What Athens needs from Jerusalem: the theology of facts vs the theology of rhetoric writ large (part III of III)

16 Sep
The sign of Jonah, given to you.  Matthew 12:38-42

The sign of Jonah, given to you. Matthew 12:38-42

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” I Cor. 1:23

Part I

Part II

According to Webster’s dictionary, sophistry is “a reason or argument that sounds correct but is actually false”, or “subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation”.

For the sophist, the cultural currents that they desire to follow determine their rhetoric – and anything that might be said to have an essence, substance or nature must be malleable.  The only questions here are “how far can we go?” and “how fast should we try to go?”  The true philosopher, alternatively, seeks for truth, and with this the unchanging things.  And yet we must say it again: philosophy apart from the Christian faith falls so very short.  The reason again is that it fails to take into account the actual importance of knowledge about the past being handed down to all human beings for the purpose of saying anything of lasting meaning or value.  It is Christians alone – with their pointing out God’s mighty works testifying to Himself throughout history, particularly in the resurrection of Christ – who practice and utterly depend on the theology of facts.  Among world religions, Christianity lives and dies by history (see I Cor 15). 

Ancient stories of a great flood are found worldwide, and as the Encylcopedia Britannica notes, “Oral history is still important in all parts of the world, and successful transmission of stories over many generations suggests that people without writing can have a sophisticated historical sense.” Noah's Ark (1846), Edward Hicks

Ancient stories of a great flood are found worldwide, and as the Encylcopedia Britannica notes, “Oral history is still important in all parts of the world, and successful transmission of stories over many generations suggests that people without writing can have a sophisticated historical sense.”  “The Deluge”, Gustave Dore

In short, without a story of man’s past as a primary consideration, even essence-loving philosophers (“conservatives” relatively speaking, for they and those before them were not conservative in altering or finally abandoning the Biblical account) simply practice another type of theological rhetoric.  But why insist on lumping the philosophers together with theologians?  It is because it is not only everyman, but serious philosophers as well, who inevitably end up making claims – false or insufficient claims – about the transcendent and divine.  No human being can avoid being a religious creature, even as they also suppress the truth about religion they do know to varying degrees.

The modern scientific mindset, which supplanted classical philosophy in influence and authority, and of which Christians are not exempt*, is always tempted to think along these “scientific” lines: “all I need to know in order to know what can and should be known I should be able to gather from observations and experiences in the present”.

C.S. Lewis took on Hume's "scientific" assumptions in "Miracles".

C.S. Lewis took on Hume’s “scientific” assumptions in “Miracles”.

And even those who fight against the humanities-steamrolling modern scientific enterprise may fall prey to a similar – though more refined (i.e. more cultured – amenable to the best of Renaissance humanism and having an appreciation of the liberal arts) – “all I need to know…I should be able to gather…in the present” mentality when it comes to the matter of real knowledge of the past.  Often, they are “postmodern” in their outlook, for postmodernism is really just a logical outgrowth of their tendency to see any knowledge of significance as deriving from this overarching methodology – and other scientific principles like it – aloneTrapped without a cosmic past handed down from their fellow human travelers, all they seem to be left with is the particles “out there”, the tyranny of individual interpretation, and the knowledge that their scientific methodologies alone can provide.   

Johann Georg Hamann as summed up by his Wikipedia article: faith in God is the only solution to the vexing problems of philosophy.

Johann Georg Hamann’s view of philosophy, according to his Wikipedia article: faith in God is the only solution to the vexing problems of philosophy.

For example, we see this in spades in the argument of Louis Mink about the discipline of history, quoted by the Oxford linguist and philosopher, Roy Harris, in his book The Linguistics of History:

Narrative form in history, as in fiction, is an artifice, the product of individual imagination.  Yet at the same time it is accepted as claiming truth – that is, representing a real ensemble of interrelationships in past actuality.  Nor can we say that narrative form is like a hypothesis in science, which is the product of individual imagination but once suggested leads to research that can confirm or disconfirm it.  The crucial difference is that the narrative combination of relations is simply not subject to confirmation or disconfirmation, as any one of them taken separately might be.  So we have a second dilemma about historical narrative: as historical it claims to represent, through its form, part of the real complexity of the past, but as a narrative it is a product of imaginative construction, which cannot defend its claim to truth by an accepted procedure of argument or authentication.  (Mink, Historical Understanding, Cornell U. Press, 1987, 199)

Here, the desire to know what has happened leading up to today becomes, for all practical purposes, irrelevant to the big questions of life.  One can and should certainly insist that Mink goes too far **, but insofar as he shows that history is not able to be “tested in the lab” of modern science quite like other phenomena, his point is of course valid.  “Beyond a reasonable doubt” – the standard used in courts of law – is still not subject to experimentation and observation in the present like balls of different mass falling at the same speed.  Still, does that mean such knowledge is nothing – anything but knowledge?  Is the only knowledge of the past that we should know – more, that we are accountable for – that which can be proven to us according to our satisfaction – according to our very own reasonable standard?  If we assert this to be true on what basis do we do so?  How do we know this is true?  We are indeed assuming that man – and ourselves personally – is the measure of all things.

Oxford linguist Roy Harris' philosophical critique.

Oxford linguist Roy Harris’ philosophical critique.

All this said, here ancient, or classical, philosophy in particular is of little help to us as well, for as Roy Harris points out in his work, it seems that there are cogent reasons for doubt to be introduced about this or that account of the past – or the very possibility of history for that matter.  I note, with Harris’ critique from Rationality and the Literate Mind and After Epistemology in hand, that even if the Greek philosophers had seen history as being very significant to their philosophy (and again, they did not), other philosophers could have raised all kinds of interesting challenges pertaining to how the idea of “essence”, or nature, worked with human language, particularly words (something Hindu and Buddhist-inspired Indian philosophers probably could have told them) – and pointed out how this was a challenge for passing on any account of the past.  For example, the philosophy-savvy linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, writing in 1836, said the following:

“Only in the individual does language receive its ultimate determinacy.  Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbor does, and the difference, be it ever so small, vibrates, like a ripple in water, throughout the entire language.  Thus all understanding is always at the same time a not-understanding, all concurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence (Humboldt, On Language, Cambridge U. Press, 1988 [1836], 63)”***

Logically, this seems to be a valid point and may be why philosophers like Aristotle have today largely fallen out of favor.  But it is Christians who know that both trust that accurate messages from the past have been reliably handed down – and trust in the capacity of language to do this – are not only possible, but absolutely necessary.  And many non-Christians – even some who are familiar with philosophical objections like these but take them with a grain of salt – know that this is true as well (this incidently, is why I think the Darwinian account will fail – because it is an overly ambitious reconstruction of the past**** done without any accounts handed down from any beings living at the time).  So, overall, this quote fails to stick as well, as it is “another classic example of the rare exception becoming a rule that throws everything into doubt”, as my pastor commented to me. 

So how can all this be summed up?  Here is my attempt:  all modern science – and even philosophy – without corresponding “accounts from the past” is a kind of “theology of rhetoric”.  There is a “conservative theology of rhetoric” (increasingly rare) that clings to essences (that go beyond physical particles) without giving a primary place to accounts of the past (essences without history), and a “liberal theology of rhetoric”, that takes off with philosophers like Hegel (history without essences).  Here, if anything, the word “essence” comes to be associated with things like class, race, gender, religion and even sexual desire.

Essentially, a mess.

Essentially, a mess.

Not to say that those who practice the Christian religion cannot be said to be new creatures – having new essences/natures (still, we are those who do speak for good reason about the two natures in Christ or the two natures of a Christian)!  Still, this is an identity that is not worldly, but spiritually humble.  It is like Perpetua, the early 3rd c. martyr, said:

“Father, said I, Do you see (for examples) this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be?  And he said, I see it.  And I said to him, Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?  And he answered, No.  So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.”

"So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian."

“So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.”

What more needs to be said?  Well, without tradition – without a sharing of the world’s most important events from the real past that are carried forth into the real present – through the clear words of faithful witnesses – we cannot be saved.  One might hope for more, but we are told that this is how God works, how the Holy Spirit works (John 16:8-11)  – we have no hope for a general “world spirit”, at odds with the written Word of God, that comes forth immediately from the Triune God.

Further, we in the Christian church cannot even synthesize this true history with someone like Plato, whose philosophy can easily serve to undercut all communication about the concrete material world we must live in – particularly written communication (i.e. “history” in the strictest sense of that word) – only to find refuge in the unchanging Forms above.  For we assume that it is possible that not only God, but human beings as well, are capable of successfully communicating all-important truths and facts through time using both spoken and written words (not to undermine or minimize the importance of other forms of human communication).  We would be rightfully angry if we had an important message to pass on to the future and, after “putting it in writing” for the purposes of safeguarding it, others following us gave up on trying their best to understand what we meant to say – especially if we had chosen our words very carefully, considering how matters of cultural and historical context could possibly affect their interpretation.

Did the Pope really say....  "God forgives those who obey their conscience" (see here)

Papa, are we by nature children of wrath who must call upon Jesus to be saved?

While context is certainly important, the content is always the issue.  While there is much that genuinely might confuse us, we also know that there is much that we can begin to understand.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the external clarity of the Scriptures can be made internally clear to us by faith (see here for some help)

"It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” -- Mark Twain

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” — Mark Twain

Perhaps the biggest problem here, as Vilmar alludes to, is that many modern theologians do not want words and ideas – theirs’ and others’ – to be clear – at least in some circumstances?  “Did God really say?”  “Did I really say?”

As we saw in the previous post, Karl Barth once called Vilmar an “obscurantist”, which means, among other things: “A style in art and literature characterized by deliberate vagueness or obliqueness.”  I will just say this: Barth is really the one I have trouble understanding, not Vilmar. 


Empty tomb: ; Flood pic: Wikipedia ; Hamann pic: Wikipedia ; Perpetua pic: Wikipedia ; Pope Francis: Wikipedia ; Twain pic:

*: From an Amazon book review (here): “’[Great Chrstian minds believed] that in discerning quantifiable laws of nature they were seeing into the mind of the one true (Christian) God. These great Enlightenment figures seldom doubted that the Bible, Christian doctrine, meticulous philological and historical studies, and scientific method, all would surely and harmoniously converge in one grand vision of The Truth. Catholic persecution of their contemporary Galileo seemed a sham and a waste of time; when in 1705 Edmond Halley claimed a comet (observed by Kepler in 1607) as the same one to have been observed roughly every 76 years for two millenia and correctly predicted its return for 1758, epistemology seemed like a done deal.”

** My pastor responded to me about this quote: “A simple restatement of Lessing’s Ditch. Of course, it is only partially true. A narrative of the building of a cathedral, for example, can indeed be verified by the still-existing cathedral itself, or by other narratives, or by other buildings of the same period which still exist, etc. so forth and so on. Think here also of the founding of a nation. If the nation still exists today, its very existence proves that it came into existence in some way at some time in the past. To discover how, narratives are compared to narratives which are also compared to existing structures and archeological discoveries. And here it also must be noted that the “data” of a narrative (dates, times, places, personages) is not in and of itself an artifice. It could be argued that such data may be used in such a way, but not necessarily so.

In short, Lessing’s Ditch is a theory which on first reading seems right, but on further reflection, is not necessarily so. It certainly is appealing to those who despise history to begin with and need only one good excuse to forgo its study…”

*** quote from Oxford linguist Roy Harris’, the Linguistics of History.  Elsewhere, he says, “Do we know what we are talking about?”, a question of linguistic epistemology, is the fundamental question of philosophy (47) (this, he says, is what Plato saw and tried to answer with his doctrine of the forms, 48).  Undoubtedly related to this are his questions like the following, which are especially important for the historian: “How do I know that my words actually mean what I think I am saying?”, “How can I be sure that my words mean what someone else takes them to mean?”, and “How do I know that my words state what is really the case?” (8).  It seems clear to me that Harris deserves credit here for making questions such as these explicit – it really would be good and salutary for more historians (and others) to reflect here!  But at the same time, for Harris, these questions are asked not with the intention of offering modern historians a minor course correction, but rather to help throw the supposedly venerable institution of which they are a part of into doubt.  In other words, these questions are meant to assist as show-stoppers en route to paving the way for Harris’ own intellectual program, i.e. integrational linguistics.

**** We cannot repeat the origin of the universe or the species in a lab.  In other areas of science, there is much that is replicable, or repeatable, and this creates confidence.  But when it comes to scientists as regards history, how much can we, or they, trust their judgment?  Who do we trust when it comes down to determining what has happened from the beginning of space and time (and what it means)?

It is not only creationists who make points like this:

“Science needs objective criteria to rank the value of predictions and observations without the appeals to authority inherent in peer review or “scientific consensus.” Observations that are experimentally repeatable should rank higher than historical observations whose repeatability is limited by increasing entropy. Specific predictions regarding future events should rank higher than expectations of future discoveries of pre-existing evidence. Thus, the science of natural law is inherently more objective than scientific descriptions of natural history.

What is the benefit of pretending that science provides the same high levels of certainty in historical theories of origins (species, universe, solar system) as the more objectively and repeatably testable quantum electrodynamics and classical mechanics (within their well-established areas of applicability)?”


Posted by on September 16, 2013 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “What Athens needs from Jerusalem: the theology of facts vs the theology of rhetoric writ large (part III of III)

  1. Kyle Sorkness

    October 15, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    Nathan, thanks for directing me to this series.

    I haven’t studied in this area before, so please forgive and correct me if the following question proves I’ve misunderstood or missed your point.

    Given that some traditions—by which I mean accounts of the past, as that is what I understood the primary definition of the term to be in this series—are true and some traditions are false, even within the church, how should the truthfulness of a tradition be determined (or: how should one determine which tradition to trust)?

    • infanttheology

      October 15, 2013 at 6:43 pm


      Well, ideally, one is blessed to grow up in a family where the right tradition is passed on. If you are not, then it is good to doubt your tradition and examine the evidence of others. How to decide where to start? Here, we point to the uniqueness of Christian claims and the unique verification God provides: the resurrection of Christ. If you are talking about “Which Christianity?” here again, historical investigation is important.

      What about self-authentication? It is a factor, but not the all-encompassing factor. As I wrote in a previous post…

      “When we are brought to faith and sustained in that same faith, He is the One to whom we look. Him and no other! It is by His Holy Spirit that He calls us, enlightens us, and sanctifies us through His word and sacraments – His “means of grace”. When we hear His word preached we recognize its truth – and the power that it has to transform not only us – but the world. It is even, as some say, “self-authenticating” (and it doesn’t matter if Mormons, for example, say the same about their false message). In addition, those mature in the faith readily recognize this message vis a vis imposter messages – even if an “angel of light” performs the greatest of miracles to support the errors they bring, these faithful stalwarts will not be moved! (see Deuteronomy 13! –they are only interested in the “many infallible proofs” [Acts 1:3, see also Acts 2:22,32-36, 13:34 ; I John 1 ; and I Cor. 15] Jesus did that fulfilled OT prophecies about Him and further bolstered the OT-confirming message He brought)”

      I understand I am making a load of assertions here. Please challenge.



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