Archive for December, 2009

Thinking About Adiaphora – 5

December 30, 2009

The kind of person we choose to trust ought to exemplify right thinking. That is, when we choose to trust a person as some kind of expert in a particular domain of knowledge, we ought not to do so simply because the person seems to have such knowledge in great quantity. There is little skill in accumulating vast amounts of knowledge, and only marginally more in impressing others with the size of that knowledge. What counts when it comes to the pursuit of truth is of a person demonstrates the ability to think. Right thinking is not vast recall, or enormous powers of regurgitation. Right thinking has to do with how knowledge is assimilated, analysed and criticised. People are led astray because they are mesmerised by the sound ‘n fury of a lot of facts and figures. “If someone can remember that much, they must be clever enough to follow.” And off walks another Pied Piper with his entourage.

Mortimer Adler wrote a very important and useful book for the development of right thinking, called How to Read a Book. What follows is an abridged summary of his guidelines for the right assimilation of information, followed by the correct understanding of its meaning and of its significance.

* Come to terms with an author by understanding what the important words are in his work, and what he means by them.

* Having done so, discover the key propositions, premises and conclusions contained in the work.

* From these, understand the author’s argument. Observe if his argument is deductive or inductive. Observe what he assumed. Observe what he says can be proved, what need not be proved and what is self-evident.

*Consider what his solutions are.

*At this point, the work of criticising the contents of the book takes over. Critical judgement will say I agree, I disagree, or I suspend judgement with good reasons for doing so. Critical judgement can only be done when you can state the author’s argument in terms he would agree with.

To judge critically is to acknowledge your emotion, make your assumptions explicit and attempt impartiality. The disagreement will not be mere opinion; it will give reasons for the disagreement without being contentious.

* There are three ways of disagreeing with an author rationally, stated as responses to the author:

  1. “You are uninformed” – the author lacks relevant knowledge.
  2. “You are misinformed” – the author makes assertions contrary to the facts.
  3. “You are illogical” – the author reasons poorly or fallaciously.

A fourth way exists, which is really a way of suspending judgement. It is to say “Your analysis is incomplete,” which is to say that the author has not solved all the problems, or did not see the ramifications and implications of his ideas, or failed to make relevant distinctions, or failed to make as good a use of materials as possible.

Once we have begun to grasp and practise these ways of handling knowledge, we are better off in two ways. First, we are able to better handle the knowledge coming at us from all angles. If a book fails the tests of right thinking, and does so again and again, there is no reason to trust its analysis or to place much stock in it. Second, we are better able to evaluate the teachers of knowledge themselves. A person who consistently commits fatal errors of logic, whose sources are erroneous, or who mishandles his materials disqualifies himself from our consideration as some kind of expert. No matter what the domain of knowledge, we want to hear from people who think properly when they handle that knowledge.

It might seem that we are a long way from Bible verses when we speak of such things. But that is because we have imbibed a form of nuda Scriptura which divorces the God-glorifying task of good thinking from the God-glorifying task of biblical interpretation. If we think well, we will consult the right people on various areas of human knowledge. If we consult the right people, our knowledge will be richer and more reliable. With reliable knowledge, we will make good and accurate judgements on matters of adiaphora, and we will make wise and well-grounded applications of biblical principles.

Thinking About Adiaphora – 4

December 16, 2009

 How do we choose extra-biblical sources of information? Since none of us can be an expert in several (let alone all) areas of knowledge, we have to rely on others. We ask doctors about our ailments, because they have intensively studied the human condition. We ask mechanics about our car’s problems because they have a far better knowledge of the mechanics of a car than we do.

Therefore, since we are in the habit of seeking out people whose knowledge on certain things is better than ours, we ought not to have a problem seeking out experts on those areas where the Bible calls us to make a judgement, but does not itself supply all the information we need to make that judgement.

But this is exactly where things begin to fall down. We find ourselves in a kind of catch-22: experts will give us the right kind of knowledge, but we need the right kind of knowledge to spot the experts from the self-appointed authorities. Experts help us to discern the issues, but we first need to discern who the experts are.

Choosing the wrong person as your source of knowledge is a broken tooth and a foot out of joint. For example, in American Fundamentalism in the 1980s and 90s, certain persons set themselves up as authorities on Christian music, producing tapes, videos and books, where the issue of music was (radically) oversimplified, with the aim of making a very complex issue something which could be taught in one adult Sunday School class. Be that as it may, these persons were accorded the status of musical authorities by many in Fundamentalism. Their pronouncements became a canon, and many pastors looked no further than music with the stamp of approval of these persons. I’ll admit, when I first watched these men as a teen, I assumed they were authorities to be trusted, since my authorities did just that. My musical knowledge was a gaping hole, and ready to be filled by one claiming to have Bible verses to support his claims.

At the time, I had never heard of Leonard Bernstein, Carson Holloway, Roger Scruton, Aaron Copland, or Leonard Meyer. Today, I regard these men as having a better grasp of music than the Fundamentalist teachers do. But how did I ever get to shift my trust from one set of authorities to another? And how do I know I’m better off?

Part of the answer has to do with our allegiances. The Internet is living proof that once someone’s allegiance changes, so do those he regards as ‘trusted voices’. Once a fellow plants his flag in the Reformed Baptist camp, his blogroll reflects the ‘approved canon’ of Reformed Baptist/ Conservative Evangelical sites. When people begin following a particular Christian leader or pastor, there is all too often a ‘groupie-mentality’ which leads to the groupies reading everything the leader reads, taking every position the leader takes, and excluding all points of view except that of the leader.

In one sense, this following instinct not always negative. We are made to be led. We are sheeple, and we need shepherding. We cannot know all things, nor do we have the time to evaluate all people who speak on every matter. We have to trust someone. But whom do we trust? Here is where the negative side of being sheeple enters in: our own depravity, ignorance, gullibility and sloppy thinking can lead us to trust the wrong people, which leads to wrong judgements. On what basis should I trust Copland’s word over Wikipedia’s? On what basis should I listen to one pastor and not another? On what basis should I trust one book over another?

This is where the value of tradition comes in. Whether it is an intellectual, cultural or religious tradition, it reflects the process of elimination and assimilation that people do over centuries. Human beings were not meant to do on an individual level what is meant to happen on the scale of entire cultures over hundreds of years: evaluate the meaning of cultural phenomena and pass moral judgements on them. Of course we must each make moral judgements, but we were meant to do so with the backing of tradition. Within a culture, judgements are passed on from one generation to another. People who have spoken well on an issue are pointed to, and younger consciences are formed as they are exposed to these judgements. People growing up within the bounds of a tradition had the safety of hundreds of years of judgements from which to learn. If your father’s father’s father said it was good/useful/dangerous/healthy/true/false, there was good reason to listen. When we don’t know, we must trust our betters. In a tradition, we knew who our betters were.

Certainly, tradition can be a great evil, if it hands down false religion, poor judgements and liars held up as paragons of virtue. However, most cultures have some sign of common grace. Cultures most exposed to the special grace of the gospel usually have (or had) more evidences of helpful judgements handed down.

What we face now is every man adrift on a sea of opinion, cut loose from the Western cultural and intellectual tradition, cut loose from the Christian worship tradition, with gales of opinions battering each pathetic raft that each person is on. Groups holler at each other to try to get their rafts in decent proximity to one another (witness the blogrolls, declarations and conferences), but there is still a sense of despair that any knowledge can be trusted outside of the Scriptures. Thus our raft-dwellers turn to nuda Scriptura.

Within this storm, we nevertheless have to (and do) choose whom we will trust. Whether the person is living or dead, there are three suggestions for evaluating his or her trustworthiness.

1) In the case of living teachers of Christian virtue, does the person you trust exemplify the kind of life you are to follow? Is he an example of true Christian piety (Hebrews 13:7) ?

2) Does the person you trust himself submit to a tradition? Can you evaluate his teaching against anything in the past? Does he seem to translate and pass on what has been tried and tested in the past, or is he boasting in his novelty and creativity? Can he defend the virtues of his chosen tradition using Scripture and plain reason?

3) Does the person you trust exemplify right thinking? Does he display good reason, sound judgement, unprejudiced evaluations and fair-minded attitudes? If his own thinking is skewed, contentious, prejudiced or illogical, it is unwise to rest your trust in him. Our final post of this series will help answer this question.

Thinking About Adiaphora – 3

December 10, 2009

To find grounds to apply Scripture requires that one has more than Scripture in hand. It ought to be obvious to us that God did not aim to write an exhaustive manual detailing His will on every possible event. The Bible would then fill several libraries, and be an ongoing work.

It ought to be equally obvious to us that God does want us to glorify Him in every detail of our lives (Col 3:17, 1 Cor 10:31). He has a perfect will, and He wants us to know it (Rom 12:2, Eph 5:16). Therefore, it ought to be plain to us that what God has supplied in the Scripture must be applied to life using information not contained in the Scripture.

Why are Christians so intimidated at the thought of getting grounds to apply a Scripture from outside the Scriptures? Probably because we have, as Dr. Bauder put it, confused sola Scriptura with nuda Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture alone is the final authority for life and godliness. There is no higher bar or court of appeal than the Bible. There we find God’s will revealed. No information outside of the Scripture is to be considered as authoritative as Scripture itself.

However, nuda Scriptura is the idea that Scripture can come to us unclothed, apart from the understanding imparted from the believing community of faith and the Christian past, and apart from any other accompanying information from beyond the Scripture, even if it be true and given by experts or authorities in their fields. Scripture’s authority becomes limited to the naked black-and-white text, and nothing more than its own explicit applications will be admitted. In supposedly wanting nothing more than the unadorned statements of Scripture to guide his life, such a person ironically destroys the authority of Scripture to speak on life in general. Scripture’s protectors become its captors, not merely keeping competitors out, but keeping its own authority locked within the prison of its own two covers.

Most nuda Scriptura practitioners are unaware of how inconsistent they are with this attitude. They oppose abortion, but the Bible nowhere says that the killing of an unborn child is an instance of murder. They oppose taking God’s name in vain, but they cannot point to a single Scripture which gives an explicit application of that command. They regard recreational drug use as sinful, but cannot find a verse which links drug use to principles forbidding addiction or harm to the body.

And yet they oppose these things. That’s because they have been unwittingly violating their nuda Scriptura ethos, and supplying outside information to make a valid application. They have found out from doctors that life begins at conception; they have reasoned that using the actual name of God in an everyday slang fashion is to treat it in an unworthy manner; they have found out information on the addictiveness and physical effects of the drug in question. In other words, Scripture did not supply the link to the application. They did, through the use of reason and outside information.

We do this all the time, and God expects us to do so.

I think the disingenuous attitude of “the Bible doesn’t say that” really begins once a cherished idol is under fire. The person lives by sola Scriptura in every other area of his life. However, should one of his loves be challenged – his music, his entertainments, his dress to worship, his use of disposable income, his reading matter – suddenly he reverts to nuda Scriptura. Now he wants the Bible to speak explicitly to the matter under question, or his supposed devotion to chapter and verse will throw it out. This is a lying heart.

However, if we are of the truth, we must understand the need to get good and reliable sources of information outside the Scriptures, combine them with sound reason, in order to make right applications of Scriptural principles.

Thinking About Adiaphora – 2

December 2, 2009

No discernment is required for obeying explicit commands and prohibitions. However, more skill is needed to correctly interpret and apply Scriptural principles.

A Scriptural principle is one that states a timeless truth. Its axiomatic nature means it is generally true. However, its general nature is just the problem for those seeking to implement the Word of God in specific, practical ways. Generalised, timeless, and axiomatic principles do not translate well into specific, concrete applications, except through some applied thinking.

For example, Paul’s desire that believers be able to approve the things that are excellent suggests (at least implicitly) that God desires believers to approve excellence and disapprove of the opposite. How does that general principle find its way into my everyday life? Does it have applications in the realm of aesthetics? Of music? Art?

For a general principle to find a specific application, we need some kind of ‘bridge’. We need a justification – a warrant – to connect a principle of Scripture to something never mentioned in Scripture, but which nevertheless occurs in our lives.

To get from what is stated in a non-specific way to a valid and conscience-binding application of it, something needs to be supplied which Scripture does not supply. Scripture gives you the principle, but it does not (frequently) give you an application of it. It is this lack that causes many of the legalists mentioned in the previous post to dismiss the force of principles. In other words, such legalists want the principle, the bridge that connects it to the specific situation, as well as the application in concrete terms. And to this kind of thinking, it must be asked, Why would God bother with principles at all, if such are needed to make principles morally binding? If a biblical principle alone is an inert piece of information, relevant for no one in particular, and unable to be applied to anyone (since such application requires a non-Scriptural bridge), what possible reason could God have had for giving it?

In truth, many such legalists are being disingenuous, using their supposed devotion to explicit Scripture as a means of excising from a Christian’s obligations just about every Scriptural principle or matter considered to be adiaphora.

However, it is quite clear that God expects man to supply such a bridge between the principle and its application. Jesus clearly expected the Pharisees to have correctly applied the principle that God loves mercy to several specific situations.

It is up to the devout Christian then, to find clear grounds for connecting a principle to a specific circumstance. Further, the Christian should have a clear understanding of how to find such grounds for applying principles to the numerous and variegated circumstances he will face.

First, he must recognise that the grounds for applying Scripture will emerge from outside Scripture. The extra piece of information that is needed to make a valid application must of necessity be extra-biblical, otherwise the principle would not be a principle but a clear precept. It is no violation of sola Scriptura to look for information outside of the Bible to enable us to apply the Bible.

Second, he must have good grounds for his selection of sources. Not all information is equally valid or useful. A Christian must be able to sort through ‘secular’ sources of information.

Third, he must evaluate such information using right thinking. We’ll examine these three in turn.