The Very Act of Reading is Philosophical

Behind the various theories and practices of textual interpretation lurk larger philosophical issues. Indeed, implicit in the question of meaning are questions about the nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge, and the criteria for morality. It may not be at all obvious that one is taking a position on these issues when one picks up a book and begins to read, but I will argue that that is indeed the case. Whether there is something really “there” in the text is a question of the “metaphysics” of meaning. Similarly, reading implies some beliefs about whether it is possible to understand a text, and if so, how. Whether there is something to be known in texts is a question of the “epistemology” of meaning. Lastly, reading raises questions about what obligations, if any, impinge on the reader of Scripture or any other text. What readers do with what is in the text gives rise to questions concerning the “ethics” of meaning. Together, these three issues give rise to a related question, “What is it to be human, an agent of meaning?”

Vanhoozer, Kevin. Is There a Meaning in This Text?, p. 19. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

Righteous Sinners

From Ron Julian’s “Righteous Sinners: The believer’s struggle with faith, grace, and works“:

Righteous SinnersOur salvation is pure mercy; we do not deserve God’s kindness. However, who in this life is destined to receive God’s mercy? Not those who hate God. Not those two can’t admit their own sin. Not those who refuse to trust God. Not the “wicked” of Psalm 32. The hearts of such people are marked. Something is fatally wrong with them: They are spiritually blind. Mercy comes to those who loves God, those who know how sinful they are, those who believe God’s promises, those who seek God’s instruction. Their hearts are also marked. Although much is wrong with them, something is also very right: They are children of the light who have been given “eyes to see.” The Bible sometimes calls them “righteous”:

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. (Luke 2:25)

These “righteous” ones are not hypothetical, sinless people; they are flesh and blood believers. In spite of their own sinfulness, God has blessed these righteous ones with spirits alive to Him. Their hearts are rightly oriented toward God. They believe His promises and admire His goodness and lament over their own evil. Abraham’s nephew Lot is a particularly interesting example of such a “righteous sinner”:

righteous Lot oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds)….(2 Peter 2:7-8)

Peter calls Lot “righteous”; yet it is hard to read the story of Lot and conclude that he was an example of sinless perfection. He was a timid man with small faith. Although he believed the angels, they had to drag him out of Sodom. His daughters twice got him so drunk that he had sex with both of them and never knew it. But for all his faults, Lot was a believer in Yahweh. He cared about what was right, and he mourned over the eagerness with which Sodom gave itself over to sin.

The children of God in this life are righteous people. They are not sinless people; they do not have the righteousness of moral character that would earn them salvation. But their faith is a flag marking a certain righteousness in their hearts. Unlike those in the world around them, their eyes see and their ears hear. In a blind world, such sight deserves to be called “good.” …

All human beings live according to a dishonest double standard. When others sin against us, we can think of little else but the wrong and hurt and evil of what they did. On the other hand, when we sin against others, we find it easy to excuse, to defend, and to downplay our offenses. We are self-centered people. When justice is in our favor, we want justice; when mercy is in our favor, we want mercy. This tendency shows itself in the most trivial and the most serious aspects of life. I have seen this in my own life so often it has taken on a tragicomic flavor. I have lost count of how many times I catch myself benig irritated by another person’s actions, only to realize I do exactly the same things myself. When I mess up, I want you to be tolerant; when you mess up, I want you to stop it.

The gospel demands that we abandon the double standard. If we take the gospel seriously, it will not let us downplay our own guilt; we are so morally unworthy that it took the death of Christ Himself to pay the penalty. When we face the choice to forgive others, we are confronting that double standard directly. If I condemn the one who has sinned against me, how can I expect to escape condemnation myself? When struggling with whether to forgive others, it is as if God is speaking to us like this:

Look at the evil this man has done to you. You are right to be upset. This man has been unloving; this man has shown contempt for Me. This man has done evil and deserves to be condemned. But what do you deserve? Will you call down the lightning from heaven on his head? If you do, what will keep it from striking you at the same time? Has he been unloving? You cannot begin to count the times you have been unloving in your life. Did he show contempt for a holy God? Think of all the times you have ignored and distrusted and disobeyed Me. Is he evil? Are you trying to tell Me that you are not? When you look into the eyes of your enemy, you are looking into your own eyes. There is no difference; you are both guilty. Are you willing to see your own sins in the light of his? I have no double standard. Do you demand justice? You will receive justice, and you won’t like it. Do you want mercy? You are as guilty as your enemy; if sins like yours can be forgiven, then so can sins like his.

Luther on Assertions and Assurance

The words of Martin Luther:

 “[N]ot to delight in assertions, is not the character of the Christian mind: nay, he must delight in assertions, or he is not a Christian. But, (that we may not be mistaken in terms) by assertion, I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, defending, and invincibly persevering. Nor do I believe the term signifies any thing else, either among the Latins, or as it is used by us at this day. And moreover, I speak concerning the asserting of those things, which are delivered to us from above in the Holy Scriptures. Were it not so, we should want neither Erasmus nor any other instructor to teach us, that, in things doubtful, useless, or unnecessary; assertions, contentions, and strivings, would be not only absurd, but impious: and Paul condemns such in more places than one. Nor do you, I believe, speak of these things, unless, as a ridiculous orator, you wish to take up one subject, and go on with another, as the Roman Emperor did with his Turbot; or, with the madness of a wicked writer, you wish to contend, that the article concerning “Free-will” is doubtful, or not necessary.

“Be skeptics and academics far from us Christians; but be there with us assertors twofold more determined than the stoics themselves. How often does the apostle Paul require that assurance of faith; that is, that most certain, and most firm assertion of Conscience, calling it (Rom. x. 10), confession, “With the mouth confession is made unto salvation?” And Christ also saith, “Whosoever confesseth Me before men, him will I confess before My Father.” (Matt. x. 32.) Peter commands us to “give a reason of the hope” that is in us. (1 Pet. iii. 15.) But why should I dwell upon this; nothing is more known and more general among Christians than assertions. Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity. Nay, the Holy Spirit is given unto them from heaven, that He may glorify Christ, and confess Him even unto death; unless this be not to assert – to die for confession and assertion. In a word, the Spirit so asserts, that He comes upon the whole world and reproves them of sin (John xvi. 8) thus, as it were, provoking to battle. And Paul enjoins Timothy to reprove, and to be instant out of season. (2 Tim. iv. 2.) But how ludicrous to me would be that reprover, who should neither really believe that himself, of which he reproved, nor constantly assert it! – Why I would send him to Anticyra, to be cured…

Unless you consider all Christians to be such (as the term is generally understood) whose doctrines are useless, and for which they quarrel like fools, and contend by assertions. But if you speak of necessary things, what declaration more impious can any one make, than that he wishes for the liberty of asserting nothing in such matters? Whereas, the Christian will rather say this – I am so averse to the sentiments of the Sceptics, that wherever I am not hindered by the infirmity of the flesh, I will not only steadily adhere to the Sacred Writings every where, and in all parts of them, and assert them, but I wish also to be as certain as possible in things that are not necessary, and that lie without the Scripture; for what is more miserable than uncertainty… The Holy Spirit is not a Sceptic, nor are what he has written on our hearts doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself and all human experience.”

Is the “Middle Ground” Always Best?

Dr. Bruce Ware:

Council of Nicea. This resulted, then, in the Council of Nicea that met in A.D. 325, meeting for the sole purpose of settling this dispute between Arius and Athanasius and to try to bring together the church in a consensus view on how we should understand the nature of Christ in relation to the Father. There were actually three main groups of people who were present at Nicea. Athanasius was there and those who supported his view of the one God whose one undivided essence or nature is shared by both the Father and the Son equally and fully. You had also the Arian party was there, who argued that Jesus was, in fact, a created being and was subordinate in nature to the Father. But then there was another group that was there who were followers of Origen. Origen had passed away long before, 75 years, roughly, before the Council at Nicea. Origen in some of his writings had proposed a view of Christ in which Christ was like the Father, very similar to the Father, so the followers of Origen at the Council of Nicea played a role of trying to provide a mediating position between Arius and Athanasius. They thought that perhaps their view could prevail because it was the balanced view between the two extremes of the Arians and the Athanasians.”

Notice that:

  • There were people who showed up, probably using language to the effect that we shouldn’t be extreme about our views on the deity of Christ. Sound familiar? Can’t we find a middle ground? It’s ideal, but in many cases it’s awful!
  • All three parties had exponents–people with names–who popularized each view and represented the various christologies. Did that make it a Paul vs. Apollos type of situation? No, absolutely not. The issue wasn’t merely the theological supremacy of the major proponents, but the actual theology. Again, sound familiar?

Excerpts on the Gospel of John

“It seems probable that Nathanael had had some outstanding experience of communion with God… and that it is this to which Jesus refers.Whatever it was, Nathanael was able to recognize the allusion.It is difficult to explain Jesus’ knowledge of the incident on the level of merely human knowledge. Nathanael had never met him before thismoment.We are required to understand that Jesus had some knowledge not generally available to the human race (cf.).” –Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Rvd.), p. 146

§

“The Son is the Father’s envoy plenitpotentiary, his perfect spokesman and revealer.” –F.F. Bruce

§

Eternal life is “the life of the age to come, experienced now even if consummated only later (cf. 5:20-21, 25-26; 17:2)… This does not collapse the notion of eschatological judgment into present, spiritual experience, since the future judgment remains(5:28-29).Rather, it isi n line with the New Testament insistence that the age to come can no longer be set off absolutely from the present age, now that Jesus the Messiah has come. Believers already enjoy the eternal life that will be consummated in the resurrection of their bodies at [Christ’s second coming]; unbelievers stand under the looming wrath of God that will be consummated in their resurrection and condemnation…”–D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, p. 214

§

“Jesus’ response in v. 4 seems harsh. To address one’s mother with the simple vocative, woman (gunai),seems abrupt, although we find the same word used in 19:26 when Jesusspeaks to his mother from the cross (cf. 4:21). Moreover, these arenumerous instances in the Synoptic Gospels of Jesus’ use of theexpression (e.g., Luke 13:12; Matthew 15:28),almost enough to say that it is represented as Jesus’ normal way ofaddressing a woman. But its use to address his mother suggests acertain reserve or aloofness as if to disavow any authority she mighthave over him. The expression translated What have you to do with me? tends to confirm that detachment. The Greek literally reads, ‘What to me and to you?’ (ti emoi kai soi).It may be a Semitic expression to suggest ‘the matter has nothing to dowith us.’ Certainly it declares a separation from the matter at handwith considerable sharpness (cf. instances in the Synoptics when wordsare used by demons to address Jesus—Mark 1:24; Matthew 8:29; Luke 8:28).Jesus here declares his freedom from any kind of human manipulation. He will not be controlled by his mother’s or any human’s desire. The Johannine Christ stands free of all human power, except as he wills tobe subject to that power, as is the case in the passion narrative. Heis a divine king whose sovereignty places him beyond human control. Itis sometimes a pattern in Johannine stories of Jesus’ encounter withhuman need first to rebuke the one asking for help, only to go on tofulfill the request (cf. 4:48ff. and 11:3ff.). That pattern is evidenthere.” –Robert Kysar, John, p. 45

Excerpts on Perseverance

“Picture a bunch of people who become convinced that they should run and subsequently decide they’re going to run a marathon (or a half-marathon if that’s easier to picture!) They sign up for it and get really excited – they buy shoes, lightweight clothing, all the stuff they’ll need. When the day of the race arrives they get to the starting line early and are really pumped up, brimming with anticipation.Finally the moment comes, and they hear, “Ready, Set, Go!”as the starting gun is fired. They cross the starting line and immediately stop. They begin jumping around excitedly, hugging each other, crying,“We did it! We started the race! We’re in the race!”Finally, after the excitement wears off, a few slowly trudge along while others go home feeling warm inside about having started the race.” (>>)

§

From p. 88 of “The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance & Assurance“, by Ardel Caneday and Thomas Schreiner:

“The ‘race set before us’ is an uncommon footrace, for the victor’s wreath of life that we pursue is the life that already courses through our mortal bodies by God’s Spirit (Romans 8:11).This is not the rhetoric of a sports commentator reporting on the marathon at the Olympics: ‘The runners are already empowered by the gold.’ It is much more than desire for the gold that invigorates runners in this uncommon race. For we are affirmed that although eternal life is God’s prize of salvation that we pursue with eager hope, eternal life is also the gift of grace that already invigorates us with the resurrection life so that we run the race with perseverance. Eternal life is the reward that we trust God will give to us who faithfully endure to the end of the race. Yet eternal life is also the very breath of heaven that already fills our hearts by God’s Spirit and enlivens our ‘feeble arms and weak knees’ (Hebrews 12:12) to ‘run the race set before us’ (Hebrews 12:1).”

§

Be diligent to persevere and make your calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10)! Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14)! Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God whoworks in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13)! Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:10)!

Donald Whitney on Forgiveness

Contrast the following, pp. 13-14 from Donald S. Whitney’s “Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health“, with R.T. Kendall’s “Forgiving the Unrepentant“:

The testimony of Martyn Lloyd-Jones should be the heart-cry of every Christian: “I say to the glory of God and in utter humility that whenever I see myself before God and realize even something of what my blessed Lord has done for me, I am ready to forgive anybody anything.”

Notice Lloyd-Jones’ phrase, “I am ready to forgive anybody anything” (emphasis added). Many do not understand the difference between being ready to forgive and actually extending forgiveness.

Often after a shooting at a school or some other horrendous, large-scale massacre, well-meaning spokespeople in the community will appeal for people to forgive the murderer(s). But biblical forgiveness is never given or required where there is no repentance. Although Jesus prayed immediately after they nailed Him to a cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34), this wasn’t an unconditional forgiveness. Otherwise these people would be forgiven of their sins without repenting and believing in the gospel–a heretical notion. “On the cross, Jesus did not forgive,” Jay Adams points out, “He prayed.” Referring to the martyr Stephen’s prayer for the forgiveness of his persecutors in Acts 7:60, Adams continues,

“The same is true of Stephen. If forgiveness is unconditional, Jesus, Stephen, and others would have forgiven their murderers rather than use what, if true, would be a roundabout way to do so. At other times Jesus had no hesitancy in saying, ‘Your sins be forgiven you.’ Jesus’ prayer was answered in the response to the preaching of Peter and the apostles on the day of Pentecost, and on those other occasions when thousands of Jews repented and believed the Gospel (Acts 2:37-38; 3:17-19; 4:4). They were not forgiven the sin of crucifying the Savior apart from believing that He was dying for their sins, but precisely by doing so in response to the faithful preaching of the Gospel in Jerusalem.”

What Christians should always do, as Jesus exemplified in His prayer, is be ready to forgive. And then, when forgiveness is sought, forgiveness can be extended.

Yes, we ought to release our sinful bitterness and hatred whether the offender ever seeks forgiveness. Some equate this decision with forgiveness itself. In reality though, this is only getting ready, being willing to forgive. Then if the offender repents, we are prepared to complete the process by saying, “I forgive you.” The one who announces forgiveness where it hasn’t been sought not only discounts the importance of repentance, he also misunderstands the requirement of Scripture. But the one who is not willing to forgive is contradicting the Scripture, and for the moment at least, is putting the reality of his salvation to the test.

Leon Morris, a New Testament scholar from Australia, noted, “We can always think of some ‘good’ reason why in any particular case we need not forgive. But that is always an error.” Growing Christians will recognize that error and become quicker to say to themselves, “I’m ready to forgive.”

Daniel Akin on Sola Scriptura

From Daniel Akin in Perspectives on Church Government, p. 38:

“This was one of the battles cries of the Reformation. It is here that apostolic authority is properly located. Apostolic authority is communicated by the canonical writings of the apostles, which carry with them apostolic authority. The Bible as the Word of God [is] thebeliever’s sole authority for faith and practice. It teaches him what to believe and how to live. God has graced the church with both men and women who possess the gift of teaching. They are invaluable to thewell-being of the church, and their importance should never be minimized. Still, God has located ultimate and final authority in his infallible and inerrant Word (Matt. 5:17-18; John 10:35; 17:17; 2 Tim. 2:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).“Carson addresses this well when he writes, ‘Whereas Christians are encouraged to support and submit to spiritual leadership (e.g. Heb. 13:17), such encouragement must not be considered a blank check; churches are responsible for and have the authority to discipline false teachers and must recognize an antecedent commitment not to a pastor but to the truth of the gospel.’ No believer can supersede the Bible as the final court of decision. Gifted pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11) and faithful elders ‘who labor in the Word and doctrine’ (1 Tim. 5:17 NKJV) are essential, and they exercise the more necessary spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:28). However, responsibility to live under the lordship of Jesus Christ is directly related to every believer’s obedience to the Word. The work of the Spirit in concert with the Word equips and qualifies the believer to judge and test all things. This responsibility is not limited to a special group within the church, not even the leadership.

Doctrinal accountability is the responsibility of all believers in the body of Christ as they submit themselves to the lordship of Christ under the authority of his Word. As Clowney notes, ‘Church authority, grounded in the Word of Christ, is also limited to it. Christian obedience to church rule is obedience in the Lord, for His Word governs the church.’ ”

Blogging meets shallow intellectual needs?

“Given the quality of the writing in the blogs I haveseen, I doubt that many of the Blog People are in the habit ofsustained reading of complex texts. It is entirely possible that theirintellectual needs are met by an accumulation of random facts andparagraphs. In that case, their rejection of my view is quiteunderstandable.” –Michael Gorman, president of American Library Association

“The number of books on theology must be reduced and only the best ones published. It is not many books that make men learned, nor even reading. But it is a good book frequently read, no matter how small it is, that makes a man learned in the Scriptures and godly.” –Martin Luther (via Alex)

“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristaram Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets: But what can you do with a man who says he ‘has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter? . . . . We do not enjoy a story fully at first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” —C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams

A Simple Way to Read Faster

The following is from p. 40 of “How to Read a Book“, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. Note that the author points out that speed reading is often benefitial to inspectional reading, but not always to analytical reading.

Fixation and Regression

Speed reading courses properly make such of the discovery–we have known it for half a century of more–that most people continue to sub-vocalize for years after they are first taught to read. Films of eye movements, furthermore, show that the eyes of young or untrained readers “fixate” as many as five or six times in the course of each line that is read. (The eye is blind when it moves; it can only see when it stops.) Thus single words or at the most two-word or three-word phrases are being read at a time, in jumps across the line. Even worse than that, the eyes of incompetent readers regress as often as once every two or three lines–that is, they return to phrases or sentences previously read.

All of these habits are wasteful and obviously cut down reading speed. They are wasteful because the mind, unlike the eye, does not need to “read” only a word or short phrase at a time. The mind, that astounding instrument, can grasp a sentence or even a paragraph at a “glance”–if only the eyes will provide it with the information it needs. Thus the primary task–recognized as such by all speed reading courses–is to correct the fixations and regressions that slow so many readers down. Fortunately, this can be done quite easily. Once it is done, the student can read as fast as his mind will let him, not as slow as his eyes make him.

There are various devices for breaking eye fixations, some of them complicated and expensive. Usually, however, it is not necessary to employ any device more sophisticated than your own hand, which you can train yourself to follow as it moves more and more quickly across and down the page. You can do this yourself. Place your thumb and first two fingers together. Sweep this “pointer” across a line of type, a little faster than it is comfortable for your eyes to move. Force yourself to keep up with your hand. You will very soon be able to read the words as you follow you hand. Keep practicing this, and keep increasing the speed at which your hand moves, and before you know it you will have doubled or trebled your reading speed.