Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Bible and the Liberal Arts (reposted)

     Because the Bible God inspired is a historical and literary artifact, you can't understand the history and literature of the Bible unless you already have read and understood vast amounts of other history and literature.  That necessity yields this observation:  A prior revival of languages and literature is the precursor for a recovery or revival of Biblical understanding and Biblical truth.
          Because learning precedes theological recovery, the Reformation could not have happened until the Renaissance had re-discovered the classical tools of learning and culture, thus making a more accurate reading of the Bible possible.  Enlightened theologians like Erasmus, a Catholic, and Calvin, a  Protestant, thereby were enabled to transcend the blinding myopia and constrained techniques of the medieval schoolmen.  Those schoolmen were beholden to, and misguided by, slavish obeisance to Aristotle (among other things).  Fealty to Aristotle and his truncated methods is not the same as acquiring the wide-ranging historical, literary, cultural, and theological knowledge needed to read and apply the Bible properly.  That is the case whether you are a philosophical realist like Thomas Aquinas, or a nominalist like William of Ockham, or neither.   After all, you'll recall that Jesus and Paul, pretty fair theologians in their own right, were neither, and that neither of them employed Aristotle's methods or rubric in their explication or application of Scripture to life in a fallen world.  Nor should we, at least if we want to have the mind of Christ, as we are commanded.
          To be rightly educated for theology is be educated in a way both deep and wide.  Deep and wide go together and are mutually corrective.  You must not have one without the other.  Deep without wide is tunnel vision; wide without deep is peripheral vision.  Alone, neither one is full and integrated sight.  Even at their best, the medieval schoolmen were subject to tunnel vision.  They thought that Aristotle's shrunken methods, rubric, and conclusions were the key to understanding the Bible, theology, and apologetics aright, as if being ignorant of history, language, and literature were no small hindrance to insight, a failure Erika Rummel has detailed admirably in her The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation (Cambridge:  Harvard, 1995).  Outside the narrow confines of scholastic dialectics, the schoolmen were desperately under-informed.  Because they were, they did not know the damage they were inflicting upon theology by mainstreaming Aristotle and his pagan methods and presuppositions into western religious thought.  They did not recognize the vast difference, and frequent incompatibility -- in worldview, content, or intellectual technique -- between, say, the ancient Jews, on the one hand, and their ancient pagan contemporaries, on the other.  Put differently, you cannot move seamlessly back and forth between Isaiah and Aristotle, David and Avicenna, or Elijah and Averroes.  Nor, for that matter, can you do so between Plato and Moses or Epicurus and Peter, as if worldviews and their attendant implications in all directions were nothing significant.
          Evangelical Protestants, of all theologians, ought to be most grateful for the Renaissance breakthrough, for its movement back to the sources and its ardent embrace of the humanities.  But judging from their books, their class syllabi, and their lecture notes, they are not.  Almost immediately after Calvin, Reformed theologians reverted to the scholastic methods of their medieval predecessors, as the language, the structure, the arguments, and the content of their systematic theologies clearly indicate.   Gone is the narrative unfolding of God's mighty works in history.  The inspired words that reveal the meaning  and significance of those events, and the narrative and literary format in which we find those explanatory words, have been displaced by the wooden and alien framework of Greek metaphysics and its rubric of abstraction -- as if one could and should replace divine character (which captivated the Jews) with metaphysical characteristics (which did not).  The methods of the Protestant scholastics are alien to the the ways and means of Scripture, and distortive of them.  You might as well try to interpret Dickens' Tale of Two Cities with the methods of modern archaeology as to filter the Bible through the sieve of the dialectical method.  Thomism is not the key to sound Biblical hermeneutics.  It is sometimes its worst enemy.  Biblical theology is not simply philosophy you do about God, and its techniques and procedures are not those of the schoolmen, of either the nominalist or the realist stripe.
          Nevertheless, scholasticism endures even among the Protestants:  (A) If you follow their arguments and their nomenclature, you find they the are the arguments and nomenclature of the scholastics, not of Scripture, even when they quote Bible verses and claim the Bible only is the word of God and ought to be understood on its own terms.  (B) If you check the table of contents and the index of the most popular and widely used Evangelical or Reformed systematic theologies, you find no chapter or set of chapters, no extended explanation, and no precisely and systematically articulated implementation of either history or of literature within them -- as if theology could be well understood and wisely applied without them, and as if Christ were not properly the Lord of literally all things, theology and hermeneutical method included.  They do not do theology in His way, but in the way of the medieval schoolmen. Almost any allusion to history, literature, or art those books employ is tendentious, triumphalist, and polemical at the root.  Catholic systematics, of course, are no better, their invoking of a severely truncated and misleading version of Christian history and tradition being a case in point, especially as it entails a commitment to Thomist methods and conclusions.  In other words, the failure to which I allude is not limited to one church or another.
           Despite the characteristics of the Bible itself, systematic theologies are typically devoid of historical and literary expertise.  Their wooden and pedestrian articulation reflects that damning fact.  Nor do they have chapters on art, being artless themselves.  They are written by, and assigned as textbooks by, persons who are not historically astute, not literarily, artistically, or scientifically aware, and not impressively and memorably articulate -- even though the authors who write them and the teachers who assign them say they value the liberal arts and think we ought to require them.
        Judging from their theological textbooks and their methods, the liberal arts do not enter into it all. 


Paula said...

Lots to chew on here, Dr. Bauman! While I agree with you that Christ is properly Lord over all things and he's given us minds with which to think, reason, and comprehend both his Word and the events of history, I'm curious about this statement:

"A prior revival of languages and literature is the precursor for a recovery or revival of Biblical understanding and Biblical truth."

Are you saying that Biblical truth cannot be understood without an understanding of the liberal arts?

Because surely, God has demonstrated throughout history that He is able to reach and save individuals, families, and entire villages that do not have the benefit of the great books or any outside knowledge beyond the boundaries of their villages.

You later add: "as if theology could be well understood and wisely applied without them", so perhaps the "well" and "wisely" descriptors give a more nuanced explanation of what you're saying? If so, I heartily agree.

If you're saying that without an understanding of history, art, and science, people are not able to come to a saving knowledge of Christ and God's plans are somehow thwarted because of man's ignorance, then I would have to disagree with you.

(P.S. I'm so glad my son gets to take your class. He enjoys it immensely and I get the benefit of the wonderful discussions we have about class topics!)

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Thank you for your time and your thoughtful comments, which I appreciate.

Because you and I both think the Bible is God's inspired and inerrant Word, we both think that understanding the Bible accurately and applying it wisely are therefore fundamentally important. Because the Bible is a narrative of God's redemptive actions in history, we spend time trying to master both history and literary interpretation, both events and texts. We want to understand the Bible on its own terms, and those terms are historical and literary. The acquisition of those skills is necessary to a fuller and more accurate understanding of Scripture.

If Scripture were given to us by God in some other form; if God had, perhaps, revealed Himself and his saving intentions to us in the Bible by means of metaphysical disquisition, then we'd try to become better at metaphysics in order to understand His revelation more accurately on its own terms, in that case metaphysical terms. We'd adjust ourselves to His Word, not try to reshape His Word to fit us.

That's why the Reformation did not happen until after the Renaissance, which laid the foundation for a better and more accurate understanding of the Bible, first by establishing an accurate text for the Bible (Erasmus, 1516), so that we had the actual words of Scripture before us and not the Latin Vulgate; and second, by helping us interpret more accurately what the Bible's words actually meant both historically and grammatically (Erasmus and Valla). That way we could see for ourselves directly from Scripture, on its own terms, where the church had gone off the rails for centuries. Then, just weeks and months later, in 1517, both Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland, working independently of each other, arrived at the doctrine of justification by faith and a corresponding rejection of medieval Catholic doctrine and piety -- by reading the Bible itself and reading it more accurately. As Thomas Linacre said in England, after learning to understand the New Testament in Greek both historically and grammatically, "If this is the gospel, then we are not Christians!"

In other words, as soon as the Bible had been textually restored and its interpretation clarified, the Gospel was recovered and the Reformation began. The Renaissance made possible Luther's and Zwingli's recovery of the gospel and the Biblical message, which had been buried under centuries of medieval accretion. The recovery of justification by faith, the rejection of certain medieval Catholic errors, were made possible by the recovery of classical learning.

I'm not saying that a person needs to be classically educated in order to be saved -- no. I'm saying that one is saved by faith in Christ, not by classical education or academic degrees. But without the prior revival of learning, we would not, and did not, know what the gospel actually said. We didn't know what to preach or how to preach it. God got us back to the gospel by means of a revival of learning, without which we wouldn't know what to declare to a lost world so that it might repent and believe in Christ rather than try to approach God some other way, which would be futile.

Christ Himself said that the truth would set us free. The Renaissance helped us know the truth -- in this case the gospel -- and that gospel truth sets us free. Now that we know it, we preach it.

Best to you on all counts, Paula, and thanks again.

Paula said...

Thanks for your response. Very well said!

It begs the question of whether the Dark Ages were God's judgement on the world or if the people of that day were so lost that they simply had to hit rock bottom before the world could spring to life again.

It's terrifying to think that with all our technology and advanced degrees, we seem to be heading back down that road to darkness and ignorance.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Yes, darkness and ignorance seem to be our natural condition and inclination. Technology doesn't change that fundamental fact about us. It just means we are more technological sinners. Sinners with lots of technology is a very scary prospect.