Blog Archives

The role of empathy in theological studies

Meaningful theological and historical dialog requires empathy – the ability to identify with the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of another person. Without it, you are only talking to yourself.

Mike Koke helpfully provided the following quote, which sums up the importance of empathy very nicely.

The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practicioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers.” (Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity is not Neutrality, 148-149)

As Mike goes on to point out, this doesn’t mean that we have to abandon our own commitments in the vain pursuit of the unicorn we know as “objectivity.” But, it does mean that we temporarily bracket our opinions long enough to view the other side as they see themselves.

Of course, we’ll never do this perfectly. But, you know what they say, anything worth doing is worth butchering so badly that you make everyone mad and end up sleeping on the couch.

(HT Scotteriology)

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.

Cyril vs. Theodore – exegetical grudge match or hermeneutical harmony?

[We are continuing the process of posting papers from last semester’s class on the Greek Fathers. In this paper, Andy Peloquin argues that the divide between Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical methodologies is not as great as commonly believed.]

The Exegesis of Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia: A Play in Three Acts

There is a common conception that characterizes the method of exegesis in Alexandria and Antioch as allegorical versus literal, respectively. However, recent study indicates that this may not be as simple as it sounds. Therefore to illustrate the precariousness of this premise, this study focuses on two of the most exegetically notable individuals that represent each school from the fourth to fifth centuries: Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and how they compare with the ‘stereotypes’ of the exegetical methods from their respective schools. In order to do this, three areas are examined: the general Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical methods; the exegetical distinctives of Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia as they compare to these general methods; and as a point of illustration, a comparison of each of their works, in this case, their introductions to commentaries on the book of Jonah. It is shown that this simplification of these schools does not in fact hold up under scrutiny and that the positions of the exegetes were far more nuanced than this classification suggests.

A study in text/event typology…kind of

[Andy originally posted this in the comments for our discussion on allegorizing our new header. But, it was so much fun that I thought it deserved to be a post in its own right.]

“A Study in Alexandrian and Antiochene Text/Event Typology: The Scientia et Sapientia Blog Banner as ‘Text’ in Light of Its Historical ‘Event’ in the Source Material of the Norwegian versus Russian Documentary Hypothesis. The use of a semester’s class work in vainglorious attempts at humor.”

The banner heading for the blog Scientia et Spientia stems from a long debated ‘text’ picture of the Norwegian tale Three Billy Goats Gruff. It is the purpose of this paper to show that this ‘text’ picture can best be understood and interpreted by using proper Patrisitc typology in conjunction with the relationship of the ‘text’ of the picture to the ‘event’ it depicts, the ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’, or more truthfully, to the Russian source material ‘Three Gruff Serfs’ from which the Norwegian story was based.

This banner heading picture is derived from the classic Norwegian folk tale ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’ (De tre Bukkene Bruse). A little known fact about this story is that is that the Norwegians plagiarized it from Russia stemming from their involvement in the Great Northern War (1700-21). As allies, it was normal for interaction between the foot soldiers and of course they shared stories around the campfires in the cold Northern winters. The Russian story, три грубоватый крестьянин (Three Gruff Serfs), was a very popular Baltic village story about three disheveled serfs who were trying to escape from the land. In trying to row cross the river that marked its boundary, they were waylaid by a treacherous vodyanoy, the slimy ‘grandfather’ of the river who was wont to take souls into the depths to become his watery slaves. The three desperate serfs were able to cheat him by indicating that they were merely scouts for their lord who would be coming over the river shortly to claim territories beyond it. They insinuated that a lord makes a far better slave then three lowly serfs. Furthermore, these rapscallions indicated that they would assist him in capturing their lord by calling to him from the other side. The vodyanoy knew how shrewd the local lord was and that he was always looking for more land to occupy. He also knew he would make a nice collection to his underwater menagerie. He agreed and let them pass. On reaching the far bank the serfs shouted out their freedom and mocked the vodyanoy’s stupidity and then went in their way.

Now the Norwegians at this time were in need of some serious cultural identity. Having been pummeled by their neighbor Sweden for the last one hundred years, they were just now unifying and coming out from under the Swedish influence. They took this story as their own, contextualizing it to their own environment, substituting their local troll for the Russian vodyanoy. Of course trolls live under bridges so they put a bridge over the river. It is not clear why they substituted three goats for the three serfs but scholars believe that it was because of the penchant for Norwegians to avoid morality tales involving humans, opting for the more Aesop like animal fable. Additionally, the popularity it engendered led to changing it from a deception based story in order to teach children they can be clever without lying (i.e. in the three goats, each one asked not to be eaten because the next one was bigger and thus fatter. The third one was big enough to kick the troll and escape. They did not lie, but used their wits to extricate themselves). Since this story there has been a great debate raging on the border between Norway and Russia about whose story it is. There was little evidence until a document was discovered in Soviet Leningrad that was likely penned during the early years of St. Petersburg (c. 1705) that tells the story of три грубоватый крестьянин. This indicates that indeed it was first a Russian story. This document, titled Codex Lenigradis Gruffius, now resides in the State Hermitage Museum.

While some may contend that such a dependence on both the original three Goats Gruff story as well as extra three-Goats-Gruffian material is antithetical to an appropriate understanding of this picture (that we should be able to derive all we need to know from the picture itself) in fact we are not committing any false dependence on background information. Thus the ‘event’ of three goats/serfs is not placed above, in any way, the importance of the ‘text’ of the picture. Rather the redactor (artist) has pieced together a pictorial narrative that has to be understood by its source material unless frivolous interpretation is engaged in. Thus we need to look at interpretive methodology and to properly ‘exegete’ this picture. As any good exegete knows, allegoria, as used by the early Alexandrian exegetes like Philo and Origen, is replete with fantastical relationships in texts to show tangential relationships without considering the text in context. Therefore, a more proper exegesis would be to examine it in light of typos, which exegetes from both the Alexandrian school (e.g. Cyril of Alexandrian) and Antiochene school (e.g. Theodore of Mopsuestia) would regard as appropriate.

It is markedly clear that the artist is depicting the uncertainty that the first goat of the story is undergoing in facing the prospect of crossing the bridge. It is not clear if he knows in fact that the troll resides under said bridge, but there is some evidence that would lead us to conclude that he did. One such textual indication is in the gathering of the crows. There would be no other reasons for three crows to gather save for the expectation of a goat-gruff carcass to feast upon. It is also clear that the goat would probably have seen the smoke rising from the pipe. This is not some naturally occurring fire smoke which would be in a more billowing pattern. Instead it is a tight curl of smoke wafting up to the sky, which is plainly indicative as sourced from a pipe.

Now, knowing the background here helps us get a better understanding of the ‘text’. By the Norwegian tale, we know that the goats had eaten all the grass on their side and were looking to the sweet, sweet grass on the other. It would be safe to assume that the troll indeed took up residence and has in fact unceremoniously dispatched many previous goats, whether gruff or not, who attempted crossing to the sweet, sweet grass fields that lay beyond (in fact, Gustavus Nordmank, the late Norwegian Classics scholar, surmised that the troll in fact actually planted and cared for these fertile fields to lure such goats to cross the bridge, however, there is debate on this matter, but it stands as an interesting hypothesis.) Additionally, we know that the small goat is clever and so he would understand the meaning of the smoke emanating from under the bridge. Therefore from the literal ‘text’ of the picture, it is clear we have a nervous and yet willing goat ready to partake of the juicy grasslands across the bridge.

However, according to Alexandrian and Antiochene practice, we know that there is also a deeper meaning to this picture. This meaning is rooted in the typos relationship tied to the original Russian story. Thus it is very evident that the three serfs are a type to orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. Their trip on the boat is a type to the movement of these from a place of slavery (their serfdom) to a place of lush new hope, i.e. they go from a place of where they are misused in the service of scholastic hegemons, to a fertile place where they can grow and prosper together in freedom. The boat therefore is the connecting device between the former and the latter. The vodyanoy is a type to the ignorance of the world that would rather suck down these three and make them a slave to the world system, in other words to make them a slave to ‘the man’.

The Norwegian derivation, however, alters this understanding a bit since it sends the goats one by one over the bridge. Thus indicating that these are separate entities and any one in particular could be taken out by the troll. This would give us a completely different interpretation. Instead, we can easily assume that the artist, and here we can faithfully use some Origenian thought, had the truth of the Russian story in mind, whether conscious or not, that could be revealed to those understanding the mystery that is contained within the ‘text’ picture. Thus he expressed in the familiar Norwegian garb, the actual typology of the original Russian event. Thus the single goat represents all three orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy united together. The bridge is the journey from the empty fields of vain academic pursuit to the lush fields of where the three can freely be expressed for the betterment for all. The troll stills represents the attempt of ‘the man’ to derail this effort. Thus from our use of typology and a proper understanding and use of the original source material, we can see that the text reveals to us that scientia and sapientia, represented in the three ‘orthos’ of the goat, have at time languished in periods of drought, but that the successful crossing of the bridge, i.e. the reading of the blog, will open the visualize to a new understanding of their importance united together and thus ‘fatten’ his mind and ministry.

A final note is in the often, and to be honest, overwrought discussion of the meaning of the words on the bridge. There have been numerous articles stating the meaning and significance both of their inclusion and placement on the bridge. However, it is abundantly clear that this was not part of the original artists work and can be ascribed to later artistic addition. It serves as a later gloss to try to explain the meaning of the bridge. Thus we should omit this variant reading and stay with the original ‘text’ picture.

It was a holiday morning, what can I say.