Mid-goodbye-hug, I was bundled into a moving car and whisked to the rail station by the coast, where a train was about to depart for London. I yearned to linger and prolong 11 days of magnificent gospel partnership…but there was a Glaswegian-Norwegian wedding to witness and celebrate.
If the same team would have me, I would fly any where in the world to work with them. They were a fantastic mix of commitment to God and his word, godliness, Protestant work ethic, absolute craziness, humility, creative problem-solving, ruthlessness in dealing with sin, patience, sportsmanship, prayerfulness, servant-(arm-down-a-blocked-loo)-leadership. And all this in the extraordinary context of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (authentic gospel ministry looks weak and so brings glory to God alone), which we were studying for the week.
After the wedding, a week of last meals with good friends and neighbours. I never thought I’d be the one at the door, sending off people going to do work amongst the Chinese in some other bit of London, amongst the posh people in the West Country, amongst the prosperity-gospel-deluded in Africa, amongst the youth in Australia…
How do you say goodbye? Would that we could squeeze all that love and respect, and all those memories of fierce arguments and of sitting around in companionable silence, all the serious conversations and nonsensical banter, all the snuggling comfortingly in similar weaknesses and navigating our differences, into a small locket and carry that, warming our hearts, for the rest of our lives.
But we can’t. So we eat, and drink, and chat, and take selfies, and wash-up, then someone says,”Sorry, but I need to go. Otherwise, no one gets a sermon on Sunday”. And we part, and life goes on, because there is so much more to be done, and God will give us other partners for the work and companions for the journey. Until we meet again in the new creation.
We said goodbye to the first of our neighbours in the same way our neighbourly relationship has always been conducted – over a shared meal, laughter, much banter. He will carry a suitcase of meagre possessions to a wet, windswept land and there speak the good news.
He is thin man not given to grand schemes. His hugs are strong and his handshakes, firm.
We lingered over the table till it was late.
See you later, we said. See you in the new creation.
We wandered around Epping Forest for a whole afternoon, sweeping out the cobwebs from the corners of our lives. It was good to be out in the sunshine and the breeze, amongst the rustling of leaves and tall hot grass and chirping birds. We laughed and talked, stopping only enough to pick and eat early wild blackberries* till our fingers were covered with layers of sticky sweetness and our appetites were satiated.
Then flinging ourselves under the shade of spreading trees, we abandoned the fight against gravity and succumbed to the drowsy summer heat.
“To companionship! To Christ! To He who controls all things!”.
We ate together.
Soon the coddling warmth of summer will cool to autumn, and then the darkness of winter will not be far behind.
*not against Epping Forest by-laws, although people have interpreted foraging for wild mushrooms as contravening the same
Clarity in Epistemology, Theories of Truth, Precision in Communication, Facets of Reality, and More Photos of Food
In between the innumerable barbecues (the English sort requiring shielding with brollies from the London rain) and having people round for dinner, have been pondering the necessity of clarity in thinking about things and precision in communication. (The Tutor first raised it when we were chatting a few months ago about the setting up of apprenticeship schemes in churches. Female Tutor thought this was one of my (very few) strengths, i am not so certain as most of this blog demonstrates… Was also talking about this with Online Bookshopkeeper and wife last month.)
Clarity in Epistemology
Possibility of Clarity
But before we even consider the subject, the question should surely be whether there is even the possibility of epistemological clarity*, both for the unbeliever with his unregenerated mind and for the believer living in this fallen world?
One of the most common presuppositions in modern thinking is that the human mind and all it generates (theories in various sciences, humanities) should have the utmost claim to the authoritative interpretation of reality. But if Scripture is right**, human brain power cannot be the ultimate in the process of evaluation, because it is corrupted by sin:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practise such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practise them. (Romans 1:18-32)
- If God has established objective reality (“truth”), and
- humans because of their refusal to acknowledge God as God by worshipping him or thanking him,
- have suppressed the truth about God, then
- they have become so corrupted in their thinking that they are unwilling and unable to know the truth and act accordingly.
This is why Jesus didn’t say that we just need to try a little harder to be good or to turn over a new leaf, but that we need to be born again to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3) – we need a whole new existence.
For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9b-18)
However, as human theories in the sciences and humanities attest, mankind has not been completely blinded to the truth. We have still been made in the image of God (though now flawed), have still been allowed to live in God’s world, and can still observe, dimly, consistencies in the way the world works and, with what we have termed as chemistry, physics, biology etc, have attempted to categorise and explain these consistencies and so predict the outcome of things.
The sad fact is that in our arrogance, we assume that this common grace, this cataracted view of reality should then be the basis on which we judge God. We are ignorant that we are like blind men feeling bits of an elephant.
Fundamental to all human thinking, whether in the sciences or in economics or philosophy is that which we call logic and reasoning. However even these are merely epistemological theories following the use of the human mind or human perceptual apparatus. While it is possible that the existence of synthetic a priori stuff or observable phenomena may point to the self-consistency of the Creator, our theories about them cannot limit him, since he alone has established reality and we are merely poor half-blind observers of it. Good try, Descartes, Kant et al.
Further, in logic theory, most science is based merely on inductive reasoning – that is, that its conclusions are merely possible or probable, given the truth of the premises. So its conclusions are actually a not-completely-adequate subset of a not-completely-authoritative theory. To base one’s evaluation of the truth on “what science says” is therefore quite erroneous.
Even further, the scientific method is only one of many ways that humans have come up with to acquire knowledge and analyse the truth. We do not consider the truth in a court of law or in a history book (or even in a newspaper) by requiring similar empirical or measurable evidence.
So then, clarity. There is a sense in which we can and should engage people’s minds in pointing them to the truth. Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles all used language and argument to communicate the truth.
Wonder how many apologetic strangleholds can be broken (humanly at least) by attending to, and interacting with, the other party’s theory of truth. Most of the time, the other party relies on some background in his thoughts but is not yet aware of (i) his truth presuppositions; and so (ii) the diverse methodologies proposed by humans for determining the different sorts of truths. For example, he may assume that all truth must be proved by the narrow epistemological method that pertains to proof of scientific hypotheses, and so neglect the whole school of historiography and historical method in determining the veracity of an account of an event in the past.
But ultimately of course, a change of mind that comes with re-birth, is the work of the Spirit, who is likened to the wind – it blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8).
Precision in Communication
There is a need for clear thinking in the minds of believers too in their theology and doctrine. (For further discussion.)
Additionally, since we should already be of the same mind, there should be precision in our communication with each other (as well as in apologetics of course). How many good-faith arguments (cf. bad-faith trolling) might have been nipped in the bud by parties:
- having clarity on the exact definition of terms used in the argument – most of the time i find i have been arguing at cross-purposes with someone because we’d neglected to first lay out the contents of the package we called “faith” or “gospel” or “God’s sovereignty” or “reading the Bible for ourselves”;
- not succumbing to the false bifurcation that so besets so many political rallies; humbly considering that differing views may be complementary rather than contradictory.
Note that none of this suggests that reality is relativistic (in the sense that there is no objective reality, or that such objective reality cannot be determined). Rather, it wonders whether objective reality is so faceted and our human understanding so limited that the same thing needs to be described in several ways that are complementary and not contradictory to each other. We should not quarrel over the priority of one Scriptural facet over another, if Scripture itself does not prioritise one over the other.
*disregarding for the moment questions as to the absolute value of clarity
**how a fallen mind can establish this is a whole other discussion, Münchhausen et al
For own reference, currently reading:
Vern Sheridan Poythress’ Logic
Vern Sheridan Poythress’ Symphonic Theology
Now that School is finally over, have been using rainy days to consolidate and masticate on things. Naturally, this has required the presence of Activities of Minor Distraction – like cooking and baking, the products of which have been greatly appreciated in the innumerable socials that have mushroomed now that summer is really here.
Just like a sustained period of playing around with food gives even an amateur like me some sense of the flavours and textures of ingredients and an idea of how they might fit together, so the last two years of having to handle and teach the Bible daily have been very useful for getting a tiny feel of how God’s word in Scripture works.
So a re-look at my hermeneutics, with loads of chatting with great people in both the Local Church and wider family – not a major revamp but a tidying-up and ordering of material. Hermeneutics isn’t just the preserve of biblical scholars and pastors and teachers – it is essential to understand what God is saying in his word because God’s word is essential to the life of his people; every debate in Christian history would, at least in part, be concerned with hermeneutical issues.
smoked tuna on Poilâne sourdough bread
Parking some transitional thoughts here for the moment (to be demonstrated at a later time: how each of these points should be backed up by Scripture):
- Assumptions: (i) that the original text of the Bible is God’s word to humankind; (ii) that God has a message that he wanted communicated to its original hearers/readers (as the case may be) and also to his people thereafter; and (iii) that there is therefore a primary meaning to the text (that must be adhered to, precluding postmodern subjective personal “I like to think that this is saying” interpretation) and it is comprehensible to humans.
- Original languages and translation issues. The first step in biblical hermeneutics would be to understand God’s word in its original languages – mainly Hebrew and Ancient Greek. This isn’t something that most of us can do, given that we do not have working knowledge of those languages. But if we are reading the Bible in another language, then we need to keep all the issues of translation (see Robert Stein on The History of the English Bible.) in mind as we exegete (one version of) the English Bible: for example, many words in one language may not have an equivalent in another language, so translators would have to make a decision how to render the meaning of the word without inserting it too awkwardly in the sentence. As a poor alternative, D.A. Carson suggests reading several good (query: good) versions in the destination language.
- Comprehension skillz. The basic toolkit laid out in books like Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach’s Dig Deeper (and its very imaginatively-named siblings) is useful, but the tools themselves need to be wielded with discernment and finesse in different passages and books of the Bible, without accidentally taking anyone’s eye out. Experience is needed to know which tools to use together and which ones might take precedent over another in each context. Then there are other more specialised instruments generally useful in comprehending any text, eg. understanding the use of rhetorical devices.
- Logic and textual context. Beware errors of reasoning and inference (see Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies and Must I Learn to Interpret the Bible). Remember also that meaning is linked to context. Consider the concentric circles of context: immediate context (eg. in an epistle, its place in the argument), book context (how that particular human author uses language, themes), biblical theological context (eg. covenantal – words might be used differently in the two covenants), canonical context (“analogy of the faith” – Scripture is its own interpreter, because behind the whole of Scripture is one Author – see Michael S. Horton’s (am i the only one who feels compelled to scream “Horton hears a Who” everytime i see his surname?) Interpreting Scripture By Scripture). Beware “canon within a canon” (see Carson’s Biblical Interpretation and the Church).
- Historical and cultural context. God has not given us a culturally or historically-neutral textbook. Beware erroneous generalisations. In relation to injunctions: (i) beware absolutising one-off commands; (ii) understand God’s rationale behind command – what God wants and so how to apply in different cultural context.
- Beware presuppositions. Be aware of how your own historical, cultural, theological presuppositions are affecting your reading of the Bible.
- Getting to Christ. In respect of point (4) on biblical theology and canonical context and point (6), consider (i) the Biblical evidence for Jesus Christ being the controlling factor in all exegesis; and (ii) what this actually means! Consider law and gospel, redemptive-historical, covenantal, typological, anti-type, kingdom of God (God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule), promise-fulfilment etc perspectives. See Graeme Goldsworthy’s Biblical Theology and Hermeneutics.
- Remember that it is God’s word: therefore, any exegesis is done reverently, with a view to sitting under his word.
- Reality check. Remember that we are fallen creatures – therefore our intellect is imperfect. Yet, remember also that we who are God’s children have God’s Spirit within us.
John Frame, Doctrine of the Word of God
We were brainstorming films for movie night, and I thought that you could never go wrong with a Kieslowski. (This was proved erroneous by the averse reaction to someone’s independent choice of Decalogue I for film night on the Long Weekend Away.) His Dekalog television series is a masterful example of film-making and effective story-telling. It is also a good observation of how the complexity and breadth of the so-called Ten Commandments and how the utter fallenness of this world affects our obedience to the commandments.
The characters in all 10 films appear to live in the same drab apartment block neighbourhood. They are dressed in normal dull clothes, live in normal dull apartments, are balding and aging; normal people wrestling with these issues in everyday life. And then there is a man who appears in most of the films – he never gets involved, be is always observing.
Only slightly coherent blurbs below:
Dekalog I: “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.”
Computers, mathematics, logic cannot answer the questions of death and souls. They cannot reveal meaning and purpose and the dreams of loved ones. They can’t be trusted to predict the future. They are not God. The computer is a false god.
Dekalog II: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
Powerless doctor is pushed to play God. He is Christian (see Dekalog VIII).
Dekalog III: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Sabbath equated with Christmas Eve (or Christmas?). The sacredness of Christmas eve (Christmas?) is understood universally – a day to be set aside for family, for going home. We think it a sacrilege that it should be spent with other people, elsewhere. Even though we understand that Christmas is the day we celebrate God-with-us, yet we do not rejoice in putting aside the Sabbath to spend time with God.
Dekalog IV: “Honour your father and mother.”
People are not one’s father and mother merely by blood. Rather, it is when a female chooses to honour a male as father, rather than merely a member of the opposite gender, does he truly become her father.
Dekalog V: “Thou shalt not kill.”
A prohibition against harming another. But who harms who? The law decides. But the law doesn’t adjudicate all wrongs. And don’t the enforcers of the law also harm the perpetrators? Jurisprudence, philosophy of sentencing. Who decides when taking a life is wrong in one scenario and right in another?
Dekalog VI: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
A teenager wants to possess (in a non-sexual manner) someone who isn’t his wife; an older lady has multiple sex partners without loving any of them. Adultery either way since adultery is lust for another person outside a marriage relationship.
Dekalog VII: “Thou shalt not steal.”
Who is stealing from whom in this film? Is attempting to possess what one should not legitimately have a right to, even if that thing isn’t property but a person, stealing? Is attempting to reclaim what rightfully belongs to you, stealing? But to whom does a child rightly belong – biological mother or functional and legal mother?
Dekalog VIII: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”
A web of lies. In 1943, a Catholic couple back out of an agreement to hide a Jewish girl, citing incompatibility with this commandment. In fact, they were lying – they backed out because someone had themselves given false testimony against the people who brought the girl in, saying that this was a sting operation by the Germans.
Dekalog IX: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.”
Perhaps this commandment is less about coveting and more about being content with what one has – flawed and little as it may be (a beautiful voice, an impotent husband, a childless future).
Dekalog X: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.”
“You can covet everything,” sings the younger brother at a metal concert,”because everything is yours.” Not so cool when he and his brother inherit valuable stamps that other people want. The brothers are obsessed with completing a final valuable collection that they give up their families and careers and one kidney – is stamp collecting a type of legitimised coveting? But all for naught – in the end, they lose everything to another’s avarice.
Last evening’s outing to the opera was the most extraordinary treat. Three hours of Terry Gilliam (for the English National Opera) x Hector Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini flashed past, with exuberant mardi gras balloon figures, colourful tumblers and fire jugglers and acrobats who would fit right in a Cirque du Soliel troupe, Roman soldiers doing the can-can, and little illusion delights – Fieramosca falling into a “well”, characters switching places.
The Piranesi-inspired set and costumes were a crazy muddle of centuries and styles. It was hard not to wolf-whistle when Willard White’s somewhat lecherous camp Pope Clement VII dressed in Mikado grandeur appeared with ironic deus ex machina timing. Smooth onstage set changes in Act I were of West End musical quality, while the acting was a mash-up of classic opera and slapstick.
But a strange thing past training is. It resides in your so-called sub-conscious and emerges sometimes in the most strange ways: i was so nervous about having to lead the church in corporate prayer on Sunday that hurling lunch all over the music team was a real possibility (exacerbated no doubt by motion sickness from trying to write out the allocated 7 minutes on the coach back to London from an exciting but tiring weekend away). A brother had to patiently counsel me, calmly repeating that it was their pleasure to have me do so, and not to worry. Upon taking a microphone from the Rector however, a sudden calm descended to the point that i observed, 3 minutes in on the lectern egg-timer, that not only had i fallen asleep while talking, i’d deviated from my notes and…in fact, appeared to have started preaching (the horror!). Managed to steer self back, then scampered off as soon as possible.
You’d have thought that corporate prayer could not ever be seen as a performance. Unfortunately, in addition to the nice strangers who came up to say thank you for the moving/helpful time of prayer, there were two people who said they wanted to stand up and applaud afterwards. Even more unfortunately, i didn’t manage to control myself enough to not express shocked anger, which scared them away. Oops – my double bad.
The driving force for what we do must never be performance, nor must any act be perceived as drawing attention to self rather than God. Still, how much of what we do up in front of a body of believers should be influenced by rhetoric/oratory theory? How can we ensure that the message can be conveyed in an accurate and memorable manner? Paul’s letters suggest that his boast in his lack of eloquence does not equate to a total disregard for the use of rhetorical devices in the communication of gospel truths.