Monday, January 23, 2006

The Age of Impatience and the Lust for Certainity

I have said in another connection that God reveals enough of the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not need to exercise faith. I think this truth should be applied liberally when we are dealing with controversial and controverted questions in Scripture, the answers to which we do not yet have certainity about.

There is a lust for certainty about all kinds of things in and out of the Scriptures in the Evangelical or Conservative Protestant world and sometimes that 'itch' is scratched in ways that does no service to Biblical truth, and no justice to the Christian community. Sometimes it leads to fear-based practices-- take-overs of schools and churches because of the fear that something has been or might be said that does not square with one's particular narrow reading of Scripture, or even just because we do not like what has been said, even if it is perfectly Biblical!

It is a mistake for the conservative church to buy into and become a part of the problem of "the closing of the American mind". We need more dialogue, not less, more study, not less, more understanding, not less. More openness to learning and fresh insight, though of course as my grandmother used to say-- "don't be so open minded that your brains fall out". The call of the Protestant Reformation was 'semper reformanda' always reforming, and we certainly need to hear and heed that call here at the cusp of the 21rst century when it comes to our use and abuse of the Bible.

Posturing and posing are not what we need from our Evangelical leaders, whether in the pulpit or in the schools. I am reminded of the old story of the preacher who was preaching on a controversial subject, in this case the timing of the return of Christ. He was uncertain about what to say at one juncture, so he wrote in the margin of the sermon-- "preach louder here and pound the pulpit". "Methinks he doth protesteth too much".

What we need is more light, and sometimes less heat, so our zeal will be according to knowledge rather than a substitute for it. I was reminded of all this by a wonderful quote I read today from a great scholar who practiced his trade at Durham (England). Alfred Plummer puts it this way:

"There are men to whom uncertainty on such questions as these seems intolerable. They cannot 'learn to labour and wait'; they cannot wait patiently, and work patiently, until a complete solution is found. And hence they hurry to a definite conclusion, support it by evidence that is not relevant, and affirm that it is demonstrated by what is perhaps relevant, but is far short of proof."

"Intellectual probation is part of our moral probation in this life, and it is a discipline much needed in an age of great mental activity. Impatience of the intellect is a common blemish, and it is disasterous both to him who allows himself to be conquered by it and to the cause of truth. He does a good service both to himself and to others, who cultivates a dread of jumping to unproved conclusions, and who in speaking and writing watchfully distinguishes what is certain from what is only probable, and what is probable from what is only not known to be untrue." (Plummer, Commentary on St. James and St.Jude pp. 299-300).

What is remarkable about this quote is that it was written in the last decades of the 19th century, well before our 'information' and 'technology' and 'internet' age. Nevertheless, it is as apt and applicable today as then. Here's hoping we will reflect on this insight.


Gordon Hackman said...

To everything said here a big Amen!

I think this lust for certainty is one of the (many) negative fruits of Enlightenment modernism. The fact that so many evangelicals and conservative protestants fall prey to it is evidence of how all pervasive the influence of modernity has been, even among many of the people who would ostensibly be it's biggest critics.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks to both Gordon and Dave for this good posts. The one thing I have realized after doing 30 plus years of plowing through the text of the Bible over and over and over again is that one has to keep being open to correction by the text. This doesn't mean you don't have settled convictions that are continually reaffirmed, like the humanity and divinity of Christ, but it does mean you need to be prepared for surprises. For example, it became clearer and clearer to me that John of Zebedee is most unlikely to have been the author of the 4th Gospel for a whole host of reasons, most of which are that the text itself and all its internal evidence suggests a Judean disciple, who does not focus on the Galilean ministry and its miracles (only recording one of them-- the feeding of the 5,000-walking on water combo). Totally left out are all the miracles John Zebedee was especially a part of, and instead we have long Judean miracle stories not found in the Synoptic. This has to tell us something. And why is it that we continue to ignore that in Jn. 11 we are told about 'the one whom you love' which is the only time this is said about a disciple up to that point in the Gospel-- and it is Lazarus! We must be open to surprises from the text itself.

And of course you are right about Enlightenment modernism. I get that feeling every time I go do an Evangelical apologetic conference. Those Evangelist philosophers act like there is no such thing as post-modernism. It is strange.

Marc Axelrod said...

I think it was in David Desilva's NT Intro where I first heard that Lazarus could have written the fourth gospel. I had never heard that before, either.

But do you think that Lazarus would have referred to himself as 'the dead man' in verse 44, and to himself in the third person throughout John 11 and 12?

Still, it is a very compelling proposal,and it may turn out to be true.

If so, must we also conclude that Lazarus was responsible for the epistles of John?

It may be that Lazarus was a source for aspects of the ministry in Bethany and that the Johannine community was responsible for the book as a whole.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Marc: I do not think the Beloved Disciple is responsible for the final editing of the traditions we find in the 4th Gospel. This is of course especially clear in Jn.19 and 21. I doubt he would have called himself 'the Beloved Disciple'-- that's how the community spoke of him. So, in my view the Beloved Disciple wrote the Johannine Epistles and is the source of the traditions in the Gospel, and yes I think this was probably Eliezer aka Lazarus.


Ben Witherington said...

A good definition of post-modernism can be found in Stan Grenz's little book on the subject. Basically we are talking about being at a point where we are beyond modernity which is to say beyond the Enlightenment world view and the way it viewed truth, knowledge and the like.

Ben Witherington said...

I would note two developments that produced this result-- the development of "Lutheran" orthodoxy in the 3rd-4th generations after Luther, when they tried to make Luther's own corpus of work the gold standard for interpreting the Bible, and the same sort of developments in Geneva and elsewhere which produced things like the Calvinistic cathechisms and confessions of faith, based on Calvin's Institutes.

Once you go from Creedal orthodoxy, to a much expanded confessional orthodox like the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Heidleburg catechism then you have stopped 'semper reformanda' in its tracks and defined orthodoxy in light of your own created confession of faith or catechism, which by the way, was only endorsed by two narrow brands of Protestantism even in Europe.

Note the Anabaptist Pietists such as the various Brethren groups, not to mention the Amish, who didn't want any part of all that.

The Westminster Confession and the Heidelburg Catechism (to mention two examples) made the old creedal standards of orthodoxy seem much too generic or broad, and thus made either Lutheranism or Calvinism the test of Protestant orthodoxy.

The English Reformation in the 18th century was in part a rejection of this move-- hence the rise of the Wesleys and the Wesleyan Revival, not to mention the earlier dissent of Jacob Arminius.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,
I really appreciate this post. As a student studying theology in a postmodern context, it has been very hard for me to realize that the fundamentalism of my youth was influenced by the Enlightenment almost as much as it was by the Bible.

I stumbled on to your blog today after blog-surfing for hours. I'm glad I did. I have been meaning to pick up a copy of The Problem with Evangelical Theology, now I know I will.

Ben Witherington said...

Purple Pastor: I would rather you did not post my comment for the simple reason that it is part of our conversation and whoever reads it there will not have the context. Why not just provide a link to this site, and of course you can write your own summary of the matter.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi: Plummer's commentaries are of course somewhat dated in some ways but they are often exegetical feasts, and spiritually rich as well. Only a few are still in print.

Milton Stanley said...

Amen. As Northrop Frye said, "An open mind, to be sure, should be open at both ends, like a foodpipe, and have a capacity for excretion as well as intake."

I linked to your post at my blog this evening. Peace.