A lesson we need to keep on learning and an argument from silence with the power to convict

[Fill in the blank] are people, treat them as such!

It’s a lesson we (human beings, poor broken and ‘fallen’ as we are) need to keep on learning. Three things have reminded me of this recently.

First encouraging students to discover this message in composing essays on Ruth or on Jonah, and leading a group in a local ‘village’1 to study the same beautiful little books.

Second Hannah’s Blog-On Still Believing and a Little Narnia posted a beautiful quote from Dorothy L. Sayers (from her brilliant article “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.”

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man-there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them! ”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them, and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.2

[See aside below.]

The other was an equally, but quite differently, brilliant combination of research from several disciplines reported in “How To Get Kids To Pay Attention“. The gist of which is so simple, be like the Maya, and not like ‘Modern” Westerners, and treat children like real people, and they will learn to pay attention, and so learn much better.

So, two recent posts in the electronic world remind that women are people, and that children are people, and two little stories from the ancient world remind that foreigners are people. Revolutionary!

[Aside: Dorothy Sayers’ argument is a really neat example of the untruth of the claim that arguments from silence always lack force. That Jesus’ words and actions, remembered by four different (often quite different) streams of tradition3 and recorded in dozens of pages each, NEVER not once patronise a woman because of her gender – however we read them not matter how we twist them! It is an argument from silence with the power to convict.]

  1. In NZ a ‘village’ is a retirement settlement, usually a mix of houses and apartments with a medical ward for those needing more assistance. []
  2.  Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women, ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood (SUNY Press, 1983), 13. []
  3. Plus, if Mark Goodacre and others are quite mistaken, a fifth Q. []

BibleWorks

I have just read the news that BibleWorks for many many years the best Bible program for PC (if you have a powerful computer and/or lots of time the Logos e-library system is also good Bible software, but BibleWorks just worked, and so for many years has been my daily goto) is closing.

I could see no information about why, and the announcement was vague about the future – probably because it is still unclear. It would be a real pity if the program were to simply die!

Does anyone have more news?

Evangelicalism Lite?

Mike Bird, on Facebook pondered saving the word ‘Evangelical’:

The only way to save the word”evangelical” is to seize it from the non-denominational, civic & consumerist religion, mega-church industrial complex and orientate it towards “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

I can’t help wondering what would happen to such an attempt to create an Evangelicalism Lite. When stripped of the oh so commercial worship songs, the politico-religious shibboleths that serve as loyalty tests, and the rest of the 20th century trappings of power that have accereted to, and so changed beyond recognition the simple faith of Newton and the Clapham Sect1 and other social activists in the name of Jesus, what would be left?

Mike thinks Evangelicalism Lite would be ‘one holy catholic and apostolic’ I suspect like an onion when the last layer was removed the onion would be gone. I have many friends who value the word, some who point to the fine work of the World Evangelical Alliance and remind me that it is nothing like the industrial strength power Evangelicalism of the USA (even in the USA). Yet my experiences were different, brought up as Evangelical first and Baptist in a poor second place, I had to rebel against the shibboleths to protect my faith in the Creator God, and I had to learn that following Jesus meant working with all his other followers (except the ‘Evangelicals’ who could not be ‘unequally yoked with sinners’ and so could only support a mission to the University if every speaker signed their declaration of faith).

In my experience in Britain in the 60s the religious life was divided between Evangelicals and Followers of Jesus, and I chose the Christians over the lions.

  1. Wouldn’t that be a fine name for a 60s band? []

Dear Mr Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is visiting NZ currently, to preach to the faithless and rouse them to new heights of Atheist fervour.

Or should I call you Professor?

If you were here in NZ to talk about Biology then sure Dear Prof Dawkins would be appropriate and polite, but if I waded in to debate biology I would not expect you to call me Dr Bulkeley all the time. My PhD is not in your discipline, and my remarks would be expected to contain the sort of silly mistakes and probably egregious errors that amateurs often make. And that in a way is the point of this post. You make egregious errors and silly mistakes when you talk about my discipline. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll show my lack of respect for your lack of learning by calling you Mr.

One god less?

There’s an argument your followers like to use as a fine knock-down, I think of it as the one god less fallacy. You expressed it in A Devil’s Chaplain like this:

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.1

Far from a knock down argument, this is egregious bunkum. You don’t disbelieve in one less god than me, we both fail to believe in the same number of gods. All of them!

God, the one and only, the maker of all, is simply the opposite of a god. The pernicious, fickle yet convenient powers that humans across the years have imagined and worshiped, and nearly as often used as excuses to force others to worship them (the priests and kings whose support and service these gods are claimed to need) are nothings. (Or more precisely and exactly are idols.)

Most intelligent Christians who think a little about their faith realise, sooner or later, that the maker of all cannot be like them. A being responsible for the almost incredible and literally unthinkable reaches of space and time, or even the mind-boggling complexity of the organisms you study professionally, Professor, cannot be cajoled or bribed in the way we both know the devotees of gods assume their creatures (for the gods are indeed made by human minds) can.

God, on the other hand, is wholly other — unknowable indeed. Except that God chose revelation, and is supremely found in the human life of Jesus, the man whom clever and powerful men nailed to a cross and executed. But God is not a god! God comes to us, not in power and might as befits a god, but as a victim as befits a non-god. Not with cleverness and ‘wisdom’, but in all the foolishness of a lover. And that, sadly, you have failed to discover for yourself.

I pray for you

So, Professor Dawkins (for your learning and research in biology deserves respect) I pray for you, that one day you will discover for yourself the one and only ground of all being because whatever you mistake God for (even a tinpot god) God loves you.


PS In discussion of this post on Facebook two things prompted me to add this postscriptum.  First comments about my tone in the presentation above (from an Atheist friend whom I respect) caused me to notice how I had fallen into the trap of fighting fire with fire. Then an enthusiastic Christian friend posting a video that used a mix of vox pop interviews with random passers-by, very short clips of scientists, and hectoring interventions by the makers of the video to pillory the notion of the evolution of species. That video and Dawkins present a picture of two Fundamentalists shouting at each other as mirror images. I have no wish to descend to that level. I therefore apologise to you for my tone and rhetoric above.

  1. Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (HMH, 2004), 150. []

Women should be seen and not heard!

The Bible says

Well actually, of course, it doesn’t. What it does say, at least in a couple of places is shocking enough:

…women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. (1 Cor 14:34 NRSV)

And as many famous US pastors with powerful ministries have noted and proclaimed:

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. (1 Tim 2:12 NRSV)

Which, you have to admit, sounds pretty close to my deliberately inflammatory title!

At this point, if you are like me, all your hackles are rising and you are muttering to yourself: What about the gospel? What about Paul? Paul summed up the consequences of being baptised ‘into Christ’ and so being (each and together) ‘clothed in Christ:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28 ESV)

Indeed, if we just look at the question of women teaching men, what about Jesus’ conversation with the Canaanite woman who when he suggested that he should not offer her daughter the healing mercy that he was offering to proper Israelites, argued back against him and evoked the response:

“Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matt 15:28 NRSV)

You are just twisting the Bible

Anyone who tries to explain how context, careful attention to the wording, and other cues might cause us to understand the two passages about women being silent differently from their literal surface meaning will have met the response: ‘You are just twisting the Bible to avoid its plain meaning.’

This sounds like a ‘nice knock down argument’,1 after all surely we must all prefer the plain obvious meaning?

But that is precisely the problem. By their focus on the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a couple of passages, and their staunch and principled refusal to consider revisionist readings of these passages, these teachers must twist the plain, simple, obvious meaning of the gospel and of loads of whole passages and stories from across the Bible from at least as early as Deborah (in Judges) to at least as late as Jesus and Paul (in the New Testament).

Here is a rule you can trust

Whenever the plain, simple, obvious meaning of a few passages seems to conflict with, contradict, or merely seems uncomfortable alongside the great truths of the gospel that are proclaimed across the whole of Scripture then we have somehow misunderstood those passages!

  1. This phrase was chosen because it echoes Humpty Dumpty, because I believe these famous pastors with the powerful ministries are followers of Dumpyites. []

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

In these glorious Antipodes a storm has blown up in the conventional and the social media — not the series of sub-tropical storms that have been wreaking havoc with our homes and power poles, but a storm of opprobrium. It concerns (as you might expect)1 a rugby player. This rugby player expressed a theological opinion concerning the eternal destiny of some other people. Since rugby players are quasi-divine, naturally, his opinion on this matter is of huge importance….

Many of my Christian friends are (rightly) concerned about issues of tolerance and the possible suppression of religious views that dissent from the majority opinion (especially when those dissenting views are our own). In this respect several decades of liberalism have made us unprepared for such a resurgence of the Spanish Inquisition. But then no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

I am more interested in the theological question, is Israel Folau correct that gays are going to hell?

On what grounds might we say this with theological authority? If sin alone is the grounds then we are all doomed, if unrepented sin, I suspect likewise… Or is there a scale of sins with some (mine and your’s perhaps?) being venial and others (on whose unacceptability to God we agree) being mortal – ah, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

  1. You might expect this since rugby players here play the quasi-divine role that billionaires and film stars play in the USA, or royalty in some more conservative places. []

Coherence and the limits on interpretation

Clearly texts do mean what their authors intend them to mean, but it also seems evident that texts (and especially texts within a highly intertextual canon, like the Bible) can also mean more. Once one allows this, what are the limits on such interpretations? My suggestions revolve around the notion of coherence, a text that holds together and makes sense is coherent, a text that is too fragmented or that does not make sense is incoherent.

Since the Bible is a canonical collection, it seems reasonable to expect its parts to be coherent. This does not mean that each part necessarily agrees with every other, or that there are no contradictions between parts. To claim that would be to deny to Scripture the sort of freedom of ideas and opinions that we take for granted in community life. For example in a Baptist Church we meet together to try to discover ‘the mind of Christ’ on matters that concern us, by listening to the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures and through our fellow believers. We do not expect that we will all think alike, but we hope and pray that out of our listening the mind of Christ will emerge.

Yet, if the parts do not ‘fit’ one with another, and thus appear incoherent, this is surely an indication that we have understood one or both wrongly. How might coherent disagreement work?

Take the examples of Dt 23 and Ruth. Deuteronomy 23 seeks to preserve the holiness of the ‘assembly of the Lord‘, it therefore warns that Moabites should be among the groups of people excluded from the assembly, in the light of the history of Moabite interaction with the chosen people. By contrast Ruth tells the story of a Moabite woman (and her ethnicity is stressed by being mentioned seven times, more than half the total biblical usage of the word) who displays (by contrast) unusual and praiseworthy faithful commitment to a Bethlehemite family. These two passages argue in strikingly opposite ways, yet they are not incoherent, but can be thought of as two aspects for Israel to consider when thinking of relationships with Moabites.

By contrast, 1 Tim 2:12 appears (especially as it is rendered in most English translations) at the least to deny that women should speak in the church community.1 However,  1 Cor 11:5 presumes that women pray and prophesy in the assembly and in Acts 21:9 the gift of prophecy shown by Philip’s four daughters seems to be approved. Such an apparent incoherence might in this case lead us to examine the texts more closely, and perhaps suspect some contextual situation that has provoked the advice in Timothy (the comment in 2 Tim 3:6 may hint at such a situation).

There is however a second sort of coherence which may prove even more useful. Any Christian reading of the Bible claims that in some sense the Old Testament texts are preparing for or looking forward to the coming of Christ, which fulfills them (or reveals their full meaning). Equally, the New Testament texts look back on Jesus life, death, resurrection, and rule at the Father’s right hand. Therefore, our reading of any Bible passage should cohere with what we know of God in Christ.

People often present this criterion in terms of cruciformity (our readings of Scripture should reveal the crucified God) however, despite the centrality and importance of the cross it is not the whole of the story of Jesus Christ thus I prefer the broader version.

Our readings should cohere with how we understand other parts of the Bible, and also they should cohere with what we know of the God who is supremely revealed in Jesus the Christ. Readings which by these standards are incoherent are suspect and need further investigation.

  1. Leaving aside the debates surrounding the meaning of authenteo. []

Limits to Christian Bible reading

Once upon a time, roughly between the full flowering of the blooms of enlightenment some time in the 19th century and loss of confidence in the whole project induced in Westerners by two World Wars in the 20th, Western readers lost their trust in those who claim that ‘texts mean what they say, no more and no less’. This more open and creative attitude entered the church, ushered in enthusiastically by pious readers of the Bible who expect to find God’s message for them writ loud on every page, and Charismatic preachers who rejoice in finding meaning in all those details of the design of the temple that take up much of Exodus. Approaches that claim that like with Humpty Dumpty’s relationship to words (‘when I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean’)1 biblical texts mean what they the reader say they mean. Such a reading is not authenticated by the text but rather by direct revelation to the person who makes it. Others accept (or reject) the understanding  as they accept or reject the spiritual authority of that interpreter. Meaning in this postmodern world is personal. This free allocation of meaning to the reader is effectively the end of the Bible as an authoritative text — for the (human visible)  authority is not the Bible but the interpreter, or the interpreter’s community of support.

Understandably this approach has been resisted (rather piecemeal since it is highly attractive to ‘authoritative’ readers, such as pastors, or a fortiori televangelists)  by Fundamentalists and others conservative enough to wish to retain the Bible as genuine authority and not a mere mystifying symbol disguising human authority. Our/their response has been an appeal to authorial intent — an approach that is reasonable, but restrictive. After all surely, pace Humpty, a text’s meaning is related to what its author intended it to mean?! Yet all texts mean more than this. In one direction all human texts communicate messages the author did not (at least consciously) intend, think of the sexist and racist messages that even a text the speaker/writer believes quite innocuous can carry.2

Texts also often say more than their authors intend in more positive ways. Biblical texts, in particular, may be heard as being ‘fulfilled’ in Christ, as types of the coming gospel. Limiting meaning only to what the author may reasonably be supposed to have meant is therefore too restrictive.

[ In the next post I will propose an approach to limiting meaning that is less restrictive, and yet provides reasonable and theologically defensible limits to creative rereadings of Scripture. This post and the planned next one were stimulated by my friend Jonathan Robinson who has been reading Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009. Heard at second hand, filtered by Jonathan, this book seems to beg this question of limits on reading. The previous post where I distinguish two ways God communicates through Scripture may also be helpful. ]

  1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass: And What Alice Found There. London: Macmillan & Company, 1875, 124. []
  2. The recent kerfuffle over remarks by Mary Beard may be taken as an example, but my readers will need to pick their own, because in the nature of things we are each more or less sensitive to some sorts of ‘…ist’ remarks. []

Phone call or broadcast

God uses Scripture in two quite different ways. I think of them as the phone call and the broadcast. Each works quite differently from the other, and mixing them up is a serious mistake.

In a phone call someone is talking to one other person (or at most a few other people). In a phone call we shape the communication for each person. Sam likes cooking, Jo loves jokes… We know God sometimes  communicates like this, by ‘phone call’, from Jer 1:11-12. God asks Jeremiah what he sees, apparently ‘an almond tree’, this (somehow, and I’ll explain the ‘how’ below) tells Jeremiah that God message is: “I am watching over my word to perform it.” Reading this in English we certainly do not get what is going on in this phone call from God to Jeremiah. That’s because we are not in on the joke! The Hebrew words for ‘almond tree’ shaqad and ‘watching over’ shoqed make a pun. Since Jeremiah loved bad puns (we know because he makes them all the time, and they are often important to his preaching, like my pastor making bad jokes) God chose an appropriate ‘code’ for his phone message.

When we were suddenly evacuated out from Kinshasa in Congo, and cut off from our friends, closest colleagues, work, and church, God used the story of Jonah to send a phone message to Barbara and me. God chose Jonah because we both love the story. (Barbara even does the actions as she sings it with children!) The message God gave us has nothing to do with the message of the book. Jonah is not about God leading people to move on to (what eventually, and cutting a long story very short turned out to be) New Zealand!

By contrast anyone making a radio broadcast needs to remember that anyone might ‘tune in’, and they need to ensure their message is suitable for public consumption. Not knowing the mic is live and continuing a private conversation can be very embarrassing:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama have come under fire after they were overheard talking rudely about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the G-20 summit.
Sarkozy was overheard telling Obama: “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” according to French website Arret Sur Images.1
Bible passages are broadcast messages. They have meaning for everyone who tunes in.
  1. From CNN. []

Judgemental God 2: perspicuity (clear and obvious)

The goal of Christian biblical hermeneutics

The goal of hermeneutics is understanding communications.
The purpose of Christian biblical hermeneutics is understanding God’s message(s) in the Christian Scriptures. That is Christians understand the Bible to in some way deliver divine messages. Other people, or Christians when they are reading for other purposes (e.g. with an interest in history) may rightly understand the Bible in other ways, but a Christian interpreting the Bible as Scripture is seeking a message from God.

The nature of the Bible

The Bible is a collection of works of human communication. These works are of varied genres, come from a wide range of locations, and from a broad span of time. The Bible does not claim1 to have been composed or dictated by God or another supernatural being. It does claim to be inspired by God, and so to contain divine messages. The orthodox understanding (at least among Protestants) however, is that these messages are not encoded, but are plainly to be seen.2

This seems to imply that the many and various (and therefore not at all clear, except to the recipients) messages that the Holy Spirit inspires people to hear as they read Scripture are not ‘the message of the Bible. It seems evident to me3 that God does use the Bible as the stimulus for personal messages, rather as the pun on the Hebrew word for ‘almond tree’ was used to inspire Jeremiah with a prophetic message (Jer 1:11-12). My point here is that such personal messages stimulated by Scripture are not messages of Scripture (which would mean they were for all times and all places).

Clarity or perspicuity

If the divine message(s) of Scripture are clear and obvious (perspicuous) then they cannot be thought to reside in the details. For the details of what the Bible says are often far from ‘clear and obvious’. For example, should Christians prefer to worship on Saturdays or on Sundays? Worship on Saturday is enjoined on Israel in the stipulations of the Sinai covenant, worship on Sunday is inferred from several New Testament references but is not unequivocally enjoined. Therefore my conclusion is that neither my (Baptist) practice of gathering with others on Sundays, nor the practice of Adventists (to gather on Saturdays) is either enjoined or forbidden by the Bible’s teaching.

On the other hand, ‘you should not kill’ is one of the Ten Commandments, and this is reinforced by Jesus into a warning against the sort of thoughts (anger and superiority) which might lead to killing (Matt 5:21-22). This goal is reinforced in a number of other places and so seems a clear teaching of Scripture.

But what you are saying is not precise

Some may object that what is suggested above is not precise. How many times does an idea need to be repeated before it becomes ‘clear’? This objection is true, but does not appear fatal. We tolerate a justice system based upon ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. I have served on a jury where the nature of such reasonable doubt was explored (I suspect a significant proportion of all juries spend time on this, since most cases that involve juries deliberating seem to involve some doubt). This system of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is oxymoronically not certain, but it is the most fair and equitable we have been able to devise. Life in a fallen world lacks certainty. Muslims and others who claim that the words, and not merely the message(s), of their Scriptures are divine sidestep this uncertainty, for Christians the Bible’s teaching should claim to be a divine word for all only when it is clear and evident – perspicuous.

  1. Unlike many other religious writings, such as the Holy Qur’an. []
  2. This doctrine is known as the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture. []
  3. On the basis of experience as well as observation. []