Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How St Paul got his beliefs

Something I've found greatly helps me understand different scholars interpretation of Paul's theology are 'Just So' stories... one to three small paragraphs of a hypothetical and plausible story, outlining how and why Paul came to hold the various beliefs he does.

Such a story should explain why Paul's theology has the characteristic emphases it does. I find that such stories have great explanatory power. They point to what things were important to him and why, they point to reasons for inconsistencies, and they can be used to deduce what the scholar thinks Paul's view are on other issues. Overall, they make the depiction of Paul seem more plausible and real, and hence more convincing.

If a scholar makes no effort to provide such a story, I often try to puzzle one out myself that would account for Paul having the beliefs the scholar alleges. In cases where I am unable unable to construct a hypothetical story that could have resulted in Paul thinking the things the scholar alleges him to have thought... I tend to be very unconvinced of the arguments.

So what are your 'just so' stories? How did the apostle Paul get his beliefs?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Modern bible translations: half good

Mainstream modern bible translations do two things very well.

1) Textual Criticism - getting the original letters right
There is widespread concern about working out the letters of the original texts as accurately as possible. A large amount of scholarly effort has been put into performing exhaustive analyses of surviving manuscripts. Published critical editions tend to be reliable and comprehensive. Biblical prefaces will usually discuss what critical editions were used and whether the translation team contained any experts in the field who used their own judgments. Most importantly, it is extremely common for translations to have footnotes that alert the reader to textual variants.

Of course, the lack of surviving manuscripts from the first couple of centuries places an inherent limit on the accuracy scholars can achieve. Equally it might be argued that scholars have made various mistakes or that the early Christians corrupted the texts. However, overall, there is a lot of concern about getting this right, a lot of effort put into it, and the reader is alerted about these issues.

2) Readable English - getting the English editing right
There is widespread concern about producing the most readable English translations possible. A large amount of effort gets put into improving the readability of the English versions. Biblical prefaces will usually discuss the ways in which they have aimed to improve readability. The diverse range of English translations offer readers a full spectrum of formal to colloquial language.

Of course, all translations have some verses that are hard to read or where the grammar is bad. The pros and cons of literal versus paraphrase translations can be endlessly debated. But, overall, a lot of effort gets put into making translations easier to read, and the variety of different English translations cater to all tastes.

Coming soon: Modern bible translations: half bad

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The meaning of 'faith'

People seem to have very different ideas about what 'faith' means. Everyone seems to think their view is obvious.

I enjoy reading discussions about the relationship between faith and works in salvation. Yet such discussions seem to suffer when no effort is made to define 'faith'. I am amazed at how often even scholars omit discussion of the meaning of 'faith' when talking about the relationship between faith and works.

For example, I've just been reading a discussion of Origen's thought on the relationship between faith and works in justification. I would have thought that such an analysis should ask what meaning Origen gives to these key terms. Apparently not.

Surely to understand how faith and works might relate, it is crucial to understand what they themselves are? Maybe not. I suppose that for most popular definitions of 'faith', the concept of 'faith' is entirely separate from the concept of 'works'. Such defintions only become relevant if you take a view like mine that the actual definition and meaning of the word 'faith' (pistis) means something that overlaps with the concept of 'works' (eg means 'the faithful doing of God's will' or somesuch). In that case, in asking how faith and works relate, you are asking a very subtle question of the distinction between faithfully doing God's will and doing the good works that God wills. It is suddenly essential to know exactly how 'faith' and 'works' are being defined so that the subtle distinctions can be understood.

But if 'faith' and 'works' are completely separate - eg. 'believing things' and 'doing stuff' - then you don't need to enquire so closely into their definitions in order to talk about their relationship to each other.

Friday, August 01, 2008

What do you label it?

When studying the history of doctrine it is traditional to label different periods during which doctrine was relatively stable and refer to the period as a whole by name.

So, for example, people talk of "pre-Nicene" Christianity, or "the scholastic period", or "the Greek Fathers", or "medieval doctrine" etc.

A question I've struggled with over the last few years of writing is what do you call the standard evangelical post-reformation protestant doctrine of the modern period?

I'm thinking in particular of the set of salvation doctrines which seem to be standard during this period which see the gospel as being about original sin, grace, penal substitution, and salvation by faith.

Various names I've used at times, none of which I'm entirely happy with include:
"Evangelical doctrine", "the modern gospel", "Reformation theology", "protestant thought", "confessional protestantism", "the post-Reformation period", "modern thought", "typical protestant doctrine"... etc

Since many Roman Catholics would agree with a lot of these views I would be happier if the name for the modern doctrinal period was broad enough to include many Catholics as well.

It really needs to be something short and sweet which I can use over and over again, and clear enough that I don't have to give an explanation before using it.