If we question the Bible, how do we know what's right and wrong?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

This time around I thought I'd respond to a couple questions I got from readers this week revolving around the question of epistemology, which is a fancy way of saying "how do we know what we know?" Specifically, how do we know that our interpretation of the Bible is right? And what do we base that on?

Such questions become especially relevant when we begin to ethically question the Bible. We read something in the Bible that seems morally questionable--genocide, slavery, and so on. But if we are questioning the Bible, then this brings up the question: On what authority can we question it?
I don't say that as way of saying "Stop asking those questions!" like the Wizard of Oz from behind the curtain. Rather it is an important question that we need to be asking ourselves. The fear is that when we question the Bible, we are sawing the branch out from under ourselves, cutting off our moral foundation. Does questioning scripture become like the string that we begin to pull which unravels the whole sweater? is it true that once we start pulling that proverbial string--once we start to question things in the Bible--soon everything will just come undone?

What is the basis of our authority that allows us to question scripture? That's an important and legitimate question that we need to ask ourselves. Along these lines, OfGrace asks, 
"What is to guide our understanding and interpretation of the texts and how do we know we are being directed by the Holy Spirit in our interpretations where we differ with one another (the application of the NT's prohibition on same-sex sexual acts being in this category in the modern era)? What are authoritative parameters for how to read, interpret and apply the Christian Scriptures (i.e., the apostolic teaching)?"
The most common answer to this question among Protestants is that of sola scriptura meaning that we look to the Bible for the answer. How to do that can range from looking for the "plain reading" of the text to looking to our understanding of context, language, genre, ancient cultures, and so on in order to have scholarship help us unearth what the "authorial intent" of the text was.

A slight tweak on this which has gained a lot of traction among my tribe of progressive evangelical folks is to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus. However, if we apply the same above method that we all learned in seminary classes on exegesis, the question still comes down to looking for the "plain reading" of what Jesus meant or using scholarship to unearth what Jesus meant.

That sounds great, but how do we do that exactly? The problem is that there are plenty of people who read the Bible in a way that I think is profoundly wrong and immoral who claim to be doing so based on Jesus. There are people who would claim to be reading the Bible through the eyes of Jesus who promote all sorts of stuff that I see as deeply wrong and hurtful--oppression, violence, hatred.

They, in turn, of course think that I am wrong, even though I likewise claim to be reading the Bible like Jesus did. The bottom line here is that simply reaching for the WWJD card is apparently not a guarantee that we will end up on the same page or with the same values. It simply does not work as a safeguard to stop people from arriving at really awful and harmful readings.

So what do we do?

What I would propose instead is that we adopt the evaluative criteria Jesus suggested to tell a false prophet from a genuine one: Look at the fruits, Jesus said.  

We can look at the fruits of a particular interpretation, and observe the effects it has in people's lives. The question we ultimately need to be asking is not so much "Is this interpretation correct?" But more importantly "Is this interpretation good?" Or to put it another way: Will my reading and application of this passage or teaching result in something good or in something hurtful? Are the fruits good, or are they rotten? Does it lead to flourishing and wholeness? Does it make us better and more compassionate people? Or does it instead wound and crush our spirits, leaving us worse than before? In short: Does it lead us to life or death?

This approach is practical and liveable. It provides us with objective criteria (as objective as we humans are capable of being) that can be used to evaluate any interpretation or teaching. It provides a means for continually testing and refining our interpretation "on the ground" based on observing its effects on people's lives.

With that in mind, let me now bring in a possible objection from Samuel Adams who writes this on my Facebook page,

"I'd just like to clarify that Jesus is, in his person, the fulfillment or end of the law. He is faithful Israel. His example is closely tied to his person--the two cannot be separated. What I'm resisting is the slip by some to a point where Jesus is simply a moral example. Don't get me wrong, his example is important and authoritative, but always and everywhere tied to his person.

What I'm saying is that both 'law' and 'spirit of the law' are objects that humans can control/determine/possess. They tend to be what we want them to be. By making the person of Jesus inseparable from his teaching we are placing ourselves always under the gracious judgement of God... Christian ethics is bound to the living/commanding Jesus.
Let me begin by underlining what I agree with here: I agree with the stress on relationship with God that I see in Samuel's comment. Ultimately Christianity is about relationship, not religion. We are striving not to connect with a philosophy or example, but to connect with a living Someone. One major consequence of this is that we need to recognize that we are always subjective, we are always limited in our perception. There is therefore no way for us to ever be certain or to ever be done, ever to say "this is the final word."

Certainty is dangerous. Certainty--including certainty in our doctrines, certainty in the Bible-- has a long history of leading people to do things that violate conscience and cause great harm. Certainty is the opposite of faith. Faith is about recognizing our need, our lack. Faith and humility go hand in hand. So when the question is "how can we be sure we've got it right?" the answer is quite simply:

We can't.

We will, even with the best of intentions, get it wrong. Recognizing this is part of growing up. However, the reality is that we do need to make choices as humans. We need some practical way to decide what is good and what is hurtful right now. Even if we will stumble, still we do need to try to find the best way to live, and I would thus propose that the model of "looking at the fruits" represents the best way we have for evaluating a doctrine, teaching, or biblical interpretation.

I further want to point out that the method I am proposing takes into account the reality of our subjectivity. The method I am proposing has its roots in the scientific method. That is, while it is ethical, it does not come from the discipline of ethics or philosophy, but from the social sciences which are different from older disciplines such as ethics, philosophy or moral teaching in that science is guided by a methodology of testing a hypothesis. Put differently, science is not based on an abstract theory, rather it is derived from observing how life works. It is discovered.

Science recognizes that we are never truly objective, and so works by continually testing and observing, continually growing in knowledge. Our understanding of physics today has grown beyond what Newton proposed as we continued to experiment and test. It will continue to grow beyond what it is today as that scientific pursuit continues. We will never reach the point of saying "this is now the finished understanding" but the scientific method does present the best means we fallible humans have of understanding how our universe works.

In the realm of understanding how we humans thrive both as individuals and together, we get into the specific study of the social sciences, which also operate through the same scientific method of testing things out in life. So mental health practitioners will determine what constitutes a mental illness based on how much it impairs a person from being able to function in society. 

For example if you drink to feel merry, then fine. But if your drinking causes you to lose your job, estrange your entire family, and end up in an alley way turning tricks, then this is a problem. Whether it's addiction or schizophrenia or depression or something else, the main question that mental health experts are asking is an intensely practical one: Does this impair you from being able to have the life you want to have? And following this up with: How can we help you to be able to lead the life you want to have, consistent with what you value?

Just as the natural sciences grow and evolve through continued experimentation and research, the practical ways that mental health clinicians help people also grows and develops, based on observing what works in praxis, and using these observations to shape and adapt their approach. Neil deGrasse Tyson describes the scientific method like this,
"Test ideas through experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that past the test. Reject those that fail. Follow the evidence where ever it leads, and question everything."

The same holds true for mental health clinicians, only they are not using test tubes or telescopes, but working with people, and their observations are done not only through studies and research, but also in clinical praxis as therapists observe what works and does not work. We might compare this to how a software company gets feedback from users and fixes bugs and adds new features in response. The software thus becomes better through that process. In the same way, based on such observation, psychology changes and grows and develops.

For example very early on psychologists observed that when you tell someone "what you are doing here is hurtful" people reacted defensively and took this not as a comment on their actions giving them an opportunity to change, but as a condemnation of them as a person. So rather than listening openly and changing their behavior, they would feel attacked and put up walls. Freud called this "denial" but whatever you want to call it, what this draws out is the fact that our behavior is not just a matter of rational moral choices--there's something else going on that can keep us from making good choices.

Therefore if a therapist wants their client to stop being hurtful, they need to find a way to get past that defensive wall which had the good purpose of self-reservation but which was now stopping them from being good, stopping them from being who they wanted to be. We call that "dysfunctional" because it has a good function (self-preservation and care) that has become maladaptive (rather than protecting ourselves it ends up keeping us stuck in patterns that hurt ourselves and others). So psychology needed to find ways to get around that roadblock, like a river changing its course, curving until it finds a way.

There are of course many other examples I could mention, but the larger point is that mental health practitioners have been doing this for a long time now. That means my proposal that we observe the effects that the application of a certain scriptural principle or teaching has on people's lives (be it "turn the other cheek" or "bruises and wounds cleanse the soul") and use these observations as our evaluative criteria is not something I just pulled out of my hat just now, but rather how those in the field of mental health have been working for a long time. 

For me to imagine the marraige of theology and the social sciences is easy because I'm a theologian who is married to a psychotherapist. However, understanding mental health as I do, what I notice among my fellow theologians and scholars is that there is for the most part a huge gulf between religion and social science. What I have continually found is that the vast majority of pastors and scholars--who may have a PhD biblical studies and speak fluent Coptic and Greek--nevertheless often have virtually no understanding of how the social sciences actually function today. To some extent this is because of animosity because of a perceived conflict between religion and science (and this is most relevant not in the natural sciences, but in the social sciences) and other times simply because it is outside of their field of knowledge. So they know as much about psychology as a therapist knows about Coptic and Greek.

Understanding both as I do, I want to say that the two would make great partners. Religion and the social sciences should be allies not foes. Specifically, what I am proposing here is that the ethical interpretation of scripture would greatly benefit from incorporating the practical working method of those working in the field of mental health.

Let me give an example of how this approach could work in biblical interpretation: Consider Jesus teaching to "turn the other cheek." Gandhi and Martin Luther King applied this in the context of protesting oppressive power, and found that it was an effective means to expose injustice and bring about societal pressure for change. Feminists however have pointed out that when turning the other cheek is understood to mean counseling a woman to remain in a situation of domestic violence, that this instead ends up supporting oppression and hurt, rather than stopping it. So as this teaching is applied in different contexts, we can observe where it bears good fruit and where it instead produces harmful outcomes. From this we can evaluate what the "right" application is, based on looking at the fruits borne out in our lives. The "right" interpretation therefore is not the one that gets the tense of the Greek word just right, but the one that works, the one that leads to life. That is something we can objectively evaluate.

There is much more I could say about this. This an approach that naturally lends itself to developing and growing, rather than tethering us to the past. This approach is also by definition a communal approach, which allows it to grow and develop in a community of praxis--in this case in a community of those who are actively living out the way of Jesus. This therefore brings us in dialog with the wisdom of community and tradition, and specifically with a Jesus-shaped tradition and community. I could also discuss how this approach sheds light on controversial topics, such as homosexuality, and what an approach would look like that bears good fruit. Perhaps I'll do a "part 2" to this so I can give those subjects the attention they deserve.



At 3:19 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Thanks, Derek, for the thoughtful post. Though I've spent the past few years reading much more deeply in the historic development of the Church and her doctrine than I ever did in the past, my college degrees were in Psychology and Christian Education. So I can really appreciate the interaction between theological concepts derived from Scripture and its interpretation (studied on an academic level) and what actually works on the ground to bring peace/wholeness in my relationship with myself, with others and with God. This is why Eastern Orthodox theology and spirituality has so resonated with me, since it is deeply rooted in the lives of those recognized as Orthodox Saints in every age (and even for us to the present day). For an EO Christian, the proof is in the pudding (fruit), and the fruit we observe is the life of Christ evident in the lives of the Saints.

At 6:29 PM, Blogger Jeremy Myers said...

Very helpful. Especially the part about not asking "Is this correct?" but "Is this good?"

At 1:02 AM, Blogger Whit said...

I appreciate the very well thought out attention, but the tribe of fundentalist biblicists I was baptized into have a ready comeback to the ethic interpretation: Suffering is a part of the Christian condition, so any negative consequences to upholding the "correct" interpretation (e.g. staying in a marriage that's abusive) just becomes that Christian's cross to bear.

Have you come across this perspective before?

At 9:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Derek, I a honored to be quoted on your blog! As I read this there were a couple of questions that came to mind.

First, how does this approach your describing need God? Rather that ground Christian ethics in an exegetical/technical approach to the bible, you want to ground it in the objective criteria of the social sciences. I can appreciate this critique, but it sees to be a bit of a false dilemma.

For instance, the example you gave of Jesus' command to turn the other cheek is correctly challenged by the feminist critique. This is an important critique for us to bear! Yet, rather than turn us away from Jesus' command, it ought to force us to wrestle even more with it. For example, the offering of the other cheek could be seen as an assertion of human dignity in the face of an abuser and ground a certain nonviolence in this position of dignity. Furthermore, the command is intimately related to the cross. How does the social science approach deal with the cross?

This leads to my next question, How is this not simply an 'ends justifies the means' ethic? The end, determined by the predictive powers of our experiences in applied social science, is used to justify the appropriate and effective means necessary to guarantee its achievement. Again, how does this make sense of the cross? If the cross is Jesus' faithfulness, and the demonstration that faithfulness is not a calculus of effective means, but obedience to the will of the Father, then the way of the cross recognises that such obedience may ultimately result in death--utter ineffectiveness.

Christian ethics must somehow take into consideration the God who raised Jesus from the dead, in whose hands the ends truly lie. My concern is that your ethic is not Christian because it doesn't need God.

Please note, this critique is not grounded in a rejection of science, nor in a fundamentalist interest in preserving a literalist biblicism. Like the quote you provided from me in your entry, I'm trying to think through and wrestle with a Christian ethic that takes the reality of God seriously (not, N.B., the reality of an inerrant/infallible text).


At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes I have come across that, although it is always inconsistent. That is, some fundamentalists maintain it some of the time. The tension here is between blindly following a command on the one side, and our human instinct for self-preservation on the other. There are those who blindly follow a rule. We all have done it. The trouble is when we do we have no way of differentiating between what is a good application and what is a hurtful application. As a fundamentalist if they have literally chopped of their right hand since Jesus said to and you will find that none have. That's a open door into showing that we all do, at least some of the time, think about the intent of things rather than blindly following. We can only follow if we understand how.

The second factor is self-preservation. This is why fundamentalists (and everyone else too) resist following in the way of enemy love--we perceive it as neglecting to care for a protect ourselves or loved ones. Self-preservation is good. But there are things we can go that may seem hurtful, but which we would still maintain are moral and good.

For example forgiveness can feel like we are overlooking wrong. What is the difference between forgiving and being a victim? Or said differently: How can we discern the difference between healthy forgiveness and unhealthy forgiveness? How can we differentiate between the self-sacrificing love a parent shows their kids, and being used?

These are important questions to work through, but the key is that we NEED to work through them. What does not work is simply saying that people should blindly follow.

At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


"First, how does this approach your describing need God? Rather that ground Christian ethics in an exegetical/technical approach to the bible, you want to ground it in the objective criteria of the social sciences. I can appreciate this critique, but it sees to be a bit of a false dilemma."

Okay, but an exegetical/technical approach is equally not grounded in God, but in faith in (human) scholarship. What we need to differentiate is between our need for God (meaning the acknowledgment that we are fallible and limited), and the claim that we can authoritatively claim to speak for God (if we just read the text right). The later puts us in the place of God. I don't think that is something you would advocate.

So the question is: How do we let God in to this equation? Do we pray and seek God's guidance? Absolutely. But how do I discern when I have heard correctly from God and when I have not? Here I come back to looking at the fruits, looking at how the way of Christ leads to life.

"How does the social science approach deal with the cross?"

Remember: The social science approach is simply a matter of observing how life works and adapting to that. It's about connecting things to life. So as we follow in the way of the cross we can learn what works and what does not. We learn how love of enemies works by walking it out. For example as you said we listen to the feminist critique and adapt our understanding of "turning the other cheek" to be an act of asserting dignity in the face of oppression.


At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


"How is this not simply an 'ends justifies the means' ethic? The end, determined by the predictive powers of our experiences in applied social science, is used to justify the appropriate and effective means necessary to guarantee its achievement."

Okay first I need to point out that what you describe here is not what "the ends justify the means" means. You describe an "appropriate and effective means necessary" but "ends justify the means" means the opposite: Using an inappropriate and immoral means because of the end goal. In other words, it means I can use any means at all, no matter how evil, because the end is so important. That is not what you are describing. You are simply describing the idea of doing things because they are effective as opposed to doing things even if they are not effective.

Now my criteria was asking whether something was effective, but asking whether it was good, asking whether it led to life and flourishing. Jesus says "If you want to find you life you must lose it." Note he does not say "I want you to lose your life, so you must lose it." The goal Jesus states is to find life. Note too that the cross did not end in death it ended in the Resurrection and life for all of us.

What we find in Jesus is the idea that we could do things that seem at first to be bad for us, but which actually lead to life. These are framed by Jesus as paradoxes (die to live, lose to win, love your enemy) and by Paul as irony (foolishness, scandal, weakness), but I maintain that as we walk them out we find that 1) they truly do lead to life and 2) as Paul says they are not actually foolishness but "the wisdom of God."

What makes this "Christian" is that it is applying the evaluative criteria of looking at the fruits (which I might mention is the criteria Jesus proposed himself) specifically to the task of *following Christ* (which is why we are reading our Bible's as Christians). Being able to read does not make you Christian, but it is necessary if we want to read the NT. In the same way the ability to observe and adapt our understanding is not in itself Christian, it is a tool that can be used to follow Jesus well.

Following the way of Jesus is profoundly challenging. As I have attempted to work out how to follow Jesus, how to love my enemies, how to die to myself, how to turn the other cheek, and so on, I have found that looking at the fruits--while it does not make it easy or obvious--is by far the best tool I have.

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interaction!

You wrote: "The "right" interpretation therefore is not the one that gets the tense of the Greek word just right, but the one that works, the one that leads to life. That is something we can objectively evaluate."

I think the cross contradicts that. The cross is the limit of our evaluative criteria and is anything but 'objective' in a way that the sciences use 'objective'. I think theology is objective, but that its object is the living God and that changes our entire method...

By appealing to what 'works' you make effectiveness the criteria. It's this language that causes me to worry.

And as for the ends-means discussion, means are made moral by their ends...they don't necessarily begin as 'immoral', that would be begging the question. To the question of turning the other cheek, you wrote, "So as this teaching is applied in different contexts, we can observe where it bears good fruit and where it instead produces harmful outcomes." I read this as saying that this teaching applies where it is shown to be helpful, but where it is harmful, it doesn't apply. After reading your post again, I can see that maybe I've misinterpreted what you are saying. I've interpreted you as saying that the command can be ignored based on the ends that we can hope to achieve by it. This is what I meant as an example of the ends determining the means. In this case it's a perceived end that dismisses the commanded means. But if we (and I think you do) keep the command to turn the other cheek, we have to struggle with the whole nexus of issues that are raised...but it is always the cross that we stand under and with which we must be confronted. The cross is grace for our limitations, but it is also a sign that guides our moral lives.

You wrote in your reply to me: "What makes this "Christian" is that it is applying the evaluative criteria of looking at the fruits (which I might mention is the criteria Jesus proposed himself) specifically to the task of *following Christ* (which is why we are reading our Bible's as Christians)."

I worry that you're reducing the theological to the ethical, that following Jesus is what the bible is about. To some extent, it is. But we read the bible to hear the word of God--God's active voice. There is no 'method' that can accomplish this. No ethical calculus that works this out. Neither the fundamentalist literalist, nor the progressive moralist has the key, the key is the freedom of God over his own words. Our ethics, our interpretation of the bible's meal teaching is always 'penultimate' in Bonhoeffer's words, it is always subject to God's ultimate word. HOW this works out is not able to be worked out according to any method.

These are my thoughts...I'm not sure we're that far from each other, I just worry a bit when the social sciences are thought to offer objective criteria for Christian ethics. Yes, they are sometimes helpful, but they too come under the judgment of the living voice of God.

On a side note (but a pertinent one, it seems) I'd be curious what you might make of Kierkegaard's 'teleological suspension of the ethical' in "Fear and Trembling." How is Abraham's obedience to the command of God in any way an ethical decision?

grace and peace,

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Sam I think you are raising some very important points that will make for great conversation. I'd like to take the points one at a time, which will mean that will post a few comments rather than trying to tackle them all at once. Let me say though that even if I disagree at points it is really more that I am seeing us in basic agreement, but working out the details together rather than seeing it as my side vs. your side. Just wanted to mention that before I begin. I see your criticisms as a n opportunity to further explore and deepen what I am saying here, and so welcome them.

Right now though it's really sunny outside, so I'm gonna go out with my kids. I'll try and post stuff therefore when I get back :)

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I will say really quickly that I have not read Kierkegaard (I am quite familiar with Bonhoeffer). So I would need you to explain his 'teleological suspension of the ethical' to be able to comment on that specifically.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Mark James said...


I think I share many of Sam's concerns, though I would frame them as a question about the kind of argument you are making. My view is that there is no epistemological 'silver bullet:' searching for 'the' criterion of knowledge of interpretation is a modernist shell game. We should know by now how it works: someone comes along with 'the' irrefutable criterion: consciousness! (Descartes) experience! (Locke) Scripture! (fundamentalism) or whatever it is. This criterion is never as irrefutable as it is pronounced, and hence it is exceptionally vulnerable to criticism. But to (rightly) knock down one thing as 'the' criterion only to (wrongly) set up something else is just to remain trapped in the same fruitless modernist way of thinking. I ask: why should we expect a complex library of 66 books to be governable by one criterion? It baffles me, honestly, why we should expect this. Why shouldn't being a fallible knower require: to work within a plurality of good but not perfect criteria? to be as restrained as possible in our claims? (And surely to establish 'the' criterion of knowing is not a restrained claim). I would call this philosophy 'pragmatism,' and I think what you're promoting here is both closely related to pragmatism (given its concern to be scientific, which I strongly support) and importantly different (because of its lingering attraction to sliver bullet epistemology).

This shows up in your post (and in previous arguments we've had) in a tendency to want to have it both ways -- that is, to reject something in your opponents yet claim it at the same time for yourself. Two examples:
1. You say that no knowledge is objective. OK fair enough: but then I don't understand how you can say that your criterion, unlike others, is one we can 'objectively evaluate.' Your own argument means we should be highly suspicious of this claim -- and indeed, I think it's pretty obvious that 'flourishing' and 'life' are not objective criteria. The question should be: if not 'objective' knowledge, what kind of knowledge is appropriate to human beings? And if your answer is 'scientific' knowledge -- and here I basically agree with you! -- I am skeptical that scientific knowledge really operates with the epistemology you're promoting.

2. Another example, and more problematic: your whole approach is motivated by suspicion that hermeneutic disputes are fruitless. OK fine; but you also have a recurring tendency to speak of this as 'the criterion Jesus used,' 'the goal Jesus states,' or what Christianity 'ultimately' is about. But what kinds of claims are these? Either appeals to the text, or appeals to your criterion, and in either case, totally circular.

Based on your responses to Sam, I could read you as saying something else. Rather than seriously meaning there is one criterion, perhaps envision a kind of back and forth, where we BOTH think historically and linguistically about the meanings of texts like 'turn the other cheek,' and 'he would lose his life will find it,' AND we look at the consequences of our various interpretations. If that's what you mean, then I agree with you entirely! I'd only point out that instead of looking for 'the criterion,' you should be talking about a circular process, in which not only readings but also criteria are fallible. It would also entail that you are not absolved of the responsibility to keep reading and interpreting every text of scripture. I've sensed in our previous conversations a certain impatience with my insistence on returning to textual details. That's consistent with the silver bullet approach (because ultimately you can know the 'fruits' without reading the text!) but not with the circular one.

Anyways, thanks for this provocative and interesting post.


At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

So Sam there is something that is foundational to how we approach this that I thing would need to be clarified before we can meaningfully discuss any of the other issues:

You have said a number of times, and in different ways, that you object to the idea of something being "effective" and have appealed to the "cross" instead. The presumption would be that something would be ineffective and also (if we are going by the categories I was suggesting of mental health) that it would not only be ineffective but also observed to be hurtful.

In arguing for this you appealed to the cross and implied that this involves obedience regardless of outcomes, even if that involves harm to oneself or others.

Now, if you look at the comment above from Whit you can see that they mention an argument made by fundamentalists which involves the idea that "Suffering is a part of the Christian condition, so any negative consequences to upholding the "correct" interpretation (e.g. staying in a marriage that's abusive) just becomes that Christian's cross to bear."

My question for you then is, if what I say here is an accurate description of your position, how exactly is this functionally different from the fundamentalist one Whit describes?

If it is not an accurate description of your position (the idea that we should obey regardless of whether it seems good at all, and in fact regardless of how much it may cause harm to ourselves or others), then please clarify how I have misunderstood you.

At 8:32 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Let me focus on one of the things you bring up specifically: the idea of objectivity. You object that it is a contradiction for me to say that we cannot be truly objective, and at the same time for me to propose that we can objectively evaluate something.

That however is not actually reflective of what I said. What I said was that "Science recognizes that we are never truly objective and so works by continually testing and observing" and further that the scientific method "provides us with objective criteria (as objective as we humans are capable of being)"

Note in each case that I acknowledge (as any decent scientist would) that human knowledge is never truly objective. However scientists nevertheless attempt to use methodology which is as objective as possible. That is at the core of scientific methodology. This is not a contradiction at all, it is doing our best based on the reality of our human condition to make the best observations we possibly can. That's how the scientific method works, whether it is applied to physics, medicine, or mental health. It works great, and there is no contradiction.

At 8:35 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


"my college degrees were in Psychology and Christian Education. So I can really appreciate the interaction between theological concepts derived from Scripture and its interpretation (studied on an academic level) and what actually works on the ground to bring peace/wholeness in my relationship with myself, with others and with God. "

That's great to learn about you! Perhaps you can help Sam, Mark, and I navigate our way through this. Any thoughts?

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Mark James said...

I'm sorry, I should have been clearer. I didn't mean you were contradictory, only that:
1. it's potentially confusing to use the same word ('objective') for what you critique and what you affirm.
2. 'scientific' might be a better word for what you're affirming, and here I would agree with you for praising this, though it invites a further discussion about how scientific knowing works.
3. I don't think 'fruits' is objective in YOUR sense -- i.e. in a way that would help solve the problem of providing criteria to resolve disputes. I think it would just give rise to different intractable disputes, about what 'flourishing' and 'life' really consist in.

In any case, my central point was about the desire for a single criterion and my second example, which illustrates the issue more sharply. I'd still be interested in your thoughts on those questions.

Peace to you.

At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derek, let me be as clear as I can. The fundamentalist example is a commitment to biblicist/literalist criteria. What I am saying is that neither that criterion NOR ends/'fruits' based criteria will do. My concern is that you have simply shifted from biblically sourced, literalist reading of scriptural ethics to grounding your ethics in the social sciences. Both approaches are attempts to secure the method of Christian ethics as a rationally coherent discipline. Both are problematic for similar reasons.

I am not rejecting either, only the underlying assumption that there is an authoritative method to be discovered--a silver bullet, to use Mark's phrase--that will ground our ethics. Both exegesis and the social sciences may be used in our ethical thinking; however, the conclusions we come to will only be penultimate (Bonhoeffer).

The example of the cross reminds us that our decisions are to be faithful, not NECESSARILY effective. That doesn't mean that the alternative is ineffectiveness. This would be a false dilemma. In the case of the abused spouse, my concern is faithfulness. I've heard wonderfully redemptive stories of women who have seen an abusive spouse turn completely around, and I've counselled women to leave abusive spouses. All of these are penultimate decisions, the ultimacy of each is only to be found if in these God is at work--something I do not control or determine.

When Bonhoeffer makes his move toward discipleship, he's kicking out from under himself (and us) the secure foundation of ethics. All ethical theories will end up supporting one ideology or another. Instead, he puts the freedom of God at the center of ethics, turning moral deliberation into discipleship and locating it in the church, rather than the academy. In place of hubristic anthropology, we find a chastened humanity that knows what it means to be human only in Christ.

Finally, I want to say that what the cross does for our 'penultimate' moral deliberations is that it frees them from the logical constraints of death. The worst that could happen is not that we die, but that we do not, with our lives, bear witness to the one who was faithful to the Father on behalf of Israel and for the world.

now, back to work...

At 2:57 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Hi Derek. As I'm reading through comments here, it looks like at the core of the back and forth between you and Sam, etc., are two questions:

1. What is the measure/criterion of "objective" spiritual truth?

2. How do I personally, as a limited human being, effectively appropriate that truth in my own response to God and His revelation in Christ?

As the short answer to the first question, what Sam has described in his last comment resonates with my Orthodox perspective (and personal conviction based on my own Christian experience): The only ultimate and reliable criterion of truth/knowledge that we have is Christ Himself, given to the whole Church by revelation through the Holy Spirit. Sam's statement (taken from Bonhoeffer), "In place of hubristic anthropology, we find a chastened humanity that knows what it means to be human only in Christ" seems to me to be a very good summary of classical Orthodox Christian (patristic) understanding.

With regard to the question of how we each, as fallible human beings, appropriate truth as it has been revealed in Christ, this would seem to be a process of interaction between grace (God's activity of conviction/illumination in our hearts and also His activity through the Holy Spirit in the Church as a Divine-Human community embodied in history, space and time) and our individual experience. Our experience is, indeed, a kind of spiritual/psychological/social "scientific" knowledge in the sense it requires a process of trial and error in our attempts to practice the faith in our personal and relational experience to find what works to bring about the "fruit" of the life of Christ in human beings. I have found the social sciences to be a good, though certainly not perfect, source of input here insofar as they provide collective date from the wider human experience to offset some of the limitations of our individual blind spots and biases. In contrast, perhaps, with the modernist approach to knowledge, though, which assumes we can use some external, "objective" method for arriving at the truth (divorced from the nature of our existence as personal, spiritual beings made in the image of God), the Scripture/Christ/the Church has located the method in a spiritual process of synergy (cooperation) between the human heart and the grace of God which works in us to bring about our purification (from sin), illumination (in Divine knowledge), and theosis (complete transformation into the image of Christ). For us, humility and the desire to love as God loves are paramount. This touches, perhaps, some on Mark's comments.

Two statements of Jesus' that, for me, act as touchstones for each of these aspects of how spiritual truth can be known are:

John 5:39 "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me." (Christ, His own Person, is the criterion of the Truth.)


John 7:17 "If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority." (We appropriate the truth in direct relationship to the extent to which we want to love as God loves--i.e., with the kenotic/humble love of Jesus (the will of God summarized by Christ in John 13:34, John 15:12, etc.).

How we appropriate spiritual truth is through the synergy of our will (John 7:17) with the grace of Christ--His Person and His Presence as He acts in our lives and in and through His Church (John 5:39).

I don't know if that helps. I'm not trained in philosophy, and my study of Kierkegaard, etc., was so brief and limited and so long ago, I'm afraid I can't add anything to that part of the discussion.

At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"1. it's potentially confusing to use the same word ('objective') for what you critique and what you affirm"

There is only one concept, not two. I am not critiquing one thing and affirming the other, I am simply stating the way that scientists understand the idea of objectivity.

2. 'scientific' might be a better word for what you're affirming, and here I would agree with you for praising this, though it invites a further discussion about how scientific knowing works.

Objectivity is the precise term that science uses. So it would be incorrect to think of "scientific" as being in contrast to "objective." The scientific method involves methodology that works to assure objectivity through a number of safeguards applied to experiments and studies.

Now, I noticed that you and Sam keep talking about this idea of something being flawless and perfect. However science never claims to be flawless. It is however reliable. So reliable that we get on airplanes and trust that they will not fall to the ground--because of science. So reliable that we go to a hospital when we are sick knowing that we can trust our lives to them--because of science. Science is reliable enough to trust in, to base our live on, and the fact is you do. We all do. That same scientific method also helps make things better and safer when problems are discovered.

So I do not think it is fair to say that the scientific method is unrealistic. It works, and it works great. It is not perfect, but it is better than any other approach.


At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


3. I don't think 'fruits' is objective in YOUR sense -- i.e. in a way that would help solve the problem of providing criteria to resolve disputes. I think it would just give rise to different intractable disputes, about what 'flourishing' and 'life' really consist in.

In the fields of mental health what they would note is the "rotten fruit" and they do this with concepts such as abuse and trauma. With that criteria we can for example identify the harm that comes from abusing children. So when the Bible says beating children so as to leave "wounds and bruises" on them "cleanses the soul" we can look at this from the perspective of mental and observe the severe damage this does to a person's psyche (soul), and conclude, objectively, that no, child abuse is definitely not good for you. In other words: We look at the fruits and see they are clearly rotten. That is very important information to apply to our ethical engagement with scripture. Abuse is bad. Slavery is bad. This can be objectively demonstrated by looking at the effects it has on people.

Science is not a perfect approach. Science never claims to be. However it does work, and it works good enough to base our entire society on it. We do not need an ideal perfect "magic bullet" we need something that is practical and realistic and which we can apply in our real lives right now. What I am proposing works in exactly this way.

I also want to point out that most theology was done in a pre-scientific time. That is deeply significant. Today we know because of our understanding of mental health that child abuse is bad for you. However this is something that they did not know in earlier times. Children were severely beaten (ie hit with whips or sticks until covered in blood) for centuries. Luther talks about this. So does Augustine. They were both abused children. Wesley certainly was. So was Calvin. What happens when a victim of abuse writes theology? What does that do to their understanding of authority, to their understanding of punishment?

Note that in identifying the idea of "looking at the fruits" I am not implying that Jesus had a PhD in psychology. I am also not saying "Jesus said it therefore this is my trump card." That is an argument appealing to authority which I do not believe in.

However, what I am claiming is that we can identify that Jesus is using a criteria of observing the effects in people's lives in order to evaluate the validity of a moral teaching, that that this can be legitimately identified as a trajectory that was further developed into what we can see being done today in the field of mental health. The social science approach is of course much more developed and sophisticated, but there is a line you can trace in the same way that you can see that Jesus' value of caring for the poor is being furthered today by organizations like World Vision even though Jesus did not use the trucks and airplanes and doctors and engineers that they do.

At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Also I want to point out that there is not simply a balance between social science and the academic study of texts. When I propose that we should apply social science, this was said to be "not Christian" and "removing God." That I think it deeply significant. It reveals to me that the sciences are still viewed as something "secular" and perhaps even as something threatening and opposed to the faith.

What I am experiencing is that as I propose a way to integrate the social sciences into our faith, into how we can ethically evaluate scripture, this is met with resistance as if it was "not Christian."

At 10:34 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

(cont.) In addition to John 5:39, there is the even more direct statement of Jesus in John 14:6, that He is . . . the truth.

Where I wrote, "I have found the social sciences to be a good, though certainly not perfect, source of input here insofar as they provide collective date from the wider human experience to offset some of the limitations of our individual blind spots and biases", "date" should have read "data".

At 7:26 AM, Blogger Mark James said...


I want to be very clear because I think we disagree less (or at least, differently) than you think.

1. I am in no way criticizing science, certainly not as being unChristian. In both my comments I made a point of praising you just at the point where you praise science. Perhaps you're referring to me but to what Sam said, though I'm not sure he really said that either. Or perhaps you're thinking of some other exchanges you've had in the past?

2. What is 'potentially confusing' about your use of the word 'objective' this. You write in your original post, 'we are never truly objective.' But you also wrote in your last response that the scientific method 'assures objectivity.' I think the first sentence means: we never achieve certain, infallible knowledge. I think the latter means: science generates very reliable but fallible knowledge. If that's what you mean, then I agree. If you want to use 'objective' for the second kind of knowledge -- that's actually my preference too, for the very reasons you lay out -- then why say we never achieve 'objectivity'? I think that only confuses things. So let's agree to call fallible, reliable knowledge generated through scientific procedures 'objective;' and let's agree to deny that human beings can achieve a more certain, infallible kind of knowledge. If you're saying those two things, then I really do agree 100%.

I'll use the next comment to clarify where I mean to disagree...

At 8:11 AM, Blogger Mark James said...

(typos in the above: 'Perhaps you're NOT referring to me but to Sam...' and 'What is potentially confusing...IS this.')

Now the only thing I've been trying to challenge you on -- and based on your responses, I'm not entirely sure you mean to be saying it -- is your implication that there is ONLY ONE evaluative criterion for interpretation. I would call this view a form of 'foundationalism.' I don't mean that you necessarily think this criterion itself is perfect.

When you talk of 'integrating' social science with our reflection, this suggests a very different picture, that we draw on BOTH social scientific knowledge AND other kinds of knowledge. You didn't like my talk of a balanced approach, for reasons I don't understand, but in any case, it is the approach I am promoting. I'm very happy to agree with 'let's integrate the results of the social sciences into theology.'

Now by a balanced approach, I don't mean: maybe child abuse isn't bad after all. Of course child abuse is bad, and slavery. (Though do you really think we know slavery is bad for basically social-scientific reasons?)

I simply mean that we have a variety of different ways of knowing the world, and most of them come on a spectrum of certainty. That is, most kinds of knowing have clearer cases and less clear cases. (By clearer I do mean: infallibly certain. I only mean: I'm more sure about X than about Y.)

Now your rhetoric tends to juxtapose LESS certain cases of interpretation ('What would Jesus do?') with MORE certain cases of social science ('Is child abuse harmful to a child?'). I agree that the former is questionable, the letter pretty damn secure. But it doesn't follow that one method, as a whole, is better than the other.

For surely we can find more (not infallibly) sure interpretive claims. Is it not more certain that 'the book of Colossians is attributed to Paul' than 'Paul wrote Colossians'? Is it not more certain that 'Jesus was crucified' than that 'we should all be pacifists'? Is it not more certain that 'love is a fruit of the Spirit' than that 'to love my wife I should be willing to submit to her just as she should be willing to submit to me'? And so on. And if you're willing to agree that there are more or less (never infallibly) certain interpretive claims, I think you'd also have to agree that the 'criteria' for these claims are partly linguistic/historical, which is all I've ever been trying to say: we know things by criteria other than social scientific ones. And again, I suspect you agree with this??

Similarly, in the social sciences: presumably it is more certain that 'child abuse is harmful to children' than, say, that 'this or that particular method of discipline is best for children.' All I'm saying -- and I'm sure you agree -- is that while we can point to clear cases of harm, there are many unclear cases, even on social scientific terms.


At 8:11 AM, Blogger Mark James said...

Now why do I say 'flourishing' and 'life' are less objective than you think? Many reasons:
1. There is a long history of disputing what 'flourishing' consists in, that goes back at least to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Must one have some degree of material well-being, and if so, what degree? Is flourishing consistent with institutions like marriage, that have been historically oppressive to women? Is someone really flourishing who is rich and, to all appearances, happy? I think that if the social sciences claimed to speak authoritatively on all these questions, they would often be going beyond their own scientific purview. My experience with counselors is that they do not always recognize this -- one counselor I had couldn't resist telling me that 'organized religion' was a major source of non-flourishing for me, that I needed to recognize that 'all religions are one,' which I hope you would agree is beyond his purview.

2. The Christian concept of 'life' by its very nature goes beyond what is empirically measurable. I believe it INCLUDES the empirical (so that we can and should say: the life Christ brings is opposed to child abuse and slavery). But it goes beyond it, so that when Christ says 'you must lose your life to find it,' I highly doubt he is referring to a kind of life or flourishing that the empirical sciences are competent to evaluate. I suspect this is what Sam means by pointing to the cross. If we are sometimes called to die -- well, how can the social sciences evaluate whether that choice led to the kind of flourishing we anticipate in the new creation?? That doesn't mean we should reject the social sciences as 'un-Christian'! It only means: draw on them, and draw on other kinds of criteria as well.

So in sum: my ONLY dispute with you is your tendency to say there is ONE criterion for interpretation. It's only a tendency, because you say things that point in another direction, e.g. 'integrating' theology and social sciences. If you're happy to say there are MANY criteria, including social scientific one, then I think we pretty much agree. (But if you agree with me on this, then I hope you'll be a little less critical of those who draw on 'Coptic or Greek' to study texts. Surely they contribute something important too!)

Thanks again for your thoughtful responses.


At 8:16 AM, Blogger Mark James said...

Oops one more type: 'by clearer I do NOT mean: infallibly certain.'

At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes I was referring to what Sam said specifically is statement "your ethic is not Christian because it doesn't need God." Now, I realize that Sam is not saying that I am not a Christian, and I do rather like Sam so I don't take this personally, but I do think it reveals a certain distrust of science and ethics and really human thought at all--as all being somehow "not Christian" which would imply that the *only* source of "Christian" we ever have is from a text.

Now I very much disagree with this. If Christ is truly in us, if our mind is "transformed" into Christ's image so you and I have "the mind of Christ" then we should be able to have thoughts about ethics, about lots of stuff that is thoroughly Christian--just as much as my mind's understanding and interpretation of the Bible could be considered "Christian."

So what I want to point out is that there is an assumption, which I think is very widespread, that looking at scripture is the right/good/Christian source, whereas anything else (in this case science, but really any human thought at all) is considered second class, and often even suspect if not threatening.

That plays a factor when we are talking about have a "balanced view": If one source is considered "from God" and the other source is considered to be "not Christian" then that is certainly unbalanced.

I am not saying there is ONLY one criteria for interpretation, but I am saying that some criteria are more important than others. I maintain that looking at the fruits is
1) far more important than a textual analysis when it comes to ethical evaluation of the text, and 2) that there is a tenancy to ONLY consider the text, and to not look at the fruits at all.

At 8:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the continuing discussion...Its civility is refreshing!

A couple quick things:

First, just for the record, I am not distrustful of science when scientific method is appropriately determined by its object of study. The social sciences and the historical critical sciences are all useful in doing ethics and interpreting scripture. When we turn our attention to theology, the object, God, determines our study in a way that is utterly unique and distinct from these other sciences. That, I take it, is a scientific approach.

Second, I am sceptical of human thinking. Humans tend toward ideology and this can tend to distort theology for our own political ends. The renewed mind is never a possession of the Christian, but something that is dependent on its relationship to the renewer. Therefore our confidence in it is grounded only in our confidence in God. This works out to be critical of both the biblicist and the social scientist, but only from a radically de-centered position as a disciple of Jesus for whom Jesus is the center.

That said, from a penultimate position, I thoroughly agree that 'fruits' are important in our consideration of Christian ethics; but from a theological standpoint, Jesus Christ himself is the ultimate criterion. This means that at the heart of Christian ethics is not a method, but a person. How this works out disrupts and challenges both the biblical literalist and the social scientist...and the theologian!



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