Friday, April 4, 2008

Coursework Stuff - 3

These are questions based on the book Speaking of God by Jerry Camery-Hoggatt. You don't have to be familiar with the book though to follow the questions and my responses.

Question: Camery-Hoggatt challenges the idea that the primary function of language is to convey information. What does he mean by this? Do you think he is correct? If you agree, do you think that the language of the Bible is any different in this regard? If you think this is also true of the Bible, what might be some of the other purposes of biblical language beyond simply conveying information?

I am not sure that Camery-Hoggatt is challenging that idea, at least not explicitly. Rather, what he is trying to do is show us the many uses of the tool that is human language. One use of that tool is to communicate information, as he states on page 51, but he says that language also persuades, alienates, tells a story, etc. I agree with him in that respect. As a tool, language must match the intended need. For example, if someone asks me for directions to a restaurant, I am going to use the tool of language to provide them information as to where they need to go. On the other hand, if I wish to express joy, or persuade someone, my use of language will serve a different function.

The language of the Bible is no different. Language, whether spoken, written, or read is one of the primary means that we as humans employ in our attempt to express the inexpressible (God). Therefore, the writers of the Bible were constrained to use the same tool of communication that everyone throughout time and history has used. The various types of Biblical language, such as poetry, narrative, historical account, apocalyptic, etc. are all used in an attempt to express the interaction of God and His people throughout history. Our Enlightenment conditioned minds have tended to view the language of the Bible as solely informational. The resulting effect has been an approach towards the Biblical text that resembles the scientist or the researcher, gleaning the scientific textbook for valuable factual information. We sometimes fail to interpret or understand the Biblical text because we do not see that the language being used may be trying to serve a different purpose than our presuppositions tell us it does. The Psalms are a great example of poetic texts. If we approach the Psalms in an attempt to gather information, we have failed to appreciate the richness of the text. If however we approach them as poetry, which relies heavily on the imagination, we begin to get a glimpse of the human struggle with understanding God and His mission. The questions we may have brought to the text may very well remain; we are no longer approaching it in the attempt to master what we thought was information, but instead seek to be transformed by the richness and mystery of it.

Question: Camery-Hoggatt argues that human language is inherently ambiguous? What does he mean by this? Do you agree or disagree? Why? Does this leave open the door to interpretive relativism (or subjectivism)? What implications could this have for the way we interpret Scripture or for the results of our interpretation? Does this indicate any change in the way you view the Bible?

Camery-Hoggatt suggests that human language is inherently ambiguous because sometimes words can carry multiple meanings. I agree with him. I believe that most, if not all, language is culturally and contextually understood, i.e. gets meaning based on agreements of communities, whether local or global, as well as context and other factors. For example, if I told you that I thought your car was “hot”, do I mean: sporty and neat, possessing a high internal temperature, or stolen? All are valid meanings of the word “hot” as determined by our cultural understanding. In this case, we need context to help us. Another example is something like the word “red”. There is nothing inherent in the word “red” that tell us what it looks like; rather we understand and associate a particular color with the word “red”, because that is what the agreement already is, and that is how we were taught.

Camery-Hoggatt provides tools that guard against relativism in reference to language. Bottom-up and top-down constraints (one of which I already mentioned, context) act as the “guard rails” upon which we can disambiguate language, and in our case the Biblical text. Not every meaning that we assign to a word, nor every interpretation of a passage, is valid. This is especially the case in reading the Biblical text. We are reading a text that was translated from original languages, employed in cultural and historical contexts far removed from our own. We can not assign words meanings based on our understanding and use of those words, when in fact the historical context may not allow it. To do so is to read with our biases and presuppositions. We all approach the text with them, but seeing them and owning up to them will allow us to better appreciate the task of interpretation.

This has affected my view of the Bible in a positive way. I used to approach the Scriptures with the idea that my interpretation, which I believed was free from bias, was the only correct one. It also helped me to see the depth of the text that I glossed over before. An example from Rob Bell is helpful here: I had always read how, at Jesus’ words of “come follow me”, the disciples dropped everything and went. My interpretation, based on what I was taught, was that the disciples knew this was the Messiah, so that is why they came so eagerly. However, as Rob Bell points out, a historical and cultural understanding of Judaism at the time of Christ gives us a better understanding of what may have been going on there. Rabbis at that time would ask their best students to “Come, follow me”, which was among the highest honor reserved for only the most gifted students. By calling fisherman, tax collectors, etc to follow Him, Jesus was saying in effect “you can do it, you can be my disciple, come follow me, learn of me”. I do not know how true this is, but it makes better sense of the passage, and it accounts for the historical context.

Coursework Stuff - 2

What role does culture play in doing theology?

In order to discuss the role of culture in the work of theology, I need to define how I understand culture. Based on all the definitions I found, my working definition of culture is: the behavior patterns, symbols, beliefs, and rituals that define, describe, and shape the way of life of a given society. That society can be a community, a church, a state, a country, etc.

Given that definition, I believe that culture is the context in which the work of theology and the proclamation of the Gospel take place in. If we believe, as I do, that the Gospel never comes to us in a “pure”, i.e. a-historical and a-cultural form, then it follows that the expression of that Gospel is embodied within a particular time and place. The Gospel needs to speak, and we need to do theology, at the place where culture and the Kingdom of God as modeled in Scripture, meet. It is important for our Christian witness and ministry in the lives of others to understand the cultural ideas, values, and symbols that shape a given society, and the people within it, so that the Gospel can confront and transform them (the people and the culture) where necessary. In my first class in Seminary, the prof gave us a definition of ministry that should shape the way we think of the task of ministry (and I would say even theology): Being used by God to help people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. We talked about “where people are” as being the cultural situation that we find ourselves in. Building a bridge to where people are involves understanding the values, symbols, practices, etc that shape their lives. We can see this at work in the life of Paul in Acts 17. At the beginning of the chapter, we see Paul at the Jewish synagogue reasoning from the Scriptures. At the end of the chapter, we see Paul at Mar’s Hill, in dialog with those influenced by Greek philosophy, using the cultural symbols of the day (Greek poets, an inscription in the Pagan temple) as a bridge to point people to God. Why the different approach? I believe it was dictated based on the cultural situation that shaped his audience: Jews steeped in the Old Testament in one case, Greeks steeped in Greek philosophy in the other.

There are two extremes that can happen in reference to culture and the Gospel. On the one side is the extreme of separation from culture. During my formative years as a Christian (from 18 years old until about 3 years ago), I viewed culture as evil, and something that needed to be fought against, resisted, and separated from. I lived in what is now the often overused, but still somewhat valid, term called a Christian “subculture”. I listened only to Christian music, only hung around with people who were Christians, watched Christian TV, etc. Looking back, I realize that while I was “separating” myself from culture, I also had no real context for the proclamation of the Gospel. I also was influenced by my culture more than I realized (a point I will get to later). The other extreme is accommodation to culture, or allowing culture to shape the Gospel. Our role as God’s representatives on earth is to transform culture by living within the culture in a counter-cultural (i.e. Kingdom of God) way (lotsa “cultures” in that sentence!). In other words, we are to live as a people of God shaped by the Gospel of Christ within the culture that we are situated.

I believe culture does shape our understanding of the Gospel. We saw this in Gonzalez’s book (
Christian Thought Revisited). As I said above, my view of the Gospel was shaped by modernity, even though I thought I was “separate” from cultural influence. Modernity influenced me in that I had a very self-centered, individualistic, and consumer driven faith. So, the big question that I struggle with is: If God speaks through culture to some extent (as I believe He does), how do we discern whether our theological formulations (which in themselves are human constructions based on cultural influence and other factors) are bad or good? For example, Gonzalez talks about Anselm’s Germanic law influence in his formulation of the “satisfaction” theory of atonement. Is it not possible that God used a cultural influence (law understanding) to provide one picture of the work of Christ in the atonement? I think walking the tension between living counter-culturally within culture and being shaped by culture (I don't see separation from culture as a valid option anymore) is the challenge that we as missional Christians must walk in.

Coursework Stuff - 1

This is a response I wrote for the question (in italics) below:

Respond to this idea from Karl Barth: "As Christians we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory."

I believe what Barth is trying to address is the (in)ability of a fallen, finite human being to adequately and fully speak about the infinite God. As Christians, we have been given the privilege of partnering with God in His mission to redeem His creation. That entails modeling the life of Jesus, in deed, as well as in words. Thus, we are obligated as followers of Jesus Christ and part of the historic orthodox community of Christians to speak about God.

We are also human (finite), have a fallen nature, and make use of the very limited tool of language to use when we speak of God. Language itself is neither a-historical nor a-cultural, but rather takes it shape in the context of communal agreements passed down throughout history. There is no place that we as humans can stand that would provide us with an objective view of reality, and the tool of language is no different. Even though it is inspired, the language of the Bible is not special or different, speaking outside of culture and historical situations. The truth revealed in the Scriptures does have universal depth, but it is expressed in particular local contexts. Thus, all of our words and constructions about God come shaped by the culture and historical context that we are situated in. No one person or one community can claim to have the totality of God’s revelation, as it is beyond our grasp. Dangers could arise (and have arisen) when the nature of human beings causes them to speak of God in such a way as to wield power over another. This is usually couched in the belief that our understanding and expression of God equals the totality of God.

God has revealed Himself to humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He has also given us the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth. However, even in the revelation of God in Christ and the Scriptures, there still remains a sense of the hidden and the mysterious. Peter Rollins speaks of “revelation as concealment”, that even in revelation, the abundance of God’s presence is impossible to grasp. He uses the example of a piece of art. The piece of art is the revelation of the creator of the art, but the total and complete depth of meaning in that art can not be fully grasped by observers, and what we do see is shaped by the presuppositions we bring to it. How much more is this true when we are speaking and reflecting on the revelation of the infinite God? We do have a sense of the intention of the creator of the revelation, in this case God through the Holy Spirit. However, the giving of the Holy Spirit does not transform our humanity into the divine, thus we still maintain our human condition in regards to the limitation of language, as well as our finitude and finite nature.

This leads us back to Barth’s quote. Understanding our obligation to speak of God based on our calling as missional followers of Jesus Christ, coupled with our inability to fully and adequately speak of Him due to the limitations of language and human nature, should create a sense of awe, wonder, and humility in us. God, in the midst of our situated condition, has chosen to reveal Himself to us within that situated context. We speak of God based on our context, and that is the best we can do. We can give Him glory and thanks for His revelation, and we can develop a humility that understands that our point of view is a view from a point, and that point is our situated context. It is easy to fall to one side or the other concerning the ability to speak of God. As previously mentioned, we can assume that our speech about God equals the totality of God, and it can cause us to exert a will to power over others. The other extreme is that because of our limitations as humans, we should not even attempt to speak of God. Walking in the tension between those two extremes is much more difficult, but I believe that is what we have been called to.

Stuff from past coursework

So I figured that I'll post some stuff that I wrote from prior Seminary coursework. Maybe it will stir some discussion, maybe not. We'll see.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Okay, so it has been forever since I updated this blog. Real life got in the way. So what's been happening?? Well, after a few classes into my third attempt at seminary, I have finally concluded that it is just not what I should be doing right now (or ever). There are various reasons that have led my wife and I to that conclusion, which I won't spell out here. Needless to say though, my desire to read and learn and converse about theology, spirituality, postmodern thought, etc will not stop.

I sent my application in to Lehigh University a few weeks ago. I believe my next step is grad school, and if accepted to Lehigh I will pursue a Master's in Sociology. I love cultural studies, and I want to teach someday (in what setting I'm still not sure). A Master's degree in Sociology is a first step towards making a shift in career/focus for me. I'll keep you posted about that.