March 2009


One of the benefits of doing graduate studies is you begin to be well versed in a few fields. One the things that this has instilled in me is a sense of epistemological humility. Another way of putting this is that there are very few things that I would say that I know and there are an extremely few things that I would say that I know and if you disagree, you are wrong. 

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about. I often read introductory books or listen to introductory courses on subjects that I have a fair bit of knowledge about. When I do this I am very aware of times when the author or teacher says things like, ‘scholars now say….’ While this type of statement is often true, other times it is merely a gloss for ‘really there is a lot of scholarly debate about this subject, but the best people that I have arbitrarily chosen based on my limited knowledge of the subject say this.’ 

What this type of rhetoric does is imply to the student, who is there to learn from the ‘expert’, that this statement that the expert has made is a ‘fact.’ Maybe I am too postmodern in my thinking but I am afraid there are very few things that can be said to be fact. Facts always are interpretations of data, and while data may just be data, for it to be meaningful it must be interpreted as fact. Interpretations, however, are always open to question. So what we may assume is fact is actually a careful argument made by experts that is actually based on a number of assumptions and other facts, which are in turn interpretations of their own. 

It is not only academics, however, that are guilty of what I will call epistemological arrogance. I recently heard someone say on a Christian radio station that “the more archaeology we uncover, the more the Bible is proved to be historically true.’ Now there are whole schools of thought that would take issue with this statement. The problem with this situation is that the person on the radio is not an archaeologist nor a biblical scholar, they are merely repeating what they heard ‘some expert’ say.

This kind of rhetoric is, I think, damaging, especially for Christians. For once we have begun to perpetuate things that are really arguments and points of view as fact we have begun to deceive those who are not in a position to know the difference. This is especially true in matters of faith. Once we have convinced people of the fact that the Bible is proved historically true by archaeology, then when that ‘truth’ is called into question by this or that archaeologist then people’s worldviews are questioned.

What I have come to treat as axiomatic for my life is a kind of epistemological humility wherein I am unquestionably sure of very few things so that I would say that I know them and if you disagree you are wrong, and in turn am questionably sure of a very many things wherein I would say that I think them and if you disagree then let’s have a conversation and see if we can’t get closer to the truth. 

I am not a pluralist, I believe there is objective truth. But I am drowning in the amount of information that I do not know for sure, and I have studied a few things extensively. I wonder if things like church splits, denominational fights and academic snobbery would be greatly lessened if we admitted that most of the things that we say we know we only think. And if we could, in epistemological humility, come together to try and find the truth, even if, in the end, we merely agree to disagree. We could, after all, both be wrong.

I find listening to lectures to be a great supplement to my education. I read a lot and I take a lot of classes but lectures are great because they can be listened to on the road or on the rare occasion that you find yourself in the gym or on a run. You can also listen to worthy lectures more than once. I listen to quite a few online lectures and the last post about Brueggemann’s lectures on preaching inspired me to start a quasi-regular series on lectures that are available online. 

In this first installment I want to mention a series of older lectures by N.T. Wright. If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I am a fan of Wright and find many of his views on Jesus to be fantastic. This series of lectures given at an InterVarsity Press conference in 1999 were the impetus and the core of Wright’s book The Challenge of Jesus. I often tell people in church that if you’re going to read one book on Jesus, then Wright’s Challenge of Jesus should be it. And guess what? You don’t even have to read it. It’s available online!

Lecture 1 – Jesus and the Kingdom: In this lecture Wright talks about Jesus’ characteristic message of the Kingdom and what it would likely have meant in the first century.

Lecture 2 – Jesus and the Cross: Wright asks the question – why did Jesus die? He then attempts to provide both a historical and theological answer and to put those two together as the most meaningful way to talk about the cross.

Lecture 3 – Jesus and God: Here Wright tackles the big question of Jesus’ divinity. He uses the language of vocation in talking about Jesus’ call to do and be for Israel what only Israel’s covenant God could do and be for Israel. This to me is the highlight of these lectures.

Lecture 4 – Jesus and the World’s True Light: Here Wright takes the issue a step further than most biblical scholars and addresses how the thesis he has been arguing for impacts the church and how the church has to do and be for the world what Jesus did and was for Israel.

I have just finished listening to an excellent trilogy of lectures by the renowned Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann is an interesting character to say the least and he is far from evangelical in much of his view about Scripture. Nevertheless (or perhaps especially because of this) he is an impassioned lover of the church and one of the most imaginative interpreters I have ever heard or read. His interpretations of Scripture are always interesting and challenging. Though one may not agree with all he says one cannot help but be challenged by Scripture in Brueggemann’s interpretations. For this reason he is well worth listening to.

His series of lectures from Truett Seminary focus on the art of preaching, using the book of Jeremiah as both the source for his mining of information and his paradigm for sermons. It is both an excellent study of Jeremiah and an excellent study on homiletics. Here is a brief synopsis of the lectures.

  • Lecture #1: The first lecture is on sermon introductions. I found most helpful his discussion of the sermon as a confluence of the Word of the Lord (‘thus saith the Lord’) and the words of the prophet, or in this case preacher.
  • Lecture #2: The second lecture is on sermon conclusions. Brueggemann examines the various possible conclusions to Jeremiah and argues that good sermon conclusions are multiform and point towards a future. They are multiform because we do not fully know what the future holds, and they a forward pointing because the Bible and Christian faith is defined by hope.
  • Lecture #3: The final lecture is on the stuff in the middle, the sections between the introduction and the conclusion. Here Brueggemann notes that in Jeremiah as in life it is in the very depths that God comes and works ‘wonders’ and that it is necessary to wait in those depths.

I was extremely challenged to take my preaching so much more seriously in the future. I was also challenged to be even more serious with the text and even more serious in my ‘imagination’ (which, if you know anything about Brueggemann you know that is a buzzword for him). It was a fantastic lecture and I recommend it highly.

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Well, the 2009 NW ETS meeting is over, and I am glad for it. It was a great time and I greatly appreciated the plenary session as well as the two parallel papers that I got to attend. Though, I did get some free books they were not exactly as enticing to me as the picks I got last year, so we’ll see if I actually read them. The main reason I am glad for this year’s NW ETS meeting to be over is my paper is off my plate for a while. I presented a paper on Judges 13 where I tried to show how reading this chapter as a type-scene (a la Alter) significantly helps our reading of it. Below is the title, abstract and a link to the full paper if anyone is interested.

Paper Title: What do Jacob, Joseph, Jesus and Samson Have in Common? A Study of Judges 13 as a Biblical Type-Scene

Abstract:

Jacob, Joseph, Jesus and Samson, and also Isaac, Samuel, John the Baptist, and possibly an unnamed boy in Kings are very different characters, and are appraised very differently by the biblical authors. However, their births are very and perhaps troublingly similar. Is Luke trying to tell us that John the Baptist is the new Samson? I hope not. This paper seeks to show that if we understand the biblical convention of literary type-scenes then not only are we in a better place to understand why these similarities or repetitions occur but we are also in a better place to understand how the biblical authors are portraying each character. This paper will focus on Samson’s birth story in Judges 13 as an example of how this type-scene analysis can illumine the meaning of a text.