Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Living Past

Donald Macleod, the author of a number of well-used theological works, such as The Person of Christ and Behold Your God is of course the Principal of the Free Church College in Edinburgh. He is a remarkable preacher and teacher, someone who teaches as he preaches and preaches as he teaches, and who does both with authority and passion. I don’t recall this book of his, The Living Past (Acair, Stornoway, 2006), being noticed, though it has already been reprinted. I would have not known about it except that Donald himself mentioned once that he was writing it, and then kindly sent me a copy.

The book takes the form of a series of twenty-eight letters from Donald to a Canadian lady who is seeking information about her own mother’s background and education as a native of the Isle of Lewis , where Donald himself was born and grew up. The daughter was a native of Uig, but Donald was born in Ross and for the first five years lived in Laxdale, spending his holidays back in Ross. (One of the striking features of the culture of Lewis is that the topography of the Isle differs markedly from place to place, but for a child growing up in the 40’s and 50’s places five miles away were utterly remote.) She and Donald met on the steamer returning from the mainland, she a student in Aberdeen, he in Edinburgh. They had previously been students at the Nicholson Institute. There are a number of unusual literary features about the letters, which I’ll leave for any reader to discover. If you are unfamiliar with the Western Isles then it’d be useful to get hold of a map, to discover where Stornoway, Laxdale, Uig, Ross and other places that figure here are in relation to each other.

The letters he writes to Jacqueline Quessaud provide Donald with the opportunity to describe many features of his early years and upbringing, his schooling, the character and ways of Gaelic-speaking and Gaelic-influenced evangelicalism, (the evangelcialism dated from 1820, through the labours of a layman, John Macleod), of how it decayed and has now largely been supplanted. Just as much a source of his concern is the marginalisation of Gaelic, and especially of Gaelic identity as expressed in its history and traditions, by the very English character of his education, especially in history. It may not be too much to say Donald would describe this process as an act of ‘colonialisation by the English’. As far as I can see he writes everything he touches without bitterness, but with great fondness, with affection for his roots and his folk, and with considerable humour. He says that his childhood on the Isle defined him, but is now lost beyond recovery. At one point he reckons that he has had a childhood, and an old age, but not much in-between.

Radicalism, the true radicalism of roots, is very much a theme; the radicalism of semper reformanda of the Reformation against tradition and legalism, of which he gives many curious and some amusing examples in this supposed uniquely Reformed church. Holding on to these traditions come what may have precipitated a legalistic attitude and a mere traditionalism, as in the multiplication of all sorts of meetings. And he links this also with the radicalism of appreciating the true Gaelic culture. But he is clear-eyed and unsentimental.

Interspersed are observations of a general nature, such as this

Having spent my strength insisting on the primacy of doctrine and judging other communions and other Christians merely by their creed (or the lack of it), I learned that the highest orthodoxy could co-exist with undiluted wickedness, and, conversely, that a Christ-like attitude could be found among all shades of theological opinion. It became my fixed view that humility without orthodoxy was infinitely more biblical than orthodoxy without humility, (although lack of orthodoxy is not in itself a guarantee of humility. Heresy has its own orthodoxy, and can often be as arrogant and intolerant as the most rigid bigotry).

As you would expect, he writes also with considerable knowledge of the history and of the people of his childhood, and with insight and skill and humour. About The Clearnings, and emigration, and sheep . About, depopulation, the sea, food, the changing landscape, dying and mourning, ‘wakes’ and ‘bundling’, the regulative principle and Christmas, communion seasons, children, their parents, and the church. He provides a vivid description of what it was like to live in a ‘black house’. He writes about education, its standards and values, its harshness, the beatings, the cold. Sometimes there are passages of great detail, about neighbours, and precenters, and various ministers, but equally often he offers sharp general observations.

There are moving, vivid passages

In the days before motorcars people had no option but to walk; and very often they walked in company. Going to church on Sunday morning, for example, was almost like a pilgrimage. People spilled out of every house to join the procession. My maternal grandfather’s house in Habost (Ness) had its gable-end on the very edge of the road. When we were on holiday there we used to go upstairs to watch. The road would be black with people……I can still hear the clip-clop of hundreds of feet striding along on the way to church. These were lively, animated walks, the old women often arm in arm, teasing, sharing and questioning. No doubt the whole of human life was there; gossip, malevolent and benign. But there would also have been such religious and theological discussion as would have graced the table of any seminary.

On a number of things Donald seeks to put the record straight. Was the Isle of Lewis a sort of Presbyterian theocracy? By no means. Ministers had very little influence on education, for example. Were the ministers all-powerful in the churches? By no means. He points to a strong streak of anti-clericalism in the church culture, and speculates as to why this might be. Were those who aspired to participate in Communion services actively discouraged from doing so? Not usually, and he has interesting remarks on the ‘fencing’ of the table. Originally, fencing meant establishing, maintaining. Only later did it come to connote ‘defending’, and only then were there active attempts by somw ministers to discourage participation. Was the introspection of these people due to an over-emphasis on the decrees (a claim routinely made by the late T.F. and J.B. Torrance, and by others)? Not at all, this author claims, they were concerned a not about whether they were elect, but whether they had the marks of saving grace. The two matters are connected, but by no means the same.

These letters meander, and their author more than once apologises to his correspondent for this, but he meanders on. Much of the charm of the book lies in this formlessness. I found it an engrossing read. I’ve mentioned a few of the many things that engaged me, but it would not surprise me at all if other readers were taken with some of the many other things.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Warfield's Path

Warfield’s approach to establishing the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is more that of a historian than a scientist, as we shall now see. He provides us with a brief resumé of his method in the following passage.

Inspiration is not the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, nor even the first thing we prove about the Scriptures. It is the last and crowning fact as to the Scriptures. These we first prove authentic, historically credible, generally trustworthy, before we prove them inspired. And the proof of their authenticity, credibility, general trustworthiness would give us a firm basis for Christianity prior to any knowledge on our part of their inspiration, and apart indeed from the existence of inspiration.

Warfield’s approach to inspiration and infallibility is resolutely a posteriori and historical. For it begins from the conviction, also established a posteriori, by an inductive procedure, that the Bible is historically reliable. If the Bible is historically reliable then what it tells us about Jesus is historically reliable, and what it tells us about its own inspiration is equally reliable. Warfield states that our procedure for establishing the doctrine rests at first

On the confidence which we have in the writers of the New Testament as doctrinal guides, and ultimately on whatever evidence of whatever kind and force exists to justify that confidence. In this sense, we repeat, the cause of distinctive Christianity is bound up with the cause of the Biblical doctrine of inspiration. We accept Christianity in all its distinctiveness on no other ground than the credibility and trustworthiness of the Bible as a guide to truth; and on this same ground we must equally accept its doctrine of inspiration.

‘Bound up with the cause of the Biblical doctrine of inspiration’: that is, there is parity between the distinctive doctrines of Christianity and the doctrine of biblical inspiration. Because we hold that the bible is trustworthy in its depiction of the deity of Christ, say, then we can similarly be confident about what it teaches regarding its own inspiration. Warfield is not saying that our confidence in Christ’s deity depends upon first accepting the inspiration of Scripture. Nor is he saying that the doctrine of inspiration is as important as the doctrine of the deity of Christ.

We do not adopt the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture on sentimental grounds, not even, as we have already had occasion to remark, on a priori or general grounds of whatever kind. We adopt it specifically because it is taught us as truth by Christ and His apostles, in the Scriptural record of their teaching, and the evidence for its truth is, therefore, as we have also already pointed out, precisely that evidence in weight and amount, which vindicates for us the trustworthiness of Christ and His apostles as teachers of doctrine.

So the path begins as follows. First there is probable evidence, based upon the historical reliability of Scripture, that it teaches certain doctrines about God, Christ and mankind, and so on. Using the same procedure we also recognise that it teaches the doctrine that the Scriptures themselves are divinely inspired. This then enables us to draw the inference that the Scriptural account of God, Christ and man is not only probably true, but inspired, inerrant, because the account of such things is given in a book which is inspired and inerrant. This is ‘the last and crowning fact’ about Scripture, transforming a merely reliable record into an inspired record. Warfield goes on to say that strictly speaking such evidence is, from a logical point of view, probable evidence, incapable of producing demonstrative certainty, nevertheless it has so great a probability that ‘the strength of conviction is practically equal to that produced by demonstration itself’.

So the first question is, is the Bible reliable, and the second question is, what does this reliable document teach about its own divine inspiration? Warfield offers an answer to the second question in such articles as ‘God-Inspired Scripture’, ‘“It Says”: “Scripture Says:” “God Says”’, and ‘The Oracles of God’.

As we have already noted, there is an additional important feature about what the Bible teaches about its own inspiration. The view of inspiration in question is not ‘mechanical’. Rather, in inspiring the various authors of Scripture God preserved and employed their distinctive personalities, history and outlook as fallible human beings with limited knowledge, and nevertheless ensured that what they taught is infallible, inerrant.

The human agency, both in the histories out of which the Scriptures sprang, and in their immediate composition and inscription, is everywhere apparent, and gives substance and form to the entire collection of writings. It is not merely in the matter of verbal expression or literary composition that the personal idiosyncrasies of each author are freely manifested by the untrammelled play of all his faculties, but the very substance of what they write is evidently for the most part the product of their own mental and spiritual activities.

And, quite surprisingly, perhaps

It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scriptures, any more than their authors, are omniscient. The information they convey is in the forms of human thought, and limited on all sides. They were not designed to teach philosophy, science or human history as such. They were not designed to furnish an infallible system of speculative theology. They are written in human languages, whose words, inflections, constructions and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error. The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for the their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong. Nevertheless, the historical faith of the Church has always been that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or physical principle, are without error when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained and interpreted in their natural and intended sense.

Nothing could be less mechanical than this.

So, in a manner that is distinct from the general concursus of divine providence, deeper and more mysterious, while nevertheless being a part of providence, God inspires fallible human authors, limited in knowledge and children of their time. While the words are their words, they are also, through the inspiring agency of God the Holy Spirit, God’s words as well. As such, when properly interpreted, the affirmations of Scripture are without error. Questions of genre are relevant to interpretation, and of course the importance of careful exegesis of Scripture is stressed. But this is not at the expense of the distinctive theological principle that a person who is fallible and whose thoughts have been formed by influences that contain elements of human error may nevertheless, in an inscrutable way, be capable of speaking infallible truth as a result of be borne upon by the Holy Spirit, while remaining fully himself. This does not mean that, by the wave of a magic wand, an error becomes a truth when it is inspired. Rather, it simply means that patterns of speech and thought that have an origin that is fallible and partly erroneous in character may be used to make infallibly true assertions.

It is true that according to Warfield and the other Princetonians the doctrine of inerrancy has to be nuanced and finessed in various ways. But then why does this, in I Howard Marshall’s phrase, quoted by McGowan, present the danger of the death of the doctrine ‘by a thousand qualifications’? If it does, then why may not finely nuanced accounts of, for example, the Incarnation, designed to avoid various heretical alternatives, Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, and so forth, result in the death of the doctrine of the Incarnation? The clarification of a doctrine does not result in its death so long as a substantial doctrinal thesis remains.

But what are we to do when we encounter difficulties in our path? Warfield’s answer at this point is: the trustworthiness of the apostles as teachers of doctrine, the doctrine of inspiration, established on the historical ground that we have previously sketched, must mean that the difficulties take second place. They are nevertheless to be addressed. Once again, he draws a parallel between the apostolic doctrine of biblical inspiration and other apostolic doctrines, say, of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is clearly taught. We accept the apostolic testimony as we would accept, say, that Aristotle wrote the Nichomachean Ethics, and believe that the Incarnation is true doctrine. Are there difficulties with the understanding the Incarnation? Obviously so. Yet

We do not and we cannot wait until all these difficulties are fully explained before we yield to the testimony of the New Testament the fullest confidence of our minds and hearts. How then can it be true that we are to wait until all difficulties are removed before we can accept with confidence the Biblical doctrine of inspiration?

There is a difference, for Warfield, between a difficulty attending a doctrine and facts that are manifestly inconsistent with it. The impeccability of Christ is a difficult doctrine, (this is not Warfield’s example) but must not for that reason be surrendered. But if there are facts in Scripture manifestly inconsistent with it, if there is incontrovertible evidence that the biblical Christ was a transgressor of the law of God, say, then that is obviously inconsistent with the assertion of his impeccability. Allowing for the anachronism, Warfield pleads for Popperian rigour when it comes to testing the claims of Scripture about itself: ‘By all means let the doctrine of the Bible be tested by the facts and let the test be made all the more, not the less, stringent and penetrating because of the great issues that hang upon it. If the facts are inconsistent with the doctrine, let us all know it, and know it so clearly that the matter is put beyond all doubt.’

But what of such factors as the structure of Scripture, ‘especially as determined by some special school of modern research by critical methods certainly not infallible and to the best of our own judgment not even reasonable’, the identification of certain prima facie discrepancies, and the like? Warfield refers to such things, along with style and genre, as ‘the phenomena’, a term that Charles Hodge had used.

In response Warfield asserts that to modify the teaching of Scripture respecting its own character by reference to such phenomena would be a failure ‘to commit ourselves without reserve to the teaching of the Bible, either because that teaching is distrusted or already disbelieved… correcting the doctrine delivered by the Biblical writers, it discredits these writers as teachers of doctrine’.

If the Biblical facts and teaching are taken as co-factors in the induction, the procedure … liable to the danger of modifying the teaching by the facts without clear recognition of what is being done; the result of which would be the loss from observation of one main fact of errancy, viz., the inaccuracy of the teaching of the Scriptures as to their own inspiration. This would vitiate the whole result: and this vitiation of the result can be avoided only by ascertaining separately the teaching of the Scripture as to its own inspiration, and by accounting the results of this ascertainment one of the facts of the induction.

The ‘phenomena’, such as the presence of apparent contradictions in the text, the hypotheses of a ‘critical’ approach to the text, and the like, may be relevant to the exegesis of the texts of Scripture which teach inspiration. Attention to such facts may help us to interpret the assertions of Scripture.

Direct exegesis after all has its rights: we may seek aid from every quarter in our efforts to perform its processes with precision and obtain its results with purity; but we cannot allow its results to be ‘modified’ by extraneous considerations.

At this juncture, the logical order of the procedure, the character of the path, is vital to Warfield’s case. If, proceeding inductively, we were to begin with the phenomena of Scripture and the statements about inspiration together, giving to each of these data equal weight, we would be unable to challenge the phenomena by the statements. So the ‘real problem’ of inspiration, as Warfield understood it, is ‘whether we can still trust the Bible as a guide to doctrine, as a teacher of truth’. The presence of such trust means giving that teaching priority over every other fact about Scripture which our inductions may lay bare. So the declarations of Scripture, and the phenomena, are distinct kinds of fact about it. One is logically subordinate to the other. Once again we can see how grossly inaccurate and unfair it is to describe the Hodge-Warfield theological method as ‘often giving the impression’ that the whole Bible can be reduced to a set of propositions that can then be demonstrated as ‘true’. To whom does it give that impression, one wonders, and how often? The logic is clear. It’s not ‘there are discrepancies and the presence of phenomena that present difficulties, therefore there cannot be an inerrant text’, but ‘There is an inerrant text and therefore the discrepancies and difficult phenomena are no more nor less than that – copyists’ errors or unresolved puzzles’.

The second thing that Warfield’s procedure implies is that, as we noted earlier, there is an epistemic parity between the biblical doctrine of Scripture and the biblical doctrine concerning any other Christian teaching. Warfield himself brings out this point:

Let it not be said that we thus found the whole Christian system upon the doctrine of plenary inspiration. We found the whole Christian system on the doctrine of plenary inspiration as little as we found it upon the doctrine of angelic existences.

All the doctrines of our faith, including the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures, are established in the same way from the same Scriptures. These doctrines differ in importance, in the extent to which they reach to the heart of the Christian faith, and the doctrine of divine inspiration (and inerrancy) is not the most important of these. It is certainly not a ‘foundational’ doctrine in the way some critics of Warfield believe, who think that his doctrine of biblical infallibility or inerrancy is evidence that he was in thrall to some version of Enlightenment ‘foundationalism’.

So much for Warfield’s method, and the pathway he constructs with it.