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I’ll Have Some Charity Please

One of the things WordPress’s comprehensive stats page gives navel-gazing blogger-types like myself the opportunity to do is observe as certain “milestones” come and go in the life of their blog. Recently, the 4000th comment came through here, and I am coming up on 400 posts in the nearly four years I have spent in the blogging world. This may be a testimony to my stubbornness and persistence (or egotism!) more than anything else, but it’s still kind of neat to track how this forum has evolved over its lifespan.

So last week, when the “momentous” 4000th comment came through, I did a little browsing through the archives and had a look at some of the comments that have been a part of conversations here over the years. It was an exercise that was often illuminating, at times bizarre, sometimes downright hilarious, and always interesting. I continue to be amazed by and appreciative of the wide variety of folks and views that have found their way onto this forum.

The exercise was also, I have to say, a bit frustrating. One of the things that I have noticed over the years is that some of the topics I write about and, apparently, the way that I write about them, tend to draw criticism from both ends of a very broad spectrum. I have spent a lot of time interacting with either, a) atheist/agnostic types; or b) extremely conservative Christians. Both have been/continue to be critical of positions I take, often with respect to issues like theodicy, the nature of Scripture, and various theological issues such as the nature of God, the atonement, etc.

This is all well and good. The exchange of ideas is, after all, what this blog is about. Disagreement is to be expected—indeed, it is even welcome. Who knows—if I’m drawing criticism from both ends of a huge spectrum it might even mean that I’m doing something right. Blogging about faith and culture is not, I suppose, for the faint of heart.

What is less welcome (although regrettably predictable) is that some of the most uncharitable and intemperate discourse here has come from the Christian end of the spectrum mentioned above. Of course, conversations with atheists/agnostics can get (and have gotten) fairly spirited over the years, but not to the same extent or in the same way as it does with Christians who hold particular views in particular ways. There is a more reactionary, defensive, angry, fear-based tone that is sometimes (not always) discernible. There is a more protective, less open approach to questions around the interpretation of Scripture or how to think and talk about our convictions. At least this is how it seems to me.

Specifically, in the tiny little Mennonite Brethren world I am a part of, there have been a number of online forums over the years devoted to exposing the “errors” and “heresies” of those who either teach at our seminary or write for our publications. Just this morning, I was made aware of the latest example of this genre of (often anonymous) blogging, where my blog (as well as a few others I highly respect), are cited as evidence of all that is wrong with our little tribe. The nature of the critique(s) is familiar enough: too liberal, too willing to adopt this or that feature of this or that suspicious movement, too accommodating of this or that element of science/culture, too much appreciation for this or that author, too little mention of this, too much of that, etc, etc. It’s a pretty depressing laundry list of assertions and accusations, and it makes for tiresome reading indeed.

Based on my time spent in the blogging world, and the interactions I have had with both ends of the spectrum, I have come to the rather odd realization that I find atheists and agnostics to be much more interesting and enjoyable conversation partners than the Christians described above. There is a willingness to consider a broader range of human experience and questions and often an ability to celebrate (or at least acknowledge) common ground that isn’t always evident in some Christian circles. This doesn’t describe each and every conversation, of course, but it describes enough to observe a trend. Ironically, I sometimes feel much more at home amongst the skeptics than I do with the defenders of the faith.

Of course, this reflection is based upon a very small slice of a very limited form of human discourse. By its very nature, online communication seems to cultivate or at least make more broadly accessible, a kind of accountability-free nastiness and general bad behaviour that wasn’t possible in the same way in the past. And God knows that this little blog, and whichever others this little blogger happens to be aware of, do not represent the final word on whether atheists or Christians behave better in cyber-space.

But however limited my experience may be, it’s still something. And it’s enough to make me uneasy—as a blogger and, more importantly, as a follower of Jesus. I think we should expect better from ourselves. I can’t help but think—maybe I’m just idealistic—that online discourse between Christians ought to be different. There ought to be a way to disagree Christianly—even online—in a manner that provides evidence, however minimal, of where our allegiance lies.

94 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    I think it’s the nature of a blog like this to attract critical voices. People are drawn to voices that they disagree with (especially articulate voices) because they sense that they have to deal with them. I have never felt any kind of imperative to deal with everyone that I disagree with. There are too many of those people out there and not enough time (or energy) to have all those conversations.

    But I have felt a certain “responsibility” to engage with thoughtful voices that I disagree with. Why? Because they deserve respect and because I need to learn. And because I think we have to extend each other this kind of grace in a pluralistic context (not to mention how we behave inside the church).

    But let me speak for what I suspect are the many people who drop by your blog regularly and say nothing at all. We are consistently challenged by and grateful for your example of a fine intellect, a generous spirit, and a devotion to God. Thanks.

    October 22, 2010
    • jc #

      do you still blog? or is just wondering on hiatus?

      October 22, 2010
    • Thanks Gil. I very much appreciate the encouraging words.

      October 22, 2010
  2. Gil #

    No, I’m not blogging right now. I don’t know if the hiatus is permanent or not but it feels that way at the moment.

    October 22, 2010
  3. mdaele #

    i doubt this is helpful in easing your frustration but if we recognize how entrenched the idea of a dialectical cultural ethos is in western society – then it is possible to look at the harshest criticism as meaningful as resistance both against and toward the status quo. The fact that there is strong resistance indicates if you follow this dialectical theory of cultural paradigms that the old regime is passing away and a new one is coming into being.
    Then the only question you have to answer is what does your voice sound like within the new regime…

    October 22, 2010
    • Gil #

      I know this eased my frustration. Dale, I can’t wait to engage in a dialectical cultural ethos with you in a few weeks (that is, if my paradigm can handle it :).

      October 22, 2010
    • Wow. A Hegelian interpretation of online discourse… Can’t say I expected that today :).

      October 22, 2010
  4. Larry S #

    Coincidentally the Vancouver Sun ran a front page article today titled: “Debate on the Internet: Anonymity brings out the worst in people”

    October 22, 2010
  5. Thanks, Ryan, for articulating well a frustrating reality of Christian community.

    And thanks for the article reference, Larry – good timing!

    October 22, 2010
  6. At the risk of ending up on one of those websites one day, I’ll agree: I’d rather debate ethics with atheists than with many of our conservative brothers and sisters (mostly brothers.) As we know, correlation does not imply causation, but there does seem to be some sort of relationship. Although I’ve also met some very angry liberals – often ex-conservatives. And I can’t pretend I’ve always been my most gracious during my 13 years on the Internet.

    Also, are you familiar with John Gabriel’s “Greater Internet Dickwad Theory?”

    October 22, 2010
    • Yes, there have certainly been exchanges I’m not too proud of in hindsight either…

      (That is one hilarious picture!)

      October 22, 2010
  7. Tyler Brown #

    Funny, I prefer the opposite.

    Anyways Ryan, I loved our meetings over coffee and discussing things such as ethics, the existence of God, and how lame the flames are. Conflict, in this sense, brings growth. I will always be indebted to you (and many others).

    October 22, 2010
    • Thanks Tyler. I’ve appreciated our conversations as well.

      (Scoreboard check: Flames were 6-2 winners tonight and currently sit atop their division. Gotta gloat while I can :))

      October 22, 2010
  8. Ken #

    I have the sense from your writing that you do not like conservative Christians and new atheists. I think this draws their fire. You seem more comfortable with emergents and politically liberal evangelicals. They seem to be most in agreement with what you write.

    My sense is that you are at odds with conservative Christians because of their politics and with new atheists because they emphasize morality as you do but, unlike you, they claim there is no God.

    My sense is that the atheists who most criticize you were once evangelical.

    For what it is worth, that is what I see happening at your blog.

    October 22, 2010
    • I appreciate the observation, Ken.

      I would simply make a distinction between me “not liking” conservative Christians/atheists and my disagreeing with their views and/or their means of making them known. That’s a pretty important distinction that I’ve tried to keep pretty clear throughout the life of this blog.

      October 23, 2010
      • Ken #

        Yes, a very important distinction. Conflict over ideas is one thing. Interpersonal conflict is another. It is often hard to maintain the distinction. Conflict over ideas often leads to ad hominem critiques, or perceived ad hominem critiques, and then things escalate. In addition, none of us speaks or writes as if alone in these conflicts. If we speak or write of differences over ideas, we may be heard as taking sides in the great cultural debates of our time that are not just ideational, but also political and interpersonal. Charity is a problem for all. We are all Jonah’s.

        October 23, 2010
  9. Thanks for blogging Ryan, I am one of those that doesn’t comment much but I do enjoy reading your thoughts and people’s interactions with them. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. But do pray for you as you do have habits that clearly exhibit the fall of man ie. Calgary Flames.

    October 22, 2010
    • Thanks Paul—for the kind words, and the prayers for my wayward soul :).

      October 23, 2010
  10. James #

    My take is- my deepest chargrin is when it is my family acting like jerks.

    October 22, 2010
    • James #

      The next deepest “chagrin” is when I can’t spell and can’t correct 🙂

      October 22, 2010
  11. Interesting post Ryan.

    Speaking as one of the angry and ignorant conservatives, I would actually agree with you… somewhat.

    I’ve received more threats and foaming-mad hatered from Christians more than rank atheists (comitted rank-and-file atheists, not raging and evangelistic ones…lol), and I get a lot of heat from those who would be considered to my theological right. I’ve made some positive comments somewhere about Calvinism and I had my salvation aggressively questioned.

    I’d even agree with you that the conservative side tosses out an epic “reactionary, defensive, angry, fear-based tone”. I’ve encountered that a lot too, often directed at myself. But, I’ve found that many people who think of themselves as conservative are equally as deep rational wells as people who aren’t conservative. Most people have a collection of ideas/theology that they’ve either received from people they like or that they’ve flippantly stitched together from various sources and have never really comprehensively processed, so they usually cannot seperate criticism of their ideas from criticism of their person.

    I’d suggest that may be a reason for many people’s anger, fear, defensiveness. I might certainly be wrong, but that’s just an observation.

    I’d guess that if you push the right button in other crowds, you’ll likewise see anger, fear and defensiveness for the same reasons. I know I certainly do when I hit certain buttons with the atheists: self-worship, the moral hypocrisy of unbelief, logical inconsistency of unbelief, the wilfull rebellion of unbelief, etc. When you confront sinners with their sin, they frequently get REAL mad.

    I’d suspect that you don’t push those buttons with the atheist crowds, hence you don’t get the reaction from them that you get from the conservative crowd. You’re more open to dialogue on issues of truth and scripture, which would endear you to atheists who think of themselves in a similar light (i.e. open minded and tolerant). I’d suspect that conservatives, who generally have a button regarding the absolute truthfulness and authority of scripture, would naturally be more ruffled by your normal writing on these matters. When someone starts talking about the scripture with loose categories regarding truth and authority, most conservatives get the dukes up rather quick.

    Speaking as a conservative, I also don’t have a ton of patience for theological or philosophical relativism or experimentation; that kind of philosophical naval-gazing naturally pulls to the liberal left. Still, I’ll listen to what you have to say and I will definitely defend your right to say it, but I’ll evaluate it by the standard of scripture.

    As well, I would welcome you to do the same with me. I also have to evaluate myself by that same word of God and I cannot get away with being unloving or sinful in my words of approach. If I’m saying or teaching something that falls out of line according to the plumbline of scripture, I desire to know and be straightened out (although that’s always a painful and humbling process).

    I’d suspect that in this way, many conservatives are equally as sinful as many atheists, but you only see it when you press their specific buttons.

    November 4, 2010
    • Ken #

      I know you are addressing Ryan, but I hope neither of you mind if I say something.

      It is interesting to consider how different people react to each of us.

      My own theology is liberal. Conservatives seem to see me as harmless. (I may be damned, but at least I am harmless.) Fellow liberals seem more threatened by me, but not atheists. Atheists seem to have no problem with me, maybe because I am probably close to 95% atheist. And I don’t argue with them. When I think about the liberals who object to me, I have noticed that they were all once evangelicals. They did not grow up as liberals as I did. Maybe I just don’t engage in conversation with very many theological conservatives. I guess our paths don’t often cross.

      November 4, 2010
      • Thanks for that interaction Ken.

        I wonder if our paths did cross, where would that be and in what context?

        November 4, 2010
    • Thanks for your observations, Mennoknight. I appreciate your honesty and openness here.

      I’m not exactly sure why conservatives would think that my writing betrays a lack of belief in the truthfulness and authority of Scripture. I may not agree with their interpretation of what this or that passage means, but I think my position on the nature of Scripture is pretty orthodox. I’m also not sure what to make of the relativism comment (i.e., if that was directed at me or generic “liberals”). I think that relativism is philosophically incoherent and have never advocated it here.

      Re: pushing buttons, etc., I think a trip through my archives would show that I seem to push a few buttons among the atheists as well :). Maybe my “preference” for dialogue with atheists/agnostics is just a question of background. Mine is in philosophy and theology, so I’m probably more at home with reason and logic than with battles over the bible.

      (For the record, I don’t think I have ever accused you or any other self-identified conservative of being “ignorant.” I try pretty hard to keep the gloves up on this blog, even when I strongly disagree with someone’s position. I also try to avoid labels like “conservative” and “liberal.” They seem to polarize and harden positions. I think most of us are conservative on some issues and liberal on others. I know I am. I don’t think that either label is an accurate description of my worldview.)

      November 4, 2010
      • Well, I’d respond to you Ryan by saying that, at least generally speaking, when people pull out the “I disagree with your interpretation” language, that sounds like relativism unless one comes out and says “I think you’re incorrect” and gives a reason.

        Many “conservatives” would, at least inarticulately, believe that scripture only has a singular correct interpretation with a multiplicity of applications. If one holds that the scripture has a multiplicity of legitimate interpretations, that is a subtle form of relativism that will quickly ping on the radar of many, even though one may not see or intend it as such.

        Regarding the “pushing buttons” comment, I’ll gladly and openly say that I haven’t dug through your archives at all so I was admittedly speaking more out of what I’ve read in the MB Herald. I’ll submit and recant the point.

        For the record, I don’t really like the labels “conservative” and “liberal” either; they carry so many connotations that they’re somewhat useless. I only really use them in contexts like this, where the labels I would normally use would be even more confusing (i.e. “biblical Christianity”)…or in proper senses (i.e. accademic liberal).

        November 5, 2010
      • Well, I will simply repeat that I am no relativist—whether with respect to Scripture or worldviews or anything else—and to my knowledge have not advocated this either on this blog or in the MB Herald.

        To disagree about interpretations is not necessarily to suggest that there are many legitimate interpretations (although sometimes there might be better or truer or more expansive interpretations), it is simply to acknowledge, again, that we are far from perfect interpreters.

        November 6, 2010
  12. Fair enough on the relativism. I’ll grant that.

    I’d agree with you that there are interpretations that are more expansive than others.

    Would I then be correct if I understood you to believe in a single authoritally intended meaning of scripture?

    November 8, 2010
    • James #

      I know you asked this question of Ryan, but what do you mean by “a single authoritally intended meaning of scripture”, MK? I believe that Scripture is objectively true [just as there is a real tree that I am observing] but once I shift from Scripture to rephrasing it into new propositions or even pulling its propositions into new contexts, something is inevitably lost in translation. Even the best picture of the tree I am observing is less than the tree.

      November 9, 2010
    • Ken #

      I hope Ryan does not mind us using his blog in his absence.

      If I am understanding him correctly, I think Ryan does believe there is one truth, even if known imperfectly. That sounds like what James is saying too. At the same time, the belief that there are multiple quasi-valid interpretations of the one truth because each is imperfect is somewhat relativistic. That may be what Mennoknight is pointing out.

      Personally, I find perspectivalism quite useful for understanding the plurality of beliefs in the world. It does present interesting and challenging theological problems, similar to the problems represented by Galileo and Darwin.

      Many find in perspectivalism a stumbling block for liberal theology, perhaps even more so than for conservative theology. Liberal theologies generally rely on there being one reality, even if interpreted or experienced differently among people. Conservative theology need not do so. Perspectivalism allows the conservative faith that God spoke through the prophets, and that faith allows perspectivalism.

      November 10, 2010
    • Do I think that there is one and only one authorial intent of Scripture? That depends. Is there one and only one “right” interpretation of a psalm? A parable? A poem? A book like Song of Solomon? I’m not sure.

      Is it possible that God’s intention for this or that portion of Scripture looks different at different times and places? I, for one, am glad that people like William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King saw things in the Scriptures that those who went before them missed or read differently.

      I think that if we want to claim that Scripture is “God-breathed” and that God continues to speak through it, we have to be willing to consider the possibility that God might have intentions for Scripture that are bigger and broader and more beautiful than our meager categories and expectations.

      November 16, 2010
  13. Ken #

    How do you explain why Psalms, poems, parables have more than one interpretation? What are you unsure about?

    November 17, 2010
    • I think that Scripture is a rich resource and admits of an astonishing depth of interpretation.

      November 17, 2010
      • Ken #

        What does “rich resource” mean in this context? I am not familiar with your expression.

        November 17, 2010
      • I didn’t mean anything particularly unusual. Scripture is a “resource” in the sense that it is a collection of books that presents itself to the reader for interpretation.

        It is “rich” in the sense that many, many people have found sustenance, instruction, reproof, direction, illumination, inspiration, joy, strength, etc, etc for many, many years.

        November 17, 2010
  14. James – What I mean is whether or not there is an objective, concrete, singular core of meaning of any passage of scripture.

    What I mean is that either 2 Chronicles 7:14 (Or Jeremiah 29:11, or any verse at all) either has a historic, discernable meaning bound in the various circles of context, or it doesn’t. Either Paul wrote Corinth with a purpose and said what he said because he was addressing specific, actual, real problems at Corinth, or the Bible is some sort of ambiguous spiritual “magic 8 ball” where you flip it open anywhere, and nouns and verbs that normally can carry meaning with great effectiveness (like in these very sentences I’m writing) all of a sudden carry a plurality of differing, and even explicitly contradictory, meanings without any problem.

    Ken – I’d not say that there are many interpretations, but rather applications.

    If there is one meaning, then there’s only one correct interpretation.

    That being said, one can grasp the general thrust of a story or didactic piece of scripture (and thus get the actual, real meaning) without necessarilty grasping all the nuances of language (i.e. the figures of speech, the complexities of literary structure, etc.)

    Ryan – Dude, you’re fudging left and right like a Laura Secord!

    I’m not asking if God could have used imperfect people with imperfect understanding of the scripture (or even purposed to do so).

    I’m not asking about God’s intentions for scripture across history. We don’t have any debate on either of these issues.

    I’m simply asking if God, when he and the human agent wrote the Bible, was trying to say something specific. Did the author(s) have an singular intent to communicate a specific meaning in the original words of Song of Solomon, or any Psalm, or 1 Chronicles, or whatever?

    November 17, 2010
    • I don’t think I am fudging (I’m not entirely clear what “fudging” is, but given the literary context, I would assume that the authorial intent was negative :)). Of course I think that the writers of Scripture were trying to say specific things with specific meanings. I don’t know what the point of writing would be if this wasn’t the case.

      Your initial question was whether or not I believed in a “single authoritally intended meaning of scripture.” That’s a bit of a different question than “did the author(s) have an singular intent to communicate a specific meaning in the original words?”

      November 17, 2010
    • Ken #


      I see. That makes sense. The aim at the university was to correctly interpret the meaning of the Hebrew. After determining what the Bible said, then one could tackle how it applied to our lives. Finding the meaning was a linguistic task. Finding the application is a theological task. At the university we focused only on the linguistic task.


      Do you think of this in the same way? Do you see the same distinction?

      November 17, 2010
      • Yes, I do. In fact, that could be a paragraph out of the notes from my first class in biblical exegesis :).

        November 17, 2010
    • James #

      So MK, Psalm 22 has only one meaning, does it?

      November 17, 2010
      • Yes James. Yes it does. Feel free to spring your trap now.

        November 18, 2010
      • James #

        No trap 🙂 It’s your hermeneutic for you to justify. So what’s the justification?

        November 18, 2010
      • Ken #


        I am trying to follow this. What are the multiple meanings you have in mind?


        What is the one meaning you have in mind?

        As for me,

        It sounds like a prayer for help followed by thanksgiving for God’s rescue (beginning at the end of verse 21.) I don’t see any complicated or fuzzy interpretative issues here linguistically or theologically.

        November 18, 2010
      • James #

        Meaning 1. The literary meaning you identify. Accessible with careful reading and some historical context.
        Meaning 2. The prophecy of Jesus’ death. Accessible only with the hindsight of the Gospels.

        November 18, 2010
  15. James,

    The point boils down to the difference between “meaning” and “significance”.

    I would suggest that verbal, literary meaning of the original author is the original and only meaning of any and all passages.

    The typological connections of Psalm 22 do not change the actual verbal meaning of Psalm 22 when it was written. Passages like 22:18 (“They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment”) don’t miraculously gain new and contrary verbal meaning because of New Testament quotation, allusion or prophetic fulfillment.

    You cannot confuse typological or prophetic connections with the original verbal meaning of a passage.

    That means that in Psalm 22:18, David was writing about how he felt he was being treated. I haven’t done serious exegesis in Psalm 22 so I’ll try not to say too much, but Psalm 22:18 is a clear and accurate expression of David’s heart at the time of writing.

    The fact that Jesus actually experienced a literal referent to David’s metaphor doesn’t change David’s original metaphor (assuming it was a metaphor…I don’t have any historical record in the OT of David being stripped and having his clothing gambled away). I don’t believe anyone who read Psalm 22 ever thought it was talking about the Messiah until after the crucifixion.

    The million dollar question becomes one of exegetical significance. I wouldn’t dream of denying the prophetic connections of Psalm 22 to the crucifixion, but I can neither force the crucifixion into Psalm 22 as the original meaning that David intended.

    When you say that the prophecy of Jesus’ death is a MEANING of Psalm 22, I’d deny that. I’d suggest that you mistakenly combine the ideas of “meaning” and “significance” in some way.

    Psalm 22 alludes to the crucifixion and even indirectly prophesies it (“indirect prophecy” being prophesy of historical allusion or typological connection as opposed to “direct prophesy” like the foretelling of the birthplace of the Messiah in Micah 5:2). Indirect prophesy doesn’t change that David experienced Psalm 22. Indirect prophecy definitely shows that God is utterly sovereign over all of history, even down to meticulous details (like what people decide to eat). God can move a man to do something in the past that seems utterly trivial and yet foreshadows a significant future event, for the proclamation of his perfect and sovereign rule over history.

    Psalm 22 shows me that God sovereignly structured the life and feelings of David in such a way that Davids’ life points to the sufferings of Christ.

    Psalm 22 shows me that Christ’s death for sins was part of God’s plan for the world all throughout history, and he structured the specific events of specific lives to demonstrate that.

    Psalm 22 shows me that God orchestrates history for the culmination of his glorious salvation of sinners in history, and neither suffering nor the ploys of utterly wicked men can do anything whatsoever to foil God’s loving plans to shower his grace upon those that he is pleased to do so.

    I could go on and on.

    Now James, can you show me how the nouns and verbs of Psalm 22 would have originally had two seperate and semi-related (at best) meanings that would have been discernable to any reader?

    November 19, 2010
    • James #

      MK you “suggest that verbal, literary meaning of the original author is the original and only meaning of any and all passages.” I understand but disagree and think that your proof is a tautology. You can of course respond in kind.
      Specifically I believe that Biblical texts do “miraculously gain new and [and possibly] contrary verbal meaning because of New Testament quotation, allusion or prophetic fulfillment [and through the work of the Holy Spirit].”
      The question is- which of our claims has Scriptural evidence to support it? I believe that Psalm 22 is a good example supporting my hermeneutic claim that Scriptures often have multiple meanings some of which the human authors never understood or intended.
      You try to solve the problem of what seem to be multiple meanings in Psalm 22 by the assertion that “there is a “difference between “meaning” and “significance.” I agree that this is a distinction but respond that it doesn’t apply to our text. I think at least 2 distinct meanings coexist in Psalm 22. These are not arbitrary meanings in that they are represented variously by the Jewish and Christian faith communities.
      I also believe that the various meanings of Scripture are often NOT discernable to just any reader. That may be the biggest divide between us. That of course is a big problem for anyone who believes that the meaning of the Scriptures is limited to what can be deduced from a skillful, objective, inductive study of the text. This, as I am sure you know, is one of the areas where the Anabaptists made claims that united both the Magisterial Reformation and Catholicism against them. But that is another matter.
      I should probably anticipate a response. I do not believe that Scripture means whatever any given reader or interpreters sees. In other words, it is not of “private” interpretation. I am not post modern in any sense. I believe it is objectively true and not arbitrary- just that it has more depth than any philosophical or linguistic methodology can begin to contain. The Scriptures are a living and active text.
      It appears we have different hermeneutic and epistemological premises but at least we can lay them out. We will probably have to agree to disagree.
      Thanks for explaining yourself. I hope I have been clear as well.

      November 19, 2010
      • James,

        I’ll say it again. You use the word “meaning” but you don’t seem to be talking about a “meaning”.

        I also don’t have any bone to pick with you on suggesting that “the various meanings of Scripture are often NOT discernable to just any reader”. We would fully agree there; I just don’t express that idea with the word “meaning”. Again, we’d be talking about what some would call a “spiritual meaning”, but I don’t utilize that phraseology because I’m not actually talking about a “meaning” but rather the spiritual significance.

        I tell you what. You show me where a passage is given a new and different original meaning, derived explicitly by a NT author from the nouns and verbs of an actual passage in the New Testament, and I’ll grant you your case.

        I’m not interested in you showing me typology, or where there’s indirect prophetic fulfillment, since I agree that those exist. I’m interested in you showing me where a New Testament author explicitly tosses out the original verbal meaning of an Old Testament passage in favor of some new meaning, or even where a New Testament author establishes a co-meaning of an Old Testament passage.

        For the record, I think we actually agree and are separated by semantics or definitional differences.

        You’re free to refer to the spiritual significance, typological connection or indirect prophetic fulfillment of a passage as a “meaning”. I don’t do so because I’ve found that way of expressing the idea opens the door to a lot of confusion (and “this passage means X to me” kind of relativistic hermeneutics).

        November 19, 2010
      • Gil #

        Just eavesdropping here but I couldn’t help responding to this question from Mennoknight: “I’m interested in you showing me where a New Testament author explicitly tosses out the original verbal meaning of an Old Testament passage in favor of some new meaning, or even where a New Testament author establishes a co-meaning of an Old Testament passage.”

        How about Galatians 4:30? I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to make the case that Paul isn’t taking a bit of liberty with the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Gen 21. Unless the author of Genesis meant to report (through Sara’s words to her husband) on the relationship between the Sinaitic covenant (not yet given in Genesis) and the covenant of faith made possible through Jesus.

        I admit I haven’t been tracking too closely with this conversation so forgive me if I’ve misunderstood the question. But it seems like there are more than a few cases like this where NT authors make creative use of the OT.

        November 19, 2010
      • James #

        With the meaning you give to “meaning” you have created quite the rhetorical device, MK. I’m don’t accept its validity but I won’t argue with a definition you presuppose. I stand by my use of “meaning.”
        I think I know where you are going to go in answering Gil, but maybe you will surprise me.

        November 19, 2010
  16. Larry S #

    A comment from the sidelines: am I watching a chess match or Christians discussing their faith?

    [by the way, I have been guilty of ‘playing chess’ many a time]


    November 19, 2010
  17. James – Okay. I’m running on a blind presupposition? Fair enough. I submit two simple questions to help us out:

    1. What did the New Testament authors understand as the “meaning” of scripture?

    2. Is their understanding of “meaning” dynamic or static?

    Gil – I’m not positive I’m tracking with you. Gal. 4:21-51 contains the stories of the children of Sarah and Hagar being used as an illustration of the foolishness of seeking salvation under the law. Do we agree or disagree?

    November 20, 2010
    • Gil #

      Your challenge to James was: “I’m interested in you showing me where a New Testament author explicitly tosses out the original verbal meaning of an Old Testament passage in favor of some new meaning.”

      I think the Galatians text is a pretty straightforward example.

      November 20, 2010
      • Ken #


        I don’t follow you here. Can you elaborate on what you mean? What is the meaning that Paul tossed out? What is the new meaning?

        November 21, 2010
      • Gil #

        I’m finding it a little hard to understand why this is causing confusion. I don’t mean anything complicated at all – just that in Gal 4:30 Paul appeals to Sarah’s words in Gen 21:10 in order to affirm something other than what Sarah originally meant.

        November 21, 2010
  18. James #

    I wouldn’t use “blind.” You do have a way of adding adjectives. It seems to run counter to your quest for narrow definitions. What’s wrong with just leaving it at presuppositions?
    Re 1. Since you have the narrow definition of “meaning” why don’t you explain how that fits the Scriptures? I’ve already given you an example of a text with 2 meanings. Gil suggested another one that also appears self-evident to me. You didn’t answer his question. You question back seems unbecoming for a person who throws around “fudge” so easily.
    Re 2. I think the Biblical understanding of itself is very dynamic. To me that’s what “living” means.

    November 20, 2010
    • Ken #


      At the University it was said that sometimes prophecies were recycled, even within the Hebrew Bible. The expression recycled included changes in meaning, as you and Gil have used that term, as well as changes in “significance” as Mennoknight has used the latter term. There was no contention over this issue as there is here. At the same time, I don’t think Mennoknight’s position would have created controversy there as it is here. (Unless, perhaps, there at the University someone wanted to make a deconstructionist or revisionist point.)

      Why is Mennoknight’s distinction between “meaning” and “significance” causing controversy here?

      November 21, 2010
      • James #

        Ken, I don’t think that the fact that there is a valid linguistic distinction between meaning and significance is at all controversial- just MKs application. The reason I struggle with his application of syllogistic logic to the Scripture is that it appears to strip the Scriptures of their divine character [What makes this puzzling to me is that MK does believe that the Scriptures are sacred]. Given the divine aspect of the Scriptures and its declaration that it is interpreted by the Holy Spirit, confining its meaning to what can be captured by a series of reconstructed propositions seems peculiar to me- and contra Scripture. Of course that is what inductive, literary, historical Bible study- sans the divine- is all about, so I am not surprised that a university student of the Scriptures would find this conversation rather odd.
        Make sense?

        November 21, 2010
      • Ken #


        Thanks, I understand better now. I did not think the conversation odd. I could tell that there is controversy, and that personal feelings are involved, a chess match as Larry put it, I just could not understand what ideas were at stake.

        Certainly you are right that at the University the study was sans the divine and the way scripture is read and heard is different in churches than at the university and it varies among churches.

        If I am understanding Mennoknight correctly, he uses the word “significance” in places where you use “meaning.” Otherwise, I am not hearing a distinction between your positions. I can tell that the difference in terminology is connected to something that troubles both of you (and Gil.)

        November 21, 2010
      • Gil #

        I won’t speak for James but for my part I’m not “troubled” by anything here. I simply thought that it was a little odd to suggest that no NT author ever ascribes a new meaning to an OT text when there seem to be numerous examples to the contrary. So my stake in this conversation is pretty minimal.

        I do continue to be a little perplexed that his point has “troubled” or confused you the way it has.

        November 21, 2010
      • Ken #

        Gil, sorry to perplex you. I was just trying to understand what the fight is about, nothing more.

        November 21, 2010
      • Gil #

        My argument is a VERY tame one (and I continue to be amazed that it’s even a little bit controversial). I’m just pointing out the obvious fact that Paul is using the Hagar and Ishmael story to support a very different argument – one that could not have possibly been the intended meaning of the text.

        Paul begins Gal 4:30 with the words “But what does the Scripture say?” and appears to assume that quoting Gen 21:10 will support or even clinch his larger argument about Christian freedom relative to the law. ALL I am saying is that this is a meaning other than what we find in Genesis.

        If you’re seriously trying to argue that Paul doesn’t establish a “co-meaning” of Gen 21:10 here then I would suggest that you have a lot more of a “case” to make than I do (a case that you have been curiously hesitant to attempt).

        As to the question of whether Paul “overthrew” the original meaning of the text – I’ve never argued that he did.

        November 21, 2010
  19. Gil – Uh, I don’t agree that Galatians 4:30 is a clear example.

    I’d respond to say that you’ll be hard pressed to make the case that Paul is overthrowing the original meaning of Genesis 21:10 in Galatians 4:30. I suspect you’re simply quoting the passage and assuming that your case is self-evident.

    I challenge that and would like you to establish your case.

    Can you walk through Galatians 4 and SHOW me how Paul explicitly tosses out the original verbal meaning of Genesis 21:10 in favor of some new meaning, or even establishes a co-meaning of Genesis 21:10?

    James – You haven’t given me any examples of any text with 2 meanings. You’ve asserted that some passages have multiple meanings, but you have only made assertions. I still haven’t seen any actual argumentation or interaction with the text of scripture.

    You said “Since you have the narrow definition of ‘meaning’ why don’t you explain how that fits the Scriptures?”

    Well, the scriptures don’t use the word “meaning” and to establish the single authorial intent of scripture, I’ll have to write a short book. So, I’ll throw up a blog post sometime instead of tossing up a 10 page comment. I’ll drop by and give notice when it’s up, but I won’t likely have anything up before Dec. 20 since I’ll be speaking and teaching in Vancouver during the first 2 weeks of December.

    November 21, 2010
  20. James #

    “Well, the scriptures don’t use the word “meaning” and to establish the single authorial intent of scripture, I’ll have to write a short book.”
    We may have finally boiled the matter down. So you want me to provide a Scriptural basis to refute a concept you can’t find in the Scriptures but are going to write a book to explain? Interesting challenge. I think you win.
    I am suddenly reminded of a proverb, “Don’t play chess with the Red Queen.”
    That one’s for you, Larry 🙂

    November 21, 2010
    • James – “So you want me to provide a Scriptural basis to refute a concept you can’t find in the Scriptures but are going to write a book to explain?”

      Clever jab Mr. Jones…

      It’s not that I cannot find it in the scriptures; it’s that we’re coming to a point where you’re challenging an over-arching understanding of scripture (and reality itself – i.e. the perspicuity of language) that I both extract from the scripture and use to make sense of scripture. If you’re asking me to establish the perspicuity of (inscripturated) prophetic language and the single intended meaning of scripture, only a fool would think that such could be done in a paragraph, or even a few paragraphs.

      You’re asking me to make an argument for how the prophets and apostles of God understood the (inscripturated) prophecies of God in the sense of the perspicuity of prophetic language, which you challenge and actually doubt. People write books on those sorts of deep topics. People write doctoral theses on those sorts of deep topics.

      I don’t want to just pay lip service to the Lordship of Christ; I want to honor Christ as Lord in my study.


      Gil – If it’s obvious, it’s not obvious to me.

      Paul didn’t overthrow the original meaning? Great!

      Here’s how I understand the passage:


      The passage carries the argument from 3:29, that those “in Christ” are Abraham’s descendants and heirs according to promise.

      Also, Paul seems to be illustrating the foolishness of abandoning the truth he taught in 3:7 – that those who are justified by faith are no longer slaves but sons and heirs through God.

      4:21 – It seems that Paul is suggesting that those who claim the law, in a way that seems tongue-in-cheek, are unaware of the actual contents of the law.

      4:22 – Abraham had two sons (heirs); one born of a slave and one born of his free wife.

      4:23 – The child of the slave was as a result of normal (physical) means, but the child born by the free woman was born as a result of a promise.

      4:24 – The story of Abraham and Sarah can be taken in another sense (for the purpose of illustration) to represent the two covenants of God.

      4:24-25 – The covenant of law is Hagar; her descendants are the modern inhabitants of Jerusalem who seek righteousness by works of the law.

      4:26 – The covenant of grace is Sarah; her descendants are the everlasting inhabitants of the “Jerusalem above” who receive righteousness by faith.


      4:27 – Paul references Isaiah 54:1 here because (I think) Paul is trying to show that justification by faith (and the inclusion of the Gentiles) are anticipated in the Old Testament promises of restoration to Israel:

      Is 54:1 – Part of the blessings are that “the barren one” who has born no children (Israel) should rejoice, because the sons of “the desolate one” will “be more numerous than the sons of the married woman.” (i.e. Israel should no longer mourn because she be restored in fruitful faithfulness to Yahweh)

      Is 54:2 – This promise is illustrated in 4 ways:
      – Enlarge the place of your tent
      – Stretch out the curtains of your dwelling
      – Lengthen your cords
      – Strengthen your pegs

      Is 54:3 – Why should Israel expand and reinforce their tent?
      – Because Israel will grow to the right and left.
      – Because Israel’s descendants will possess nations.
      – Because Israel’s descendants will resettle desolate cities.

      Paul’s reference to Isaiah seems to be reminding the Galatians of the promised restoration of Israel to faithfulness. The law-keepers aren’t the ones who will be fruitful and fill the earth; those who believe the gospel are the ones who will be fruitful and fill the earth.

      The true descendants of Abraham (those justified by faith and named in 3:29) are those Jewish believers foretold in Isaiah 54:1-3.

      The expansion of God’s kingdom will call for “bigger tents”; these faithful offspring are already being seen in the Jews who believe the gospel!

      4:28 – The Galatian believers are children of that promise!

      – Paul uses his illustration further:

      4:29 – Like Isaac and Ishmael, the faithless descendants of Abraham (those seeking justification by the law) persecute the descendants of Abraham (those seeking justification by faith).


      4:30 – Though 4:29 is true (those who still want to hold to the law are persecuting the Galatian believers and exhorting them to return to trusting the law for their righteousness) now just as it was in the days of Ishmael and Isaac, the scripture records that Ishmael was eventually cast out (and this will be the case with you too).

      Genesis 21:10 – “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”

      Paul’s saying that those who seek justification by works of the law will never share in the inheritance that comes from justification by faith; those who seek justification by works of the law will ultimately be cast out (read “condemned eternally”) for their wickedness.


      Paul takes the promise of restoration in Isaiah 54 and comments on how that promise is actually being fulfilled right now in Galatia (i.e. some Jews are being redeemed).

      Paul also uses the story of Sarah and Hagar as an illustration of how the law always brings condemnation but the promise of God always brings blessing, though there may be a time of struggle before the promise is recognized (the Genesis 21:10 quote).

      Paul nowhere redefines either Isaiah 54 or Genesis 21.

      Paul doesn’t add any co-meaning.

      Paul leaves the original understanding of both passages completely intact and extracts a principle from one while he uses another for an illustration of an aspect of God’s promises.

      There is absolutely, positively, no double meaning here at all.

      Next example?

      November 21, 2010
      • Gil #

        Thanks for your detail. But at the end of the day you still have Paul quoting Sarah’s words to Abraham IN ORDER to solidify an argument about the law. He’s still using that story in a creative and (yes) new way.

        I agree that Paul is using the story as an illustration. Maybe he’s even reading Isaac & Ishmael allegorically? Whatever else he’s doing: he’s not recalling what the text meant in its original context. That’s the only suggestion I’ve ever made on this thread (a suggestion that I regret having made). If I’ve misunderstood your original comment to James or how you’re using the word “meaning” then I apologize.

        In your comments to James you suggested that our study (and presumably online interaction) ought to honour the Lord. I’m coming to the opinion that this particular interaction might have veered off that course a while ago. So I’ll suggest we agree to disagree on this one since this conversation seems to be generating more heat than light.

        November 21, 2010
      • James #

        Re: “Clever jab Mr. Jones…” Yeh it was to good to pass up. I guess I spent too much time reading Lewis Caroll as a kid 🙂
        We’re definitely spinning our wheels here. There are things that are obvious to Calvinists that Anabaptist don’t get and vice versa. It’s a bigger divide epistemological than meets the eye. I’ve got a book that needs writing as well.
        Blessings brother

        November 21, 2010
      • Gil – I think we agree and are just expressing it differently. You have Paul illustrating a principle using Sarah’s words. He’s using the story as a creative illustration, but he’s not changing the original meaning of Genesis 21, right?

        Paul solidifies his arguments all over the scripture by the application of a principle from an OT passage without the uprooting of the original meaning of that passage. Do we agree on that?

        So Paul’s not redefining Genesis 21:10 or changing the meaning of Genesis 21:10. Do we agree on that?

        If those are the case, then you’re free to express the idea in whatever language you choose. Call if a new meaning, I guess, if that’s what you want to do.

        James – This is what I heard :

        “Thanks for your argument. I disagree with you, but I’m not going to interact with you at all but I’ll rather chalk this up to the inseperable divide between Calvinists and Anabaptists. Blessings!”

        Okie Dokie. I guess we’re done…

        November 21, 2010
      • Gil #

        I actually think we still do disagree on how Paul is using Genesis but I don’t think that there’s a lot to be gained by continuing to hash it through. I do agree that Paul isn’t actively trying to “set aside” the original meaning of the text but, again, I never really made that argument in the first place.

        Thanks for your time.

        November 22, 2010
      • James #

        Sorry for the sarcasm, MK. That isn’t how I want to close off.
        What I hope you hear from me is- we are both speaking from presuppositional frameworks that do require mutual understanding for productive conversations to take place. I recognize yours as ancient and elegant. If I explain mine better, perhaps you might come to the same conclusion about mine. I grant you that that will take a larger context.
        BTW this debate is currently underway [with at least as many confusing twists as the above conversation] in our mutual denomination. Voices like yours are needed at the table. I know you are busy but why don’t you jump in there.

        November 22, 2010
      • Ken #


        If the idea interests you, I wish you would post an overview of the debate within the denomination that James mentioned as a blog posting. I imagine it would summarize the issue as objectively as possible and then state your position, if you have taken one.

        Even though I am only a bystander, I find it quite interesting. I feel like I still only barely understand what is at stake.


        If you ever write a book about this I would surely read it.


        I would surely read your book too.

        Meanwhile, I am reading an ecological classic, The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts. At stake there is how we read nature and ourselves, and the social actions or ways to live that go with such readings. I once lived close to Doc Ricketts’ lab in Monterey and now I live close to the Sea of Cortez. Their landscape and seascape is mine. Ecology, as it was conceived by Ricketts and Steinbeck, and by their friend, Joseph Campbell, is theology.

        So much comes down to hermeneutics it seems.

        November 22, 2010
      • Thanks for the suggestion, Ken. To be perfectly honest, I’m finding the debate less and less interesting the further we go as a provincial conference. There have been 2-3 study conferences/events that have been held specifically to discuss how we understand the atonement, but I’m not sure what, if any, progress has been made.

        There are those who are very concerned that penal satisfaction form the core of how we understand the work of the cross. There are others who wish to embrace a broader understanding of the atonement (I would obviously locate myself here). When we get together, we seem mostly to talk past each other or deliver veiled accusations of heresy or biblical infidelity at those who do not think/talk about the atonement correctly (enough) or about God’s wrath and human wretchedness often enough. It’s pretty uninspiring stuff, to be honest. I may post about this further at some point, but right now the motivation is pretty low.

        You are certainly right to say that everything comes down to hermeneutics. I think that if we, as a conference, are going to get anywhere even remotely helpful on how we think about the atonement, we have a lot of work to do around our assumptions around epistemology and how we read Scripture. It seems like we’re just addressing the very tip of the iceberg in our conversations as a conference, but unless we take the time to figure out what’s beneath the surface we’ll just keep spinning our wheels.

        November 22, 2010
      • Ken #

        Thanks, Ryan. I had no idea this was connected with a debate over the atonement. I can see how hermeneutics would enter into that, even if, perhaps, it is not at the heart of the debate.

        I have read a little about the atonement debate. Coming from a church that places virtually no emphasis on the atonement makes it less intense for me (by far) than I am sure it would be if I had come from one where it was emphasized.

        I think that since I grew up thinking, and still think, that the Bible is a mythical work, mythical sacrifices never bothered me. The real animal sacrifices bother me more than the mythical substitutionary atonement. They bother me in the same way that animal cruelty, especially related to food production, bothers me. I have always just thought it was the Romans who crucified Jesus and that the atonement was a mythical explanation of why Jesus died or of what Jesus did in his life. As I think you already know, I don’t use the term mythical pejoratively. At the same time I know that it is not an acceptable term or hermeneutic in many Christian circles.

        I think the hermeneutic that sees the Bible as myth avoids the atonement controversy as well as any concern over the wrath of God. When one looks at the Bible as myth, the wrath of God is just a mythical explanation of certain suffering. The suffering is real. The wrath of God is myth. The wrath of God in the myth becomes a framework for dealing with such suffering – we know how to deal with God’s wrath – ritual and prayer, for example. We don’t know how to deal with inexplicable suffering, meaningless suffering. Without myth, all suffering is meaningless.

        November 22, 2010
      • The thing is—at least as I see it— the unpleasant parts of the story (i.e., the wrath of God, subsitutionary atonement, etc) are inextricably linked to the redemptive or salvific parts. I know this is not news to you, but I think too much is lost in seeing the bible as exclusively a mythical work. I’m not convinced that myth in and of itself is of much use in the face of meaningless suffering.

        November 23, 2010
      • Ken #

        In my own experience, I think seeing the Bible as myth is almost the same as atheism, or it is not enough to overcome my atheistic doubts. In addition, I think, for me, myth arises from things that are real. It seems that I experience redemption as well as wrath, that I find both in nature and life. So, myth is useful in the face of suffering. It suggests to me that God is real, and that wrath and redemption are real, and that what the Bible says about them is as if in a vision or dream, but the hope they represent is real.

        Anyway, for better or worse, it is all I have ever known. It was not a choice and it seems to be an unchangeable given in my life. I prefer to have it than no faith at all.

        I think we must assume that our experiences here are somewhat different, and yet that in spite of that, we know something of the same faith and hope.

        November 23, 2010
      • I think we must assume that our experiences here are somewhat different, and yet that in spite of that, we know something of the same faith and hope.

        Indeed. Well said, Ken.

        November 23, 2010
      • James, thanks for the invite to the conversation.

        Where is it? Is there some online forum or something?

        Do you honestly think I’m welcome at that table?

        Forgive my suspicion, but I don’t think the table is open at all.

        I’m relatively young, but I’ve been around Mennonite politics for 3 decades am fully aware of just how unwelcoming we are to actual dialogue when people’s theological toes can get stepped on, or worse: when people’s favorite professors/writers are responded to critically with biblical argumentation that challenges them.

        November 30, 2010
      • James #

        This reply might be buried in blog history 🙂 but here goes. We all feel excluded at times. I can tell you all kind of personal stories. You are included in this conversation because you are part of a specific community. Finding ways to engage is our challenge. Currently the Anabaptist/Calvinist debate seems to have gone underground. That is not good, IMO. The specific place that has an opening for dialogue is the MB Forum where the question is open and the Calvinist are currently silent. It is not best place- but that’s what we have- so we best use it as well as we can.
        I don’t know who has given you the impression your voice is unwelcome but they don’t speak for me or the people I interact with. I look forward to further conversations with you both written and in person.

        December 2, 2010
  21. Larry S #

    Ryan, [another comment from the sidelines 🙂 ]

    Since you are a Regent grad, I’m wondering if you are familiar with Rick Watt’s course on the NT’s use of the OT (He has a book on the subject). If so, perhaps you can add something to this interesting conversation (err: chessmatch and now MK seems to think he’s in a boxing match complete with jabs).

    Reading this thread has encouraged me to look for Watts’ work during the upcoming Regent December book sale. Readers may find the following Regent Audio course interesting (it likely will go on sale at Xmastime.)

    “The New Testament Use of the Old: What Were the New Testament Authors Up To?”

    Course descriptor from Regent Audio

    “Few matters are the subject of such impassioned and wide-ranging debate as the question of how the NT authors interpret the OT, particularly in the light of Jesus and his gospel. Questions abound: What, if at all, is the role of the OT context? How do we explain the significant variations between the OT text and its supposed quotation in the NT? How can a text that was not even considered a prophecy be “fulfilled?” Are the NT authors reliable or do they use methods that no modern Bible reader could accept? In this class we will review the modern debate, look at the interpretative approaches available to first-century authors, examine particular instances of how the NT uses the OT and conclude with a proposal as to how this all makes sense in the contexts of the first-century world and ours.”

    November 21, 2010
    • Hey Larry, I’m familiar with Watts’ course, but I did not take it while at Regent. The use of the OT in the NT came up often in our class on the life of Jesus, though, and it was fascinating to observe how Jesus and various NT authors went beyond the initial meaning of OT texts in order to incorporate/reappropriate them in light of how the story of God was unfolding. Gil and James have both given good examples of this here.

      November 22, 2010
  22. James #

    Hi MK and all who followed the argument of multiple meanings of Scripture-
    This is again going into the bowels of this blog but I came across this classical formulation of our argument [as I see it] and think it may give it some structure. It is Thomas Aquinas in his Summa. It was too good to pass up. For sake of brevity I have only taken what I see as MKs objection to multiple meanings of Scripture and Aquinas’ answer to it [which I of course think is compelling]. He goes on to explain why multiple meanings are not in conflict with logic. Anyone really wanting to deep deeper needs to read the whole Article, which is not that long and easily accessible on line [my favorite is Gutenberg Press].
    I’d love to hear the response to Aquinas’ argument- MK or anyone else. I think he addresses the concerns [and mine] that the “first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal.”
    Maybe it means that neither MK or I need to spend a lot if time writing books about problems that have already been solved 🙂
    Here goes-
    Summa I, Q. 1, Art. 10
    Whether in Holy Scripture a Word may have Several Senses?
    Objection 1: It seems that in Holy Writ a word cannot have several senses, historical or literal, allegorical, tropological or moral, and anagogical. For many different senses in one text produce confusion and deception and destroy all force of argument. Hence no argument, but only fallacies, can be deduced from a multiplicity of propositions. But Holy Writ ought to be able to state the truth without any fallacy. Therefore in it there cannot be several senses to a word.
    . . .
    I answer that, The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves . . .

    December 28, 2010
    • Well, I have an astonishing lack of desire arguing about Thomas Aquinas’ understandings of this issue. Either way…

      You seemed to quote objection 1, so I’ll basically deal with that.

      As I read Aquinas, his general answer is:

      1. God performs some special 2 level form of communication whereby in a divine speech-act God uses words to point to a literal referent, but those literal referents themselves point to a secondary, higher referent (i.e. the “spiritual sense”, which Aquinas says has a 3 fold division based upon Hebrews 10:1).

      2. He backs this point up with a quote from Dionysius, a metaphor of how Christ is a proto-type for believers, and a metaphor of how the Old Covenant foreshadowed the New Covenant.

      3. Aquinas then argues for a literal sense, and allegorical sense, a moral sense, and an analogical sense based upon his metaphors and biblical citation.

      My response to this:

      A. Aquinas’ argument is not actually an argument at all. He simply assumes his case on all points in a painfully circular way (see point “C”).

      B. Aquinas argument is completely arbitrary. He doesn’t say where he gets his “spiritual sense” from, or why it has a 3-fold division (as opposed to 2 or 4), or anything else (see point “A”).

      c. Aquinas establishes the existence of a “spiritual sense” by completely ignoring the literal referent of Hebrews 10:1 and then using that as his proof-text. Proving the existence of a “spiritual sense” by quoting the “spiritual sense” (i.e. non-literal meaning) of a verse is begging the question with bells on. Bells, and clogs.

      Then as I read Aquinas’ application of his general answer in response to objection 1, I read:

      1. All the various “senses” are founded upon the literal sense, therefore having literal, allegorical, moral, and analogical senses does no damage to the authorial intent.

      2. “nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.”

      My response to this:

      A. Aquinas’ response to objection 1 is, again, not an argument at all. He simply assumes his case and says “see, it starts with the literal, and the referents of the literal become the symbols of the spiritual. It’s all good then!”. I’d suggest that Aquinas should exegetically establish the actual existence of the spiritual senses from the literal meaning of a passage of scripture first, simply because his argument is self-invalidating.

      b. Aquinas’ response to objection 1 essentially says “well, as long as what you find in the other senses are somewhere taught in the literal sense, they’re valid”. That removes the need for the other senses at all (since they must be validated by the literal sense), and is an inescapable defeater to his argument.

      Aquinas argument and responses to objection 1 are compelling?

      Change “compelling” to “bollocks” and we’re in full agreement! Huzzah!

      December 31, 2010
      • James #

        Given your lack of desire to engage Aquinas you should let discretion be the better part of valour. You don’t get to simply re write his propositions in your own words. If you were arguing with Einstein you don’t get to put your own meaning into the terms of E=MCC and thereby demonstrate that he doesn’t understand physics. Aquinas isn’t some half educated chump you met online and can dash off a “clever” rebuttal against. If you can’t follow his argument it bears seriously rereading it. If you don’t feel like doing so- that is also OK.

        December 31, 2010
      • James, you misread me. I don’t lack desire to engage Aquinas. I lack desire to argue with you about him for the exact reason of what’s going on between us right now.

        Did I re-write his propositions in my own words and in doing so redefine his terms?

        Did I miss his argument?

        I walked through Aquinas’ argument, restated it for clarity (so you know what I think it is), interacted and responded to it. Maybe you missed that part?

        You’re free and actually encouraged to show me where I’ve misunderstood Aquinas’ argument, or where I’ve wrongly redefined his terms.

        January 1, 2011
  23. James #

    “Did I re-write his propositions in my own words and in doing so redefine his terms?” Absolutely! How could you suggest anything else?

    “Did I miss his argument?” Given the above, yes!

    “I walked through Aquinas’ argument, restated it for clarity . . .” you created an MK strawman designed according to your own circular presuppositions. No doubt it looks like a kind of bizarre circle to you.

    “Maybe you missed that part?” Is that supposed to be sarcasm?

    I put forward a classical argument by one of the Church’s most respected thinkers and I get back dismissive arrogance. A serious debate requires serious thought and good manners. Now it’s my turn to lose interest in this conversation.

    January 1, 2011
    • ““Did I re-write his propositions in my own words and in doing so redefine his terms?” Absolutely! How could you suggest anything else?”


      Why don’t you walk through Aquinas’ argument? Just lay it out for me. I think that would be helpful for me to understand where I’ve gone wrong.

      January 2, 2011
      • James #

        Here’s the first part-
        Proposition #1- “The author of Holy Writ is God” Agree or Not
        Proposition #2- “in whose power it is to signify His meaning” Agree or Not
        Proposition #3- “not by words only but also by things themselves” Agree or Not
        If the above, then there are at least 2 meanings- the meaning of the “thing” and the meaning of the words.
        You are free to challenge any of the propositions or the validity of the conclusion that purports to follow from them. Each has been disputed before. You can also challenge the ability of propositional logic to determining truth.

        I’m not suggesting Aquinas has the last word- only that he puts forward an elegant argument within a method of debating I thought you would appreciate and on a point you and I argued about.

        January 2, 2011
      • Sorry for the long lag. I’m currently moving cross country so I’ll make this short.

        Proposition #1- “The author of Holy Writ is God” Agree or Not – Agreed.

        Proposition #2- “in whose power it is to signify His meaning” – Agreed.

        Proposition #3- “not by words only but also by things themselves” Agree or Not – Confused.

        This isn’t really a proposition in the argument, but a dependant clause modifying proposition #2. I thought I knew what this meant, but when I restated this proposition I was apparently wrong.

        Please unpack Propositions #3 for me and explain how it modifies proposition #2. What exactly does Aquinas mean in those two clauses, specifically the third, with regards to the text of scripture?

        January 8, 2011
      • James #

        Congratulations on your call to pastor a church, MK. Blessings!

        I’m glad to hear you identify yourself as an evangelical anabaptist. You have picked 2 of the most argued about labels in modern Christianity 🙂 You don’t have to sign off by going to an non MB church. We MBs are on a project of defining what evangelical anabaptist actually is since that is how we define ourselves. Your voice and insights are important.

        As to our discussion- I did pull a single sentence apart into separate propositions but I don’t think the fact that #3 modifies #2 makes any difference. It does add new information.

        In my #3 I understand Aquinas to be working with the problem of how truth is expressed. Is it by words or by some reality that the words are describing? He says it is both and uses Hebrews 10:1 to illustrate this. I believe he is arguing against those whose entire concept of truth is wrapped up in what is captured by propositional statements and syllogisms. There is for example only one possible meaning to 1+1=2. [This view of truth is just as alive today as it was in the 13th century. Today it is popularly seen in the idea that life can be ultimately captured in a computer simulation.] There is a far more diversity in meaning to a statement such as “God loves the world.” The later does not translate into propositional truth in the way mathematical statements do. [This how it relates to Scripture. It is why Anabaptists are sceptical of theology when it rephrases Scripture into propositions and then builds theological systems on the resulting constructs. For Anabaptist and most biblicists anything that goes beyond Scripture is by definition a corruption at some level. That doesn’t mean theology is wrong- only that its limits tend to be stressed.]

        Those who believe that syllogisms are the ultimate mechanism for determining truth have no room for more than one meaning in Scripture since that creates confusion. Aquinas believes that there is no inherent conflict between propositional logic and truth but that truth is not limited to this. The other modes of communication such as metaphor etc are important aspects of language and truth. The counter argument appears to be that syllogistic logic is sufficient for truth. Maybe you have another one.

        Aquinas’ argument makes sense to me- but I’ve said that before. Excuse the subordinate clauses and sentences. I blame it on the German in me 🙂

        January 9, 2011
      • It’s quite funny that my hermeneutical approach to Aquinas here comes up against your hermeneutical approach to Aquinas.

        It’s quite epically hilarious to me how I was lambasted for dismissing Aquinas argument after I read his words and interacted with them, but you feel quite justified to find Aquinas (indirectly) addressing philosophical issues that NOBODY of his era was ever talking about (in the postmodern way you’re talking) in the slightest.

        January 10, 2011
      • James #

        “you find Aquinas (indirectly) addressing philosophical issues that NOBODY of his era was ever talking about (in the postmodern way you’re talking) in the slightest.”

        Now you have to explain that, MK. I’m pretty well read [I actually read them] in the Greek, and early Christian philosophers through Augustine. They addressed exactly the issues we deal with today and we continue to use their paradigms. Aristotle is generally seen as the father of propositional logic- the method you and I are employing here. I do not grant your claim and suggest that it is deeply in error. I suggest you read “The Dream of Reason-A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance” by Anthony Gottlieb. It will add credence to the Biblical claim that there is nothing new under the sun and especially in philosophy.

        Specifically to your charge against me- except for the example of the computer model of reality- what have I added to the 13th century argument?

        January 10, 2011
    • While I’m being called arrogant (and rightly so), I’m actually somewhat familiar with Origen’s hermeneutics, Augustine’s concept of sensus plenior, the long established four fold meaning of scripture (literal, moral, allegorical, anagogical), and Aquinas rejection of Aristotles univocity of language. Just because I give a short response and a wretched attempt at a comedic ending doesn’t necessarily mean I’m either arrogant or an idiot, though it may well indicate that I’m a much lousier writer than I think. I feel like I’m scaling quite the mountain of hubris here myself.

      I’m an Evangelical Anabaptist and we’re not really on the same page as Origen, Augustine or Aquinas on this issue, but not out of ignorance. I’ve read Evangelical scholars who write on this issue like Walter Kaiser, Kevin Vern Poythress, Norm Geisler and Millard Erickson. I’m also familiar with Evangelical Anabaptist scholars like Irv Busenitz, Dan Block, and D. Edmond Heibert. None of us Evangelical Anabaptists tow the lines of Origen, Augustine or Aquinas, and we’ve spilled quite a lot of ink explaining the why behind our rejection.

      I have a lot of theology in common with Augustine, but definitely not all. I openly and unapologetically reject their professed hermeneutic, and rejoice that they were regularly inconsistent in its application.

      January 8, 2011
  24. Larry S #

    Last year, on Dec-28 Brother James interrupted his Christmas/New Year’s festivities by reading St. Aquinas (to quote Brother MK – Huzzah!). Congratulations James I am truly impressed. I interrupted my festivities by reading a murder mystery.

    Aquinas’s affirmation about multiple senses underlying the meaning of a biblical text seems to rest on this: the author of Holy Writ is God. Quoting Aquinas “The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.” and again “Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.”

    We are dealing with heavy hitters indeed; Aquinas and Augustine. I agree with James’ critique of MK’s response. Using a term like “bollocks” to denounce the argument, giving Aquinas lessons in how he should have done his exegesis and ending the post with a triumphant “Huzzah!” does come across as arrogance to say the least. Notwithstanding the above, I am not entirely unsympathetic to MK’s post (although, I agree with James that MK reads Aquinas through a very modern grid).

    James, I’m reminded of things I’ve learned in hermeneutic courses. The methodology embraced by Augustine and Aquinas does not have sufficient parameters. The example I remember comes from Augustine’s work in the Good Samaritan parable: the injured man is Adam, the Good Samaritan is Christ, Jerusalem is paradise, Jericho is the world, the Inn is the church and so forth. Is that the ‘meaning’ of the parable? Yes, the concepts can be found elsewhere within Holy Writ but does believing in divine authorship give us warrant to expand the parable’s meaning in this way? Don’t we end up with staring at our own reflections – reading our agendas back into the text?

    Another question James. Do you know who raised the objections to Aquinas? That seems like a fascinating question.

    For anyone interested I found this website which updated Article 10 (,1.htm#twelve)

    Article 10: Does Sacred Scripture have multiple senses underlying a single passage?

    Here St. Thomas gives an orderly account of the different senses of Scripture. The foundational sense is the literal or historical sense, though even here we have to be careful about how we identify this sense. (See reply to obj. 3 on parabolic speech.)

    Given this basic sense, the other (so-called spiritual senses) fall into place:
    • When something in the Old Testament is understood to be a type or figure of something in the New Testament, there is the allegorical sense. So, for instance, many things that happen to Joseph in the book of Genesis are figures of Christ; the passover is a figure of Christ’s sacrifice and of the Mass, etc.
    • When something in either Testament is put before us for imitation in our lives, this is the moral or tropological sense.
    • When something prefigures eternal glory, this is the anagogical sense. (Take, for instance, the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey to the Israelites.)

    January 2, 2011
    • James #

      Oops, I only replied to MK and didn’t read your response before posting- and now I am off to the shooting range to sight in my new .22 with my grandson. I will get back later 🙂

      January 2, 2011
  25. James #

    Hi Larry
    You asked, “Do you know who raised the objections to Aquinas?” Since Aquinas set the standard for western theology, I think that everyone moves forwards [or backwards] from his position. Aquinas scholar Peter Kreeft, says that Aquinas holds a position between 2 poles- on one hand those who give no place to reason and focus only on revelation as the revealer of truth. On the other hand are those who hold that human reason is the only path to truth. This means he has critics on both ends of the spectrum. Moderns are the children of Descartes and Bacon. Anabaptists tend to be suspicious of reason’s claims. As you know I am fully Anabaptist in this but find a lot of resonance in Aquinas. This has been a very pleasant surprise. In case your wondering I decided to study Aquinas after years of appreciating Chesterton.

    January 2, 2011
  26. Paul Johnston #

    It is not surprising to read in the biographies of St. Thomas that he was frequently abstracted and in ecstasy. Towards the end of his life the ecstasies became more frequent. On one occasion, at Naples in 1273, after he had completed his treatise on the Eucharist, three of the brethren saw him lifted in ecstasy, and they heard a voice proceeding from the crucifix on the altar, saying “Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what reward wilt thou have?” Thomas replied, “None other than Thyself, Lord” (Prümmer, op. cit., p. 38). Similar declarations are said to have been made at Orvieto and at Paris.

    On 6 December, 1273, he laid aside his pen and would write no more. That day he experienced an unusually long ecstasy during Mass; what was revealed to him we can only surmise from his reply to Father Reginald, who urged him to continue his writings: “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value”

    January 10, 2011

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