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Filtering by Tag: Philosophy and Theology

It's All About Obedience: How What We Are Depends on What We Worship

 I'm going to explore how Dean McGowan's theme of worship as obedience can be understood through a particular philosophical lens.  Specifically, I'm going to look at how we can understand the practise of worship in terms of obedience as determining our essential natures, once we have slightly complicated our understanding of obedience.  My belief is that such an understanding can help us to bring certain aspects of Calvinist and catholic (small-c) theology together, uniting Dean McGowan's sense of the 'giving and receiving of orders' with his sense of 'notions of dependence and love'.

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Worshipping God From Age to Age: Guest Post, Andrew McGowan

“Worship” in English-language Bibles refers to something quite different from the activities or ideas for which contemporary Christians use that word. Most of the time in the New Testament it is used to translate Greek words referring not to prayer, or singing, or community rituals, but to literal acts of physical obedience and submission - like prostrating oneself on the ground. “Worship” is not what goes on in temples or synagogues, or even in homes where Christians meet, but happens wherever social relations of dependence and obedience are expressed. It has more to do with politics and ethics than with what we would call worship, although it has a necessary physical and embodied aspect. It doesn’t mean religious practice, and it doesn’t mean faith either - but both could be part of it.

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Should Christians Argue that God Exists? (No)

I'm going to give a brief overview of what I take an argument for God's existence to be, why we might want to use them, and then a couple of general reasons why it seems to me that we shouldn't.  I'm going to finish by focussing on one argument in particular, in order to point out at least one specific fault in a specific example, before concluding!  (This does get more pseudo-technical than I'd hoped it would, so apologies if it feels like reading through treacle at times.)

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The Liberty of a Gift: Luther on Faith and the Economy of Freedom

Martin Luther looking happier than usually depicted. 

Martin Luther looking happier than usually depicted. 

There have been more than a few arguments about the value of faith and works over the centuries.  They tend to consist of one group of people arguing that to say faith alone is to invite ethical indolence and another saying that allowing for the salvific power of works gives too much power to we human beings.  I'm not going to rehearse these debates.  Instead, I'm going to briefly look at how Martin Luther's account of faith informs his account of freedom, and how economic language can help us understand the emphasis he placed on the former in order to guarantee the latter.

In 'On Christian Liberty', Luther writes vehemently against the possibility that works might be relevant to a person's salvation.  He states that 'the person is justified and saved, not by works or laws, but by the Word of God, that is, by the promise of his grace, and by faith, [so] that the glory may remain God's.' (p43)  The question we should ask, I believe, is why he writes on this topic in a short treatise on freedom.

The answer seems to me to lie in the following lines: first, Luther writes that 'A man does not serve that he may put men under obligations. He does not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness, but he most freely and most willingly spends himself and all that he has, whether he wastes all on the thankless or whether he gains a reward.' (p53)  Then: 'I fear, I say, that in all these we seek only our profit, thinking that through them our sins are purged away and that we find salvation in them. In this way Christian liberty perishes altogether.' (p60)  Finally, for the purposes of this paragraph, he states that 'our faith in Christ does not free us from works, but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.' (p65) 

The first striking feature of these passages is their reference to profit and debt, and the fact that we must attach neither of these to our works.  Luther is not here writing about faith over works in order to diminish their importance: he is writing in order to say that, in the context of faith, we cannot seek a profit for our works; we cannot place our neighbour in our debt on the basis of services rendered, nor can we think that by our works we have added credit to our spiritual account (the Doctrine of Heaven Credits).  Instead, because we have faith in Christ, we know that we need not seek gain from our works, for He has already bestowed upon us all the profit we could need.

This can be explicated by an analogy: a shopkeeper is leasing a shop.  They have a number of goods, and they must sell these goods at a profit in order to pay for their rent and their food.  One day, however, the landlady enters and says that she will support the shopkeeper from now on in all their needs, so that they need not worry about paying for either rent or food again.  The shopkeeper thus has no need to sell their goods at a profit, or indeed sell them at all: they are instead free to distribute the goods freely to their neighbours, safe in the knowledge that he is not bound by a need to make a profit.  They are, quite literally, free: free from the fear of default, and so free to offer what they have freely to others.

Here we can see a concept of freedom different to the usual concept of potency.  Typically, we understand being free as having the power to effect our own wills.  Here, however freedom can be understood in economic terms instead: being free means not costing anything to anyone: Faith makes us free for others, since we do not need to charge for our works.  We are also, moreover free for God, as we do not need to worry about paying our bills to him: our debts have instead been forgiven by His grace and mercy.  (This is especially pertinent given that Luther was attempting to inveigh against a Church he saw as convincing people they needed to buy their freedom through indulgences.)

This freedom does, of course, come with what can seem like a cost: the cost of discipleship can be measured in the value of our goods which we can no longer charge others.  To think of things in this way is, however, to construct a false economy: for what we have was never ours to sell anyway, and what we hope to gain was never to be bought either.

The effect of this freedom is that, by rendering our love free, it allows us to focus on living out the summary of the Law: we can begin to be 'guided in [our] works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that [we] may serve and benefit others in all that [we] do, considering nothing except the need and the advantage of [our] neighbour.' (p48)  We do not need to worry about our salvation, for what treasure there might be in heaven has already been guaranteed here on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  We do not need to worry about payment for our love, and so we are free to love for love's sake.  

Of course, things are never quite so simple in practise.  We human beings are messy creatures, and our own individual messiness can be compounded by the fact that we grow up in a society that, often with the best intentions, teaches us a variety of contradictory lessons, not least the importance of one day making a profit.  Material concerns are still worthy of concern, moreover, and we must care for others as well.  This kind of freedom does not mean that should all become holy ascetics.  

It does, however, mean that whenever we are lost in the anxiety and worry that tends to plague us all, we can turn to the figure of Christ, on the Cross and in the Resurrection.  We can be reminded that in him love has already been given us as a guarantee, and so we are free to love freely.  We can remember that Christ's freedom was not constituted by his ability to bend the hearts of others to His will, but to offer Himself for us as a gift.  And so we can remember that the freedom given us through faith in Christ is not the freedom to do as we will, but the liberty of a gift; that faith frees us from having to do good works for our own sake, not in order to diminish to importance of living out love, but so that we can offer ourselves as free gifts to others.


The Secular Nature of Biblical Literalism

By Ed Watson


The letters which begin chapters in  Makoto Fujimara' s illuminated  Four Gospels  (displayed at Yale Divinity School).

The letters which begin chapters in Makoto Fujimara's illuminated Four Gospels (displayed at Yale Divinity School).

I think I'm correct in saying that, in public consciousness at least, the greatest controversies between Christianity and secular society seem to come down to arguments between the Bible and humanity's own discovered truths. I'm thinking here of such frequently rehearsed debates as Genesis vs science, or Paul/The Torah vs movements for LGBTQ and gender equality.  To paint in the broadest of strokes, in both cases we have on the one side the faithful who represent the Biblical view, on the other scientists and social activists representing human reason and compassion.  

I am not interested in rehashing these debates. I am interested instead in exploring the nature of the position taken by those claiming to represent the Biblical point of view.  Specifically, I am interested in exploring the position of those who argue, from a belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture, for a view of Scriptural inerrancy which then grounds Biblical Literalism (I don't think I'm sketching non-existent straw-men here; they may be straw-men, but a quick Google search is enough to demonstrate their pervasive existence, as well as their frankly terrifying influence).  

My belief is that the position of Biblical Literalism is just as secular in nature as those it inveighs against. I believe that those who hold it rely upon the same premises as those whom they accuse of sacrilegious abrogation of divine sovereignty. I believe that the proponents of Biblical Literalism are engaged in rebellion against God, and especially against the authority of the Word of God in Scripture.  These beliefs are not original, and probably not all that controversial.  They are, however, new to me, and so I thought it worth setting out some of the thought behind them.  

I am going to rely throughout this piece on the work of Karl Barth and Ludwig Wittgenstein (I'm also going to try and keep things as non-technical as possible, so please don't be absolutely put off by these famously abstruse and inaccessible names!). This might seem surprising: after all, Wittgenstein barely wrote a word on Biblical exegesis (though he did write some: e.g. Culture and Value, 31), whilst the authority of Scripture as the Word of God stands right at the centre of Barth's Dogmatics.  All the same, I think that they can, when taken together, provide a simple and clear argument for the secular nature of Biblical Literalism. 


We begin with a particular notion of machinery.  Wittgenstein was not the biggest fan of the place of machines in society, and he frequently despaired of the fact that industrialisation and mechanisation were seen as signs of progress.  More importantly, however, his later writings were aggressive attempts to argue against the view that words ideally function like machines. 

What does this mean?  As referred to here, a machine is something which has a concrete, constant, and prescribed function (as long as it's working properly!): so long as you use it correctly, you'll always get the same (correct) result.  So, for example, if you type 2+2 into a calculator, you'll get 4; if you turn the key in a car, the engine will ignite; if you scroll down on your computer, the words you're looking at right now will move up the screen.  There is, Wittgenstein believes, a view that properly defined words must of necessity function in this same way (or, more precisely, that the fact they don't is a defect of our language which needs to be remedied).  Under this view, if you say a word correctly then it will/should serve to mechanically communicate a specific meaning.  

A great cartoon from  Paul Noth , riffing off Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit.

A great cartoon from Paul Noth, riffing off Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit.

Now, this view is obviously not entirely false: words quite often do work in just this way and it's obviously not always great when they don't.  What Wittgenstein argued against, however, was the idea that the performance of this function was therefore the essence of language; that the fact that words often do function in this way entails that it is either possible or desirable that they should always do so.  He argued that the life of language was far more diverse, and more importantly fallible, than the ideal put forward by this mechanistic picture.  Specifically, he argued that the 'output' of a word in language is not and cannot be predetermined in the way that the output of a well built machine is; that, for many reasons, even the most precise statements carry the possibility of ambiguity insofar as they can be correctly employed in different and (sometimes) divergent ways (sometimes even in the same sentence).  Most importantly, he did not believe that this was a defect of language; rather, he believed that it was a proper reflection of the fact that language arises out of our living in this world, and that both our lives and the world we live in are intrinsically messy

How does all this relate to Biblical Literalism?  In two ways: first off, Wittgenstein believed that the effects of this messiness pertain to all languages.  He most famously said this of the languages of mathematics, but it is also true of the languages of Scripture.  Second, because he believed that human attempts to overcome this messiness were attempts to lay claim to a 'forms of expression... tailored for a god.'  'For us, however,' he goes on to write, 'these forms of expression are like vestments, which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give them point and purpose.' (Philosophical Investigations, 426.)  This is not just a matter of language: it is a matter of our presuming to claim a power which we simply do not possess.  In this, Wittgenstein identified the impulse towards these kinds of ideal languages with the stereotypical impulse of the Enlightenment to survey and subdue creation by mechanising it in the name of man's truth and man's light. 

We come now to the crucial point in relation to Biblical Literalism.  Biblical Literalism relies upon this self same picture of an ideally mechanised language: for there to be a 'literal' interpretation of a Biblical passage, there must be a rigid, eternal deposit of meaning contained within it which the correct application of mechanised language both can and will unearth.  This correct application, meanwhile, is correct interpretation, and this correct interpretation is a gift of grace given to those who have faith (that same faith which, by the by, is usually unearthed...).  In the hands of a Biblical Literalist, the Bible thus becomes a machine. It becomes a machine of ideally rigid outputs, all the more rigid because there is no apparent room for human input.  Despite this, however, any divergence in interpretation can only be because the reader is misusing the Bible; and the only way that this can be possible is if they have closed their minds to the truth of God's sovereignty.

According to Wittgenstein, however, this view of Biblical language is not only false from the start since it relies on a false picture of language, but also contains within itself the same idolatrous impulse which Biblical Literalists accuse secular society of: to subdue all before it by mechanical means.  Biblical Literalists say that they know the truth of the Spirit as it is given in the (mechanical) Biblical word: Wittgenstein's retort, however, is that 'you cannot lay hold of the spirit with a machine.' (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, 3-81)


Now, this argument alone might not seem to pose much of a problem from the Biblical Literalist point of view: after all, from that perspective Wittgenstein was a man lost in sin who never committed himself to Christ as his risen Lord and Saviour.  What, then, could he have to say (even indirectly) about the inviolable authority of Scripture?  And even if his philosophy were true of most language, Biblical language is different: it is inspired by God Himself, and so immune to the criticisms of a mere human being.  

Enter Karl Barth.  Barth was adamant that Scripture stood at the head of the Church in a position of authority.  It could not be made subject to either tradition or reason; rather, both must constantly find their measure in the Word of God as spoken through Scripture.  He is not, then, someone that I would have necessarily expected to launch a scathing invective on Biblical Literalism.  Yet not only does he launch such an invective: he launches it for remarkably similar reasons to Wittgenstein, and also because he believed Scripture had to have authority over the Church.  

We should begin by noting that Barth's account of the Bible is Christological; he believed that just as Christ was very God and very man at the same time, and that Christ's humanity remained humanity because of His divinity, so too the Word of God which speaks through Scripture speaks through a human word which remains a human word. In Barth's own words: just as 'we necessarily allow for inherent differences [between Christ's human and Christ's divine nature], it is exactly the same with the unity of the divine and human word in Holy Scripture... Even here, the human element does not cease to be human, and as such is in itself certainly not divine.' (Church Dogmatics, 1:2, p499.  All Barth quotes are from the same text unless noted.)  Or, in other words: 'if God speaks to man, He really speaks the language of this concrete human word of man.' (p532) 

Barth does not budge from this position for a second.  Elsewhere he writes that 'there is no point ignoring the writtenness of Holy Writ for the sake of its holiness, its humanity for the sake of its divinity,' (p463) then again that 'it is quite impossible that there should be a direct identity between the human word of Holy Scripture and the Word of God.' (p499)  Neither this concrete human word nor the ideas it might seek to express, moreover, are 'automatic machines put into our hands for cranking out automatic conclusions.' (CD 3:1, 411) 

The consequences of this account of the human words of Holy Scripture are not ones a Biblical Literalist will welcome.  To take an extended quote; 

'If we are serious about the true humanity of the Bible, we obviously cannot attribute to the Bible as such the capacity to reveal God to us by its very presence.  It is there and always there as a sign, as a human and temporal word- and therefore as a word which is conditioned and limited.  It witnesses to God's revelation, but that does not mean that God's revelation is now before us in any kind of divine revealedness. The Bible is not a book of oracles; it is not an instrument of direct impartation.  It is genuine witness.' (507)

Within all this, the Bible remains the Word of God.  This is not because of any intrinsic quality on the Bible's part, however, least of all its inspiredness.   It is instead because, precisely insofar as the Bible serves as a witness to His revelation, 'God is the Subject, God is Lord.  He is Lord even over the Bible and in the Bible.  The statement that the Bible is the Word of God cannot therefore say that the Word of God is tied to the Bible.  [This Word's] content is always a free decision of God, which we cannot anticipate by grasping at the Bible.' (513)

This free decision is, for Barth, the true mystery at the heart of scripture.  It is the miracle of revelation.  'If,' however, 'we are serious about the fact this miracle is an event, we cannot regard the presence of God's Word in the Bible as an attribute inherent once and for all in this book as such.' (530)   'By damping down the word of man,' meanwhile, 'by transmuting it into a Word of God which can be grasped in human speech, the whole mystery [is] lost, the mystery of the freedom of its presence both in the mouths of the biblical witnesses and also in our ears and hearts.'  This loss then has untenable consequences: 'The development and systematisation of the traditional statements concerning the divine authority of the Bible meant an actualising of the Word of God by eliminating the perception that its actualisation can only be its own decision and act, that our part in it can consist only in the recollection and expectation of its eternal presence. The Bible was now grounded in itself apart from the mystery of Christ and the Holy Ghost.  It became 'a paper Pope.'' (525)

By reading the words of Scripture in a mechanical fashion on the basis of a doctrine of inspiration, then, Biblical literalists are failing to respect Scripture's authority just as seriously as their opponents (if not moreso!): they are according to themselves a place which God alone can occupy, one which can see through and dissolve the mystery of grace.  In this they are not just forgetting that, though God might speak, 'human hearing..., whether that of the Church or our own today, is [always] a human hearing, and therefore not outside the possibility of error, or incapable of being improved.' (476): they are forgetting that 'it does not lie- and this is why prayer must have the last word- in our power, but only in God's, that this event [of revelation] should take place and therefore this witness of Scripture be made to us.' (531)  Finally, they are forgetting that 'to say 'the Word of God' is to say the Word of God. It is therefore to speak about a being and event which are not under human control and foresight.  Our knowledge of this being and event does not justify us in thinking and speaking of them as though they were under our control and foresight.' (527)

This then sets the stage for Barth's most pointed criticism of the Biblical literalist position: that 'every time we turn the Word of God into an infallible biblical word of man, or the biblical word of man into an infallible Word of God, we resist that which we ought never to resist, i.e., the truth of the miracle that here fallible men speak the Word of God in fallible human words- and we therefore resist the sovereignty of grace, in which God himself became man in Christ.' (529)  On this basis, Barth bluntly writes that 'to the bold postulate that if [the word of the prophets and the apostles] is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion: that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word.'  In this light, 'it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible.' (531)


We can see, then, how Wittgenstein's account of human language can be read as highly relevant to our understanding of the word of Scripture, even and especially as Scripture is read as the authoritative Word of God over and within the Church.  We can see how, by taking Barth and Wittgenstein together, the mechanistic account of language employed by Biblical Literalists on the basis of a doctrine of inspiration can be shown to be inappropriate on the basis of both philosophical and theological considerations.  And finally, to bring this piece back to its title, we can see how this mechanistic account of Scriptural language belies the secular character of Biblical Literalism: for in this light it appears to be merely another manifestation of man's impulse to mechanise and subdue the natural world, only this time rearing its head in the sphere of Christian religion.  On this matter, however, let us leave the last word to Barth;

'The gradually extending new understanding of biblical inspiration was simply one way in which the great process of secularisation on which post-Reformation Protestantism entered was carried through.  This new understanding of biblical inspiration meant simply that the statement that 'the Bible is the Word of God' was now transformed from a statement about the free grace of God into a statement about the Bible as brought under human control.  Thus the Bible as the Word of God surreptitiously became a part of that knowledge of God which man can have without the free grace of God, by his own power, and with direct insight and assurance.' (523)

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