Monday, December 8, 2008

answering the critics # 2

My response to Andrew:

Andrew and I are arguing here about the world-view behind the Sufficiency-of-Scripture. (S-of-S) Andrew's criticism is that if we make the Bible our starting point for knowledge then we'll get caught in the trap of the Enlightenment and rationalism. "The church's mistake was to co-opt the Enlightenment approach into our theology and claim that our faith rests on the epistemological certainty provided by the inspired Scriptures." Andrew instead argues that we shouldn't make too much of the doctrine of Scripture and concentrate on "the message of Scripture."

Does Scripture provide epistemological certainty?

Pure certainty is impossible for anything but God. ("For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face") But Andrew is arguing that making Scripture the starting point of knowledge (epistemology) is giving in to rationalism. However given that God is our starting point for everything* and all we have is natural and special revelation, of which special revelation is primary, Scripture is our only starting point. God is our final authority and our only access to this final authority is through Scripture. Furthermore, God and Scripture are supernatural. The Bible is unlike any other book, God is the co-author, it's a supernatural book. The final authority of Christianity is not reason or even the Bible but God! Yet strangely Scripture then makes the extraordinary claim that true reason agrees with the supernaturalness of God and the things described in Scripture. (eg the resurrection)

Can the message and messenger be separated?

If we'd lived during Bible times we'd have access to both the 'living gospel' and some of Scripture. God actions and God's explanation of his actions; his words. Now the canon of Scripture is closed and all we have is a record of God's actions and words. ("Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.") It's also important to realise that God's in control of how he reveals himself and he chooses Scripture as a record of his actions and words. So technically the message and the messenger are separate but the distinction for us living in modern times is beyond our control.

Another criticism and my response:

Another critic of the S-of-S asked me about translation. "Doesn't the translation of the Bible rely on extra-biblical information?" I found Word and Supplement by Ward useful for thinking about this criticism. Ward points out there is an important difference between individual words and sentences and the larger texts they make up. The complete text is the final context of a word's meaning. In the other words the whole is greater then each of the parts.

* God isn't the starting point for evil and sin.

3 comments:

Andrew Bowles said...

I think I'm the shorter guy in that cartoon, who thankfully seems to be landing the punch.

The New Testament writers suggest that God's special revelation is not primarily the Scriptures, but Jesus himself (Heb 1:1-3, Jn 1:14). And the witness of the Scriptures find their fulfilment and unity in Christ (Lk 24:27, 2 Cor 1:20). So Truth in an ultimate sense is only able to be known by those who are in Christ, and who experience the revelation of God the Father through the Son and the Spirit (John 14-16). So I would argue that for believers the Scriptures are not the access point for a knowledge of God. The Spirit removes the veil that clouds people minds so that they can perceive Christ in the Scriptures (2 Cor 3:16-18).

The point here is to not treat truth as the mastery of information or cognitive concepts. That is why I am concerned about rationalism, or seeing the Bible as primarily a source of theological information. Knowing truth is having a relationship with the Truth, the Logos, who is Christ. The Spirit then leads us into that truth. So a relationship with Christ precedes the understanding of the Scripture. That's why I'm arguing that Scripture can't be seen as the basis of epistemology, because it can't be the object of faith (and hence knowledge of truth), only a witness to how God has worked.

I'd be interested to hear how the doctrine of the Trinity interacts with your theology of Scripture. I think it means that you can't make Scripture into a stand-in for historical acts of God in the past. The works of God only have meaning inasmuch as we participate in them in the present; there was no historical advantage to having seen Christ in the flesh.

Luke said...

Hi Andrew,

No I think if you look closely you'll see that the punch has actually narrowly missed and is passing by the side of his head. ;-)

To be clear I'm arguing that the only way the Holy Spirit would 'illuminate' Scriptures is if God had put faith in your heart first. Subsequently reason then can be see to correspond with the supernatural events of the Bible. For example Luke the gospel writer says he used rational methods of investigation to present an "orderly account" of supernatural events. So in other words, I agree with you that faith precedes the doctrine of Scripture.

"The New Testament writers suggest that God's special revelation is not primarily the Scriptures, but Jesus himself (Heb 1:1-3, Jn 1:14). And the witness of the Scriptures find their fulfilment and unity in Christ (Lk 24:27, 2 Cor 1:20). ... The point here is to not treat truth as the mastery of information or cognitive concepts. That is why I am concerned about rationalism, or seeing the Bible as primarily a source of theological information. ... So I would argue that for believers the Scriptures are not the access point for a knowledge of God."

I don't think I can go there Andrew, if Scripture is not the access point for a knowledge of God, what is? It's a bit chicken and eggish. It would be dangerous to suggest we can know Jesus outside of special revelation and of course it would be dangerous to suggest special revelation is more important then Jesus. While I agree the heart of truth is knowing God, truth also includes information and cognitive concepts. As Christians, rationalism is only true insofar it matches God's supernatural revelation.

"I think it means that you can't make Scripture into a stand-in for historical acts of God in the past."

I'm not sure what you mean by this. Scripture is both the inspired words of God and the inspired account of God's historical acts, for a while they co-existed, now all we have is the words and the accounts of God's historical acts known collectively as Scripture.

"I'd be interested to hear how the doctrine of the Trinity interacts with your theology of Scripture."

I'd say the only way to distinguish or identify the Trinity is through the actions of God and the only way to properly interpret the actions of God is through Special revelation. Thanks for asking that because I wanted to say at some point that I see a correlation between Christ, who is the word of God both man and divine, and Scripture which is the word of God both man and divine. There is also historical distance between us and both Christ and Scripture but also proximity in that we have easy access to Scripture and a relationship with Christ.

"That's why I'm arguing that Scripture can't be seen as the basis of epistemology, because it can't be the object of faith (and hence knowledge of truth), only a witness to how God has worked."

I didn't follow the link in here in this sentence. It's obvious you don't see Scripture as the basis of epistemology but I couldn't see why not.

Andrew Bowles said...

Who will judge between us whether he is making a good punch? Where is the epistemological foundation?

I think we're approaching the idea of a 'foundation' differently. In the sense that I'm talking about, it means something that is impossible to doubt, hence it can be made the basis for everything else. I'm not talking about what is the primary source for Christian doctrine. That's more a question of authority in the church. As I said, I think Scripture is sufficient, and it works in conjunction with tradition, reason, experience, etc.

The issue for me is what happens if we think of ourselves as starting our existence from a blank slate, a 'naive' subjective being trying to discover what the world is like and true in the ultimate sense. We're looking for what is objective, outside ourselves. If you offer me the Bible as the source of objectivity, what I find is that by the time the message arrives in my consciousness it's transformed from the objective text into a subjective 'interpretation', and I'm still stuck. What I need is for there to be an illumination, as you say, from the Spirit, that allows me to receive truth subjectively but still truly. So faith precedes knowledge, not just that it allows the understanding of the Biblical concepts to be communicated, but because without faith, and the transformation of my orientation to reality that it brings, any amount of 'truth' would just be concepts in my head.

There's a Muslim fellow who contributes to the Sydney Anglican forums, and his essential message is that if people would just make the leap of faith to believe the Koran, they would understand how true it is. But with nothing to compel that leap of faith, why do it? The same with offering the Bible as a basis for knowledge. Why make the jump? It isn't impossible to doubt that it is the basis for truth; many people do.

I am certainly suggesting a wider role for subjective experience in Christian understanding than you might, but it's because there is no such thing as objective experience, even of the Bible. Unless the Truth himself is already with us, we're not going to get anywhere. In essence I'm saying that I see truth as a relational concept more than perhaps you do at the moment. The question is where you can 'rest' in certainty, and I think it can only be in Christ, but at this stage we haven't arrived at that point of rest, hence the need for continuing faith.

I sense your concern is liberalism, but I don't think we can defend against that by insisting on certain doctrines. Liberal Protestant churches can trace their heritage back to the Reformation and sola scriptura as much as anyone, it didn't stop their development. There's a great book called 'The Cruelty of Heresy', and the author argues that heresy is always the result of a lost faith, which I would agree with.

Thanks for these dialogues, they are very thought-provoking for me and the stack of unread books on my desk is getting higher by the week.

I've probably said enough for now!