29 May 2013

He Saw and Heard It

by Frank Turk

This is week 4 of 4 talking about the word "muthos" in reference to the charge or complaint that the pre-enlightenment world did not use the same kind of epistemological categories we use today in describing events. In that, it is a false view of things to say that they used "myth" to convey "real" things without conveying "true" or "historical" things – especially in the context of the Gospel message spelled out by Peter and Paul.

There are three passages left to consider in that thesis. Let's begin these with 2Tim 4:
1I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
In this exhortation to Timothy, Paul continues what he has already begun in the previous letter: he tells Timothy that it is important that he preach the word -- but he tells him that for a specific reason, and thereby limits what he might mean by saying, generically, "preach the word".  Paul here, as he did previously, makes a strict distinction between "the word" or "truth" and "not sound teaching" or "myth". He says that what Timothy is charged to do is to provide the truth in spite of people "turning away from listening to the truth" who instead "wander off into myths".

Paul is not here instructing Timothy, "you have the spirit, and therefore you have some liberty to update the story to communicate to the felt needs of your audience." He is telling him that there is a specific message, with specific claims, which has the ability and the authority to correct false teachings. There are plainly epistemological distinctions necessary in teaching "the word" – that is, there is a difference between "true" and "false" which is part of the preaching that comes through Paul.

This view of truth is reiterate by Paul to Titus:
Titus 1:5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you-- 6if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

10For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, "Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons." 13This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
You probably could not ask for stronger language from Paul on this matter. On the one hand, Titus is sent to Crete in order to set things right and appoint men to authority who "must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught".

Let's consider that a second. Here Paul is not advocating that he trained Titus to have a liberty with the teaching so as to frame it according to some contemporary trouble or circumstance: he is telling Titus "I sent you to Crete in order to make teachers who will hold to the trustworthy word as taught." That means that Titus has been taught something which was itself "held to" – Paul was steadfast or saying the course to give it to him. It means that the word itself is "trustworthy" or "reliable" and not subject to interpolations or randy reinterpretations. The word, it can be said, is not the a result of what these men would like it to say: it is itself the source of what they ought to be teaching.

And the opposite – the results Titus must strive against – is that there are some who will not do this but instead are "unfit for any good work". They "deny [God] by their works". And what do they teach? "Jewish myths" – stories or claims which are of no part of the Gospel. And let me be clear: being Jewish is not what is at issue here because, plainly, Paul was a Jew. What is at issue is that there are teachings from the Jewish beliefs of the time which are contrary to the Gospel inherent in Jesus Christ.

Paul was not an anti-semite, and neither am I: the question at-hand is whether Paul was willing or able to say that the Gospel has a truth value which is not merely "real" in some literary or metaphysical way, but that the Gospel consists of true things which are juxtaposed against false things – things with no good use and only harmful use.

But this distinction is not limited to Paul. Peter also makes this distinction:
2Pet 1:12Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. 13I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. 15And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," 18we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Really, this passage needs no exposition at all. Peter says, first, that the reason for preaching and teaching is to establish the truth. Why should he do so? So that when he is gone [dead], there will be something left to recall Christ's teaching and work. To underscore that, Peter says that he wasn't providing a "cleverly-devised myth" in telling these people about Jesus: he saw and heard it with is own eyes and ears. So when Peter is talking about "truth" here, he is specifically talking about the truth of historical events. And what is even more astounding is that it is not just eyewitness accounts that he holds in this kind of esteem, but also the prophetic word of God. That knowledge – those words, those promises – are even more certain that the tale of eyewitnesses.

So what can we make of the claim that the NT was written to be "real" as opposed to "true"? Should we ask whether this kind of vaguery is supported by the admonitions of the writers themselves. Given that those writers themselves make the distinctions between true and false, historic and fictional, and hold to a difference between "steadfast words" and "myths which lead away from sound doctrine", it is hard to establish the view that they do not have firm epistemological categories by which they view the world.

Now, here's the thing: if these categories do, in fact, exist in the NT, why would we want other categories to describe the truth claims of Scripture?  I think the answer is obvious: we want to find a way to dismiss the truth claims of some of Scripture -- to find a way to overlook or ignore some of the claims in order to avoid being held responsible for those claims as we proclaim and announce (and defend) our faith.  Let's be honest: that simply will not do.  Trying to find inventive ways to dismiss Scripture is simply a lack of confidence in its sufficiency to teach us what is necessary for our faith -- even, and especially, when we find ourselves at odds against the culture and other religious claims.


Robert said...

we want to find a way to dismiss the truth claims of some of Scripture -- to find a way to overlook or ignore some of the claims in order to avoid being held responsible for those claims as we proclaim and announce (and defend) our faith

Great post, Frank. It is all about our pride...we want to prop ourselves up instead of the Object of our faith.

There is a line that is crossed there, though, where some try to change the meaning of the Bible in order to justify their sin. In reality, we need to humbly bow before our God and live in the reality that only Jesus can justify us through His substitutionary atonement and the imparted righteousness that He gives us.

Paul Reed said...

Really excellent post, Frank. Robert, +1 on your comment.

It's really easy for us to hold something higher than scripture, be it scholars, traditions, our own reasoning and logic, etc. For example, mainstream scholarship is virtually united in the belief that Second Timothy wasn't written by Paul, even though the writer says he is Paul. Who do we trust?

DJP said...

1. Very good. We must be completely un-creative as to what the message is, though we may be creative in how we express that message.

2. There are two OSH's. Or the one found a way to vote twice.

Johnny Dialectic said...

it is hard to establish the view that they do not have firm epistemological categories by which they view the world.

But being mere men, their view of the world was quaint and limited. It is really the Spirit now who witnesses to the church beyond "mere words," and tells us things we must lovingly hear, especially on matters of sexuality.

Or so some believe.

Frank Turk said...

Well, that's true enough Johnny - the point of this series, though, is not the brilliant advantage of inspiration. It is the plain intention of the writers to distinguish what they were writing from the category of "myth" or merely-religious story.

Frank Turk said...

DJP: they are all one-star haters now.

Frank Turk said...

Coupla-several things:

- I really don't mind a low star rating for any given post -- all of them can't be 5-star barn-burners.

- I really don't mind some people giving me one star on principle. I give them one star on principle back, so we are stone-even.

- I guess I don't understand how one can give a low-star rating and leave no comments about why the post was a bust.

Have a nice day.

Robert said...

I agree on the idea of adding a response for a low rating. I mean, I would think most of the haters of TeamPyro would claim that they are on the side of edification, right? Leaving the rating isn't edifying in itself, but leaving a reasoned argument for why you disapprove could be edifying.

Frank Turk said...

See: you lose them when you say the word "reasoned".

Jason Dohm said...

Some of the most frustrating minutes of my week are the ones spent reading commentators who profess faith but don't believe the Bible. I do that reading to understand the angles theologically liberal scholars are taking, so that I can adequately defend against their views in the preaching of the text. That makes it a breath of fresh air to move on to the Matthew Pooles of the world - those commentators who start with the belief that the Bible is God infallibly and sufficiently speaking to His people. As I digest what liberal scholarship serves up week by week, I almost always have the same thought: Who knew simple UNBELIEF could be so sophisticated...