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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Want to Save Free Speech? Listen to Rod Dreher, Jordan Cooper, Issues ETC., etc…

Stefan Molyneux: "Free Speech is All That Matters."

Stefan Molyneux: “Free Speech is All That Matters.”

 

Popular libertarian You Tuber Stefan Molyneux argues with all his rhetorical might that “Free Speech is All That Matters”.

I balk at his insistence. I don’t like the way he puts that. While I find his supporting arguments for this persuasive and important when it comes to politics, overall I wonder about the implications of such words, such devotion. It almost sounds religious to me. Molyneux talks about the importance of humility and self-doubt, but of this he is certain!

Why the intensity of such conviction? In a related comment, Rachel Fulton Brown, University of Chicago professor, interestingly argues that:

“….the freedom of speech enshrined in our national culture was established first and foremost as a freedom to wrestle with religion. Freedom of speech means little without this religious content, which is why cries for contentless “free speech” are so vacuous.”

Versus Molyneux, I would argue that it is only in cultures influenced by Christianity that you get the fruits he so treasures.

So where is the West, guided thusfar by Christian rails, going? Will speech remain free? Is the artistic expression of a florist speech that should be protected, and not extracted as a mere product to be sold? Should local practices of “Christian-only prayer” at public meetings be ruled unconstitutional? (see yesterday’s unanimous decision at the Washington state Supreme Court and the decision by a federal appeals court) Will Christians remain free not only to believe what they want, but to speak their faith in the public square? To practice it not only on Sundays, but in public? What of their schools and universities?

And should we, like the Apostle Paul, insist on our rights by fighting politically – at least to some degree? Or by withdrawing in the hope of being strengthened to “give an answer for the hope that we have” when the world if finally ready to hear – and believe – again? This brings us to the ideas of Rod Dreher, the cultural observer at the American Conservative and a thoughtful Eastern Orthodox Christian. A few days ago, the well-known Christian commentator Albert Mohler had Rod Dreher on his show Thinking in Public to talk about Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option.

benedictoption

It was a fascinating and informative conversation, and one which I would recommend to everyone (I first talked about Dreher’s “Benedict Option” a couples years ago here).

The conversation between the two men ended with the following exchange, always a bit biting for folks like me (I need to hear it though!):

DREHER: …The Lord gave me a second chance, and I would have all your listeners realize that if they’ve got their heads buried in books–I love books, I write books–but it’s no substitute for the life of prayer and service.

MOHLER: Well, a classical historic Protestant can only say amen to that. Thank you, Rod, for this conversation; I’m deeply indebted to you.

That said, earlier in the conversation both men had clearly dealt with the importance of doctrine (note my bold in particular):

MOHLER: I read the articles that you wrote in the beginning, frankly I follow your column very closely at the American Conservative, and we’ve been watching you make this argument out loud for some time. And reading the book, it seems to me it’s significantly different than what I might have expected in terms of some your early articles on the Benedict Option, so let me just spell that out. You began by saying you’re not calling for us to head for the hills—you just used an illustration of heading for the hills—and as I look at those early articles in the American Conservative, it did appear you were calling, more or less—and those are of course partial arguments, just a few hundred words—but it appears you were calling to head for the hills. Nuance that a bit in terms of where you are in the book.

DREHER: I appreciate the chance to clarify this, and in fact my own thinking has been clarified through exchanges with my readers, through talking with Catholics and evangelical friends, and sort of working through these ideas. When people hear, “Head for the hills,” they think, you know, to light out for the mountains and build a compound and sit there and wait for the end. I don’t think we’re called to that. I know I’m not called to that; most people aren’t called to that. But it does mean doing what these monks in Norcia did initially. They were living right there in the town, but they were behind monastery walls. What does that mean for us? It means as lay Christians, we have to build some kind of walls to separate ourselves from the world so that we can continue to go out into the world and minister to people and be who Christ asked us to be. The culture itself is so toxic and so anti-Christian that we’re just not going to be able to make it if we let anybody and anything come into our hearts, into our imaginations. The monks in Norcia say, “We’re called to be monks, but we cannot be for the pilgrims who come to this monastery what Christ asked us to be if we don’t have that time away behind our walls for prayer and study and work.” I want to take that ethic and take it to lay Christian life. We need to have, for example, Christian schools. Not to shelter our kids from any bad idea that comes from the outside, but in order for them to be nurtured and to build that resilience within so when they do get out into the world, they know who they are, they know what they believe and why they believe it. And more importantly, they have participated and built practices necessary to live out this faith and to get the faith in their bones. Because if the faith is only in your head, if it’s only a series of arguments, you’re not going to make it.

MOHLER: You talk about a conversation, rather haunting actually, at a Christian university or college campus where the professors were telling you that so many Christian young people come, and even though they basically hold to some knowledge, genuine knowledge, of Christianity, it’s so superficial that it tends not even to last very long inside what’s defined as a Christian college and university.

DREHER: That’s true. I mean, the situation is horrible with Catholics, but this conversation you’re recalling was on an evangelical campus and the professors were saying, “We try our best; we can only have these kids for four years.” And these are all kids who came out of evangelical schools and evangelical churches. But this is the youth group culture. All it gave them was emotion and having fun. And one of these professors even said to me, “You know, I doubt that most of our kids are going to be able to form stable families.” That shocked me. I said, “Why’s that?” He said, “Because they’ve never seen it.”

MOHLER: I thought in reading that, once again, place still matters a great deal—and I mean place not just in terms of geography, but that and social context and social placement—because I think of the students at our school and I think the vast majority of them did see an intact family It was still close enough to them, if they didn’t come from it, then they saw it. But even in talking with students, you realize in concentric rings of their relationships, you get just one ring out, and then not to mention two or three rings out, and it’s very hard to find. And I think that’s so well documented in something like J.D. Vance’s work now. Where once you would have thought that respect for family and a traditional Christian morality and sexuality and all of that would’ve been taken for granted, it’s now hard to find on the ground….

I do not fully share Rod Dreher’s attitude when it comes to how we as Christians should engage the culture. That said, I can certainly say “Amen” to this exchange above. Because, to ape Molyneux, Jesus Christ is all that matters.

When I look back at my own life, I have no idea why I am as ferociously Christian – Lutheran – as I am. Not everyone in my family has kept the faith I hold on to. I think, however, that one thing that was very helpful for me was learning about the history of the Lutheran Church. I am thankful that I learned the content of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism as a child, but the importance of the words found therein really changed for me when I learned about the 1580 Book of Concord, otherwise known as the Lutheran Confessions (not even reading Martin Luther’s Large Catechism in college really helped me like this did).

Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison shows off a copy of his Book of Concord.

Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod President Matthew Harrison shows off a copy of his Book of Concord.

Actually, not even that is the full truth. More accurately, the Small Catechism became much more important to me after I learned about the history of the church that produced the Lutheran Confessions. For me, getting in touch with the living history underlying the doctrines in the Book of Concord was essential. As the Reformed commentator Michael Horton likes to put it, “the doctrine is in the drama”. One notes that this is definitely the case for the church’s book, the Bible. We are creatures who hunger not just for “propositional truths,” but the meaningful stories that help situate the important things we should know.

To that effect, I can’t help but recommend some of the podcasts Pastor Jordan Cooper has been doing on his show lately where he digs into the Lutheran Confessions, giving a good deal of background knowledge along the way.  The Small Catechism does indeed cover the core elements of the Christian faith, and we can never get to the bottom of the truths it contains. That said, as we mature and look to get our bearings in life, I think that knowing more about Bible, church history, and the history of the Reformation is critical in these last days to ground us in the faith.

An Introduction to Confessional Christianity

The Ecumenical Creeds and the Augsburg Confession

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Smalcald Articles, and Luther’s Catechisms

The Formula of Concord

(I’d also be remiss to point out that the fine show Issues ETC. also has done many excellent shows on the Book of Concord).

And that, I think, can’t not be good for any nation, including ours.

undertheinfluence

FIN

 

Images: Molyneux picture from Wikipedia Commons: “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license” ; Pastor Matthew Harrison with BOC from http://mercyjourney.blogspot.com/2009/04/minnie-me-book-of-concord.html

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Posted by on February 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Certitude vs. Certainty: What Can Neil Gorsuch and Martin Luther Teach Us About Knowledge and Truth?

Judge Neil Gorsuch

Judge Neil Gorsuch

 

Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s widely lauded pick for new Supreme Court Justice, will be big news for weeks to come. Gorsuch is, like Antonin Scalia before him, an “originalist” judge, meaning that he “interprets the Constitution based on its plain language and original public meaning.” (see here)

According to Wikipedia, “originalism is a way to interpret the Constitution‘s meaning as stable from the time of enactment” (italics mine). Stanley Fish however, rightly argues that “[originalism] is not an approach to interpretation, it is interpretation, because what else could you be doing when you’re trying to interpret the words of another except trying to figure out what that other meant by these words?” (italics mine; see more on Fish’s view and my response here). Therefore, the originalist is one who takes the words of the Constitution very seriously.

I suggest that Christians can see this as an opportunity for having discussions about the Bible and what it means for people today (which yes, many people are open to exploring when given the opportunity!). Particularly, we can appreciate how Christians like Martin Luther believed that hearing the words of Scripture not only brings personal certitude, but certainty. The distinction is subtle but important…

certitudecertainty

We will get to that below, but first we need to cover some preliminary ground. Here we go…

How does the judicial philosophy of originalism connect with Scriptural interpretation? The main point is this: like the originalist with the Constitution, the Christian takes the words of the Bible very seriously. And, in a critical difference, he does this not only because these words are thought to be wise, like the Constitution, but because they are believed to be the very word of God.

Not only this, but the Christian even talks about knowing these words to be the very Word of God. And this, of course, means Truth with a capital T. Knowledge. Wisdom. And Certainty. And the really crazy thing? It is not only Christians who know this, but at some level those who hear the word and do not put their trust in it know it as well.

Is this a Lutheran thing to say? Is this a Christian thing to say?

Yes. For example, Martin Luther not only held to a view of the Holy Scriptures that is similar to the way originalists deal with the constitution (directly comparing the Bible to the laws written in societies), but he also believed, contrary to many theologians today, that God made Himself and His will known to all though these words.

Seriously? Again, yes. Lutherans who adhere to the Lutheran Confessions today like to emphasize, along with the giant of 20th century theology Karl Barth, that unbelievers are not able to understand the true meaning of the Scripture (see I Cor. 2:14, for example). Luther, of course, believed that this was true as well in a sense: unbelievers could not begin to discern the depths of the Bible – its spiritual meaning. That said, at the same time he also taught, per passages like John 16:8-11, that the unbeliever could be given real knowledge of the truth though the Scriptures.

bondageofthewillIn his famed work The Bondage of the Will, we see concrete examples of this (all following quotations are from the J.I. Packer translation).

Luther begins his teaching on the nature of Scripture by noting that Isaiah 40:13 “does not say: ‘who has known the mind of Scripture?’ but: ‘who has known the mind of the Lord?’” Not only does God reveal His own mind in the Scriptures, but He also brings clarity:

“the perspicuity [i.e. clarity] of Scripture is twofold… The first is external, and relates to the ministry of the Word [“all that is in Scripture is through the Word brought forth into the clearest light and proclaimed to the whole world”!]: the second concerns the knowledge of the heart [“nobody who has not the Spirit of God sees a jot of what is in the Scriptures”!]” (BOTW, Packer ed., 73, 74).

This only gives us a clue of where Luther is going. Later in this book he uses Isaiah 8:20 (“…to the law and to the testimony…”*) to circle back to the importance of the clarity and decisiveness of Scripture. Simply from the Old Testament, to say nothing of the New, he marshals passages from Deuteronomy 17:8, Psalms 19:8 and 119:130, Malachai 2:7 and more to make his case. He writes:

“if laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them?… let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.”

Luther goes on to point out that Stephen, in the book of Acts, quotes Isaiah 66:1, “What is the house that ye build unto me?,” to prove to the Jewish council that God did not command his people to build a temple to Him. And here, he notes that Luke writes “they could not resist the spirit and wisdom with which he spake” (Acts 6:10), and that Jesus Christ Himself says of the words His heralds speak, “your adversaries shall not be able to resist.” Luther recalls that in response to Stephen’s words the council “shut their eyes and summoned false witnesses against him” – to which he replied “Ye uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.”

Luther than drops the hammer: “He says that they do resist, although they could not resist”, meaning that they very well knew the truth the external word brought but internally suppressed it in unrighteousness (see Romans 1). With Erasmus (and Rome) in his sights, Luther asks, with great rhetorical effect: “What is this but to say that their actual resistance will show their inability to resist?” (130-131)

In other words they know.

Do we have such confidence of the external clarity of the Bible – and the knowledge of truth that it brings? If not, why not? Should we seek such confidence? If not, why not?

Quoting Isaiah 6:10, “Hearing ye shall hear and shall not understand and seeing ye shall see and shall not perceive”, Luther is absolutely relentless:

“…reveal… how mighty is the dominion and power of Satan over the sons of men, which prevents them from hearing and grasping the plainest words of God, and makes them like men whom an illusionist has mesmerized into thinking that the sun is a cold cinder, or believing that a stone is gold… [Satan is the cause of man’s failure to grasp God’s words, and] if [he] did not do so, the whole world could be converted by a single word of God, hear once; there would be no need of more” (133-134).

From the parable of the sower: "the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart."

From the parable of the sower: “the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.”

Man’s failure to grasp God’s clear words (i.e. trust) does not result from weak understanding, as men like Erasmus claim, but on the contrary, weak understanding is ideal for grasping God’s words (133-134). Of course the Holy Spirit figures into all of this as well, as He works according to and through God’s word…

Can we, if we adopt the more subjective posture invoked by many modern biblical scholars, ever hope to nurture such confidence? That we possess knowledge of the truth and can and should assert the same to others?

Where was Luther wrong?

Is he wrong about the perspicuity, i.e. clarity, of Holy Scripture? Is he wrong about the knowledge that it brings those who hear it?

Today, we are told that even though we as Christians believe in Christ and know Him and His word to be true (and that we grow in this understanding!) this is, really, ultimately about our own personal certitude. In other words, this means that certainty is no longer associated with something that we can call real knowledge, but is actually just individual confidence, assurance, etc.

Regrettably, the fact/value split put forth most aggressively by the 18th c. philosopher David Hume has comes to an ever-greater flowering in what remains of Christendom.

I suggest that even one of the most conservative and respected Lutheran theologians of the last century got inadvertently caught up in this trap, saying the following almost 50 years ago:

“Scientific knowledge is evident knowledge; theology is by no means evident in the same sense, for it deals not with things to be known but things to be believed (τά πιστά). Therefore theology insists that reason that seeks to know theological matters be taken captive…”

The unintended implications of this view, I think, are that we lose Luther’s ability to assert. Luther believed that the Scriptures granted all persons true knowledge – even if that knowledge was suppressed and not understood in its full spiritual sense. And objective certainty triumphed over mere subjective certitude.

What does Christ’s church today believe? When He returns, will he find faith on earth?

Run for your life – to the Word (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11).

FIN

 

Notes:

*Of the Isaiah passage in particular he says it “dispatches all questions ‘to the law and to the testimony,’ and threatens that unless we comply the light of dawn must be denied us” (126).

 

Image credit for Gorsuch:

As a work of the United States Federal Government, the file is in the public domain in the United States.

The sower, Kew Gardens in London. Picture by mira 66, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

 

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Neil Gorsuch, Stanley Fish, Martin Luther, and the Bible: Whither Authoritative Interpretation?

Judge Neil Gorsuch

Judge Neil Gorsuch

A couple days ago, President Donald Trump’s proposed replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was announced. We read in Slate about U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit judge Neil Gorsuch:

“Gorsuch identifies himself as a textualist and an originalist in the tradition of Justice Antonin Scalia, meaning he interprets the Constitution based on its plain language and original public meaning.”

Across the board, American Christians seem quite happy about the decision (see here), and much of this has to do with the fact that Gorsuch is not an “activist judge” but an “originalist”.

What is this originalism and why is it so significant? You can delve into a helpful explanation here, but not too long ago on Albert Mohler’s show Thinking in Public, public intellectual Stanley Fish gave a helpful and very engaging overview of the different kinds of “originalism”:

Justice Scalia and I are—or were, I guess in his case, unfortunately—both originalists, and originalists at least in the context of constitutional interpretation, as someone who believes that basically the act of interpretation is the act of trying to figure out what the text originally meant when it was produced at whatever date. And I would say that that understanding of interpretation—that you’re trying to figure out what some speaker or writer meant—is not an approach to interpretation, it is interpretation, because what else could you be doing when you’re trying to interpret the words of another except trying to figure out what that other meant by these words? Where Scalia and I diverge is that he is a textualist originalist, and I am an intentionalist originalist. A textualist originalist thinks that the answer to the question, “Well what was meant by this text at the time of its junction?” is to be found by examining the text in and of itself independently of any consideration of intention or, Scalia said, independently of any consideration of legislative history. I, on the other hand, am firmly persuaded that the only way to get at the meaning of a text is to figure out what the author had in mind, or authors had in mind, at the moment of its production, and that if you just look at the text in and of itself it won’t tell you anything, or it will tell you too many things. But if you can at least make a good guess based on the available evidence about the spirit of purpose within which this utterance emerged, then you will have a way of determining what the text meant. So that we’re both originalists, but we diverge in the version of originalism each of us follows.

MOHLER: You know that’s really interesting because toward the end of his life, Justice Scalia actually preferred not to call himself an originalist at all, but rather a textualist, which just kind of affirms your analysis there.

NY Times op-ed columnist, Stanley Fish.

NY Times op-ed columnist, Stanley Fish.

FISH: Well yeah, that’s right. His textualism and my intentionalism are both variants of originalism, but originalism is I guess the mothership that houses us both.

MOHLER: So that leads to a couple of questions to me. The first is you said that that is not a method of interpretation, it is interpretation. So how can it be that in the modern academy interpretation is evidently something other than what you just to find it to be?

FISH: Well it’s because people have confused interpretation, and therefore meaning, with communication. Many have observed that any text that has either been uttered or written is available to many interpretations, and that has led people incorrectly to assume that texts or spoken words are irremediably ambiguous. And I would reply no, that’s not the case. The debates about interpretation, the interpretive debates over a text, either written or oral, are always debates about the spirit within which the text emerged—always debates about what the author or authors had in mind. And people who have different answers to that question—what the author or authors had in mind—will then see the text as meaning differently. And there’s been the unwarranted conclusion from that picture of interpretation that interpretation is entirely subjective and can go in any direction one likes. It’s not subjective, neither is it objective in the sense that there’s any machine for producing correct interpretations. What you have to do, and it’s an empirical exercise, is to try to figure out as best you can what the author or authors had in mind. Let me give you an example. My wife and I got off a plane in the small town of Stewart, Newburgh, rather Newburgh, New York, Stewart Newberg Airport at quarter to twelve in the evening, fifteen minutes before midnight, and we were immediately met as we stepped off the plane into the terminal by a sign that said, “Hot panini sandwiches now being served in the Euro Café.” So the question is, “What does that sign mean?” And it’s obvious that the sign could mean at least two things—actually more, but we’ll stick to two. It could mean either, “if you trot down the hall right now to the Euro Café, you will be able to enjoy a hot panini sandwich,” or it could mean, “we have now added hot panini sandwiches to our menu.” So how do you figure out which it means? And the answer is that you have to put yourself in the place of those who produced the sign, and you have to also note that you’re in a rural airport in upstate New York, and that in almost any airport in this country, aside from O’Hare and a couple of others, no restaurants are open at quarter to twelve in the evening. And therefore, through that kind of empirical reasoning, you can figure out what author or authors of the sign had in mind. The text itself won’t tell you, and that’s why I’m an intentionalist, not a textualist.

Fish’s objection to textual originalism is interesting. Clearly, sometimes when we look at a sentence the words and grammar make perfect sense but the sentence could have more than one meaning. For example, in a biblical Greek class I am taking right now, we translated a sentence into English that could have meant either “The slaves were killing the children with the disciples” or “The slaves were killing the children along with (i.e. “and”) the disciples”. We opted for the latter translation! (of course, as I recently heard someone say [Todd Wilken!], sometimes the words “good night” can also mean “leave me alone” but that is a different kettle of fish!)

And, of course, Fish’s example about the panini sandwich is  interesting and illuminating. Context is always an important element of any interpretation, and in the example he gives above, immediate contextual clues and background knowledge, of course, are critical. That said, while I am no expert in this topic, it seems to me that Fish’s objection is handled fairly easily. After all, in trying to make his case for “intentional originalism” I note that he does not use an example from the law. If he did that, of course, any sentence he might give would be surrounded by a great many more words in a document carefully crafted by lawyers or judges to be clear and concrete – aware of the fact that the words we speak and sentences we write are often liable to more than one interpretation.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

And of course, the primary author of the Bible, God Himself, would be aware of things like this as well. As Martin Luther said in the Bondage of the Will:

“…if laws need to be luminous and definite in secular societies, where only temporal issues are concerned, and such laws have in fact been bestowed by Divine bounty upon all the world, how should He not give to Christians, His own people and His elect, laws and rules of much greater clarity and certainty by which to adjust and settle themselves and all issues between them?… let us go on, and overwhelm this pestilent saying of the Sophists with passages of Scripture.” (p. 126, Packer edition)

When it comes to biblical interpretation, the most important contextual information in interpreting any particular sentence would be the words surrounding that sentence, including the rest of the entire book the words are drawn from (e.g. the book of Matthew). And then, going broader and deeper, we would look to the entire Bible that the church has recognized as the Word of God. Talking about things like geographical, historical, and cultural context are certainly important as well (see the amazing Acts commentary from Keener!), but even here, a great deal of this context can be found in the biblical books themselves. All of this information should give us our primary context for understanding what we read in the Bible.

Furthermore, given our view of the clarity that is found in the Bible, it would be safe to say that when it comes to Scripture, the “original meaning” (i.e. what reasonable persons would have understood the text to be saying) cannot be explicitly divorced from the intent of the biblical authors, and ultimately, the Author (not to say that the understanding of the text’s meaning might not become deeper and more full as time goes on). Not only this, but we will become better interpreters of particular things that God says the more familiar we are will all that He has said. In other words, the more familiar we are with Him (see more thoughts on how we should see the Bible and apply it to our lives here).

Lastly, as Luther never tired of reminding us, all of these biblical words give us Christ, who reveals to us the fullness of God’s heart towards His fallen creatures. The Bible, in other words, is the cradle that introduces us to the Word made flesh, for us.

FIN

Note: minor changes made to text after initial publishing.

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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