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Flotsam and jetsam (10/1)

The Hermeneutical Dilemma

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

I was happily finishing our week’s reading, relieved I was almost through, when I was taken aback by this quizzical statement:

A more recent philosophical development of theological interest, hermeneutics…

I stop the quote here not because there is not important information to follow but because this is where I dropped my book. Could it be!?! I asked myself, apparently aloud for my study partner raised his head. I gave him that snide look that says, That was not for you; get back into your reading, before continuing my reverie. Could it be!?! this time I asked in silence, has the purity of our biblical studies been tainted by this vile beast of philosophy at its very source. Subtle monster. Again, I must have spoken this last bit aloud for my study buddy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His eyes did not rise from his book.

I took a breath and continued. “…hermeneutics, actually has its source in a theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).” This statement on page 203 of Allen and Springsted’s Philosophy for Understanding Theology, Second Edition (creative citation) held my attention for some time as I sought several ways to dismiss it without serious thought. After feeling I had succeeded I continued on and finished the book certain I had escaped the shameful conclusion that our interpretations of Scripture are informed by, based on, or are in any way influenced by this insurrectional specter otherwise known as philosophy.

Alas, at night my thoughts held me captive and the name of a German theologian tormented my waking dreams: Schleiermacher.

Morning came. After discussing the origins of liberal theology with my wife over our morning tea, at her behest, (gosh, I need to learn to keep these inner thoughts to myself!) I waved goodbye, as she set off for work, and sat down to consider my day’s labor. How could I overcome my fears of this encroaching philosophy? Forgetfulness had failed; it must be faced head on. I decided to study the man himself.

Apart from his reputation bestowed by future generations as the Father of Modern Theology, Schleiermacher was a masterful translator, if not a mediocre philosopher. His translations of Plato’s works were highly influential for a century after his death and are still considered quite good.

Philosophically, Schleiermacher believed that there are deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual differences between people. He also believed that thought was bounded by (even identical to?) word usage. Taken together these two concepts declare that every individual has a vocabulary that, while heavily informed by their culture and time, is in fact unique to themselves – as unique as their own minds. This makes absolute (and sometimes basic) understanding between any two people challenging, and this challenge is only exacerbated by distance in time and culture. Consequently, the task of the interpreter is to get into the culture and ultimately into the mind of the writer, to learn the language the way it was used at that time and particularly the way it was used by that writer. Understanding is not a given, it is a challenge, and hermeneutics was developed to deal with that challenge. (For more about Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Schleiermacher:  . Similar concepts are discussed from different vantage points concerning different individuals in Philosophy for Understanding Theology, p203 ff.)

After reading the principles of interpretation as described by Schleiermacher I was stunned… they seemed so similar to my own. And yet, his work was considered ground breaking for its time (even if he was only one of many at that time breaking ground). Could it be that my beloved historical-critical method was not lifted directly from the pages of Scripture but was actually birthed and laid at theology’s doorstep by that whore, philosophy? If so, it is already too late. I cannot disown her now; I love her too dearly. If I were to leave her on this account, who would take her place?

Whoa is me! What is the pure theologian to do?

[Correction: When this was first posted, I accidentally omitted the word “philosophical” from the opening quote. That has been corrected.]

Rethinking the purpose of tests in theological education

Yesterday, James McGrath asked about the impact of technology on the way that we are teaching our classes. And, he specifically wants to know what impact this does (or should) have on our testing methodology. As he puts it:

I have found myself considering phasing out exams of the traditional sort, in which I essentially test what they have been able to remember. Information is available with a few clicks of their thumbs, and so it seems better to instead test students’ ability to find reliable information online, rather than test their ability to remember it.

I’ve been wrestling with a similar question in my theology classes for a while now. What exactly is the purpose of an exam in a theology class? The theology exams I took as an undergrad focused primarily on simple recall. As long as I could memorize and retain the information from the notes, I was good to go. Seminary upped the ante by making better use of short-answer essay questions. Even here, though, the focus was on remembering the notes and discussions so I could answer the essay questions properly. But, as McGrath points out, in our technological age, recall simply isn’t as important as it used to be.

So, if recall isn’t the point of a theological test, what is?” What exactly should I be trying to assess? The conclusion that I’ve reached is that a theological exam (I think the purpose of an exam varies from one discipline to the next) should be about what students can do with the knowledge that they have, rather than just what they can recall. And here my emphasis has gone in a slightly different direction than what McGrath proposes. In his post, he focused on the skill of being able to find information. That’s an important skill that should be taught and assessed. But it seems more rightly assessed in papers and other assignments. Since I’m largely training people for ministry, I’ve chosen to focus my examinations more on the students’ ability to use their theological knowledge by applying it to new issues and situations. In other words, I’ve focused my exams on assessing whether students can “think theologically” when they encounter real-life situations in ministry.

But, how do you do that? This, of course, is the challenging question. And, I’m open to suggestions. The way that I decided to do it last year was to redesign my exams entirely around case studies. I would first determine the theological issue that I wanted to examine my students on. Then, I would reflect on how that theological issue has contemporary significance for life and ministry. And finally, I’d create a question that (hopefully) forced students to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation, many of which were drawn from my own ministry experiences.

For example, in an exam dealing with theological anthropology, I wanted a question on creation/evolution issues. I could simply have asked the students to write an essay explaining/defending their position. Instead, I went with the following:

You’re having a meeting with a youth leader who has been teaching students that God created humans through evolutionary processes (i.e. theistic evolution) and a parent who is upset because he believes that this contradicts the Bible. How will you handle this discussion? Will you side with one person or the other? Why? What would you like to see happen as the result of the conversation?
The advantages of a case study question like this are (at least):
  • The question itself continues to show students that theology is not an abstract discipline. It has direct bearing on life and ministry. I think a good exam should continue to teach by reinforcing what you think is important.
  • It pushes beyond a mere statement of the students’ position, though it should still elicit that. It asks the student to apply their perspective to a real ministry situation.
  • The final part of the question is there to see if students have made the connection between theological conversations like this and spiritual formation. I want to see if they’re just going to focusing on “winning” the argument, or if they’ll see this as a way of growing people through theological dialog. (We discuss this in class; so it’s not unexpected.)

I did learn some valuable lessons from this last year. First, exams like this take the students a lot longer to complete. I had to make mid-semester adjustments to keep the exams within reason. Second, writing questions like this is harder than I expected. I routinely received good answers from students that weren’t quite what I was looking for. The evolution question above, for example, often elicited responses that said almost nothing about the students own perspective. (They focused more on how to “handle” the situation.)  Since I want that to be a part of the response, I’ll need to adjust the question next time. Third, the students liked the new approach (or they lied to me, one of the two). The exams became opportunities for lively discussion afterward and several students commented that they even shared the exam questions with people at their churches.

What do you think? What should a theology class in a seminary be trying to accomplish, and how do we best assess whether that has happened?

A new book on Paul

I just received an announcement about a new book on Paul that will be coming out in the fall: Tim Gombis’s Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2010). Like most of the books in the Perplexed series, Tim’s book strives to provide a clear and concise introduction to his topic and its most pressing/challenging issues. So, after an introduction and a brief chapter on Paul’s life and ministry, Tim devotes chapters to the following:
  • The Structure of Paul’s Thought
  • The Cross and the Spirit: Life as the Kingdom of God
  • Paul and Judaism
  • Salvation: Divine and Human Action
  • Paul and Women
  • Politics and Religion
Tim’s a solid NT scholar and the book should definitely be worth checking out.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/20)

Many thanks to Brian LePort for handling these posts while I was at the Acton conference. I have returned and will be posting some more reflections on Acton over the next day or so. But, for now, here are some interesting links.

  • Peter Leithart has a very helpful post on whether we should continue to use the label “Arian” despite recent historical studies suggesting that Athanasius’ opponents were far too diverse to be covered by a single label like this.
  • There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Ron Hendel’s decision to relinquish his SBL membership over concerns that the society has changed its position on the relationship between faith and biblical studies, and that it has done so for largely financial reasons (i.e. they’re trying to recruit more evangelical and fundamentalist scholars). John Hobbins, Mike Bird, and Jim West have all offered comments.
  • Jim West asks if someone can be a committed Christian and a practicing homosexual. In the process, he presses on the popular notion of what it means to be a “committed” Christian and how this relates to ongoing sinful practices in general.
  • Diglogtting reviews Don Schweitzer’s Contemporary Christologies. It sounds like a good, brief resource for familiarizing yourself with a variety of recent less-traditional approaches to Christology. The apparent lack of material dealing with more traditional Christologies, though, belies the back-cover claim that the book deals with the “chief approaches” in Christology since WWII.
  • CT has posted its June 2010 interview with Al Erisman, who contends that “we need to think about ministry in the digital culture the way missionaries think about the culture of the people they serve”. They’ve also posted the responses by Wha-Chul Son, Haron Wachira, Nigel Cameron, and Juan Rogers. If you’re wanting to understand some of the pros and cons involved in using technology in ministry, this would be a good conversation to follow.
  • With the growing use of the rosary in popular culture, Alan Creech offers a helpful primary on the rosary.
  • Stuart discusses some recent claims that fundamentalist Christians are using the BP oil spill to support their eschatology. Joel Watts offers some thoughts as well.
  • C. Michael Patton offers some thoughts on his two days as an atheist. His story raises some interesting questions about the nature of faith, doubt, and disbelief.
  • And, apparently if you jump onto a moving semi on a dare, you should have some plan for getting down.

The Humpty Dumpty of a-theistic bibilcal scholarship

If you haven’t seen this yet, Jim West posted an article at The Bible and Interpretation arguing that a-theistic biblical studies are at an end (HT Jim West). Studying the Bible apart from an active faith commitment, which he argues is the dominant approach to biblical studies, leads nowhere. Indeed, with typical West-ian pointedness, he summarizes where this approach has taken us.

So where has this approach gotten us? It has gotten us a population utterly ignorant of the contents and meaning of the Bible. It has gotten us a generation of young people who can’t tell the difference between an Epistle and an Apostle. And it has gotten us learned societies which produce journals which propagate and promulgate a-theism to the exclusion of theism.

And, he contends that there are two very good reasons that Scripture cannot be studied a-theistically. First, the Bible is the church’s book. It was written by the church and for the church. Non-christians can observe the text, but they will never participate in it like believers do. Indeed, “Atheists are to biblical studies what television commentators are to a sporting event.” And correspondingly, Scripture itself claims to be “insider literature” – i.e. literature for the people of the Spirit (1 Cor 2).

So, wrapping it all up, West contends:

Authentic biblical studies will more and more be found among the people of faith who value the bible and who understand it because they are endowed by the Spirit with the gift of understanding. Farewell, a-theism. You were amusing, for a while, but now you’re time is over and your discipline so completely fragmented that, like Humpty Dumpty, you can never be put back together again.

This doesn’t mean that West rejects any role for non-Christian scholarship on the Bible. But it is a necessary limited and superficial role because they will always be “outsiders” with respect to the text – outside the community and outside the Spirit.

What do you think? I’m sure this is an issue that you’ve worked through in your own understanding of how hermeneutics works. Is there a difference between a really well-done commentary produced by a non-believer and one produced by a believer? If so, what exactly is the difference?

So where has this approach gotten us? It has gotten us a population utterly ignorant of the contents and meaning of the Bible. It has gotten us a generation of young people who can’t tell the difference between an Epistle and an Apostle. And it has gotten us learned societies which produce journals which propagate and promulgate a-theism to the exclusion of theism.

Who will we be talking about 50 years from now?

One of things I love about teaching is being able to ask students questions that I don’t know the answer to. It’s fun. I get to throw something out there and see what the class comes up with. If they come up with something particularly insightful, and if my level of sanctification is running particularly low that day, I can pretend that I was steering them toward that conclusion all along. Makes me look like a genius. Teaching is fabulous.

One of the questions that I like to throw out to my church history class when we get to the twentieth century is, “Who do you think we’ll still be talking about 50 years from now?” Of course, in many ways, that is a very challenging question. How many of the theological giants of the 1950s are we still talking about? There are a few, but the majority of the “heavy hitters” of that generation have fallen into a quiet obscurity. And, that’s the way things usually go. Very few biblical and theological scholars rise to the level that their work is still being discussed 2-3 generations later. But, I like to toss the question out there and see what comes back.

I was reminded of this the other day when someone mentioned in a casual conversation that he thought NT Wright would be one of those people whose work would stand the test of time. He wasn’t saying that he thought NT Wright was the best and brightest of today’s Christian thinkers, nor was he saying that he thought NT Wright’s work was correct on every point. He was simply saying that NT Wright has had such an impact on biblical and theological studies that he would likely be the focus of discussion for generations to come.

So, acting like the teacher in front of the class, I want to toss this one back to you. What do you think? Of the Christian theologians, biblical scholars, speakers, and writers currently living (or, I guess we can cheat a little and include any who have died within the last ten years or so), which one(s) do you think we will still be talking about 50 years from now? Who do you think has (or will have by the end of his/her career) made such an impact on Christian thought that future generations will not be able to avoid talking about them? And, do you think NT Wright will be one of them?