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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Philosophy and Canon

My study on the relation between Scripture and practical wisdom has turned to the threefold division of the OT canon according to Jer. 18.18 into the torah of the priest, the counsel of the wise, and the word of the prophet. The Torah is the five books of Moses, the Prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah-Lamentations, Ezekiel, and the Twelve, and the Writings are everything else in the OT, particularly the Ezra books, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature. I am especially indebted to Walter Brueggeman's book, "The Creative Word" from Fortress Press.

It is clear that while all scripture is inerrant, there are relations of authority in between these sections of the canon. The Torah is absolutely authoritative,the authority of the prophets is subject to the Torah, and the writings are subject to both of the others. This is seen in the different degrees of care taken in the transmission of the text. Scribes that were nattingly meticulous in copying the Torah took more liberties with the wisdom literature.

The wisdom literature in fact seems to have had to have been "canonified" before they could be canonized. A good example is Ecclesiastes which purports to have been written for the most part by Solomon, identifying himself as the Preacher, at a time when his spiritual status was very much in question -- that is, sometime after his corruption by his wives and the abuses that led into the divided kingdom. He expresses a view that seems at odds with biblical faith which made its canonization difficult. But the book begins with a reference to the Preacher in the third person, and ends with a third person reference to the Preacher along with a general statement about the preacher's speeches as well as a general statement about wisdom. What seems to have happened is that an editor added the more constructive parts -- especially the claim that the sum of the matter is to fear God and obey His commandments -- and this is what makes the book as a whole acceptable in the canon (hence I say that it was canonified in order to be canonizable).

We only need to add that, while the New Testament has not been traditionally classified into such sections the three functions can be seen to be performed in various ways in the New Testament as well.

The wisdom literature is neither the Law of God nor the word of the Lord but rather based on ordinary life experience of the authors in service to the Torah. The purpose of the wisdom lit is to show us how to live life by God's law. Consequently, it is the most humanistic part of the canon. It represents a sanctified humanism and provides a model for our own progress into an adult faith. In the wisdom lit God normifies human understanding within limits and discourages it from becoming either autonomously self-sufficient or despairingly useless.

This is includes speculative matters as well as practical. Consider these three claims about what the Old Testament affirms, along with my verdict on whether such a claim is confirmed or unconfirmed by the OT evidence.

(1) The OT affirms authentic divine predestination. (Confirmed.)

(2) The OT affirms authentic moral responsibility. (Confirmed.)

(3) The OT affirms that authentic divine predestination is compatible with authentic moral responsibility. (Unconfirmed.)

Seeing the careful way God's divine hand is manifest in all parts of the OT canon, the OT clearly affirms divine predestination. Also, it is clear that the OT law holds men authentically responsible. At a first glance, this leads us to expect that it would hold a compatibilist view of the relation between sovereignty and responsibility. But in fact we find no evidence of that and in fact we find a kind of balking at the question in its various forms, especially in the Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes. For starters, a compatibilist argument would be quite an elaborate undertaking for the authors of Scripture other than we would expect but it would still not do enough to account for the incompatibilist intuitions people typically have. Rather than deal with the issue, the OT resorts to throwing the whole point back against the Divine voice out of the whirlwind, appealing to the throne rights of God, and/or confronting man with God's incomprehensible mystery. There is a demand for an answer which is never satisfied per se but rather condemned to be inappropriate. And God is choosing to approach the problem this way rather than give us a theory about the relationship between the two.

If we pushed the logic of (1) and (2) with an explicit contradiction of (3), then the Bible would be guilty of asserting an outright contradiction. So the biblical response hovers between fully embracing contradiction and fully satisfying demands for explanation. I think it is relevant that the OT absorbs this hit principally in the wisdom literature, the writings part of the canon. It is clear that the revealed things belong to us, but the secret things belong only to God. It is not forbidden to us to learn what we may about them but we cannot demand that everything make sense before believing. Not everything and a profound lot of things will never make sense to us.

It strikes me then that what the Bible thinks about wisdom comes very close if not exactly getting right the experience of philosophical reflection for the most part. When the philosophy considers the big questions, they invariably run against aporia which never seems to become satisfyingly resolved but which grow deeper ever deeper in undestanding. One can never rise to the level of pure dogmatism about these questions and can never be sure that there is not a further consideration that will refute his best account. Philosophy is a mixture of joy and sorrow, of wisdom gained and lost.

Now the interesting thing is that the Bible frustrates any insistent demand to have all this worked out by God so that this is often used as an objection to its authority. But taking the philosophical experience as a whole, it is clear that not only does the Bible not resist that, but rather it accepts it to the extent it internalizes the whole process into its canon when that process concerns God. And all philosophically interesting questions eventually concern God. This also includes the question of how God could possibly exist (or not exist). This is fitting with the doctrine that God is not a darkness, in which there is no light at all, but rather God is an inapproachable light, to dazzling to be ever taken in all the way but in which we may discern some things at the edges.

Or to quote John Cleese in "Clockwise", "It's not the despair. I can deal with that. It's the hope!"

In Plato's dialogues, Socrates is often described in various metaphors that bring out his mission to show those who think they know that they really don't know as they think and thus realizing their ignorance, they finally have the chance to really seek to understand. In the Apology, Socrates refers to himself as the Gadfly of Athens, irritating the city as if it were a sluggish horse. In the Meno, Socrates is described as a Stingray (or Torpedo Fish) stinging his prey and making them numb, that is making them more unsure of what they dogmatically thought they were sure. In this ministry of awaking people from their dogmatic slumbers, we have the characteristic ideal of western education and enlightenment.

One section of society, that is thought to be in especial need of Socratic therapy are Bible believers who seem to be locked into a dogmatism into which nothing can pry. The limits of this perception can be clearly seen in the function of the OT canon itself.

(A) In the Torah, God is the gadfly of the worldly powers. The Torah is the story of how a God alien to the worldly power and settled establishments of Pharaoh breaks in with greater power in behalf of those voiceless ones who have been unjustly enslaved and who will become a nation that stands in the middle of the crossroads of the world to reveal a different way of life to those passing by.

(B) In the Prophets, God is the gadfly to Israel. The institution of the role of prophet is set up in the Torah itself, in its priestly functions. Out of this the prophets are raised up from the poor in Israel to oppose the Torah experts with the Torah and to recall the kings to justice, speaking in ways that evoke conscientiousness. This function can be seen in Jesus rebuttal to the Pharisees.

(C) In the Writings, God is the stingray to the wise raising difficulties and then leaving them to answer them but not allowing their answers to be established hastily in pride nor allowing wisdom to ultimately despair.

So those scriptures provide the very resources that overcome the ossification of opinion. Fundamentalism is biblical ineptitude. A child-like settled faith in the promises of scripture is compatible an adult struggle with reasoning about nature, so that the Biblical God is more like a Socrates who is killed unjustly rather than a Buddha that we are exhorted to kill.