Monday, December 12, 2005

Dig Doug?

Occasionally I get a hankering for conspicuously ornamental prose, and that's when I wander over to Doug Wilson's Blog and Mablog. While I can't always agree with him, I dig Doug's style. Of all the the white knights fighting for the claim of a truly Reformed heritage Doug seems to be one of the most reasonable and even charitable. His assessment of N.T. Wright's various contributions was a still small voice of sanity among the clamor of warrior children suiting up for battle.

On the other hand, there are certain topics which elicit some of the most vengefully florid verbage you'll ever hear from Doug, and postmodernism happens to be one of those subjects. In a recent post he criticizes the theological moves being made by postconvservatism by making a distinction between the autonomous, secular Enlightenment varieties of foundationalism (the Cartesian variety) and dependent Christian versions of it (inerrantism). The fundamental problem with the Enlightenment project, says Wilson, isn't the existence of foundations but an ethos of selfishness. In his view, rationalism is idolatry because it assumes that objectivity and certain knowledge flows from the self while true Christianity maintains that it flows from God. The problem with postmodern criticisms, then, is that they are decrying the impossibility of objective human knowledge without advocating (or demonstrating) dependence upon God's provision of it in the Scriptures. The desire to formulate interpretive strategies which mitigate human objectivity or propositional certainty is thus seen as "modernity's nervous breakdown"; a "whimpering selfishness".

All of this isn't completely untrue - there are some ways in which postmodern theology seems to miss the irony behind discussing the complexity and impenetrability of "revelation". In what sense does it "reveal" anything? But what Doug (and a good many others) seem to miss is the very issue which postconservative theology seeks to wrestle with - and that is, of course, the hermeneutical issue. To speak of the Scriptures as an authoritative source of theology is uncontroversial among many postconservative evangelicals; the problem becomes how the Scriptures function authoritatively in light of hermeneutical (not textual) indeterminancy. The fact is that our only access to the Scriptures is through subjective medium.

It's hard to disagree with all of Doug's railing against both the enthroned and the chastened Self. It's equally hard to refrain from celebrating the truimph of the triune God in "de-centering" the Self as He speaks in Scripture. What remains puzzling, though, is how we can come to the Scriptures without our "selves". Does God come to the Scriptures for us, on our behalf, or must we come to hear Him speak? Is there some way to come without bringing ourselves with us? If not, how have we been "de-centered" by God? What accounts for the discrepancies between the Spirit taught theologies of Luther and Calvin, Wesley and Warfield or, for that matter, James White and Doug Wilson? Which party is being autonomous in this case? Who's doing the whoring? More importantly, how do we know, and how do we avoid it ourselves such that our theology truly represents the mind of God as revealed in Scripture? Is it possible for two people to be dependent upon the Spirit, committed to hearing Scripture's voice and not their own, both being thoroughly "de-centered by the triune God" to disagree on what Scripture says? What does all of this say for the Bible's authority?

Unfortunately the problem doesn't dissolve in rhetoric (even Wilson's mostly delightful rhetoric). The plain fact of the matter is that Spirit-filled Christians of great learning and admirable lifestyles give persuasive cases for opposing theological commitments while at the same time claiming an equal share of God's authority - and that's the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario pernicious regimes and self-serving individuals help themselves to the authority of God's Word in order to bolster their own ideologies. Claiming to "stand on God's Word" thus becomes an impenetrable bulwark of self-preservation, deceit and manipulation. That's what postmodernism seeks to expose. Postconservatives may acknowledge that God has spoken in the Scriptures and that it is authoritative; what they are wrestling with is how that works. How can our apprehension, systematization and application of Scripture can be said to represent God's mind, given the fact that we can't understand revelation apart from all of our limitations? As these brethren cast about for answers, I can't say I always agree with the positive suggestions for a way forward; but for all the hellish controversy Doug's been through (lovingly handcrafted by Presbyterians standing on the word of God), I can't see why he can't recognize some small glimmer of prophetic quality in that critique.

For all of the rhetorical panache of Wilson's closing illustration ("God tells Adam to stay away from the tree, and Adam walks over to it, whistling, telling himself that 'to pretend that he, a finite creature, was capable of understanding, still less comprehending, this voice from the numinous realm -- why, that would be the true arrogance. And gee, that fruit looks good. I believe I'll have some'), the sad fact is that one needn't craft clever parables to illustrate the abuses of Biblical authority in Western history. The examples are all too real. Is it possible to be too sqeamish about Christian collusion with Nazi Germany in the name of the Scriptural mandate to "be subject to the governing authorities"? But the problem is worse than that. It isn't just that some people do bad things with the Bible; it's that the fact that everyone claims their own interpretations as God's authoritative decree without the possibility of falsification, which of course renders any concept of authority useless. That's not to say that there's no consensus as to what the Bible says, or that it's not authoritative; but it is to say that there is plenty of conceptual work to be done in terms of how it functions authoritatively in light of these issues. To say "just read it" is more than disingenuous - it'd dangerous, because the highest form of self-exaltaion is to equate oneself to the living God and invoke His name in the advancement of falsehood. Postconservative theologies are sincere attempts to treat these issues with appropriate solemnity.

In light of that, it may be worth asking, "has postmodernism actually influenced evangelicals to give the triune God their middle finger in the way Doug fears?"

Observe one of Doug's frequent debate partners on the topic, P. Andrew Sandlin; he has listed a few tenents which can be said to be influenced by postmodernism. Among them are the analagous way in which men apprehend God (sharp Creator-creature distinction), the ontically holistic nature of knoweldge (a being, not a mind, thinks), the fact that humans only see in partial glimpses, not exhaustively, the danger of human arrogance in ascribing one's own views to God, and the fact that our theology should be dynamic, open to change in light of Scripture. All of that sounds like a fairly "de-centered self" to me.


Ephraim said...


You have outlined the tangle very well. Excellent questions. A good place to start. Although I dislike being first, here's my 2p.

I can imagine that it might be considered strange behaviour if a man were to take out a copy of his marriage vows every morning and read them through before breakfast. And while there may be a number of his friends that wonder at his mental health and so on, I'm guessing that his wife would not be among them.

It is unfortunate that much of the reverent fear of YHVH has disappeared from the Christian culture. Probably due to the overload of "Jesus is my buddy" stuff that has polluted the modern believers mind.

Authority can be thought of as a fine line. A policeman who exercises his or her given authority properly gains respect. If that same person were to step over that fine line and exercise their authority improperly, well, we've all seen the results of that.

Yes there is authority in the words of YHVH. But it is His authority, not ours. We've been given enough authority to do His will, no more.

All the disagreements and bickering come from those who borrow YHVH's authority and try to use it for their own gain. See the parable of the wicked servant. You said this as well, but much more eloquently, in your post, but I felt it needed repeating.

I do not believe that YHVH wants us to "disappear" and come to Him and His words as a completely neutral party. He knows we can't and has prepared His communications accordingly. But I also believe that He asks us to make at least two (I'm sure there are more) assessments when we approach Him through His written communication.

a) that we understand the true nature of the book we hold in our hands and call "God's Word". To think of it as more or less than what it actually is will bring us confusion and uncertainty. And, of course, plenty of arguments.

b) that spiritual truths are spiritually discerned.
Most fundamentalists and even postmodern evangelicals will acknowledge this axiom. At least intellectually. It is hard to ignore since the words are plainly written.

Time to go. I hope there are more comments coming. Could be on the edge of something here.

hettinger said...

thanks for the warrior children link that was interesting

glad that there are bonhoeffers

Rose~ said...

Hi Ephraim ... fancy seeing you here (just kiddin, I read your discussion about Christmas here a couple of weeks ago).

Hi SHarad,
Neat post. All the pontificating really annoys me ... like when a questionable doctrine comes up and a person will say, well, I'm a "biblicist" ... as though the others in the room don't believe their points of view were derived from the Bible as well. My hope in all this is that some day "we will know even as we are known." Then we will all have it "all figured out" ... or will we? Merry Christmas!

Sojourner said...


I have always had problems with the saying that we've got to "move self out of the way" in order for God to work through us. That is plain bizarre, though I think that people simply mean that they want their 'selfishness' to be moved aside. Surely they do not mean that they wish God would make them completely go away.

Do we come to God without self? Certainly not. I do not think He wants us to. We are supposed to be being changed into the people we were made to be, not be being made to vanish. (Ugly sentence.)

This idea that self must totally fade contradicts what I see in Scripture. Look at the personalities behind the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have distinctive characteristics that shine through their work. I love that, don't you? Yet, despite the fact that God did not "move them out of the way", they still managed to receive divine revelation and, I believe, write it down for us without erring. How did they do that?

Here is my long winded point. The Spirit revealed something to Paul without removing who Paul was or taking away his personhood; Paul (apparantly) understood it and wrote it down perfectly; the Spirit speaks to us through this writing; we can't now come to it and understand it. What's the problem here?

HZ said...

Your avatar drew me. I am strangely drawn by silverware. I just wanted to remark that I believe the Creator/creature and accompanying analogous understanding has been a hallmark of reformed theology. You might look at R. Scott Clark's comments here:

This has whet my appetite for Bahnsen's lecture on 'Science, Subjectivity, and Scripture' which I think deals with this issue. I do dig Doug (smile): I loved the comment about radically decentering the self.

christy said...

Hey. Very interesting post here. I tend to agree with much of what you've said as I've seen some of the theory in action (as have you), but I'd be interested in what you'd say in response to Sojourner, as he also brings up some interesting points...