15 May 2013

Knowing and Not Knowing

by Frank Turk


Last week, you got a best-of from me, and you'll get more of it this week as well due to the complications of being me.

This is the second of 4 parts in that series from 2005.  It is slightly modified for the sake of minor matters of reference.

Enjoy.

Last time, we left off by hypothesizing that if we could determine what the writers of the NT meant in context when they used the word "muthos," we could have some insight into their view of the epistemology of language and their view of how to handle texts.  Specifically: their own texts, the anthology of books and letters we call "Scripture."

After greeting Timothy, Paul writes this to him:
    3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths ("muthos") and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship {Or good order} from God that is by faith.

    5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
    1Tim 1:3-7 (ESV)
This charge to Timothy by Paul comes (as Paul says) not as a new direction but as part and parcel of the teaching Paul has given him before -- "As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus". Paul has sent this letter as a supplement to Timothy to do what has already been set out before the young man. That point is made clear with the clause which begins "that": the purpose of Timothy's mission in Ephesus comes after the word "that".

So what is Paul's purpose for Timothy? "that you may charge certain persons" are Paul's words, meaning that Timothy ought to indict or accuse some of the people there with a certain wrongdoing. What kind of wrongdoing is it? Paul says, "charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine".

The express reason Timothy is in Ephesus is to teach the same doctrine as Paul, in opposition to any different doctrine that may exist in that city. That may seem somewhat commonplace to those who have never heard the charge that evangelicals are slaves of enlightenment thinking when it comes to the Bible, but it is an important foundational matter in this discussion.

What Paul has begun to lay out here is a category distinction in kinds of teaching. This idea is in almost every letter of his: there is a true teaching, which is the Gospel, and there is false teaching which is not the Gospel which must be opposed by returning to true teaching. This idea that there is content which undercuts the Gospel message is important for making some headway with those who want to claim that placing NT claims into Enlightenment categories defaces the text.

Thus, if there is a false category which Paul classes as any different doctrine, what is he talking about? Well, he's a smart guy under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so he makes his point clear by saying "not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies". Now think about this: Paul says that teaching any different doctrine is to be charged in the say way as devotion to myths and endless genealogies. That is to say, these myths and genealogies have the same value as any different doctrine. Now what value might that be? Paul says, "[myths and genealogies] which promote speculations rather than the stewardship {Or good order} from God that is by faith". That is itself an interesting charge – because it underscores the non-factual nature of these classes by saying they "promote speculation rather than {spiritual} stewardship".

Paul's concern for Timothy (and for those in his care in Ephesus) is that the young man teach a sound doctrine which has sound results and does not turn people toward speculative endeavors that interfere with right stewardship in the faith. Again, I think most Protestants would be somewhat bored by this claim because it seems so obvious and foundational to us: there is a right teaching, and there is a wrong teaching, and wrong teaching leads to wrong actions.

What is important about this, however, is the nature of this claim: it says that it matters how you teach the Gospel message in substance. That's not an Enlightenment claim but a first-century claim which Paul presents to Timothy as marching orders. If this is Paul's view of the method of presenting the Gospel, we have to challenge the view that Paul would have had what Prof. Enns and John Dominic Crossan would call a "pre-enlightenment" view of the text which says that things can be "real" and "true" but not necessarily "factual" or "literal".

Let's also keep in mind here that we are not disqualifying genres from existing inside the NT: we are demonstrating that Paul's view of truth demonstrates epistemological classes that distinguish from made-up stories which are false or lead to falsehood and the Gospel itself which is neither "muthos" nor rhetorical but factual.

In that, Paul describes this first charge to Timothy rather boldly for our cause: "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." Paul is giving this direction from "good conscience" and from "sincere faith", which are interesting qualifiers to maintain over against "myth" and "different doctrine". Paul's charge is for a purpose which is completely wholesome, and he continues: "Certain persons, by swerving from these, ..." Now to what does "these" refer to? It refers to "good conscience" and "sincere faith". So those who are teaching a different doctrine, and teaching myths and endless genealogies, are here impugned by Paul as swerving away from good conscience and swerving from sincere faith. Again: this underscores Paul's method of thinking about the Gospel not as a set of non-propositional truths transmitted by likely stories of some artistic and (ultimately) theological value, but as propositional truth – things clearly distinguished from falsehood that are falsified only by those with bad motives.

For clarity's sake, let me say that I am not sure that Paul would use the Greek (or Hebrew) words for "propositional truth" that I might use to describe his thinking here. I'm not sure that rhetorical formula existed in his time in that way. But what I am saying is that Paul's methodology for teaching was (1) toward a specific, objective truth that was manifest in history, and (2) against any other assertion that manifested counterclaims which effaced that truth by using loose talk or "made up" stories.

He continues: "[they] have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions." In this last assertion, Paul makes one last ting clear: there is a difference between knowing the truth and not knowing the truth. The ones Timothy was sent to Ephesus to charge with teaching a different doctrine were devoted to myths, not of good conscience, not of sincere faith, and they did not understand what they were teaching, but taught anyway because they wanted to be seen as "teachers of the law". Those are fairly comprehensive charges by Paul – charges which set the stage for Timothy's ministry as discussed in the rest of the letter. But the foundational matter which Paul bases these charges on is that there is a difference between the right method of teaching the Gospel and the wrong method. In that, the use of "muthos" or "myth" is plainly disqualified as useful to those with "good conscience" and "sincere faith".







4 comments:

Paul Reed said...

"So those who are teaching a different doctrine, and teaching myths and endless genealogies, are here impugned by Paul as swerving away from good conscience and swerving from sincere faith"

This has always been a stumbling block for me, because I encounter numerous Christians who are dead wrong about a particular topic, but who appear to be sincere.

trogdor said...

You make it sound like there's a problem with building a house of truth on a foundation of lies and fantasy.

trogdor said...

None of this actually happened, but this is what we must learn from it - oh, and if you believe it, you may be marked for death.

For some reason I don't find this Hilarian epistemology (what difference does it make what actually happened?) convincing.

Frank Turk said...

Trogdor: since you mention it, I think there's a very weird slippery slope going in both directions here.

From the il-literalist side (the myth peddlers), there's really no telling when to stop saying which text is just "literary truth" without being "historical truth." They protest that this is absurd, but the history of this topic tells us otherwise.

But: from our side, we may have something to peddle as well. I think if we can get people who don't believe the Bible at all to read it as a story first and make sense of the narrative as a cogent story, once they understand what the story actually says, they are stuck with a problem. What problem? That the Bible makes more sense of the world than a story ought to. That the story is so pinned on how the world actually works that it can't be a mere story, a mere parable of what we wish the world to be.

For the "muthos"-peddlers, the story means a lot less than it says because it is fiction. They downgrade the story and therefore downgrade the message. For us, we can accept the story at face value, and its greater meaning -- its value in any way as the words pointing to the author and His intention -- shines through.