Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Presuppositional Argument for Belief in God

Fractal-clusters Our assessment paper for the Reformed Apologetics course was to write a presuppositional argument for belief in the existence of God.  My own paper was more Framean than Van Tillian in its approach.  I have reproduced the text of the paper as a standalone page, accessible via the link in the left sidebar.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Reflections on Reformed Apologetics

reid Looking back over four years of module choices at HTC, they have been largely focussed on biblical studies and biblical theology.  However, in my final semester I took two more Systematics modules: Reformed Apologetics and Reformed Theology.  These are both taught by Dr Rob Shillaker.

The Reformed Apologetics module aims to show something very important: the relation between philosophy, scripture and theology in determining apologetic method.  It covers the three main apologetic traditions within the Reformed theological community: evidentialism, foundationalism, and presuppositionalism.  And, it was a most enjoyable module – Dr Shillaker uses video and audio excerpts to illustrate the various arguments (made easier by the incredibly flash IT systems newly-installed in the HTC classrooms – Warp Factor 6, Mr Sulu!).  Some very brief highlights and reflections follow:

  • Listening to a reading of Plato’s ‘The Cave’ when looking at ontological arguments in class.  Excellent!
  • Alvin Plantinga and Reformed Epistemology.  This part of the course was a real highlight for me.  Looking at the roots of Reformed Epistemology in Scottish Common Sense Realism was hugely instructive.  Plantinga’s work on basic and non-basic beliefs, and on warranted belief is particularly important.  Clifford’s classic statement of modernism: ‘It is wrong, always and anywhere, for anyone to believe anything without sufficient evidence’ was challenged by Reid’s argument that everyday life is based upon beliefs which are not supported by evidence.  Plantinga has taken this on: he attempts to demonstrate that theistic belief is properly basic.  Of course, Reformed Epistemology is subject to critique: it is too reductive; it is too broad.  However, I think it has a lot to offer.  The ‘fuzzy logic’ of Reid and his successors works in the real world, whereas the sterile, rigid logic of rationalism ends up being unworkable in its hubristic self-reliance.
  • Presuppositional Apologetics.  Of course, this is the meat and potatoes for any self-respecting Reformed (Calvinistic) apologist!  Van Til’s work in Westminster was refined in the crucible of the battles with liberalism within the Church, where one of the main foes was the tyranny of reason.  Van Til rightly swings the pendulum back to revelation and the need for faith, but I do think that (like many positions forged in the heat of battle) his resultant views were not nuanced enough.  I was helped a great deal by Frame, who backpedals somewhat from his tutors certainties.  For me, Van Til almost becomes Kierkegaardian in his emphasis on faith and revelation.  I think some kind of synthesis (not Hegel again!) between Presuppositionalism and Reformed Epistemology might offer dividends (seeing as they do share some common ground and common roots) – but such an analysis is beyond me!
  • Theodicy.  One of our assessment papers was to review Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom and Evil.  It’s a very good book, and surprisingly easy to follow, due to Plantinga’s accessible style.  I was dubious about some of his arguments (on side issues) but in the main his approach is promising.  It stops short though of being a theodicy – which Plantinga acknowledges; it is cast as a Defense.  Fair enough, but as such it represents the first stage of what ought to be a significant and more satisfying project.  For some more stimulating thought on Theodicy, see Blocher’s work.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

John Muir

muirThree quotes from John Muir, Scotsman and lover of wilderness:

“The battle for conservation will go on endlessly. It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong.”

“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God's first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

John Muir (1838-1914)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reflections on Biblical Theology I & II (Part III)

roots2 I thought I would post a few reflections on the Biblical Theology II module – that’s the practical module of the HTC BT experience.  Our four three-week seminars were addressing biblical theological questions (which the student must develop) on Marriage, the Spirit, the Nations and the City.  In the final week of the seminar the student must present an outline for a methodological approach toward answering their question.  Then, two of these must be fully written up as assessment papers.  There follow my questions and a few brief thoughts:

Marriage.  The question: ‘The Genesis creation narratives portray a foundational role for male-female relationships within the created order.  Can biblical theology reconcile this with Jesus’ teaching on marriage and resurrection in the synoptics?’  Specifically in view here are Jesus’ words to the Saducees in Mark 12:18-27 (and parallels) to the effect that ‘in the resurrection men do not marry, women are not given in marriage…for they are like angels’ (my paraphrase of the synoptic variations).  Some thoughts: interpreters who see marriage as simply transitory typology, fulfilled in the relationship between Christ and the Church, overlook (i) the relationship between male-female and the image of God in Gen 1:27, and (ii) the foundational statement in the creation narratives that it is ‘not good’ for the man to be alone, even before the Fall; this is answered by male-female relationships. As an aside, they often also reverse Paul’s metaphor in Eph 5 to say: look at your marriage and you’ll understand the greater truth of Christ and the Church, when in fact Paul is saying, look at Christ and the Church and then take that example back into your marriage.  The Church sometimes comforts lonely single people by effectively saying ‘well, we’ll all be single in heaven!’ (the dreaded gift of singleness), whereas perhaps it is better to say ‘ the Lord will answer your loneliness with perfect companionship in the resurrection.’ The answer in a nutshell: the male-female complementarity that is fundamental to the constitution of humanity will continue in the New Earth, although it cannot be sufficiently depicted by the concept of human marriage institutions in this world.  Being ‘like the angels’ means not being subject to mortality (this is clear in Luke’s account).  It is not a reference to another (heavenly-ethereal) form of existence.

Spirit.  The question: ‘The synoptic Gospels and the Fourth Gospel contain the tradition of the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove upon Jesus at his baptism.  Explore whether there is an Old Testament background to the imagery of the Spirit as a dove.’  Some thoughts: in his account Luke is clear that what he saw had ‘a physical appearance like a dove’ (Lk 3:22 My trans).  Yahweh is depicted at several points in the OT using avian imagery.  However, the only place where the Spirit is depicted in this way is in Gen 1:2 (and only if you interpret ruah as spirit, not wind).  Interestingly 4Q521 Fr2 contains this: ‘over the poor His spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with his power.’   I do wonder about texts like Pss 18:10 and 104:3 – should we read in these the term ‘on the wings of the spirit', (al-canepey-ruah) rather than ‘on the wings of the wind’?  The key OT connection with Jesus’ baptism is with Is 42:1 where the spirit of Yahweh is put upon the servant.  The answer in a nutshell: the broader avian metaphor of the OT provides background to the appearance of the Spirit in a form akin to a dove.  However, the descent imagery is a departure driven by the ideas in Is 42:1.  There is no connection with Noah!

Nations. The question: ‘To what extent does the New Testament, and in particular the event of Pentecost, portray a reversal of the genesis of diverse languages and nations through God’s intervention at Babel in Genesis 11:1-9?’  Some thoughts: many interpreters see Babel as a curse upon an hubristic humanity trying to ‘storm heaven’. Pentecost is the redeeming act that reverses this curse.  There are three problems with this: first, a close reading of the Babel narrative gives little evidence for this interpretation (the scattering is referenced without a negative assessment in Gen 9:19; 10:18; 10:32 – God’s act rectifies humanity’s decision to huddle in Babel in disobedience to the divine command to populate the earth in Gen 9:7); second, the details of the Pentecost narrative do not allow such an interpretation (many languages are spoken, not one; only one nation is present, not Gentiles – there is a tribal reconstruction motif here for the house of Israel and the house of Judah, in fulfilment of the Jeremaic covenant promise); and third, the result of this interpretation is cultural and linguistic negativism – diversity of culture and language is a curse to be overcome.  We thus come close to justifying cultural imperialism and the destruction of minority cultures.  The answer in a nutshell: Yahweh’s action at Babel was a gracious intervention for the good of humanity, in opposition to the introspective rebellion of humanity. The separation of languages and nations secured the divine intention for humanity to spread over the earth and diversify. Hence, the diversity of the nations, including their languages, is good. Far from portraying a reversal, the Pentecost narrative reinforces this view.

City. The question: ‘Is there any theological counterpart in the New Testament to the exhortation found in Psalm 48 to consider the architecture of the city of Jerusalem as a picture of Yahweh?’  Some thoughts: Ps48: 3, 14 seem to indicate that the physical city of Zion acts as a visual representation of the God of Zion, Yahweh.  Such iconographic thought is rare in the OT.  Perhaps a consideration of the defences of Zion are intended to prompt recollection of the story of Zion, and hence the God of that story, but the visual metaphor on the face of it seems more direct -  Ps48:15 MT begins with the literal phrase: ‘for this is God’.  The only place perhaps in the NT where similar iconography is encountered is in Revelation 21.  The city of Jerusalem there has ‘the glory of God’ and its architecture is described in great detail.  God, the Almighty, and the Lamb are its temple/sanctuary.  Answer in a nutshell: architecture (the work of man) here does supply a metaphor for God, just as features of the creation often do in scripture.  This is an interesting point for a consideration of all of the arts.  That the geography of Zion supplied a metaphor for God is part of the theology of Zion expressed elsewhere in the Songs of Zion.  The larger theological point is perhaps that the creation of the city of God as a redeemed human society, comprised of individual image bearers as ‘living stones’, will indeed bear some of the attributes of God himself.  Thus the city of John’s Apocalypse bears the glory of God.  For Zion, and for the new Jerusalem, the glory of the city reflects that of the God who dwells within it.  In the Church, we consider the logos made flesh as the icon – he who has seen me has seen the Father - ‘for this is God.’   We also consider one another as the works of God, showing Christlikeness as new creatures.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reflections on Biblical Theology I & II (Part II)


Further to my previous post on the Biblical Theology modules, I’d better proceed with my reflections proper, so here are a few of my highlights:

  • Discussing the origins of BT (studying, for example, the text of Johann Gabler’s 1787 inaugural lecture in Altdorf) and the definition of the discipline.  Childs is helpful here: he sees that from one perspective, the entire modern history of the discipline of Biblical Theology can be interpreted as the effort to distinguish between the views that  (i) BT is descriptive, historical task seeking to determine what the theology was of the biblical authors themselves (a theology contained within the Bible), and (ii) BT is a constructive, theological one that attempts to formulate a modern theology compatible in some sense with the Bible (a theology that accords with the Bible).
  • Reading B S Childs.  My first B S Childs reading was a few years back in his excellent OTL Exodus commentary.  However, reading Childs’ Biblical Theology: A Proposal as part of the BT I module was a great introduction to Child’s canonical approach to BT.  It’s only a short book, but crystallised in its pages you find a brief history of BT, a discussion of the issue of the canon, and an outline of his canonical approach to BT: the two testaments; text and interpreter; shaping; witness and subject matter.  Of course, you then have to plunge into Childs’ Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments!
  • Apostolic Hermeneutics. This was the subject of the assessment paper for BT I.  Why do the NT authors seem to do strange things with OT texts?  Can we follow their example? Many say ‘no’, preferring to urge a straightforward grammatico-historical approach.  There’s a lot that I could write, but I simply offer what follows.  The fact is that strict grammatico-historical exegesis of OT texts will not yield Christian readings of those texts.  So this approach will not suffice.  Some form of midrashic exegesis is required. To correctly constrain the enterprise, the horizons of the OT author, NT author and present day interpreter need to be understood.  The OT author occupies a unique eschatological and canonical context (he is situated before the advent of Messiah and before there is any canon); the NT author shares an eschatological location with the present day interpreter (post Messiah), but the canonical location is different: the former is situated post-OT canon, but pre-NT canon, the latter is situated post-canon.  The Church’s task of theology then is to reflect upon the whole canon in a way that would have been impossible for the NT authors.  Enns’ description of this task as Christotelic midrash is I think correct.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Reflections on Biblical Theology I and II (Part I)

roots2These are the modules that caught my eye right back before I started the HTC course: two consecutive Level 4 modules, taking you through the year, 26 weeks of Biblical Theology tuition.  This comes on the heels of the Old Testament Themes year 3 module, which is an excellent biblical theology primer, being a kind of introduction to Old Testament Theology.  If you’re thinking of studying theology in a genuinely Reformed setting, then these are two of the modules that should make you travel north to Scotland (if you’re not already here) to find the road to Dingwall.

Biblical Theology I is the theoretical module, Biblical Theology II the practical module.  So, in BT I you look at the history of BT, the issue of the canon, NT use of the OT, and a range of methodological approaches to  BT.  You study salvation-historical approaches (e.g. Vos, Goldsworthy), canonical approaches (e.g. Childs, Seitz, Watson), and the approaches of Barr and Brueggemann.  In BT II, you get to deploy what you’ve learnt.  So, you get four three-week blocks where you research and develop a biblical-theological question relating to four subject areas, and then answer it using your chosen methodology.  Our subjects (they are chosen by the seminar) were Marriage, the City, the Spirit, and the Nations.  This of course is all overseen by Dr Jamie Grant.

For now, some brief reflections follow:

  • The neglect of Biblical Theology.  BT is a closed book it seems in some circles where people who feel quite comfortable operating theologically within the categories of Systematic Theology talk about Biblical Theology in vague terms.  It soon often becomes apparent that they’re talking about theology that’s ‘biblical’ – usually that means plucking Systematic Theology from the Bible!
  • The relationship of BT to ST.  Systematics is very important (don’t try to cast me as a BT flag-waver in the BT-ST war!  I attend Dogs in Edinburgh every two years for Pete’s sake!).  However, an over-reliance on ST is not good.  The development of BT as a discipline has accompanied the Church’s developing appreciation of the historical nature of the Faith.  Although Gabler’s original proposals for BT were off-beam in some respects, at least he was right in this: that BT ought to form the foundation for ST.  It’s my humble opinion that both BT and ST flag-wavers need to recognise the inter-related nature of their disciplines in the service of the Church.  The Church needs ST.  The Church needs BT.  And successful ST needs BT.
  • BT, History and Categories.  The fact remains that ST presents theology within an artificially imposed framework.  The categories of ST are often not the categories of scripture.  The framework within which scripture is placed per se in the canon is an historical one (notwithstanding the presence of the wisdom literature, Von Rad’s infamous nemesis).  BT fundamentally operates within, and presents its results within, this framework, whereas ST does not.  There is a great need for the Christian in the pew to recover the historical and eschatological component to the Faith.  BT is assisting this in the Church.  It is of huge importance at this time.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Problem of History

jerusalem For what it’s worth, here’s a bit more on the hermeneutical problem of history, an extract taken from the conclusion to my paper on the subject:

‘…According to Troeltsch, it was the Church's insistence on seeing all of history within the framework of supernaturalist theology that hindered historical enquiry for 1500 years, up until the Renaissance. Whilst Troeltsch's view is undoubtedly conditioned by the over-confidence of the modernist project, it is true that the Reformation alliance of epistemology and theology was a much-needed development. Calvin's correct insistence on the link between knowledge of God and knowledge of the self has enabled philosophical investigation to contribute to the field of biblical hermeneutics. Thiselton's defence of the role of philosophy in hermeneutics is important for any reassessment of biblical hermeneutics. Practitioners must recognise the modernist substructure of the historical-critical method. Post-modernism's challenge to this substructure presents three contenders for a philosophy of history: realist/empiricist; idealist; or postmodern. The Church, with the benefit of two millennia of history, has an opportunity to re-examine these alternatives. This is why new proposals from scholars such as Meyers and Wright (for a new foundation for historical investigation based on critical-realism) are such an important development. To aid the Church's task, the Church can reflect on pre-modern interpretation. The recognition of different levels of textual meaning contrasts with the reductive modernist view of a single layer of meaning. The lectio divina emphasis on subordination to the text contrasts with modernisms critical judgement of the text. The 'rule of faith' as appeal to community tradition and the metanarrative of scripture contrasts with both the sterile individualism of modernism and the metacriticism of postmodernism. These positive pre-modern traits are seen in many postmodern approaches. However, the postmodern total collapsing of hermeneutics into the horizon of the reader is incompatible with the claims of Christian truth. The metacritical approach, which denies the metanarrative of Christian truth, must be countered by the Church. Pannenburg shows the way in viewing history as metanarrative in the widest sense of the word, embracing not only the past, but, through eschatology, the future – even if that future is only 'provisionally and proleptically accessible'. Modernity has established an awareness of temporal distance and impelled the Church to take the historical phenomenality of scripture seriously...’

Reflections on Hermeneutics

wittgenstein For various reasons, I ended up taking Hermeneutics under the rubric of the Year 4 Guided Reading module, although a Hermeneutics course is offered at Level 4.  The advantage of this approach was that I could tailor the module (in discussion with my supervisor – Dr Jamie Grant).  So, I ended up writing three assessment papers:

  • Barriers to interpretation in ancient texts and the methods that have been adopted in an attempt to overcome them throughout the history of the Church.
  • a book review of Words and the Word: Explorations in the Bible and Literary Theory.
  • Human authorship and scriptural authority with special reference to Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation and McGowan’s The Divine Spiration of Scripture.

A brief thought on each of these follows:

  • barriers to the interpretation of ancient texts arise fundamentally because of the ‘problem of history,’ the problem of the ‘pastness of the past.’  So, in my paper I examined the historical Church’s awareness of this problem.  It is only since the Reformation that the Church has begun to truly get to grips with the historical nature of our faith, based as it is on divine intervention in human history, and the associated problem of bridging the historical distance.  After the existential disconnection of post-Bultmannian theologies and the sterile criticism of modernity, it’s time for the Church to get to grips with the problem of history constructively.  And, I think it is (beginning to get to grips with it).  I’ll post some more on this (perhaps).
  • Being borne in the womb of Imperial College, trained as an proper engineer, then as a policy-making ‘soft engineer’, literature has been for a long time on the fringes of my education (O’ level English Literature is the fringe I’m talking about!).  Of course, studying theology has put paid to that.  And I had a lot of catching up to do on literary theory etc.  So, this essay enabled me to get to grips with an area of hermeneutics that still appears, to many scholars it seems to me, like the Land of Mordor, shielded from view on all sides by high mountains.  Well, I passed Shelob’s Lair and went in for a look!  And lo, ‘twas a fearsome land!  But I returned alive and better informed about Wittgenstein (that’s him above, by the way), speech-act theory, poetics and rhetoric (although to be fair we’ve done lots of rhetoric as part of the NT courses).
  • This one is the (extremely) hot potato, especially with the furore over Divine Spiration, the book by HTCs former principal.  I was dismayed over the attacks made on a good man, who is honestly grappling with a subject where amongst some evangelicals there is little desire for honest and open discussion and doctrinal development.  Few of the attackers engaged with the substantive issues.  Anyway (avoiding fresh potato burns), I posted plenty at the time on this subject...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Reflections on 1 Corinthians (Greek Text)

paul5 And so begins the final series of reflections on my time at Highland Theological College as a theology undergraduate.  The 1 Corinthians module is a Greek text module and is a first semester Year 4 module, meaning that I was taught this module by Dr Mike Bird during his last semester at HTC.

The module aims to equip the student to interpret this letter in its historical setting, to discover its theological and ethical significance for today and hopes (according the the blurb) to discover the student demonstrating ‘comfortable familiarity with the methods and resources required for Greek textual exegesis’!

Here are a few of my highlights:

  • Mike getting us to read and translate from a copy of the p46 manuscript (not easy when you’re attuned to UBS4)!
  • Reading on historical setting and archaeology in Corinth.  Thiessen on social stratification was hugely interesting for gaining an insight into the background of the letter, as was Murphy-O’Connor on archaeology at Corinth.  I think it was Bishop Stephen Neill who wrote about the need for eminence in the fields of the exegete, the theologian and the historian in order to be successful in probing Christian antiquity.  I think the successful exegete or theologian (or Christian) must be at least mindful of the importance of  history, even if he or she cannot achieve eminence as a historian!
  • Reading Richard Hays on ‘The Conversion of the Imagination’ in NTS 45 (1999).  If you have the slightest interest in Pauline eschatology then try to get your hands on this paper.  I think this really was one of the most important things I read all year.
  • Interacting with Pete Enns’s stuff on the extant ’Moveable Well’ tradition that seems to stand behind some of Paul’s material in chapter 10.
  • Writing the assessment paper on the resurrection body in chapter 15.  The role of vv38b-41 in Paul’s argument is not immediately apparent, but it seems clear to me that in this chapter Paul is making a direct allusion to the second triad of the creation narrative of Genesis 1.  Therefore, far from this section inviting limitless conjecture as to the future ‘glory’ of the resurrection body being like the glory of the stars, Paul actually sees the resurrected body taking its appropriate place within the second triad of a renewed creation, where each body has its appropriate ‘glory’.  It would seem to me that this indicates a continuance of the framework provided by the first triad of creation, which is not mentioned but assumed.
  • Grappling with psychikos and pneumatikos (again, for the assessment paper).  It’s not easy to decipher the significance of psyche, especially since in 1 Corinthians it appears with negative connotation in 2:14 and 15:44 and without negative connotation in 15:45.  I can’t go into details here, but basically I think that the answer lies along the same trajectory as Paul’s use of sarx, which can possess both negative and neutral meanings.  In short, there is an aspect of psyche and sarx that must be done away with, but nevertheless the bodily nature of the resurrection is maintained, such that we will still be psyche (but not psychikos) and sarx (but not sarkikos) - our existence will be best described as pneumatikos.

Friday, September 03, 2010

China and the Authority of Jesus

china The VdT silence is broken!

Soon, I will post reflections on my final year modules at HTC (yeah, yeah…you said that before), and perhaps a few other reflections on my time at HTC.  But I wanted to post something before that…

On Sunday last, I was preaching on Matthew 28:16-20 in a Church of Scotland congregation in North Uist.  The words of Jesus, recorded by Matthew, are pregnant with prophetic power.  I was citing the growth of Christianity in China as a powerful example of the fulfilment of the words of Christ: ‘all authority has been given to me, in heaven and on earth.’

How wonderful it was, then, to listen to Crossing Continents on Radio 4, reporting on this phenomenon, and to hear new Christians being baptised ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ in obedience to Jesus’ command.  Of course, Christianity’s growth in China is not straightforward; there are many issues and potential problems.  However, it is a cause for praise.  In the words of one of the interviewees: ‘God is doing a great job in China!’

China is quickly becoming one of the most prominent global economic powers, and hence political powers.  The waxing of the dominance of the West, especially in Old Europe, reminds me of the words of Moore in his Zephaniah commentary: ‘The kingdoms, powers and governments of world history are the scaffolding for the kingdom of God, to be torn down when their purposes are accomplished.’