October 13, 2005

Epistemology? Who Knew?

A while back, Amy Welborn recommended two books by Tom Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham: Jesus and the Victory of God, and another whose name I can't recall at the moment. I found them at the bookstore; but found that they were volumes 2 and 3 of a connected series titled "Christian Origins and the Question of God." Being naturally anal retentive, I of course grabbed Volume 1, The New Testament and the People of God, because you have to read things in sequence. It's a much more scholarly tome than I'm accustomed to; I am now about halfway through it, and quite pleased with myself. It's only taken a couple of weeks.

But what does it mean when you read a book and feel like you know less than when you started?

The book begins with a lengthy treatise on epistemology, that is, a discussion of what we can actually expect to be able to know about the New Testament era , and how we can know it. In all that follows, please remember that I am not a Philosopher, Theologian, or Historian, and that I'm doing such violence to his argument that I might just as well strap it into a wheelchair and hurl it down the stairs.

Anyway, what Wright's doing in the first part of his book is highlighting a number of common epistemological errors that make studying the New Testament difficult, misleading, or pointless. To begin with, scholars tend to look at the New Testament through only one of three lenses: history, literature, or theology. Wright argues that the New Testament is literature and often follows literary conventions; that it involves historical events; and that its subject matter is inescapably theological. The nuances take him quite a while to work through, but I think that's the gist of it.

Specifically, Wright rejects the Enlightenment positivist view, which is usually historical in nature. The positivist approach rejects supernatural explanations at the outset, which is rather putting the cart before the horse; second, it tries to pin the texts down to a single, precise, specific, objective meaning when in fact there are clearly layers of meaning.

After the failings of the positivist approach began to become clear, a theological approach became popular. Rather than worrying about what really happened so long ago, which we can't know for sure anyway, the new game was to try to identify eternal verities. Here, the problem is that the meaning of the texts is clearly bound up in the time they were written.

And once you start neglecting obvious components of the text, you're likely to go too far. More recently, postmodern analysis has been in vogue. There is no correct reading of the New Testament; there's my reading and your reading and their reading and everybody can have their own reading and there's no reason to prefer one over another. We can't really know what happened or what the author was really thinking; all we know are our own thoughts, and we have to be happy with that. These folks treat the New Testament as Literature.

Isn't it interesting how scholars can say things like this with a straight face, in books they expect other scholars to read and take seriously?

Anyway, here we're gone from positivism at one end of the spectrum to phenomenalism at the other: I can't know anything for sure except my own sense data, and so I don't really know anything.

Wright rejects this extreme as well (as well he should); he maintains, contrary to the winds of scholarly fashion, that the time in which the New Testament was written matters; that the intent of the authors of the New Testament matters; that the history that led up to it matters; the literary forms matter; the theology matters; and that though we can't know everything about these things with absolutely certainty we can know quite a lot with reasonable certainty.

Cool! It seems rather like common sense, to me; but then have you ever heard a mathematician trying to define the word "number"? It's a lot more complicated than you might think.

Having got that out of the way, I'm now reading Wright's thoughts (which I can, indeed, know something about, Derrida and Foucault to the contrary) on the history of the Jews from the time of the Maccabees until around 135 AD. There's been quite a lot of he-said, she-said about the Pharisees, and as I say I think I know less about them than I did before. That's partially because he assumes more background than I've got, and so is leaving things unsaid; at least, I think so. But partially it's because most of the positive statements are hedged about with caveats and disclaimers.

I dunno. I think I'm learning something, maybe....

Posted by Will Duquette at October 13, 2005 04:22 PM