Recently released videos by The Center for Medical Progress have brought to light some of the more egregious atrocities committed by Planned Parenthood in the name of women’s health and medical research. Anyone with a functioning conscience who has watched these videos has been sickened by the depth to which our culture has sunk in allowing this kind of activity to take place unchecked. Apparently there are more videos to come, but in time the news cycle will run its course and both journalists and politicians will move on to other issues. Hopefully, in response to public outcry Planned Parenthood will be called to account for its actions and meaningful steps will be taken to reduce the number of abortions performed in America, but at this point that remains to be seen. I’m not holding my breath.
Reading the news, one could get the impression that abortion is a fairly recent issue, perhaps something that has only been common since 1973 or so. But unfortunately, such is not the case. Abortion has been around for thousands of years.
One of the earliest references to abortion is found in an Egyptian papyrus that was written well over a thousand years before the time of Christ. Dated about 1550 b.c., the Ebers Papyrus is a medical document that describes ancient remedies for a wide variety of ailments. It contains advice on how to cure everything from asthma to tape worms. Among such remedies, the document includes several herbal recipes for causing the abortion of an unwanted child. Writing a bit closer to the time of Christ, both Plato and Aristotle recommended abortion under certain circumstances for the “good” of society (Republic 5 , Politics 7.16 [1335b]). And in the first century, Pliny the Elder (a.d. 23–79) listed various substances which were commonly used in his day as abortifacients (Natural History, passim).
So abortion is not a new issue. It wasn’t even particularly novel in the first century. Various methods of causing an abortion had been in use for a long time before Christ walked the earth. But what did the earliest Christians think of such practices? Were they ambivalent or did they express definite opinions about the morality of abortion?
A number of early Christian documents specifically mention the practice of abortion. Two of the earliest such documents are usually classed among the Apostolic Fathers. Dated fairly close to a.d. 100 and sometimes referred to as The Teaching of the Twelve, the Didache claims to preserve both oral and written teachings of the twelve apostles. The Didache begins with the following statement: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways” (1.1). The text then goes on to give instructions about how to live in the “way of life”. After exhorting readers with the dual command to love both God and neighbor, the document gives some specific instructions about the implications of loving one’s neighbor. Among these instructions, we find the following command:
“You shall not murder…you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide” (2.2).
In this context, the Didache places abortion alongside infanticide and seemingly views these actions as belonging to the same category. More importantly, it commands God’s people not to engage in such activities. Just a few paragraphs later, the text describes the way of death as being followed by those who are “murderers of children” (5.2). The Didache speaks rather clearly to the moral status of abortion.
The Epistle of Barnabas was almost certainly not written by Paul’s companion. Nevertheless, internal evidence suggests that it was produced around the beginning of the second century. Like the Didache, it provides another example of early Christian teaching about the Two Ways. In his description of the way of light, Barnabas speaks about the practice of abortion. He writes,
“You shall not abort a child nor, again, commit infanticide” (19.5).
Again, abortion is place alongside infanticide and is described as something that is wicked. In place of such behavior the author exhorts his readers to fulfill their responsibilities to care for their children and to bring them up in the way of the Lord (19.5; cf. Didache 4.9).
In addition to these statements from early Christians, numerous biblical passages give principles that lead modern-day Christians to view abortion as the sinful taking of an innocent human life (e.g., Job 31:15; Psalm 22:9–10; Psalm 139:13–16; Luke 1:15). As seen above, the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas reveal a very early Christian conviction that abortion is morally wrong and is essentially equivalent to infanticide. Such documents demonstrate that Christians strongly opposed the practice of abortion many centuries before the development of modern political parties or the advent of YouTube videos.
Abortion is not a partisan football to be tossed around for the sake of political points. It is first and foremost a moral issue. But because abortion is an important moral issue about which God has spoken clearly, it should impact the way Christians exercise their civil responsibilities and their legal opportunities to speak up against evil. To see such wickedness and say nothing is itself evil.
O. M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity
Michael Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, & Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World
Michael Holmes, trans. and ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English
John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance
John Riddle, Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West
I’ve recently noted our society’s increasing loss of true tolerance, as well as the dangers of the current orthodoxy working to suppress other ideas. But what I have not yet considered is whether tolerance is even a good thing. To simplify things, let’s simply focus on tolerance of different religious beliefs.
Most people in the West simply assume that tolerance is good, but in many parts of the world and at many times in history religious tolerance was viewed negatively. So why should people be tolerant? In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Michael Murray and Michael Rea (New York: Cambridge, 2008), the authors offer two common arguments for religious tolerance.
The first is a pragmatic argument: the state and religions have different interests, so it is best to allow them to pursue their different interests independently of each other (unless the state has a compelling interest). Further, if the state were to not allow religious tolerance, it would require some means of coercive force to either compel people to adopt a particular religion or keep them from adopting any religion (which would seem counter to the idea that religious beliefs should be genuine and from the heart).
The second kind of argument put forward is epistemological: we have greater certainty that it is good to allow religious tolerance than we do that a particular religion should be forced on people, and we can never have the level of certainty for any particular religion that would be necessary to override religious tolerance.
The above arguments may seem more or less compelling to you, but they are certainly not compelling to many in the world who do not already believe in religious tolerance. If you tried to use these arguments on the leaders of ISIS you would probably not get very far: they believe the interest of the state is dictated by their religion, which should be imposed on people. And they have the certainty of supposed commands from God and the example of their prophet. Thus, Murray and Rea conclude: “The available arguments for toleration all seem to rest on principles that defenders of intolerance are unlikely to accept.” (257)
So, why does the idea of tolerance (if not the actual practice) seem so obviously good to people in the West? As with many parts of western culture, our appreciation of tolerance flows from the Christian beliefs that helped shape our societies. We think tolerance is good because we agree with at least some Christian teaching. Our appreciation of tolerance is borrowed from Christianity. Christianity provides several truths that serve as the soil out of which tolerance grows.
Existence of Truth
For many in our day, tolerance is valued because they believe there is no truth. But if there is no truth, there is no reason for tolerance. The phrase “tolerance is good” would have the same value as “Mawiki is kiddle” or even “intolerance is good.” But the Bible is clear that truth exists and it can be known. That then allows us to even consider the value of tolerance.
Separation of Church and State
In this period of God’s dealings with man, there is a distinction between the church and the state. Christ made this truth clear in His statement: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Thus, some things belong to God directly—including our worship—while other things are given to the state (under God’s general rule)—like taxes. The church is not to exercise corporal punishment, while the state has that duty (Rom 13:1-7). However, it is wrong for the state to punish people for holding wrong beliefs. While the church does have a duty to oppose false religious belief, her options are limited to personal/corporate verbal confrontation and excommunication. The Christian teaching on the separation of church and state paved the way for religious liberty.
Discovering Truth by Means of Persuasion
Ultimately, the best means of discovering truth is through special revelation. But some things in the Bible are not as clear as others. Further, God has also revealed truth through general revelation. When dealing with truths that are not as clear in special revelation or truths from general revelation, the best way to move forward is humble, thoughtful consideration of various views. God has given minds to people and encouraged them to use them to arrive at truth (Is 1:18; Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4). The only way to be able to thoughtfully consider different viewpoints is to allow them to be presented. Thus, in order to best work toward truth at least some false ideas have to be tolerated.
Inherent Value of People Made in God’s Image
One of the main reasons to tolerate people is because it is wrong to oppress, harm, and murder people. Tolerance flows from a belief in human rights, and human rights are practically impossible to defend apart from a recognition that people are made in God’s image. If humans have no value, why not stamp out everyone who stands in the way of getting what you want? But if the person standing in front of you is made in God’s image, then it would be wrong to harm him for holding a view that you do not support.
Reality of Forgiveness
One reason people struggle to tolerate others is their own pride. They view themselves as better the person they do not want to tolerate—this person with such backward ideas and values. But Christianity emphasizes the universality of sin and the importance of forgiveness. When we recognize how sinful we are, and that we live only by God’s grace, we are much more willing to offer forgiveness to others. We allow love to cover a multitude of sins rather than keeping a record of wrongs (1 Pet 4:8; 1 Cor 13:5).
Reality of Judgment
At first the reality of judgment might seem to discourage tolerance. If Christianity teaches that God is going to punish all wrong, wouldn’t that make us more oppressive? Only if we fail to understand what the Bible actually teaches. One reason we can tolerate wrongs now is because we know that one day God will make them right. That’s why we can even return good for evil. (Rom 12:14-21). We don’t have to right all wrongs now, because we can trust that God will! We tolerate evil now, because we know that eventually God will tolerate no evil. Without that belief, calls for tolerance will not be able to be sustained.
In re-reading The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter recently, I was again encouraged to pray for and love those I help shepherd. It is far too easy to have the ministry become more professional than personal. Having a truly biblical, tender love for those in our care will especially help us in our ministry to them in times of difficulty and sin. Baxter has words of encouragement for us here in the following passages:
The whole of our ministry must be carried on in tender love to our people. We must let them see that nothing pleaseth us but what profiteth them; and that what doeth them good doth us good; and that nothing troubleth us more than their hurt. . . They should see that we care for no outward thing, neither wealth, nor liberty, nor honour, nor life, in comparison of their salvation . . . When the people see that you unfeignedly love them, they will hear any thing and bear any thing from you.
This tender love, in Baxter’s estimation, is not one that overlooks sin, however, but deals with it, because we know how damaging it is to the souls of those we love. He goes on to talk about how to interact with those who are in sin and disobeying God:
Pretend not to love them, if you favour their sins, and seek not their salvation. By favouring their sins, you will show your enmity to God; and then how can you love your brother? If you be their best friends, help them against their worst enemies. And think not all sharpness inconsistent with love. Augustine saith, “Better it is to love even with the accompaniment of severity, than to mislead by (excess of ) lenity.” (Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth, p. 117-118).
I cannot compete with the vast onslaught of blog heavyweights who have all, it seems, trained their guns on last week’s SCOTUS decision. But I’d like to chip away at one question that seems to be less than fully addressed, viz., the precise nature of government’s role in this question and what our expectation of government should be as we pick up the pieces and move forward.
Most Christians recognize that the government is at times too heavy-handed and at times too laissez-faire in fulfilling their God-given role. But we don’t always draw our lines at the same place, because we don’t agree on a standard by which those judgments are made. Let’s look at the following scenario, involving two situations on which there is fairly broad agreement among believers:The Offense Violation of the first and greatest command to love God exclusively Violation of the sixth command to not murder The Theocratically Mandated Response Purge the offender from the land with up to and including capital authority (Exod 22:20; 34:10–16; Deut 6:14–15; 7:1–6; 13:6–11) Purge the offender from the land with up to and including capital authority (Exod 21:12, etc.) The Church’s Anticipated Response Remove the offender from the Church but tolerate him in civil society (Matt 18:15–18), praying that the State will fulfill its mandate to… Remove the offender from the Church but tolerate him in civil society to the degree required by the State, praying that the State will fulfill its mandate to… Government’s Anticipated Response Establish a society where those who embrace this command and those who reject this command can live together with mutual respect and toleration (1 Tim 2:2) Punish the offender with up to and including capital authority (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:4)
In the Mosaic economy, the first and sixth commands are treated more-or-less the same: the Jewish collective were to remove violators of both commands alike from society with expulsive or capital force. But with the dissolution of that economy and arrival of the New Testament arrangement and its separation of powers (Caesar and Church—Matt 22:21), surprising changes occur, especially when we get to the role of human government. The government is to take a rather ambivalent approach to violations of the “first and greatest commandment,” assuming at best the role of civil peacekeeper, but is to move swiftly and savagely to address violations of the sixth and not-the-greatest commandment. How do we explain this?
More than one answer emerges, but in the end, most Christians agree that the church deals with spiritual matters and the State with civil matters. Specifically, the church is to address ALL sins within its own membership/community, but has no jurisdiction beyond the removal of offenders from the spiritual community. The State, on the other hand, has no jurisdiction within the spiritual community, but has the power to crush all crime deleterious to the civic or common good, ensuring, in Calvin’s terms, that “humanity be maintained among men.” Their ethical fount is not so much the whole Christian paradosis (the error of theonomy) but the canon of natural law.
Following the preceding, it seems that the State can err in two primary ways: (1) it can fall short of its appointed role by disregarding natural law and thereby failing to maintain a stable and civil society marked by mutual toleration (the libertine error) and (2) it can exceed its appointed role by imposing some parochial ethic (whether Muslim, Christian, radical atheist, etc.) upon broad society and thereby expressing intolerance toward any who conscientiously object to that parochial ethic (the totalitarian error).
So what do we do with the hot question of homosexual marriage? Are we dealing here with a “first-and-greatest commandment” issue or with a “sixth commandment” issue? Is this a spiritual question to be addressed strictly within the ecclesiastical community or is it also a natural-law question that must be taken up by the civil community? What should our government be doing coram deo? And what should Christians do with these answers?
First, I believe that Scripture and nature itself identify the homosexual marriage question as a civil question. Homosexual marriage is not just a question of parochial codes and personal preferences/orientations, but also a question with civil import: the widespread promotion and even acceptance of this practice is unnatural, and will inevitably destabilize civil society (Rom 1:26–27). As such, it is inappropriate for the state to take a laissez-faire approach to homosexual marriage. To do so is to commit the first error detailed above. Marriage is a question of civil import and for the government to advocate for a libertine approach is for the government to be irresponsible and to act in a way contrary to the nation’s own best interests. As a response, all devotees of natural law, believers and unbelievers alike, and irrespective of ecclesiastical commitments, should work together as citizens and humans (1) for the reversal of this terrible error (however unlikely that may be) and, failing that, (2) for the stabilization of civil society generally.
Second, irrespective of our opinions on the previous question, we should all agree that the primary Christian hope for human government is “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2). We want a stable society in which opportunities for the Gospel abound. To this end, Christian churches should begin to pray earnestly for the triumph of religious tolerance. This is precisely what Paul tells us to do. We should pray for and petition our rulers to both tolerate us and command society to tolerate us. What Christians should not do is to demand that our government privilege our views on the ground that they are Christian views (error #2 above). Such an approach is not only demonstrably wrong, but, pragmatically speaking, will also hasten and intensify the persecution that is creeping toward us. This is my greatest fear at present in the political posturing that is ongoing.
Third, we should take the legal and practical steps appropriate and necessary to avoid civil conflict beyond what is unavoidable. However disparate our views may be on the co- part of “co-belligerence,” we all need to agree that belligerence is the wrong attitude for the church to adopt—both biblically and practically. Instead we need to adopt a gentle and deferential spirit in our appeals for tolerance and liberty. This has long been the way of God’s people and we need to return to it. This is not to say that we need to be approving of societal sin, but it will never do to be intolerant of people from whom we are begging tolerance for the sake of the Gospel.
“Love is love.” That slogan has popped up countless times in our nation’s dialogue in recent days. It’s part of an effort to shape the hearts and minds of Americans on social issues. It’s simple, succinct, and catchy. It has some appeal, especially to people who value “love” as a supreme good, a sentiment that trumps all other considerations. The problem is it’s just not true.
Our society is confused about love, and this slogan does nothing to minimize this confusion. What exactly does it mean to say “love is love”? On its face it is a statement of identity, equating two things, e.g., a car is an automobile. So it might mean that all loves are the same. I love my wife. I also love pizza. If “love is love” then I would be saying that my relationship to my wife is identical to my relationship to pizza. I may not be the most romantic person in the world, but even I could guess that my wife would not be pleased if I told her, “You know that I love you because I act, think, and feel toward you in the same way that I do toward pizza.” (I haven’t seen that sentiment portrayed in a Hallmark card either!) My love for my wife may have a few similarities with my love for pizza, but they are nowhere close to identical. One love is not like the other.
Most of us recognize that the slogan is not trying to communicate that all loves are identical—even if it is what it says. It’s at least narrowed down to people. Love for different people is ultimately the same. But even here there are distinctions in loves. I love my friends, but I do not love them exactly like I love my sons. And my love for my sons is different from my love for my wife.
Most people seem to be using the phrase to refer to a kind of love that is sexual in nature. The phrase is stating that no kind of sexual love is any different from another. People are wrong to view some sexual love as inappropriate, for who are we to say one kind is better than another? “Love is love.”
But almost all the people trumpeting this slogan do not really believe it. Some people love their siblings sexually. Is that love identical to other loves? Suppose a man sexually loves his wife and he sexually loves his mistress. Should his wife say “who am I to condemn him, because ‘love is love’”? Some 40 year old men sexually love 12 year old boys. Is that love the same as every other? Love is love?
You may be upset that I would mention some of the above examples. “Those are not the same thing, and it’s wrong to compare them.” But if they are not the same thing, and it is not legitimate to compare them, then not all love is love. “But those examples are not examples of love.” In making that objection, you have done exactly what our slogan “love is love” is telling us we cannot do. You have made a judgment about a sexual love that says it does not belong in the same category as others. You have said “this love is not love.” The moment you begin to limit love in some way—by saying it needs to be non-incestuous, or between only two people, or only between consenting adults—you have set up a definition by which we are now forced to determine that some loves are love and others are not.
So who gets to decide what loves are in bounds and what loves are not? I certainly would not claim to be a proper judge for these matters. Who could have the wisdom, compassion, knowledge, and insight to distinguish legitimate loves from illegitimate ones? Only God can do that.
What is love? The Bible consistently points to God’s love for humans as the supreme example of love (e.g., 1 Jn 4:10). One particularly relevant passage is in Ephesians 5:25-27.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Here, Paul holds up Christ’s love for the church as the greatest example of the kind of love husbands are to have for their wives. I’d like to highlight one aspect of that love: true love is a holy love. Christ died for the church to make her holy.
Any love that wants to make a valid claim to be love must be holy. If a love does not move the other person toward holiness it is not love. So a young man who pressures a young lady to sleep with him before they are married does not really love her. He may say that he does, and both of them may think that he does, but he is ultimately more concerned for his own gratification than he is for her well-being. The man who loves his wife and mistress may think he really loves them both, but he actually loves neither. True love will never violate God’s standards. No matter how much someone thinks they love a person, if they are helping them down a path contrary to what is holy they do not really love them.
Why does all of this matter? What business is it of anyone’s to care about anyone else’s love? First, as I already noted, almost everyone cares to some degree, or we would be working to abolish laws against pedophilia. But it also matters because true love is far better than any false loves.
Suppose you had a friend who told you he found some great steak that he wants to enjoy. He takes you behind some restaurant and pulls some rancid, rotting hunk of meat out of the dumpster. You tell him, “Don’t eat that! Let’s go inside the restaurant and get some real steak.” He replies sharply, “Who are you to tell me what steak to eat. Steak is steak!” Would you say, “Well, it’s not hurting me for him to eat that meat, so I shouldn’t say anything”? Wouldn’t you want to see your friend give up the supposed steak that very well could poison him and instead experience the satisfaction and nourishment of a nice, well-cooked steak?
In reality, we have all gone after the rotten piece of steak. We have acted as if bad things were good things and good things were ultimate things. Our loves are twisted, and we have run down a path that leads to our own destruction. God has graciously warned us, but we have all rejected His warnings. Because we have pursued our own wrong desires, we are incurably sick, spiritually dead, and hopelessly lost.
But God really loves us. He came to us when we were completely unlovable and gave of Himself to save us. He sucked the poison into Himself and offered us real nourishment in its place. He died for what we did so that we might live for Him. He calls us to turn from our path of destruction and trust in Him for life.
God loves us enough that He wants what is really best for us. He knows which loves are real and which are counterfeit. He does not want us to settle for something that seems like love when it is really not. His love moves us to holiness, where we find eternal pleasure in Him. There is no greater joy and satisfaction than knowing and experiencing His love, and loving others in the way He has called us to love. How do we know which love is love? God’s love is love!
Having laid out in the previous several posts what I believe may be commended as “received laws of language,” I would like to close this series with a practical look at a pair of difficult passages that stretch the limits of the discussion: Matthew’s use of fulfillment language in 2:15 and 16–18 in citing Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15, respectively. Note the following:Hosea 11:1—When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (cf. Exod 4:22–23). Matthew 2:15—[Joseph stayed in Egypt] until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Jeremiah 31:15—This is what the LORD says [of the exiled Israelite community]: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” Matthew 2:16–18—Herod…gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under…. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
The tension in both instances is that Matthew appeals to descriptive, historical texts (which ordinarily cannot be “fulfilled”) and appears to assign them a predictive function that does not manifest clearly in the original rendering. Below are four approaches that exegetes have used in their analysis of Matthew’s Gospel. Note that I am not offering a comprehensive list of all possible solutions to the tension here raised, but rather four approaches to the tension:
- The first approach is to read both texts literally and conclude that Matthew is a careless researcher guilty of making egregious citation errors. This is what I’ll call the modernist approach.
- A second approach reads both texts charitably but concludes that the two OT texts in view are not to be seen as literal genres. That is, they are not instances of historie but geschichte, and for this reason are legitimate subjects of etiological manipulation/resignification as the ecclesiastical community develops over time. This is what I will call, for simplicity’s sake, the postmodern approach (though it technically predates postmodernism as a system).
- A third approach avoids the specter of biblical errancy in the preceding options by proposing a new hermeneutical approach: it reads the OT text according to a unique model that is not and cannot be used with any other piece of literature. Specifically, while adherents admit that the two OT passages are instances of accurate, normal, rearward-looking history, they propose that God is using Matthew to progressively divulge a metanarrative imbedded into the OT, known originally and completely only to the divine author, that connects two OT events (exodus and exile) organically with the Bible’s grand Christological or redemptive plot. In this way the reader is now able to fully appreciate these OT texts, thus “fulfilling” or exhausting their divinely-intended meaning. Later revelation is always the definitive court of appeal for interpreting earlier texts, and “literal” OT readings held prior to the arrival of the NT are sometimes flat, incomplete, or even wrong, and can therefore “fall away.” This is my attempt to faithfully represent the typological approach.
Disclaimer: The range of typological approaches circulating today makes it impossible for me to offer a description that satisfies all who self-identify with the model, but I make the attempt anyway, with entirely charitable intent. I apologize to all who take umbrage with my description and welcome correctives.
- A fourth approach attempts to salvage inerrancy not by proposing a new hermeneutical approach, but by suggesting one or more exegetical solutions. For instance, I would argue (with Dyer, Toussaint, and others) that the Greek term πληρόω (to fulfill) has a semantic range broader than that carried by the modern English term “fulfill,” and can reference not only completed prophecy, but also something as mundane as an analogy made after the fact. While this approach denies us the tingle of intrigue and inscrutability that the previous approach offers, its strength is the tacit priority it places on the ordinary laws of language. It assumes that OT meaning is plain-in-itself and (as is the case with every “normal” use of language) that its own local context is the definitive court of appeal for interpretation. It does not deny that a grand biblical metanarrative exists, but affirms instead that this unifying center is to be discovered by ordinary rather than mysterious means. This is what I would call the “literal” approach.
Obviously much more could be said (and has been said) about these texts, but it is hoped that the previous is adequate to identify the basic approaches to the problem that are in circulation today. I also hope that it commends the last approach (often associated with dispensationalism) as a more hermeneutically credible one (i.e., more faithful to the received laws of language) than the typological approach that in the ascendancy today.
A little over fifty years ago, Carl Bangs lamented that Jacob Arminius (1559/60–1609) had been consistently misunderstood and misrepresented by both friend and foe alike (Bangs, “Arminius and the Reformation,” Church History 30 : 155–56). Some thirty years later, Richard Muller identified Arminius as “one of the most neglected of the major Protestant theologians” (Muller, God, Creation and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, ix). And as recently as 1999, Roger Olson described Arminius as “one of the most unfairly neglected and grossly misunderstood theologians in the story of Christian theology” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 455). Apparently, Arminius has received a bad rap of some four centuries’ duration.
In the past ten years or so, however, the study of Arminius has been making a bit of a comeback. A number of substantial works on his life and thought have been published by people who have been largely in sympathy with his theology. One of the most helpful works in this regard has been W. Stephen Gunter’s book Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments (Baylor Univ. Press, 2012). Gunter’s work is particularly significant in that it provides the first English translation of Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments made directly from the Dutch text. Arminius’s Declaration was originally produced in response to accusations that had been lodged against him and was delivered orally by Arminius before the States of Holland at The Hague on October 30, 1608. In this document, Arminius mentions a number of important theological topics, but the bulk of the work is spent discussing his understanding of predestination which was especially under attack at that time. Here’s one of his most significant statements about predestination in the Declaration:
This decree [to save or condemn certain persons] has its foundation in divine foreknowledge, through which God has known from all eternity those individuals who through the established means of his prevenient grace would come to faith and believe, and through his subsequent sustaining grace would persevere in the faith. Likewise, in divine foreknowledge, God knew those who would not believe and persevere (Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments, 135).
If one wants to correctly understand Arminius and avoid the charges made by Bangs, Olson, and others, reading Arminius himself is essential,* and Gunter’s work is a good place to begin. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the main contours of Arminius’s theological distinctives, he was a significant theologian whose heirs have been many, and for that reason, he is worth understanding.
*I say this not out of sympathy with Arminius’s major theological contributions (with which I largely disagree) but simply because it is true.
Having discussed two seminal axioms of language that seem to qualify as “received laws of language” (the Univocal Nature of Language and the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent) and offering a qualification concerning the dual authorship of Scripture often raised by non-dispensationalists, I turn to a third and final principle, again borrowed from my mentor, Rolland McCune: A Textually Based Locus of Meaning.
This is the capstone of ordinary linguistics. The whole meaning of a text is exhausted in its own words. Any meaning assigned to a text after the fact that cannot be derived from the author’s own words simply isn’t there. To allow any text an afterlife is to remove meaning from the text and grant it to something alien to the text, sending meaning into an inevitably downward spiral of ambiguity and relativism.
Naturally, we must concede that implications of an ancient text can unfold over time and details emerge in the course of progressive revelation. But new meanings can never be assigned or discovered after the fact and apart from the author’s express permission. Specifically, the meaning of a text cannot be moved from the text to:
- Holy Spirit “Leading.” Yes, the Holy Spirit is active in causing the believer to welcome a text’s meaning and in helping the believer to discern the implications of a text’s meaning for his own situation (1 Cor 2:14), but the Spirit does not disclose a text’s meaning to the believer. Were this the case, (1) meaning would be wrested from the words and the words rendered, to that degree, unnecessary, (2) the divine purpose for language would be thwarted, and (3) the idea of a sufficient canon would be irrevocably lost.
- An Existential Encounter “Above the Text.” Closely related to the previous (and perhaps identical to it) is the Barthian idea that language is an inadequate vehicle for revealing truth, and at best serves as a hinweis or pointer to truth. To apprehend God, one must look not in the text but above it to an experimental “Christ encounter”—a personal disclosure that communicates ineffably what cannot be expressed in words. The same criticisms leveled above are appropriate to this understanding.
- Later Revelation. More acceptable in non-dispensational evangelical academia is the idea that there is “additional, deeper meaning, intended by God, but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text when they are studied in the light of further revelation” (Brown, The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture, 92), such that “the text’s intention becomes deeper and clearer as the parameters of the canon are expanded” (Waltke, Tradition & Testament, 7). This option provides an advance on the previous two options, but either (1) requires a suspiciously equivocating hermeneutic that applies a grammatical-historical approach to the latter portions of Scripture but not to the earlier ones or else, more ominously, (2) suggests that the promises of God are “never an announcement of what God has irrevocably determined to do, but only of what he will do in certain circumstances,” with he result that “if this makes prophecy seem very uncertain, I am very sorry, but I cannot help it, for it is the way that it is” (Pieters, The Seed of Abraham, 142).
Pardon me, but that’s not the way it is. There is a better way to protect the meaning of Scripture and that is to insist that the locus of meaning is in the text itself. It is to insist upon literal interpretation.
Having established two axiomatic principles of language that govern the intelligible use of words (the Univocal Nature of Language and the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent), we need to pause, I think, to make an important qualification—not so much a third axiom of language, but an answer to a common observation that is often raised at this point, viz., that the Scriptures have two authors, divine and human. As such, some non-dispensationalists maintain, God is able to use linguistic structures with a broad semantic/syntactical range to secretly but accurately communicate meanings additional to what the human author intended. This being the case, they reason, it is possible to affirm the two principles above but still find a loophole, unique to the Christian Scriptures, that allows two disparate streams of intentionality in a single text: the divine author intended more than or other than what the human author intended, and that’s OK in view of the inscrutable mystery of inspiration.
Of course it is true that God always knows comprehensively the details and implications of any of his statements, and thus knew quantitatively more and qualitatively better than the human authors did when they wrote (so, e.g., Dan 12:6–9; 1 Pet 1:10–12). But this is not the same as saying that God meant more than the human authors did when they wrote. To put things succinctly, acceptance of the analogical view of truth in one’s epistemology does not legitimate the possibility of equivocation in one’s view of language. Note the following:
- The gift of language and miracle of inspiration seem precisely intended to ascertain that the thoughts of God were perfectly communicated in human words (1 Cor 2:13) and to prevent the possibility of alien meanings exclusive to the human authors (2 Pet 1:19–21). They are God’s words breathed out (1 Tim 3:16) through human vehicles, not bypassing their respective styles and vocabulary, but ensuring that His Word and their words enjoyed a perfect confluence.
- The idea that God used human authors to write something grammatically/technically accurate while at the same time intending something other than what they intended is very difficult to harmonize with the doctrine of inerrancy. At best, it would seem, God is perpetuating deception.
- Finally, if God is able, at any time, to mean more than or other than the human author, it would seem to me that whole of Scripture is placed in serious jeopardy and its meaning potentially lost to all that might seek it. The miracle of inspiration is emasculated and the Scriptures themselves are rendered superfluous.
Scripture is, in one sense, a unique book. Unlike all other books, it boasts an inerrant unity that partakes of inspiration. But it does not follow that this uniqueness is such that the Bible must be read with a correspondingly unique hermeneutic. The univocal nature of language and the jurisdiction of (unitary) authorial intent cannot be set aside in view of the “dual authorship” of Scripture. Two transmitters are used in the communication of Scripture, to be sure, but they share perfect denotative confluence.
Atheists are found of boasting that they can be perfectly good people without God—that is, without needing the threat of some all-powerful Being punishing them for wrong-doing. Their argument can have two purposes. One is to counter the oft-quoted sentiment: “Without God, everything is permitted.” Rather, they claim, they are morally upstanding citizens even without a belief in God. Thus, atheism does not lead to anarchy. The second point is to demonstrate their moral superiority—unlike Christians, they have the inner fortitude to control their own behavior. They do not need some external threat to keep them from stealing or killing. They do not need God to be good.
Christians who understand the gospel are actually willing to agree in one sense. Belief in God does not guarantee that a person will be morally superior to those who do not believe in God. It should not surprise Christians to find atheists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or people from any number of religious persuasions who are honest, hard-working, generally good people. After all, people do not become Christians by their moral effort but by their trust in God’s gracious work on their behalf.
Yet Christians should be better than they were or could be. Their trust in God may not make them better than others, but it should make them better than their old selves. When God saves someone, he makes them new. So people may be good without God, but they would be even better with Him.
There are, however, two ways in which we must answer the original question in the negative—we cannot be good without God. First, there could be no foundation for goodness without God. On what grounds do we determine whether or not something is good? Who has the authority to determine what is good or what is bad if not God?
Let’s briefly consider two possible alternatives. The first is that the sense of morality—the idea that all people have that certain things are right or wrong—is simply a result of natural selection in evolution. The thinking goes like this: those who were altruistic (unselfish and cooperative) were better equipped for survival and, thus, passed altruistic gene on to their descendents. That’s why we feel that unselfish behavior is “right.” That feeling helped us survive.
However, this theory is flawed. Altruism within your “group” may lead to greater survival, but hostility toward those outside would also lead to greater survival. But we believe that sacrificing for those outside your “group” is good and right (e.g., jumping in a river to save a stranger), whereas evolutionary theory would mean we would need to believe it was wrong. Nor does this theory explain why people display altruistic behavior when no one else will know about it. They would get no direct benefit from that behavior. Finally, this only explains why we think certain behaviors are right, but does nothing to explain whether or not our sense of morality is correct. It fails to move from is to ought. It tells us that this is how people think, but it cannot tell us whether or not we should think that way. I may think it is good to be kind to others, but is it really good? Evolution cannot explain that. Thus, we are left without a ground for goodness.
The second alternative is that morality is socially determined. It is not given by God, but is created by people in a given culture. However, this theory also fails to solve the problem of moral grounding. If there is no God, then we are simply left with subjective and arbitrary feelings. Why should these be imposed on others? If you say “The majority should get to decide what is right or wrong” then does the majority get to decide to exterminate the minority? If not, then why? Who gets to determine what the majority can or cannot do? When one child begins telling another what to do, the second child often responds with some statement like this: “Says who?” In other words, you do not have the authority to tell me how to live. You cannot serve as an adequate grounding for morality in my life. The question is, who can? No one on earth possesses the right to tell everyone else how to live. That’s because only God has the ultimate right to do that.
There has been no satisfactory answer for the grounds of objective moral values without appeal to divine authority. So people do not need to believe that God exists to be good people, but without God existing there would be no such thing as goodness.
There is another truth that forces us to state that people cannot be good without God. Even those who do not believe in God could not be good without God’s common grace. God is at work in the world restraining evil. He may often work through secondary means, like governments and positive peer pressure, but He also works through His moral law written on people’s hearts and their God-given consciences. People may not be conscious of His working, but they benefit from it. Left to ourselves, we would all be purely wicked. We get glimpses of this truth from time to time when we hear of the horrific acts that people are capable of committing, such as mass killings, brutal tortures, and extreme forms of abuse. The reason not everyone commits those horrific crimes is that God is at work to keep our depravity in check. Part of what makes hell such a horrible reality is that God will no longer restrain evil. All of our worst tendencies will be indulged completely, with no hint of goodness mixed in. We cannot really be good without God. Praise God that He works so that people will be good now!
When the King James Version was published in 1611, there were actually two printed editions, with 450 variations in the biblical text (Norton, Textual History of the King James Bible, 173–79). These are commonly called the “He” and “She” Bibles, from their respective readings in Ruth 3:15 (“he went into the city” and “she went into the city”). The “He” edition is commonly believed to be the first and the “She” the second.
A rare “She” KJV, said to be worth about £50,000, has recently been discovered in a Lancashire village church.
Guy Waters has an excellent summary of justification and sanctification over at the Ligonier Blog.
A second received law of language that may be deduced from common usage is the Jurisdiction of Authorial Intent. I proposed last week that a text can have but one signification in any given context; this week I suggest further that the sole arbiter of that signification is its author. This seminal axiom of language is mnemonically captured in Fee and Stuart’s statement, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” The meaning of a given text is always found in the author’s original intention: it can never be changed after the fact by a reader, some alien force, or even (after further reflection) by the author himself. Denotative meaning is static and perpetual.
Of course, the meaning of Scripture is not uniformly perspicuous, and it is impossible to interview an author or to enter his mind for clarification. Meaning can, at times, be elusive. But since the author is using the established grammatical, syntactical, and lexical norms of a given historical context, we can with patience reduce the options considerably. This is what is meant by grammatical-historical interpretation. And since the purpose of Scripture is revelation, we should expect that God would not be in the habit of obfuscating that meaning.
Due to the uniqueness of Scripture as an inerrant unity, we also have another interpretive tool at our disposal, viz., the analogia fidei, or the analogy of faith (sometimes called the analogia scriptura or the analogy of Scripture). By this we mean that the interpretive options for a given text can be categorized as likely, possible, unlikely, or impossible not only in view of linguistic factors, but also in view of theological factors. So, for instance, when Paul says that “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28) and James that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24), we know that certain linguistically possible interpretations of this pair of texts are not theologically possible.
But while we must admit the propriety of appeals to the analogia fidei, we must also be keenly aware of the susceptibility of this principle to abuse. Specifically, while the analogia fidei can help to reduce the number of linguistic options during the course of exegesis, it cannot create new linguistic options that the author demonstrably never intended. So, for instance, after God clarifies at length and with unequivocal specificity that Abram’s biological seed would be eternally plentiful (Gen 15:2–5) it is not possible for a modern interpreter to allow this explicit denotation to fall away in favor of a “greater seed” and a “greater Israel” that Abram did not have in mind on this particular historical occasion. Similarly, after God invites Abram to pace through the land of promise to establish its precise length, breadth, and contours (Gen 13:17), it is not possible for this explicit denotation to fall away in favor of a “greater land” that Abram did not have in mind on this particular historical occasion. Likewise, when the prophets dedicate dozens of chapters to exultations about millennial blessings that are geological, zoological, meteorological, agricultural, medical, political, sociological, etc., it is not possible for the modern reader to resignify these as merely spiritual blessings.
To interpret Scripture in such a way is to resignify an author’s words without his permission, and thus to banish that author from his own words. And this simply cannot occur in any sustainable theory of language.Related Tags:
Jonathan Cook, youth pastor at First Baptist Community Church in Monte Sereno, California, won the book giveaway.
We come now to the heart of this series, viz., a discovery of the “received laws of language” that we as humans unconsciously use every day as we engage in ordinary communication with one another. The material here is not new with me, but rather is a distillation of an article published in 2002 by Rolland McCune, “What Is Literal Interpretation?” that he contributed to a start-up journal published by a missionary with whom he was acquainted, Sola Scriptura, issue #3. It is unfortunate that the study has not been circulated more widely.
The first of the hermeneutical rules he proposes is the Univocal Nature of Language. By univocal is simply meant “one voice.” By saying that the Bible speaks univocally we mean that its statements can have only one signification in any given context. To this I add the following qualifications: (1) while we must concede that many words have wide semantic ranges, we would insist that they bring but one meaning to any single propositional context; further, (2) while we admit that some people occasionally use double entendres or puns to deliberately connote two things at once, we would argue that such figures only “work” when hearers successfully incise the play on words: a communicator who uses puns that his audience doesn’t “get” is a failure. To summarize, no system of language/thought can survive solely or principally on such clever ambiguities. They are incidental exceptions that prove the rule.
As a transcendental rule, this seminal principle of language is axiomatic—it must be assumed true in order to be disproved. To assert otherwise would require words that follow this rule, or else the argument would fall apart into meaninglessness.
Applied to Bible study methods, this principle means that the Bible, since it is written in a “normal” manner with respect to grammar, syntax, genres, figures, etc., and was written for the express purpose of revealing truth, contains no additional, hidden meanings that were “missed” by the original writers/readers using standard grammatical and syntactical hermeneutical methods. A statement made in the OT had precisely the same meaning to its immediate readers that it has to its modern readers. To cite Fee and Stuart, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” True, later revelation often clarifies or expands what was known by earlier revelation, but it never divulges hidden messages unknown to the original communicators, much less those that resignify the text.
To affirm otherwise, I would argue, is to introduce uncertainty to the whole of Scripture. In Milton Terry’s words, “The moment we admit the principle that portions of Scripture contain an occult or double sense we introduce an element of uncertainty in the sacred volume, and unsettle all scientific interpretation.” Who knows? Perhaps the plain meaning of the precious New Testament promises of eternal life, heaven, and eternal reward will one day yield to some new meaning that rises to replace it! We surely cannot countenance this scenario, and so it follows that we cannot countenance any scenario that does this to any text of Scripture. To use transcendental terms, the Christian system cannot survive the implications of a Scripture that allows for the possibility of evolving, surrogate, or alien meanings anywhere within its leaves.
As such, a literalist resists hermeneutical models specializing in “mystery”—models that boast hidden meanings, whether they be twofold (the Apostolic Fathers), threefold (Origen), fourfold (Cassian), or the more domesticated typological/Christological school popular today. Instead, the literalist does not rest until he discovers an exegetically plausible and “normal” explanation for each difficult text of Scripture, viz., one that preserves the univocal nature of language.
In a few days, we’re going to give away a couple of books to one of our readers. The books we are giving away are Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy and Four Views on the Historical Adam, both in the Counterpoints series published by Zondervan. In order to enter the drawing for these books, you need to leave a comment below. In your comment, please list two or three books you are hoping to read this summer.
I’ll start the ball rolling by offering a few titles from my summer reading list:
Baptists in America: A History by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins
Nothing: A Very Short Introduction by Frank Close
Perspectives on the Atonement: Three Views edited by Andrew Naselli and Mark Snoeberger
In order to be eligible for the drawing, comments must be posted before 11pm (EST) on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. The winner will be announced on the blog the following day.
This blog post is fairly ambitious, seeking to answer two questions:
- How can we prove the existence of universally “received laws of language”?
And, assuming they exist,
- Who gets to decide what those laws are in the absence of an explicit biblical statement of those laws?
My answer to the first question may seem a bit unnerving, but hopefully I can make a recovery with the explanation. My answer, simply, is that we can’t prove the existence of universal laws of language. That’s the nature of a transcendental—it can’t be proven, only assumed. But what we can do is to demonstrate that people universally observe certain laws when they use the medium of human language; in fact, they cannot cogently do otherwise. This is what logicians sometimes call “transcendental” argumentation.
The idea of transcendentals is often traced to the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, who ostensibly coined the term and established “the one” as their principal and only absolute transcendental. Plato also developed, however, several subsidiary transcendentals that flow from “the one,” viz., “the good, the beautiful, and the true.” (Other transcendentals have been floated over the years, but these have proved the most resilient proposals.) We err, however, if we conclude that the idea of transcendentals is of Greek vintage. The Bible itself makes certain transcendental assumptions. First among these is the ontological assumption of God’s existence with which both testaments begin (Gen 1:1; John 1:1). The Scripture writers nowhere seek to prove that the Christian God exists; rather, they assume that he exists. Further, they demonstrate conclusively that humanity universally presuppose, indeed must presuppose, God’s existence for their very survival (so Acts 17:24–28; Rom 1:18ff; etc.): God alone supplies the requisite preconditions of intelligibility in our universe, and no one can survive the absurdity of a universe without God. In short, since the creation of the world, everyone everywhere knows and needs God. Humanity needs no “proof” of God beyond this demonstration.
The Scriptures also assume ethical transcendentals subsidiary to the principal fact that “God is.” These transcendentals are no less true than the fact that “God is,” but they are subsidiary in that their truth exists only because of the more primary fact that “God is.” The Apostle Paul weaves certain of these transcendent ethical principles into his broader demonstration of God’s existence in Romans 1–2, assuming certain inescapable standards of morality, known by all, without which the natural order will fail—laws written upon the heart and universally understood to be the basis by which judgment will occur.
I would argue that there are other transcendentals that may be known the same way. For instance, we know that there is an epistemological transcendental of “truth” that flows from God’s being and is expressed in his revelation. And in order for mankind to receive that truth, there must be some universal medium whereby that truth may be transmitted and received: the received laws of language and logic often headed by the label Hermeneutics.
The difficulty with this final category of transcendentals is that God never explicitly defines them. This puts it in a class slightly different from the transcendentals of God’s existence and moral law, which God does not leave in the realm of assumption. Knowing that depraved people will attempt to exchange these transcendentals for incongruous alternatives, God offers an enormous amount of explicit, propositional data about his ontological nature and ethical perfections in the Bible. But when we start to talk about transcendentals in other spheres (epistemics, aesthetics, etc.), the absence of explicit revelation leads to controversy. There are three basic approaches to this dilemma:
- Some conclude that hermeneutical transcendentals do not exist or are subject to change, and that human language is thus an inadequate vehicle for revealing God. At best, God may be known by an existential encounter “above” the text. This most serious error is beyond the scope of this series.
- Others suggest that hermeneutical methods are not universal/transcendental, but are instead provincial and utilitarian expressions of diverse cultures to which God’s method may or may not conform. This error is not so serious as the first, but still quite troubling, suggesting that even when the Bible is available, its message is inaccessible to anyone who has not learned (by some sort of illuminating work) its mysterious hermeneutical key. Perhaps the most obvious example here is Gnosticism, a movement ostensibly quashed by the Ante-Nicene Church, but the ideas of which certainly live on.
- A third response affirms that universal hermeneutical principles exist as shared transcendentals, rendering the Bible a “normal” book accessible to all without distinction via the received laws of language. This response leads to the grammatical-historical model. But until the various proponents of this ideal define these laws, they remain vulnerable to fragmentation—not all grammatical-historical hermeneuts are literalists.
So who determines these rules and how? For many, the answer is that exegetes learn these rules discursively: we learn how language works by the analogy of subsequent Scripture or by the hermeneutical example of Christ himself. IOW, the treatment of earlier Scriptures by later Scripture-writers (with priority sometimes accorded to Christ’s own use of earlier Scriptures) divulges the hermeneutical paradigms by which we read Scripture as a whole.
In many senses, this approach is quite reasonable—surely God in Christ or God via inspiration will not violate his own laws of language! And we would be fools to abandon the value of the analogia fidei in our study of the Scriptures (although privileging later Scriptures is not so easily defended [see Kaiser]—and more on this later). But in another sense, this approach leaves serious holes: first among these is the fact that God communicated to humans quite successfully long before they had the NT Scriptures ostensibly necessary to discovering the laws of language. In short, since the creation of the world, everyone everywhere knows and needs these laws apart from their exegetical demonstration. They need no “proof” of these laws beyond this. But second, this approach (which in keeping with my last post, is a correspondence approach) offers no check for coherency. That is, it does not ask whether tentatively proposed hermeneutical rules, gleaned by exegesis, can survive the rigors of ordinary communication. It does not demand that we demonstrate that we can live credibly with the implications of those derived laws in our everyday use of language. It is this problem, I would argue, that the “literalist” is best suited to surmount.
Next time: A summary delineation of the seminal laws of language and the means of testing them.
Animal Farm, George Orwell’s satirical story criticizing Stalin and the Soviet Union, was first published in 1945. What may be surprising to some is the difficulty Orwell had in getting the book published. At the time, many in Britain were enamored with Stalin and the USSR, especially those who worked in the publishing industry. Orwell’s manuscript was rejected by multiple publishers, in large part because of its message. When it was finally published, Orwell prepared a preface to the work that, for some unknown reason, was not included. The preface was discovered in 1972 and published as an essay titled “The Freedom of the Press.” I’d like to highlight some portions of his essay as they bear on our current situation (that I noted recently) where it is no longer acceptable to state certain ideas that are deemed intolerant.
In discussions about freedom today (including both freedom of religion and freedom of the press), it is common for people to excuse the acts of silencing and oppression by arguing that the oppression is not coming from the government. Thus, there is no violation of freedom. Orwell begins by noting that it was not the government that was threatening freedom in his day but the fear of public pressure.
But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion…. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.
The problem was not government censorship but self-censorship. Though secular media like to give the impression that they are objective, they bind themselves to certain ideas that they deem true. Then they refuse to consider an opinion that contradicts their widely-held truths.
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it…. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals. (emphasis mine)
Orwell noted the hypocrisy and intentional blindness created by this rabid devotion to the current ideals. Any piece of information that fit the prevailing narrative was championed, while evidence to the contrary was suppressed.
The English intelligentsia, or a great part of it, had developed a nationalistic loyalty towards the USSR, and in their hearts they felt that to cast any doubt on the wisdom of Stalin was a kind of blasphemy. Events in Russia and events elsewhere were to be judged by different standards. The endless executions in the purges of 1936-8 were applauded by life-long opponents of capital punishment, and it was considered equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in the Ukraine. And if this was true before the war, the intellectual atmosphere is certainly no better now.
Their devotion to the orthodoxy of the day led them to violate their professed allegiance to freedom of speech. They gave lip service to the idea but rejected it in practice when it violated their cherished beliefs.
The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular—however foolish, even—entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes.” But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?”, and the answer more often than not will be “No.” In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure. But freedom, as Rosa Luxembourg [sic] said, is “freedom for the other fellow.” The same principle is contained in the famous words of Voltaire: “I detest what you say; I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If the intellectual liberty which without a doubt has been one of the distinguishing marks of western civilisation means anything at all, it means that everyone shall have the right to say and to print what he believes to be the truth, provided only that it does not harm the rest of the community in some quite unmistakable way. Both capitalist democracy and the western versions of Socialism have till recently taken that principle for granted. Our Government, as I have already pointed out, still makes some show of respecting it. The ordinary people in the street-partly, perhaps, because they are not sufficiently interested in ideas to be intolerant about them-still vaguely hold that “I suppose everyone’s got a right to their own opinion.” It is only, or at any rate it is chiefly, the literary and scientific intelligentsia, the very people who ought to be the guardians of liberty, who are beginning to despise it, in theory as well as in practice. (emphasis mine)
In a sad irony, those who claimed to champion freedom and tolerance sought to promote and defend it by crushing those who seemed to oppose it. The campaign against the enemies does not only address actions but also targets ideas that are deemed harmful.
One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal. Over and above the familiar Marxist claim that “bourgeois liberty” is an illusion, there is now a widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought (emphasis mine)
Orwell’s essay also points to two truths that are important to grasp in combating the present moves to destroy freedoms. The first is to recognize the danger of buying into a current cultural orthodoxy. We look back and find it appalling that people supported Stalin and excused his crimes, whose brutal dictatorship led to the loss of millions and millions of lives. But isn’t it shocking that those who had the willingness to stand up and warn about the coming danger were marginalized and silenced? The world needed voices to cry out that Stalin’s regime was not progress but was destructive. It needed voices to challenge the current orthodoxy. It needed unpopular opinions to be expressed.
And this tolerance or [sic = of?] plain dishonesty means much more than that admiration for Russia happens to be fashionable at this moment. Quite possibly that particular fashion will not last. For all I know, by the time this book is published my view of the Soviet régime may be the generally-accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.
We can look back now and be baffled at how people could support Stalin. But what widely held opinions in our day will people be baffled at 80 years from now? And how are we suppressing opinions that are unpopular in our day but will eventually be shown to be right?
How can we guard ourselves against becoming captive to such a widely-held but horribly wrong opinion? Because Orwell is making a secular argument, the most he can stand on is western tradition.
If I had to choose a text to justify myself, I should choose the line from Milton: “By the known rules of ancient liberty.” The word ancient emphasises the fact that intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist.
Orwell is correct that liberty is a foundational truth of western culture. And, as he goes on to say, “if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
But the ultimate solution for wrong-headed group-thinking is not western tradition but biblical truth. We must not allow the current cultural opinion to move us to discard the truth of the Bible when it conflicts with the current orthodoxy. We have to allow the Bible to move us to discard current orthodoxy and hold fast to biblical truth when they conflict. If we are not going to fall into horribly flawed ideas like supporting Stalinism, we have to let the Bible challenge our current way of thinking. Only if we allow our thinking to be challenged by God’s Word can we be sure we are not bound to the cultural winds of the day.
When evaluating the truth or error of any proposed theological statement or system, there are two primary questions that the theologian asks: the question of correspondence and the question of coherence. In using these two terms, I am using two recognized philosophical categories, but not necessarily as all users would define them. In suggesting that we must test a given theological statement or system for its correspondence, I do not mean, as many do, that we ask whether or not it corresponds to “reality” as variously defined in the marketplace of ideas; instead, I mean that we ask whether or not it corresponds to God’s reality as he has defined it. In short we ask, “Does this theological statement/system agree with what God has said in the Christian Scriptures?” In developing any truly biblical system of theology, we spend the lion’s share of our time answering this question. That is because the Christian Scriptures are the Norma Normans non Normata, the governing norm of truth that may not be subjected to manipulation or modification. Bottom line: If a given theological statement/system contradicts the Bible, then that statement/system, however clever, is invalid.
The question of correspondence is not, however, the only question that concerns the systematic theologian. He must also establish the coherence of his system: the system must agree with itself. If a theological system can survive only by patching up its violations of the received laws of logic and language with appeals to “mystery,” then it is compromised. For example, assuming a non-equivocating definition of the term omnipotent, a valid theological system cannot countenance a God that is mysteriously both omnipotent and not-omnipotent at the same time. Or, assuming again a non-equivocating definition of the term justification, a valid theological system cannot permit justification to be simultaneously both by works and by faith alone. Any system that permits such absurdities breaks at least one and often several fundamental laws of logic (in this case, viz., the law of identity [A = A] and the law of contradiction [A ≠ not-A]). For this reason, a systematic theologian must spend time harmonizing texts that seem to contradict (e.g., Job 42:2 with Titus 1:2 and James 1:13 for the issue of omnipotence; Galatians 2:16 with James 2:24 for the issue of justification). At times he is obliged to scuttle his theories; sometimes, however, he is able to tweak and strengthen them by exploring exegetical options and by crafting out carefully nuanced definitions that render his system coherent. Bottom line: If a given theological statement/system contradicts itself, it is invalid.
The question of record for this blog post is whether the theologian’s hermeneutical method is a matter of correspondence or a matter of coherence: are hermeneutical principles (1) something to be discovered in the Bible itself and constructed inductively from what I find there? Or are hermeneutical principles (2) something to be settled as a matter of transcendental presupposition before I can even start reading the Bible? My answer (and what to me stands at the centerpiece of the concept of “literal” interpretation) is that the latter option is of necessity true. The laws of language are received by divine grant and are a priori axioms necessary to the coherent, intelligible reading of anything: they must be assumed before they can be demonstrated. Apart from this axiomatic premise, coherent communication would fail us and linguistic anarchy would prevail. In fact, in order for someone to disagree with this position, I would submit, he would have to assume the position in order to express his disagreement with it (which is why I have labeled it a transcendental argument).
Those who use a non-literal (typological/allegorical/spiritual) hermeneutical method do not make this assumption, or at the very least not to the same degree I do. Instead, their hermeneutical method is in part a matter of exegetical discovery. So, for instance, when a non-literalist sees in Matthew 2:15 and 18 the use of a fulfillment formula in connection with two improbable Old Testament historical narratives (Hos 11:1 and Jer 31:15, respectively), he stands quite ready to humbly allow exegesis to correct his presumptive hermeneutic. What’s more, the non-literalist can also argue that since Matthew has validated this appealing new hermeneutic under inspiration, the contemporary reader now has exegetical warrant to interpret other texts in the same way.
The literalist, on the other hand, while not unmindful that depraved minds can distort the received laws of language, is much more disposed, based on his view of the transcendental nature of the those laws, to think that his interpretive errors will be resolved by exegetical adjustment than by a radical overhaul of his whole hermeneutical method. And so, rather than acceding quickly to unique hermeneutical models unknown outside the biblical corpus, he will expend enormous effort exhausting all the possible exegetical options available to him within the bounds of a “normal” hermeneutic. And even if he fails, he is reluctant to concede the existence of a whole new hermeneutical method, much less a prescriptive one. He is reluctant because he knows that appeals to exegesis as a precedent for a unique and non-literal hermeneutical method potentially undermines not only (1) the received laws of language, but also (2) the accessibility of the Scriptures to all who are not apprised of the special method, and (3) the perhaps even the integrity and authority of the Bible itself.
This, I would submit, is the heartbeat of literal interpretation.
Next time: What are these “received laws of language” of which I speak? And if we cannot trust Matthew or Luke or Paul to delineate these laws, why should we accept the doodlings of some 21st-century chump?
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the country of Burma was almost 100% Buddhist, but such is no longer the case. According to the 2010 edition of Operation World, Burma (now called Myanmar) currently contains a sizeable minority of Christians including about 1.7 million Baptists, making Baptists the largest Protestant denomination in the country. The reason for this significant pocket of Baptists is in part due to a voyage that took place in 1812 and the doubts that began forming in the mind of a young missionary as he translated the Scriptures.
In August of 1788, Adoniram Judson was born in Malden, MA to a Congregational minister and his wife. As an infant he was sprinkled, and he grew up assuming that infant baptism was the NT pattern. Upon reaching early adulthood, Judson was determined to become a missionary to the East, and in 1812 Judson and his wife, Ann, set sail on the Caravan headed for India just a week after their wedding.
During the four months’ voyage, Judson translated parts of the NT, and as he did so, he began to suspect that immersion was the correct mode of baptism. He had been sent by the (Congregational) Board of Commissioners, and he would soon be interacting with William Carey and other Baptist missionaries in India so he knew this was an issue he needed to resolve in his own mind.
Upon arriving in Calcutta, Judson continued his study of the subject. He read books both for and against infant baptism, and his wife joined him in studying what the Scriptures say about the subject. Within a short time they both became convinced that the Baptists were correct about both the mode and the proper recipients of baptism. As Judson put it,
In a word, I could not find a single intimation in the New Testament, that the children and domestics of believers were members of the church, or entitled to any church ordinance, in consequence of the profession of the head of their family. Everything discountenanced this idea. When baptism was spoken of, it was always in connection with believing. None but believers were commanded to be baptized; and it did not appear to my mind that any others were baptized (Letter to Third Church, Plymouth, MA, 20 August 1817).
Shortly after concluding this, Judson and his wife declared their belief that scriptural baptism is the immersion of a believer in water, and they requested baptism from the Baptist missionaries serving in India. Before continuing on to Burma, Judson preached a message on baptism that Carey described as the best exposition of the subject he had ever heard, and, in fact, Carey encouraged Judson to have it published. That sermon together with a letter to the Third Church of Plymouth and an additional address on the mode of baptism were eventually published as a book titled Christian Baptism (Kindle). This little volume remains an interesting account of how an early American missionary changed his mind about the question of baptism.