Confirmation Bias?

Like many other people, the increased division among citizens in US and in the UK saddens me. The recent Brexit vote and the US election are symptoms of something that has been taking place for some time. It seems to me these two events reveal the underlying division in a way not previous because the direct way they shape political vision. Of course it is far too simple to imagine a time where there won’t be tension based upon political desire, but I think we can desire mutual understanding and sympathy. In order to do so we will not only need to answer immediate political questions but also understand the roots of division among citizens.

There are probably a number of philosophical structures at play (many that I’m unaware of), but one that interests and worries me is how our use of technology shapes us as persons. In the case of our current political discourse, our constant connectivity and options of social media and/or news sources means we never lack similar voices to our own. Ken Stern’s recent essay in Vanity Fair on his own perception of the way more main stream media outlets abandoned any attempt at partisanship and fully endorsed Mrs Clinton makes this exact point. Here is how Stern ends his essay:

As Emma Roller wrote recently in The New York Times, “The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true.”

Audiences are increasingly seeking, and demanding, news that fits their personal notion of what is important and what is true…And it is not simply that they have opinions on one side or another; they are routinely demanding coverage that conforms to their world view, and they have the choice to go elsewhere if they are not served.

In a fragmenting media world, with rapidly changing norms and vast choices for consumers, any media company that wants to survive over the long run, will need to factor in the demands of their best customers for news that fits their political biases. That need not be done by changing the facts, as happens too often in many places online, but by offering stories that cement a particular view of the world. That may be good for business, and audience, but it is most certainly not good for the notion of a democracy that depends on some notion of shared values and common discourse.

Stern’s conclusion is thought provoking and has numerous implications. I think one of the most important is we be aware of the way technology is shaping our worldview. My guess is that most of us are guilty of delighting in the confirmation of our already held beliefs. The only way I see us moving to mutual understanding and sympathy will as individuals and hopefully small communities that refuse to participate in such a “cultural liturgy.”

 

A Model to Imitate

huvb

I’m reading through von Balthasar’s seminal work on the theology of Maximus the Confessor. As the translator Brian Daley points out, this is a unique work, “combining historical interpretation with constructive argument” (11). Daley explains that von Balthasar intends “not to be a detached observer of Maximus in his own milieu” but to be both a critic and “an advocate, an impassioned promoter of the synthetic view of God and creation that he perceives in this seventh-century scholastic and monk, precisely because he sees there many elements of the theological synthesis he hopes to offer to his own world” (16).

In other words, von Balthasar is engaged in theological retrieval–not merely historical investigation as an end in itself, nor even merely historical theology as an detached enterprise–but retrieval for the sake of renewal, as Timothy George puts it. That’s a model worth following.

And as von Balthasar seeks to demonstrate, Maximus is one of the great luminaries of the shared Christian past worthy of imitation. As he introduces the life and theology of Maximus, von Balthasar reaches an almost poetic crescendo:

We search, with our lanterns, for models to imitate, but we do not like to look for them in the distant past. Here is one who seems extraordinarily contemporary: a spiritual world-traveler, who continued to work quietly while the waves of the Persian armies and the still more threatening waves of Islam drove him ever further from home and while ecclesiastical and political integralism captured him, put him on trial, attempted to seduce him, condemned him, and banished him, until–at the southern end of what was to be Holy Russia–he died a martyr (27-28).

In a destabilized world and in uncertain times, we need sturdy, reliable models from the past, not to dust off as ancient artifacts to be admired, but as living conversation partners (think, communio sanctorum), who inspire faithful obedience in our own time and place. Retrieval for the sake of renewal. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ needs this now more than ever.

Oklahoma Baptist University at ETS and IBR

OBU will have a number of faculty presenting and moderating in San Antonio this year. Here’s the list:

Matthew Arbo (Jewell and Joe L. Huitt Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies; Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life)

Christian Ethics (ETS)

Moderator

Tuesday, 2:00 PM-5:10 PM

Grand Hyatt – Mission B

Being Public: Defining the Scope of Ecclesial Action (ETS)

Moderator

Thursday, 1:00 PM-4:10 PM

Grand Hyatt – Independence

 

Alan S. Bandy (Rowena R. Strickland Associate Professor of New Testament)

The Land in Prophecy, Eschatology, and the Book of Revelation (ETS)

Moderator

Thursday, 1:00 PM-4:10 PM

Grand Hyatt – Bowie C


Matthew Y. Emerson (Dickinson Assistant Professor of Religion)

Trinitarian Thought and Development in Second Century Literature (ETS)

“The Descent to the Dead and Trinitarian Economic Relations in the Second Century”

Tuesday, 11:30 AM – 12:10 PM

Grand Hyatt – Bonham D

Trinity and Gender: A Panel Discussion presented by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (ETS)

Tuesday, 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM

Grand Hyatt – Lone Star Salon C

 

Heath A. Thomas (Professor of Old Testament; Dean of the Hobbs College of Theology and Ministry; Associate Vice President for Church Relations)

Suffering, Evil and Divine Punishment in the Bible

Respondent to Richard Schultz, Wheaton College, “Suffering as Divine Punishment in the OT Wisdom Books: Is There a Shared Perspective?”

Friday, 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM
Room: Republic A (4th Level) – Grand Hyatt (GH)

Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar (IBR)

Theme: The Kingdom of God

“‘The Kingdom of God is Among You’: Retrieval of the Kingdom for Today ”

Saturday, 4:00 PM to 6:30 PM (15 minute papers followed by Q&A)

Stars at Night 1 (3rd Level) – Convention Center (CC)

 

Michael Travers (Professor of English; Division Chair for Language and Literature; Associate Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences; Associate Provost)

Literature of the Bible

“‘A Lamb standing as though it had been slain’: Poetic Images of God the Son in the Bible”

Wednesday, 9:20 AM—10:00 AM; panel discussion to follow at 11 AM

Grand Hyatt – Mission A

 

 

 

 

 

Books and Culture Interview with Richard Hays

Books and Culture’s recent interview with Richard Hays has been making the rounds. The interview is interesting in itself and covers topics on Hays’s background and some of his academic work.

Hays is one of the better models for theological reading and I found one aspect of the interview illuminating on him as a scholar.

…once I got into biblical studies courses in seminary, I was both fascinated by the subject matter and puzzled by the ways I found a lot of biblical scholars approaching the text: in many cases, they seemed less interested in the wholeness and message of the text than in trying to excavate some hypothetical prehistory of the text.

My response to that has left its stamp on most of my work as a New Testament scholar. I’ve been attempting to interpret the Bible with the sensibility of someone trained as a literary reader of texts and, through that kind of reading, to recover the powerful and surprising messages of Scripture.

David Bentley Hart on Analytic Philosophy

Speaking of the analytic philosophical tradition, here’s part of David Bentley Hart’s take(down):

I should probably note here that, in the analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy, the issue [of God as Being or Reality] tends to be complicated on the one hand by the methods and conceptual rules generally preferred by analytic thinkers, and on the other by the lack of historical perspective that those methods and rules often encourage. The analytic tradition is pervaded by the mythology of “pure” philosophical discourse, a propositional logic that somehow floats above the historical and cultural contingency of ideas and words, and that somehow can be applied to every epoch of philosophy without any proper attention to what the language and conceptual schemes of earlier thinkers meant in their own times and places. This is a pernicious error under the best of conditions, but it has worked arguably the greatest mischief in the realm of ontology, often as a result of principles that, truth be told, are almost entirely arbitrary.

The Experience of God, p. 123

Thoughts? Reactions?

Vanhoozer, Taylor, and the Prospects of Analytic Theology

I missed this back in May, but Kevin Vanhoozer has an insightful review of Charles Taylor’s latest book, The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, over at the Gospel Coalition website. Vanhoozer explains that Taylor is a “post-analytic” philosopher in that he has come to reject the reductionism of the analytic philosophical tradition. Specifically, Taylor has come to believe that the “designative” theory of language associated with analytic philosophy–namely, that language merely designates or labels objects in the world–is an insufficient account of humanity’s use of language. Language does not merely map out the objective world; it also communicates “the significance that things have for us.”

Anyway, enough of this review of a review. What stood out to me in Vanhoozer’s post was his conclusion, where he applies Taylor’s insights to theological formulation and in particular to analytic theology:

Taylor thinks that contemporary analytic philosophy is still indebted in various ways to Cartesian philosophy and to the goal of using language to set forth an accurate description of the natural world and of seeing meaning as “something down-to-earth, and nonmysterious” (117). Is the task of Christian theology simply to designate the realities to which it refers in unambiguous propositions? Should we not follow the way the biblical words and themes and genres go, to trace them out and preserve them and penetrate them better? Put differently: to what extent is the canon a sine qua non of Christian consciousness, the mind of Christ?

Just when you thought it safe to go into the water of analytic theology, we must now ponder the value, and perhaps the necessity, of post-analytic theology.

I’ve expressed appreciation for analytic theology in the past, and I still think some interesting work is being done in this emerging field. But Vanhoozer, via Taylor, puts his finger on some questions I have been mulling about the movement for the past couple of years.

Part of what drew me to analytic theology several years back was Oliver Crisp’s use of it to explicate and defend classic Christology. I still think that work is incredibly helpful, but the pressing question I’ve been asking lately is, how is language functioning in these kinds of examinations and defenses of Christian doctrine? Does it signify what God is actually like in some kind of rigorous, precise, and objective way? Or does it simply give us the grammar to speak about and reflect upon God in ways that are faithful and fitting to the biblical economy?

The latter seems more likely to me now. This doesn’t mean doctrine is merely a function of the community or that it has no objective referent. But it does mean that we need a healthy dose of apophaticism in our theologizing. Theology should never have as its goal the desire to render its great Object non-mysterious.

Private Confessions and Binding and Loosing in Christ’s Kingdom

I am convinced that the ordinances of Christ ought to take place in Christ’s church, and not simply in private or outside of the gathering of God’s people under the authority given to them by Christ. For Baptists and baptistic free churches, this means they take place particularly in the context and under the authority of the local church. This is because the ordinances are part of what Jesus means when he tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19).”

Binding and loosing is particularly related to the proclamation of the gospel and to making disciples of those who respond in repentance and faith to that proclamation, namely through the means of grace – preaching and the ordinances. Baptism, while certainly a testimony of the baptizand’s profession of faith, is also an exercise of the local church’s charge to bind and loose – they affirm the baptizand’s confession and vow to edify them in their walk with Christ. Additionally, baptism is the first step in the lifelong process of church discipline. That term is not pejorative; rather, “discipline” simply refers to the continued formation of an individual through regular practices. The local church is integral in the discipline of the life of a believer; that role begins in baptism, and baptism is a continual reminder for the disciple and the church that s/he belongs to Christ and needs to be conformed to Christ.

Baptism is also part of how the local church manifests Christ’s kingdom; it is a visible sign of Christ’s death-defeating, resurrecting work in the baptizand’s life, and in that proclamation it also reminds other Christians of their own union with Christ’s death and resurrection. It is therefore a visible sign not only of and for the individual, but also for the congregation and for and to the world. This is why I continue to uphold the importance of the ordinances taking place in the context of the local church – they are instituted by Christ as part of the means by which the the local church exercises its authority and manifests Christ’s kingdom.

All this is particularly relevant to our current political climate. News dropped this weekend concerning the GOP nominee bragging about sexually assaulting women in a 2005 recording. Some evangelical leaders are dismissing this charge, and encouraging others to do so as well, on the basis that Trump has made a private confession of Christ and prayed privately to be forgiven of what he said in that tape. Voters are being encouraged to take this as a sign that he is a changed man.

I would be delighted to know that Trump, or anyone, has made a genuine conversion, and that they have turned from their sin and to Christ. The point here is that the Church has historically affirmed that conversions are part of its communal life, and, for baptistic churches, they are particularly and especially part of the local church’s communal life. Talk of Trump’s conversion, on the other hand, is being bound and loosed by a handful of televangelists who testify to his private change and private confession. This is part of a larger move in evangelicalism, rooted even further back in the revivals, that “tests” conversion through private, individual, emotional experience instead of via the binding and loosing of the local church. We do not have the ordinances as visible signs, or discipline as the long road of communal obedience, with private professions that are not bound and loosed in the context of the local church. We are instead asked to take a leap of faith and believe in private professions, rather than seeing them worked out publicly in the life of the local church.

I, for one, will stick with the Apostles and the subsequent wisdom of the Church and my Baptist forebearers. Confessions of faith take place within the communal life of the local congregation, and are part of the church’s “binding and loosing” of the gospel through the ordinances and discipline.

#TISsowhite? Reflections on Daniel Kirk’s Broadside

Daniel Kirk has a post that has been making the rounds this week in which he connects the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) movement with something he calls the “problem of whiteness.” Leaving aside questions about whether or not we can speak of TIS as a singular coherent “movement,” let’s consider the thrust of Kirk’s argument. As I understand it, Kirk appears to be arguing that the TIS movement, unlike other “situated” readings (such as feminist, African American, and LGBT readings), has failed to own up to its own “revisionist” approach to Scripture and that this failure is owing to the general “whiteness” of the movement–presumably TIS advocates are mostly white males who are not accustomed to locating their scholarship within a particular perspective. As Kirk puts it:

White, western theology has sat at the center of biblical interpretation for so long that all of our debates can only be about what the text “really” says. And when we know that the text doesn’t say what it must we create a theological paradigm (reading in light of the rule of faith) that enables us to say that everyone has to agree with us even when we’re disagreeing with the text because the people who gave us the text used our paradigm to pick which books belong.

The problem of whiteness in theology and theological interpretation is that it has sat at the center for so long, it has been “the right answer” for so long, that it is dispositionally incapable of recognizing that it only says what it says because it is white, western, and hegemonic.

As I see it there are at least three false dichotomies apparent in Kirk’s argument.

1. Kirk falsely pits the New Testament against subsequent orthodoxy.

Kirk seems to be assuming that TIS advocates don’t know the difference between the fourth century and the first. He assumes that “ruled” readings must necessarily be anachronistic–that we must “make Paul or Matthew into a proto-Trinitarian.” But, of course, no one actually makes that mistake. No TIS scholar of which I am aware would argue that the NT authors were Trinitarian in the same way that, say, Athanasius was Trinitarian, homoousios and all.

But quite obviously Kirk is making the opposite mistake in driving a sharp wedge between the NT and the trinitarian doctrine that organically grew from it in the earliest centuries of the church. He is, to use David Yeago’s categories, conflating theological concepts with theological judgments: “the same judgement can be rendered in a variety of conceptual terms, all of which may be informative about a particular judgement’s force and implications.” So it is possible, and perfectly permissible as an academic argument, to suggest that Paul could be rendering the same judgment about the status of Jesus Christ that the Nicene Fathers did, even if he did not (for obvious historical reasons) utilize their precise conceptual language.

2. Kirk falsely pits the acknowledgement of our situatedness against the quest for truth.

Another problem with Kirk’s argument is that he seems to assume that TIS proponents are unaware or else unwilling to admit their own theological presuppositions. But I don’t see how any reading of the main texts of the TIS movement–including the evangelical ones–could be interpreted in this way. It seems to me that the TIS movement, in all of its various manifestations, is characterized by just the opposite: a broadly “postmodern” sensibility, a focus on the interpretive role of the community, a valuing of interpretive pluralism (within certain constraints), and an appreciation for premodern exegesis (with its more open-ended hermeneutic). Ironically, one of the main burdens of the TIS movement has been to show the limitations of the supposedly “objective” readings of the modernist historical-critical method.

But again, Kirk makes the opposite error. The real problem for Kirk seems to be the quest for “right” readings of the biblical text. This is where the “whiteness” charge comes in. TIS proponents, to the degree that they seek “the right answer,” are simply the product of a “white, western, and hegemonic” power play. But interpretive pluralism need not imply a kind of radical relativism: an anything-goes, wax-nose approach. There is truth to be had in interpretation, even if our access to it is always conditioned by our historical and cultural context. Acknowledging our theological presuppositions does not eliminate the possibility of better and worse readings of Scripture. However we want to conceptualize this dynamic (the hermeneutical circle, critical realism, etc.), there is a dialectic between the reader and the text that somehow does not leave the reader stuck in the mire of his own prejudices. Real advance toward the truth is possible.

3. Kirk falsely pits the rule of faith against listening to minority voices.

Kirk is right to call TIS opponents to consider their own prejudices and to embrace hermeneutical humility. Further, his piece serves as a helpful reminder that we should listen to minority voices in biblical and theological scholarship. White scholars of all theological stripes can be indicted on this front to one degree or another. Thankfully, recent decades have witnessed several attempts to remedy this error.

But Kirk makes an interesting and erroneous assumption in driving this point home. He argues that Western voices “create[d]” the theological paradigm of the rule of faith in order to exercise control over the marketplace of ideas. Apparently orthodoxy “only says what it says because it is white, western, and hegemonic.” As a friend pointed out on Twitter, another irony lies in the fact that the rule of faith was developed largely in non-Western contexts: places like northern Africa and modern-day Turkey. Further, the TIS movement has been eager to retrieve perspectives from Eastern Fathers such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, even Origen.

But in any event, it seems that one of the implications of Kirk’s argument is that the rule of faith, embodied in the Creeds of the church, is the unique creation and preserve of white western men. But what an insult this is to our trinitarian brothers and sisters in the majority world! The African bishops of the Anglican and Methodist churches, the evangelicals of China, and the Pentecostals of Latin America would surely be surprised to learn that they have embraced the trinitarian faith only because of white western colonialism. A true appreciation for our situatedness would acknowledge that only in a western liberal academic context could we make such a condescending assumption as to equate the ancient, trinitarian rule of faith with latter-day “whiteness.”

Ignatius and Submission According to the Flesh

I was reading through Ignatius’ “Letter to the Magnesians” this afternoon, and toward the end of the letter he says this:

“Be subject to the bishop and one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be unity, both physical and spiritual (12.2; emphasis mine).

In Greek it’s, in part, ὑποταγητε…ὡς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς τῳ πατρὶ κατὰ σάρκα (emphasis mine).

Here we have what I’d call an early – very early – attestation to the “form of a servant / “form of God” hermeneutic that the later pro-Nicenes would use to refute the Arians, Eunomians, and other anti-Nicenes.

The Son Will Be Subjected to the Father? Thomas and Calvin Weigh In

Awhile back, during the heat of the summer, Matt posted some quotes from St. Basil and St. Augustine on the meaning of 1 Corinthians 15:28: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”

In what sense will the Son be subjected to the Father? Does this verse teach a final submission of the Son of God as such to the Father ? Or are we to understand this subjection in terms of Christ’s humanity rather than his personal divine identity? As Matt pointed out, Basil and Augustine pick up on clues in the biblical text itself that point in the direction of the latter interpretation.

I was interested to hear from a couple of my favorite interpreters on this text as well. So I tracked down what Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin had to say. Here’s Thomas on 1 Corinthians 15:27-28 (emphasis added):

But on the other hand. If the Father subjected all things to the Son, the Son is less than the Father. The answer is that the Father subjected all to the Son as man, as has been stated, and so the Father is greater than the Son. For He is less according to his humanity, but equal according to His divinity. Or it might be said that even the Son Himself as God subjected all things to Himself, because as God He can do all that the Father does: “We await a Savior who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:20)….Therefore, he says, when all things are subjected to him. As if to say: God has not yet subjected all things to Christ, but when all things shall have been subjected to Him, namely, to Christ, then the subject Himself according to His humanity will be subjected to Him, namely, to the Father: “The Father is greater than I” (Jn. 14:28), and even now Christ as man is subjected to the Father, but this will be more manifest then.

And Calvin (again, emphasis added):

But Christ will then restore the kingdom which he has received, that we may cleave wholly to God. Nor will he in this way resign the kingdom, but will transfer it in a manner from his humanity to his glorious divinity, because a way of approach will then be opened up, from which our infirmity now keeps us back. Thus then Christ will be subjected to the Father, because the vail being then removed, we shall openly behold God reigning in his majesty, and Christ’s humanity will then no longer be interposed to keep us back from a closer view of God.

So it’s clear that Thomas and Calvin agree with Basil and Augustine: the Son’s subjection to the Father in the eschaton is a function of his humanity. There are clues in 1 Corinthians 15 itself that point in this direction (e.g., as Basil points out, the subjection spoken of is somehow a future and not a present reality; so it can’t be describing some eternally fixed relation of Father and Son in their immanent relations). But, as Thomas and Calvin seem to be appealing to, there are also Christological commitments grounded in the text of Scripture that must guide our interpretation of this particular text. We know from John’s gospel that there is some sense in which the Father is greater than the Son (John 14:28). But we also know from other texts that the Son possesses the same “glorious divinity” as the Father and that he has the same power to subject all things to himself (Phil. 3:20). The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that, along with the Father and Spirit, the Son is the very God to whom all things will be subjected and who will finally be all in all.

So Thomas and Calvin seem to be employing the classical “form of God/form of servant” hermeneutical rule. Is this text speaking of Christ in terms of his deity or in terms of his humanity? Answering that question with regard to any particular text demands appeal not only to the specifics of the text itself but also to broader Christological judgments that take into account the entire scope of Scripture. In short, Basil and Augustine, Thomas and Calvin provide us with commendable examples of the classic principle that Scripture interprets Scripture.