Leaps of unfaith

To be sure, this principle [of exegesis in service to the Church] appeared far more evident to the Church Fathers than it does to most exegetes today. The language of theology, like that of liturgy, is ever expanding and developing. New discoveries in the field of literary criticism, but also in the realms of archaeology and other historical disciplines, often seem to call into question findings of earlier generations. It must be admitted, however, that those discoveries have never yet offered “proof” that undermines key elements of Christian dogma. Sociological studies of life in first-century Palestine may lead some interpreters to describe Jesus as nothing more than an itinerant prophet; modern embryology may to some minds offer decisive evidence against the possibility of a virgin birth (“Where did the other twenty-three chromosomes come from?”); and comparisons of Paul’s letters with the various gospel accounts may lead some to the conclusion that Paul, and not Jesus, is the true founder of Christianity. Intellectual honesty, however, requires anyone to admit that the conclusions drawn on the basis of these kinds of scientific studies are subjective. They involve leaps of faith—or unfaith—insofar as the conclusions are not inherent in the discoveries themselves but are rational extrapolations based on those discoveries.

Fr John Breck. Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p 40.

Fr Breck eloquently (and playfully!) presents a very important point, one that many involved in Biblical Studies need to take more to heart. There is much that one sees, some even here on this blog at times, on the issue of conflict between those who find a whole lot of historical and other value in the Bible and those who don’t, with varying degrees of shading in each camp. Of the two billion Christians in the world, the majority certainly lie in the former camp: three-quarters of that number belong to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the other quarter to the Protestants, the vast majority of which are conservative in such matters. Their more traditional evaluations of the data are just as valid as those of the most extreme minimalists. In fact, because they are operating in an environment like that described by Fr Beck, one in which their exegesis is subsumed within a more meaningful context than that of individual scholarship and aiming for a bit more than that peculiar immortality via footnote, they are able to find a greater support diachronically for their own positions than any innovator is able to drum up. With such a multi-millennial support system, the balance in fact surely lies with the more traditional approaches and conclusions, regardless of the stridency and volume of its critics. I write here particularly of historical issues. Other issues, involving spiritual matters, simply cannot be addressed by such meager tools as a collection of paragraphs with the appropriate number of footnotes and the properly impressive bibliography. How many angels would soil their feet to dance on the head of any book by the Jesus Seminar? Maybe if it were the last one and they were simply making sure it made its way into the Lake of Fire….

Well, I’m not sure that I’m saying exactly what I want to convey, but the quote from Fr Beck was something that stuck with me all day. I just thought I’d share it here.

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5 Responses to Leaps of unfaith

  1. slaveofone says:

    “Intellectual honesty, however, requires anyone to admit that the conclusions drawn on the basis of these kinds of scientific studies are subjective.”

    Yes, but so is any other kind of faith/belief statement whether drawn from scientific studies or otherwise? Unless the purpose of the sentence was to remind Positivists of their own limitations, it is a non-statement.

    “one in which their exegesis is subsumed within a more meaningful context than that of individual scholarship and aiming for a bit more than that peculiar immortality via footnote, they are able to find a greater support diachronically for their own positions than any innovator is able to drum up. With such a multi-millennial support system, the balance in fact surely lies with the more traditional approaches and conclusions, regardless of the stridency and volume of its critics. I write here particularly of historical issues.”

    So you’re saying majority agreement throughout time is greater than true historical conclusion based on evidence and rationality? Are you supporting the rift between faith and reason? Or are you instead saying that true historical conclusion based on evidence and rationality agrees with traditional beliefs, therefore historical ?innovation? will not hold up as well as the tradition it tries to supplant?

    “Other issues, involving spiritual matters, simply cannot be addressed by such meager tools as a collection of paragraphs with the appropriate number of footnotes and the properly impressive bibliography.”

    What do you mean by “spiritual matters”? I’m afraid that in this Post-Modern age, it is necessary to ask how people define their words…because even something as simple as the word God can mean a great many different things…

  2. slaveofone says:

    Thanks for that thoughtful response. I see that his audience was not me :) No wonder I wasn’t following very well…

    Yes, it is tiring sometimes with some of these scholars… There is great arrogance in thinking you automatically understand things better than those before you… They are prisoners of a specific cultural world-view and they subject those things outside their own construct to the boundaries they enjoy. Thus, for instance, we have Burton Mack who cannot believe Matthew and his gospel are anything other than a myth of orgins, recreating Matthew and Matthew’s gospel in his own image so that in the end, Mack becomes his Mark, throwing away history in order to create a myth in which the historical Jesus has been lost.

    Well, if you’re EO, then I suppose you mean by “spiritual matters”, that which is mystical and apophatic…which is a totally different meaning of “spiritual” than one would hear elsewhere…or even among different people elsewhere… When I hear the word “spiritual” I immediately think of a few common Western understandings in which spiritual equals something like a plane of reality that doesn’t touch on or interact with the physical/material being/world or an existential experience based on a non-rational emotion or feeling.

  3. Notice the title of the book: Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church. Everything that Fr Breck writes is particularly from that vantage point and particularly intended for that audience. In that context, Tradition, of which Scripture is a normative part but not the only normative part, is supreme. And yes, I do find that proper historical evaluation will generally agree with historically held beliefs, illuminating their origins, etc, rather than the incompetent nihilistic inanities that are claimed by some as “rational” these days.

    But yes, the primary reason that the paragraph stuck with me was probably that it particularly addresses the positivist attitude of superiority, one which is often based not in any competence or particularly admirable treatment of the evidence (e.g. the egregiously stupid, “The Tel Dan stele is obviously a fake because it contradicts our theory”), but on volume and reliance on a loudly declaimed so-called rationality that is just as loudly denied to others. Fr Beck’s usage of the phrase “scientific studies” is unfortunate. There’s nothing scientific about the kinds of literary-critical studies he’s discussing.

    On “spiritual matters”—I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. What on earth do you think I mean by it?! If you need a summary, read the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

    [Also, regarding your recent post: קטל is used in the paradigms/binyanim for Hebrew verbs because it is one of the few combinations of consonants in Hebrew that are completely regular (no weak/guttural/labial letters, etc). An alternative was the use of קטל, which is completely regular in Arabic, the first language of those scholars who designed these paradigms in the middle ages, but it is not regular in Hebrew, because of the ‘ayin and peh. You’ll learn more about the alterations made in the paradigms due to the character of such radicals in the root as time goes on. The changes all follow certain rules, which make sense. But you must first learn the basic paradigms well, and the rest will fall into place.]

  4. I had one of Burton Mack’s books recommended by a friend who thought it really good. It was garbage, and that was disappointing because it made me realize that my friend was not so perceptive as I had thought!

    Yes, “spiritual” has an entirely different meaning for us. It would, in fact, be better rendered with a capital s: Spiritual, things pertaining to God the Holy Spirit, which is really everything seen and unseen, of course! Yet it also particularly refers (as I was) to His work in transforming our lives. He is ignored by academia, of course, leading to a complete and utter lack of understanding of everything: texts, traditions, and reality itself.

    I think the book might be difficult, but enlightening, reading for any non-Orthodox person. It’s definitely written from an entirely and strongly Orthodox viewpoint, specifically in response to the aridity of academic Biblical scholarship. Fr Breck taught such for many years until changing direction, returning to the Apostolic/Patristic roots of Christian exegesis, which this book is really an introduction to.

    Thanks for writing.

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