Scripture Has No Need to Escape Historical Contingencies

One of the many questions that arise when engaging in theology is the nature of scriptural inspiration. Given that the books of the Bible are the source of any true knowledge of God, and are “…given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life,”[1] it serves us well to know the nature of this inspiration that we affirm.

Theologians in the past few centuries have offered many different theories of inspiration. Some contend God dictated his word to the prophets and apostles, while those on the opposite end of the spectrum say the Bible contains the word of God but is not itself the word of God. In the following, I will not be concerned with evaluating all the particular varieties of scriptural inspiration that theologians and writers have to offer. Rather, I would like to examine one puzzle about scriptural inspiration that began to turn heads especially beginning around the time of the enlightenment. This puzzle is understanding how to account for the Bible’s divine authorship in light of its historical and human contingencies.

My dad once confidently asserted, “The books of the Bible were written by men,” the implication of course being that since they were written by men, the Bible could not be divinely authored. Contrary to my dad’s intuitions, Christians do not have to deny that the books of the Bible were written by people at a particular time in history. The human authorship of scripture and its historical peculiarities are not evidence against its divine origin. This incorrect assumption has been the source of many useless arguments against the Christian faith and has needlessly troubled Christians over the past few centuries. These arguments assume that scripture, in order to be divine, ought to be rid of its human and historical contingencies. Divine, eternal truths, so the mindset goes, do not come in the form of any particular culture or historical context, but must rise above all historical contingencies to be truly divine. But I argue this is not the case.

In using the phrase “historical contingencies,” I allude to Richard Rorty’s conception of contingency as found in his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. In it, Rorty emphasizes, over and against philosophers like Plato or Kant, that we cannot escape our cultural-historical contexts. Everything from our customs, to our morality and knowledge, derives from a series of accidental historical factors we have no control over. We cannot ascend to the heights of philosophical mountain tops to survey our differing ethical codes or epistemic systems from a privileged standpoint, untainted by the unique needs and concerns of our culture. We have no means of comparing these ideas according to some universal criterion, but rather, any standard we use is itself constructed according to our collective social biases.

For instance, especially before the advent of the 20th century, philosophers in the western tradition have had a tendency to regard their cultural peculiarities as universal laws of nature. Aristotle regarded some types of people as natural slaves, while Plato believed he could use common cultural customs of his day – like pederasty – to discover the true nature of love.[2] In fact, Plato assumed we could discover metaphysical truths concerning concepts like virtue, knowledge, and piety, just by engaging in the type of Socratic dialogues his writings exemplify.

Rorty - Labeled to the rightContrary to these assumptions, Rorty assigns the various theories of our western philosophical and religious traditions to the status of differing vocabularies rather than universal, metaphysical truths.

All there can ever possibly be is a series of competing vocabularies, but there cannot ever be a way of speaking that mirrors the nature of the world, or which can ever give us a bird’s eye view independent of our social habituation. Such a vocabulary – one able to encompass all other vocabularies and rise above the accidental features of our historical context – would be some sort of metavocabulary, a type of Leibnizian ideal language.[3] We can never aspire to this metavocabulary, since any attempt to create one would only yield further contingencies.

Rorty goes as far as to say that we are so entrenched in the vocabulary of our particular historical context that truth is merely a property we assign to sentences:

“To drop the idea of languages as representations, and to be thoroughly Wittgensteinian in our approach to language, would be to de-divinize the world. Only if we do that can we fully accept the argument I offered earlier – the argument that since truth is a property of sentences, since sentences are dependent for their existence upon vocabularies, and since vocabularies are made by human beings, so are truths.” (21)

The “Wittgensteinian” approach to language referred to here is one where all instances of language can only be understood in reference to a particular context, or a “language-game,” according to which words are assigned a specific use through common custom. According to Wittgenstein, much of the history of philosophy is the history of people confusing themselves by needlessly conflating two different language-games and presenting their verbal confusion as some deep, philosophical insight.

In an effort to discover the hidden essences of things, some of these philosophers asked questions and gave answers to these questions that were not so much false as they were meaningless. They were meaningless because the form of the questions and answers philosophers posed were often without context, e.g. “What is a simple?” or “Every word in a language signifies something.”[4] The questions were posed in contextless form so that answers to these questions would rise above all contexts and furnish us with knowledge of the “Truth” in the Platonic (and Christian) sense. Against this, Rorty asserts truth is really just a property we assign to sentences, and that the uppercase, mind-independent, universal “Truth” many philosophers and religionists are so fond of discussing is an antiquated way of speaking leftover from Plato.

As such, truth, knowledge, and justification of this knowledge, are all constructions made by groups of people living in specific cultural-historical contexts. No one is exempted. We construct these concepts through our linguistic capacities, and the particular conceptions we happen to form are manifestations of our unique needs and interests. In summary, all we have are the descriptions and redescriptions of differing vocabularies of which none is more privileged than another. These vocabularies and their descriptions stem from the contingencies of history and not from any sort of universal applicability.

So it goes with scripture. The Old and New Testaments manifest a particular vocabulary that manifests the unique perspectives of a given time period. Scripture does not rise to the status of a metavocabulary, where its contents encompass within themselves the final and absolute description of the way things are. Rather, its storyline and representations are indicative of contingent perspectives we generally no longer hold nor find very useful.

One does not need to be as thorough a constructivist about truth and knowledge as Rorty is to appreciate his account of historical contingencies, and the fact that the prophets and apostles who wrote the texts of the Bible were significantly affected by their surroundings. This is clear just when we consider the fact that the Old Testament was written primarily in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. But as I mentioned before, the fact that the Bible was produced within history and contains within itself evidence of writings styles unique to different authors is not itself evidence of its mere human origin. Such an assertion assumes that Truth must be without context, and that since the Bible fails to achieve this ideal “contextlessness” that it fails to offer us eternal truths. However, the fact that the Bible is composed of a set of narratives and rooted in the context of its authors’ contingent human cultures takes nothing away from its truthfulness, since God’s truth is presented through the very narrative. The idea that narratives and historical contingencies sharply contrast with the real truth has been the source of erroneous speculations concerning scripture.

The assumption that the Bible is covered in a veneer of mythologies and human idiosyncrasies that we must sift through in order to discover its real meaning and truth became popular around the time of the enlightenment, with proponents including Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Thomas Jefferson, and Friedrich Schleiermacher.[5] More recently, Rudolf Bultmann added to this enlightenment sentiment in the 20th century with his mission to “demythologize” the Bible. bultmann - labeledHis reasoning was that modern science had progressed to the point that it would be silly to ask a citizen of modernity to believe the Bible’s mythologies:

“Modern thought as we have inherited it brings with it criticism of the New Testament view of the world. Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world – in fact, there is no one who does.” (4)

The New Testament view of the world (and presumably Old Testament, though Bultmann focuses on the New) is fundamentally mythological:

“The real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives.” (10)

See here the dichotomy Bultmann places between “the world as it is,” and the particular narrative given to us in the New Testament. Since the New Testament perspective was intrinsically shaped by its surrounding cultural- historical context, a text that expresses “man’s understanding of himself,” it cannot paint a true picture of the world. However, it is interesting to note that it is by this very logic that Rorty came to his radical constructivist conclusions. Bultmann did not seem to realize the fact that his own evaluation of the New Testament was just as affected by his conception of modernity and science as the New Testament was affected by Judaism and the Roman Empire in the first century. If he were consistent, Bultmann would have considered his own theory’s account, found in his article “New Testament and Mythology,” also as merely an expression of his own understanding, and not a picture of the world as it really is. As Rorty would say, the existentialist lens Bultmann superimposes on the New Testament is just another unprivileged vocabulary that is no more “True” than the New Testament’s vocabulary.

Rorty and Bultmann both assumed the nature of “Truth” is such that it cannot be contained within any particular vocabulary or narrative, but in some metavocabulary or metanarrative. These meta ways of speaking aim to rise above the accidental features of one’s language and cultural-historical context. Evidently, Bultmann must have thought the vocabulary of modernity, exemplified in modern science or existentialism, was a better metanarrative candidate than the New Testament. Fast forward to Rorty’s postmodernity, and we arrive at the disillusionment of finding any true metanarrative at all, as Jean-Francois Lyotard famously said, “incredulity toward metanarratives” characterizes postmodernity.

In the former case, scripture contains the wrong narrative and must be reinterpreted according to the correct metanarrative of modernity, so that it may “present an objective picture of the world as it is”; in the latter case, all attempts at formulating the correct metanarrative are useless, since all we may ever hope of achieving is a series of descriptions and redescriptions inevitably rooted in our contingencies, without ever representing the world as it is. Whichever horn of the dilemma one chooses, the Bible does not escape its own contingencies, and therefore cannot be the word of God.

Theologian Michael Horton in his systematic theology, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way,[6] opposes these conclusions. In his insightful section discussing the nature and inspiration of scripture, Michael-Horton - labeledhe points out that the foregoing conclusions are based upon the assumption that eternal Truths exist in contradistinction to history, and that the Bible to be God’s word must contain a metanarrative aloof from historical contexts and the writing style of its authors. But these assumptions needlessly truncate our view of scripture, and ignore a more plausible option:

“We do not have to say that Christianity is a metanarrative to affirm that it is true…In other words, it is still a story, even though it is true.  Not even the resurrection is a metanarrative; its meaning cannot be read off of the surface of historical events but is defined by its intratextual context as part of an unfolding plot. (18)

As Horton describes, scripture is like an unfolding plot whose events must be considered within the very historical context of its subject matter. Additionally, just because most of scripture is presented in narrative form, this does not somehow make it any less God’s word, since it need not come in the form of a metanarrative, aloof from the culture, language, or time period of its origin for it to be true. Its truth is a constitutive feature of its storyline and intrinsic to the very cultural-historical context those like Bultmann want us to escape. We have no need to sublimate the language of scripture to make it more divine, or to cast off the husks of history to reveal some ahistorical, eternal “Truth.” Scripture is not some allegory pointing to a greater reality, but its reality is the very so-called “myth” it presents.

These considerations allow us to see that the sharp contrast between supposed cultural constructions and ahistorical Truth is an unwarranted one. We may truly proclaim alongside scripture that

“…no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21),

while simultaneously acknowledging and exulting over the fact that the prophecy God inspired is acclimated to the surrounding contingencies of those to whom he first spoke, and now to us, to whom he continues to speak through his word.

God never once conceals the humanity or the supposed accidental historical features through which he reveals himself. This is no Kierkegaardian “absurdity”[7] or embarrassment to the Christian faith. The unfolding plot presented in the Bible is the lens through which every Christian ought to interpret the world. God presents the grandeur of creation, his plan of redemption, and the very purpose of history itself, within the story he has graciously given to us. At its zenith is the triumph of Jesus Christ and hope of the world to come. I encourage everyone to read Horton’s take on these issues in his systematic theology for a longer discussion, and in so doing, for the saints to gain a greater appreciation for our God.


Footnotes

[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith. Chapter 1, “Of the Holy Scripture.”

[2] Aristotle discusses this in his Politics (e.g. Book 1, Part IV). Plato discusses love in his Symposium. In it, the interlocutors sometimes discuss pederasty to make a point about the nature of love. Besides this, Plato’s other dialogues like the Meno attempt to define various words to discover their metaphysical nature, oftentimes referencing the cultural customs of their time.

[3] See Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s essay called “Preface to a Universal Characteristic.”

[4] See Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, §45-48 and §13.

[5] Lessing helped influence others like Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by contending that the religion of the New Testament would soon become antiquated just as did the religion of the Old. What would replace Christianity is a type of “third gospel” that subsumes the three great monotheistic religions. This true message of Christianity is hidden beneath the story of the Bible. For more, see his play Nathan the Wise, and Elie Kedourie’s Hegel and Marx: Introductory Lectures. Jefferson famously discarded all supernatural features of scripture due to a prevailing view of enlightenment deism, keeping only moral teachings found in the four Gospels. Schleiermacher attempted to save religion from the criticism of the enlightenment, so he relegated it to a feeling of “absolute dependence,” also rejecting the existence of a personal God.

[6] I do not have my physical copy of Horton’s systematic theology with me as I write this, though I remember the general tenor of his argument. Fortunately, I was able to find a great quotation of Horton from this blog article, though the author of the article egregiously misrepresents Horton with this quotation.

[7] I am referencing Søren Kierkegaard’s comments about “the absurdity” that the eternal God became incarnate and entered into time. This is analogous to the supposed puzzle of how a historical text can have a divine origin. In his Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard through his pseudonym “Johannes Climacus,” also presents a sharp contrast between eternal and historical knowledge: “[F]or all knowledge is either a knowledge of the Eternal, excluding the temporal and historical as indifferent, or it is pure historical knowledge. No knowledge can have for its object the absurdity that the Eternal is the historical.”