Wednesday, March 08, 2006

DSH on Christian Traditions:

Reacting to my last post, DSH has a very instructive comment on various traditions in Christianity.

Sullivan, in adopting a correspondent's position, certainly brings the matter into broader relief. But for all the clarity, ambiguity was compounded.

Sullivan has been attacking biblical fundamentalists, which he labels "Christianists." (He's been attacking Muslim fundamentalists, too, but less incisively, because it's not his schtick.) He's an avowed Roman Catholic, and he dislikes what's being done by "Christianists" under biblical authority to his sensibility of Christianity. (Disclosure: I'm an atheist, but if I were a Christian, Catholicism -- Anglican, Roman, or Eastern -- would appeal the most.) So, I empthize with Sullivan: Fundamentalists, IMHO, have totally distorted the Christian message, and if I were a Christian, I'd be pretty upset over what's being done in its name. But then, Roman Catholicism is not the paradigm of innocence, either. But let's leave all that behind and just deal with Sullivan's complaint.

For those who don't understand what fundamentalism is, here's a concise description. It subscribes to the belief that the Bible (Hebrew and Christian Scriptures) is the literal, inerrant Word of God. Literally. Some have gone as far to think Jesus spoke King's English and that the Bible was written in King James' time. That's how preposterous some of them are. Fundamentalists believe that everything written in the Bible is literally true, including Balaam's donkey talking (I won't dwell on it).

Jesus, of course, wrote nothing. In fact, we're not really sure who wrote what in the New Testament. Many scholars have noted the significant difference between the synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the proto-evangelist John. The former never claim Jesus as divine; the latter definitely does. It makes for interesting conversation.

Then, there is the Pauline gospel. This might strike some as strange, but indeed the letters attributed to Saint Paul (Pauline) have a totally different quality to them from the evangelists. Indeed, it's almost two totally different messages. But for whatever reason, "Paul's" epistles were singled out early as the benchmark of Christianity. For perspective, the earliest writings are at least 30 years after J.C., the latest writing maybe 200 years later. So, maybe a few of the authors actually knew J.C., but most did not. No one is really sure. Certainly, Saint Paul had only a derivative experience after J.C.'s resurrection while on the road to Damascus; his acquaintance with J.C. is totally derivative. The so-called "catholic" epistles may actually have been written by J.C.'s disciples, especially James, Peter, and John. Again, no one knows. But textually, the catholic epistles are much closer to the teachings of J.C. than the Pauline.

An important fact: Saint Paul apparently claimed "apostleship" for himself, although technically he doesn't fit the definition. But unlike the other "apostles," Paul was an evangelist to the Greeks and Romans. The others largely remained in their Jewish centers. Known as the Apostle to the Gentiles, even though Paul is thoroughly Jewish, his message apparently caught on in Greece and Roman territories, while the "others" remained provincial. This alone is why Paul became such a figurehead.

Enough history/context. The fact is that Christian Scriptures were never a significant issue, until the Reformation. Many of the pre-Reformation Christians mentioned the "apostle's memoirs" (i.e., Scripture), but they were equally engaged in non-scriptural exegesis. Saints Augustine (West) and Chrysostom (East) were the dominant writers, and most writers cited them as often, if not more often, than "scripture" itself. According to the dominant paradigm, Christianity after Christ was totally in the "hands" of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Because it was a "spiritual" awakening, not a deontological one, the Spirit moved over believers to adapt the J.C. message to the particular time and place. Prior to the Reformation, Christianity was "evolving" towards the Kingdom. Therefore, nothing was static, it was constantly being reinvented as the Church (community of believers) evolved through time. While some things became codified and ritualized, the basic thrust was "development." Indeed, one of the greatest Christian tracts was by John Henry Newman (19th C.) known as "The Development of Christian Doctrine." Process, not stasis, was the the impetus. Thus, to become "locked" onto a certain time and place, while helpful as an anchor, wasn't meant for the whole ship afloat. The Church, as protype of the Kingdom, was advancing the cause in each generation. Scripture and the Theologians were "rocks," but not anchorages. The Church had a mission to fulfill, moving forward, not backward, in time.

Enter the Reformation. Two men, Martin Luther and Jean Calvin, saw a "ship afloat." The original message had gotten so confused and tangled that these two men decided to go back to the "originals." For them, the Theologians and other writers did not matter; what mattered was "Scripture." Only the Divine Word of God could rescue this Titanic. Almost everything else was discarded. The supreme irony is that Christendom, until that point, really hadn't codifed a "Christian Scripture." Several councils and synods, not to mention the Theologians, had referred to these texts, but highly ambiguously. Yes, the "apostles' memoirs" were a critical point of reference, but not the whole ballywack. The Church, after all, was ontological, while "scripture" was derivative. Even more derivative was the Theologians' commentary. Only within the context of Church did the Gospel and Epistles have any sense, and even then, they might be a point of reference, but the Church was "moving on" toward the Kingdom, while text was a a time-bound thing. "Going back" to the "originals" did not make a lot of sense. The New Covenant was on a mission, viz., the Kingdom. If the originals shed light on it, great; but, don't get caught in the details for the thrust of history.

In defense of Luther and Calvin, the Church really had lost contact with the Gospel. A reformation was definitely in order. But Luther and Calvin did not know how much of "this" or "that" to take outside of the original, so the original (though hardly original) became supreme. But what really was the original? No one really knew. So, Luther and Calvin decided that "Scripture" was the bedrock, and everything else had to be seen through its prism. Problem: No one had exactly defined what "Scripture" was. It wasn't total confusion, but some "writings" were considered "inspired," others not. Augstine and Chrysostom had their lists of inspired writings, Rome had its, and others had theirs. Was Jerome's Latin translation of Hebrew and Greek writings in the 4th C. Scripture, or was it something else? After all this time, and numerous ecumenical councils, no one had defined or delineated what actually was "Christian Scripture." It was generally agreed that certain writings were inspired, but not much beyond that. Maybe, the Council of Orange in the 4th C. had answered everyone's question with its list, but no one was certain. (One of the first tasks of the Counter-Reformation Ecumenical Council of Trent in the 15th C. was to give a definitive list.)

So Protestantism was born because the original message had been obscured, and in deciding the locus of J.C.'s teachings, Protestants decided Christian Scripture was the "sole authority" for what is Christianity. Anything "not proveable" by Scripture was to be discarded. Of course, Luther and Calvin had to first decide what constituted "scripture," and they looked to Jerome's translation of "inspired writings" as the fulcrum. (The Protestant "Scriptures" differ slightly from the Ancient "Scriptures," primarily with regard to the Old Testament. Luther had his contempt for James' epistle, because it didn't comport with his interpretation of Pauline doctrine, but in the end he simply "marginalized" James's epistle, rather than excised it.)

Disclaimer: "Fundamentalism" takes different forms. When referring to Christian fundamentalism, it means simply that the Scriptures alone, which are literal and inerrant, are the true Word of God, and everything else can be discarded.

"Historical" Christians, those whose roots go back to apostolic times, can be fundamentalists, but not in the sense that Sullivan is using it. For most people, "fundamentalism" in Christianity means taking the Bible (Christian Scripture) literally and inerrantly no matter what.

I know I've already overstayed my welcome, so let me now cut to the chase. Taking a book as "God's literal and inerrant Word" is just plain silly. And almost all that do this have no idea how, when, where, and why "Scripture" came about. Maybe Muslims believe the Quran fell from the sky, but there's no question of "human involvement" with regard to Christian Scripture. And, since most of the New Testament writers did not even have direct contact with J.C., nor were they convulsed into paroxysms of divine ecstasy, the human component of Christian Scripture, coupled with its tattered history, makes belief in a written work as "God's literal and inerrant Word" just a tad bit extreme. "Inspired," is what mainline Protestants and Catholics believe, but the "gospel" truth which would overthrow science, commonsense, and decency is just a little over the top. Jesus did not speak King's English, in fact he wrote nothing at all in his native Aramaic, or in any language. Who the other writers are we just really don't know, but no serious Christian believes that God dictated a book in King's English to save the world. And, even if one adopts the Protestant disposition toward these writings, "sola scriptura," that doesn't entail that everything outside scripture is untrue, rather that what's written in them is "sufficient" for salvation. That's hardly the same claim, extraordinary as even that is. Finally, catholics have a singular point that simply cannot be denied in light of the above: Without the ontology of the Church, something as obviously derivative as "scripture" makes no sense at all. It's only in the context of a believing community that such "inspiration" takes its form and is shared with others. Jews are similarly disposed, for exactly the same reason. That fundamentalists actually think a collection of "inspired" human writings trump everything else, including human experience, is simply untenable. That they do it in "God's Name" causes a great deal of believers more than a little angst. I'm entirely sympathetic. Sadly, Pentecostal "Christianists" are on the increase, and Rome elected one of its most reactionary Popes. It's just not a good time be a Christian.


TikiHead said...

I had a long (and civil, mostly) debate with a Protestant (Reformed) Christian on Delphi a few years back. We were debating everyones favorite subject, homsexuality -- specifically, how could a state be justified in giving civil rights for homsexuals without first showing that homosexuality was not immoral...

It was a looong debate, but at one point I just flat-out asked him why, if 'Sola Scriptura' was his rallying cry, he felt the need to quote C. S. Lewis to get out of difficulties... I'll never forget it: he said I was 'wildly funny."

I did not mean to be. I had cornered him on the issue of states rightfully banning behaviors that get one sent to Hell (his thesis, not mine). I pointed out the state ought to rightfully ban all religions except Christianity, as Jesus was rather emphatic that his was the only Way.

DSH said...

For another perspective (not merely on fundamentalism) on how Christianity (esp. Catholicism) saved the secular world (not just souls), I just came across Michael Novak's "What 'Dark Ages'?" in the February issue of the erudite, but ever reactionary "New Criterion." The book reviewed is: "The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success," by Rodney Stark.

Novak is a Catholic, an economist, and a libertarian, who almost single-handedly has defended capitalism to his Church (Rome, and especially Pope John Paul II, consider capitalism to be offensive materialism.) "Maybe" capitalism and communism are not equally immoral, but both are repugnant to the Church's social theory, best expressed in Vatican II's "Gaudium et spes" [Church in the Modern World].

Novak has received both kudos and repudiation for his stance from the Church and from many of its members. Personally, Rome's strong affection for communitarianism will never accept Novak's defense of capitalism, at least a libertarian defense of capitalism. But that hasn't deterred Novak.

The book under review maintains that Christianity's hyper-rationalsim, borrowed in part from Judaism, distinguishes it from all other religions, but more importantly, has been the source for the West's military, economic, social, democratic, scientific, etc. superiority. That's some thesis.

But, at least it gives another view of the role of Church in the secular lives of the West. It's also a counterpoint to protestant fundamentalism, although neither Novak nor Stark address that directly. But the drive for progress in the West, according to Novak, stems from Christianity's hyper-rationalism. Here secular "progress" parallels the Church's "evolution" towards the Kingdom. Is this thesis defensible? I'm doubtful.

Andrew Selby said...

Before holding forth on the tenability of inerrancy you ought to show charity and go for the big guns. That is, instead of attacking backwoods fundamentalists (of which I doubt you know any and your idea of which probably comes from TV) address the ideas of a clear thinker setting the pace. Check out Biola philosopher JP Moreland's ideas on inerrancy for instance:

Also, Mr. Matthew L. Anderson has a very charitable response to DSH's comment at

TikiHead said...

Hmmm.. Every bit as rational as belief in the inerrancy of the phone book.

TikiHead said...

For a really good discussion of the Inerrancy Doctrine:

I don't myself see how an Inerrantist can avoid belief in human inerrancy (obviously absurd) -- humans supposedly took dictation from God, yet humans make mistakes, and to this day disagree violently on even trivial aspects of the 'transcripts."

Andrew: I can't speak for DSH, but I know fundamentalists; and have dialogued extensively online, as mentioned above, with one who was familiar with "the big guns." Alvin Plantinga was his favorite apologist, C. S, Lewis perhaps second.

DSH said...

Sorry, but I simply cannot resist this ad hominem:

"Biola philosopher?" Definition of oxymoron.

Yes, it's juvenile, silly, and an obvious fallacy. Sadly, it's true.

Andrew Selby said...

Oops, sorry guys. I thought you were serious about having a discussion. Didn't mean to waste time...

Andrew Selby said...

In the interest of a second chance I will ignore the obvious (and clever) joke and take the statement about Biola philosophy seriously.

Why couldn't an evangelical Christian be a philosopher? My guess is that DSH thinks starting from certain presuppositions such as the existence of God render serious philosophizing impossible. Besides being told this by professors in secular universities, why would this be the case? What virtue does a presupposition of naturalism have for instance? Arguments for God's existence have a pretty decent footing and have been taken seriously for millenia.

There could be other reasons to, which I am interested to hear.

Jonathan said...

I'll feature this discussion in a post, to try and generate more awareness of it.

Who knows if it will attract more people?

Jonathan said...

-- Why couldn't an evangelical Christian be a philosopher? My guess is that DSH thinks starting from certain presuppositions such as the existence of God render serious philosophizing impossible. --

I think Leo Strauss once said behind closed doors that "philosophers are paid to not believe in God."

I know Saul Bellow has Allan Bloom saying (after Strauss) that "no true philosopher can believe in God."

I'm not saying I agree with it; but certainly atheism seems part of the culture of philosophers. Is it because they are brighter than the rest of us? I don't know.

Personally, I'm not an atheist and think there probably is a sentience behind the universe, that the universe, on a macro-level, probably has a "consciousness" which "sets up the rules" like E=MC squared.

However, the Supreme Intelligence who created the rules also choose to leave his/her/its/their presence undetected by such rules of empiricism. In other words, the existence of such a supra-intelligence is not a "falsifiable hypothesis." And science is in the business of teaching only those things which are falsifiable. Thus, I don't support teaching any of the myriad of intelligent design theories in science classes. Perhaps in public school philosophy classes, but not science classes.

Matthew Anderson said...


A few thoughts:
"I think Leo Strauss once said behind closed doors that "philosophers are paid to not believe in God."

Their not worth a dime, but I have two thoughts on the issue of Christian philosophers: One is heavily influenced by Norman Kretzmann's interpretation of Aquinas's method: "Let's see how far we can get in understanding the cosmos without revelation." In other words, let's forget about our explicitly Christian committments for a second and see if what we come up with. It turns out that if we do this, we can rationally defend a Christian-type God (intelligence, power, etc.). The second thought is that we can use philosophical concepts and tools to explain revealed truths or beliefs that are a part of the Christian system. This seems to be what many of the Biola philosophy profs do (see using "rationality" and "justification" to explain why we can hold inerrancy). I don't know if Strauss would agree that either of these are "philosophy" (I haven't read enough of him), but they certainly fit how philosophy has been done in history and is currently being done.

I'm not saying I agree with it; but certainly atheism seems part of the culture of philosophers. Is it because they are brighter than the rest of us? I don't know.
Actually, this is increasingly less true (depending upon the tradition). Philosophy departments are increasingly open to theism as a defensible and coherent worldview.

"In other words, the existence of such a supra-intelligence is not a "falsifiable hypothesis." And science is in the business of teaching only those things which are falsifiable."
I'm no philosopher of science, but I think it's just that description of 'science' that ID advocates would question. It's not at all clear that Popper's philosophy of science is right (falsifiability), but I'll have to do a bit of refreshing to remember the arguments against it. That will probably not happen until the weekend!

DSH said...

Jonathan's comments are precisly on target. But a careful read of my ad hominem is not "Christian philosopher," but "Biola philosopher." Let me explain.

Jonathan situates philosophy rightly as a discipline that asks ultimate questions. But the necessary prerequisite to all philosophical is the doubting of all presumptions, even the presumptions of faith.

Further, there is a strong bifurcation in philosophy. The ancient Platonic tradition is extremely metaphysical (beyond the physical), often giving "armchair speculation" as answers. A Being qua Being is conceivable to the imagination, even if such a Being is unknowable (isn't it a tenet of Christian faith that God is inscrutable?). Even Anselm's God is "the Being beyond which all other being can be conceived"). In the ancient scheme, giving imaginable ideas as answers to fundamental questions was permissable.

The Empirical tradition, on the other hand, has falsifiability as its criterion (esp. Hume, Popper, and the Vienna Circle). But the falsification of religious propositions is literally impossible (how can one falsify something that has no materiality, and the last time I checked a necessary property of God is immateriality?). I think Jonathan explained himself extremely well on these two points.

But that does not mean that one cannot be a Christian philosopher. Rather, it means if one is to adopt a philosophical "attitude," one must be prepared to question everything, including articles of faith. Most Christian philosophers simply do philosophy and leave religious tenets to the side. Some Christian philosophers, notably Aquinas in the 12th C. and Maritain in the 20th C., tried to incorporate insights from both disciplines into whole cloth. For whatever reason, such hybrids simply do not work in the modern era. Maybe when the Metaphysical tradition held sway, the hybrid might be defensible. But when the Empirical tradition came to the fore, the hybrid had to be divided, once and for all. And, let's not forget that Descartes, the "first" modern philosopher, was a Catholic Christian, and gave God as an explanation for why he "knew" his sensory experience had not been deceived. So being a modern philosopher and being a believing Christian are not mutually exclusive, but they can no longer be "held" in the same way. Faith and Philosophy are just incommensurate.

But my ad hominem was not "Christian philosopher," it was "Biola philosopher." What's the difference? What was my "silly" point?

Fundamentalist Christian academies, and Biola, Liberty, and Oral Roberts' University are certainly instances of the kind, take their faith not only as a presumption toward "everything," but literally "informing" everything. Their who raison d'etre is to incorporate a fundamentalist Christian perspective into every academic discipline, even where that perspective might be a tad bit untenable. I grant that one might admit of Christian "veil" over political science, a Christian "veil" over Language and Literature, maybe even a Christian "veil" over anthropology. But a Christian "veil" over Biology, Chemistry, and Physics is just a bit challenging. And since modern philosophy adopts the scientific method as elementary, having a Christian "veil" over "Philosophy" is contrary to both its method and its purpose. Thus, to put a Christian "veil" over philosophy is not only untenable, because the two are incommensurate, but imposing an attitude is contrary to its very method. Even the "scientific method" is not universally accepted by philosophers (e.g., Feyerabend), but as philosophical methods, only the scientific method and logic are admitted tools (but not "unquestioned" tools). Thus, deliberately casting any kind of "veil" over philosophy so that a certain perspective is entailed is wholly contraindicated. But Biola's mission is to "Christianize" academia, and philosophy's mission is to "question everything," which are totally at cross-purposes. One deliberately imposes a definite perspective onto academic questions, the other calls all presumptions into question. The two approaches are opposite each other.

And that's why I made the ad hominem "Biola philosopher." Perhaps it's not a fallacy after all.

Anonymous said...

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GBWY, James