A question, from RMB:
What are ways a Protestant church can become more non-Cartesian in your view?
I think it would help if the Bible was not taken [solely] in a historical / scientific way throughout. Certainly, much of it is history, but much of it can be read in other ways - even multiple ways.
I think the idea of "proof texts" ("see, this proves it"), is valuable but can be overused. On many topics, there cannot be such certainty, as holders of a different view also have their "proof texts." Jehovah's Witnesses can point to text to demonstrate that Jesus was just a man.
I think more leaning on the early Church fathers would help. We have the work of some who were disciples of the original disciples. For many centuries, they lived in a culture that better understood the times of Jesus while He was on earth. Sola Scriptura is valuable, but interpretation requires context, and these early church fathers lived in the context.
Having said all of that, my experience in both a Protestant church and an Orthodox church has shown me that the latter should do much more teaching of Scripture, beginning with the young.
Those are just some initial thoughts.
A question was asked of Paul VanderKlay, on a similar issue. Keep in mind as you read through this post, that VanderKlay is a Dutch Reformed pastor and attended Calvin Seminary. In other words, at least traditionally / stereotypically, he comes out of a denomination as traditional as any Protestant denomination, one where even a painting is not allowed in the church (maybe I am exaggerating a little, but I don’t believe so). It is all words, no symbolism.
So, the question was about the issues in modern Biblical scholarship, historical positivism, grammatical historicism, etc. Following are some of PVK’s comments interspersed with my thoughts:
The first thing he goes to is a commentary series, authored by the earliest Church fathers. It isn’t exactly this: it is a recent compilation of things written by these fathers, organized and sorted by the passages / subjects as if it was written as a commentary. The key relevant point: he starts by going to the early Church fathers – not Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc. Not even Augustine (albeit Augustine might be quoted in the book he offered).
One of the things you realize: people have read the Bible in very different ways over the life of the Church, and before the Church in the Jewish tradition. This evokes a feeling of pluralism.
He notes: we grow up in a tradition and understand the Bible within the context of that tradition: based on this context, we each feel confident in proclaiming that “this is what the passage means.” But it isn’t the only tradition. How to evaluate competing histories of interpretation?
He then describes events beginning with Erasmus and his examination of Jerome’s Vulgate when compared to ancient documents. Suffice it to say, Erasmus found several discrepancies. Then we have Luther, who leaned on Erasmus and also did his own work, then others who said maybe Luther didn’t get it all right. Yes, these are translations, but translations lead to interpretation (and vice versa).
Which leads to a sort of pluralism, multiple texts in multiple languages throughout history; even older texts are found, often altering, modifying, or reinforcing that which was understood before. All of this leads to the question: what is the right answer, the right interpretation, the right understanding? And many Christians (certainly Protestant) have chosen to answer this through the lens of modernity.
Modernity: science, facts, historical accuracy and verifiability, in accord with the laws of physics. What Vervaeke earlier described as the Cartesian view; his comments are repeated:
This is the difference between a Cartesian and a theological approach to knowledge, because the Cartesian approach is ‘I don’t have to undergo transformation in fundamentally in who I am in order to know. I just have to properly organize my propositions.’
But if you go before Descartes, even reading was pursued not informatively but transformatively. The idea was ‘unless I go through fundamental transformations, there are deep truths that will not be disclosed to me.’ That’s a conformity theory of knowing as opposed to a representational theory of knowing.
And what happens, what I am saying, is that people feel themselves being conformed to the reality of the logos.
The Cartesian view: It’s all propositions, scientifically and historically accurate, testable, factual; the only kind of knowledge is propositional knowledge. It is a method based on modernity, and many Christians have fallen into playing the game by the modernist’s (ultimately, the enemy’s) rules.
Returning to PVK: so, what happens to Christianity? The Enlightenment has limited us to propositional knowledge as the only kind of (or, at least, the superior kind of) knowledge. Christians begin to realize that using the modernist lens is a powerful tool to get at a degree of truth and convince ourselves that there are levels of certainty. Which, as an aside, really hasn’t done anything to reduce the internal Christian disputes.
This is not to suggest that propositional knowledge should be dismissed or that it is of no use. It is necessary if we are to engage with others and in the world. It is necessary if we are to properly understand Christianity (and even have a Christianity to properly understand). But it isn’t everything.
So, as modernists said that they will no longer look for propositional truth in the Bible (after all, how could a modernist buy into the six-day creation, the Resurrection of Jesus, miracles, etc.), the Christian fundamentalists, in fear that without propositional truth in the Bible Christianity would dissolve, doubled down. It is propositional truth all the way through. In VanderKlay’s words, some of the resultant interpretations of the Bible that these fundamentalists developed increasingly began to look ridiculous.
Meanwhile, the evangelical (VanderKlay’s term) asks: how are the propositions in the Bible to be properly maintained? For example: How do we understand the first three “days” of Genesis if the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day?
So, what about inerrancy? This is kind of the acid test to see how much of a fundamentalist one is, if the context is strictly the modernist frame. Yet, even at Calvin (and I emphasize “Calvin”) Seminary, PVK would study Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry. Robert Alter, from the University of California at Berkeley, being taught at Calvin Seminary – and not in an “this is all terribly wrong” manner. Either (the stereotype of) John Calvin or Antonio Gramsci (or both) is spinning in his grave.
Narrative and poetry can be equally “inerrant,” as long as one’s lens is not limited to modernity’s propositional knowledge (and setting aside the inherent errancy of translations, beginning with God’s words to the author’s fingers and continuing from there). “They weren’t thinking like you are,” says PVK. And, of course, he is right. It would take tremendous hubris to think otherwise.
As a preacher, the literature stuff (poetry, narrative) was quite helpful for preaching.
People live in stories; they remember stories; the stories shape them and shape their thinking. We know “the meek shall inherent the earth,” but who can understand precisely, scientifically, how this works when we see the opposite around us every day? We don’t even necessarily take in the meaning consciously, yet we take it in. Yet, for many Christians (and atheists who swim in Christian waters), this has shaped behavior in a healthy, loving way.
VanderKlay sees all of this having a drastic impact on Christianity – suggesting that we will see realignments of the magnitude that were found in the Reformation. My sense of what he is getting at: in the Catholic Church and in Protestant churches (and, likely so in many Orthodox churches) we see widely divergent elements – conservative and traditional vs. liberal and progressive. Who knows how these divisions might come into play and realign across traditions and denominations?
To further my thoughts: we are living through a civil war in the West. It can be called a Christian civil war, only because both sides have been strongly shaped by Christianity. We see churches split along the same cultural lines as the larger population. These cultural splits might end up being stronger than any doctrinal divisions.
I think they must be stronger than the doctrinal divisions if some meaningful form of Christianity is to survive in any size. Ultimately, the dividing line will be natural law – those who advocate for it and find it grounded in Scriptural teaching vs. those who despise it.
Not that natural law is a higher authority than Scripture or God; it is from God, and, therefore, below God. But it is a language open to believer and non-believer alike – and here we will find another dividing line, as many so-called conservatives are fond of violating natural law daily, and many liberals seem to be searching for it.