Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
Do we need to agree with past thinkers?
I recently read through Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation, which has given me a lot to reflect upon. One quote that struck me was from Jud Davis:
A beloved teacher once said, “If you cannot find at least one ancient, one medieval, and one modern commentator who shares your view, it probably means you are wrong.” Over the years, I have thought long and hard about this statement, and I believe it is exactly right because if you could not find such examples, you would be forced to say, “Everyone before missed it until me.” (215)
I thought this was an interesting quote because it says much about how one approaches theological issues. First, there is some concern regarding this passage for me because it seems that some truths are indeed missed by everyone until someone discovers (or rediscovers) them. Second, there is a real concern for whether one innovates in doctrine and thus becomes a heretic. That is, innovation in theology is often divergence from established truths. These established truths are often established exactly because they follow from the text. Thus, an innovation which says, for example, that Jesus is not God is rightly denounced as heretical.
Based upon these conflicting concerns, I think it is permissible to say there is some tension within the practice of historical theology and exegesis. We must be careful to avoid the pitfalls of either ignoring the voices of the past or being too cautious to reconsider the evidence for certain positions. Going to either extreme would be dangerous. The most prominent danger, in my opinion, is the danger of using a passage like this to squelch debate or exploration. Ultimately, the text is the arbiter of truth, not established interpretations. If someone comes up with a “new” look at a text, it is important to consider it on its own terms rather than reject it because it is new. The weight of unanimity in the past should be seen to increase the standard of proof for those who disagree, but it should not be used to silence those who seek truth.
What are your thoughts on the balance between historical scholarship and new interpretations?
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Jud Davis, “Unresolved Major Questions: Evangelicals and Genesis1-2” in Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation edited J. Daryl Charles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2013).
Early on, philosophy was a bit intertwined with various assumptions that would more properly be in the scientific domain. Some of the positive claims produced by this intertwining had real effects on the language we use to talk about various important spiritual things.
It stands to reason that these memes would persist unless and until:
(1) Philosophically quietist movements took charge and passed the potato to scientific investigation.
(2) Philosophy started realizing that multiple perspectives are available, and we’re not certain which one is right, and thus we can’t depend completely on those archaic premises (often leads to #1).
(3) Science actually happened to find things that refuted those archaic premises.
Because there is a real development in science (new discoveries and theories) and philosophy (quietist reductions, especially into language issues), and because this development happens gradually over centuries, it stands to reason that new syncretic theological statements will BECOME available. In other words, old revelation + old philosophy/science = old conclusion. Old revelation + developed philosophy/science = new conclusion. It isn’t that we as individuals are more intelligent. It’s that we as a corporate body of individuals “is smarter” than that old corporate body by virtue of having much, much more non-revelatory information.
This is why historicity is most important for revelation, but not as important for philosophy or science.
Consider the “self-moving” so ubiquitous among ALL of the early theologians. It was predicated on now-debunked ideas about how life worked.
“Of all things which move, some have the cause of their motion within themselves, others receive it from without: and all those things only are moved from without which are without life, as stones, and pieces of wood, and whatever things are of such a nature as to be held together by the constitution of their matter alone, or of their bodily substance. … Others, again, have the cause of motion in themselves, as animals, or trees, and all things which are held together by natural life or soul; among which some think ought to be classed the veins of metals. Fire, also, is supposed to be the cause of its own motion, and perhaps also springs of water.”
This idea of “self-movement” by means of the soul was so pervasive and considered “fundamental” that it was used heavily as a foundation for all sorts of incoherent theology (see Origen, Boethius, Maximus the Confessor, etc.). These men were geniuses, but we can EXPECT to go against them as we start to acknowledge discovered truth in our theological noodling.
I think your modeling here is quite interesting and informative. It helps to show how our presuppositions can color what we think of the text as well.
I really appreciated this comment. Thanks a lot!
Reblogged this on Human Action and God and commented:
In short: yes.
One reason ancient or medieval interpreters never came up with an idea may simply be because we are asking questions no one ever asked before.
That’s a good thing to point out! New questions are brought to the forefront, which may not have been asked before related to certain exegetical issues.
I’m in total agreement with you here brother. I think starting with the studying the Bible first avoids us from committing the error that just because so and so said this, it’s true…while the fruit of exegesis, if there is no such interpretation of it before we must definitely be cautious. I would say that if our interpretation also rest upon other beliefs that no one else in Church History would have thought of, that’s a major red flag.
Agreed. Ultimately the fact that no one else thought of a certain interpretation doesn’t mean it MUST be false, but it should serve as a word of caution to perhaps go back to the text and consider it against historical interpretations.
Our society has become more and more cynical, therefore I believe God has seen fit to allow us to live in a time where science has actually proven a lot of what the Bible says. From the proof the universe had a beginning to the discovery of DNA, it all points back to a Creator outside of space and time.
The Bible was and always will be a tool that God uses to inspire us collectively and as individuals. I think the Holy Spirit can give each of us something different that we can take away from the Scriptures.
I think we can learn from those that came before us, but they did not have the luxury of the advances in technology we have today. Remember just 400 years ago it was thought the Earth was the center of the solar system.