Friday, April 28, 2006

Philosophical Issues and Methodology in Jesus Research (Part 1)

One of the most famous criticisms leveled at projects in christology has been George Tyrrell’s famous claim that scholars have only succeeded projecting their own presuppositions upon Jesus—as if staring at their own reflection at the bottom of a well.[1] It is a sad fact that from some of the earliest times Christian theology has been influenced by certain anti-semitic attitudes.[2] Such bias was most strikingly transparent at the height of the Third Reich, when, in an effort to completely disassociate Jesus from his Jewishness, it was even suggested that Jesus was actually the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier, Panthera.[3] In light of this it is striking that so many Jesus scholars neglect methodological issues. Addressing the philosophical and hermeneutical issues involved with New Testament research (and more specifically, the study of the Gospels) should be a principle concern of such research.

In this essay we will look at some of the philosophical trends that have shaped biblical studies. First, we will examine the philosophical roots of historical-critical methods and examine the context from which they emerged. Next, we will consider the criteria of authenticity (as described by John P. Meier) to see what philosophical presuppositions are prevalent in Jesus scholarship. Finally, we will examine the Critical-Realist approach set forth by Ben Meyer and N. T. Wright and see how Wright applies this philosophy to historical Jesus studies.

1.1. Nominalism and the Separation of Theology and Philosophy
From very early on, Christian writers asserted that there was an essential harmony between faith and reason, theology and philosophy. Justin Martyr described Christianity as “the only sure and profitable philosophy.”[4] Likewise, Clement of Alexandria referred to the Gospel as “the true philosophy.”[5] Explaining his conversion, Augustine wrote:
“I thought it more modest and not in the least misleading to be told by the Church to believe what could not be demonstrated—whether that was because a demonstration existed but could not be understood by all or whether the matter was not one open to rational proof—rather than from the Manichees to have a rash promise of knowledge with mockery of mere belief, and then afterward to be ordered to believe many fabulous and absurd myths impossible to prove true.”[6]

Anselm famously summed up the approach of this approach in terms of “faith seeking understanding.”[7] This view continued through the thirteenth century and reached its pinnacle in Aquinas.
An important theme of this tradition, therefore, was the intelligibility of God’s existence and the moral law. One of its most important characteristics was “scholastic realism,” which asserted that universals such as “nature” and “goodness” refer to realities that truly exist, at least in some way, outside of the mind.[8] Through careful philosophical examination of these universals God’s existence could be demonstrated as reasonable.[9]

In addition, God’s moral law was understood in connection with God’s design for human nature. Following Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas defines the “good” as that which is “desirable.”[10] That which humans ultimately desire is “perfection.”[11] Perfection is only found in the attainment of humanity’s ultimate telos—God. Humans, therefore, are naturally inclined to choose “the good,” that is, God and those actions that will lead a person to him. This is what is called “Natural Law.” Moral conflict arises when one must make a choice between fulfilling some immediate desire and a higher good, which may not be immediately enjoyed.[12]

A major break with this tradition came with the writings of William of Ockham and the Nominalist tradition that followed him. Ockham radically redefined the implications of God’s omnipotence and his potentia absoluta (absolute power). While previous scholastic thinkers had affirmed God’s potentia absoluta, it was believed that he had bound himself to a potentia ordinata (“ordered power”)—God chose to bind himself to an order he had established for the creation.[13] Ockham argued that this amounted to a watered down view of omnipotence. For Ockham, divine omnipotence means that God is bound by no order, design or standard. Because God is bound by no standard of justice, morality is entirely arbitrary. God would be (and is) free to declare theft, murder and adultery as meritorious acts.[14] Similarly, being constrained by no standard of justice, God could damn a righteous person to hell.[15]

Moreover, Ockham denied the existence of universals, insisting that they are only names (nomina) with empty meaning:[16]

“[I]n a particular substance there is nothing substantial except the particular form, the particular matter, or the composite of the two. And, therefore, no one ought to think that in Socrates there is a humanity or a human nature which is distinct from Socrates…The only thing in Socrates which can be construed as substantial is this particular matter, this particular form, or the composite of the two.”[17]
Universals, therefore, are simply concepts entirely created by the human mind to discuss individual realities.[18] Moreover, for Ockham the very idea of the existence of universals infringes upon God’s absolute freedom.[19] The attack on universals was continued through the work of the “Nominalists” of the fourteenth century.[20]

This rejection of universals pulled the carpet out from under arguments for the existence of God and Natural Law. Ockham wrote, for example, “it can not be demonstratively proved that there is only one God.”[21] In short, in Ockham’s work a wedge was driven between faith and reason. Whereas in the previous tradition appeals to the Greek philosophers were made in an effort to underscore an essential unity between faith and reason, Ockham sought to distance Theology from Philosophy.[22] Michael Gillespie writes, “Nominalism sought to tear the rationalistic veil from the face of God.”[23]

Nominalism had gained tremendous influence by the time of the Reformation. Luther read Thomas Aquinas and the other scholastics through the lens of writers such as Gabriel Biel.[24] Moreover, whereas Ockham had driven a wedge between faith and reason, Luther separated them further. Luther describes reason as “the Devil’s whore.”[25] Applying his distrust of reason to Scripture, Luther acknowledged that it contained contradictions but argued against resolving them. Resolution would only come in the light of future glory.[26]

(Part 2, "Methodological Doubt and Early Historical-Critical Approaches," continued here)
[1] George Tyrrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963), 49.
[2] For a comprehensive study see, John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press,1985). Also see William Farmer, ed., Anti-Judaism and the Gospels (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1999.
[3] See Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1977), 534-537.
[4] Dialogue with Trypho, 8, 1.
[5] Stromata, I, 18, 90, 1.
[6] Confessions, VI, 5, 7.
[7] Proslogium, Preface, 1.
[8] Michael Gillespie, Nihilism Before Neitzsche (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 12. Gillespie’s assertion that for Abelard universals were “merely” names, having no extra-mental existence is incorrect. Abelard writes, “[T]hey do serve to name things that actually exist and therefore are not the subjects of purely empty thoughts.” Abelard argued that universals are abstracted from particular realities by the mind to describe similarities which they share. While it is the mind that abstracts the universals, they are not simply arbitrarily derived but, rather, are rooted in the particulars which exist outside of it. Peter Abelard. On Universals (Philosophical Classics Volume II: Medieval Philosophy; eds., Baird, Forrest E. and Kaufmann, Walter; Fourth Edition; Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2003), 187-188.
[9] Summa Theologica I a q 2
[10] Nicomachean Ethics, lect. 1.
[11] Summa Theologica, I q 5 a 1.
[12] Servais Pinckaers, Sources Of Christian Ethics (trans. Mary Thomas Noble; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America,1995), 395-97.
[13] Aquinas, for example, argued that God’s potentia could not be separated from his justice and wisdom. Summa Theologica, I q 25 a 5 ad 1.
[14] Opera Theologica, V.
[15] Sent. q 3, Q
[16] Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzsche, 16-8; William of Ockham, On Universals (Philosophical Classics Volume II: Medieval Philosophy; eds., Baird, Forrest E. and Kaufmann, Walter; Fourth Edition; Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ. 2003), 472-6.
[17] William of Ockham. On Universals, 475-6.
[18] Ockham, On Universals, 472.
[19] I Sent. d 2 q 6.
[20] Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, 5th ed., (5th ed.; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), 197-8.
[21] Boehner, Philotheus, Philosophical Writings: William of Ockham (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1964), 161.
[22] Gillespie, Nihilism, 16: “[Ockham sought] a liberation of theology from the yoke of pagan philosophy.”
[23] Gillespie, Nihilism, 24. Also see Stumpf, Enoch, Socrates to Sartre, 199: “[Ockham] set the stage for an empirical and scientific way of thinking about the facts of experience. His nominalism had the effect of separating science from metaphysics. . . [T]he combined force of Ockham’s nominalism and Scotus’ voluntarism did much to dismantle the medieval synthesis by separating philosophy and theology, faith and reason.”
[24] David Steinmetz, Luther in Context (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 56-58; Denis R. Janz, Luther and Late Medieval Thomism (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 99; Colin Brown, Christianity and Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 150.
[25] Cited in Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 148 citing Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959 1963), 51:371-80.
[26] Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, 149.

1 comment:

Weekend Fisher said...

Are you interested in some feedback?

First, I can't speak to whether the Nazis brought up the "Panthera" line, but they hardly invented it; if memory serves that line goes back to some Jewish anti-Christian literature. Which, on the whole, is in agreement with your point that the methods in interpreting Scripture deserve some examination.

Next, Luther's theology allowed a strong place for reason, while fully appreciating its limits. Luther definitely describes reason as "the Devil's whore" -- if you've ever watched what 'reason' does when you're tempted, I think you can see what he's driving at. He also sees reason as a valuable tool; it just needs to be redeemed. For Luther, the distrust of reason compared to Scripture was a matter of saying that faith would not be surrendered (nor Biblical texts altered) just because a suitable explanation could not be found, and neither would mysteries or sacraments be explained away merely because they were mysteries. Luther's legacy is strongly theological and scholarly.