- Theological method, spiritual formation, and textual criticism - Thoughts on Croasmun and Kennedy’s “Improving on ‘Original Manuscripts’”
In 2012 at the Society of Vineyard Scholars annual conference, Matt Croasmun and Todd Kennedy described some problems with the notion of “original manuscripts” in regard to Scriptural texts. They suggest that the distinction between textual criticism and redaction criticism is based on a modern scholarly construct that we have imposed on the past—specifically, a distinction between licit and illicit revision of Scriptural texts, which happened in earlier and later periods, respectively. Croasmun and Kennedy suggest that the process of textual development is continuous, with no discernible transition from one phase to another, and therefore that we should set aside any attempt to distinguish between licit and illicit textual development on the basis of such phases. Instead, they suggest that identifying the authoritative Scriptural words among textual variants should be a matter of theological and spiritual discernment—and indeed that this is always already the case anyway, and that we should honestly embrace this reality. They make a lot of good points and their analysis is helpful. I agree that there is continuity across the process of textual development, and that we should acknowledge and embrace the role of theological and spiritual discernment in the task of identifying the inspired words of Scripture. I especially agree with their position that the concept of “original manuscripts” is flawed and misleading because there never was any such thing. However, I am not convinced that we should abandon textual criticism so blithely. If the meaning of a text resided only in its reception, such a proposal would make sense, but this is not the case. The intentions of authors and of our forebears in the faith are not transparent to us, but neither are they opaque; we can have an approximate yet reliable sense of those intentions. This means that both what the various authors and redactors intended to communicate and what the recipients of that communication understood and passed on are significant factors for our own understanding. This in turn means that we should redefine the goal of textual criticism in terms of canonical manuscripts rather than original manuscripts. Despite the rhetorical justification of finding the “original manuscripts,” textual criticism has always in fact been aimed at reconstructing the initial versions of the texts that were circulated in the early church. It was only a misguided assumption that “initially received” and “original” were synonymous that caused this. But once we lay aside the misleading notion of “original manuscripts,” we become able to see textual criticism’s purposes and value correctly. The results of textual criticism have been quite reliable. There is always a certain amount of uncertainty and room for scholarly debate over some passages, of course, but there are good reasons for confidence that our critical texts closely approximate the documents that the early church read, exposited, circulated, etc. But why should the version of the Scriptural documents used by the early church be our standard? Put simply, because we follow a Lord and Saviour who was born at a certain time and place, and because such is the nature of tradition. Our faith has been handed down to us from our predecessors, and those closest to Jesus are the only ones we can look to to convey his words and deeds to us. The Spirit of God has never stopped communicating with us, but because we are imperfect listeners we need a κανῶν by which to gauge what we hear and from which to learn the characteristics and patterns of his behaviour. Unguided discovery is a poor pedagogical practice in a case like this; Jesus spent three years teaching his closest disciples in the ways of his Spirit, progressively releasing them into ministry as they gained competence in hearing and following the Spirit. He could not send them out to follow the Spirit’s lead until they had learned how to do so. So likewise for us today. We need guidance to learn the ways of the Spirit. We have nowhere to look for this guidance but to our forebears in the faith, and they all look back to their forebears. The Scriptures that guided the earliest Christians are therefore the Scriptures to which me must look, too. Of course, the Scriptures would be lifeless apart from the Spirit working in and through them. And even with the Spirit working through them, they are only every instrumental towards the larger goal of bringing us into union and communion with God. But as the Spirit works through the Scriptures, we learn to recognize him. We need this Scripturally mediated revelation in order to learn how to recognize him, and we need this κανῶν to be handed down to us from the earliest days so that we can trust it even when we cannot trust our own discernment of his voice. And so, the work of textual critics is legitimate and valuable. We need our Scriptures to align with the earliest canonical versions of the Church so that we can put our trust in them as reliable guides to learning to discern the word of the Spirit of God. It is important to consciously bring theological and spiritual discernment into the process of textual criticism, but we cannot reach the requisite level of theological and spiritual maturity to do so without first being formed by the Spirit through the Scriptures and the community of God’s people.
- On the development of canonicity and its relation to the technological development of the codex(published )
We should not overlook the role of technological advances and their effect on notions of canonicity. In specific, the invention and proliferation of the codex (a.k.a. book) that displaced the scroll had a tremendous impact on what canon means and thereby on whether questions about its being open or closed even make sense. Up to and even during the New Testament period, the various Scriptures were kept each in its own scroll. The typical Jewish classification of the Scriptures, with the Law as the most central, through the Prophets, and out to the Writings as the most peripheral (and then the various texts now termed the Talmud beyond that) makes sense in that context. These texts were a plurality. There wasn’t a clear demarcation line between canonical and non-canonical. The codex allowed multiple texts to be compiled into a single collection. This raised the question of what should be included and what should not. Rather than the concentric circles model of canonicity that was facilitated by the plurality of scrolls, the codex by its very nature required all the texts to be either in or out of the official canonical collection. The texts thus became a unit, the Bible. Everything outside the Bible came to be seen as simply uninspired and everything in it as simply inspired. In this new situation, the concept of “canon” inevitably took on a new form. In the concentric circles model of canonicity the concept of “open vs. closed” never arose because canonicity was a matter of relationship between texts. Now, however, canonicity became a status that certain texts had. Being canon defined only the relationship between the Bible and everything outside of it, and no longer applied to the internal relationship between its constituent texts. I suppose some might find this disturbing, since it could be viewed as unsettling our commonly held understanding of canonicity. I’m not convinced that we should see it that way, though. There’s no reason to say that this development wasn’t also guided by the Holy Spirit. The knee-jerk assumption that all post-1st c. developments are uninspired, which is (ironically enough) abetted by the in-or-out understanding of canonicity, is incorrect. This development is arguably a positive one. For my part, I’m inclined to think that both ways of thinking about canonicity are useful and both are limited. What is needful is wisdom to know which way of thinking about canonicity is most appropriate in any given circumstance.
- On hearing God(published )
Hi Chris. Reading your thoughts and questions here and thinking back to our conversation the other night, I think I’m starting to get a better sense of where you are coming from and what you are trying to wrestle with. Hopefully this will be helpful. :) In Western culture (meaning, basically, European and European-derived culture), we have tended for the last several centuries to think of our world as having two “levels” or “spheres” or whatever: the natural and the supernatural. Some people think of these two spheres as overlapping or interacting a lot, some think that they do so only a little, some think that virtually never do, and some even think that the supernatural level doesn’t exist at all (this would include atheists, for example). In most Pentecostal and charismatic circles, this two-storey view of reality is the starting point for understanding how God interacts with us. Pentecostals and charismatics will insist that there is lots of interaction between the natural and the supernatural, and therefore that we should seek to interact with God supernaturally as much as we can. In this way of thinking about things, revelation from God obviously needs to be categorized as a supernatural event, an intervention in which something crosses over from God’s side into our side. Hearing God, therefore, should be a strange experience. One should be able to recognize “the real deal” in part by the how it is weird and doesn’t feel like our natural ways of perceiving, thinking, knowing, learning, etc. The Pentecostal understanding of receiving the gift of tongues, in which it is thought of as a distinct event when a person has this spiritual ability bestowed on them that they would not naturally have otherwise, is an example of how this plays out. However, this two-storey view of reality is actually very problematic for Christian faith and practice. Among (many!) other problems, it creates a relentless pressure towards expecting that God’s interactions with us will be rare and fleeting. If we consider God’s actions to be essentially alien to the natural world, then they are by definition abnormal and unusual. But Jesus didn’t think that God’s interactions with people were unusual. He taught his disciples to expect that God would interact with them, and that this would be NORMAL for them. Why? Because material and spiritual were not two separate sorts of reality existing in different realms or planes of existence or whatever; rather, they were simply aspects of one, single, unified reality. The Holy Spirit’s coming to the disciples was remarkable not because it indicated a metaphysical change, but because it indicated a relational change. The God from whom we had been estranged by our sin was now no longer a stranger to us. He has begun interacting with us all with a new intimacy and closeness, and so his people have begun to experience his Spirit with us in a way unlike before. This isn’t an incursion of the supernatural into the natural world, but a reconciliation with the God who has always been all around us. So, God’s interactions with us, including the sorts of interaction that we usually describe as him speaking to us, are how things are supposed to work. We human beings were made for this sort interaction from the very beginning. Our physical and mental processes are designed precisely AS the way for us to interact with God. He always intended to interact with us using the equipment he gave us, and as we become reconciled to him, he does that. So, imaginative impressions (e.g. visions and dreams), reading and pondering (say, the Bible, but also other things), experiencing stuff for ourselves, listening to the stories and wisdom of those who have gone before us in the Christian journey, and all the other human things we do to learn are EXACTLY how we learn from God. Heck, even when God does some astounding thing—burning bush, dramatic healing, pillar of fire in the desert, whatever—we still have to perceive and understand it with the same physical and cognitive faculties that we use to perceive and understand the presence and meaning of a hamburger on a plate. It is based on this kind of understanding of how God interacts with us that the Vineyard adopted the practice of using expressions like, “I’m seeing this image…” or, “I think God wants to say…” when sharing what we feel God is revealing to us. We know that we are all of us in the process of learning to hear him well, and that even though he speaks infallibly we are fallible listeners. It is also based on this kind of understanding of how God interacts with us that we say, “Everyone gets to play,” meaning that everyone can hear from God, pray for God to act, and participate in whatever God is up to. All human beings have the natural capacity to interact with God. We need only be reconciled with him and start relating to him in an interactive way. The upshot is that learning to hear God isn’t about him overriding or bypassing our normal ways of knowing, but about learning to recognize his guidance, direction, and revelation in what we see, think, imagine, hear, and feel. It is a matter of the content, not the form.
- Holy Spirit
- image of God
- Usefulness and limitations of the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” for theological method(published )
The Wesleyan quadrilateral is great. However, it needs a very important nuance (one which Frank has already pointed to). We do not have epistemologically unmediated access to any of the four elements. We can’t just access Scripture, but only our interpretations of Scripture. We can’t just access the tradition, but only our interpretations of the tradition, We can’t simply access even our experience, for it, too, is always already interpreted by the time we access it; even reason is not directly accessible, for what we have access to is always our interpretation of what is reasonable and how to reason. This is important, for it means that everything involved in our attempts to know and understand anything are always only provisional interpretations, and therefore never settled. Communal discernment, interpretation, and learning are our best ways to help make our knowledge as closely approximate to reality as possible, but even that is still only ever provisional. So I really don’t think we can ever assume something really is what we think it is, or aim to have exactly correspondent knowledge of the reality. We can only ever seek to approximate it as best we can through seeking coherence and testing whether our understanding works as an explanation of all that we encounter. And so as a result, often I find that my interpretation of one or more elements of the quadrilateral is at odds with my interpretation of some other element, I cannot surrender to the temptation to let one trump the others. Instead, I must keep wrestling until it all makes sense together, no matter how far down the rabbit hole I have to go. Anything less is intellectual suicide.