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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The persuasive Word of God

Literalists to the left of me; fundamentalists to the right; here I am stuck in the middle with you

That the atheist fundamentalist share a common bond with his sworn enemy, the religious fundamentalist, is one of life's great paradoxes. Indeed one could go further and assert that the standard approach by self-confessed "Internet Infidels" towards the Bible is that of obsessive King James Only wooden literalism. One is regularly treated to the spectacle of Bible skeptics resorting to a kind of full-blown, pedantic, solid oak literalism in their take on the Bible, of a kind that few Christians, no matter how conservative, would labour under. Despite this these skeptics think that most Christians use the Bible as foolishly as they themselves do, and that every word in it MUST be "understood" only in a completely rigid, unnuanced manner, or else...

The sixteenth century reformer John Calvin long ago addressed the issue of how the divine Word of God interacts with Man through human words and images:

God is able to communicate with humans through human language. This belief is fundamental, even to the point of being axiomatic, to [an] understanding of Christianity…Fragmentary and broken though human words may be, they nevertheless possess a capacity to function as the medium through which God is able to disclose himself, and bring about a transformational encounter of the risen Christ and the believer.

Beneath the surface of Calvin's assertions concerning the ability of human words to convey the reality of God lies a remarkably sophisticated theory of the nature and function of human language. In the modern period, the term 'rhetoric’ has come to mean something like 'words elegantly phrased, yet devoid of substance'; in the sixteenth century. however, the term designated the science of communication, the investigation of what words denote and how they serve us. The rise of the humanist movement brought with it a new interest in the manner in which words and texts are capable of mediating and transforming human experience and expectations; Calvin was able to draw upon such insights in formulating his views on the notion of the 'word of God' and its embodiment in the text of scripture. He wears his rhetorical learning lightly, even to the point at which it might be overlooked completely. Nevertheless, insights from the science of rhetoric resonate throughout his writings…

In scripture, Calvin argues, God reveals himself verbally, In the form of words. But how call words ever do justice to the majesty of God? How can words span the enormous gulf between God and sinful humanity? Calvin’s discussion of this question is generally regarded as one of his most valuable contributions to Christian thought. The idea which he develops is usually referred to as the 'principle of accommodation'. The word 'accommodation' here means 'adjusting or adapting to meet the needs of the situation'.

In revelation, Calvin argues, God adjusts himself to the capacities of the human mind and heart. God paints a portrait of himself which we are capable of understanding. The analogy which lies behind Calvin's thinking at this point is that of a human orator. A good speaker knows the limitations of his audience, and adjusts the way he speaks accordingly. The gulf between the speaker and the hearer must he bridged if communication is to take place. The limitations of his audience determine the language and imagery the speaker employs. The parables of Jesus illustrate this point perfectly: they use language and illustrations (such as analogies .based on sheep and shepherds) perfectly suited to his audience in rural Palestine. Paul also uses ideas adapted to the situation of his hearers, drawn from the commercial and legal world of the cities in which the majority of his readers lived.

In the classical period orators were highly educated and verbally skilled, whereas their audience were generally unlearned and lacked any real ability to handle words skilfully. As a result, the orator had to come down to their level if he was to communicate with them. He had to bridge the gap between himself and his audience by understanding their difficulties in comprehending his language, imagery and ideas. Similarly, Calvin argues, God has to come down to our level if he is to reveal himself to us. God scales himslef down to meet our abilities. Just as a human mother or nurse stoops down to reach her child, by using a different way of speaking than that appropriate for an adult, so God stoops down to come to our level. Revelation is an act of divine condescenion, by which God bridges the gulf between himself and his capacities, and sinful humanity and its much weaker abilities. Like any good speaker, God knows his audience - and adjusts his language accordingly.

An example of this accommodation is provided by the scriptural portraits of God. He is often, Calvin points out, represented as if has a mouth, eyes, hands and feet. That would seem to suggest that God is a human being. It might seem to imply that somehow the eternal and spiritual God has been reduced to a physical human being. (The question at issue is often referred to as 'anthropomorphism' - in other words, being portrayed in human form.) Calvin argues that God is obliged to reveal himself in this pictorial manner on account of our weak intellects. Images of God which present him as having a mouth or hands are divine 'baby-talk' (balbutire), a way in which God comes down to our level and uses images which we can handle. More sophisticated ways of speaking about God are certainly proper - but we might not be able to understand them. Thus Calvin points out that many aspects of the story of the creation and Fall (Genesis I-3) (such as the notion of 'six days' or 'waters above the earth') are accommodated to the mentality and received opinions of a relatively simple people. To those who object that this is unsophisticated, Calvin responds that it is God's way of ensuring that no intellectual barriers are erected against the gospel; all - even the simple and uneducated - can learn of, and come to faith in, God.

Calvin uses three main images to develop this idea of divine accommodation in human capacities in revelation. God is our father, who is prepared to use the language of children in order to communicate with us. He adapts himself to the weakness and inexperience of chidhood. He is our teacher, who is aware of the need to come down to our level if he is to educate us concerning him. he adapts to our ignorance, in order to teach us. He is our judge, who persuades us of our sinfullness, rebelliousness and disobedience. Just as human rhetoric in a court of law is designed to secure a verdict, so God is concerned to convince and convict us of our sin; to let his verdict become our verdict, as we realize that we are indeed sinners, who are far from God. Calvin insists that true wisdom lies in the knowledge of God and of ourselves; it is through recognizing that we are sinners that we discover that God is our redeemer.

The doctrine of the incarnation speaks of God coming down to our level to meet us. He comes among us as one of us. Calvin extends this principle to the language and images of revelation: God reveals himself in words and pictures we can cope with. His concern and purpose is to communicate, to bridge the great yawning gulf between himself as creator and humanity as his creation. For Calvin, God's willingness and ability to condescend, to scale himself down, to adapt himself to our abilities, is a mark of his tender mercy towards us and his care for us.''

It must be stressed from the outset that Calvin does not, and does not believe that it is possible to, reduce God or Christian experience to words. Christianity is not a verbal religion, but is experiential; it centres upon a transformative encounter of the believer with the risen Christ. From the standpoint of Christian theology, however, that experience is posterior to the words which generate, evoke and inform it. Christianity is Christ-centred, not book-centred; if it appears to be book-centred, it is because it is through the words of scripture that the believer encounters and feeds upon Jesus Christ. Scripture is a means, not an end; a channel, rather than what is channelled. Calvin's preoccupation with human language, and supremely with the text of scripture, reflects his fundamental conviction that it is here, that it is through reading and meditating upon this text, that it is possible to encounter and experience the risen Christ. A concentration upon the means reflects the crucial importance which Calvin attaches to the end. To suggest that Calvin is a 'bibliolater', one who worships a book, is to betray a culpable lack of insight into his concerns and methods. It is precisely because Calvin attaches supreme importance to the proper worship of God, as he has revealed in Jesus Christ, that he considers it so important to revere and correctly interpret the only means by which full and definitive access may be had to this God - scripture.

[Alister E. McGrath A Life of John Calvin: a Study in the Shaping of Western Culture Blackwell 1990 pp 129-132.]

Here is a saying worthy of full acceptance: a wise man doesn't take the Bible literally, he takes it seriously.

8:11:00 pm