Examining Paley’s Watchmaker

William Paley published the following in 1802: “In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.” Known in short as the “Watchmaker” argument, the basic construction of this “proof” for the existence of God has become widely popularized and is still cause for discourse in philosophy classrooms to this day. As a Christian, I’m interested in establishing that my faith is not blind, but reasonable. However, Paley’s argument fails in significant ways, and while some might criticize this critique as friendly fire, it seems to me that only the best arguments should be left standing for belief in the Christian God. First I will lay out the very basic flow of Paley’s argument and then move to criticism.

The point Paley is making appears to be that: 1.) the complexity of the watch necessitates an intelligent designer. So 2.) the complexity of X (particular organism, or the universe) necessitates a designer. The first thing is to consider what’s at stake in the premise that complexity necessitates intelligent design. Here occurs the first logical fallacy in Paley’s argument. He wants to say that natural observation of the universe suggests a designer. But for Paley, this is not ambiguous, he wants to suggest a personal intelligent being as the designer–or atleast most of the people who employ his argument want to suggest such. Paley sees the complexity of living organisms and the Universe and so he asks himself, “Who put all this here?”  But this is question begging, because a designer does not imply a who, as evolutionary theory has shown us, design can be the result of a what. As soon as a person sees the world around them and asks who is responsible, they’ve already committed themselves to answering the question in a particular way. For this reason, Paley’s argument is as much a case for intelligent design as it is for natural selection.

Contemporary proponents of Paley’s argument seem to think that those who do not believe in intelligent design can only believe in a kind of luck. Richard Dawkins argues that life was the result of complex biological processes. He makes the case that evolutionists do not consider evolution to be lucky, but rather the result of billions of years of natural selection. While this may still not reach the degree of intended purpose that intelligent design brings forward, it at least seems to move beyond luck which removes yet more of the Watchmaker’s teeth.

Paley’s argument is chiefly bound up with an analogy. Watches are like complex organisms and the Universe. But even on this count, I think Paley has to be challenged. Watches are often made by multiple individuals or machines, and so they do not have a singular designer as Paley believes the Universe does. Also, Paley is able to observe the creation of a watch, but neither he nor anyone has observed the creation of a world. For the analogy to hold, one should be capable of listing all the reasons why watches are like the universe. If this difficulty can be overcome, it still leaves the obvious that while similar complexities may exist, claims about their similar origins can’t be made without presuppositions that Paley does not make clear in his argument. However, this is precisely not the question which Paley wants to address. He wants to prove the existence of God by proving something else about origins first–but his argument fails in this capacity.

I don’t think that Paley’s argument from analogy proves what he thought it did. If anything it leaves the door wide open for multiple theories about origins, and not just intelligent design. An argument by analogy is in itself not a sustainable argument without the back work. It’s also never evidence that something exists, just merely in favor of something existing.

At this point I’d like to speak briefly to the ways his argument is misused in contemporary debates about God’s existence. For me, and actually for most Christians, science and faith belong together. I would like to be called a creationist, and by that I mean that I believe the Christian Trinitarian God is responsible for the origin and sustaining of the Universe. In my view the Bible leaves things open ended for discussion about the processes which God uses to bring the universe into existence. At some point the Church of my generation may have to have our “Galileo moment”. The Earth really isn’t at the center of the universe, and the evidence continues to mount and say that observable life and nature really is the result of a very slow process which included the mutation, disappearance, and emergence of many species. Paley’s argument is used to contribute to the false dichotomy between faith and reason.

Paley’s argument is weak because of 1.) its poor analogy, 2.) its false characterization of theories besides intelligent design being about “luck”, and 3.) the way it begs the question of a who instead of a what as responsible for the Universe. Contemporary application of Paley’s argument is also contributing to the great chasm between faith and reason. Writing this paper as a Christian wasn’t difficult as some might assume. I would like to see many others with worldviews like my own embrace a reunion of faith and reason, much like Galileo had to convince his contemporaries of. At some point, ignoring the evidence becomes intellectually malicious. At the very least, Paley’s watchmaker is not the argument I want to stake my belief on, and there are certainly stronger cases for alternatives to evolution in the origins debate.

Works Cited:

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion, 2006. Specifically the chapter on “the Blind Watchmaker”.

Paley, William. Natural Theology, 1802.

Martin, Joel. What do Most Christian Think about Evolution?, July 15, 2010. Ret. 2/22/14

The Necessity of Expositional Preaching

Christianity in America is now, quite famously, in decline. As a burgeoning church historian, I’m alarmed by the erosion of certain staples of the Christian Church. One of the great hallmarks of the historical Church has been a relentless commitment to expositional preaching–that is preaching that seeks to explain and expound on the meaning of Scripture. The marriage of the Church to consumerism, has lead to many American pastors forfeiting a commitment to expositional preaching in favor of things irredeemably different that they suppose will be more readily received and agreeable to the people of their communities. In defense of the historical Church’s commitment to expositional preaching, I hereafter consider the severe consequences that come as a result of non-expositional preaching.

Non-Expositional Preaching Usurps the Authority of God:

If a pastor has come to his congregation, preached, and failed to explain a particular text of Scripture, then Scripture has been replaced by whatever else has just taken place. The question of whether pastors should be committed to preaching expositionally is a question of authority. Who has a right to address the people of God? Who has a right to tell people how they ought to live? The answer, of course, is only God. Pastors must consider whether their congregation would be more benefited by hearing from themselves, or from God. And to those who are called to be pastors, the truth that only God has the authority to speak to the Church is good news! This means that giftedness, communication skills, and education do not determine the qualifications of a pastor. A pastor’s authority can not be earned or worked for, because there is no such authority. All authority in the Church is God’s authority, exercised through pastors, but only when their hearts and minds are one with God, and when they act authoritatively on the basis of a proper understanding of Scripture.

Non-Expositional Preaching Undermines the Lordship of Christ:

The question here is not very different from that of the previous point. Who is the head of the Church? The one through whom we as Christian are united, the one who has accomplished salvation for us. Christ is the head of the Church. In Colossians Paul writes:

“He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.  He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything.”

Who should address the Church except for her head? The point again is that headship and authority does not reside in any human being. Authority is all God’s, lordship is all Christ’s. The one who has authority is the only one who can speak to the Church. It has become popular, not least because of the rise and acceptance of Charismatics into orthodoxy, for preachers to say things like, “are you listening for the voice of God?” The incredible thing being that God already has spoken, and what remains is for pastors to faithfully commit themselves to preaching these words to the people God has entrusted to them.

Non-Expositional Preaching Squelches the Work of the Spirit:

This is perhaps where the point is seen most clearly. Consumerism has convinced some pastors that what they need to grow their church is enthusiasm, emotional stimulation, lot’s of humor, lot’s of personal relatable stories, etc. Dry sermon series through books of the Bible and detailed exegetical presentations of Scripture will drive people away. There are many problems with the “seeker-sensitive” movement as it has been called, but perhaps the most crucial is the error in foundation. Scripture is clear: no person has ever or will ever seek Christ. Paul writes in Ephesians:

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens,the spirit now working in the disobedient.We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us,  made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!”

So it is not that men are seeking, but God. This shatters the ornate construct of so many seeker friendly mega churches. Dead people do not seek life, they have to be raised to it by the only one who can give it. We believe that this life cannot be earned, it is given freely by grace–through faith. How does a person come to faith? Paul answers in Romans:

But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the gospel of good things!But all did not obey the gospel. For Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed our message?So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.

Perhaps the most ironic and deeply tragic part in all of this is that the people who claim to have the highest priority of bringing people in and making them Christians have lost sight of the crucial work of the Spirit through preaching–faith that comes by hearing the Word. To be truly seeker-sensitive then, demands an unhampered commitment to preaching the word–the declared vehicle through which the Spirit brings faith. Don’t try and stimulate people, or emotionalize them to bring about “decisions for Christ.” Don’t minimize the Word of God in your preaching by crowding a sermon with anecdotal stories, or application, or illustrations. The job of the preacher is to explain God’s word; the Spirit will do the application. Paul never once uses extra-biblical illustrations in his sermon-letters. Any time he is looking to communicate a spiritual truth, he does so by echoing a text from the Old Testament, the Scripture that he knew. If it’s good enough for the Apostle Paul to only do cross referencing illustrations, it should be good enough for us. Every preacher should strive to preach like Paul, and herein lies another important point: we should not just be committed to expositional preaching, we should be committed to expositional preaching that finds and glorifies Christ–as he is the topic of every text. Paul encourages the church in Corinth saying:

“For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

This sounds so like the leaders of seeker-friendly topical-sermon churches today. “These people don’t want all this theology and scripture yet, they want more practical stuff that will improve their lives, help them raise their kids, and do well at work. Preaching expositionally through scripture will be over their heads.” Indeed! Foolishness to the person who is dead in sins, but how will they be risen to life apart from the faith that comes only through hearing the Word? Let us be determined to get out of the Spirit’s way in bringing faith and sanctification. No amount of human cleverness, or humor, or application, or “down to earth” devotional homiletic, or “what this text means to me” nonsense will ever give life to a dead person.

Non-Expositional Preaching is Pride:

Ask a topical preacher that spends the least amount of their sermon preparation doing thorough, Christ-glorifying exegesis, what they think about Scripture. They may tell you that it is free from error, the supreme authority for godly living. However, their actions and the shape of their sermon speaks differently. Whatever they think about Scripture, they must think more of themselves. To spend more time being funny, telling personal stories or giving advice in a sermon than you do on explaining the meaning of a given part of God’s word is to value your own intellect and experiences over God’s word. Any preacher that is not wholly committed to explaining the meaning of a text is more concerned with self-glorification and popularity than they are with God’s authority. You will not give sight to a blind person. But if you will only speak God’s speech, you have a far greater power. Your finite mind and experiences can’t give answers or healing to a world completely corrupted by sin’s curse. But God has answered the curse, and is bringing healing to the world by his son, and through his people who speak his truth. So speak truth!

Conclusion:

Worldly preachers seek approval and success by the world’s standards. Popularity, fame, and the number of people in your church are not the validation of ministry. Are the people God has given you changing and becoming more like Christ? Do the people in your church love one another? Are the people in your church burdened to share Christ with their neighbors? It’s an incredibly perilous thing for the preacher to spend time preparing to address God’s people by doing anything other than studying the meaning of what God has said. What did this passage mean to the original audience? What is the heart of God in this text? It’s a form of high-imperialism to think that we should make God’s word fit our culture when we’re preaching. Yes the Bible is for us, but it was not written to us. The task of the preacher (and scholar) is to place this Scripture back into its original context, guiding contemporary readers to hear as Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. Case in point, why did God through Mark include the story about the healing of the paralyzed man in chapter two of Mark’s gospel? I heard it preached recently that the point of this text was that we need to “get in the game” and be like those men, “they weren’t passive, they were in the game!” The heroes of Mark chapter two are, apparently, these anonymous men who aren’t even named and who are given three verses. A tragically stupid presentation of the text. They are not the stars of the play, or act, or even the scene! This message was preached without much reference to Christ, let alone his authority to heal, his claim to be the Son of God (particularly important to Mark’s Roman audience), or his forgiveness of sins. The Gospel was screened out of this sermon, and the people there that night left, emotionally charged to “get in the game.” To this day I mourn for the time that was wasted on that night by that preacher. Martyn Lloyd Jones describes a preacher in his book on the subject like this:

“You are a man ‘possessed’, you are taken hold of, and taken up. I put it like this–and I know of nothing on the Earth that is comparable to this feeling–that when this happens you have a feeling that you are not actually doing the preaching, you are looking on.”

Preacher, my prayer is that God will speak through you as you commit yourself to saying what he has said.

Grace and Peace,

Austin Holmes

Christianity and Animals

The following is the excerpted “Case Study #1” from my paper Concerning Christianity and Environmental Ethics which was completed for PHIL 3180-Environmental Ethics at the University of Toledo. The full paper, including citations and footnotes for this excerpt can be found here: https://austinholmes.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/christianity-and-environmental-ethics/

Case Study #1: A Christian Ethic for Non-Human Animals

I have mentioned that Christians have an obligation to work for the justice and liberation of the oppressed. One billion people live in poverty. Some forty thousand die each day from hunger and related causes. Many others live under political oppression that removes most basic human freedoms from their lives. We, Christ’s Church and humanity in general, don’t seem to be doing much of a job in addressing these problems, so as I am about introduce another major concern, I feel the weight of redressing human plight. But I think that question, “why add another gigantic problem?” indicates the narrow horizon of our concern and our misunderstanding of that plight as well. Is our only objective to be healthy and free people, and if so do we really believe that can be achieved without concern for the rest of the living world? I have mentioned the union of man and creation earlier in this paper. Clearly from Genesis and from Revelation, God’s original and future intentions for the natural world is one of union, both man with creation, and God with man/creation. If I am a restored image bearer of God, and I am obligated to work for the liberation of the oppressed, why have I and so many before me and like me today felt so unconcerned about this group? I am of course speaking of nonhuman animals.

We treat them as if they were things to be used as we please rather than as beings with lives of their own. We oppress animals in factory farming when we deny them such elementary freedoms as space in which to walk or stretch their limbs, in cruel animal experimentation, and in the destruction of habitats. This latter is the main cause of the present-day extinction of whole populations. Some forms of so-called development are so oppressive that species themselves are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. In the process there is much suffering and misery. A conservative estimate of the current rate of extinction is one thousand species a year–and that was in a treatise from 1976. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day.

It seems to me that the main reason so many humans could be so unconcerned about this holocaust is that we assign no more than instrumental value to non-human animals. If we do decide to look after them, it is only because they look after us–means and not ends in themselves. This is a secular view of animals. One writer assumes that animals lack intrinsic value on the proposition that only beings capable of assigning value can have intrinsic value–a claim left unsupported.

A volume of work can and should be done on this issue, but for the sake of time and space, I will seek to diffuse the view mentioned above in support of a view that sees animals as ends as well as means. Firstly, intrinsic value is encapsulated in the experiencing of value. Only feeling confers intrinsic value. We recognize the intrinsic value in humans because they are experiencing entities–more than objects, they are subjects. They are not simply means, but ends in themselves. Alvin Plantinga is a philosopher that has written at length about intrinsic value and theism, and in one particular essay says, “My experiences are the most real thing about me. They are of value to me. Why the tremendous urge to live, even in the face of enormous suffering? We want to live.” This urge to live is also a feature of nonhuman animals. There is much I could say about experience, neurology, feeling, suffering, pleasure, and so on. But the importance of all this is that the recognition of intrinsic value in the creatures besides ourselves makes an ethical claim, an environmental ethical claim, upon us to recognize our obligation towards them. This would lead to a way of talking about animals as having rights that we should uphold.

What is required now is a Christian biocentric ethic, and in reviewing what I’ve written to this point, that certainly seems an appropriate direction. The free-market view is clearly anthropocentric. There could be a case made for an anthropocentric Christian environmental ethic, however, even it would need to pay large attention to the role of human beings as the most esteemed creature. As I have said, that role is chiefly tied up in image bearing, which looks like justice working, which has lead us to this. So in any case, It seems pretty clear that biocentrism is just more fitting. The dominant tendency has been to see nature as none other than the stage on which the drama of human life is performed. Nonhuman creatures are merely props, having no value other than their value to us; intrinsic value resides in humans alone. This view has often been taken as biblical. It is not. In the Genesis account of nature God finds goodness in things before and quite apart from the creation of Adam. Jesus expressed the divine concern for the sparrows, even the grasses of the field. If man is worth multiple sparrows then a sparrow’s worth is not zero.

The recognition that the nonhuman animal is an end in itself and not merely a means to human ends explodes the assumption of traditional ethics. What is needed is a biocentric ethic that recognizes in every animal as well as humans, both ends and means. Conservation movements rest on insecure foundations as long as they do not go beyond instrumental ethics for their justification. In a world in which humans are fast annihilating other species, a conservation ethic requires that humans reduce their demands on the environment in favor of other species.

Reading

One of the more exciting prospects of the end of the semester and the beginning of Summer is the departure of assigned reading for my classes. This means that I’ll get back to reading only the things I want to. I thought I’d share briefly what those things are at the moment:

Strange Fire by John MacArthur- This book is written in MacArthur’s usual erudite fashion, with sternness and clarity. Though I’m only half-way, it has been the best critique of The Charismatic Movement, Word of Faith preachers, and the prosperity gospel that I have encountered. This is not least because the author has a relentless devotion to the supremacy of Scripture. MacArthur is actually one of those authors that I started out reading and that I have continued to read through the last couple of year. We don’t line up in every way, but from the perspective of a reader, it’s really enjoyable to work through MacArthur’s written thoughts. An important theological thought that I’ve gleaned thus far is that perhaps the greatest critic of the Charismatic Movement is the Holy Spirit himself, who demands that all focus, and worship, and glory be unto the Son. This book isn’t about rhetoric, or winning an argument. It’s an urgent call for orthodoxy.

The Church by Mark Dever- Dever has devoted his graduate work and ensuing career in Christian ministry and scholarship to loving the doctrine of the Church. It’s often overlooked, and the book does a superb job of laying out the centrality of the Church on the basis of the centrality of the Gospel for Christian life. Dever has organized the book to be about 1.) What the Bible says 2.) What the Church has believed and then 3.) based on Scripture and Tradition, how ought the Church look today? I’m nearly finished, and have enjoyed reading this book. It’s written from an unashamedly Baptist perspective, but every churchman, denominations aside, can benefit from reading this presentation of the doctrine of the Church.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens- I was a fan of Hitchens for his debates and his appearances in mainstream media. As a new-atheist, he is far and away the most interesting of the uninteresting bunch, though his arguments against theism don’t hold very well. He is a moralist, and a contrarian. Liberal and conservative. This book has more than 100 of the Hitch’s essays. Only a few deal with criticism of religion, and they’re much better as argument for Atheism than his book God is Not Great which I have criticized elsewhere. The essays cover a vast aray of topics like historical imperialism, the modern conflicts in the Arab world, the future of education in the West, and even why women aren’t funny. It’s vintage Hitchens, and all the essays taken together probably make it the most well-written book in this blog post.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright- I started reading this a few months ago, inching my way through an intellect as high powered as the Apostle in question. This book answers all of the outstanding questions that Piper and others had about Wright’s view on justification that weren’t answered in his book by the same title. From the perspective of someone who is working on a BA in History, I really enjoyed parts 1 and 2 of the book in which Wright is reconstructing the world and worldview of Paul as a man of 3 worlds: Jewish, Greek, Roman. This book has many things in common with the New Testament and the People of God by Wright, which was the first in this series. I will have much more to say when I’m finished and I’ve been taking notes the whole way through. This book is being acclaimed as the most extensive look at Paul ever written by scholars from all over the theological map.

Those four are keeping me the most busy for now, but in the next week or two I hope to start From Heaven He Came and Sought Her which is a compilation of arguments for the doctrine of definite atonement, and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham which argues for the gospels as historical documents based on eyewitness testimony. Looking forward to learning a lot this Summer.

-A

 

Reading Scripture: No Easy Task.2

We in PHIL 2200-Survey of Philosophy, have finally arrived at the module concerning Epistemology–or the study of knowledge. As one of the most bed rock parts of philosophy, this has lead directly to discussions about authority. Though it hasn’t come up in class, my personal correspondence in email with Dr. Ben Grazzini has been especially concerned with how this relates to theology–and further specified, Christian theology. I had Ben for PHIL 3180-Environmental Ethics last semester in which I wrote my term paper “Concerning Christianity and Environmental Ethics.” So given my paper and his feedback, we definitely know where we’re at with respect to each others philosophical/theological background.

Most recently he and I were discussing how the Bible might be authoritative. In the first post I wrote with this title “Reading Scripture,” I brought together the thoughts of Stanley Hauerwas and N.T. Wright. I shared that with Ben, and also these questions:

1.) Does the mere idea that translation of a text like the Bible is possible suggest there is no strong distinction between interpretation and meaning?

2.) Have you done any work pertaining to this quandary in particular? In which ways does your expertise in ancient philosophy speak to this question.(Ben’s expertise and doctoral thesis is in Aristotelian philosophy.)

Ben responded:

“I think the relationships among text, meaning, interpretation and translation are complicated. Especially when we’re separated by significant historical/cultural distance—but probably in any case—I’m inclined to say that there is no uncomplicated or unproblematic original (whether I’m thinking about that as the text = words on a page, or the meaning) that we can clearly and firmly hold apart from various interpretations. 
 
One way in which I have to confront this in ancient philosophy is the fact that with a couple of relatively minor exceptions, the oldest extant texts are medieval manuscripts. For Aristotle, the oldest ones anyone has date to the 9th and 10th centuries. For Plato, they’re a little later than that. So, already I’ve got copies of copies with almost 1500 years between the “original” and the texts we have access to. 
 
Add to that the fact that even if I’m working on the manuscripts, I’m still making decisions about which ones are more authoritative than others, which variants or readings to accept, and where, as an editor, I think emendations/corrections are warranted. If I’m not working with manuscripts myself, the text I read as “the original Greek” is a critical edition produced by someone in the late 19th or early 20th century (in most cases)–and so it seems even more the case that what I’m reading, and what I’m using as evidence for my claims about the meaning of the text, is this historical artifact—something that only exists within a tradition. 
 
Given that, though, it’s just as important to me to hold onto the text as one measure of interpretations. Even though it is not a fully free-standing original, the text still offers something like a common standard against which I can compare and evaluate what people say about it. I think that thought also needs the claim that meaning and interpretation are always underdetermined by words on the page—that is, that it’s never simply the case that we can look to the book and settle some question. 
 
From there, I need to try to hold onto a variety of issues: 
What we can know about historical context, and so what a text might have meant/how it was taken up in a particular period or setting; 
To what extent those contexts overlap enough with our own for them to be relevant; 
How far we can go in translating a set of concepts that may not fit with our own conditions into terms that we can recognize/deal with. 
 
And it’s somewhere around here that I run into a really thorny issue, namely, in what ways or to what extent consciousness/understanding is shaped by the material conditions of our lives. Just as one example, I can at least to a certain extent understand the ancient Greek cosmos: what they recognized as planets and stars; how they understood the relationships and mechanisms; and so on. But I’m not sure I can really understand what it’s like to live in that cosmos—to look at the sky and see the sphere of the fixed stars as the furthest limit of the cosmos. 
 
Similarly, I’m not sure that I know what a concept like “nature” or “virtue” meant for Aristotle. I can understand a lot about how he uses it, where it seems to come from, what sense we can make of it—but I don’t know that it has the same sort of connection to experience for us that it had for him. If concepts don’t depend on that sort of rootedness-in-experience, then this isn’t really an issue.”
Ben seems to be suggesting that the text only exists as a thing within an ongoing web of interpretive practices, and this is almost exactly the way that Hauerwas understands it.(See my previous post “Reading Scripture”) In this way, the text itself has no “original meaning” because that assumes that meaning exists prior to interpretive practices. This is by no means the end of the conversation, but I was fascinated to see the perspective of a philosopher that doesn’t devote much time to Christian considerations weigh in on the matter.

Reading Scripture: No Easy Task

I said this about 2012, I will say it about 2013, and I expect it for 2014. In all the books concerning Theology and Christianity that I’ve read the past couple of years, whether they be written for lay people or academics, a recurring theme continually strikes me as having incalculable significance for today’s Church. Reading the Bible is no easy task, and yet it is vital to the life of the Church.

This past week I’ve read Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture together with N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God. Initially it was very clear that they take different approaches to understanding (and Hauerwas would prefer I said using) Scripture.

Wright appears to fall very neatly into the Historical Critical camp, writing against fundamentalism:

Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say. We really do have access to the past; granted, we see it through our own eyes…Real history is possible; real historians do it all the time. Real, fresh, historical readings of the Bible, measured rigorously by the canons of real historical work, can and do yield fresh insight.”

In his book, Wright analyzes the polarization of debates and the need for fresh Kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis. He has an entire chapter that lists out the major misreadings of the “left” and “right.”

Hauerwas takes a different approach, as he usually does I am told. His book is written to ask:

“Is your Bible made in the USA? Most Christians assume that they have a right, if not a pious obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.”

The two most common reactions for folks who haven’t read Hauerwas before are to assume that he is either an elitist lunatic or that he can’t actually be serious, he just means to shock. I can tell you that after having read the book, neither is true. While Hauerwas does want to shock Christians on the one hand, he is doing it with the utmost seriousness, humility, and sincerity. I think the book makes a compelling case in support of the thesis I quoted above. Though, being a History major and having read Wright and others like him for some time now, I still feel comfortable in the higher criticism camp of interpretation. Contrasting with the view Wright portrays in his quote, Hauerwas writes:

I believe that the battle between literalistic fundamentalism and critical approaches to the Bible is the result of the abstraction of the text of the Bible from such practices. They share the assumption that the text of the Bible should make rational sense (to anyone), apart from the uses that the Church has for Scripture. Fundamentalism and biblical criticism seek to depoliticize the interpretation of Scripture on the grounds that the text has an objective meaning. The result is unchecked power to some interpreters over Scripture without such power being justified.”-p.18

Scripture can be rightly interpreted only within the practices of a body of people constituted by the unity found in the Eucharist. The Church, as the body of Christ, stands first and is more full than Scripture. This does not limit Scripture, but it reminds us that Christ appears before us not only in Scripture, but in the Church.” Hauerwas goes on to mention the earliest Christians not having the written gospels, and so text could not be the sole source of knowledge. The Church acted according to the spirit of the Gospel, and the Gospel came to life in the Church. There is a complex relationship between community and text, and in this case Church and Scripture.

Hauerwas also critiques Sola Scriptura when it is used to mean sola text, saying: “That Christians have thought it possible to translate our Scriptures should be sign enough that no strong distinction can be made between text and interpretation.” There is also a lot of good writing about America and individualism resulting in destructive understandings/uses of Scripture.

To the above, Wright responds in his own book: “…one hears it said frequently that all reading of scripture is a matter of interpretation, with the implication that one person’s interpretation is as good as another’s. This is of course a classic postmodern position that there are no such things as texts, only interpretations, since when I read a text it becomes something different from what it becomes when you read it (Heisenberg’s uncertainty again).”

Hauerwas responds:

“Fundamentalists and biblical critics alike argue that their project is to get to the text’s “real meaning.” But of course the text has no real meaning, rather Scriptures are maintained by the Church as having particular prominence because Christians have learned that the Scriptures exist to further the practices of witness and conversion. If i deny the text has a meaning, some biblical scholars fear an uncontrollable subjectivism. Interpreters, especially laity, can simply make of the text anything they wish, creating the meaning of the text at will. Such a presumption however assumes the only entities involved are the text and the individual interpreter. Texts and interpreters, however, work only within contexts that make what they have to say irrelevant or interesting. Of course the Church creates the meaning of Scripture.”

When time allows it, I’d like to lay out completely the ways in which Wright and Hauerwas have written the two books almost completely parallel to the other. Both are incredible scholars, and as I have read so much of Wright the last three years, I am looking forward to owning much more that which Hauerwas has written as well.

The differences are clear, but there is an extremely unavoidable similarity in their books: The need for a transformed self and spiritual formation.

Hauerwas writes: “According to Athanasius, any attempt to make Scripture intelligible in and of itself can only be seen as an attempt to protect ourselves from the challenge of having our lives changed. Such change means making our lives available to others who have begun such a transformation. In short, if we are to understand Scripture it is necessary that we place ourselves under authority, a placement that at least begins by our willingness to accept the discipline of the Church’s preaching.”

And Wright echoes: “We urgently need an integrated view of the dense and complex phrase “the authority of Scripture.” Such an integrated view needs to highlight the role of the Spirit as the powerful, transformative agent. It needs to keep as its central focus the goal of God’s Kingdom, inaugurated by Jesus on earth as in heaven and one day to be completed under that same rubric. The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion: that the shorthand phrase the authority of scripture, when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church–precisely as the Scripture-reading community.”