Thursday, April 21, 2005

(Not so) Great Moments in (Jewish) Apologetics

I chanced upon the website Jews for Judaism, which is a response to the success of organizations like Jews for Jesus in converting Jews to Christianity by preserving a locus of Jewish cultural identity within the church. I've never understood the wide split between Christianity and Judaism. The apostolic period was a Jewish milieu, and all of its leaders were Jewish. Christianity is incomprehensible apart from its Jewish foundations. Edith Schaeffer's book Christianity is Jewish does a wonderful job of exploring this.

Jews for Judaism has a little FAQ laying out out their case that Jesus is not the Messiah. As I started to read it, I was overcome by laughter and incredulity at the first point:

Jesus cannot be the Messiah because he did not have a Jewish biological father.

Pursuing this line of thought creates a bit of a dilemma for our Jewish apologists. On the one hand, if one rejects the virgin birth, then Jesus was the biological son of Mary's fianceƩ Joseph, and the objection dissolves. On the other hand, if one embraces the virgin birth (which they seem to have done, at least hypothetically), then one is put in the impious position of rejecting a miracle from God (sorry, G-d) on the grounds of some fastidious interpretation of genealogical laws.

A further objection to Jesus is in the notion that God would never be incarnate as a man, which they claim even during exegesis of passages like Isaiah 7 (with its controversial "virgin birth" prophecy and Immanuel -- "God with us" -- figure). Then, they maintain that the Messiah must rebuild the Jerusalem temple, because in Ezekiel 37, God says that his "sanctuary" will be with His people forever. So, their rejection of an imminent God is coupled with an insistence on a very present material sanctuary (a spiritual God cannot have a spiritual sanctuary?). Their G-d may be distant, but their temple must be right here.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Rules for Theological Debating

  • Strive to employ a tone that is more gracious than you expect/receive in response, because:
    • You will usually overestimate your own graciousness and underestimate that of others.
    • Being a peacemaker requires cranking the heat down a notch or two on each exchange.
    • There are enough ambiguities in any discussion to create sufficient conflict.

  • Interpret other people's statements in the most charitable manner that fits.
    • Other people use different words to say that same thing. Don't get into "violent agreement" with anybody.
    • Most Christians are growing in their spiritual understanding. Allow for the possibility that their "errors" reflect progressive sanctification rather than progressive declension.

  • Do not publish anything you still have qualms of conscience about.
    • Prayerfully review anything that your intuition flags as unsafe.
    • Imagine how you will view what you've said 5 years from now or when the current controversy has cooled off.

  • Allow everyone the sincerity of his beliefs.
    • Assume that each person is being honest about their motivations unless they give you specific reason to think otherwise.
    • If someone is not convinced of your point, review the strength of your argument.
    • Go into each discussion assuming that you will learn, rather than teach.

  • Never make a bald accusation (heresy, dishonesty, hypocrisy, etc.) against someone you do not have formal authority over.
    • Humbly lay out the evidence that leads you to make the judgment.
    • Let the reader draw his own conclusions.

  • Do not sin yourself in attempting to correct others.
    • Be humble, not triumphalist in your posture.
    • Give people the opportunity to concede points without losing face.

  • Trust in God's sovereignty and providence.
    • Remember that you are not the instrument of God's salvation, only the messenger.
    • Don't continue a discussion beyond the point where it is bearing fruit. God will work in his time.
    • Do not begrudge a weaker brother his errors. Make his nurture your work.

  • Never give an adversary a damaging out-of-context quote.
    • Review compositions for "loaded" words and phrases before publishing.
    • Don't make strident remarks for effect -- they will come back to haunt you.
    • Don't make excuses for a hasty response. Repent, reconcile, and move on.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Bible Versions and Reformed Subjectivism

James White's excellent website has a retrospective on an old debate he had with Douglas Wilson of Credenda/Agenda and New St. Andrews concerning King James Onlyism. I remembered reading this several years ago when it was first published and being surprised to discover Reformed people being particular about Bible translations. Typically, the only people who insist upon the KJV are fringe fundamentalists who believe that the difference between the renderings "the Lord Jesus Christ" and "Christ Jesus our Lord" proves that all non-KJV Bible versions (including the New King James Version) are the work of a satanic conspiracy trying to undermine our faith in the scriptures.

Throughout the debate, Wilson insists that the forensics of the scripture text belongs to the church alone, and that the church acts with providential (near?) infallibility in its role as caretaker of the manuscript tradition. White brings up several instances where new manuscript evidence calls some of the traditional readings into question, as more ancient fragments and codices are discovered. Wilson won't take this at face value, insisting that this only represents the opinions of non-Christian scientists. For Wilson, there is no prima facie evidence concerning the text; there is only the "authority of the church" and the "authority of scientists."

This is superficially reminiscent of Roman Catholic rejections of sola scriptura. Catholic apologists claim that Scripture can't be authoritative apart from the institutional church, because without the institutional church, no one would know which texts the canon of scripture was composed of. This ignores the process the Council of Nicea used for determining the contents of the canon, which consisted largely in weighing the historical evidence for apostolic authorship of the various candidate documents and in examining the texts for consistency with the established canon of the Old Testament. It also invests the institutional church with the authority to declare or retract canonical teachings at any time, which is the death of the historic catholicity of the faith. How could the adherents to primitive Christianity share any fellowship with the followers of the ponderously complex religion modern Roman Catholicism has become?

Wilson's belief that the authority of the church is at stake over the authenticity of the Johannine Comma, etc. puts him in an intellectually awkward position. The Comma is unattested as canon in any source before the 4th century and poorly attested even in medieval manuscripts. All the evidence indicates that these dozen or so words were inserted into the text of 1 John long after it was written. Over and against this, Wilson is left defending the (misleadingly named) Received Text (TR) as axiomatic to the confessional church. The reliability of the TR turns into a sociological struggle for original authority between church and science.

Wilson may believe that there are no truly objective facts about ancient scripture manuscripts, owing to a presuppositional belief that man's noetic faculties are entirely corrupted by the Fall, and that I grant, but how far can one take this? Is a sinner incapable of distinguishing even the most trivial of facts? Is the observation that ancient manuscripts contain a slightly different rendering of a certain passage to be held as nothing but a damning deceit? Do we risk a return to a canonical geocentrism where every truth is relative to a social authority? Is giving the church this kind of ontological authority prudent in the light of WCF 25:5 [1]?

Wilson fears that if we allow new manuscript information to influence our view of the canon of scripture, there is no limit to how far the revisionism of the Bible can go. It is unclear where the impetus for this would come from. We have extensive documentation covering over 90% of the history of the transmission of the New Testament, and this history shows that the amount of corruption accumulated in the copies is vanishingly small, even miraculously small. We do not require artificial supports, such as an inspired Received Text, to support our trust in modern Bibles.

The authority of scriptural texts does not come from the imprimatur of the church, but from the supernaturally-invested infallible teaching authority of the prophetic and apostolic authors, attested by miraculous signs, and from the supernatural character of the texts themselves. The scriptures are robust to distortion through copying errors or faulty exegesis, containing great clarity of image and concept, extending through an intermeshing system of saving doctrine. It is the human heart and mind that are faulty. We should not rely on fallible church councils for that which God, in his providence, has enunciated and preserved.

[1] "5. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will." Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 25.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Reformed Catholicism

It's been a long time since I've given any serious thought to the topic of Roman Catholicism. As priorities go, it ranks down there with Scientology and Mormonism. But, even without the Pope's death, Catholicism is coming up on my radar screen with some in the Reformed camp taking a more-than-passing interest in it.

James White's website alerted me to the existence of a blog titled Reformed Catholicism which claims to be "Classically Protestant and Constructively catholic." There's something about that tagline that puts me off, partly because I've never considered the Reformed church as being incomplete or non-catholic apart from Rome any more than I think we need formal ties to Benny Hinn. The church is already catholic without someone trying to build a temporal empire.

Don't get me wrong, I'm entirely covenantal. I covet the unity of the church across the millennia in the word and sacrament, and believe that many minds are less likely to err than one. But, I don't believe that the body of Christ is only properly reified as a 501(c)3 corporation. No one has trouble with the notion of "academia" being a real and vital one, even if all Universities don't answer to single board of trustees. There is a lucid and compelling union of the churches found in the scriptural doctrine, shared history, and rich culture of Christianity. I'm not convinced that spooky theories concerning the mysteries of the sacraments (above and beyond what the scriptures and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms teach) add anything to faith, at least when viewed from a long perspective.

Anyway, I've been observing, and occasionally interacting with, Catholic apologists. Apparently, they have gotten annoyed at having lost so many converts to Protestant arguments from the scriptures, and have started to fight back. Catholic apologetics now ring with constant claims that Catholicism is "biblical." They even try to deal with specific Bible passages to make their claims. Fundamentally, though, they try to take exclusive control of the scriptures.

The primary claim of Rome vis-a-vis the scriptures is that, since "the church" ratified the canon of scripture at Nicea in AD 325, the Vatican now "owns" the scriptures, and to interpret them in a way incongruous with Rome's representations is not allowed. How recognition of the merit of scripture should be elevated above the generation of the text is unclear to me. My recognizing that Handel is a great composer does not make me a master musician. Rome may have the ability to discern the power of scripture (properly understood, the scripture testifies to its own glory), but this is a very different thing from being master over it.

Claiming sole authority over the scriptures allows people to get away with sloppy interpretation. To call some of the Catholic exegesis I've seen sloppy is too charitable. Some of it leaves the impression of listening for content to glossolalia -- one concentrates on the babble of syllables trying to pull out some content, and eventually gives up in frustration. It's as if all rules of logical inference and deductive reasoning were suspended, to be replaced by an alchemical ability to find core doctrines in the white space between words. Isaiah talks about his sins being purged with fire. The exegetical Catholic starts with this, and diving into a churning ocean of syntax, at some length, emerges on the other side with the doctrine of purgatory between his teeth.

I'm already finding this tedious. Presbyterian exegesis is challenging and worthwhile because it is an open process. Some parts of scripture are difficult to understand, but I know where I can go to learn about the archeology, culture, or systematics needed to properly compose them. If somebody with a greater grasp of the sweep of the Judeo-Christian narrative constructs an inference beyond my ability to construct, I can examine their conclusions using basic principles that can be explained and justified.

When the Catholic comes to scripture with his doctrines already ratified, and insists that his intuitions or magisterial traditions are conclusive, we're left without the ability to discuss anything. Not surprisingly, many Protestant-Catholic dialogs quickly become posturing contests: who can appear more authoritative, less petty, or better informed. I don't think there's any point to it until everybody involved is willing to accept what the text says on face value. Trying to discuss exegesis with a man who already has an "infallible" interpretation is like trying to teach a pig to sing; it only frustrates you and annoys the pig.