Sunday, July 03, 2005

Taking Your Pick

Here's a problem that I wrote about earlier in comments to Titusonenine (6/19/05). ECUSA's right wing (e.g. over at the Anglican Communion Institute) from time to time argues by appealing to the "plain sense"of Scripture or some equivalent. The idea seems to be that Scripture is transparent. No fancy philosophy is needed to interpret Scripture--in fact, bringing philosophy in is suspect on its face. For ECUSA's right wing, Scripture alone is authoritative and sufficient unto itself.

But that can't be quite everything--surely right-wing ECUSAns would assent to the Nicene Creed, affirming in effect the Council of Chalcedon's christology and the Creeds' view of the Trinity? In fact, if you polled them, I bet most would date the beginning of their misgivings with ECUSA to Pike's questioning creedal dogma in the 60's (or Robinson's Honest to God, or Hick's Myth of God Incarnate).

But committment to the Creeds sits uneasily with committment to Scripture alone as authoritative. Why? The Creeds assume the framework of Greek metaphysics, a framework not at home in Scripture. Scripture does not lay out a system of metaphysics like that of Aristotle, or Plotinus, or Philo. Any attempt to derive the Creeds from Scripture would take as premises extra-Biblical assumptions from Greek metaphysics. Keeping to Scripture alone as authoritative calls the Creeds and our committment to them into question. On the other hand, calling for confession of the Creeds implies the Bible is not authoritative alone. Indeed, given committment to the Creeds, it follows rather that Scripture interpreted through philosophy that cannot be found in Scripture is authoritative.

When ECUSA's leadership interprets Scripture by bringing in premises that cannot be found in Scripture, it is doing the same type of thing right-wing ECUSAns do when they confess the Creeds--both sides find that Scripture alone is an insufficient authority. Right-wing ECUSAns find Scripture insufficient when it comes to explaining the nature of Christ of the Trinity. ECUSA's leadership finds it insufficient to articulate our moral obligations to homosexuals. Thus, it will not do to appeal to the "plain sense" of Scripture--given how both sides already read Scripture, to invoke "plain sense" readings is inconsistent, an instance of special-pleading.

ECUSA's leadership could, thus, say to the right wing: Take your pick. If you preclude gay activism by appealing to Scripture alone as authoritative, you lose the Creeds. But then, if you want to keep the Creeds, you lose the appeal to Scripture alone as authoritative. In effect, given the soundness of ECUSA's argument from extra-Biblical premises, keeping the Creeds implies accepting gay activism. At the very least, the argument should shift away from the so-called "plain sense" of Scripture to the extra-Biblical premises.


At 2:05 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

This is an interesting position but it needs to be fleshed out. As it currently stands it makes a good start but doesn't clinch the argument. I say this not as censure but to inspire you to unpack this thesis more fully.

Here are some points that I would love to see you address in making this a more stable argument:

1. Why do the creeds say what they say?
a. You assert that the creeds bring in Greek metaphysics. Great. Demonstrate it. Which points are rooted in which Greek metaphysical structures?
b. Engage the initial motivation. Is it not true that the creeds engage Greek metaphysical systems in order to curtail an overenthusiastic use of said metaphysical characteristics on the part of the Gnostics? (q.v. On the Origin of the World, The Apocryphon of John, etc.) To what degree is this fighting fire with fire/engaging an intellectual opponent with their own categories? What is the implication?

2. You're quite right in identifying that the term "plain-sense" is really slippery. I would argue that the Creeds reinforce a plain sense of Scripture by nailing down certain assertions that must be understood literally as well as in all the usual senses. Remember, as Origen stated, all Scriptures have a mystical or spiritual sense, many have a moral sense, not all have a literal sense. I read the creeds as identifying certain problematic points and positively asserting that these have a true literal sense not apart from but in relation to the truths they contain in the other senses.Because of our post-Reformation perspective we assume that all means are literal unless shown otherwise; this was reversed for the framers of the Creeds.

3. In a sense, I hear you arguing that the Scriptures go beyond Scripture. But do they? What in them makes them non-scriptural?

I look forward to your responses...

At 7:56 PM, Blogger FrMD said...

Isn't "plain sense" non-scriptural? It's loaded in a very philosophical sense. What is "plain?" What "sense?" Who identified the "sense" of a word? Not Isaiah.

Indeed the need to make an assertion, stake a position, reason it out are philosophical.

Paul's "consider" is surely philosophical; as is being mature in our thinking.

E. Radner is plainly philosophical... read especially his fruitless essay on Catalepsis: the apprehension of truth.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Simeon said...

Br. Thomas Bushnell, BSG has an excellent entry in his blog entitled Meaning what you say in which he explores whether "literalism" (Biblical or otherwise) really means anything in the first place. Worth checking out.

At 11:33 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks for your comments, Mark and Derek--we seem to agree that appeals to the plain sense of Scripture leave something to be desired. In reply to Derek's 1a), I have in mind especially where the Creeds and Chalcedon use "ousia", "homoousios", and "hypostasis", terms loaded with content from Greek philosophy, sc. Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism. Atleast from the time of Justin Martyr, Christians explicitly appropriated pagan philosophy to articulate the meaning of their faith. You may well be right, in (2), to suggest they did this in part to nail down the sense of Scripture on issues like the nature of God and Christ. They faced a problem: Scripture alone did not sufficiently disambiguate itself about the Persons of God and the natures of Christ. On (3), maybe the problem is that Scripture alone does not go far enough to meet the needs of the Church; the Church found in the fourth and fifth centuries that it had to go far beyond Scripture, to arcane points of Greek philosophy, in order to make sense of Scripture. I have no quarrel with the old councils doing that--indeed, prima facie, appeals to content from tradition and reason (read: philosophy)apart from Scripture remain legitimate in Anglicanism. However, what some recognize today as the "orthodox" or even "plain" sense of Scripture is actually shot through with strands of Greek philosophy--strands which might well go unacknowledged. Regardless, with the precedent of the early councils set, the Church today, and so ECUSA, may use philosophy to articulate the sense of Scripture.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

I probably shouldn't broach this with a person whose handle includes "Scotists" but... Your focus here seems to be almost entirely on speculative theology. But is that the heart of the Scriptures? I'm still not convinced that the creeds functionally go beyond the Scriptures. That is, they do not add anything that isn't in Scripture--they clarify it by means of different terminology and an appeal to the thought-processes of the culture within which they (the interpreters) were embedded. In this, the framers of the creeds were reasserting what they saw the Scriptures to say and were clarifying in philosophical terms what the Scriptures and their authors already said in a poetic or intuitive way about the perichoresis between the members of the Trinity.

At 12:00 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

One could take reciting the Creeds to be a verbal act, like saying "I do" in a wedding; the committment signalled is of primary import: one signals committment to God and Christ. And the speculative content of the Creeds would then be of distinct, secondary importance. But that's not quite what you mean--you seem to mean that what Scripture says poetically/metaphorically, the Creeds put in declarative, propositional form. Is that a fair portrayal of your contention? If so, then I must disagree with you. I'm inclined to say rather that Scripture says various things in a poetic/metaphorical way, and we are left with the tasks of (1) deciding what is significant, and (2) figuring out what must hold if that significant stuff is true. So for instance, one strand of Scripture says poetically that Christ is the Son of God. What must hold if Christ is indeed the Son of God? The Creeds try to tell us. Maybe the Creeds do get it right--but that wouldn't change the fact that the Creeds go beyond what is in Scripture.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

[Quotes in italics...]
you seem to mean that what Scripture says poetically/metaphorically, the Creeds put in declarative, propositional form. Is that a fair portrayal of your contention?

Yes, it is. Scripture states certain (many) things about the internal relations of the Godhead and then the relation of the Godhead to humanity ambiguously. For the sake of assurance of proper belief and practice the church decided that it had to nail some of these down and be completely clear on a few key points.

If so, then I must disagree with you.

Great. That's you're prerogative; that's why we talk these things out.

I'm inclined to say rather that Scripture says various things in a poetic/metaphorical way, and we are left with the tasks of (1) deciding what is significant, and (2) figuring out what must hold if that significant stuff is true.

Broadly I'm in agreement with your points 1 & 2. The problem is that there's a necessarily prior step. This step--A--is first we must determine what we are reading. Again, thinking as a framer of the creeds, thinking like an educated (i.e., literate) person of the 1st through 5th century, we must determine through the science of grammar what is being said and in what senses it is true. As an educated *Christian* we would be well aware of Origen's rule that there are factual and conceptual defects in the literal sense; it is not to be seen as the primary sense of Scripture. Therefore we must decide how far the poetic devices--broken down into schemes and tropes--are to be understood. Thus, we must decide where the metaphor or analogy or whatever begins and ends both literarily and conceptually. Only then can we begin to consider your point 1.

Now, the flat answer to point 1 is "Yes. It's Scripture, ergo it is significant." But how and in relation to what? The spiritual life or speculative constructs? Only once this has been determined can be possibly hope to approach point 2.

Again, the answer--because it's Scripture--is "Yes. Of course it's true." But its truth is in relation to its proper identification rooted in points A and 1.

So for instance, one strand of Scripture says poetically that Christ is the Son of God. What must hold if Christ is indeed the Son of God?

Note here that you've completely skipped over the question of what "Son of God" is or means. After all, we're familiar with the bene 'elohim from Gen 5 and the children of the Most High in Ps 82 as well as the obvious Ps 2. Or Hosea 11:1 where it is clear apposite to Israel. Jesus himself screws things up with Matt 5:9. How about John 1:12, most all of Rom 8, and Gal 4:6, Heb 12:5? In short these cannot all have the same referent. Thus asserting that Jesus falls into the class of "son of God" Says something but what? That he is a human beloved by God? That he is a human chosen to be king of Israel? That he is the very offspring of the Godhead? That he is a spirit figure, god on earth, who only appears to be in human form? All are possible meanings of this phrase and there are yet more beyond. Before we run to what we must believe we must determine what is being asserted. Furthermore, a quick glance at Irenaeus will quickly demonstrate that not only were these various readings possible, they were held by certain groups that the church declared heretical. The purpose of the creeds, then, was not to go beyond Scripture but to fix the meanings of these Scriptures and to hold up one particular meaning that must be believed if the reader wishes to call himself Christian.

Forgive me for being contentious; I've babbled on long enough. In short, while I do actually agree with your points 1 and 2, you are not taking into account the very exercise of reading and interpretation and that is preeminently what the creeds were attempting to make fast.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

btw, I'm finding this a very helpful way to clarify my current thinking on the creeds. Thanks for being such a thought-provoking interlocutor! :-)

At 6:29 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Thanks--I'm finding it helpful as well. Let me focus for the moment on your last paragraph on the concept of the son of God. You listed some relevant verses from John and Paul (for instance). Consider two phases: (A)I suppose John and Paul wrote those verses such that they were, on the face of it, consistent with a range of different meanings--they did not nail down a single, unique sense. True, if we could interrogate John and Paul, they might specify and clarify just how they wanted to be read, just which meanings we should pick out from the wide range--but we can't. (Phase B)Now picture an Arian and a Chalcedonian partisan looking over those verses. The Arian reads them and says "Aha--these prove the Son, though divine in a special, derivative sense,is not the equal of the Father, but is distinct from and ontologically subordinate to him." That's one sense that fits with the range of meanings prima facie consistent with Paul and John. But the Chalcedonian says "Aha--these prove the Son is divine in just the way the Father is divine, and though a distinct person,is equal to the Father with respect to divinity." Here we have divergent readings of the same texts. The Creeds, taken together, restrict the range of interpretation, eliminating, say, the Arian. Before I go on and on--would you agree so far with this picture?

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Alright--let us, for the sake of simplicity, restrict ourselves to an examination of John 1:12 and Romans 8. The problem is, though, that John 1:12 uses "teknia qeou" [q substitutes for theta...] (children of God) refering back to the earlier "autois" (to these) which itself refers back to the initial clause of the sentence, "osoi de labon auton" (But those who received him). Thus the children are believers who accepted that Jesus was the one sent from God.

Rom 8:14 likewise puts "uioi qeou"(sons of God) in apposition to "osoi gar pneumati qeou agontai" (For those who are led by the Spirit of God). Again, those here designated as sons of God are believers.

Christ has not yet been mentioned as "Son of God". Therefore your hypothetical Arian and Chalcedonian are boning up on the background and the other uses of the phrase in Scripture. Both a Chalcedonian and an Arian will look at these and they will fundamentally agree that children/sons of God are a metaphor that describe the care and concern, the familial bond, that God feels for these people. The difference in their interpretations comes when they turn to a passage like Matt 27:43 or, more importantly, 54. What does the centurion's confession "qeou uios" mean? An Arian in reading this would make his interpretation of Matt 27:54 continuous with his interpretation of John 1:12; son of God is a metaphor that describe the care and concern, the familial bond, that God feels for this crucified man. A Chalcedonian reader would disagree and say that the two texts are discontinuous. What was metaphor in John 1:12 is intended literally in Matt 27:54. Rather, he would point to John 1:14--et verbum caro factum est--and to Luke and Matthew 1 to substantiate it. Thus, the issue is not where you have put it--in the interpretation of John 1:12 or Rom 8--but in how these verses operate in relation to other statements about Jesus.

The creeds come into play by saying that whenever the potentially metaphorical phrase "uios qeou" is applied to Jesus it should be taken literally.

At 11:14 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Sure, our Arian and Chalcedonian are well versed, and look at "how these verses operate in relation to other statements about Jesus". In particular, say, Romans 8:3 has God "sending his own Son" (ho theos ton heautou huion pempsas....) While you are right, the text does not refer to Jesus with the phrase "Son of God", still the phrase "his own Son" introduces the relevant concept at issue between the Arian and Chalcedonian.

I agree with your picture of them disputing about whether the texts are continuous or discontinuous--that seems right.

Supposing we are on the same page, so to speak--my question then is, when the Arian and Chalcedonian are looking over these texts and disputing what sense Scripture shall have, how do they decide? Are they limited to appealing to the text? Or can they couple appeals to the text with speculation?

Historically, speculation enters in--and they are right to speculate: for instance, the Arian might point out the asymmetry of begetting and argue the Son cannot be divine in a sense equal to that of the Father, appealing to a principle like (A)"What is dependent for its existence on something else is less perfect than that on which it depends". I'm not sure that is indeed a genuine Arian principle, but my point is just to suggest how "natural" it is to settle Scriptural dispute by bringing in metaphysics. Avoiding any appeal to such metaphysical principles would be very difficult, and might render the dispute needlessly obscure.

At 9:17 AM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

You're right--once the pertinent various biblical verses are isolated and deployed others factors may come in. Certainly an astute Chaceldoian would note Rom 8:3 as you did and would emphasize the adversitive nature of the reflexive as differentiating both this son and this kind of son from the others discussed later.

At that point a synthesis must be deployed, a metanarrative that identifies and grounds the most pertinent points of the salvific theo-history. But that's the creed. These are the parts of the synthesis that must be accepted and held as absolutes. You can think and read any other way you want as long as you don't transgress these particular points. But here again I think that it emphasizes points of the story already in the Scripture although it does use metaphysical language that the Scriptural authors were not using in their works.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Joe said...

Really interesting discussion. I won't dare to tackle the specific questions that you are asking about the relationship of the creeds to Scripture, mostly because I could not offer anything there that you haven't already covered. I would however like to address TAS's initial idea about offering the "reasserters" and either/or, sola scriptura/creed choice. First, I think that it is wrong to reduce the reasserters argument to sola scripture...even though they often do it themselves. The aforementioned Dr. Radner is a good example of someone who has applied a thoroughly Anglican approach to this issue by reflecting on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason seeking to be faithful to the place that this reflection has lead him. If nothing else...I believe that most in that camp have made their decision with both Scripture and Tradition in mind. I think that the more effective way to address their position is to spend some time with them looking at the "tradition" leg. Where in the Church's history has innovation or further development been a positive? The creeds might be part of this discussion...but not as an example of a place where Scripture was "trumped," but as a place where its truths were more fully developed. That's probably what you are saying anyway...but like I said...I really think that the scripture-only argument is something of a straw man.

(ps-please don't let my thinking out loud interupt this wonderful discussion!)

Grace and Peace,


At 10:59 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

In reply to Derek, when you say the Church should resort to "a metanarrative that identifies and grounds the most pertinent points of the salvific theo-history," e.g. the Creeds, I agree with you. When you go on to say the metanarrative of the Creeds uses points already in Scripture, I'll agree too. Even when you say the Creeds employ metaphysical language not in Scripture, I will go along--because I think you mean to hold that there is a "fullness" to the meaning of Scripture such that the metaphysical notions in the Creeds are implicit already in Scripture, even if the authors of Scripture did not have those notions counsciously in mind as their intended meaning. Meaning is not just "in the head" as it were, and an author's intended meaning is not the end of the matter in settling what Scripture means--so it is perfectly legitimate for the Councils to find metaphysical notions in the text foreign to the consciousness of its authors. Would you agree to that? If so, that's a point where we agree. Where do we disagree? Maybe on two remaining issues: (1)there are competing, even opposed meanings implicit in the text, and the Church is responsible for sorting through them to arrive at a favored reading(e.g. the tension between Job and the Deuteronomist's moral theology); it's not as if the Church comes to a Scripture containing no conflicts to be settled. (2)in time the Church may become aware of new conflicts in Scripture, and the Church may revisit old settlements as to how to adjudicate between Scriptural conflics; in principle, Chalcedon marks a committment for the Church, which the Church could revise. I know I have a problem as to what counts as "the Church" in all this.

At 11:16 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

In reply to Joe, thanks for your comment--you are right IMHO that some "reasserters" emphasize tradition in addition to Scripture, e.g. Radner and others like Witt. Although appeals to the plain sense of Scripture still play as decisive among reasserters, the best scholars among them are not doing that,and you are right I think to say it.
However,I must wax prolix and add that "tradition" in the reasserter camp, so far as I can tell--and I may be off here--has special content: operating within the methods of canonical criticism (Brevard Childs) or narrative theology (Lindbeck or Frei), each deriving in some way from Barth's work, which had as a premise rejecting natural theology altogether in order to use Scripture to interpret Scripture--circular but coherent. Canonical criticism and narrative theology can operate to enforce pre-critical readings of what Scripture means. I include Radner and other right-wing ECUSAns here.
One benefit to my position of stressing that the Creeds are integral even to the pre-critical reading of Scripture is that I import natural theology, or metaphysics, back into how we read Scripture. A conservative canonical or narrative theologian defending a pre-critical reading of Scripture who sticks with Barth's aversion to natural theology is in an untenable position.

At 11:32 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Ah well--it seems my position has migrated somewhat from "Scripture needs to be interpreted with philosophical notions not present in Scripture" to this: "Scripture needs to be interpreted with philosophical notions not present in the intentions of its authors, but implicit in the 'wide content' of Scripture," where we might never get a final fix before the Eschaton of what that wide content includes.

At 10:59 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Yes. I'll certainly agree with this last formulation. I think it has the precision that you were originally lacking even if it didn't end up exactly were you started. I would also agree with your points 1 and 2 a few posts above. Scripture must be interpreted; there are disagreements on the literal level between many texts of Scripture. Some of these can be reconciled when look at from different perspectives as suggested by their contexts but there are certainly some broad understandings about God and how God works that don't fit together very easily.

Now--on to the charge you leveled about tradition. Shall we start up a new thread? :-) If so I warn you that Auggie's De Doctrina Christiana bk. 4 will play a large role in establishing a real example of "pre-critical" exegesis--a term often used without a clear referrent...

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Good've got them there...and I think that it is in that way that they must be engaged on this issue. Most of them don't know the way that their current appeals to tradition are an abuse. They would be open to debate in this area in a way that, for example, the Romans would not (although their position has problems of its own.)

Grace and Peace,

At 2:19 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Take Augustine as an example of pre-critical Bible interpretation? Oh. Augustine is formidible; I hesitate. But then, why not? You're on. I'll cook up another thread on De doctrina Ch.4.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Derek the Ænglican said...

Excellent. I'm ready when you are...

At 10:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you seriously think that Radner or Kimel or any other thoughtful conservative (especially those of a more high-church bent) would disagree with you? Sure, you can find conservatives who make naive appeals to the plain sense of Scripture. And if you want to pick on them, go ahead. Similarly, we can rage against the reductionistic inanities of Bishop Spong until we have reached a fine warm glow of righteous indignation. But none of this really gets us anywhere. Surely you know that the conservative case does _not_ rest on any "plain sense" of Scripture devoid of philosophy or tradition. On the contrary, we hold the position we do precisely because our reading of Scripture is backed up by classical Christian thinking about human nature and the purpose(s) of sexuality _and_ by the unanimous consensus of the Christian exegetical tradition. Furthermore, if you appeal to the authority of the Church, then you have not only Rome but all the ancient Sees against you.

The fundamental question at stake in the homosexuality debate is a philosophical, not an exegetical one: what is the telos of human sexuality, and can sexual relationships between members of the same sex possibly contribute to that telos? As Christians, we pay supreme and final deference to Scripture in answering that question. But of course it can't simply be answered by an appeal to a transparent "plain sense" of Scripture. You are attacking a straw man here, and it will get you nowhere.


At 1:43 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Sure, Radner is respectable, but no philosopher--his thinking derives from neo-orthodoxy, best I can tell: Barth at a few removes. Moreimportantly, he isn't my principal target. Some at the ACI do entertain notions of Scripture's plain sense; many more who are not academics on the right have such notions, no?

You are right I think to callattention to philosophy--the telos served in sex is the eschatological union of humanity and God, our ultimate satisfaction, of which sex is a merest foretaste. Homosexuality, I think, is not a priori precluded by that telos.

At 11:36 AM, Blogger Pontificator said...

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