Monday, October 15, 2007

Further Thoughts on a Crisis

Over two years ago, I wrote a couple of pieces dealing with my so-called Postmodern Protestant Dilemma, in which I did not come to any sort of suitable conclusion, but left myself with a sense of confusion and befuddlement that has persisted to this day. Since then, I have concentrated heavily on defining what the Church is, how authority works in it, and what my own role in that authority structure is. However, the question of a transcendent standard that legitimizes and authorizes the Church continued to evade me. I mentioned, briefly, in my initial post that the Bible had had its own authority questioned by the higher critics, which effectively took the Bible out of the running for most of the Western Christian world, except for the "provincial" fundamentalists, some compromised and schizophrenic Reformed groups, and the Catholics. Since then I've returned to reading a loose collection of essays by Theodore P. Letis called The Ecclesiastical Text. I had read this sometime before my master's work started but after the conclusion of my undergrad, during which time the amount that I read was probably the highest I ever had, so much of what was read has fallen through my Orwellian memory hole.

Letis' broad thesis (if I understand him correctly) is that lower criticism (text criticism) and higher criticism (the conservatively scorned source, form, etc. German academic tools) are organically linked. If pressure to accept the lower form is bowed to (as B.B. Warfield did), then the higher is not very far behind. Why? Because a text that claims to be authoritative must have a fixed form. A constantly changing sacred text cannot be authoritative because it is never the same text (much like a famous Greek river). Since new "critical" editions of both testaments are constantly appearing, the "authoritative" text of the Church keeps changing. Even if textual variants supposedly do not change doctrines (although the case of John 1:18 should put that myth to rest), the fact that we cannot decide which text is "best" or "most original" destroys any forming authority that the Bible can have in the community of the Church and, therefore, the world.

Letis' answer is to restore, in a postcritical, Brevard-Childs-sort-of-way, the Ecclesiastical (or Byzantine or Textus Recptus, etc.) to the state of authorized text in the Church. (A quick note to say that Letis does not advocate for any certain translation to have inspired authority, such as the KJV, which many Byzantine text fans flock to--God spoke in Hebrew and Greek, not English). This text-type has the advantage of being the official text of the Church from the fourth century onward to the rise of lower criticism in Erasmus. The Reformers, both Lutheran and Calvinian, adopted this text over the Roman Vulgate or the Eastern Septuagint as the authoritative text of the Church. Importantly (and Letis labors this point), this text is not inerrant, that is, it suffers from scribal mistakes. However, it is infallible, it contains the Word of God as spoken by Him in the original languages, or in theological terms, it is verbally inspired. The seventeenth-century Protestant dogmaticians spoke at great length for this textual tradition as the authoritative one; so did the WCF. In my mind, the Ecclesiastical Text has a lot going for it and should be considered by all Church communities for their text.

The ET places doctrinal and practical authority back into the text of the Bible, which the Reformers would argue is its proper place. The Bible has transcendent origins and can, in able hands, be applied at all places and all times (which, it is important to note, does not mean it is a collection of universally-applicable propositions--hopefully the narrative focus of postmodern Christianity has put that colonialist impulse to rest). However, its authority stills owes itself to the human-based Church.

With the "inerrant autograph" theory, ultimate authority resides only with the text: the autographs from the pen of Paul or whoever, carry the inspired text of the Bible. Sounds good, except for the fact that the autographs are lost from history. This is the theory that guides Christian textual criticism, with the (fools?) hope that the original text can be recovered through means of objective scientific reconstruction and emendation. Thank goodness that all human fallibility is taken off of the text! Now the perfect, neutral text can reign supreme in faith and practice. Except for the fact that the scientific fingerprint of man is larger than we even thought, it being dusted by Thomas Kuhn (what a paradigm shifting work that was!). The "critical text", a child of the "inerrant autograph" theory, is a new text, never having been used in the wide history of Church until the advent of the NIV and its descendants. In other words, the "inerrant autograph" theory leaves the Church constantly without an authorized text because the authorized text changes all the time. The Word of God is taken out of the hand of everyday folks and placed squarely in the hands of textual critics and committees, the new, unofficial, priesthood of Protestantism.

To return to the ET, the authority of the text is in the text also, but by means of the Church. This is the text that the Church has agreed through many generations is the text that contains God's Word. When this text took its final shape, though, is long after the inspiration period of the apostles, in the fourth century. If you read my original post on my dilemma, part of the problem is that the Church has been so heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, especially as 'orthodoxy' was being determined in the fourth century. Bart Ehrman, one of the premier Church and text historians today, blew this all open with his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: 'orthodox' scribes knew how to "turn-a-phrase" to guarantee an orthodox interpretation, just as the heretics knew how. Both groups did it with frequency and much power at stake. Part of the interest for me in ancient christology is how all groups were not just arguing who Jesus was, but what authority Caesar should have in the Church, both sides (to my mind) ignoring the (especially Pauline) evidence that with Jesus, Caesar is unnecessary--but that is another point for another day. So, the ET may not have gotten a pure apostolic sanction either. In other words, no texts that we have can reasonably claim to be the original texts of the apostles and prophets: their faith communities have changed them to fit their needs and agendas. The greatest example of this, to my mind, is the difference in texts between Hebrew Jeremiah and Greek (LXX) Jeremiah. I argued in a term paper once that HJ was the product of the needs of the Babylonian captivity Jews, whereas GJ was the product (most likely) of Jeremiah himself in Egypt and the community there. My conclusions at the time were heavily in favor of the Greek recension, but I have since changed my opinion in favor the Massoretic or Hebrew version. Why? Because, according to Jeremiah!, the Egyptian community was rejected by God for not going into Babylonian captivity, instead returning to their original bondage in Egypt (pardon me for not having the reference on hand). The Babylonian community were the bearers of the Abrahamic promise, so they get the hat tipped in their favor, ecclesiastically at least. The point is that there is no such thing as a pristine text and it is historically arrogant and foolish to try and recover one. Community involvement also throws much of the "critical text" into question, which rests on the assumption that the variants produced by various manuscripts have no taint of theological corruption, except (of course) if the orthodox had their hands on them (which is that case, obviously by now, of the ET).

As a Protestant it pains me to say this, but it seems that the Scripture and "Holy Tradition" are inseparable, at least as far as texts go--interpretation is another matter altogether. The question is, as always, whose "Holy Tradition"? The Catholic Church with its Latin Vulgate tradition, the Eastern Church with its Greek Vulgate, the early Reformed and Protestant with its Hebrew-Greek hybrid and ET, or the modernist Church with its ever-new, never-settled "critical" tradition?

To vote on which text to use is to vote on one's connection to Church history. The modern Church has voted to be completely disconnected and it shows. However, various recent movements have been reversing this trend: the late seventies/early eighties defection to Catholicism, radical orthodoxy, and various "revivals" of ecclesial tradition amongst more conservative Reformed groups. Eventually I think that the textual issue will come to a head in these groups (for the Catholic converts it never was an issue, the Roman Church has stuck by the Vulgate through think-and-thin) and we may see some rejecting of the modernist NIV and its offspring.

As for me, these textual issues leave me in a greater state of disarray than before. I think that the "genesis" of the texts holds the key to offering a stable and long-lasting authority for Protestants and Christians in general. If we could agree what text to use, we might realize that our schizmatic differences are based on interpretation and tradition, bringing us one (admittedly small) step closer to ecumenity. In the end, there is no way of separating the text from its community, so the decision becomes about adherence and allegiance to which community and whether or not the reasons for doing so are legitimate and compelling. Unfortunately, to my mind, there will be no magical cure-all that says "here is the text and there is the community", but instead it will be much more "here is the community and there is the text". So my dilemma to find indisputable divine sanction continues, but isn't this what Church history has been always anyways?

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