Friday, June 13, 2008

On asking the right questions

While reading Thiselton's brilliant The Hermeneutics of Doctrine recently, which I will review in the next few weeks, I had a surprisingly simple 'ah ha!' moment. 'Gadamer follows R. G. Collingwood', Thiselton explains, 'in the belief that we can say that we understand "only when we understand the question to which something is the answer ..."' (p. 4).

I am presently running a bible course in Tübingen, looking at the Apostle Paul, and the relevance of this statement hit me with fresh insight. One of the foundations for understanding the Apostle, I am arguing (following Wright, peace be upon him), is the relation between 'creation' and 'covenant' (cf. Eph. 1-3; Rom. 1-11; Col. 1:15-20; Gal. 3-4; 2 Cor. 3-5; 1 Cor. 15 etc.). So I started the course this evening with the following words:

In order to best understand a text, it is important to know the question(s) to which that text is supposed to be an answer. For Paul, this means we need to understand the importance of the relation between creation and covenant.

I explained the first part of the proposition in the following way:

Imagine if an alien comes to earth and discovers a phone book, our green man will not be able to understand the lists of numbers unless he has some understanding of human communication, technology and specifically the phone system. He may sit down with the phone book in front of him and develop all kinds of theories concerning what kind of information it gives him, and what the phonebook personally say to him, but unless he knows some of the necessary background information he won't be able to formulate the right questions about the purpose and content of the phone book.

I continued with reference to an amusing story:

In reading Paul we are reading somebody else's mail. And whether we come to his letters with the right questions will determine how far we understand him. An amusing, and extreme, example of misunderstanding somebody else's mail is worth citing:

An American Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to experience warm weather during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules.
So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realising his error, sent the email.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston , a widow had just returned home from her husband's funeral. He was a minister who died and went to be with Christ following a heart attack. The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow's son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I've Arrived
Date: October 16, 2005
I know you're surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I've just arrived and have been checked in. I've seen that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then!!!! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. Sure is freaking hot down here!!!!

This happened because of an unfortunate coincidence of appropriate language in two very different situations. Does the fact that we use the same language as Paul (such as 'gospel', 'the righteousness of God', 'sin' etc.) sometimes give many of us the deceptive feel that we understand Paul, when indeed in many areas we do not?


At 6/14/2008 8:32 AM, Blogger scott gray said...

we are reading someone else's mail. and we also treat this mail like it was more important than a personal letter.

in some ways, i think paul knew these letters would be perceived as more than personal mail, and wrote knowing we would read over the reciever's shoulder. but i also think that paul used these letters to think out loud, so that each letter (the 'original' at least, not the redacted results) is a theological snapshot, with the 'temporariness' of any 'snapshot of the moment.'

we deify the results, i think, instead of appreciating the process of paul's 'theologizing' (st. anselm's 'faith seeking understanding,' for instance).

At 6/14/2008 9:47 AM, Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...

I have questions about Paul, I hope they're "right." They all revolve around my perception of him as a crazy first-century cult-like leader. Wait... hear me out...

1) Why does Paul say in 1 Cor. that "many of you have become ill and some have fallen asleep [died]" as a result of not celebrating the Lord's Supper properly? Does anyone blame "many illnesses" plus "some deaths" in churches today on such things as not celebrating the Lord's Supper properly? How many Christians today believe that God continues to curse Christians with disease and/or death for not celebrating the Lord's Supper properly? Was Paul wrong about this or not? It sounds kinda like a teaching a crazy cult leader might espouse, doesn't it?

2)Why does Paul suggest casting people out of the church and declaring them cursed, anathema (shunning outside the church was also probably de riguer in such cases), that they may be "turned over to Satan" and "their flesh destroyed." What kind of teaching is that? Curses, anathemas, shunning, turned over to Satan to have their flesh destroyed [praying for the worst to happen to people so that they will come crawling back to your cult like a beaten stray dog]? Again, those kinds of reactions can be seen in cults and cult leaders who seek to inculcate obedience via fear. It also reads like those who leave on their own might not be so bad off, because well, it was their choice, but if you've got someone in the church who wants to stay and you tell THEM to LEAVE, then you can exert control with the magical "anathema" words and "turning them over to Satan." This is so cultish.

3)Why does Paul say this about woman, sex, and marriage:

It is good for a man not to touch a woman [sexually?]… For I would that all men were even as I myself [celibate?]… I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I [remain celibate?]… But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [what a positive statement about marriage, why isn't it cited more at Christian weddings?]… I say, that it is good for a man so to be… Are you loosed from a wife? seek not a wife… The time is short: it remains that they that have wives be as though they had none… He that is unmarried cares for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married cares for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married cares for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your own profit… that you may attend upon the Lord without distraction.
- 1 Corinthians 7:1,7,8-9,26-27,29,32-35

Sounds close to things I've heard cult leaders teach. But this next example really opens one's eyes, talk about reving up the old cult-engines.

4) Words of Paul: ...The rulers of this age... are passing away ["will not last much longer" - Today's English Version] ... Do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts... The time has been shortened so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away ["This world, as it is now, will not last much longer" - Today's English Version]... These things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come... Proclaim the Lord's death until he comes... For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming... We [Paul and the first century believers being addressed] shall not all sleep... At the last trumpet... the dead will be raised... and we shall be changed. Maranatha [="Come Lord"] [1 Cor 2:6; 4:5; 7:29-31; 10:11; 11:26; 15:22-23; 51-52; 16:22]

Yet they ALL SLEPT, regardless of Paul's letter promising them that "We shall not all sleep."

And today we call that first century cult, "Christianity."

At 6/14/2008 1:04 PM, Anonymous steph said...

That's hilarious! You're dead right (in reading things differently from the intended audience though, not of course in following Wright:-)).

At 6/14/2008 7:09 PM, Blogger Angie Van De Merwe said...

Edward, I wish more believed as you. But, unfortunately, it is true that Christians have dogmatized Paul and attempt to apply his advice to every situation! It is hard not to loose heart.

At 6/15/2008 1:50 AM, Blogger Angie Van De Merwe said...

In light of what you've stated, are you suggesting that "training" the Gentiles in the right "ethic" is what Paul was trying to do? And it is the creation/covenant model that Paul underwrites?

This would be palatable to me IF it were not all contained within Scripture. For one has to believe that Scirpture has some supernatural understanding of "god" and "special revelation"...Scriptures were written by men in seeking to understand "god" and was an ethnocentric understanding of "history". Two comments can be made about the "historicity" of Scripture;1) all history is ethnocentric, because it is written from a "perspective" 2.) Not all of Scripture is "historical", but myth, or story..Scripture was also written by men who were seeking a way to understand what had happened to them in their context and experience and some of Scripture was written with scribal interests... "meaning making" was helpful to "bear up" under persecution, disappointment, and suffering...
And I'm "afraid" that there are Christians "out there" that would "train" in righteousness by bringing suffering upon another "for God's purposes" and call it "discipline". This is no less than what Islamic fundamentalist do in rendering "right ordering" of life...
Maybe I am misguided, but I am still pursuing a "reason for faith"...

At 6/15/2008 10:49 AM, Anonymous Ranger said...

Interesting thoughts, I'm pretty sure I've read them before though. Are those copied and pasted from something you've posted elsewhere? More on your comment in my response to Chris.

First, where did you get that story at the end? I agree with Steph, it's hilarious! Was it in Thiselton's book? I've heard his book is great, but didn't know it was funny too.

I think Ed's comment is a fine example of your overall point. We come to Paul with our own questions based on our modernistic mindsets (or anti-modernistic, postmodern...or one of the various other epistemologies in our pluralistic society). We come to Paul with our churched, non-churched and anti-churched backgrounds. We come to Paul with our Western or Eastern cultural backgrounds (as someone living in China let me assure you that this makes a huge difference, and that we don't even ask near the same types of questions). And in this mess of backgrounds that define who we are, we attempt to read the text and find the meaning of it.

If we read the text solely from our perspective and don't seek to find the questions Paul is actually answering or the situations he is addressing, then he will surely come off as the cult leader Ed is portraying him as. Ed's portrait based solely on the stranger passages of 1st Corinthians looks very much like a David Koresh or Yisrael Hawkins. If we stop at the question, "Why would Paul ever say that?" (especially when what he says clashes with our western mindsets) then Ed's statements are surely justified.

But, if we move deeper into the text, looking behind what Paul is saying, searching the cultural context, probing for the situational context and seeking to understand the context in the greater narrative, then we will find Paul's real questions and see how these strange passages answer them.

At 6/15/2008 4:36 PM, Blogger Looney said...

This post reminded me of Deep Thought in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. Douglas Adams' conclusion was that finding out what the correct question was would involve serious damage to the brain.

Yes, to some extent we are looking at someone else's mail. On the other hand, Colossians 4:16 says,

"After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea."

There is 2 Corinthians 3:2 -

"You yourselves are our letter, written on our heats, known and read by everyone".

And 1 Thessalonians 5:27 -

"I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers."

Paul has anticipated that others will read his mail and given instructions that this is what should be done; though I doubt he had an appreciation of the extent to which his mail would be read. Many others have written letters with the recognition that they would be read by a wider audience, such as Machiavelli's letter regarding an encounter with a prostitute. In the example Chris cited, the e-mail was only intended to be read by 'My Loving Wife' and it was written accordingly.

Paul was well aware that his letters would be read far and wide and wrote accordingly. He couldn't anticipate future cultures and civilizations, but he could highlight the concerns that he believed were culturally universal.

Thanks for helping me clarify something.

At 6/16/2008 11:09 AM, Blogger Phil Sumpter said...

On the question of context, the canonical may add an interesting twist to the historical. Childs' (pbuh) latest book has been posthumously published. It's on how to read Paul in canonical context. If you haven't got time I could always review it for you ... ;)

At 6/16/2008 11:21 AM, Blogger Phil Sumpter said...

Here's the blurb: Brevard Childs here turns his sharp scholarly gaze to the works of the apostle Paul and makes an unusual argument: the New Testament was canonically shaped, its formation a hermeneutical exercise in which its anonymous apostles and postapostolic editors collected, preserved, and theologically shaped the material in order for the evangelical traditions to serve successive generations of Christians. Childs contends that within the New Testament the Pauline corpus stands as a unit bookended by Romans and the Pastoral Epistles. He assigns an introductory role to Romans, examining how it puts the contingencies of Paul’s earlier letters into context without sacrificing their particularity. At the other end, the Pastoral Epistles serve as a concluding valorization of Paul as the church’s doctrinal model. By considering Paul’s works as a whole, Childs offers a way to gain a fuller understanding of the individual letters.

Mmmmm. We need to invent a way to typographically represent profuse salivating.

At 6/16/2008 6:58 PM, Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...


Hi Ranger,

I agree with you that one must, "move deeper into the text, looking behind what Paul is saying, searching the...context, probing..."

Indeed, that is true of all texts:

A wise man can read a Bazooka Joe comic and discover profundity.

While an ass can read Dostoevsky and discover nothing but assininity.

However, after reading Paul even with the eyes of moderate/liberal theological vision (from Robert F. Capon to Paul Tillich's interpretations), I had to admit to myself that I would rather be in the company of a wise and sometimes funny ancient Greek philosopher or playwrite than in the company of a rabid uncompromising evangelist like Paul.

At 6/16/2008 7:02 PM, Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...

QUESTIONS PAUL NEVER HAD TO DEAL WITH (from T. de Chardin's works)

"A mankind which proclaims that it is alone, or in a special position, in the universe reminds us of the philosopher who claims to reduce the whole of the real to his own consciousness, so exclusively as to deny true existence to other men...But just as the human soul is not alone, but essentially legion, on the surface of the earth, so it is infinitely probable that the conscious layer of the cosmos is not confined to a single point (our mankind) but continues beyond the earth into other stars and other times...
"How, then, is it that, against all probability, this particular mankind was chosen as the center of the Redemption? And how, from that starting-point, can Redemption be extended from star to star?

"As far as I can see, this question is still unanswered. The idea of an earth chosen arbitrarily from countless others as the focus of Redemption is one that I cannot accept; and on the other hand the hypothesis of a special revelation, in some millions of centuries to come, teaching the inhabitants of the system of Andromeda that the Word was incarnate on earth, is just ridiculous...

"All the worlds do not coincide in time! There were worlds before our own, and there will be other worlds after it...Unless we introduced a relativity into time we should have to admit, surely, that Christ has still to be incarnate in some as yet unformed star?...And what, then, becomes of "Christ being raised from the dead will never die again" (Rom. 6:9)?

[Also, what becomes of Christ's "return" to the earth and the "creation of a new heavens and a new earth?" If life exists on other worlds, will Christ be returning only to our world? Why should all of "heaven" be "recreated" when Christ merely returns to earth? -- ED.]

"There are times when one almost despairs of being able to disentangle Catholic dogmas from the geocentrism in the framework of which they were born...

"When a theologian is confronted with the growing scientific probability of multiple 'centers of thought' distributed throughout the cosmos, he can immediately see two easy (though deceptive) ways of avoiding the problem, and they are all the more attractive in that he has already followed them in the past.

"He can decide either that, alone among all the inhabited planets, earth has known original sin and hen needed to be redeemed; or, accepting the hypothesis of a universal original sin, he can assume that the Incarnation was effected only on earth, the other mankinds being, in addition, duly 'informed' of it in some way (!?).

"Or, finally, he can rely on the odds (very high odds, too) against any contact ever being made, by way of direct experiment (because of excessive distance in space, or non-coincidence in time), between earth and other thinking stars, and so maintain, against all probability, that earth alone in the universe is inhabited. And this simply means digging in his heels and saying that 'the problem does not exist.'

"It calls for no great learning to see and feel that in the present state of our knowledge about the dimensions of the universe and nature of life:

"a. The first of these three solutions is scientifically 'absurd'-in as much as it implies that death (the theological index of the presence of original sin) might not exist at certain points in the universe-in spite of our certain knowledge that those points are subject to the same physicochemical laws as earth. (It is embarrassing, unless it was meant as a joke, to read in Time, Sept. 15, 1952, the advice given by a teacher of theology-Fr. Francis J. Connell, Dean of Theology-to be wary of pilots of 'flying saucers': if they landed from a planet not affected by original sin, they would be unkillable.)

"b. The second is 'ridiculous,' particularly when one considers the enormous number of stars to be 'informed' (miraculously?) and their distance from one another in space and time. [Indeed, we have trouble enough convincing earthlings of the "truth" of the Biblical narrative, how much more so people on other worlds? -ED.]

"c. And finally the third is 'humiliating'-in as much as it would be one more instance of the Church apparently taking refuge in the unverifiable to protect the dogma.

"The sudden enlargement, as an experiential fact, of the 'spiritual' dimensions of the universe means that now we have a difficulty to face in our faith; and if we are to have a dignified and rewarding way of neutralizing the difficulty, we absolutely must find something better than such loopholes. Where shall we find it?...

"In earlier times, until Galileo, there was perfect compatibility between historical representation of the Fall and dogma of universal redemption. So long as people believed, as St. Paul himself did, in one week of creation and a past of 4,000 years-so long as people thought the stars were satellites of the earth, and that animals were there to serve man-there was no difficulty in believing a single man could have ruined everything, and that another man had saved everything."

- From Christianity and Evolution by Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, copyright © 1969 by Editions du Seuil; English translation copyright © 1971 by William Collins Sons & Co Ltd., and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

At 6/17/2008 12:16 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi All, no time tonight to comment on these stimulating responses, but I wanted to say to Ranger that I got the story at the end from an e-mail from my sister!

Edward, "I have questions about Paul, I hope they're "right.""

Nah, ALL wrong! Just kidding - no time to say anything else right now. I'll try and respond tomorrow. Thanks.


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