignored. We need solid historical and critical study, but it must also be theologically oriented. After all, “while explaining contextually located features of the text is important, the Bible ultimately consists of creaturely texts that are produced and sanctified by the Spirit of God to be God’s own transforming word in Christ” (p. 39).

All study of Scripture must be properly theologically informed, both the historical explanation side as well as the understanding side. Too much of one and we cut ourselves off from what the Spirit has said and is saying through the Scriptures about Christ to the glory of the Father. We miss encounters with the God who led the Israelites out of Egypt, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead.

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A Fine Line

Studying Philosophy as an undergraduate has lead me to a distinction I think is important to make, albeit tricky to see in others or yourself. It is an especially helpful distinction in Theology, particularly around challenging and controversial topics. It can be summed up in a question:

When is a question meant to challenge people’s certainty in their own understanding of something and thereby open them up to fresh thinking, and when is it just being a jerk?

We often question things just to stick it to someone because we get-off on a good ‘mic-drop.’ But this is silly reason to question something (I’ve done it and I’m ashamed of it). Perceptually, I think any challenge posed to ourselves is interpreted immediately in the latter way: we think people are being jerks. Why? We’re prideful, sinful, arrogant, uncomfortable…I’m sure you can think of more reasons.

Today in class I questioned the common-held belief that choice is good simply because having options is better than having none (this was in relation to whether it is better for God to have the option to do evil, but not do it, as opposed to not being able to do evil at all). The dismissive and vehement response was not surprising, but made me think how any discussion on and criticism of such deeply held convictions is possible. Is it possible to accept criticism without thinking the rug has been pulled out from under you? Perhaps one on one, in deep friendship/relationship, it is. Maybe not so much in a class room (at least not in a classroom where people have hardly anything in common).

This is a skill Christians ought to be praying to receive from God through the Spirit: to maturely and calmly engage and discuss. After all, salvation and all involved in it is a necessary thing to talk about (ethics, a vision of Who God is, Scripture, etc.) but must be done charitably and in detail. If that is the case, it takes time and patience. We do not just have those dispositions inherently: they are skills that develop with the help of the Spirit. We ought to pray for opportunities that foster the development of this spiritual skill.

When questioning everything lacks humility

As a philosophy major, and just as a personality trait I possess, I’m skeptical. I have a general disposition to question things. This can be anxiety inducing and spiritually harmful, as constantly questioning without clinging to something real and true leads to spiritual ruin and an unmoored flexibility lacking conviction and solidity. If that’s what people strive for in “being open-minded,” I don’t want it. However, a skeptical disposition can also be used for good and bear life-giving fruit. It can direct us down paths that drive us to discover the many facets of truth we may otherwise fail to see and be captivated by, giving us a firmer grasp along the way of what the truth is, why it is beautiful, and why we should cling to it. And so starting this year with Philosophy of Religion, I’m skeptical.

We’ll get into arguments for God’s existence, the nature of reason and faith, free-will, negative theology (which I get to do a presentation for and am nerding out about), and evil. However, evil is something I try to be careful thinking about and take incredibly seriously. What I’m worried about is the rabbit hole that the Problem of Evil is, one that can trap people indefinitely in lifeless darkness, all while they think themselves enlightened by asking the questions they do.

The Problem of Evil is so massive, so mysterious, so horrible, and so personal. Evil is the very real thing tearing apart God’s creation, tearing individuals apart, tearing families and societies apart. Part of the challenge of reading the book of Revelation is that it unveils the spiritual reality that is at play, that is really real, behind the veil of everyday life. God has, mysteriously yet publicly and openly, overcome evil in the Cross of Jesus. The Cross is God’s ‘no’ to evil. But it’s still here and we suffer patiently as God’s people waiting for the day when we will see “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).

Since the Problem of Evil is so massive, so visceral, so real, I have continually learned to be skeptical of my understanding of it, as well as the subsequent responses I have to it. Even speaking from Christian theology, with biblically sound responses, I am still skeptical of myself that there is so much mystery surrounding Evil. That said, I constantly find myself thinking I can understand it completely and “figure it out” enough to respond to it with certainty, all the while forgetting the immense and horrific negation evil is. I sometimes don’t have a proper respect for what evil truly is.

And so I’m skeptical about my class because more often than not, philosophical discussions around the problem of evil can easily transgress one of the most sacred boundaries Christians hold as fundamentally true: the Creator/creature distinction. I constantly see in such conversations, in others as well as myself, an assumption that whatever we may argue about regarding the Problem of Evil, we can understand not only the problem, but the answers as well. Personally, I think I’ve understood it when I haven’t. I’m skeptical that we, as finite creatures of God, can distinctly understand very much about the Problem of evil, let alone find an “answer” for it. The irony is, of course, that we deal with it every day, and how can we not describe that which we see every day?

The tone of conversations surrounding the Problem of Evil, it seems to me, reek of an intellectual pride that presumes we can comprehensively, exhaustively, and surely understand what is going on in the Problem of Evil. Sure, we can understand much of what we talk about when we discuss it. We can discuss Theodicy (God’s vindication/justification in the face of evil), God’s omnipotence, God’s benevolence, and God’s omniscience. The line, however, between serious and sober discourse on evil and presumptuous attempts to flout our limited knowledge can be fuzzy and quickly breached. The more I study Philosophy, Theology, and Scripture, the more I know myself “as I have been fully known”: a finite, limited creature of God; a bent creature given hope and new life in Jesus Christ. I cannot understand evil; and to be honest, no one should: it is, literally, incomprehensible.

But God sees it. He’s seen it since the Garden and it has broken His heart. He’s been committed to rectifying that which has become bent and distorted. In Jesus, there is the defeat of the Devil on the Cross (among other things). Christ is victorious. He has descended to the dead, called out Evil, Sin, and Death for what they are, rose again, and ascended to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. This Triune God is the true God and is good. Evil will not win. All this is deeply mysterious and beyond finite minds, yet it is shown in Scripture and leads to praise of the One who stands triumphantly alive. Jesus, on the Cross, has destroyed Evil. (This is also why I think many people who speak about the Problem of Evil do not take it seriously enough. It is so alien, so massive, so horrid and grotesque and the way we speak about it doesn’t seem to me to have a proper disposition to this hideousness.)

We should be skeptical of our constant desire to “question everything,” while assuming concomitantly that we can understand everything and that things should make sense to us. We cannot and things do not make sense. Evil does not make sense. It is silly to think we can make it make sense to us. To presume so is to pretend we are not finite.

But, I’m sure that doesn’t get you tenure.

Invoking the calendar in arguments and a Christian response to racism in America

With Charlottesville undesirably seared in our collective mind, as well as the movie ‘Denial’ my wife and I recently watched, I have been thinking about a group of people recently. They are racist nationalists who have a particular vision of America, part of this being the superiority of whites and a white-dominated society. I have nothing but disgust for the them; it sickens me to see them espouse what they do. It is an idolatrous and gut-wrenching distortion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and it is sin.

However, the arguments I’ve heard by some against such groups go something like this: “We don’t live in 1950 anymore, we live in 2017. Get with it.” The assumption here is one that we need to be critical of, namely, invoking the calendar as part of an argument. The assumption is one that is tied to the Enlightenment idea of progress: through science and liberal democracy (which, in Classical Liberalism, includes Democrats and Conservatives by the way), through belief in the autonomous, self-determining and rational individual who can figure out morality and truth for themselves, we will rid the world of hatred and evil and bring about utopian equality, always moving forward to that goal. Therefore, as such a society moves forward in time things will get better. But is this correct? Is it as simple as saying that by the time you buy next years’ calendar the world will be “better” (whatever that means)? Perhaps, but I’m skeptical. And so are the racists you’re arguing against.

In the movie ‘Denial’ (based on a true story), the Holocaust denier David Irving brings a libel suit in Britain against Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish and Holocaust studies professor at Emory University, for defamation against him in a book she wrote. However, unlike the U.S. courts that presume innocence, British courts work opposite: the accused party has to prove it. In effect, Deborah Lipstadt has to prove the Holocaust happened. Setting aside fascinating questions of epistemology and how we possess knowledge of historical reality (and what level of reality history may, indeed, possess) there was a very sobering question asked by the judge in the trial. While Deborah Lipstadt’s defender (Tom Wilkinson) is passionately attempting to prove deliberate falsification of history by David Irving, the judge puts this question to him as a response (and I’m paraphrasing here as I don’t know it verbatim): “Perhaps Mr. Irving just truly believes this. That what you call falsifications are, to Mr. Irving, truth.”

When arguing with those who hold views, such as the people holding torches and marching, they don’t think they’re living in 1950; they know they’re living in 2017. Rather, they believe what they say is true. There seems to be, for them, an inherent hierarchy between races, with whites being on top. This may be a combination of factors for them, such as biological, teleological (the end goal of life is the flourishing of whites over others? I honestly don’t know and would like to have someone explicitly lay out those views so I can challenge them). Regardless, the point is they genuinely and sincerely think they are right. They don’t just need a kick in the pants to get them out of a 1950’s mindset; it’s deeper than that (I think of 1 Tim. 4:2 here). A serious and complex infection (racism) requires assiduous prayer combined with equal complexity of argument and forcefulness of love. Above all, the Holy Spirit needs to change them.

Perhaps you object. “They’re racists! The bastards deserve our worst!” As a Christian I cannot say that. While more robust, sophisticated and carefully-articulated arguments are certainly needed in a public sphere in America, I can only come at the problem as that which I am: a Christian. I cannot set my faith aside, nor violently lash out in defense of justice. I follow a Crucified Savior, the Prince of Peace, the One who will return and bring complete and true justice, peace, reconciliation, healing. Further, Christ’s church is called to a unified, prophetic, costly witness.

When I saw the faces of the torch carriers, I felt my stomach twist because I saw evil and a distortion of God’s redemptive plan. I saw the powers that are against God. My heart broke and I felt drawn into hopelessness. However, I also felt a desire to meet them and talk with them and pray for them. If Christ died for the ungodly, for the sick who need a doctor, surely racists (and myself and you and all people) are those people. And so I’m faced, as a follower of Jesus, with a paradox: to stare evil and sin in the face and call it what it is, to cry out to God at injustice and the distortion of His creation which he called “very good,” but also to love my enemy (Matt. 5:44) and sacrifice for them, to pray for them and eagerly desire their repentance. Some may call that irrational. Fine, but this is what Jesus Christ teaches us; we cannot dodge it. He came, died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and being drawn into that reality is to change allegiances, to be brought into a new world; the true world. In this world, Jesus does not only save the victim, but also the victimizer.

However, this is not some individualized, privatized exhortation. Christ came and intended to start the Ekklesia, the Church: a particular body of people inhabiting the redemptive narrative of God from Genesis to Revelation, embodying what the world ought to/will be like while waiting for Christ’s return and that world to be actualized. We speak truth, we suffer and sacrifice for all, we practice hospitality and charity, we embody hope and peace and reconciliation, we live our lives after the One who is Life, we are not afraid to die because He has already died for us and rose, and we have been raised with Him. The church, God’s people for the world, as Stanley Hauerwas has put it, “God’s politic for the world,” is to live an alternative life that is distinct and faithful to our Lord. And so as part of that community called to be holy, we reject such things as racism that tear the Body of Christ apart, things that attempt to build walls where Christ has destroyed walls (Gal. 2:11-22). Between Blacks and Whites. Between God and us. Between ourselves. Because the church unified is a sacrament that denotes the reality of reconciliation between man and God through Christ by the Spirit; racism undermines and threatens such reconciliation, as it drives us further from who we ought to be in Christ.

Come Lord Jesus.

P.S. If you don’t think that I think cultures change over time: of course I do. I’m seeking a nuanced theological and philosophical understanding of what that change means and how to interpret it in ways that go beyond the simple absolute/relative divide, especially in relation to a calendar and the notion of progress.

A Love of Learning Gone Wrong

This discussion on Mere Fidelity about ‘curiosity’ is fantastic and convicting for me personally. They discuss curiosity in relation to the internet (cat videos, blogging, etc.), the purpose of knowledge, the danger of the novelty of knowledge, the relation of novelty to doctoral dissertations, and where curiosity can go wrong. I found the discussion incredibly helpful and thought-provoking.

In relation to Theological study, the purpose of it is to glorify God and worship Him forever; to know Christ, follow Him, to act out our place within the great Theodrama by the power of the Spirit; to continually and creatively construct signposts within the doctrinal bounds of historical faith to point towards our future hope. Centrally, all this is done in the Church universal, as a community of redeemed people, so that this community that Jesus intended to create can be a faithful witness to God’s Kingdom.

Personally, I enjoy new ways of thinking about things, maybe too much sometimes. I want to know everything. Rather than hang on to faithful witness and confession and trust God with what I don’t (cannot) know, I sometimes seek out a newer formulation just for the sake of novelty. Faith handed down for 2,000 years is boring; new, speculative, creative confessions are exciting, even if they are unmoored from the historical Christian faith and overtly or subtly unorthodox. New things can ‘wow’ people and that feeling of being the one to present the new thing can be intoxicating. But we’re not called to that, we’re called to faithfulness within our context. That’s a hard tension to live out. It’s fun to venture into the strange, speculative landscape of novel theological thought. But that wandering can be dangerous.

The tension is there and real. It’s difficult to cling to the faith we’ve received as something we don’t get to make up for ourselves while seeking to faithfully witness in new contexts, all the while fighting the temptation to ‘wow’ people with theological knowledge. That’s a fight against pride and it’s hard. But we have to do both. The difficulty of such a calling is no excuse to circumvent it for an easier route. Personally, even if not knowing provokes my anxiety I’m still called to faithful study for the upbuilding of my brothers and sisters and still called to contextualize the faith I’ve received. The anxiety of not knowing while being faithful is better than the glory of parading the new for it’s own sake, even if the latter abates my anxiety and gives me an ‘answer.’

A Historical-Critical prison

I knew going into a New Testament and Early Christianity class at a state university would not be pro-Christian. I also knew the predominant method in studying the Bible in the class would be the historical-critical method. I guess I’m still frustrated, though, that many somehow are unable to see outside of a historical-critical method when it comes to reading the Bible. “Context, context, context,” we say. And that’s right. Context matters.

But what I’ve noticed is that this historical-critical method has become the end-all be-all of studying the Bible. What is true about what the Bible says is entirely captured and available to anyone using the historical-critical method. The assumption behind much of this, of course, is that all things in Scripture/Christianity can be completely reduced to their particular historical location, their particular historical circumstance, and that’s it. So when we read Hosea 11, “out of Egypt I called my son,” in it’s context, the Prophet can only refer to Israel and not Jesus.

It would seem, then, that the particular institution sets the agenda, and anything not in that agenda is not officially true (ie: reading Scripture theologically, with the rest of the canon and gospel, with figural interpretive methods, etc.). So when my professor says that in Matthew 5:17 when Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, it would seem in the historical context at that moment it sounds as if Jesus says everyone who follows him must follow Torah and Jewish ceremonial practices.

Maybe I’m overly critical, but it sounds as if Jesus Himself is unable to say anything not authorized by the historical-critical method. Historical criticism is immeasurably helpful to and necessary for Biblical exegesis. It also compels us to see the historicalness of our Christian faith, and that developments in Christian thinking/theology are not somehow less holy or spiritual (were we supposed to have the Trinity figured out within 20 minutes of Jesus rising from the dead? Was the canon supposed to have universal agreement with no debates about what books matter? What other unrealistic expectations do we have?). But when we put the Bible in a historical-critical prison and let no other interpretive methods touch it, we reveal more of our own lack of imagination and lack of faith than anything else. Some Christians, even, have become so cocksure that the historical-critical method is the true and superior arbiter of Biblical truth that we shout “context, context, context!” at anyone who appears to speak otherwise (I’ve done it). But of course, God’s Word cannot be contained by a single method developed in the wake of the Enlightenment. Just because we are further down the timeline than those that have gone before us does not make our interpretive processes superior. I would argue contemporary Christians posses an anemic imagination, one that is unable to see nuance and theological/historical complexity together (not either/or). I’ve had a challenging time learning to appreciate the faithful who have gone before us and have interpreted Scripture creatively yet with fidelity to the received Gospel. We have much to learn from our brothers and sisters.

(This post was inspired by Richard Hay’s lecture: Did Moses Write about Jesus? The Challenges of Figural Reading. You can find it here.)

Also here’s an entry on the development of historical criticism and the intimate relation it has with the “History of Religions School.”

The language of narrative

I forget where I read it, but I recently remembered the saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, “whenever you see a change in language, there is found a profound shift in culture.” I was today watching a lecture by Soong-Chan Rah on “The racialization and nationalization of the Image of God.” It’s a fantastic lecture and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve heard from him. He is certainly someone God is using for the edification of the Church. But his language within the video prompts me to think of how Christians have experienced a shift in language, particularly in the Western world (I’m ignorant of other places, so I’m not sure how things are elsewhere).

Particularly within Evangelicalism the dominant trend I’ve seen has been to use the word ‘narrative.’ Using it almost always elicits a ‘like’ on a Facebook post. It’s a kind of buzzword that when dropped into conversation makes speakers appear in-the-know of popular culture. That may sound a little derogatory and indicative of my more conservative and skeptical side, but I can’t help but get that sense when I hear the word used by some. My main concern, though, is why use it? What significance does the word have? What does its usage signify within culture generally? But more importantly, how does this word help Christians think about our Christ-given mission?  There is certainly much to be gleaned within the emergence of this word, and I want to look at two aspects of its usage.

  1. Some people associate this word with all things ‘liberal.’ The more conservative evangelicals lump this language in with hip, liberal-progressive, millennial culture. Perhaps it’s lumped in because the usage of this word is almost always paired with social activism, and conservatives don’t like that because it’s too ‘liberal.’ There’s obviously nothing inherently evil about the word, but sometimes, myself included, it’s difficult to separate the word from the larger context from within which it lives. And it is this larger context of the usage that is troubling to some. But Christians should grab hold of this word and ask: how is this helpful to the mission we’ve been given by Christ? Particularly within theological studies the word/concept of ‘narrative’ has been of great benefit to scholars, and I personally have benefitted tremendously from the careful thought and wisdom that emerges from Christian theologians/scholars who engage in studies of ‘narrative theology’ and the like. N.T. Wright comes to mind here, especially this article: http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/how-can-the-bible-be-authoritative/
  2. The word seems to signal that various thoughts, concepts or ideas cannot be understood apart from the larger ‘story’ of which it is a part. The word ‘story’ is seemingly used synonymously with ‘narrative,’ denoting the larger context composed of people, places, ideas, events, etc. of which things are a part. Nothing is located outside of a story; there is no truth in a vacuum. I think this is indicative of our postmodern enjoyment of stories, with rich details, flowing plot and exciting turns, as opposed to the sterile and vapid modernist notions of universal truth encapsulated in sentences in old, smelly books. Indeed, I think there is much wisdom to be gained here by Christians. There is also danger. It can easily devolve into hyper-contextualization with Christians uncritically accepting various patterns of thought and life for fear of being seen as the “privileged perspective” from which all things are judged. No doubt many Christians (myself included) have assumed their way of seeing things is absolute and all others are wrong. While the arrogance and sometimes oppressive force of such positions is lamentable, it is not justification to abandon careful, patient and prayerful thought of Christians with various concepts.

We must be intentional as we live in two Kingdoms, one foot in the old creation and one foot in God’s coming Kingdom. Obviously the Church is located in a time, place, with a particular language, and arrogance about any one of those is borderline sinful, as it begins to exclude those nations and tongues that Christ desires to call to Himself. So let’s critically engage with this language of ‘narrative,’ discovering where it is beneficial and eschewing the aspects that detract from God being glorified by all peoples: whether black, white, asian, english speaking, Spanish speaking, non-speaking (those with down-syndrome or debilitating forms of autism) etc. Let’s take it captive to Christ for the glory of the Father and with the wisdom given God’s people by the Spirit.

 

Here is Soong-Chan’s lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YW3dkJKjuEc