Monday, January 9, 2017

Of Riddles and Regulae: Thoughts on Ecclesiology, Canon, and Theological Method

This post is response, elaboration, and provocation to my blessed acquaintance Proto on a series he wrote on Fundamentalism, Modernity, and Biblicism (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Fundamentalists depended on a naive Common Sense Realism that was taken beyond the empirical world into describing metaphysics and God's God-World relationship. It resulted in a parallel, but opposition, movement along the lines of Modernism. Fundamentalism inadvertently used the same tools as the Modernizers they tried to break from. Their Dispensationalism certainly had a different view and different goals from the Social Gospel of the Mainline, but they possessed similar hermeneutical roots. Fundamentalists and Modernists worked on different points on the same spectrum.

Proto emphasizes, in contrast to Fundamentalism, a seemingly naive Biblicism. He's right to do so. This is the Apostolic method that had maintained, in different levels and varieties, throughout all of Church history. Even during the heady days of giddy Enlightenment optimism, a form of Biblicism remained. It takes the Bible not only as infallible word, but the source of its own interpretive power. That is to say, the Bible provides the reader with the tools to understand it. This subtle doctrine is what became the battling point over the centuries. It is crucial to understand this. Without it, the Scripture becomes fit within another systemic matrix of interpretation, even if it is considered the infallible source. However, it ceases to be an infallible structuring, but only an infallible source.

This last point is key. No fact is an uninterpreted fact, and a clutch of infallible, unassailable, facts in one source, the Bible, still leaves someone bereft. What does one do with these facts? It's why Fundamentalism tends to always turn on, and return to, what appears to the outsider as really bizarre, and arbitrary, interpretive structures. It requires these to make all these facts fit together. A naive Common Sense realism covers over the imposition over the text. This is why Fundamentalism is generally laughed off the stage of most intellectual platforms. It's not that they are fought by enemies of the Truth, necessarily, but they're unaware of what they're doing.

But this leaves a fundamental problem. When we talk about the Bible, we are talking about something that is and isn't a single book. The Scriptures were a series of books and letters, recognized for their God given authority, by the People of God. This leaves us with an epistemological problem. If we rely upon the Bible as a base of interpretive understanding, a kind of Foundationalism, we catch a circular loop of reasoning. As any two-bit Atheist critic will point out, the Bible doesn't tell us what constitutes the Bible, so how can we seek reliance upon it for its own validity? The rest of this post will try to think this through.

Some of the earliest Christian writers and defenders, fighting with their interlocutors, appealed to what is called the regula fidei, or what we will canon (coming from a Greek word for rule). The idea is that there is a derived short-hand, a key if you will, to understanding and unlocking the meaning of Scriptures. It is within this context that holy Irenaeus appeals to apostolic succession. Despite apologists, it was succession for the purpose of the rule. It is not a mechanical exchange of office that one later sees in Augustine's defense. Rather, it is an appeal to united teaching because Irenaeus' teachers go back to the Apostles. To import this into our context now is far too complicated than I intend to investigate. But I mention it only for the sake of appreciating that the key to understanding Scripture is something that is intra-Scriptural and extra-Scriptural simultaneously. Unlike a stupid Roman apology who posits two stream of truth, Scripture and Oral Tradition, the reality is that the two coincide inseparably with one another. This dialectical gap is what we must consider as Canon. It occupies a space precisely inside and outside of Scripture simultaneously.

Again, this is not to say Tradition is something separated from Holy Scripture, but something that coexists within and without it. In other words, the Church did not write the Bible, but the Bible did not make the Church. These are twin errors that result from an inability to think Canonically, which is what the Scriptures appeal to. This makes the dialectic even more complex and complicated. However, it's necessary if one wants understanding and clarity when discussing these issues.

A key example of how this sort of reasoning played out is in holy Athanasius' debate with his Arian opponents over the interpretation of Proverbs 8, where Wisdom is said to be created. Athanasius is masterful in his explication, and this is important. It's not enough to assert the divinity of Christ as a nude fact. Rather, we have to see how to argue this truth from within the Scriptures, adjusting one's ability to argue and reason canonically, standing above, under, and within the text at a single juncture. We are reading, we are being spoken to, and we dwell and dance in world of figures that have a sense of permanence and weight within the Mind of God. It's in this space that we must dwell if we want to seek God with our understanding and our mind.

The Scripture is not created, but given, and it is given within the context of God's People, who receive, passively, and recognize, actively. This sort of epistemic paradox is apparent in the apocryphal origin of the Septuagint. At the behest of Ptolemy, Greek Pharaoh of Egypt, seventy rabbis embarked on individually, and alone, translating the whole of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. When they came back together, they witnessed a miracle: they had all translated the text exactly the same. This was proof that God supervened in the production of the text. The rabbis  translated and interpreted, using their reason and submitting to the authoritative meaning of the text. Out of this emerged God's work. It is the dialectic of the Canon that allows for Christianity to be a truly evangelistic faith, and not merely a conquering one. Unlike Islam, the fullness of the Word of God can be present in many languages, translation is not a corrupting act. This work of translation can only occur through an appeal to Canon.

It is not for nothing that Athanasius, among other Greek-speaking Christians, refers to the writers of Scripture, in shorthand, as haggoi, or the Holy ones. This is to say that to write Scripture, these diverse individuals and people were in some sense walking with God. This makes a claim upon theological process that is constantly under threat. Theology cannot be an academic discipline, it cannot be Queen of the Sciences, even though it always is being made into it, one way or another. Instead, an analytical perspective must melt away before actual presence with the Living God. It is from this that the purest and most precise definition of theology, literally knowledge of God, is not a science, but a transformative and salvific event. Hence, the Apostles speak rightly when they talk about a saving knowledge of the Truth.

This enters into our discussion of Canon because it was to holy authors that the text was created, and it was to holy people that the text was received and recognized. Even though it's frustrating and jagged for our modern sensibilities, this deprives Scriptural interpretation and Canonical reasoning from the domain of both analytical science and common sense. The Bible neither affirms an elite aristocracy of the scholar, nor does it support a democratic of basic Human sensibility. Holy living opens the eyes, giving truth to those who know the truth, and veiling truth whose eyes are veiled. This hermeneutical key can be abused in obscurantist and high-handed ways, but it contains within itself regulative principles to constantly undermine these. The Holy Spirit, who dwells, leads, and purifies the people of God, individually and collectively, is always at work. He is the One who makes these authors and people holy, not they themselves.

It's for this reason that I think it is paramount to be simultaneous biblicist and serious about Church history and tradition. A symbol like the Niceaean Creed cannot be disregarded or ignored. Unlike, perhaps, some confessional statements, this is not a summary or a rewriting of the Scripture. Rather, we must look at this as a tool to canonically situate the Scripture. It is a confession of faith because it is simultaneously intra-Biblical and extra-Biblical. This is how Athanasius defends Nicaea and the use of "substance" language. There ought to be caution about extra-Biblical language, but, per his argument, it is shorthand for a list of ideas that flow together throughout Scripture. Shorthand is not a replacement for the full glory of a text, but neither does it make it superfluous. There is plenty of Theological language that operates this way (e.g. Trinity, hypostatic union, essence-energies, covenant of works/covenant of grace, etc.).

Thus, the constant problem is that we are apt to give up on this difficult and life-changing method for subordinating the text to methods we're more comfortable with. Whether it's Neo-Platonic metaphysics, Aristotelian categories, common-sense empiricism, whatever, it's a route that always threatened to emerge and array the text along its own logic and for its own purposes. It might be Arius trying to defend God's unoriginate honor, Eusebius of Caesarea hailing a new Imperial synthesis of Christianity into a new political order, the Modernist reliance upon Kantian dichotomies, or the Fundamentalist's folksy, Pramatic, appeal to empirical analysis, it's all a threat to the integrity of the Scripture.

These are preliminary thoughts, may God give us good wisdom and never avert our eyes from the Glory He places before, namely in the Person of His Son, the Immortal and Eternal God and Savior to which we turn. Amen

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