Monday, May 26, 2008

The Origin Of The SIN Fundies Mind-Prison (The Sequel)

Pltypus just sent me a mail telling me about Doctor Ben's "The Problem of Evangelical Theology". He finished it this morning (and is still sane enough to write mails). I just wrote him a reply talking about the socio-rhetorical method in NT interpretation. I have not read Witherington's book on it. But I've discussed with La Tey over the past several years on NT exegesis so I hope we're on the right track. I'm putting up the contents of the mail verbatim below:

Actually most scholars (worth their salt) are already practicing the socio-rhetorical perspective. Witherington was only further developing his method originally applied to his research on the Wisdom Traditions behind the sayings/acts of Jesus (see his earlier work on Christology - remember that volume that La Tey mistook for his passport into JB?). But in practice, it's terribly dangerous to apply that method consistently - you'll end up stepping on everyone's toes!!! Hahaha!

Take for example the common misuse of Galatians. Everyone (since Luther) uses that as the polemical document, the manifesto against justification by works. In truth, it's got little to do with that or to do with the Roman Catholic Church. The socio-rhetorical method demands that we: (i) understand the social concerns of the writer's/audience's times and (ii) to understand the style/dialogue/arguments of the original writer and audience (interlocutor). Luther's application of Galatians may not be wrong (and God can use a person's understanding/application of a text to spark off something...) but note that I said application. It is not the primary socio-rhetorical meaning of the text.

The socio-rhetorical meaning (I suggest) is closer to the following:

i) Christianity was not a distinct religion as yet - it was still very much a Jewish sect made up of mainly Jewish followers who meet in synagogues. They never built churches - the only reason they meet up at home was somewhat like why we met up in homes for Care Group meetings all those years back. They were renegades who believed that they finally discovered the true meaning of the Jewish Faith.

ii) In time, more and more Gentiles joined their numbers. Now, Gentile proselytes to Judaism in the 1st Century were required to be circumcised, observe the Passover, etc. So it was quite natural to assume that the Gentiles who convert to the Jewish-Christian groups do the same. In short, a cultural/racial conversion before a spiritual/moral one (even Christianity practice this everywhere it went - that's why people say we join an "ang-moh" religion - after all, we have to become Presbyterians, Methodists, Wesleyans, Anglicans, etc.)

iii) Observe that Paul had no contentions with Jews continuing their observance of circumcision, feasts, etc. but he felt that the Judaizers should not impose this upon Gentile converts (their acceptance by God was already evidenced by the Holy Spirit). To do so would be to go back to the "old wineskins" and not recognizing the "new wineskins and the new Wine of the Spirit that is poured into them".

iv) Paul also had personal reasons for the above. In fact, the version of Judaism preached by Stephen (a Hellenist) was the major stumbling block to him. Here was a Greek-speaking fellow quoting the Septuagint and speaking out against the ENTIRE JEWISH SYSTEM of being accepted before God and positing instead that Jehovah's favour rest upon those who call upon the Name of a crucified-blasphemer! The Damascus Road experienced convinced him that it was the system of Stephen that was accepted by God rather than the ENTIRE JEWISH SYSTEM that he had learned since a child. ("Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" - God identifies Himself not with the persecutors of Stephen, the Jewish Religious Authorities but with the renegade sect of which Stephen was representative! God always identified Himself with Israel as "my people" but with Stephen in an even more intimate union - ME!) This, to Paul, was an eschatological event of the first magnitude - GOD IS AT WORK AGAIN RECONCILING THE WORLD UNTO HIMSELF and it's by this new system, this thing preached by Stephen and not that of the Jewish System.

v) Therefore, Paul saw the threat of the Judaizers (and Simon Peter's defection to their side) towards the entire NEW system that is the basis for his whole conversion, faith and direction in life - not to mention God's personal revelation.

This was the socio-rhetorical context of Galatians. Does it have anything to do with Roman Catholicism, justification by works/faith, etc.? Does it give license to "anathemize" anyone with a "different gospel" (specifically referring to the old Jewish "wineskins" and not modern movements that sound different from what we've been taught!!!)?

We also see that this was not a continued problem as Galatians was among the earliest of the Christian epistles. The later church no longer have this problem because: (i) the main problem of Jewish people being the majority in Christian assemblies no longer existed as Gentiles soon outnumbered Jews; (ii) they became distinct from Judaism because they started building churches away from synagogues; (iii) Jerusalem was destroyed so there was no more center of Jewish worship - the Judaizers all shut up after that; (iv) they started facing other sorts of problems (like in the Corinthian church, and later with the aceticism people and the proto-Gnostics, not to mention the persecutions under Nero and Domitian).

Alas, long-held habits/views are terribly difficult to change. Fundamentalists have been taught (via their ill-informed teachers and their endless handbooks) to read the Bible through the lenses of the Reformers. Truth be told, most of the socio-political (and even doctrinal) issues that confronted the Reformers in their times are now either irrelevant or analyzed to death! Does the Bible have a relevant message for all times? It sure does. But is every part of the Bible to be read in the same way as written directly to us? Not at all. In fact, the Bible was never written directly TO us (though it is, indeed, FOR us). The socio-rhetorical method acknowledges this and attempts to understand the original meaning of the text to its original recipients via the social contexts of the original sitz-im-leben and the rhetorical concerns/arguments of the authors. Then, AND ONLY THEN, do we proceed to find an application of the implications behind Holy Writ to us in our sitz-im-leben. To read the Bible in the style of the Fundamentalists (see my latest blog posting for Reformanda's and Vincit's application of this - also using Galatians) is to apply the sitz-im-leben application-message of the 16th century to the sitz-im-leben anathemizing blogs of the 21st century!!! If it were not so tragic, it would be grand comedy!

I'm smiling... :)

34 comments:

Brigitte said...

Law and Gospel are the fundamental ways and concepts with which God relates to human beings. Paul goes through great lengths with great clarity to explain how these concepts play out. Your "Sitz im Leben" is only tangentially relevant in this greater scheme, whether you are Jewish, Greek, or any other.

Cikgu Screwtape said...

True enough. The "sitz im leben" consideration is not even 1% as earth-shaking or revolutionary as Luther's Law vs. Grace arguments. However, many in these parts (Singapore, Malaysia, etc.) are so prone towards reading the Bible with their handbooks open that they've largely neglected the basic thing about exegesis called "context, context, context". My post was never meant to be a final word on Galatians. Haha! God forbid! It was copied from a personal mail I wrote last night to two friends in our ongoing conversations about the nature of the fundamentalist-mind around these parts.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Interesting post and largely on the right track but you are completely wrong about Stephen and the Hellenists. See Craig Hill's book on Hebrews and Hellenists. Stephen ıs not critical of the Law or the Temple he is critical of his people's sinful response to God's overtures.
BW3

Cikgu Screwtape said...

Dear Dr Witherington,

Thanks for your helpful comments over at Jeremiah Blues. Will read up more on the Hebraic-Hellenistic relations in the 1st century. I agree with your comment that Stephen was not antagonistic to the Jewish System but with the evil response of the people towards God's Redemption. My evaluations of Stephen and Hellenism were somewhat coloured by Robert Reymond's book, "Paul-Missionary/Theologian" that I read some years back.

All in all, I see the socio-rhetorical method that you employ in your series of commentaries to be very timely and needful. More than ever, we need to simply let the Bible speak rather than to choke it up with our insecure phobias, preconceived prejudices or even pre-learned "correct" theologies. Application of the message of Scripture should naturally flow and is a consequence of reverential/honest study. It should never be substitute for the original message in the Biblical books (whether the *application-message* come from august personalities of history such as Luther, Calvin or whoever is beside the point).

I was not able to attend your talks in Singapore but was pleased to learn of the contents through my friends, Pltypus and Simon. Hope to be able to catch them on DVD later on.

~ Edmund

[This comment was originally posted over at Dr Witherington's blogs...]

Brigitte said...

What are these handbooks all about?
Thanks.

Cikgu Screwtape said...

Hi Brigitte,

If you read the former post before this one, you'll get first hand experience of the handbook-quoting Singaporean fundamentalists in action. They read everything through the lenses of Gordon Clark, Cornelius Van Til, David Cloud, etc. This is, I hope, a local phenomenon limited to this part of the globe (so be thankful if you've not been tainted by their sort).

~ Edmund

Jenson said...

Hi Edmund,

"This is, I hope, a local phenomenon limited to this part of the globe."

With the Internet, sorry buddy, but this is not a local incident!

In all honesty, do you really think such friends would actually buy and read Clark, Van Til, etc? I suspect some would just surf the web, snatch a few choice quotes and run along with that.

I would place a wager on that!

Cikgu Screwtape said...

Hi Jenson,

Actually they do buy those books. By they (the handbook-quoters), I am referring to the infamous Vincit and his sidekick, Daniel "Reformanda" Chew.

~ Edmund

simonteytk76 said...

Hello Brigitte,

What is handbook? It is our way of saying about people who assume what they know about things from second-hand knowledge. Take for example these posts:

http://vivavoxdei.blogspot.com/2008/03/to-unknown-god.html

http://vivavoxdei.blogspot.com/2008/04
/logical-examination-of-unknowability-of.html

This guy was so cock-sure about his conclusions, you can smell he obviously thinks his smarter than Barth.

The worse thing was that he thinks that it was a Kantian caricature that he resorts to. He didnt know obviously, that the unknowability of GOD is at the same time the veiling and unveiling of GOD in Jesus Christ. You see the obvious allusion to the Lutheran material
(which in your case I do not have to elaborate). This guy did not even understand 1% of Barth or even basic German (Lutheran) theology and he dares to speak up against him?

At the same time it is also the bullying attitude these people has given to anyone who did not confirm to their beliefs. The post on how both of them tag-team to wrestle a female seventh day adventist shows the arrogance of these people despite their ignorance. These are the charlatans we are trying to expose, its not the law and grace tension that we are trying to speak against. Please to understand the "Sitz Im Leben" of our posts before even attempting to understand the phrases here.

All in all, I hope it helps

Simon

Cikgu Screwtape said...

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your comments.

This entry was never meant to be representative of any "Formed and Unchanging" conclusions in my head. Truth be told, I have very few "Formed and Unchanging" conclusions in my head. I am always a work-in-progress.

Additionally, it was not a theological treatise. It was copied from a personal mail that I wrote to two friends. We were discussing Dr Ben Witherington's socio-rhetorical readings of the Bible and I wanted (perhaps a little ill-advised) to contribute my two cents demonstration of how I personally apply the method (albeit very imperfectly). Having said that, we have to also recognize that Paul too wasn't writing a theological treatise to the Galatian Church so much as a personal mail to address very specific issues of a very specific day and age that plagued a group of people that he cared about very dearly (who once cared for him so much as to, literally, offer him their eyes and limbs, if it were possible). To read it with (however well-intentioned) Lutheran lenses or Calvinistic lenses and use the epistle solely as a polemic against Catholicism or Justification By Works is to do it great injustice. The Scriptures are always so much richer, so much loftier than even our highest aspirations and immediate theological squabbles (that we are so pathetically serious about).

Finally, my mail was also a continuation of our ongoing discussions and examination of the flawed hermeneutics of that particular group of Singaporean Handbook-Quoters (Simon's comment above very accurately define what they are all about).

Once again, thanks for all the comments.

~ Edmund

Brigitte said...

Dear Edmund and Simon: thank you for your explanations. I don't imagine to understand even a small fraction of your allusions on this blog, and am I happy to learn.

I even did look up David Cloud the other night to understand what you are unhappy with. Your handbook quoters may be on the *simple* side, yet, I think maybe Edmund needs to get beyond the having "no formed and unchanging conclusions".
He will have to come down on some side of some fences at some time and stay there, or else it would not be honest or serious business.

If Paul wasn't writing "theological treatise" at least half of the time, I don't know what would be.

He wrote this treatise to people he cared about in a specific time and place and in specific circumstances..., as you write, But you can't diminish the theological treatise. It would not be taking Paul seriously. I DO NOT think he would be happy.

Also, to view reformation writings as anti-catholic, anti-semitic, or whatever, also disregards the seriousness of the matter.

People wasted their lives, their hopes, their incomes, their psychological and physical well-being to achieve things that could not be achieved, leading to either dispair or pride or corruption. Works-rightousness that is spoken against is not so much a matter related to doing good in the sense that we would think of today (loving helpfulness), but of all sorts of medieval, nonsensical, harmful or at best useless, practices.

Letting go of the idea of merit had a huge liberating effect that one should not (must not) go back on, especially since Christ died for this freedom.

Yours, Brigitte

Anonymous said...

"How do you know you're on the right side?"

- Logan

Anonymous said...

"At least I've chosen a side!"

- Ororo

Anonymous said...

"That's what's important after all, right? Having a "side"?"

- Blob, The

Anonymous said...

"I have a backside, does that count?"

- Juggernaut, The

Anonymous said...

"Backside? Wah! Me like!!!"

- Lim Geok Seng

Anonymous said...

"You perverts! From my side, you'll burn in hell!"

- Reformanda, The

Anonymous said...

"Hey, guys. Have you all read "The Stand"? Marvel is doing an adaptation..."

- Dante

Anonymous said...

*Nodding silently*

- Silent Bob

Anonymous said...

"You think that's "The Stand" that the Lutheran lady wants us to get?"

- Dante

Anonymous said...

* Nodding silently while doing the Jedi mind-trick thingy.*

- Silent Bob

Anonymous said...

"Backside playing while standing? Me like!"

- Lim Geok Seng

Anonymous said...

"You perverts! From my side, you'll burn in hell!"

- Reformanda, The

Anonymous said...

"Your side? Your backside? Your backside is burning? Me like!"

- Lim Geok Seng

Anonymous said...

"Your side? Your backside? Your backside is burning? Me like!"

- Lim Geok Seng

Anonymous said...

"At least, I've chosen a side!"

- Ororo

Anonymous said...

"So, you like it backside or frontside?"

- Logan

Anonymous said...

"I've chosen Xavier's side!"

- Ororo

Anonymous said...

"That bald guy, Chucky? NOW, you're scaring me!"

- Logan

Anonymous said...

"Logan, call me Charles, Professor, anything. But never call me Chucky."

- Professor, The

Anonymous said...

"Sure, Chuck. By the way, Ororo likes your backside!"

- Logan

Anonymous said...

"Well, at least she's chosen a side!"

- Professor, The

Anonymous said...

"Bald backside? Me like!"

- Lim Geok Seng

Anonymous said...

"You perverts! From my side, you'll burn in hell!"

- Reformanda, The