Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The KnowMore Chronicles, Part 1

Our next few Ticker entries will be devoted to depth analysis of some issues raised in a YouTube exchange with a user designated "KnownNoMore" (KNM). The exchange is too unwieldy to profitably pursue on YT alone, so as is my custom, I am expanding the analysis into one of my written venues.

We'll be covering a number of issues that may seem topically disconnected at times, but all of which emerged in the exchange.

The Bible as "Word of God." KNM has insisted that Skeptics have "always" as their "underlining (sic) issue" whether the Bible is the Word of God. I have replied that this is not my own focus in argument; I concern myself rather with whether the Bible's contents are true, logical, or practical. If it is on all counts, then it being the "Word of God" is simply, as it were, a cherry on top, but contributes nothing new in utilitarian terms.

A relevant observation here is that designating the Bible to be the "Word of God" is itself a post-Biblical phenomenon. An apostle or prophet who heard that phrase would not have thought of a book, but rather, of the transcendant thoughts and words of YHWH. It could certainly have not meant the whole Bible prior to its completion and compilation, and when the phrase “word of God” is used in the Bible, it always means some specific prophetic utterance, or some message (like the Gospel).

This would of course include what is within the contents of the Bible; but as well, "Word of God" implies a universality of application that simply is not true of much of the text. In precise terms, for example, the book of Zephaniah could be said to report the words of God TO Zephaniah concerning judgment on specific nations. As I have noted many times, this is symptomatic of modern Sunday School lessons that strive mightily to make even books like Leviticus applicable to modern life -- which is a mistake.

In that respect, while we may not necessarily find it fruitful to abandon "Word of God" as a designation for the Bible as a whole, and I would not advocate doing so because of the confusion it would cause at this late date, it does represent an anachronism that should be clarified. In a proper technical sense, the collection we call the Bible represents two collections of covenant documents, and so "Old Testament" and "New Testament" are actually more precise and helpful than "Word of God".

And so, as I have told KNM, the concern should not be, "is the Bible the Word of God." More than that, it should not even be whether it is "from God," but rather, the more basic questions of whether it is true, logical, practical, and so on as applicable. The former way is a carryover, I suspect, of the work of well-meaning evangelists and teachers (like Billy Graham) who were accustomed to being able to invoke the Bible as "the Word of God" and get immediate respect and authority. It worked well for a time, but it no longer does. But if we show that the Bible is true, then one is able to open the door to the possibility that God’s messages have in some way been transmitted in the text as a medium.

To illustrate, one might say that this posting is the “word of JPH” or “from JPH.” But the truth of the post does not in any way depend on it being MY word, as opposed to that of, say, Tekton ministry associates like Nick Peters or “Punkish." If you decide my "word" here is true -- you can worry about whether it is from me later...or even not at all, if you choose.

Is God a teacher? A major point of contention between KNM and I has been his insistence that God ought to play the role of a teacher -- doing such things as answering our questions. But as I have replied, in this and other respects, KMN is indicating a purely modern notion of what a teacher does.

As I also replied in turn, ancient education consisted first and foremost of overwhelming amounts of rote memorization -- sometimes to the point of excess, some ancient educators complained. The second most common element was, in sum, that the student was given exercises which enabled them to figure things out themselves. Two well known examples would be:

1) The so-called Socratic method. Note that in contrast to what KNM requires, it is not we who would ask questions of God, but if anything, God who would ask questions of us. Though this is reckoned as "guided questioning", it is not the sort of guidance used my modern teachers, and the burden is significantly on the student. In that regard, while the Bible does not use guided questions, it does use other methods just as "direct".

2) More germane to the Biblical cultural setting is the method of works like Ecclesiastes, as I have written previously:

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The paradoxical nature of Ecclesiastes -- a book filled with statements regarded as being in tension (for example, on one hand mulling over the despair of life, then shortly thereafter encouraging the enjoyment of life) -- has been variously identified as being because Ecclesiastes is either a dialogue of a man debating with himself, "torn between what he cannot help seeing and what he still cannot help believing," [Kidner, Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, 91], or else as the author's "challenge to the man of the world to think his own position through to its bitter end, with a view to seeking something less futile."

I prefer the second interpretation, but in either case, the compositional principle is the same, and derives from the ancient Near Eastern methodology, which we might loosely compare to a Hegelian case of combining thesis and antithesis, to arrive at a synthesis; or else, for sports fans, to a game of tennis in which the ball is batted back and forth between opposing points to arrive at a consensus.

In this regard Ecclesiastes is related to other ANE literature with the same, or similar, content and methodology. Works like A Dialogue About Human Misery and Pessimistic Dialogue Between Master and Servant (on which, Murphy comments, the "dexterity the slave displays in affirming both the positive and negative aspects of a situation is reminiscent of [Ecclesiastes'] own style" -- Murphy commentary on Eccl, xliii] from Babylon; The Man Who Was Tired of Life from Egypt; and the book of Job from the OT, are all examples of this genre in which problems were discussed and resolved via dialogue.

The modern Western mind has little patience with this sort of logical construction, and it is no surprise to see that critics have no appreciation for the implied intent of such literature: "Work out the problem yourselves," vs. "Give me an answer, to go."


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Though I wrote those words more than 10 years ago, it is still an accurate encapsulation of what KNM thinks ought to be so versus what actually reflects the Bible's method of teaching -- as well as that of far many more educators in history, including some of the wisest and greatest teachers known (like Socrates). In that sense, God has provided only a minimal amount of guidance, as we would reckon guidance -- just as an ancient teacher would: The chief "guidance," apart from presented materials for memory, involves being forced to think for ourselves, look within ourselves, and engage in serious, thoughtful contemplation.


KNM replied that he thought Jesus was a teacher, but this too is a category mistake, if by that we mean Jesus taught in a modern way (such as answering questions). Although he did do that for his disciples, he did not teach that way to all people. Most people got a great deal of material to memorize (like his Sermon on the Mount), and were left otherwise with riddles like parables. In other words, the vast majority of people were expected to work with only a minimal, passive amount of guidance – just as is the case today. In the case of Jesus’ disciples like Peter, however, there is a different social rule in play: All others were the “outgroup,” while the disciples were the “ingroup”. Within that inner ring, Jesus would reveal much more, but that is not so much a function of teaching them as it is preparing them to act as brokers for his covenant – which meant, as Jesus himself said, that they were only given more because more because more would be expected of them. Thus the irony: When Skeptics like KNM demand more direct access to God, they’re also demanding that God give them a lot more to do!


We’ll have more to say on Friday.

1 comment:

  1. This confuses me.

    1. St. Paul says that all Scripture is not only inspired, but profitable. Some contemporary applications of Leviticus might be strained, but a more careful reflection can lead to good applications. After all David, speaking of the books of the Pentateuch, said they were "sweeter than the honeycomb." Much of the messianic material in the prophets can only be understood in light of the purity laws of Leviticus: and the liturgical sequence in Leviticus 1-3 is reflected over and over again in Scripture, and is actually part of the traditional Christian Liturgy as well.

    2. It seems to me a mistake to explain the Bible's data as a product of its Near Eastern setting. If we take the Bible's own view of the Earth's history seriously, then we know that there was not actually that much time between the dispersion from Babel and the writing of the Pentateuch. We ought to expect loads of similarities between the biblical writings and ancient Near Eastern (and other ancient) material, because Noah received revelation from God and passed it on.

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