Monday, 17 March 2008

What are the Gospels About and How?

In my last post I wrote of the subtlety of Hans Frei's position on the question of narrative referentiality. It's not as if “realistic narratives” do nothing more than create their own aesthetic worlds, with no intention to point beyond themselves to the “real” world outside the text. It is possible for a narrator to refer to reality by means of a story. The question is how we are to understand the nature of this referencing and the nature of the referent. This is an issue that touches the heart of traditional Christian theology, which claims that a historical resurrection in time and space is the corner-stone of its faith.

One cannot talk of the nature of a referent without a concrete text in mind, so let's look at Frei's handling of the gospels. According to Frei, these texts are ultimately “witnesses” to the Word of God. But what is the Word of God? Is it identifiable with the concrete history of Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish carpenter cum rabbi who was crucified in Jerusalem? Frei sees this Word as being more than (but not less than!) the “historical Jesus.” It is God incarnate, the inauguration of the kingdom, transcendence on earth, resurrection, and as such, is a reality that explodes any human categories for understanding it. How is it that any text can adequately communicate the reality of God in Christ, given the limitations of human thought and language? As Frei says,

we ... are able to think, only by way of the language in which we think. Our referencing, especially in cases where empirical objects are not involved, like God ... is language-bound. God is perhaps like us, but we also know that He is very much unlike us. Our referencing then and there is simply not ordinary referencing. (1993: 209)
So if the referent of the Gospels is one which cannot be adequately expressed by any human language, yet it is important, indeed vital, that we understand this referent, what is to be done?

Here we come to two things: the grace of God and “textuality.”

The grace of God is that the stories of the gospels are “sufficient” for our knowledge of their referent. They don't exhaust it, but they are enough for what we need, which is more than a satisfied curiosity (discipleship comes to mind). The “textuality” of the gospels, however, is the means by which that profundity is sufficiently mediated to us. Narrative is that mode of communication in which character and circumstance are intimately connected, so that if they are separated the meaning of the story is lost. The character of Jesus in the gospels is part and parcel of the narrative world of which he is a part and which contributes to the construction of his identity. Jesus, not as historical datum but as incarnate Word, is witnessed to by the narrative shape of the gospels, so that when the text references Him, it references him not just historically (e.g. using ostensive reference) but also textually (e.g. using self-reference).

This is how Frei puts it:

There is often a historical reference and often there is a textual reference; that is, the text is witness to the Word of God, whether it is historical or not. And when I say witness to the Word of God, I'm not at all sure that I can make the distinction between “witness” to the Word of God, and Word of God written. That is to say, the text is sufficient for our reference, both when it refers historically and when it refers to its divine original only by itself, textually. (ibid.)
Referencing in the gospels (and in the Bible as a whole) is no simple thing. But given the nature of the referent this should not be surprising. However we speak of God, he has chosen that we must start from the text:

that is the language pattern, the meaning-and-reference pattern to which we are bound, and which is sufficient for us.

10 comments:

jprapp said...

Phil, profound - you outdid yourself here: “Narrative is that mode of communication in which character and circumstance are intimately connected, so that if they are separated the meaning of the story is lost.”

Agree.

While I still think John may (key: "may") have a valid question whether Frei divides “circumstance” (historical reference, if I read John aright?) as space-time facts away from meaning, my broadest and most general reading of Frei is more like your own.

Here, I’m no Frei expert. I’ve stated my biases in reading Frei.

I’ll leave out the density and confusions of my multi-disciplinary love of praxis for a moment. I’ll offer a simple prose note.

This note takes off on Phil's quote above.

And it keys on a problem John has raised.

I’ve served as a judge in private panel arbitration in a handful of cases involving clergy-parishioner controversies in which both parties (clergy, parishioner) have wanted to settle their controversy outside of court, while still obtaining a legally binding judgment (hence, arbitration).

These controversies by nature are profoundly pressurized from the start: clergy malpractice, sexual and relational indiscretions, misappropriation of funds, and simple failures to do the easiest of counseling interventions (like crises intervention in suicidal cases, or like clergy failing to advise the use of contraceptives for sexually active teens, or like clergy failing to warn parents of a minor’s potential or confessed criminal activity) The list is endless.

Narrative is both indespensible and profoundly weighty in these cases. Free-flowing narrative is a critical axis in these cases because the rules for evidence in arbitration are far more relaxed, far more informal, far more open to mutual discussion (story and response), than in the technical rule-governed narratives in courts of law, where narratives are boxed and constricted into technical tropes. Still, both venues (court, arbitration) share a reliance on narrative testimony.


Narrative is at the heart of this praxis. In arbitration, narrative can be so interactive, so free-form, so compositional, and even responsive (after hearing the other side), that I know of no other praxis where “character and circumstance .. [are so] intimately connected” (elegant clause, Phil).

The problem with arbitral (and court) judgments is that several rules and policies exist requiring an all-or-nothing judgment. Judgment is all for one side. Or, all for the other. Compromise judgments, giving each side a little, are ethically reprehensible.

This praxis creates enormous pressures on both parties in their narrative testimonies. The nature and substance of the cases (above) fuels the tense pressure of all-or-nothing judgments to human breaking-points. And to the breaking points of narrative itself. The hope is that all-or-nothing judgment will be less catastrophic than lingering, festering, un-healed wounds, and a cosmos of escalating controversy – judgment is the last jumping-off point before physical violence.

The problem here is that the parties who give narrative testimonies know (I’d say they “know” biologically-ethologically, through evolved shared intuitions about moral judgment) that their own testimonies, and that the very process of giving their testimonies are – “ that mode of communication in which character and circumstance are intimately connected, so that if they are separated the meaning of the story is lost.” Phil’s summary goes right to the heart of it.

While fact findings (did the pastor wrongly take $100.00 or $1,000.00 from the church till? - e.g., fact finding, the pastor took $1,000.00, not $100.00) about the space-time “circumstances” are necessary to judgment, the problem is that “the character” (identity) of the losing party is frequently felt by the “looser” to be violated, denied, destroyed. And “the character” (identity) of the winning party is felt to be validated, justified, and affirmed. Narrative praxis engenders this problem. There’s something about narrative and giving one’s narrative testimony that exaggerates this polarized emotional and cognitive thinking. A similar polarization happens when oral narratives are minimized because parties use written testimony as proxies (“declarations’). The tragedy of this praxis is that a negative judgment feels like a denial of “character” (identity) instead of what it is, namely, a narrow judicious, focused praxis, iterating “the circumstances” (facts) and their results (judgment). The extremist cases of “character” (identity) despair after a judgment involve people in making the claim that if the true value of their “character” had been appreciated, then surely the judge would have seen the “circumstances” (facts) in a different way, so the weight of “character” would require a reading of the “circumstances” and facts favorable to the desired outcome!

Here, John has a point. Because “character” is fraught with meaning.

And Frei may have a weakness? – in under-valuing the adversarial cradle of narrative? - in under-valuing normative claims embedded in narratives (he thinks apologetics are ad hoc!)? - a weakness in under-valuing the profoundly adversarial competition over “circumstances” (historical facts) in narratives? - a weakness in merely acknowledging ongoing competing narratives, and how competing parties may never resolve their different space-time views of history, because the “meaning” of their “character” is too much at stake – so they go on, writing their alternative narratives? - a weakness in seeing narrative as the prelude (narrative is not the end) to all-or-nothing judgments?

Enough for now. Just a chew.

Waiting for John to tag if he wants.

In the meantime, isn’t the weakness embedded in the strength? - “Narrative is that mode of communication in which character and circumstance are intimately connected, so that if they are separated the meaning of the story is lost.”

Again, very elegant, Phil.

Cheers,

Jim

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

first we would have to interpret this quote in connection with the other quotes explicitly contradicting your position (which I've cited). Second, however, taken on its own terms this quote does not support the claim that Frei has no interest in the referent. To say that the distinction does not rise because the narrative adequately, sufficiently describes the referent, such that we don't need anything else to supplement it, i.e. that the extra-textual theological referent is so well represented by the text that the two are, for all intents and purposes the same, is not the same as saying that there text is the referent. The distinction between text and referent is a defining hall-mark of Barth's theological approach.

Vanhoozer apparently made a similar claim, i.e. that in opting for his definition of the literal sense, Frei severs it from its referent, something pre-critical scholars would not have done:

“in defending the literal sense [Frei] seems to have cut ties with the question of historical reference, even though the latter was originally an ingredient in pre-critical literal reading” (Biblical Narrative, 175). But Neil MacDonald gives the same response I have just given you:

“To say that the sense of the narrative is not be equated with historical refernce does not commit Frei to the position that historical reference was lacking in the pre-critical period. Frei does not deny the presence of historical reference during this period; he simply denies that the meaning of the story was identified with it. ...

When Frei attributes to Calvin the belief that we could have reality 'only under a narrative'—the biblical narrative—he takes Calvin to mean precisely that the earth on which he stood—this world—was continuous with, identical with, the world narrated in the Bible. As frei puts it: biblical narrative 'remained the adequate depiction of the common and inclusive world.' Hence, in accordance with the history of ideas ..., the 'common inclusive world' was precisely the world in which these narrated events had happened. This is what Frei means by saying the bibilcal narrative was taken in the pre-critical period to be 'automatically identical with reference to historical truth,' that the 'true historical reference of a story was a direct and natural concomitant of its making literal sense.'” (Illocutionary Stance in Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 318, 319).

To answer your questions:

If theology is composed of *truth*, then what sort of “truth” is it?

Jesus is the truth. And Jesus is more than an “historical event” or “space-time” referent (though not less). So I disagree with your dichotomy between truth as space-time reality and truth as story. And access to this truth, the truth which really matters, is via text, spirit and community.

(Thanks for the link to the article by the way, I hadn't read this one yet).

Jim,

thank you for the compliment, but my elegant phrase is lifted directly from Frei.

You've certainly given me lots to chew on. I'm afraid you knowledge of the areas of philosophy, narrative and law outdoes mine. I find it hard to follow, but I will chew.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

You quote Vanhoozer as saying: “in defending the literal sense [Frei] seems to have cut ties with the question of historical reference, even though the latter was originally an ingredient in pre-critical literal reading.” And then you quote Neil MacDonald in counterpoint: “To say that the sense of the narrative is not be equated with historical reference does not commit Frei to the position that historical reference was lacking in the pre-critical period. Frei does not deny the presence of historical reference during this period; he simply denies that the meaning of the story was identified with it.” But if MacDonald is responding directly to Vanhoozer (I don’t have either ready to hand, so I can’t judge by the context), I’d say that MacDonald is missing Vanhoozer’s point. When Vanhoozer says that Frei has “cut ties with the question of historical reference”, he isn’t saying that Frei doesn’t recognize that historical reference mattered for Calvin and company. He’s saying that he cut these ties *even though* it was an ingredient. Frei clearly recognizes that Calvin saw historical reference, but, in Frei’s fuller view of the post-Reformation development of hermeneutics, he sees that the 100% content-correspondence of the narrative and the real world separated in a way not anticipated by Calvin. The question is not whether Frei recognizes that Calvin, Luther, etc. saw historical reference in the Bible, but rather what one should do with that historical reference in the period after the overlap between historical actuality and the biblical narrative was no longer judged to be total. I certainly wouldn’t defend Vanhoozer’s hermeneutic in all its specifics—I disagree with him about a lot of things—but MacDonald either is being unfair to him, or not quite understanding Frei.

I also take great exception to your response to my question about what kind of truth theology is composed of (spacetime or storytime?).

You wrote, “Jesus is the truth. And Jesus is more than an ‘historical event’ or ‘space-time’ referent (though not less). So I disagree with your dichotomy between truth as space-time reality and truth as story. And access to this truth, the truth which really matters, is via text, spirit and community.”

I take “Jesus is the truth” to be a doxological, rather than a philosophical, statement. As the latter, it simply makes no sense at all, unless we redefine “truth” in such a way that it is out of bounds of our alethiological investigations (in which case we would simply have to find a different term and continue on with our investigation).

Let me put it another way: Let’s say that “Jesus is the truth”. Would that admission ground out the sort of alethiological investigation I have been trying to conduct? No! The question of how Paul intended the truth of the Christ event in 1 Corinthians 15 would remain. If we arbitrarily decide that the word “truth” should be applied to Christ alone, then we would have to speak in a different term (like, say, “actuality”). Our observations about the structure of actuality will not have been affected.

It was Barth, more than anyone, who discovered just how far a “principial christocentrism” (Muller’s term) can be used as a sort of universal solvent for any and all philosophical objections to the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the Church Dogmatics. Barth recognized this tactic very early in his career, incorporating the mechanism for it within the exchange between the first two of the three so-called forms of the “Word of God”. Barth’s equation of “the Word” with both Christ and the revelation of God in the Bible was calculated to sound scriptural, as it played on the multivalency of the word “logos”. But the Bible’s reference to Jesus as the “logos” was never intended to be used in this way—in fact, “logos” should not be translated as “word” in those contexts. It is only because Barth begins with the dubious (because unscriptural) move of adopting revelation as an organizing principle, and builds on that with the more dubious move of equating revelation with Jesus Christ, that he can speak in those terms at all.

If christology could be used as a sort of wormhole through which we can pass from storytime truth to a (non-correlated) spacetime truth, so that theology can somehow allow both alethiologies to stand within the same intrasystemic discussion, then Paul’s use of a spacetime alethiology in 1 Corinthians 15 would not have the philosophical leverage it requires to make its intended conclusion. In that case, it really would be sufficient that there is a *narrative* about the resurrection, and Paul would have lost his argument.

The issue is this: Frei recognizes that there is a gap between what the text says happened (in all its details), and what *did* happen. Which one needs to be true for the gospel to be soteriologically effective? And how can the answer to that question be any different from the question of which is “primary” (Frei’s term)?

The apostles say that the Christ event is primary. Frei says that the narrative that speaks about the Christ event is primary. The apostles are right. Frei is wrong.

jprapp said...

Phil, John - apologies.

After my last post, I regretted posting. My post was a rambling distraction to your focus on a description Frei’s sense of narrative. I apologize. I don’t feel that my original reasons for reading Frei years ago excessively biased my final judgment, namely, that Frei equivocated on separating truth and meaning into different distal categories. But, one huge reason for deeply appreciating John Poirier’s admirable bull-dog pursuit of this distinction is because of a desire that I not be too “right” in reading Frei, but rather, to submit to something like peer-review on my own reading of Frei. So, John, carry on. See below.

Phil - if you want a pretty awesome critique of charismatic/pentecostal appropriations of post-modern hermeneutics, author-intention perspectives, and evaluations of truth-claims, including a nod to Frei, then see Poirier’s little essay, “PENTECOSTAL AND POSTMODERNIST HERMENEUTICS: A CRITIQUE OF THREE CONCEITS.” It’s a very worthy read that synthesizes themes here on your blog, despite it’s narrow focus on pentecostal appropriations of these themes (which may not interest you). Poirier makes a elliptical reference to “Pentecostalism’s primitivist commitment.”

John - thanks for your little essay. A little orientation: then some questions about your reading of Frei. Your essay summarized many criticisms I’ve had toward the enterprise of hermeneutics in general, and especially after studying with David Tracy, and coming to the conclusion that the so-called discipline of hermeneutical “conversation” was either a cheap excuse for collecting ad hoc stories from Wittgenstein to Lyotard, or at best, that hermeneutics are pseudo-disciplines that I should silently depart, and just let “the communities” (S. Fish) enjoy their shared sandboxes of ever-fractured claims. A low view, I admit. I hold a very high evaluation of modern science as well-grounded for its specified task, and I hold that the body of scientific findings is not remotely as ontologically unstable as post-modern say-anything philosophers say, but simultaneously, I have an extremely deep commitment to charismatic revelation in my daily praxis of settling concrete cases, while I hail to reasoned legal hermeneutics, and submit to rigorous local peer review on all these matters in my daily cases. Your essay synthesized all these themes very nicely. And your essay restored my faith a bit in hermeneutics. Out of this orientation, some questions about your reading of Frei: do you judge that Frei ever bordered on, or sympathized with, a sense of the Holy Spirit as an intimate and interactive Interpreter of biblical narratives? Pentecostals and charismatics (I get client referrals from a half-dozen such pastors: and visit their churches regularly) are notoriously prolific in claiming, “the Lord showed me ...,” such-and-such from a given scripture, and most of these claims seem innocently benign, and hermeneutic-neutral, since they turn quickly toward some beneficial praxis, like revelations about taking sacks of groceries to neighbors (after a few more inferences are connected). But, I don’t see much real systematic hermeneutic of narrative in these pulpits, so I’m curious whether on your reading, Frei turns adequate attention to the Spirit as intimate, interactive Interlocutor/Interpreter? – wouldn't Frei stand in a unique position to invoke the Spirit, that is, unique in contrast to post-modern human rambles, since the narratives are so laden with references to the Spirit? -- or, on your read of Frei, does Frei feel that we are on our own (or, beholden to our communities) in interpreting narrative? -– do you feel that Frei would concede that neither text, nor rules of interpretation, nor natural reason, could get us to Macedonia because Bythinia is a closed door –hence, the need for charismatic revelation for intimate details of our daily praxis? – if Frei is silent on Spirit-related matters, either as Interpreter, or Revealer for daily praxis, despite his high valuation of narrative, then do you see any inference that his silence relates to his academic community frowning on the Spirit as a source of these things? -- are academic pressures, or just personal confusions, at the root of what you feel Frei has done in separating truth and meaning?


Cheers,

Jim

jprapp said...

Phi - a postscript. This goes to Frei. And let's me jerk John's chain a little.

At heart, I’m really impatient with philosophy. Less so, hermeneutics. I’m with Spock in Star Trek, facts trump logic.

But, I recognize that since “facts” (including historical facts, like the resurrection) are constituted by relation to a proposition, all possible propositions may be (may) important to consider, so long as I’m not accountable for logical omniscience (which is my reason for resistance to creeds). To the extent that philosophers agree much about “facts,” then, about the best consensus we’ll get from them is an objection to assigning P1 (probability of one) to contingent statements, including evidential narrative statements, because just about everyone, scientists prima facie, and even "true believers" will give up previously accepted evidence, at some threshold of pressure from contrary evidence. Or, on a fancy.

This is why it’s fruitful to ask about the proposition to which Thomas objected when Thomas said inside the narrative (note: this is an intra-narrative claim) – “So the other disciples were saying to him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe’" (John 20:25).

While the following two items could be conjunctive, it’s possible to ask whether Thomas withheld judgment because of the in-credible claim of a resurrection per se, or because Thomas knew the regularly exhibited scoundrel-like nature of the apostolic witnesses (here, I'm jerking John's chain -- hehe)!

When Frei wrote that we know Jesus only via a description in the text, and later, Frei falls back to a default plea of common sense referential reserve, we must bear in mind that Frei never claimed to be privy to Thomas’ kind of direct evidence, nor did Frei have the kind of evidence that John marshals in 1 Corinthians 15.

So if Thomas adopts skepticism at the same time as “the other disciples were saying to him (blah, blah, blah),” – and any part of his measured skepticism was distributed across the spectrum of an in-credible resurrection along with equally dubious or more in-credible witnesses (he KNEW them!), then Frei is to be no less faulted than Thomas for reserving some skepticism toward the apostolic claims! And if Thomas doubted more the witnesses than the possibility of a resurrection .....

I’m sorry that I don’t have any better measure to move the text closer to a P1 level of certainty (certainty about the “text/narrative”) than to say it’s reasonable to withhold judgment about textual-narrative reliability until the Living Referent shows up for me, as for Thomas, to increase or decrease my confidence in my readings of the text! How (or whether) this happens is not the issue here (or, of this thread).

The disciples who testified to Thomas already had a “canon” of agreed testimony about the resurrection; I don't think "canon" helps confidence; one who knew them well (Thomas) had the best reason to doubt them, because he knew them! Their "canon" could have been worth less because they agreed! Care to join the flat earth society?




Cheers,

Jim

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

In reference to Vanhoozer/MacDonald. You are right in your interpretation of Vanhoozer, and perhaps the MacDonald quote wasn't clear enough. The point is that for Frei, Calvin accessed the world via the Bible. Frei does exaclty that. The Bible is the means to understand the real world (which includes the equally real non-space/time dimension of heaven!). He differs in qualifying the referent. Not every phrase has an ostensive referent in “historical” reality (I presume what you would call space-time, a troubling category for me). Rather, it is in the complex interplay between God's dimension and our. Frei didn't really go into this, or at least I haven't read it, but Childs did. The best thing to read is the section of an essay on “temporal sequence and prophetic dialectic.” Look it up in my post here. I had you in mind when I wrote the thread.

So, to repeat, the referent is qualified in Frei, not abandoned. By qualified, I mean a more sophisticated understanding of the intersection of heaven and earth that Calvin. At least, that's how I get Frei who is reticent on the issue after reading his colleague Childs.

I take “Jesus is the truth” to be a doxological, rather than a philosophical, statement

Was Jesus being doxological when Pilate asked him “what is the truth?”? His answer has become a significant theological category for a bunch of philosophers. Postmodern perhaps, but bona fide philosophers non-the-less. So I don't think it's odd to refer to the personal, relational nature of Christian theological truth as a way to destabilise modern obsessions with propositional certainty.

As the latter, it simply makes no sense at all, unless we redefine “truth” in such a way that it is out of bounds of our alethiological investigations

I'm not sure that we have defined truth at all, and certainly not according to the “rules” of a particular “alethiological investigation.” The “alethiology” of the gospel is what is being discussed here (I think ... amongst other things ...), so we can't assume from the out set what truth is and then use that as a criterion to exclude differing views.

As for 1 Cor 15, is Paul giving an abstract alethiology or defining the content of the kerygma? The fact that the phrase “according to the scriptures” is a foundational element of this proclamation should be enough to put pause to any claim that the gospel is a matter of raw uninterpreted “events” and “states” in “space-time” (i.e. excluding divine) reality. I posted a series on this, thinking of you again, starting here.

Barth’s equation of “the Word” with both Christ and the revelation of God in the Bible was calculated to sound scriptural, as it played on the multivalency of the word “logos”. But the Bible’s reference to Jesus as the “logos” was never intended to be used in this way—in fact, “logos” should not be translated as “word” in those contexts

It would be surprising if perhaps one of the most influential, deeply studied and debate theologians of the 20th century could get away with such a simple, crass use of word play. Even if I disagree profoundly with someone, if they've gone through the amount of peer pressure that Barth has I'd be inclined to credit them a bit more than that.

The fact is, from my own limited reading of Barth, that he does not translate logos as “word in all cases.” I'd suggest reading his valedictory Evangelical Theology: an Introduction, where stating the opposite of this is a major foundation of his argument. In other words, “word” is defined as as an act of God, something he does in history for his people, an act which on its own terms is capable of “communicating” something about himself. So, for example, establishing the covenant with his people is a communicative act, a “word” of God. Even the “written word,” as the second of these “3 words,” needs to be quickened by the Spirit and read in light of its extra-textual, theological referent, “the word” as God communicating to us in various ways, including through deeds. I'd recommend reading the chapter on “The Word.”

Paul’s use of a spacetime alethiology in 1 Corinthians 15

I think it should be clear that I disagree with this, and until you explain away his use of “according the the Scripture” it can't be taken as self-evident. Calling it “mere proof texting” is irrelevant, because we're talking about his alethiology and not ours. You'd need to show that they were just useless proof-texts to him too.

The issue is this: Frei recognizes that there is a gap between what the text says happened (in all its details), and what *did* happen. Which one needs to be true for the gospel to be soteriologically effective?

Both. But the gospel is more than what happened (though certainly not less), requiring a complex narrative to help us understand and even appropriate it.

The apostles say that the Christ event is primary. Frei says that the narrative that speaks about the Christ event is primary. The apostles are right. Frei is wrong.

Neither the apostles nor Frei say what you claim they say. They both say that both are primary, and both are right.

Jim,

thanks for point out John's essay. John, could you send it to me? I can't guarantee when I'll have time to read it, but if I do it may help me to grasp what you are trying to get across.

Thanks for your thoughts Jim. As I read them my brain cells are cranking away, and every now and then light shines through. I like what you have to say on law courts and your thoughts on Thomas critiquing “the canon” will stay with me. But I have to make the confession that I find it hard to grasp your point ... a bit embarrassing to admit but I don't want you to think I am ignoring you by not responding ...

jprapp said...

Phil, I hear you. I too wonder what I’m talking about most of the time. The legal stuff presupposes a sense of a sociometrics-of-law, which can be used to tease out “hidden beliefs” in law. The same quantitative queries can tease out “hidden beliefs” in theology too. But, I should know better than to get too anal(ytic) or measured. I’ve had enough graduate theological education at five different instructions (Catholic, Protestant, Interdenominational) to know better than to mix too many tropes too quickly - so I really should know better.

On the “hidden beliefs” meter (this is intuitive: I’m not data-mining you guys), I’d say that both you and John have “well-within-reason” differences on Frei. Though my reading of Frei is closer to your own, John is pressing a vital nerve in Frei (maybe more so in Frei's reception), to tease out “hidden” factors in his work, see e.g. John's upcoming essay linking Frei to ghost-less mentors (anti ghost-in-the machine, Ryle). While I really think that John’s advocacy of a perspective on Frei would sail much more smoothly and across a wider readership if John used “alternative pleadings” (e.g., this is my reading, but Frei is unfinished and ambiguous), I don’t think that John is trying to pull any fast ones. And his questions are certainty ones that Frei himself could have answered more clearly, if by no other means than by naming and citing his interlocutors - a complaint hardly novel with me.

The bric-a-brac between you two has been at a high level, and very informative for me. I thank both of you. I can’t adjudicate the finer questions between you since I take the entire category of “narrative” as a modern “fiction” anyway (see Owen Barfield), but a very useful fiction.

Since narrative is indispensable across almost all clinical praxes, it's no wonder its ubiquity is fodder for secondary philosophical and hermeneutical reflections.

Phil, since I take friendly issue with you on your other thread (whether unbelievers can understand the scripture), I’m revving up (and paring down) a post for there; or perhaps for here.



Cheers,


Jim

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

I hope to give a response tomorrow.

In the meantime, you can access a PDF of my article at http://intl-jpt.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/15/1/3 .

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

From the standpoint of what it is I have tried to argue, I would say that I am satisfied that I have made my point clearly and forcibly enough, and that the point I have made is one that stands on the basic alethiological shape of the gospel, as Paul unpacks that alethiology in the course of his reasoning. I see no point in trying to argue with someone who thinks that a storytime and a spacetime alethiology can both somehow be in play within a single discussion. To my mind, that conceit marks the end of rationality, as far as I can see, and thus it marks the end of argument. What would Plato have done if he ran into someone who argued that both the shadows on the wall *and* the objects that created the shadows were simultaneously primary? I don’t know, but I don’t think he would waste his time with someone who even considered that as a conceptual option.

By saying “waste his time”, I don’t mean this to sound as off-putting as I probably do. I thoroughly enjoy engaging your blog, and I have learned a lot about how Childsians think by reading your ripostes. But I do encourage you to take a good look at the position you’re arguing. Can you put the Childsian, Barthian, and Reformed frames of reference out of your mind long enough to consider the NT gospel on its own terms—to think about what it says and what it’s about—and honestly say that that gospel supports the type of super-rational alethiology you’re propounding?

If, after taking an honest look at your “system”, you still think the gospel awards primacy “both” to the Christ event and to narrative, I would encourage you (and all proponents of a “theology of the Word”) to take a step towards truth in advertising. I would count it a huge step forward in professional ethics if the proponents of these ways of thinking were to admit up front that their “system” embroils its proponents in these issues—that the would-be theologian who goes down the same path as Frei will end up having to say, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore”. I would be very happy if they would speak clearly and honestly about the shape of their alethiologies, so their readers can know what the philosophical cost of their view happens to be. As you know, I don’t think that “theologians of the Word” are ready to take that step, simply because they don’t understand what that philosophical cost is. You seem to be the exception, Phil, as I think I have driven you to the point of seeing it clearly enough, yet you still (for reasons I don’t understand) think that it’s a conceptual option.

You write, “The ‘alethiology’ of the gospel is what is being discussed here (I think ... amongst other things ...), so we can't assume from the out set what truth is and then use that as a criterion to exclude differing views.” Yes, I know, and that’s why I have gone to the trouble, over and over, to *show* what, on the basis of Paul’s logic, the alethiology underpinning the gospel is, and precisely what understandings are excluded. I haven’t assumed anything other than that the gospel has to make sense.

You write, “As for 1 Cor 15, is Paul giving an abstract alethiology or defining the content of the kerygma? The fact that the phrase ‘according to the scriptures’ is a foundational element of this proclamation should be enough to put pause to any claim that the gospel is a matter of raw uninterpreted ‘events’ and ‘states’ in ‘space-time’ (i.e. excluding divine) reality.” There are several problems here. Paul is not, of course, giving an abstract alethiology, but he *is* reasoning on implicit alethiological grounds, in that he is extrapolating from a counterfactual scenario: What logically follows regarding the efficacy of the gospel if Christ did *not* rise from the dead? “According to the scriptures” is a formula imbedded within the kerygma, yet we are to assume—again, on the basis of the alethiological contours of Paul’s reasoning—that the manner in which the Christ event is true “according to the scriptures” is simply that Scripture *in fact* says this and that about Christ as a matter of straightforward prophetic prediction. This phrase functions to show that the gospel accords with the ancient prophecies, but it does not impinge upon the alethiological profile of the gospel in the least, which is why Paul lets this formula remain “on the shelf”. That is, he does not say “If the Scriptures did not speak of the Christ event, then your faith is in vain”. No! He says, “If Christ is not raised from the dead . . .” From a logical standpoint, the gospel would be efficacious even if there were no Scripture at all.

And I take exception to your defining “spacetime” as “excluding divine”. “Spacetime”, as I have been using it, simply means “extratextual”. It includes anything and everything that *is* outside the text. Whether God resides in or outside of space and time, God’s reality is not the product of a text’s referencing effect. This is what I mean by saying that God’s action through Christ is a matter of spacetime actuality. The question as to whether God is inside or outside of space and time (as physics students think of these categories) is not an alethiological question.

You write, “It would be surprising if perhaps one of the most influential, deeply studied and debate theologians of the 20th century could get away with such a simple, crass use of word play. Even if I disagree profoundly with someone, if they've gone through the amount of peer pressure that Barth has I'd be inclined to credit them a bit more than that.” Well, it might be surprising for some, but not for those who have looked for Barth’s responses to the most pressing critiques of his theology. Barth chose his battles, and he seemed to pretend that the other critiques of his approach simply didn’t exist. (Where, for example, did Barth ever engage Althaus or Wingren on the question of using revelation as an organizing principle?) As far as I can see, today’s Barthians do the same thing. (I wonder if I will *ever* see a Barthian response to Althaus or Wingren.) I’m very familiar with Barth’s whole way of thinking about “the Word”. As far as I can see, it’s a grand attempt to conflate the categories of being with the categories of knowing. It’s muddled thinking through and through.

When I asked, “Which one [*viz.* what happened or what the text *says* happened] needs to be true for the gospel to be soteriologically effective?”, you answered “Both”. My constant question to you has been “How?”, but now I would like to change it to “Why?”. If God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, by destroying death through the resurrection, how is the text’s role in this anything but second order? If Christ really did what the apostles say he did, then where, on the terms of any reasonable understanding of the Christ event, does the fact or some aspect of the text constitute, or contribute to, the raw efficaciousness of the event?

Phil Sumpter said...

Given the discussion is over, I take it that your questions are rhetorical. Your points have forced me to think in new ways, which I appreciate. I intend to post on the priority of asking "who is the truth" over "what is the truth?" in due course. If you feel that there is anything worth responding to, do drop a comment.

All the best.