Thursday, September 02, 2004

And some people are intelligent.

Such as this person, who is talking to a baptist in an internet forum... (and no, neither person is me)

"So what I don't understand is that when the Baptists read the Bible with their own set of presuppositions 1500 years after the events, and come up with an interpretation that is consistent with their own worldview, that is because "they are right". Yet on the other hand, when the first and second century Greek world read the Bible, their interpretation was wrong (where it differs from yours) because it was "corrupted by their world view"?

The NT was written in Greek, by Greek-speakers, for Greek-speakers, who belonged to a Greek worldview.

Far from being corrupted by such a worldview, good historical practice dictates
that a true interpretation can only be found in such a worldview. I mean, surely, no group is better positioned to interpret the NT within the context of the target audience than one who is actually a member of the target audience? Thus, when a modern tradition differs from them on points of doctrine (as the Baptist tradition does on several), it's not because the Greeks got it wrong, but because they got it right..."

Which is a rather succinct summary of why I think it is so important to study very seriously the early Greek Christian writings, and take far less seriously those outside the greceo-Christian worldview.


Blogger Matt said...

I think it's not only a Baptist thing, I think it's one of the big flawed parts of the Protestant legacy.

You can sort of understand how it came about; they'd been told what the bible meant by those in charge, who had a monopoly on the knowledge, and the reformation said "wait a minute, we have a part in this too."

Unfortunately, as so often happens (and I think the reformation is just one big case of this) the baby got thrown out with the bathwater, and instead of saying "we have a part to play" we said "we can do it ourselves."

But yeah, I'm with you in that Christians are waaay too quick to chuck out 2000 years of serious study in favour of their five minute reading, or their pastor's 10 minute reading.

Blogger Nathan said...

Good post, but just a few things:

1) Wasn't the the N.T. bible written in Greek not because it was to the Greeks, but because Kone (Common) Greek was the common language? So it wasn't to their worldview.

2) The Jews had the Old Testament written to them, in their language, and the Pharasees still managed to not accept the messiah, and some Jews continue to do so

3) People are never guaranteed to be right on account of who they are. Assuming the Greek Orthodox way is correct is just as productive as assuming the Baptist way (for example) is correct.
Sure, the Greeks had a lot going for them, but they weren't perfect either.

Yeah. Now I reread you post, I don't think you said anything contary to what I'm saying, I'm just clarificating. *shrugs*

Blogger Andrew said...

Those babies get a hard time of it, don't they? They should learn not to take baths... ;) I agree with you Matt.

I agree with the intent of your first two points, but I think there are some other very important factors.

The target audience of the majority of the NT is greek-speaking Gentile Christians. And the target audience of the remainder is greek-speaking Jewish Christians living in a greek-speaking Gentile world. Whichever way you crumble the cookie, they were all living in one first century, Greek speaking, Roman occupied, world.

In terms of the background knowledge of how they would have understood what the Bible says when they read it there is virtually no difference between the Gentile Christians in 50AD and 350AD. The bits target at Jewish Christians are obviously slightly more difficult to assert a priori that they would have been properly understood by the later Gentile Christians, but on the other hand they had the advantages of:
1. Living in basically the same world.
2. Speaking the same language
3. Having traditions passed down to them of "how to understand the bits of the NT targeted at a Jewish audience."
4. Having the LXX as their OT. This last is actually suprisingly important. The Greek OT is actually far more useful than the Hebrew OT when it comes to doing theology, because it allows you to see what Greek words the Jews were using to denote their OT concepts. Thus when Paul refers to some OT concept, it's the LXX you want to check for matches to his words not the Hebrew.

Ironically, counter to your second point, the Jews didn't really have the OT written in their language at the time of Jesus. They had the Hebrew originals, and the LXX translation into Greek, but in the 1st century the Jews spoke Aramaic, and would have had to learn either Hebrew or Greek or both to study scripture seriously.
But I understand your point, and agree.

Your point 3 seems to me totally wrong. Yes people are not guaranteed to be right, but that's not the same as liklihood of being right. Scientists are not guaranteed to be right about what they say, but in general if I read something at random in a chemistry textbook on the reaction of two substances I would believe it without question and take it as virtually guaranteed to be right. Similarly, if I went to Africa and was talking to someone who'd only had a primary school education and we got talking about chemistry, I'd smile and nod as they talked, believing virtually nothing they said.

Just as there are good reasons to think it totally false that "assuming the scientific text-books are correct is just as productive as assuming the uneducated african is correct". Neither is guaranteed to be correct, I agree with you, but one is hugely likely to be more correct than the other simply by virtue of their circumstances. It wasn't that the person who wrote the text-book was an inherently better person than the african, it's just that they were born into a situation where they were vastly better equipped for arriving at the truth. I think exactly the same applies for the Greeks over the Reformers.

PS. I didn't assume the Greeks were right and so adopt their doctrine. Everything I have studied has so often led me to believe they were actually right that it's not even amusing anymore... I used to get quite amused as I would study an issue only to conclude "Oh, the greeks seem to have been right about that too..." This is merely a reason why you might think from the outset the Greeks were likely to be right.

PPS I see you say "Greek Orthodox", I'm going to presume you've done the usual trick (which everyone does) of misunderstanding the meaning of that phrase. The Christians originally all spoke Greek throughout the Roman empire, but after the political split of the Roman empire only the east spoke Greek (the West used Latin), and in the 11th Century the church split down the East-West political lines. The "Orthodox Church" is simply the name given to the Churches that trace their heritage to the eastern half of the Roman empire. The OC is administratively divided geographically (think something similar to the church at Rome, and the church at Jerusalem in the Bible), so the "Greek Orthodox" church just means the "Orthodox church in the country of Greece", similarly Russian Orthodox, American Orthodox etc. Though the Orthodox tradition comes from the Greek speaking eastern Roman empire, that's not what "Greek Orthodox" refers to. The name for the whole body of Orthodox churches is almost any varient on "The Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church", usually "Eastern Orthodox" (EO), or just "Orthodox". For some reason everyone seems to have heard more about the Orthodox church in Greece than anywhere else... which is strange as it constitutes only 5% of the population of Orthodoxy worldwide.

Blogger Kelly said...

Andrew: I fully support the necessity to study theology etc in order that the church not (like Matt said) chuck away 2000 worth of study and thinking. Yet I think to me it's a little scary thinking that possibly what we understand as Christianity today is not what Christianity was originally, and that we need to study Greek and Greek culture etc etc -- because face it, the vast majority of people can't! I really believe that Christ came for the very bottom of society, and we shouldn't have to be intellectuals to have a correct understanding of God's character. And that's the crux: is theology necessary in having a relationship with God?

I simplified that question for extra effect. What I'm actually asking is: is it necessary for everyone to understand the worldview of the greeks in order to understand God's message through scripture? Is the bible a text document for historical analysis, or is it a living word relevant to every generation?

To me, it must be both. Yet the relationship aspect is by far the purpose of the whole affair. Theology is only relevant if it assists us in our relationship with God. I heard of a bishop in the church of England who was a theological expert and had been a bishop for 15 years. One day he was preaching about the love of God, and suddenly he just realised he had perfect theology but actually had never experienced a relationship with God. I can't remember the rest of the story, except that he said something like he'd been basically an athiest as far as his relationship with GOd went, but from that point on he started to actually get to know God. Amazing!

What do you think? This is definitely not a personal dig OK, my husband also studies theology and we often discuss it... but always coming to the conclusion that it's only through God's grace that we have a relationship , not through our biblical understanding.

Blogger Katherine said...

Kai Li: I would agree that everyone ought to be able to understand Christianity without devoting their whole lives to studying the past for themselves. I think, however, the problem is that we don't get taught Christianity straight from the word of God, but rather we are introduced to it through others' interpretations, which are inevitably influenced by their cultural outlook etc, as our own faith is too. Therefore it is essential that a portion of the church be devoted to continually checking that we are keeping on track with what the Bible really says. This includes studying the historical context. In this way the rest of the body can be more free to get on with life without worrying too much about theology. Not that it's like an intelligentsia class system thing, obviously, and of course we should all take an interest in what's true; anyway you know what I mean, I'm sure.

Blogger Andrew said...

Kai Li,

I totally believe that anyone can be a Christian and live the Christian life regardless of their level of theological expertise. Numerous saintly people have gone to their graves having believed all sorts of heresies out of pure ignorance. Not knowing what "the heresy of modalism" means has never stopped anyone from living a godly life of prayer, faithfulness, and love.
...the more I learn about theology, the more convinced than ever I am that such learning is irrelevant when it comes to living out the Christian life.

Knowing theology is certainly not necessary for a relationship with God. Paul says in Acts 17:27 in his speech to the Athenians that it is possible for the ignorant to find God for He is close to us all.

This reminds me of one of the Greeks, Arsenius, who died 450AD who after being a tutor to kings, went and became a disciple of an illiterate hunchback away from all civilisation. When someone asked him why he did this, he replied:
"I am not unacquainted with the learning of the Greeks and the Romans; but I have not yet learned the alphabet of the science of the saints, whereof this seemingly ignorant Egyptian is master"

But when you turn from the practical Christian life, to theoretical theology, you're moving from something that everyone is equally able to do into a highly complex science. Paul tells Timothy in 1:7 that some people are engaging in really bad theology and need to be stopped. And exhorts Titus in 1:10-2:1 to teach sound doctrine and to silence the heretics. Clearly it is very possible to go wrong in theoretical theology. James asks that not many of us become teachers (3:1) for this reason. Serious theoretical theology is like serious chemistry, or quantum physics: It is a complex science which the uneducated are simply not going to succeed in.

When I look at history, the best theologians have had both these things. They have been well-educated intelligent people, and they have discovered the truth of their theology in their own personal experience of their walk with God. But as Origen (~220AD) said, most people don't have the time to engage in serious theological analysis.


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