September 1, 2014
During the height of the biblical theology movement in the middle of the last century, it was common to make a rather sharp distinction between the primeval period of Gen. 1-11 and the Abrahamic patriarchal period of Gen. 12-50. On this view, the primeval history is heavily mythical in its construction of ancient realities, replete with numerous etiologies (e.g., the tower of Babel as the origin of diverse languages), whereas the ancestral history is the beginning of history proper, more or less, focused as it is on Israel’s lineage from Abraham. Or to put it another way, the former is universal and therefore prone to mythical media of interpretation; the latter is particular and therefore historically contingent and “real” as we think of history, though not without “embellishments.”
This view was popularized by OT scholars like John Bright, and others at Union Seminary in Richmond, and Bernhard Anderson at Drew and Princeton, both of whom wrote OT surveys that were widely used at seminaries across the country. To this, we could add the “biblical archaeology” movement of William F. Albright and George Ernest Wright. For a nice summary statement, we can quote the old Metzger-edited New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV):
The primeval history reflects a “prehistorical” or mythical view of the movement from creation to the return of chaos in a catastrophic flood and the new beginning afterwards, while the ancestral history can be read, at least to some degree, in the context of the history of the Near East in the latter part of the second millennium (1500-1200 B.C.). The primary purpose of the book, however, is not to present straightforward history but to tell the dramatic story of God’s dealings with the world and, in particular, to interpret Israel’s special role in God’s purpose.
However, this consensus (and it did basically form a consensus in the mainline, as far as that was once possible) would eventually come under significant criticism. Evangelicals had long been critical of the divide between non-historical and historical, splitting the book of Genesis where the text gives no such indication of a shift to real history. The primeval history presents itself as just as historical as the Abrahamic history, especially indicated by the genealogies (albeit stylized in some way) in the primeval history. From the opposite vantage point, criticism came from within the mainline Protestant guild and elsewhere. The archaeological data became more contested, just as postmodern exegesis emerged to uncover the (alleged) ideologies and agendas that shaped the purported history(ies) of Israel. By the time we get to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, first published in 2003, things are rather different. Brueggemann never tires of reminding the reader that we have no knowledge of what really happened (e.g., exodus, conquest, temple, monarchy, etc.). It is all imaginative reconstructions, but that’s alright in Brueggemann’s account because we are called now to recapture the same imagination that inspired their confidence in God.
As for myself, I am not clear on how to precisely answer the question of historicity in the primeval chapters of Genesis or even the rest of the Pentateuch and historical books, though obviously the stakes are higher when speaking of Israel’s history. Brueggemann is a bridge too far, to say the least, and it appears that Peter Enns (like Kenton Sparks) is following the same path. The evangelical criticism itself would have to be modified today in the light of John Walton, Kevin Vanhoozer, and others’ (“progressive inerrantists”) recognition that ancient historiography may not follow the same conventions as modern historiography, which would bring them closer to the old biblical theology guys mentioned above, albeit with a sharper interest in preserving historicity where that appears to be the unambiguous affirmation of the text, not merely incidental. My inclinations are with the progressive inerrantists, as well as the biblical theology movement, though with some significant reservations with how the latter legitimates historicity.
I was inspired to write this post after browsing through Alice Linsley’s blog, Just Genesis. Linsley is a “biblical anthropologist,” that is, an anthropologist who brings her research to the text of Scripture for illumination of the context, especially the kinship ties. I can hardly render a judgment on the quality of her work, but it is fascinating. She argues for a “meta-historical” reading of Gen. 1-3, but she sees a shift to history proper, by and large, soon thereafter — thanks to anthropology and other research into ancient ethnic groups. So, for example, you should see her posts, “Are Adam and Eve Real?” and “Adam and Eve as Archetypal Ancestors.” Also, a good overview is “Objections to the Fundamentalist Reading of Genesis.” Her most recent index is very helpful. By the way, she is a former Episcopal minister and
convert to Eastern Orthodoxy revert to Anglicanism.
Image: “The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man” by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. They collaborated on this work at Rubens’ studio in Antwerp, (Spanish) Netherlands, now Belgium, in the 1610’s.
July 26, 2014
Lesslie Newbigin accepted the reality of pluralism — without accepting, as Lamin Sanneh expresses it, the “modern historical consciousness” that contextualizes and relativises all religious claims, subsuming them under the all-encompassing category of power. Under the pretense of tolerance, religion loses — as does genuine pluralism.
Lamin Sanneh (Yale Divinity School) provides one of the most incisive accounts that I have read of Newbigin’s work and lifelong project to rethink Christian exclusivity within pluralist societies:
…It is not true that all roads lead to the peak of the same mountain. Some roads are false short cuts, and even if they do not lead over the precipice, they leave people self-centredly entangled. For Christians, the ultimate clue, the rock of ages, is Jesus, the one God chose to honour and to glorify the divine name, and who has gone before them in honour and faithfulness.
Newbigin makes the point with some force that religious pluralism, in the sense of competing truth claims as well as of simple numerical multiplicity, does not exclude claims of absolute uniqueness. Without some sense of objective truth people will become totally imprisoned in subjective relativism. Religion can become relativist only by turning into an ideology, in which case tolerance will become a relative value as mere expedience. There would be no independent basis for it. That is why truth claims are not convertible currency that give people personal advantage; they are not a question of will power, à la Nietzsche: you want in this case a liberating creed, so you produce the sacrosanct truth of the infallibility of revolutionary relativism and smash your way to victory by gutting truth claims, any or all of them. Will power can only produce a wilful world based on power. Its truth claim leaves no room for difference or variety, or for openness and tolerance.
The point about pluralism reducing theology into ideology is really the key to the whole thing. And now my favorite part:
To assume [pluralism] is to settle for a beguiling notion that to concede truth to the other side somehow represents an advance on mutual tolerance when in fact it only triggers an unintended domino effect: the fall of Christian uniqueness would be followed in turn by the fall of all the other claims of uniqueness. Fewer generalisations would be possible until all religions are excluded — a most unsatisfactory state of affairs in which the generalisation of exclusion, not pluralism, would be left ascendant.
[Mission in the 21st Century, eds. Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross; Orbis Books, 2008, pp. 140-141]
Image: Lesslie Newbigin (source)
June 14, 2014
This is what “tolerance” looks like:
“Colleges and Evangelicals Collide on Bias Policy” (Michael Paulson, New York Times, June 9, 2014)
Well, when truth claims are reduced to culturally-conditioned “norms,” which are then reduced to power plays and “rituals of truth” (Foucault) — then we really shouldn’t be surprised when postmodern liberalism is consistent. It is not about reason, much less tolerance in any meaningful sense. It’s about reconstituting, as they would say, the cultural conditions from which “truth” arrives in human consciousness and receives its legitimacy. Power is all that really matters.
With the massive 23-campus Cal State pursuing the same course of action, in addition to half a dozen other colleges where evangelical associations have lost their official status, it looks like an “evangelical underground” is emerging in our secular academies. On the upside, a little discomfort and loss of privilege will probably do us some good.
Image: Bowdoin College, Hubbard Hall, Spring 2012
May 12, 2014
I so love this:
Tullian Tchividjian (Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church) has been under a lot of criticism for not sufficiently warding off antinomianism in his presentation of the gospel. I see Tchividjian as basically a Barthian, not because he is influenced by Barth (he isn’t) but because he reads the Bible without illusions of his own “victorious” life. God bless him. Tchividjian really emphasizes that Christ has done everything, and he is excited about it! He thinks introspection is looking in the wrong direction.
He also dared to challenge the American moralism of his predecessor at Coral Ridge, D. James Kennedy, who spent his waning years using the American founding fathers as his (by far) most frequent sermon illustrations — yes, I’m serious. That’s one more reason to love Tchividjian.
Thielicke begins by lamenting that few people will read widely and step across the “firmly delineated boundaries” separating the theological camps of fundamentalists, liberals, pietists, and so forth. There are “few intellectual and spiritual adventurers” (5). Fifty years later, I can assure you that nothing has changed. Thielicke acknowledges that his own “dogmatic system” is different from Spurgeon’s, but he is hopeful that Spurgeon’s work will bring a “breath of spring air” and “inner quickening” in our denominations. Thielicke is rather gushing in his enthusiasm for Spurgeon:
I can see that fresh and unpolluted water springs forth in Spurgeon’s preaching. This impression is so strong that it is a secondary question by what theology the source is enclosed, or what system of piping is constructed around it. Here Parthians and Medes and Elamites all hear in their own tongues “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:9, 11). This Pentecost miracle relativizes all the theological schools, though we must still take them seriously and are not fanatically to level them down. It is very difficult to convey to readers in advance any true impression of what they may expect in reading The Soul-Winner. I will simply cup my hands for a moment and let a few drops from this ocean run through them. [p. 6]
Thielicke then begins to describe and defend Spurgeon’s style:
The first thing to strike us is the vigor and even the passion of the language. This does not mean that the author is trying to force us. No one should imagine that Spurgeon is just using the loud pedal to try to bring his hearers under the pressure of suggestion or to dominate them psychologically. Our reaction to such a technique would undoubtedly be one of inner resistance. But there is no such resistance. One notes that the emotional element is not deployed here with tactical intentions. It derives from the matter with which Spurgeon deals. He himself has made this admirably clear. If, he says, a man knocks on my door in the middle of the night, wakens me out of sleep, and then tells me in a detached and languid voice that a fire has broken out at the back of my house, I shall probably not take him very seriously, and I may be inclined to pour a jug of water over this disturber of my peace. For when a fire has really broken out, this is so threatening and elemental a matter that we cannot speak of it with detachment and indifference. We are forced to refer to it in urgent and even agitated tones. But the Gospel, too, is exciting, disturbing, even sensational news. To speak of it nonchalantly and languidly is to give the lie to the message with the very tone of one’s voice. In other words, my confession of Christ consists not only in the content of what I say but also in the style or manner in which I say it. [pp. 6-7]
And then Thielicke makes another important observation:
The second point to strike us is that Spurgeon preaches the Gospel, not the Law. He is no Savonarola, lashing the sinners of his day. In this regard it is noteworthy how men generally like to be scolded by a preacher. The great castigators usually have a big following. This is because it gives us pleasure to hear the sins of others mentioned and dramatically corrected with exorcisms. The reason for this very unchristian pleasure, which the great preachers of repentance usually evoke in their hearers, is clear enough. We like to see, not our own sins, but sins of others castigated. …Now Spurgeon can certainly list the sins of his age and of his listeners. But he never does this without first showing how we can be freed from them. He does not recommend moral medicines, which cannot help, and which simply make moral apothecaries rich. He tells us that the sun is shining, and that we must leap into it out of the dark house of our lives. [pp. 7-8]
I love that. “He tells us that the sun is shining.” Thielicke was also appreciative of Billy Graham, as I once blogged: “Billy Graham Among the Theologians.”
April 2, 2014
A couple years ago, I offered some meager reflections on the debates surrounding Mumford & Sons. I sided with the negative critics. I still do, even more now than then. I revisited Jordan Bloom’s article. Their “sincerity” is really what drives me crazy — the need to really “feel” a thought before you express it. This is a plague in our day, and it is why our “art” sucks. You have artists interrogating their emotional landscape, projecting it onto the world, and calling it authentic. It then gets marketed to benighted consumers, eager to identify with the same authenticity and to parade it to their peers. And then there’s the music — as if the Beatles didn’t do enough to destroy American folk music.
In Jordan Bloom’s criticisms, he rightly parallels this phenomenon with the trajectory of church music toward therapeutic kitsch. They’re both cheap, easy, and disposable, which is what the consumer wants — whether in the church or at a concert, as if there is any difference anymore.
If you really want to know what a bearded troubadour of love should sound like, here is one of America’s greatest songwriters:
If you do not find this as “inspiring’ or “uplifting” as a Mumford song, then I should pray for your soul.
March 15, 2014
Simone Weil made a distinction between affliction (malheur) and simple suffering. Affliction is “a laceration of the soul” that endures, not a transitory moment of pain. There is a deep hopelessness for the afflicted. Their humanity has been forced into “thingness,” and there is no going back — at least not apart from a grace that pierces through this bondage or necessity (force). Weil explains this fundamental insight that permeates her theology:
In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery. …Affliction is inseparable from physical suffering and yet quite distinct. With suffering, all that is not bound up with physical pain or something analogous is artificial, imaginary, and can be eliminated by a suitable adjustment of the mind. [Waiting for God, p. 67]
Weil’s remarkable skill is how she discerns the “imaginary” adjustments of our minds to deflect our attention away from affliction and the affliction of others. And in our own day, I would point toward an abundance of preachers and their followers as especially enthusiastic about making these “adjustments.” This is deeply ingrained in our churches. On this point, I offer you this perfect anecdote from Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God:
My roommate for two years at a Christian college was a German named Reiner. Returning to Germany after graduation, Reiner taught at a camp for the disabled where, relying on college notes, he gave a stirring speech on the Victorious Christian Life. “Regardless of the wheelchair you are sitting in, you can have victory, a full life. God lives within you!” he told his audience of paraplegics, cerebral palsy patients, and the mentally challenged. He found it disconcerting to address people with poor muscle control. Their heads wobbled, they slumped in their chairs, they drooled.
The campers found listening to Reiner equally disconcerting. Some of them went to Gerta, director of the camp, and complained that they could not make sense of what he was saying. “Well then, tell him!” said Gerta.
One brave woman screwed up her courage and confronted Reiner. “It’s like you’re talking about the sun, and we’re in a dark room with no windows,” she said. “We can’t understand anything you say. You talk about solutions, about the flowers outside, about overcoming and victory. These things don’t apply to us in our lives.”
My friend Reiner was crushed. To him, the message seemed so clear. He was quoting directly from Paul’s epistles, was he not? His pride wounded, he thought about coming at them with a kind of spiritual bludgeon: There’s something wrong with you people. You need to grow in the Lord. You need to triumph over adversity.
Instead, after a night of prayer, Reiner returned with a different message: “I don’t know what to say,” he told them the next morning. “I’m confused. Without the message of victory, I don’t know what to say.” He stayed silent and hung his head.
The woman who had confronted him finally spoke up from the room full of disabled people. “Now we understand you,” she said. “Now we are ready to listen.”
March 13, 2014
Since I often enjoy Darryl Hart’s writings, even if not always in full agreement, it is about time that I post something from him. Here are some thoughts worth pondering, related to my own criticisms of “worldview” on this blog:
…Christian “conservatives” insist that philosophy precedes religion, which of course is remarkably ironic since these believers (both Reformed and Roman Catholic) are arguing for the ultimacy of faith. But to do so they use philosophical arguments about incoherence, epistemological foundations, and moral consistency that wind up making human reason, not faith or Scripture or tradition or Christ, the answer to life’s most difficult questions. Mind you, the question, “how am I right with God?” is hardly the same level of difficulty as “how do I know?” or “how do I become virtuous?” …
[There is a] great affinity that neo-Calvinism and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism have in privileging philosophy. Both of those traditions grew up spooked by the French Revolution and carved up the universe between theism and atheism, both fought the Enlightenment with Christian philosophy or w-w, and both left a legacy of antithesis — intellectual, cultural, political. If a gateway drug for Protestant converts to Rome (the anti-revolutionary anti-modern one) exists, it could be neo-Calvinism with its bending the knee to philosophy.
Hart has done a significant amount of work demonstrating that worldview-ism is what happens when pietism supplants Reformed theology proper. Where I disagree with Hart, and his kith at Westminster California, is their too uncritical identification with scholastic Protestantism. The subjective ills which they identify in pietism can also be detected in scholastic moves to “secure” theological foundations.