My Gospel: Much ado about noting

 

There are fictitious stories and non-fictitious stories. French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, said that we tell stories because human lives need and merit to be told. Writing stories is one of the noblest employments of the mind and soul. Most good stories aim at knowledge and wisdom. This aim is most evident in life stories: biographies. For many professing Christians, most of the value of Bible stories lies in what they tell them about themselves, not what they tell them about God. Story, writes Leslie Leyland Fields, is all the rage. Everyone pants to tell their personal narrative or to give the Bible a simpler and more relevant plot. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea.” (The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony). (See The Gospel is more and less than a story).

I’m reminded of Reconstructionist-Reform Judaism (most Jews fall in this category), which sees the Bible as man-made stories that bind the Jewish community together. Actually, it’s much more than about community. In a sense, the Bible is often less than about community; it’s about self.

You yourself, and I myself, says Martyn Lloyd Jones, are our greatest enemies. The 
curse of life is that we are all self-centred. We live for self instead of for God, and thus we are selfish, we are jealous, and we are envious. As Paul puts it, we are ‘hateful, and hating one another’ (Titus 3:3). Why? Because we are out for ourselves. Instead of living 
to God, in worship of Him and to His glory, we have all made ourselves [into] gods.” That’s, at bottom, the meaning of “total depravity”: we have made ourselves gods rather than God’s. (See Kinda Christianity”: The Bible as stories about ourselves; our gods).

Here is the French Jesuit,
Jean-Pierre Causssade, famous among Roman Catholic contemplatives for his 
handbook “Abandonment to divine providence,” Here is an excerpt from Caussade for whom the Gospel is merely “a tiny stream” in comparison to the river that God 
is dying  to pour into you.

The Holy Spirit continues to
carry on the work of our Saviour. While helping the Church to preach the
Gospel of Jesus Christ, He writes His own Gospel in the hearts of the just. All
their actions, every moment of their lives, are the Gospel of the Holy Spirit.
The souls of the saints are the paper, the sufferings and actions the ink. The 
Holy Spirit with the pen of His power writes a living Gospel, but a Gospel that
 cannot be read until it has left the press of this life, and has been published on 
the day of eternity….Teach me, divine Spirit, to read in this book of life. I desire to become Your 
disciple and, like a little child, to believe what I cannot understand, and cannot
see. Sufficient for me that it is my Master who speaks. He says that! He
 pronounces this! He arranges the letters in such a fashion! He makes Himself 
heard in such a manner! That is enough. I decide that all is exactly as He says.
I do not see the reason, but He is the infallible truth, therefore all that He
 says, all that He does is true. He groups His letters to form a word, and 
different letters again to form another word. There may be three only, or six;
 then no more are necessary, and fewer would destroy the sense. He who reads
 the thoughts of men is the only one who can bring these letters together, and
 write the words. All has meaning, all has perfect sense. This line ends here 
because He makes it do so. Not a comma is missing, and there is no
 unnecessary full-stop. At present I believe, but in the glory to come when so
 many mysteries will be revealed, I shall see plainly what now I so little 
understand. Then what appears to me at present so intricate, so perplexing, so
foolish, so inconsistent, so imaginary, will all be entrancing and will delight me
 eternally by the beauty, order, knowledge, wisdom, and the incomprehensible
 wonders it will all display.” (Mystical YOUnion: Do you want God to write a Gospel about you or are you aching to write it yourself?). 

Something is amiss in this mystical effusion, namely, the belief that besides the “Gospel” proper, which for Caussade means the scriptures, there is another Gospel, a Gospel for you and for me. It seems quite possible that God takes copious notes on each individual’s story, but should we call that individual story another Gospel, even if we mean it metaphorically? The word of God in the scriptures “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16). The focus of Christians should not be on the memorable, momentous “Gospel” God is writing about their lives, but on the historic remarkable life of Jesus Christ. 

Owing to the fact that Caussade is both a Roman Catholic and a contemplative, and a Jesuit,  it comes as no no surprise he writes in such an imaginative way; the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola’s “Exercises” (in imagination) are famous among Roman Catholics. Caussade’s drift seems  to be that unless the Gospel story is faithful to “my story,” it has little significance. Martin Luther would execrate such chutzpa. Many modern Lutherans would do likewise. There are other Lutherans, however, who would love Caussade’s idea of one person, one Gospel – a typical postmodern pursuit. For example, Walter Brueggemann does not consider theology and Bible interpretation a matter of certainty but of fidelity; fidelity to 1. the “divine office of creative imagination” (Ignatius Loyola?) and 2. to the “other.” 

For Brueggemann any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be discarded. We should rather, as Jacques Derrida says, remain open to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus to unrestricted interaction between suffering persons desiring to tell their personal stories. The biblical story for the imaginative is about always departing never arriving, unless it arrives at the front door of my singular story. (The postmodern pursuit: Always departing, never arriving). There are many Lutherans, thankfully, who have not taken this postmodern turn.

Compared to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our “Gospel” is much ado about nothing. If you don’t agree stop singing those silly songs, “It’s not about me Lord, it’s all about you-hoo-hoo-hoo.” Who again?

 

 

 

KJV or NASB? Of by and through and one less all to fight Arminians over

In the KJV Ephesians 3:9-10, I read:
9 And to make all (men) men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: 10 To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God.

Re verse 10: I’m not so hot on 17th century English. I can’t make head or tail of verse 10. Who is intended to know the wisdom of God, the principalities or the church. All the other English translations on Bible Hub have “through the church.” That makes sense. Here is the New American Standard Bible (NASB):

9 so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.

If that is not enough to madden King Jamesophiles, the NASB, in contrast to all other English translations on Bible Hub, follows the Alexandrian Greek text, it seems, by omitting “all” in verse 10.

10. and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things.

Whoopee for Alexandria, ’cause that’s one less “all’ to fight Arminians over.

Have to now “select all” in my word processor and paste it into WordPress. Bye y’aaahhhhl.

James White’s Greek: Trip over your letters and destroy the world

First a little linguistics. The science of linguistics distinguishes between competence and performance. Competence refers to knowledge of a language, and performance to its use. Sometimes a competent language user may – aware or unaware – slip on his performance of sounds, spelling, grammar or vocabulary. The difference between a competent and incompetent language user is that the former, when becoming aware, can correct the mistake. The incompetent person. In contrast, cannot corect the mistake, which means that he doesn’t know the language (adequately). If, therefore, a person makes a mistake in writing or speaking, we should not conclude that the person is incompetent, namely, doesn’t know how the language works. The mistake might be a performance slip, and not an indication of incompetence.

On his “Dividing Line” yesterday, James White was in telephonic conversation with Ijaz Ahmed. One of the issues dealt with was the incident where White had slipped up in quoting from memory an excerpt of biblical Greek. Ijaz Ahmed had previously posted the following graphic and article on his blog

james white greek 1

The day after James White’s debate with Br. Zakir Hussain (details here, audio stream here, or right click ‘save as’ to download here), James released an article conceding to his clear ineptitude, inability to respond to well founded research and lack of basic comprehension skills. By basic I mean not being able to find a word and correctly identify its meaning, even after having used a computer to search for it (even though he’s a self claimed expert on the Greek language). I really must question not only his basic comprehension skills, but his lazy and hypocritical attitude as well. Ask a 3 year old Muslim to recite 7 ayat from Surah Fatihah and they would be able to do so with perfect pronunciation (tajweed), which I can demonstrate as being possible here and here, ask James White to repeat something he’s done several thousand times and he can’t.” 

Ijaz Ahmed’s understanding of how language works is parlous. “Reciting” sounds or letters by itself is not what is meant by knowing a language. And so, reciting them well does not mean the reciter knows the language well. Indeed the reciter might not have the foggiest idea. That little three-year  old Muslim hasn’t, of course, a clue what’s tripping off his tongue. This is true of the majority of Muslim adults as well because although they can recite Arabic, they don’t have a clue about Arabic grammar or what the words mean. Think parrots. The difference between a parrot and human “reciters” is that parrots don’t have minds; well, not human minds. But, says many Muslims, that doesn’t matter, because the sounds (phonemes) and the letters (graphemes) have a power in themselves to bring you closer, if not to Allah, to submission to Allah’s will.

As with Muslims, so with Jews, specifically non-Israeli Jews. ”When I was called to the bima (platform), relates Avram Yehoshua from the US,  to read the haftara portion (the portion of Scripture from the Prophets that the bar Mitzva boy reads), I chanted it melodically and without mistake. The only problem was that I had no idea what the Hebrew words meant or what I was doing, except that today I would ‘become a man.’ 

In passing, I wonder whether the Muslims didn’t get the idea from medieval rabbis that the Arabic letters and sounds in the Quran having divine properties. 

In his his “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure”(Brill Academic Publishers, 2002), Jacob Neusner says “The saying of the words [of the Mishnah], whether heard meaningfully by another or not, is the creation of the world?” Jacob Neusner and the grammar of rabbinical theology (5): the creativity of the rabbinical mind.” The explanation of such an unintelligible statement (to those outside traditional Judaism) is found in the Kabbalah, a core text of the Oral Torah. According to the Kabbalah, the very individual sounds (phonemes)/letters (graphemes) of the Torah contain deep meanings independent of the meanings of the words they spawn. Rabbi Glazerson, in his Philistine and Palestinian” (1995) says: The deeper significance of the letters and words is discussed extensively in the literature of Kabbalah. It is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world,”

And Moshe CordoveroHalachah [Jewish law] obligates the reader to read the weekly portion, twice in the original Hebrew and once in the Aramaic translation, and this includes even seemingly meaningless place names (underlining added) such as Atarot and Divon (Bamidbar 32:3 Numbers” 32:3)…The spiritual concept of each and every letter contains a glorious light, derived from the essence of the sefirot [spheres]…each letter is like a splendid palace, containing and corresponding to its spiritual concept. When one of the letters is pronounced aloud, the corresponding spiritual force is necessarily evoked…these spiritual forces inhere not only in [the vocalized letters] but also in their written forms.” Moshe Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim [Garden of Pomegranates] , Sha’ar Ha-Ottiot [Gate of Letters], Chapter 1).   (See my Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning). 

White, stumbled over his Greek letters, and that, says Jiad, I mean Ijad, makes him no NT scholar. We can be thankful though that he was speaking Greek, not Hebrew (or Quranic Arabic?), and so the world did not come to an end.

The postmodern pursuit: Always departing, never arriving

In his review of Matthew Levering’s “The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works,” Carl Trueman describes the postmodernist’s penchant for pursuing truth in the hope of not finding it.

“Augustine [however] was cut from different cloth. For him, it was not the pursuit of truth or some nebulous ‘journey’ which was the important thing; it was finding and resting in truth, real truth, God’s truth. Thus, he spent much of his early life pursuing that truth, through education, through Manicheeism and through neo-Platonism; it was only when he found Christianity and came to rest in God himself that he found the truth, beauty, and the fulfillment that comes from the same. That is not the secular mindset. Indeed, when I played Augustine in a debate with Bertrand Russell last Christmas, I was struck by how my antagonist found Augustine’s claim to have discovered truth to be so obnoxious; is it coherent, I thought, to characterize the good life as the pursuit of truth, rather than the discovery of truth? How can the best life be located in seeking truth and yet never finding it? Is it not the truth of the end point which gives the pursuit its value? And yet the restlessness of this secular mentality would seem to be no different to aesthetic of our post-evangelical arrivistes who seem to believe it is better to be always traveling than ever to arrive.” (Review of Carl Trueman).

A while back, I was in conversation with a friend who said this about Jacques Derrida’s view of truth and a Messiah:

The question of the messiah seems eternally interesting. Derrida opined that the point about having a messiah is the promise, the hope, the aspiration, NOT that (he) comes. So what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived? There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”

Michael Patton, an evangelical Calvinist, sympathises with postmodernists. He believes that since there is nowadays much greater exposure to different cultures and religions through travel and the internet, people become more confused, and consequently don’t know whether (my summation of Patton’s message) they’re a Christian Arthur or an agnostic Martha. Here is Patton:

“I have a deep sympathy toward the confusion that postmodernism has brought about. The global culture that has been created in the last 50 years has caused us to change our perspectives on many things. The internet, world news, and globalization of culture has made it less likely that people can stay sheltered in a naive understanding of truth, religion, and morality even if they are right. The ever changing currents in science, exposure to world religions, fractures in the family unit, divisions in Christianity, and subjective change in personal beliefs and certainty have caused Christians to question the reliability of any source of truth. People are suspicious, disillusion, bewildered, and uncertain.” (M. Patton, “Would the real emerger please stand up”).

Patton, in his “Understanding the Postmodern Mind and the Emerging Church” distinguishes between “hard” and “soft” postmodernists:

“Hard postmodernists would see truth as being relative to the time, culture, or situation of the individual. In other words, truth does not exist beyond the thoughts of the subject. For example (and let me dive right in!), homosexuality, to the hard postmodernist, is right or wrong depending upon the person’s situation.”

“Soft postmoderns are different than hard postmoderns. In general they are suspicious of all truth claims. Their suspicion, however, is not rooted in a denial of the existence of truth, but a denial of our ability to come to terms with our certainty about the truth. In other words, the soft postmoderns believe in the existence of objective truth, but deny that we can have absolute certainly or assurance that we, in fact, have a corner on this truth. To the soft postmodernist, truth must be held in tension, understanding our limitations. We can seldom, if ever, be sure that we have the right truth. Therefore, there is a tendency to hold all convictions in limbo.”

What is so postmodern about rejecting the revelation of an other-worldly destination? Wasn’t that the “Enlightenment’s” claim to fame two centuries or so ago? The Lord Jesus Christ’s view is that if you pursue, you discover. For a Calvinist, the initial pursuing of truth is not done by you but by God, who grants you the desire to pursue both natural and supernatural truth. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last…” (John 15:16). The Bible has a centre, an “arriving” (salvation), a destination, a final destination, which can only be attained through revelation.

To return to the interminable indeterminable departure lounge and the Messiah. There is Derrida, again, sitting on his suitcase again. Did Derrida really want to find the Messiah? And if he didn’t want to, was it because, once found, the Messiah would no longer be of any value. Is it true – as my friend (above) says – that Derrida believed that “the point about having justice or a messiah is the promise, the hope, the aspiration, not that justice or the Messiah comes;” because “what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived? Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?” As the TV “Discovery Channel” puts it: “If we had all the answers, there’d be nothing left to discover. Ignorance is bliss.” Go on finish it off: “and it’s folly to be wise.” Sure if you mean the wisdom of man:

…when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, ESV).

Most “educated” people are soft postmodernists: although they believe that objective truth exists, they say no one can be sure what it is. André Gide, a hard postmodernist advised the softies: “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it?” Only someone who doesn’t believe in (objective) truth talks like that.

The question is, how does one do science or literature (tone poems excluded) without a coherent, stable reality? Indeed, how can one have an intelligent conversation if words and thoughts keep toppling into one another? Scientists and all those blessed with noggins seek to know what’s going on, not only in their heads, but also in the world– theologians too. Everybody – including Derrida – hopes, if not believes, that Truth exists. And a messiah? Is Derrida waiting for a messiah? If so, what kind of messiah? “Derrida’s Messiah is not a person but an opening of experience.

What’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived? Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?” (My friend’s question above). It is unremarkable that sinful man would ask such a question? Undergirding this question is perhaps not the fear that a Messiah, a Judge, exists, neither the conviction that Truth can never be found. What such a question implies is rather the chutzpa (hubris) that nothing higher than man has the right to exist, for man is the measure of all things. Satan asks Adam “Did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1). And therein lies the genesis of the question “What’s the deal with having a messiah who has arrived – unless he’s arrived at another departure lounge?” (The deconstruction of Messiah).

Aristotle believed that virtue was the means to life’s goal, which is happiness. Virtue strives for happiness and the good, the good of all. Indeed, Aristotle’s happiness (and Plato’s for that matter) IS the good. In Aristotle, every human life has a departure and a destination; the reason why you travel is – surely – to arrive at a specific place. That place, for Aristotle, is here, in this world. Since the 19th century, the place to find happiness hasn’t changed, but what has changed since the “Enlightenment” is that its all about departing and no more about arriving unless arriving at another departure lounge. Enlightenment, modern style: Bums on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge

And what about the Victorian postmoderns? – always departing never arriving. Here is Martyn Lloyd Jones:

The Victorians said,’To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’ Stuff and nonsense. If that were true no one would get married, they’d say courtship is better than marriage. But you see this is the sort of phrase that fascinates people and it sounds so wonderful. Ah, they say, we don’t want any of your Christian evangelical dogmatic certainty. We are seekers after truth,we like the great quest after reality. There was no such thing as the knowledge of truth; that was the nonsense they talked, based on nothing but sheer ignorance.” (Martyn Lloyd Jones’ sermon,“By faith, Abraham”).

What about our own postmodern generation? Should we like, Michael Patton, sympathise with them or should it be a plague on both their houses! For both the soft and the hard say “we don’t want any of your Christian evangelical dogmatic certainty.” (Lloyd Jones above). The “Christian” postmodern generation is epitomised in the “Lutheran” theologian Walter Brueggemann for whom theology and Bible interpretation is not a matter of certainty but of fidelity; fidelity to 1. the “divine office of creative imagination” and 2. to the “other.”

For Brueggemann, the Lutheran, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Jacques Derrida says, to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus to unrestricted interaction between suffering persons desiring to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all postmodernists (who believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as Being, no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only suffering beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. So, the only Lutherans who understand suffering and love are the postmodern ones.

All of us in our natural state live in “a sort of diaboliccd trance, wherein the soul traverseth the world; feeds itself with a thousand airy nothings ; snatcheth at this and the other created excellency, in imagination and desire ; goes here and there, and every where, except where it should go. And the soul is never cured of this disease, till overcoming grace bring it back, to take up its everlasting rest in God through Christ : But till this be, if man were set again in Paradise, the garden of the Lord ; all the pleasures there would not keep him from looking, yea, and leaping over All human beings in our natural state live in “a sort of diabolical trance, wherein  the soul traverses the world; feeds itself with a thousand airy nothings ; snatcheth at this and the other created excellency, in imagination and desire ; goes here and there, and every where, except where it should go. And the soul is never cured of this disease, till overcoming grace bring it back, to take up its everlasting rest in God through Christ : But till this be, if man were set again in Paradise, the garden of the Lord ; all the pleasures there would not keep him from looking, yea, and leaping over the hedge a second time.”

(Thomas Boston: “Human nature in its four-fold state of primitive integrity, subsisting in the parents of mankind in paradise; entire deprivation in the unregenerate; and consummate happiness or misery in all mankind in the future state.”)

In conclusion, each generation is responsible for the lies they tell the next. Yet, those who feed on those lies are also responsible – and no social or psychological or theological system can make that biblical truth disappear. At the same time, it is right that Michael Patton has sympathy for postmodernists, for who desires anyone to be always departing and never arriving; worse, lost? Inexorably, God has decreed it so. Yep, unlike (Mike) Patton, and unlike the General, I’m a, a, a, a Jewish Calvinist.

Must pack.

The Calvinist Robot and the Arminian Zombie: Grammars of coming to faith.

Preamble

Grammar police

Grammar police (Photo credit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

The term “grammar” has its origin in the Greek word for “letter,” gramma. “Grammar” used to be restricted to language, but no more. There’s now a grammar of all sorts of odds and togs, for example, a “grammar of fashion”: The larger the ‘vocabulary’ of someone’s closet, the more creative and expressive the wearer can be. If you were to attend Stanford University, you could dig into the “grammar of cuisine,” and slaver over such fare as “The structure of British meals.”And, if you are one of those who thinks deeper, there’s the grammar of the genetic code. (“Code” in linguistics is a another name for “grammar”). The reason why we can use the term “grammar” in so many diverse contexts is because the “grammar” of a system is simply the structure of interrelationships that undergirds that system, showing how things fit together into a coherent whole. (See Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 2): What is grammar?)

In this article, I examine the grammatical relationships within Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and THAT not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”

 Definitions

 When monergism/calvinism is contrasted with synergism/arminianism, what first comes to mind is God’s role and man’s role in coming to faith. The calvinist says that man plays no cooperative or contributive role in coming to faith, while the arminian says that man cooperates with God by turning his heart to God, that is, exercises his will to come to faith. In this regard, the favourite word in arminianism is “whosoever,” (John 3:16), which in the original Greek simply means “the one who” and not “the one who wills.” In calvinism, God first regenerates the sinner and then gives the sinner the gift of faith, while in Arminianism, regeneration follows the sinner’s acceptance of God’s offer of salvation.  “Doesn’t Jesus command me (John 3), “You must be born again?” Yep. “Well, I did what he said I must do, I borned again.” Faith, for the Arminian is something the believer does, not something God gives, as calvinism maintains. 

Introduction

 Michael Horton reports that 85% of evangelicals in America haven’t a clue what justification is about. And moi? Let me try: justification is basically rightstanding with God. “Justification” is a forensic term, which has nothing to do with microscopes and solving crimes, but with absolving crimes, in biblical language, forgiving sin. But much more than forgiveness: reconciliation with God and given the righteousness of Christ. Two core biblical texts about justification are:

 (2 Corinthians, 5:21)

 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of (in rightstanding with) God” .

 Romans 3:19 – 28

[19] Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. [20] For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

[21] But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—[22] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: [23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24] and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, [25] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. [26] It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

[27] Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. [28] For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

 The “righteousness” in 2 Corinthians 5:21 “we might become the righteousness of (in rightstanding with) God” and in Romans 3:22 “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” should not be equated with what is commonly called “sanctification” (becoming holy), The quip “I know I am justified; now I must focus on the job of sanctificationis, at best, simplistic. There are two kinds of “sanctification”; the first occurs when we become Christians (born again and receive the gift of faith):

 “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

The second kind of sanctification is illustrated in Ephesians 2:10:

[8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.(Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV).

 In short, “sanctification is used, in its widest sense, as descriptive of the whole process, originating in regeneration, by which depraved men are restored to a conformity to God’s moral image” (William Cunningham. “Justification” in Historical theology Vol 2 : a review of the principal doctrinal discussions in the Christian church since the apostolic age, 1863).

 In Roman Catholicism, “justification” embraces the whole process of salvation: regeneration, faith, works – purgatory (if you’re not a “saint”) – glorification. Protestant Christians, by and large, are in agreement that justification is by grace alone through faith alone. Protestants are divided into monergists and synergists. In monergism, God alone is involved in a sinner’s justification – the calvinist view). In synergism, God and the sinner cooperate in the sinner’s justification – the arminian view. So, monergists are calvinists, and synergists are arminians (after Jacob Arminius 1560 – 1609). A calvinist view of justification is that God sovereignly regenerates sinners freeing their will from the bondage of their sin nature, planting in them the desire to be reconciled with God, and thus enabling them to stretch out their hands to receive the gift of faith. They have become right with God (reconciled) – justified. An arminian says that God offers degenerate sinners the gift of faith, and no sinner has lost his or her ability to choose God, and so sinners are free to accept or reject the gift of faith. If they desire to accept it, they become regenerated and thereby justified. It follows logically that such a sinner must have something better in himself or herself than the sinner who rejects the gift of faith. Most arminians would deny that they have anything good in themselves.

 Grammar in the Bible

 In Ephesians 2 we read:

 [1] And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. [4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—[6] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, [7] so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. [8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

 I repeat verse 8, our key text: [8]“ “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves (your own doing); it is the gift of God.”

 The demonstrative pronoun that refers to both grace and faith. The letters of Paul (as with the whole New Testament) were written in Greek. So, it would be necessary in any decent exegesis to go to the original language. And so, a crafty devil or advocate would not be satisfied with a translation, for if they were, they’d be(come) calvinists. I say this because most Christians don’t know Greek and don’t care to know it, yet they believe the translated text in their language is correct. They are right to believe the translations because – unless you are a King James Onlyest – most translations (there are one or two icky exceptions in English)– in any language – do a good job.

 Calvinists are accused of turning people into robots because they maintain that everyone who comes to eternal life is predestinated to it, that is, appointed to it (Acts 13:48). They’re also accused, in their exegesis, of logical and grammatical gyrations. The calvinist argues that grace alone brings a person to faith. Here is a typical arminian commentary of “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8):

 (My italics)

 “God, in creation, could have made man as some automated robot who could never fail but to please Him. Praise God, in His wisdom He chose us fallen sinners, who through faith can be cleansed of sin and be found worthy in His sight. We are still sinners but sinners saved by grace. Grace alone saves. Salvation is the gift, but it must come by us putting our faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ.” (Do Unbelievers Really Just Not Understand the Gospel?)

 This person has indicated no rejection of the English version of Ephesians 2:8. The grammar of the verse indicates that the demonstrative pronoun “that” points back to the entire previous sentence, unless otherwise qualified (restricted). So in verse 2:8, if the writer wants to restrict the pointer “that” to grace (which saves) but not to faith (which saves), he would have written “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that GRACE (which saves you) is not of your doing; it is the gift of God.” The implication of this sentence would then be that faith is of your own doing (“putting our faith” – the writer above).

Before I move on to the Greek of this verse, Sometimes a writer/speaker mentions several items but can only retain in short term memory (Freud’s “preconscious”) the last thing he wrote/spoke. So, when he says “that” he is, in his mind, pointing back to at least the last thing (the immediate antecedent) he wrote, which in our verse is “faith”: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”

All English translations of this verse illustrate the grammatical rule that the demonstrative pronoun that in Ephesians 2:8 automatically refers to, at the least, its immediate antecedent, which in Ephesians 2:8 is the noun “faith.” So, “that not of yourselves must refer to “faith.”

The Greek Arminian

The arminian is like the atheist: the atheist says there is no God, so no matter how staggering the complexity of the universe, we’re here ain’t we, so the only explanation is that we must have randomly evolved from the slime . The arminian says, the Holy Spirit is a gentleman; he doesn’t want robots, he wants someone to come to Jesus freely using the greatest human attribute we have: our freedom to love. This (to use a demonstrative pronoun pointing back – to the whole sentence, of course) is at best confused.

No, no, says the arminian, let’s go to the Greek.” Ok then, you appealed to the Greek, so to the Greek you shall go.

 τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ τῆς πίστεως καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον

 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and THAT not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”

 tē gar FOR chariti BY GRACE este YOU sesōsmenoi HAVE BEEN SAVED dia THROUGH pisteōs FAITH kai AND touto THAT ouk NOT ex OF umōn YOURSELVES theou to dōron (it is a) GIFT OF GOD.

 Both “grace” and “faith” are of the feminine gender, but touto “that” is neuter (Demonstrative Pronoun, NEUTER singular nominative or accusative case of οὗτος). Here is an arminian exegesis of Ephesians 2:8:

 “At a certain graduation ceremony, recounts Gordon Clarke, I heard a seminary president misinterpret this verse. His misinterpretation did not succeed in ridding the verse of the idea that faith is the gift of God, though that was presumably his intention. He based his argument on the fact that the word faith in Greek is feminine, and the word that in the phrase, “and that not of yourselves,” is neuter. Therefore, he concluded, the word (touto) cannot have faith as its antecedent. The antecedent, according to this seminary president, must be the whole preceding phrase: “For by grace are you saved through faith.” Now, even if this were correct, faith is still a part of the preceding phrase and is therefore a part of the gift. Taking the whole phrase as antecedent makes poor sense. To explain that grace is a gift is tautologous. Of course, if we are saved by grace, it must be a gift. No one could miss that point. But Paul adds, “saved by grace, though faith,” and to make sure he also adds, and that, that is, faith, is not of yourselves. But what of the president’s remark that faith is feminine and that is neuter? Well, of course, these are the genders of the two words; but the president did not know much Greek grammar. In the case of concrete nouns, for example, the mother, the ship, the way, the house, the relative pronoun that follows is ordinarily feminine; but what the president did not know is that abstract nouns like faith, hope, and charity use the neuter of the relative pronoun. As a matter of fact, even a feminine thing, a concrete noun, may take a neuter relative (see Goodwin’s Greek Grammar). The moral of this little story confirms the original Presbyterian policy of insisting upon an educated ministry. Here was a seminary president distorting the divine message because of ignorance of Greek – or, more profoundly, as I have reason to believe from some of his publications, because of a dislike of divine sovereignty.” (Is Faith the Gift of God in Ephesians 2:8? By Jack Kettler).

Say, however, that an arminian concedes that touto does refer to both 1. “faith” and 2. faith is not of ourselves – 100% a gift from God, he will nevertheless maintain that this does not mean that God rams this gift down a person’s throat; we still must exercise, he says, the other precious gift, the one he was born with, his free will to love God, which God not only respects but insists is His ordained decree of how salvation should be done. This means that God is merely offering the gift of faith; we still have to let God, the arminian reasons, do what He desires us to do; dare I say “dying for us to do?” Knock, knock, knock, please let me in! Contrast this knocking on the door of hearts with: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure? ( Isaiah 46:9-10:9).

 Hebrew translations of Ephesians 2:8

 In this last part, I examine a few Hebrew translations of Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of your own doing; it is the gift of God” (New American Standard Bible). Here is the Sar Shalom translation

 כִּי־בַחֶסֶד נוֹשַׁעְתֶּם עַל־יְדֵי הָאֱמוּנָה וְלׂא מִיֶּדְכֶם הָיְתָה זּׂאת כִּי־מַתַּת אֱלׂהִים הִיא׃

 Kee (kiy)-vachesed nosha’tem al-y’dey ha-emuna v’lo meeyed’chem haiytah zot kee-matat elohiym hee (hiy).

 Literal translation: For by grace you have been saved through the hand of faith, and not by your hand was that [and that was not by your hand/your doing], because a gift of God it (is).

 The Salkinson-Ginsburg translation is a 19th Century Hebrew translation of the Greek Bible. 1876

 כִּי־בַחֶסֶד נוֹשַׁעְתֶּם עֵקֶב אֱמוּנַתְכֶם וְלֹא מִיֶּדְכֶם הָיְתָה זֹּאת לָכֶם כִּי־מַתַּת אֱלֹהִים הִיא׃

For by grace (חֶסֶד chesed MASCULINE) you (plural) have been saved due to ( עֵקֶב ikev) your faith (אֱמוּנָה emunah FEMININE) and not by your hand, this/that (זֹּאת zot FEMININE

SINGULAR) was not to (from) you because a gift of God was it ( הִיא hee/hiy FEMININE SINGULAR)

 I like the idiom (not) “through (by) the (your) hand” (of faith) in both these translations. Grace (chesed) is masculine, and faith (emunah) is feminine. (the sexual connotations I leave to the esoteric imagination).

In Hebrew, there are masculine and feminine nouns but no neuter nouns as exist in Greek (and German). The Greek neuter touto “that” translates as זֹּאת zot feminine singular), and “it” (in “because a gift of God was it) translates as הִיא hee/hiy feminine singular). It seems that the Hebrew translation is pointing back to “faith” alone (אֱמוּנָה emunah feminine singular). If the

Hebrew translation wanted to make it clear that it was referring to both grace (masculine) and faith (feminine), it could have done so by translating touto “that” by ha’eleh “those” (are not of yourselves). Perhaps the translators thought that everbody knows that grace is obviously free.

No Christian would disagree that all grace is from God whether the grace be 1 Arminian grace -. “prevenient” grace (“coming before” [faith]), which is enough to make you aware that God is knocking at your door in his attempt to save you – or 2. Calvinist grace – sufficient to save. How can anyone believe that it is not sufficient to save! Easy, if you’re a human.

In passing. The word grace comes from Latin gratis (free). Now if only there were no neuter nouns in Greek, Arminius would still be a calvinist. But, naturally, (natural) man has something else up his liberal sleeve – his “free” will (to love God).

Here is Elias Hutter’s Hebrew translation from his polyglot Bible (1599-1600); a very rare and wonderful book.

hutter eph 2 8 hebrew

For by-grace are-ye-saved through-faith (feminine singular); and-that (femininine singular) not-at-all of-yourselves: because gift-of God it (feminine singular). Very similar to the English and the other two translations in the picture (Spanish and French). In the French translation, foi “faith” and grace ”grace” are both feminine, while cela ”that” has no gender, which fulfills the same role as the Greek touto”that,” pointing back to both grace and faith.

Conclusion (Concussion)

Two of the Hebrew translations above of Ephesians 2:8 used the expression (not by your) hand, meaning (not of yourselves). This is where confusion, on the part of the arminian, may lurk. He may protest that surely the sinner is not a robot; surely he has to receive/accept the gift – with outstreched hands. And he is absolutely right. Recall the differences between calvinism and arminianism discussed at the beginning: A calvinist view of justification is that God sovereignly regenerates sinners freeing their will from the bondage of their sin nature, planting in them the desire, and thus enabling them to stretch out their hand to receive the gift of faith. They have become right with God (reconciled). An arminian says that God offers the degenerate sinner the gift of faith; sinners are free to accept or reject the gift. If they accept it, they become regenerated and thereby justified. So, an arminian thinks that he can desire to love God, that he can accept the gift of faith while in his degenerate state. He will say he is not that degenerate; there is still enough life left to stretch out a hand.

So, both the arminian and the calvinist stretch out their hands to God receive the gift of faith; the difference between them is that for the calvinist, a person is dead in sin and thus must first be made alive to stretch out his hand. For the arminian, a person is not dead but merely deadish and so still has enough life in him to exercise his freedom to choose God. It looks like a toss up between a calvinist robot and an arminian zombie. All I can say is, eish! I was deadISH (Hebrew ish איש man”), and now I’m alive.

“The Reformers did not ascribe to faith, in the matter of justification, any meritorious or inherent efficacy in producing the result, but regarded it simply as the instrument or hand by which a man apprehended” (William Cunningham).

[8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10).

By grace through the instrument of faith. By, through, God. We are justified by faith alone but faith that is not alone. What’s that? Verse 10 tells us that salvation does not consist only of regeneration and faith but also of works that God prepared for his children that they should walk in them. It is not works that reconcile us to God; it is justification that does that. Justification occurs at at regeneration, which is the moment we receive the gift of faith, which is also the moment that we are saved. So we are saved/have been saved (justification and sanctified), we are being saved (good works – further sanctification) and we will be saved, that is, glorifed with Christ.

Related articles

Peter; forgive sins? Perish the thought

(This is a follow-on from The Roman Catholic Church’s dogma of binding and loosing sin)

The Roman Catholic dogma of “Confession,” as with all its dogmas, is based on the mother of all dogmas, the infallibility of Peter, whom they claim to be their first pope, and its sister dogma, the “Apostolic succession.” The Roman Catholic Church authorises its priests to forgive/absolve sins. In this regard, John 20:23 is one of the RCC’s texts: “If YOU forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if YOU withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

The Roman Catholic interpretation is that these were all or some of the 11 APOSTLES. Let us back up to verse John 20:19:

[19] On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the DISCIPLES were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” [20] When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. [21] Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” [22] And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. [23] If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

The RCC position is based on the view that these disciples were the Apostles only. But why should this be so? Because this power resides in the Apostolic succession through Peter. So, to have disciples who are not Apostles in the room (in John 20:19-23 above) would not be good for the RCC.

I turn to Luke 24, the episode when two disciples meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus and to what happened when they returned to Jerusalem to tell other disciples what they had seen and heard:

33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven AND THOSE WHO WERE WITH THEM GATHERED TOGETHER, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread…44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

So, in the room with Jesus were the 11 Apostles as well as OTHER disciples. The upshot: the idea that “disciples” in John 20:19-23 meant more than just Apostles is extremely cogent.

To return to John 20:23, the passage can only mean this: “Now, says S Lewis Johnson, notice the force of the perfect passive. So, what does this mean then?

“Whosoever sins ye forgive, they shall have been forgiven to them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they shall have been retained.” Well, when it’s all put together, the statement is simply this; the church has not been given the authority to forgive sins. She has been given the authority to proclaim forgiveness to the believing and judgment to the unbelieving. And as long as the church is faithful to the word of God, her pronouncements do simply reveal what has already been determined in heaven. In other words, God has set forth the conditions by which forgiveness, and by which no forgiveness may take place. And therefore, the decisions that count are made in heaven, not upon the earth.” (S L Johnson, Basic doctrine, “The forgiveness of sins”).

The Apostle Peter, leader of the twelve, was without doubt Primus inter pares, first among equals. Peter, however, never ever said anything at all like “Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti” (I absolve/forgive you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” What does Peter say to Simon the sorcerer? “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee” (Acts 20:8).

Peter; forgive sins? Perish the thought, but hopefully not those who entertain the thought.

The LOGOS and the word “word”: Altogether, say “all”

Calvinists, which, of course, include Jewish Calvinists (huh!) like moi, want to platz at the number of times we hear:

World

“See (in John 3:16), it says ‘world'; get it. God so loved the wooooooooooooorld, not just a select few.”

And

All

Kenneth Copeland: (He died for) “ahhhhhhhhhhl. Everybody say “ahhhhhhhhhl.”
.
So, now choose Christ and in you doing so, He will have wasted one lest drop of his blood.

My cry today, though, has to do not with the emasculation of words like “world” and “all” to a single meaning, irrespective of their contextual or theological context; no, my gripe today has to do with the word “word” – Greek LOGOS. Many Messianic Jews love “Yeshua” but hate “Jesus,” because it is (a translation from) Greek. Another word they hate is LOGOS when used to describe Yeshua, because it’s not only of the Greeks but also because it reeks – of Gnosticism.

LOGOS in John 1, the “Word” of God means far more than the (linguistic) words of God. -In the beginning was the word [logos] and the word was with God, and the word was God [John 1:1]. In this opening verse of the Gospel of John, logos is shown as both eternal and pre-existent. It is at the same time introduced as one with God the Father—”was God”—and also distinct from God the Father—”with God.” John also uses the word logos in his first epistle as follows: That which was with us from the beginning… of the Word of life [1 John 1:1]. “…the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost … ” [1 John 5:7]. Logos in the above two verses of the Gospels and Letters has the same meaning as it has in John 1:1 when context is considered.

What I would like to examine here, though is not John’s  “metaphysical” meaning of LOGOS but how different English versions of the Bible translate the linguistic meaning of LOGOS, which is a term that embraces meanings such as “discourse,” “message,” and indeed “meaning” itself, as in Viktor Frankl’s “Logotherapy” (meaning therapy).

I love James Montgomery Boice. And what a voice. Wish he were still with us. Here is something he wrote on LOGOS in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 17-18:

“In verse 18 Paul begins to discuss his major theme in this New Testament letter – the wisdom of God contrasted with the foolishness of men. There is an interesting connection between the introduction, which ends with verse 17, and this new section on the wisdom and power of God beginning with verse 18. In verse 17 Paul speaks of the words of human wisdom. That would stick in the minds of his readers because the word he used, logos, was a powerful word. Then he finishes the verse and begins verse 18, “For the message of the cross – ” and although our New International Version says “message” at that point, the word is actually the same word – namely, the word “word.”‘ Here it is in the singular. What Paul is saying is, “God did not send me with all of the different, competing, various words of human wisdom or philosophy, but with that single word, that word of the Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation to anyone who believes.”

Here is the NIV 1 Corinthians 1:17-18: 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence (LOGOS), lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the message (LOGOS) of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Why not try to capture the flavour of the original Greek by translating LOGOS in both verse 17 and 18 as “words” and “word,” respectively?

And the KJV 1 Corinthians 1:17-18: Verse 17 – “wisdom of words” in the King James Version does a better job than the NIV, which has “wisdom and eloquence.” Verse 18 of the KJV disappoints (me) because it translates LOGOS as “preaching.” To wit: 17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of WORDS (LOGOS), lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. 18 For the PREACHING (LOGOS) of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

Here is Young’s literal translation in which verse 18 has “the WORD of the cross”: 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but — to proclaim good news; not in wisdom of DISCOURSE (LOGOS), that the cross of the Christ may not be made of none effect; 18 for the WORD (LOGOS) of the cross to those indeed perishing is foolishness, and to us — those being saved — it is the power of God.

Young’s Verse 17, alas, doesn’t try to retain the feel of the Greek LOGOS, which is used in both verses 17 and 18). “Discourse” in verse 17, of course, is fine as a literal translation of LOGOS. It would have been nice, though, if a literal translation could, where possible, try and retain the literary quality of a translation, which the ESV does do: 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with WORDS of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the WORD of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Here is Hebrews 4:12 “For the WORD OF GOD is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Now suppose some smarty pants committee translated the verse like this: “For the DISCOURSE OF GOD is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” That would certainly reduce the literary thrust of Paul’s discourse (oops) to a daaaaaaamp squib; in English, that is. Aaaahhhhlltogether say:

“Discooooooouuuuuuuuuurse”
– of God.

Jacob Neusner and the grammar of rabbinical theology (5): the creativity of the rabbinical mind

Summary

Neusner’s “rabbinic theology” rests on the Chomskyan notion of “grammar,” namely, the structure of sentences and their elements . “Discourse” goes beyond the sentence. Neusner’s rabbinic theology ignores the communicative context of words and sentences. Here is Neusner: “Just as Chomsky says ‘Grammar is autonomous and independent of meaning,’ so in Mishnah [the written collection of the Oral Torah and first major rabbinic work], the formalization of thought into recurrent patterns is beneath the surface and independent of discrete meanings. Yet Mishnah imposes its own discipline, therefore its own deeper level of unitary meaning, upon everything and anything which actually is said.” Rabbinic theology, says Neusner, is only intelligible to the rabbis who redacted and preserved the rabbinic texts such as the Mishnah, and, therefore, rabbinic theology “is not a public and ordinary language at all.” I examine this unusual, indeed extraordinary, “logic” of God (theology theos, logos).

Grammar as a Metaphor of Written Torah

Grammar

Grammar” can be defined as “patterns with function but no specific meaning: phonology (new sound combinations), morphology (new words), syntax (new sentences). It is the grammar that allows language signs to be used with virtually endless creativity.” ((Edward Vajda); italics added).

By “creativity” is meant not only that we can create an infinite number of sentences but also that each sentence could function in a variety of contexts. For example, in one context, the sentence, “I am now going to open the oven and look at my fish” could mean exactly that or it could mean – in the context of a mother to her starving son – “If there’s any missing, you’ve had your chips.” The mother is using language as communication.

Neusner’s grammar of theology

Theology, says Neusner, is to religion as language is to experience and perception (italics added)…The use of the analogy drawn from language become obvious when the character of the Torah – the record of encounter with God set down in words of a propositional character – is taken into account. If in the Torah religious experience and knowledge are conveyed in words, sentences and paragraphs, then language is the particular medium for religious encounter, and the rest follows” (pp. 22-23). And “To extend the metaphor,  theology forms the natural sounds of religion into intelligible speech” (p.30). 

Problematic is Neusner’s distinction between “theology” as propositional knowledge (propositions are by definition conveyed verbally) and Neusner’s implication that “religion” is non-verbal “experience and perception.” “Religion,” as normally understood is much more than a set of inchoate experiences and perceptions far removed from the linguistic forms that describe it. “Describe” implies verbal expression, therefore, propositions.

Simply, a proposition is nothing more than a sentence. And to be meaningful, the sentence needs to come alive in the larger context of discourse, which, by definition is communicative, and which means meaningful. In a religion, beliefs and practices are based on a text (oral and/or written). Theology, on the other hand, is the academic study of religious texts. So, in both religion and theology you use your mind as well as (propositional) language – mind and language here are inseparable; whereas in theology you apply your mind and language to religion in a more cognitively demanding way; you study religion. And what should be the objective of religion and theology? “To meet the Eternal” (Neusner, Handbook of Rabbical Theology, p. 29 – at left of photo).

Neusner is going to use grammar as a metaphor for rabbinic theology, because:

The metaphor of a grammar serves [well for the purpose of comparing it with theology], for by grammar is meant ‘an example of a discrete combinatorial system. A finite number of discrete elements (in this case, words) are sampled, combined, and permuted to create large structures (in this case, sentences) with properties that are quite distinct from those of other elements.’ (Steven Pinker, “The language instinct” (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995, p.84). At issue then are the rules of combination and permutation into larger structures – an ideal way of surveying the work at hand. ” (Neusner pp. 19-20).

I examine how Neusner’s rabbinical theology applies the rules of combination and permutation into larger structures.              

Neusner describes theology, which he decomposes into the “logic” of God, as a “grammar” that consists of the vocabulary, syntax and semantics of sentences. He assigns his “grammar” to rabbinictheology where he compares 1. vocabulary (‘head-nouns’) to its categories; 2. syntax to its rules for forming constructions and making connections; and 3. semantics to its models of analysis data (facts). (Jacob Neusner “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” p.22).

With regard to Neusner’s “logic of God,” I think that the meaning of -logy in “theology” is not “logic” but “study (of meaning) as in “biology” and “mythology.” “Meaning” (in theology), of course, involves both logic (how we think – validity) and truth (what we think) about God.

In his “Neusner on Judaism: Literature, Volume 2 – Chapter 7 Form and meaning in the Mishnah,” Neusner says (in the abstract to the chapter), the system of grammar and syntax distinctive in Mishnah expresses conventions intelligible to the members of a particular community, the rabbis who stand behind and later preserved Mishnah. It is not a public and ordinary language at all.”

 Very important for understanding rabbinical Judaism is that the grammar of Mishnah is only intelligible to the rabbis. To question the rabbis, therefore, in the way I am going to do in this examination, certainly excludes me from understanding anything in the Mishnah, but hopefully not from presenting an intelligible argument that such a rabbinical stance is wobbly, at best.

 Later in the same chapter, Neusner says (italics added):

“The extraordinary lack of a context of communication – specification of speaker, hearer — of our document [the Mishnah] furthermore suggests that for Mishnah, language is a self-contained formal system used more or less incidentally for communication. It is not essentially a system for communication, but for description of a reality, the reality of which is created and contained by, and exhausted within the act of description. (Italics added). The saying of the words, whether heard meaningfully by another or not, is the creation of the world. Speech is action. It is creation… And just as Chomsky says, “Grammar is autonomous and independent of meaning,” so in Mishnah. the formalization of thought into recurrent patterns is beneath the surface and independent of discrete meanings. Yet Mishnah imposes its own discipline, therefore its own deeper level of unitary meaning upon everything and anything which actually is said.”

Neusner said (above) that the Mishnah has an “extraordinary lack of a context of communication.” This means not only that the Mishnah is not essentially” a system of communication, but that it is a very poor system of communication. The Mishnah, says Neusner, is a ‘self-contained system’ creating and exhausting its own realities in the very act of describing them.” In sum, Mishnah language constructs and exhausts reality.

What about Neusner’s “The saying of the words [of the Mishnah], whether heard meaningfully by another or not, is the creation of the world?”  The explanation of such an unintelligible statement (to those outside traditional Judaism) is found in the Kabbalah, a core text of the Oral Torah. According to the Kabbalah, the very individual sounds (phonemes)/letters (graphemes) of the Torah contain deep meanings independent of the meanings of the words they spawn. Rabbi Glazerson says:

The deeper significance of the letters and words is discussed extensively in the literature of Kabbalah. It is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world” (See my Letters of Hebrew fire the depth and death of meaning.

I see in Neusner’s rabbinical theology a dislocation of “grammar” from “communication,” and thus from objective reality. This does not mean that rabbinic theology, as Neusner describes it, rejects the concept of reality; what it does is create its own reality. Recall (above): “The Mishnah” is not essentially a system for communication, but for description of a reality, the reality of which is created and contained by, and exhausted within the act of description.” We have, in effect, rabbinical truth versus the world’s purported falsehoods. Truth in rabbinical theology is given by the Holy One of Israel to the rabbis alone. Neusner continues (Handbook, p. 29):

The Torah preserves and hands on the record of God’s presence in this world. There, in those words, sentences, paragraphs the media by which theology forms its vocabulary based on its thought preferencesIsrael finds the record of encounter with God. And God is to be met whenever the words that preserve the encounter are contemplated, thus:”

Rabbinic texts

Neusner then cites three texts from rabbinical texts. I focus on his second example, Tractate Abot [Avot] 3:6. (the parts within square brackets are Neusner’s):

Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hananiah says, “Among ten who sit and work hard on Torah-study the Presence comes to rest, as it is said, ‘God stands in the congregation of God’ (Ps. 82:1) [and 'congregation' involves ten persons]. And how do we know that the same is so even of five? For it is said, ‘And he has founded his vault upon the earth’ (Amos 9:6). And how do we know that this is so even of three? Since it is said, ‘And he judges among the judges’ [a court being made up of three judges] (Ps. 82:1). And how do we know that this is so even of two? Because it is said, ‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard’ (Mal. 3:16). And how do we know that this is so even of one? Since it is said, ‘In every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you, (Ex. 20:2420:2a) [and it is in the Torah that God has recorded His name].”

How does this Tractate illustrate Neusner’s There, in those words, sentences, paragraphs the media by which theology forms its vocabulary based on its thought preferencesIsrael finds the record of encounter with God?To answer this question, consider what Neusner says a few paragraphs later (Handbook of Rabbinic theology, p. 29):

So to begin with we take up a religion that uses disciplined language to set down in permanent form whatever it wishes to say about knowing God. These fundamental convictions of Rabbinic Judaism explain why any account of the theology of that Judaism is going to focus upon the modes of recording in words, Israel’s moments of meeting God, and God’s actions of self-revelation… That integral and necessary component [the Rabbinic canon, which is the Oral Torah] of the one whole Torah revealed by God to Moses is set out in vast documents…The Oral part of the Torah, like the written part, records that encounter in its own distinctive language.” (Italics added).

Tractate Abot 3:6 (above), say the rabbis, is an example of God’s revelation of the Oral Torah where rabbinical theology uses disciplined language to set down in permanent form whatever it wishes to say about knowing God” (Neusner). According to Neusner, the rabbis believe that whatever they wish to believe is what God wishes as well. As I said above, the rabbis claim that truth is given by the Holy One of Israel to them alone; and, according to the Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (Arizal), when (not if) God makes a mess, the rabbis are there to clean it up. (See When the Jew cleans up the Holy One of Israels Mess, Messiah will he come?).

How does this “disciplined language” relate to Neusner’s main theme in his Rabbinical theology. Recall that he is trying to show why (Chomskyan) “grammar” is a good metaphor for rabbinic theology where “grammar” is a set of limited rules applied to words forms, word order and vocabulary that are used to construct an unlimited number of sentences. Let’s see.

Neusner provides more background to Tractate Abot 3:6 that may help us understand better the rabbis’ belief that they have unlimited divine license to use the limited content (analogous to the limited rules of “grammar”) of the Written Torah to create an unlimited accumulation of rabbinic discourse. (See the diagram at the beginning). For this background to the Tractate, which Neusner does not provide in his “Handbook,” we have to go to another of his books published two years earlier in 2000. The background is found in Leviticus Rabbah XI:VIII.3.The question in Tractate Abot 3:6 is, How does a Jew cleave to God? Can he cleave to God directly or only indirectly by cleaving to the Torah mediated by the sages/rabbis, who hold the keys to the Torah (Oral and Written). (According to Rashi, one cannot cleave to God directly because he is a consuming fire). The following episode is related in Leviticus Rabbah XI:VIII.3, the Oral Torah. The historical context is the war between Judah, on the one hand, and Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Israel’s Syrian allies, on the other (Isaiah 7 – 9). Ahaz, king of Judah, formed and alliance with Assyria. He also adopted the Assyrian gods and thus rejected the Torah. Ahaz plans to destroy Israel by killing off all the kids no, not of Israel but of Israel’s goats. No kids, then no he-goats; no he-goats then no flock; no flock then no shepherd; no shepherd then no world.

So did Ahaz plan, ‘If there are no children, there will be no disciples; if there are no disciples, there will be no sages; if there are no sages, there will be no Torah; if there is no Torah, there will be no synagogues and schools; if there are no synagogues and schools, then the Holy One, blessed be he, will not allow his presence to come to the rest of the world.’ (Leviticus Rabbah XI:VIII.3F-G).

What did Ahaz do? He, says Neusner, “locked the doors of the synagogues and schools and the Holy Spirit was locked out of Israel.” Framing the matter in simple terms, continues Neusner: Through the Torah God comes into the world, and the sages, who master the Torah and teach it, therefore bring God into the world. Note the difference between Saul (the Apostle Paul), by himself meeting Christ all alone and the encounter with God through God’s presence in schoolhouses and synagogues. While the Torah may be studied in private, it is received and proclaimed only in the public square of shared worship or shared learning: synagogue, yeshiva. One’s obligation to hear the Torah read can be fulfilled only in community, in a quorum. That is where we meet God. This is the point of Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hananiah, in a familiar saying of Torah-learning that explains how we meet God in the Torah.” (Neusner in Neusner and Chilton, Discovering the Torah in Comparing Spiritualities, pp. 4-5).

With regard to Saul’s direct encounter with Christ, this is an atypical encounter for a follower of Christ as was the encounter of Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel with God. The Christian relationship with God at least among those who believe in the inerrancy of scripture and scripture alone (sola scriptura) – is heavily dependent on the scriptures, as indeed the Jewish relationship with God is heavily dependent on the Torah (Written and Oral).

We return to Neusner’s idea that “the point of Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hananiah [in Tractate Abot 3:6) is that it “explains how we meet God in the Torah.” Rabbi Halafta does indeed say what he wishes, which is abundantly clear when what he says is compared with the Written Torah. The question is whether Abot 3:6 is said in a “disciplined” and divinely directed manner as Neusner claims.

The problem is that none of the examples in Abot 3:6 has any rational or conventional basis of agreed signals of communication. In short, they bear only the most tenuous of connections to the point Rabbi Halafta is trying to make, which is that a child of Israel can cleave to God on his own through the Torah without having to cleave to any rabbis (Neusner does not agree with Rabbi Halafta’s one on One with God – through the Torahi). To illustrate the problem in Rabbi Halafta, one of his examples is “how do we know that this is so even of two? Because it is said, ‘Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard’ (Malachi 3:16). Here is Malachi 3:16 in full: “Then they that feared the LORD spoke one with another; and the LORD hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon His name.”

They” refers to the whole congregation or a large part of it. Nothing about a small group like “three,” or even “ten.” If Rabbi Halafta were able to respond, I am sure he would deny that he was bleaching the lifeblood out of the Torah. I am reminded of Rabbi Akiva Katz, who said in one his lectures that even a six-year old could understand the surface level of Torah. The problem, as I see it, is that the secret level (called “sod” in Hebrew), which the rabbis claim to be the only persons able and divinely authorised to see, often does not bear any contextual, therefore “meaningful,” relationship to the surface level, a relationship deemed necessary in language science. But then rabbinical theology, says Neusner, is only intelligible to the rabbis who redacted and preserved the rabbinic texts because rabbinical theology “is not a public and ordinary language at all.”ii

We return to Neusner’s central theme, namely grammar as a metaphor for rabbinical theology. Rabbinical theology, in effect, is the Oral Torah. There’s the Written Torah, which, consists of brute grammatical elements. As for the historical events in the Torah themselves, these are, says Neusner, irrelevant. (See Jacob Neusner and the grammar of Rabbinical theology (4): God wants the Jew to create his own history and live in the now).The rabbis, under God’s direction initiated at the revelation at Sinai – is this an historical event for Neusner? – do whatever they will with revelation. It is perhaps more accurate to say with Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal that the Written Torah (from Genesis to Malachi the Tanach) is a subset of Oral Torah, consisting of a vast collection of sayings, commentaries and theology that dwarfs the Written Torah (Tanach – Hebrew Bible). In a similar vein, Ibn Ezra (one of the most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages) says “...the Law of Moses is founded upon the Oral Law which is the joy of our heart.” The implication is that there is no joy and no heart in sola scriptura – the Written Torah alone. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?).

The displacements found in Tractate Abot 3:6 provide a taste of the boundless creativity and invention of the human mind and its greatest acquisition – language, which finds supreme expression in rabbinical theology. Neusner’s metaphor of “grammar” backed by the (Judaic?) musings of the most famous linguist of modern times, Chomsky, gives Neusner the licence and the credibility required to pull it off – and the wool over our eyes? But let me not jump the gun and shoot the messenger, for there is much more to ponder upon in Neusner’s densely intriguing “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology.”

i “Rationality is always public, by definition. And, given the public character of the giving of the Torah, the propositional character of what is given, and the active and engaged character of the act of receiving the Torah, it is no surprise that the rule for studying the Torah and therefore also the requirement for meeting God is as with Moses and Elijah. God gives the Torah through the prophet to be sure, but always [to the “us” of Israel. So “we” meeting the One may be embodied in the “I,” the individual of whom Halafta speaks, but “we” always stands for the “we” of Israel, Rationality requires community.” ((Neusner in Neusner and Chilton, “Discovering the Torah” in “Comparing Spiritualities, pp. 4-5).

ii

Neusner says that the “Torah is best studied in community, whether palpable, as in a school, or imagined, as in books, articles, or debates in letters. Israel encounters God together in the Torah through processes of rational thought (italics added): systematic description, critical analysis, rational interpretation” (p. 5). (Neusner does not agree with Rabbi Halafta’s one on One with God – through the Torah).

Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 3): Torah, Philosophy and Theology – Basic concepts

 

In Part I and Part 2 I introduced Jacob Neusner‘s understanding of “grammar” and related it to the larger linguistic domain of “discourse.” Here, I focus on the three other foundational concepts in Neusner’s “grammar of rabbinic theology,” namely, “Torah,” “philosophy” and “theology.”

Torah

Rabbinic Judaism, says Neusner, is the Judaic religious system of the social order set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures called ‘the Written Torah,’ as mediated by the Mishnah,Talmuds, Midrash-compilations, and related compilations, called “the Oral Torah.” As to the historical and temporal setting, that one whole Torah, written and oral, took shape in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia in the first six centuries of the common Era; it is with that canon and formative period that we deal in this book” (“Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” p. 1).

In contrast, Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal, in his “Deuteronomy 33:4 – Oral Law,” argues that the Written Law is a product of the Oral Law:

Those who dispute the validity of the Oral Law assume that the Five Books are the basis and the foundation for the Law. They understand that the written text comes first. When these critics approach Israel’s claim for an authoritative Oral Law, they see this as a claim for a supplementary code, one that is authorized to define and to interpret the written word. These critics contend that if there is a valid code of Law that supplements the text, we would expect that it should have been mentioned in the text.”

English: Mishne Torah in 1 volume עברית: משנה ...

English: Mishne Torah in 1 volume עברית: משנה תורה בכרך אחד, מנוקד ומדויק על פי כתבי יד, בהוצאת מפעל משנה תורה (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rabbi Blumenthal then provides examples from the Written Torah to uncover its skeletal nature, and then does not only argue that it requires an authority outside the text, the Oral Torah, to pack flesh onto the dry bones, but that the Written Torah is merely one product, a central one, of the Oral Torah. Ibn Ezra, one of the most celebrated Jewish writers of the Middle Ages sums up Rabbi Blumenthal’s view (italics added): “...the Law of Moses is founded upon the Oral Law which is the joy of our heart.” The implication is that there is no joy and no heart (skeletons don’t have hearts) in the dry bones of the Written Torah, which is only to be expected if the Written Torah is seen as nothing more than a bone yard. (See The Written and Oral Torah: Which is Primary?).

Theology and Philosophy

Theology, broadly construed, says Neusner, is the science of the reasoned knowledge of God. Theology presents the system that results from philosophical (italics added) analysis of the facts set forth by a religion. To specify what in the setting of a religion I conceive theology to do(continues Neusner), I find a suitable definition for the work of theology in the definition of Ingolf Dalferth:

‘Theology rationally reflects on questions arising in pre-theological religious experience and the discourse of faith; and it is the rationality of its reflective labor in the process of faith seeking understanding which inseparably links it with philosophy. For philosophy is essentially concerned with argument and the attempt to solve conceptual problems, and conceptual problems face theology in all areas of its reflective labors.’ (Ingolf U. Dalferth, Theology and Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell, 1988, vii.”

If philosophy is “essentially concerned with argument and the attempt to solve conceptual problems,” (Dalferth above) then I see no difference between philosophy and academic (scientific) discourse. I explain.

Jim Cummins (1984)i divides language proficiency into the two categories of Basic Interpersonal and Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Although it is true that BICS is the foundation of CALP and that all healthy humans beings automatically “acquire” BICS in their mother tongue, it does not follow that all human beings are capable of “learning” the level of CALP that is required for academic study. The terms Cummins uses are somewhat confusing for two reasons:

  1. skills” in Basic Interpersonal and Communicative Skills (BICS) is relegated to a lower intellectual level than “proficiency.” Some people may say “academic skills,” others, “academic proficiency.” Good luck to both.
  2. cognition” is present in Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) but absent in BICS, creating the impression that BICS does not require much thinking. So, let’s settle for “Basic language” and “academic language.”
  3. Dalferth says that philosophy is “essentially concerned with argument.” “Argument” in academic discourse means the presentation of ideas in a logical clear manner. Don’t argue with me!

Some theorists equate cognition with non-linguistic thought, whereas others subsume both language and thought under cognition. There is also “intelligence.” In both philosophy and academic thinking, a relatively higher level of intelligence is required than in BICS.

Consider the following distinction between thought and intelligence proposed by Bohm. First, thought (Bohm, 1983:50):

Thought, considered in its movement of becoming (and not merely in its content of relatively well-defined images and ideas) is indeed the process in which knowledge has its actual concrete existence…What is the process of thought? Thought, is, in essence, the active response of memory in every phase of life. We include in thought the intellectual, emotional, sensuous, muscular and physical responses of memory. These are all aspects of one indissoluble process. To treat them separately makes for fragmentation an confusion. All these are one process of response of memory to each actual situation, which response in turn leads to a further contribution to memory, thus conditioning the next memory.

And intelligence (Bohm, 1983:51):

The perception of whether or not any particular thoughts are relevant or fitting requires the operation of an energy that is not mechanical, an energy that we shall call intelligence. This latter is able to perceive a new order or a new structure, that is not just a modification of what is already known or present in memory…What is involved [in intelligence] is perception through the mind of abstract orders and relationships such as such as identity and difference, cause and effect, etc. (Bohm, David. 1983. Wholeness and the implicate order. London: Ark Paperbacks).

These new orders and relationships do not have to be new to the world, but only new to the person’s mind. (For further discussion of Cummins and Bohm see my Cognition and Language Proficiency).

In sum, Dalferth’s and Neusner’s “philosophy” has to do with the solution of conceptual problems; but then, so does “academic thinking” have to do with using your noggin big time. Granted, you can’t get far unless you have what Arthur Jensen calls level II intelligence. Level I intelligence accounts for memory functions and simple associative learning, while Level II comprises abstract reasoning and conceptual thought. That is not to say that people with lower intelligence are devoid of any abstract reasoning or conceptual thought. All it means is that if you want to do philosophy or academic study such as found in Neusner’s work – which I am diligently, I think, if not gently, ploughing and coughing through, you’d better don your thinking cap.

Now, that I, and hopefully you, have a clearer idea of what Neusner means by 1. the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah, 2. theology and 3. philosophy, I should get on with the job of unpicking his “grammar of rabbinical theology,” where, hopefully, there’ll not be too much nitpicking, on my part, under Neusner’s thinking cap; ok then, Yamulka.

 

Time for a nice cuppa – and a Bics.

i Cummins, J. 1984. Wanted: A theoretical framework for relating language proficiency to academic achievement among bilingual students. In: Rivera, C. (ed.). Language proficiency and academic achievement. Multilingual Matters 10. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Was Luke of the New Testament not Jewish just because he was good at Greek?

Was Luke, the author of a Gospel and the book of Acts, a Gentile or a Jew? There are some who maintain that he was Jewish. Far-fetched? Not outlandish at all. One of those who argued that Luke was Jewish was Adolph Saphir, a Hebrew Christian. I shall argue 1. if one is good at a language, it doesn’t follow that the person is a mother tongue speaker, and that 2.  if one is not competent at a second language this does not necessarily mean that one is uneducated. I use the  theory of language learning to buttress my argument.

Here is John Cummings on the four Gospels (Sabbath evening readings on the New Testament: St John (1856):

“The Gospel of St. Matthew was written for the Hebrew, or the Jew; and every idiom and allusion in it proves this. The Gospel according to St. Mark was written for the Roman; and the repeated Latinized expressions indicate that it was so. The Gospel according to St. Luke was written for the accomplished Greek, or chief Gentiles; its commencement is in the purest style of classic Greek, and the whole indicates a tone, a cultivation, and a polish that show for whom it was meant, and tliat it was written by a cultivated and accomplished scholar. The Gospel of St. John was written for all believers as such in all ages of the world; it has nothing of the peculiar in it, but every thing of the universal; applicable to every scripture readings…The language of John is intensely Hebraistic, or Greek tinctured strongly by Hebraistic idioms, just as a Scotchman’s English is mixed up with what are called Scotticisms.

And Luke:  “You at once discover, by reading Luke`s gospel, that he had Gentile blood in his veins, and was an accomplished Greek scholar; and you discover in a moment, by reading St. John`s, that he was an uneducated man ; the Holy Spirit giving inspiration from heaven to the simple, naked, and often unidiomatical words that he, the uneducated, yet inspired evangelist, employed upon earth. 

With regard to Luke, here is a similar view:

Saphir thought all the Bible authors, including Luke, were Jews; this was simply a given assumption without any reasons given for that conclusion.  I’ve come across a few reasons from people today holding to that idea, but mainly they argue from silence, such as what happened in Acts 21:29: if Luke were a Gentile, then why did they (the mob) only mention Trophimus with Paul, and not Luke?  I now concur with S. Lewis Johnson’s view, that Luke was a Gentile, primarily because of SLJ’s (S. Lewis Johnson) observation that Luke’s Greek was a very different style from the Greek used in the rest of the NT, that Luke’s Greek (except for the first two chapters) is the formal style used by the Gentile writers“ (“Scripture thoughts” – The Divine Unity of Scripture: Adolph Saphir).

I share Lewis Johnson’s  theology, but I don’t agree with his argument that because Luke’s Greek was far more polished than the Greek of the other (Jewish) authors of the rest of the New Testament, he couldn’t have been Jewish. (Some Hebrew Christians [“Messianic Jews”] believe that other parts of the New Testament, for example, Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew/Aramaic]). Lewis Johnson’s  argument is not a good one. I explain:

If you were to attend a European Society of the Study of English (ESSE) conference, as I did in Debrecen, Hungary, September 1997, you would find many non-mother tongue speakers of English who have far greater English competence in both social communcative English and academic English than many mother tongue English speakers, including professors. Anecdotes, of course, don’t carry much weight except at a dinner party, therefore, so far, Luke might not be able to shuck off the Gentile label. So, I shall appeal to experts in language teaching to argue not that SLJ is wrong and Sapir is right, but that SLJ might be wrong and Sapir might very well be right.

The bibliographical details of the authors mentioned in brackets as well as my arguments can be found in The Second Language (L2) speaker is dead – Long live the L2 speaker:

The “whole mystique of a native speaker” (Kachru 1982:vii) who uses his/her mother tongue implies five things, which have been hotly contested (Rampton 1990):

1. A particular language is inherited through birth into a particular social group.

2. If you inherit a language, you can speak it well.

3. One is or isn’t a native/mother-tongue speaker.

4. a native speaker has a comprehensive grasp of the inherited language.

5. Being a citizen of a country is analogous to being a native speaker of one mother tongue.

(Christopherson (1973) was among the first researchers to question these notions mentioned by Rampton).

Rampton (1990) suggests that the following terms replace “native”, “mother tongue”, “first language” and “second language” (See also Leung, Harris and Rampton 1997):

1. Language expertise, i.e. the level of proficiency. An important issue in assessing expertise would be the models of language ability that one would use to decide what is an acceptable or minimum level of expertise. But this is not a new issue, even if the terminology is new.

2. Language affiliation, which is concerned with the affective relationship of a learner towards a language. 3. Language inheritance. Membership of an ethnic group does not automatically mean that the language of the ethnic group has been automatically inherited. In South Africa, one can change one’s “mother tongue” by entering another ethnic group or have a hybrid mother tongue, or “replacement” language. A replacement language is a language that becomes more dominant than the mother tongue, usually at an early age, but is seldom fully mastered, as in the case of, for example, some Coloured and Indian children in South Africa who are brought up on a hybrid of English and Afrikaans (in the case of Coloureds) or a hybrid of English and Indian languages or Afrikaans, and some Bantu speakers in South Africa who are brought up on a cocktail of two or more Bantu languages such as Tswana, Sepedi and Xhosa and English.

3. Language inheritance. Membership of an ethnic group does not automatically mean that the language of the ethnic group has been automatically inherited. In South Africa, one can change one’s “mother tongue” by entering another ethnic group or have a hybrid mother tongue, or “replacement” language. A replacement language is a language that becomes more dominant than the mother tongue, usually at an early age, but is seldom fully mastered, as in the case of, for example, some Coloured and Indian children in South Africa who are brought up on a hybrid of English and Afrikaans (in the case of Coloureds) or a hybrid of English and Indian languages or Afrikaans, and some Bantu speakers in South Africa who are brought up on a cocktail of two or more Bantu languages such as Tswana, Sepedi and Xhosa and English.

Davies (1995:145) maintains:

“In terms of ultimate attainment the post-pubertal second language learner may, exceptionally. attain native speaker levels of proficiency and therefore be indistinguishable from the native speaker.” Paikeday (1985) goes further by suggesting that the exception proves that there is no rule, i.e. that there is no native speaker. Undoubtedly there are exceptional cases that disprove the rule. But this is true of many categorisations. Medgyes (1992) suggests that the exceptions prove the rule, and that, therefore, native speakers of a language are – taking into account some exceptions, or as Quirk in Paikeday (1985:7) puts it the “fuzzy edges” – recognised as such. Paikeday (1985:11) plugs the argument that the exceptions do disprove the rule and consequently one can only legitimately speak of degrees of competence of language use, as one would about any other skill, e.g. rowing boats or mowing lawns.

Mother-tongue speakers (the language one uses in one’s early childhood) and first-language speakers (the language one knows best) are usually identifiable. There are exceptions where one can have (1) more than one first language (2) low competence in one’s mother tongue and (3) no first language, i.e. no language that one knows well, e.g. a “replacement” language, referred to earlier.

Back to Luke. The distinction between mother-tongue speaker and non-mother tongue speaker, first-language speaker and second-language speaker is fuzzy. “Second language” teaching experience and research has established that Luke, a master in Greek style, might very well have not been a mother-tongue speaker of Greek. If not a mother-tongue speaker of Greek, then it is very possible that he was Jewish, for what else could he have been, a Tishbite?

In one of SLJ’s talks he says that just because Paul can rattle off a few Greek philosopher’s names is no evidence that he knew his Greek philosophical oats. True, but it is also true that he may have know much more about Greek literature and philosophy than he was letting on.

Which reminds me of how I fooled my French Professor into allowing me to do French II without having done French I. I was a student at Cape Town University abd had completed French Elementary. The following year I spent a year in France and learnt French quite well. When I returned I wanted to register at the University for French II, having done only French Elementary the year before I went to France. The French Professor said that although my French was good enough for French II, I also had to show him that I had a background in French literature. Shucks, what did I, a Jew, freshly Catholic, with a penchant for French know about French literature. At the time, I didn’t even know any Fringe literature. Suddenly, some of the French posters advertising French plays (I do remember seeing Moliere’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme: in Paris) paraded before my eyes. I mentioned a few – can’t remember now, which – naturellement. I got into French II. Hey, I went on to do B.A. Honours in French and become a French teacher.

I wonder if Paul could have been in a similar boat.

(Paul is visiting the University of Athens and hopes to do night courses in Greek)

Paul: I want to do Greek II.

Prof: But you haven’t done Greek I.

Prof: But my Greek is good enough for Greek II.

Prof: That may be so, but what do you know about Greek literature and philosophy?

Paul: I can tell you about Epimenides.

Prof: Go on.

Paul: He was from Crete.

Prof: Go on.

Paul: He was the one who said “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

Prof: Very good. Any more?

Paul: Any more what?

Prof: What else did Epimenides say?

Paul: Can’t remember, but I know what Aratus, the Stoic, said. He said: “We are his offspring.” (Also Acts 17:28). Now can I do Greek II.

Prof: Don’t phone (oops) contact me; I’ll contact you.

Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 2): What is grammar?

 

When you hear the word “grammar,” you probably think of structures such as plurals, spelling, tenses, and word order; “grammar” is the cement, and vocabulary is the bricks of a language. If the bricks are right but the cement mix is wrong, we say the grammar is bad.

The above meaning of “grammar” can be defined as “patterns with function but no specific meaning: phonology (new sound combinations), morphology (new words), syntax (new sentences). It is the grammar that allows language signs to be used with virtually endless creativity” (Edward Vajda).

In Part 1, I mentioned that Neusner, in his “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure,” is going to use the “metaphor of grammar” to describe the rabbinical theological system. He says:

The metaphor of a grammar serves [well], for by grammar is meant (Neusner quotes Steven Pinker) ‘an example of a discrete combinatorial system. A finite number of discrete elements (in this case, words) are sampled, combined, and permuted to create large structures (in this case, sentences) with properties that are quite distinct from those of other elements.’ (Steven Pinker, The language instinct. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995, p.84). At issue then are the rules of combination and permutation into larger structures – an ideal way of surveying the work at hand. ” (Neusner pp. 19-20).

English: Steven Pinker at the Göttinger Litera...

Steven Pinker at the Göttinger Literaturherbst, 10/10/2010 Göttingen, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neusner’s “large structures” (sentences) are Vajda’s “virtually endless creativity.” Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that we could make, if we lived forever, an infinite number of sentences from finite – nevertheless still huge – number of bits that go up to make the variety of possible sentences. As Noam Chomsky puts it: finite means for infinite ends.

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegr...

Chomsky at the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre) in 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chomsky, says John Searle, argued that since any language contains an infinite number of sentences, any “corpus,” even if it contained as many sentences as there are in all the books of the Library of Congress, would still be trivially small. Instead of the appropriate subject matter of linguistics being a randomly or arbitrarily selected set of sentences, the proper object of study was the speaker’s underlying knowledge of the language, his “linguistic competence” that enables him to produce and understand sentences he has never heard before.” (John Searle, June 29, 1972. The New York Review of Books).

The term “grammar” has its origin in the Greek word for letter, gramma. Grammar” used to be restricted to language, but no more. There’s now a grammar of all sorts of odds and togs, for example, a “grammar of fashion”: “The larger the ‘vocabulary’ of someone’s closet, the more creative and expressive those wearers can be, which enables them to create more ‘sentences.’ As a result, wearers are able to portray information about themselves effectively, more effectively, perhaps, than someone who doesn’t have those same means.”

If you were to attend Stanford University, you could dig your chops into the “grammar of cuisine,” and gourmand on such delectables as “The structure of British meals.”And, if you are one of those who thinks higher, there’s the grammar of the genetic code. (“Code” in linguistics is a another name for “grammar”). Recently, biophysicists discovered “Four New Rules of DNA ‘Grammar.’”

The reason why we can use the term “grammar” in so many diverse contexts is because the “grammar” of a system is simply the structure of interrelationships that undergirds that system, showing how things fit together into a coherent whole.

Consider the function of grammar in a language. Here is John Searle again:

He [Chomsky] then classifies the elements of the corpus at their different linguistic levels: first he classifies the smallest significant functioning units of sound, the phonemes, then at the next level the phonemes unite into the minimally significant bearers of meaning, the morphemes (in English, for example, the word “cat” is a single morpheme made up of three phonemes; the word “uninteresting” is made up of three morphemes: “un,” “interest,” and “ing”), at the next higher level the morphemes join together to form words and word classes such as noun phrases and verb phrases, and at the highest level of all come sequences of word classes, the possible sentences and sentence types. (John R. Searle , June 29, 1972. The New York Review of Books).

Words – only – have – communicative - meaning – when – in – right – relation – to – other – words. The previous sentence proves my point. The words of the previous sentence convey a message, that is, they communicate. Without the correct vocabulary (words found in a dictionary), forms and word order (found in a grammar book), there is no message but only a mess. As it is with language, so it is with all human life, which can only be understood in terms of the structure of its interrelations.

We saw (paragraph 2 above) that for Neusner, “grammar” is a system of “large structures” – sentences built from discrete (elemental) structures such as words and bits of words such as the plural -s and the suffix -ation (as in “nationalisation”). I summarise so far. In language, there are two meanings of “grammar.”

  1. The “cement” that binds vocabulary together. This meaning is often used in the classroom.
  2. There is a wider meaning of “grammar,” which refers to both the cement and the vocabulary required to make a sentence. In this context, we speak of “grammatical meaning,” or “semantic meaning,” or “sentence meaning,” The three terms are synonymous.

Neusner seems to equate “sentence/grammatical meaning” with “language.”

There is, however, far more to language than the sentence level. For example, the question “What do you mean?” often pops up not only between a mother tongue speaker and a non-mother tongue speaker of a language but also, and often, between two mother tongue speakers of the same language. There is the indignant “Waddaye mean!” and the simple innocent desire to understand what the other is saying or writing. I focus on the simple desire of mother tongue speakers to understand what the other means.

As we saw earlier, language, like all structures consists of a hierarchy of parts consisting of progressively larger wholes.

1. Basic sounds (phonemes) or written symbols (letters) – meaningless in themselves (Hebrew letters for the “de facto” Jew do have meaning) are the building blocks of progressively larger meaningful units ranging from:

2. Structural elements such as number (singular – plural), gender (masculine – feminine -neuter), tense, and so forth, which are traditionally referred to”grammar” (the cement of language), to

3. Words, to

4. Sentences, to

5. Discourse (paragraphs, and larger chunks of language)

There is a difference between the meaning of a sentence on its own (sentence meaning) and the meaning of a sentence when combined with other sentences to either form a larger sentence or when it is used with other sentences to form a piece of discourse.

I deal first, very briefly, with sentences that combine to form larger sentences and then say something about discourse.

The term “grammatical meaning” refers to sentence meaning. There are three sentence types:

  1. Simple sentence
  2. Compound sentence
  3. Complex sentence.

Here is one example of each:

1. God is not a man . Simple Sentence

2. God is not a man and he doesn’t lie. Compound Sentence

3. God is not a man that he should lie. Complex Sentence

The last example ( a complex sentence) is a notorious example of the Jewish misinterpretation of Numbers 23:19. The grammatical blunder is to subvert the complex sentence, “God is not a man that he should (can, would want to) lie” into the compound sentence, “God is not a man and he does not lie.” Indeed, Jewish opponents of Christianity dispense with the second half of the sentence altogether: “God is not a man.” See, the Bible says God is not a man; now you Christians come along and say he is a man. You Christians need to learn grammar: God – is – NOT – a – man. Get it?). (See Raphael and Picasso pay attention: God is not a man that he should lie (Numbers 23:19), and Milking the teats off the text: the rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 23:19)

I turn to “discourse.”

Discourse” occurs when sentences come alive and function in communication.1 A sentence in isolation is inactive, that is, it only has the potential to function. It is this potential which has to become actualised in discourse. For example, the sentence “I am reading” is understood by anyone who knows English grammar and vocabulary. This is called the “meaning” of the sentence (see blue box below), which you can derive from a dictionary and a grammar book. When, however, this sentence comes alive in a communication (in discourse) we have more than the meaning of the sentence but also what the speaker/writer means by the sentence, that is, we are dealing with how a person uses the sentence (see yellow box below).

A sentence on its own can mean one thing but when embedded in a larger chunk of language (that is, discourse) it can mean something very different.

Geoffery Leech, in his “Pragmatics” (1983) explains. There is:

1. the meaning of X, which is the semantic or sentence meaning, or (in Pinker and Neusner above), the “grammatical” meaning, and

2, what you mean by X, which is the discourse or pragmatic or sociolinguistic meaning.

For example, the sentence “I am reading” means that there is somebody, namely, me who is reading. This meaning is the semantic/sentence/grammatical meaning. Let us now use “I am reading” in discourse, that is in communication, in living language.

Student A is sharing a room with Student B. A is reading in the room while B is out. B returns, sees A bowed over a book, and shouts: “What are you doing.” It is obvious to A that B is not requesting information as to whether A is reading a book.

Suppose A’s answer is “I’m reading.” The semantic (sentence, grammatical) meaning of this utterance is clear, namely, A is not eating, or sleeping, but reading. But what does A mean (in the larger context of life, in other words, of discourse) by “I’m reading” and what does B mean by “What are you doing?”Here are a few possibilities of the discourse meaning of these two sentences:

Question: “What are you doing?”

1. Hey, what are you doing in my bed?”

2. What a miracle, you’re reading a book!

3. We’ve been looking all over for you, and here you are all the time, rotting at your desk.

Answer: “I’m reading”

1. Please don’t disturb me.

2. It’s no good, I’ll never speak to you again.

3. I’m so bored, the TV is not working; what else is there to do but read – yawn.

4. Who do you think you are to speak to me like that?

5. You illiterate idiot, go back to your comics.

So the discourse (pragmatic) context of language does not merely go beyond the sentence meaning, it makes the sentence actually meaningful, and actual meaning (meaning in action) is the only kind of meaning that we can live by, and, I suggest, do theology by.

In Part 3, I move on to Neusner’s grammar as an analogy of (rabbinical) theology.

1 In the French tradition all language units beyond the Saussurian (Ferdinand de Saussure) sign are referred to as discours. The sentence is discours and straddling sentences (the intersentential) is “extended” discours (Michell 1991: 103). Chomsky is praised (Ricoeur 1973; 1984) for making sentence meaning (Ricoeur’s “sémantique” ofdiscours the minimal unit of analysis instead of Saussurian signs, i.e. words and bits of words (Ricoeur’s”sémiotique. (See my article on Derrida’s Tower of Babel)

Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 1)

Great names in Hebrew grammar of yesteryear are the Kimchi family (Joseph and his sons Moses and his celebrated brother, David), Jarchi (Rashi), Moses Maimonides and many others. In modern times, I single out Jacob Neusner, not only because of his grammar skills but because of his analogy between grammar and theology. The basic idea is that theological structures and grammatical structures have much in common. I shall devote much time to this idea in later posts.

When you hear the word “grammar,” what comes to mind? Plurals, spelling, tenses, word order. Most of us think of “grammar” as the cement, and vocabulary as the bricks of a language; the bricks may be right, but the cement mix may be wrong – I can see it’s a house but it’s wonky.

Kyle Wiens writes in the Harvard Review, I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why:

If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building…Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin.” 

True, that is one meaning of “grammar”; its mechanics. A wider meaning of “grammar” refers to everything involved in the structure of sentences. There is more to the term language, however, than sentences. I deal with this “more” in Part 2.

I introduce Neusner.

Jacob Neusner is a prolific writer on Jewish Studies. The Huffington Post describes him as “Distinguished Service Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College Annandale-on-Hudson. He also is a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He has published more than 1000 books and unnumbered articles, both scholarly and academic and popular and journalistic, and is the most published humanities scholar in the world.”

In the next few posts, I’d like to concentrate on one of his major works in rabbinical studies, namely, his “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure”(Brill Academic Publishers, 2002), which

presents, says Neusner, in condensed form the results of three of my systematic works on the theology of Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism set forth by Scripture as mediated by the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrash-compilations of late antiquity. The three titles here formed into a single coherent statement are The Theological Grammar of the Oral Torah I-III (1999), The Theology of the oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (l999), and The Theology of the Halakhah (2001).The three were conceived to form a single continuous statement covering the theological language, system of belief, and structure of behavior that animates the definitive documents and characterizes the age and thought of those that produced them.”

Jacob Neusner: the one with the yamulka?

I shall be studying Neusner’s Handbook over the next few weeks. Here I relate the bit I’ve read so far with a few introductory observations on the origin and nature of language. (I have more than a nodding acquaintance with Neusner’s other works).

As we know, “theology” deals with the application of our noggins to what God says to us. Jewish theology and Christian theology obviously have much in common and also much that is not. Both will agree, though, that theology is based on God’s word, on what He is saying to us. What is very important is that our interpretations of God’s word should be based on sound inferences.

For the true-blue Jew (In future “Jew” will refer to the real mccoy), the scriptures (the written Torah, also called the Tanach) is one part of the Oral Torah, which is the total Torah given orally to Moses and God’s other spokesmen, the sages (chochomin). The rest of the Oral Torah was later recorded in the Talmudic and other Jewish literature.

Here’s a thing: the Hebrew root davar (means “word/speak” as well as “thing.” A famous book in introductory linguistics is Roger Brown’s “Words and things.” No prizes for the Hebrew translation of the title.

For the Kabbalist, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the basic building blocks of the universe. So, Hebrew is not merely a natural language, but a supernatural language, the language of God. Also, it is not merely a language but the “table of elements” out of which all things in the earth and in the heavens were created. It is easy to see that in such a view, God’s speaking creation into being is given added poignancy. But I am jumping my creative gun, because before I rev my rabbinically fueled engines (in Part 2)), I need to examine here some salient facts about language in general.

Human language, says Edward Vajda, is not purely a reflex triggered automatically by external stimuli or internal emotional states. Human language can be used as an index, just like animal communication, but it may also exhibit what has been termed displacement. Humans can not only talk about things that are absent but also about things that have never been. Humans can invent myths and tell lies. Human language can be used arbitrarily, with the stimulus deep within the speaker’s psyche and the topic not present or even non-existent. Animal languages can only be used as a means of pointing to something directly present in time and space.”

The origins of human language will probably remain for ever obscure. By contrast the origin of individual (natural) languages has been the subject of very precise study over the past two centuries.

How did language begin? (No, Menachin Begin, although Jewish, can’t help you there). If you believe, with Ray Jackendoff, that we come from monkeys, a logical question to ask would be “how human species developed over time so that we – and not our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos – became capable of using language” (Jackendoff). Neither Jackendoff nor any other human is able to unbundle this knotty question. In 19th century France, speculations on origins got so so out of hand that in 1866 the French Academy banned any further research on the matter. If you believe that human language originated in Adam, you get, of course, a different picture. The standard theories of language variation maintain that when people gradually separate, their language begins to vary. The Bible teaches that mankind had a common language but when it decided to build a Tower (of Babel) to climb to the heavens, God confounded the common language. So, instead of gradual change, a miraculous rupture in the uniform linguistic fabric occurred to produce linguistic variation.

When people, says J.W. Oller, with a common language were separated by, say, an ocean for about 1,000 years, they ended up not being able to understand each other. The Scandinavians in Iceland cannot understand those who stayed in Europe. The English of Beowulf’s time—between AD 680 and 8003—is unintelligible to speakers of “modern English,” which is dated roughly from Shakespeare (1564–1616) and the King James Bible (1611). If we met Shakespeare today, we would understand him, but not folks from Beowulf’s time. Even printed literature, dictionaries, telephones, computers, and worldwide travel cannot keep languages from changing. We see remnants of change in English where let used to mean “prevent” but now generally means “allow” (excepting a “let ball” in tennis) and meat used to mean any kind of food but now is limited to what Shakespeare called “flesh.”

J.W. Oller (Jr). So glad to see you’re wearing your yamulka, J.W.

From Genesis to Revelation, continues Oller, the Bible shows us that God created the universe, sustains it, and has redeemed all who will believe, by the power of His Word. That power, according to the Bible, resides in the language capacity. It is the one and only unmistakable signature of God in us.”

The Tower of Babel account is not a PIE in the sky theory. Indeed, the Tower of Babel story accounts very well for the data, and therefore there is “More than PIE (the title of Oller’s article) – Proto-Indo-European (PIE) – in the Tower of Babel account. According to Oller, “[s]ecular theories fail to explain the many distinct language families throughout the world. The biblical account of Babel is the only explanation that fits the data.” (See here for Oller’s argument)

(Dr. John Oller, Jr., is the Hawthorne Regents Professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has taught in prestigious universities and lectured around the world. The Modern Language Association also awarded him the Mildenberger Medal for one of his numerous books).

For the Jew, Hebrew didn’t start with Adam but in heaven; indeed, it didn’t start at all because if God always was, so was His language, which is equated with his creative power, namely his davar, his word. The Muslim says the same things about Arabic. I shall deal with this Hebrew-Arabic claim at a later stage.

Language, like everything, natural and supernatural consists of two fundamental interlocking categories: structure (or form) and function. Cognate terms used in the biological sciences are anatomy (structure) and physiology.

Neusner’s book is going to compare the rabbinical theological system to a language, which for him comprises vocabulary, syntax and semantics. Neusner seems at first blush to equate “language” and “grammar,” but we will need to read more to establish whether this equation is maintained throughout his book. He uses the “metaphor of grammar” to describe the rabbinical theological system:

“The metaphor of a grammar serves [for this purpose], for by grammar is meant “an example of a discrete combinatorial system. A finite number of discrete elements (in this case, words) are sampled, combined, and permuted to create large structures (in this case, sentences) with properties that are quite distinct from those of other elements.” (Steven Pinker, “The language instinct” (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995, p.84). At issue then are the rules of combination and permutation into larger structures – an ideal way of surveying the work at hand. ” (Neusner pp. 19-20).

It is important to note that “grammar” in Pinker and Neusner is restricted to the sentence level. What about the “discourse,” level, namely, the level beyond the sentence? This higher level is of crucial importance in language as communication, in our context, biblical and theological texts. In Part 2, I map out the basic principles of (verbal) language and discourse. In Part 3, I examine Neusner’s pivotal analogy between “grammar” and “theology.”

Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology

Cover of Basic Theology

We all have a story, part of which we’d like to tell (and part we’d like to keep to ourselves). I think theology may be able to help you tell your story. “Theology you say!” But wait; the theology I’m about describe is not the old fundamentalist variety but something that you might indeed find attractive. I’m talking about postmodern theology, which homes in not on what the Bible says about God, not on the written lifeless text, but what it says about you, the living you, the reader, and the stories in you trying to worm their way out.

In old-time theology – let’s take the canon (accepted books) of the Bible as an example – words had specific meanings, where the term “narrative” signified an account of what really happened, what described reality, truth. Michael Kruger explains:

The postmodern objection to the Christian canon (and all religion for that matter) is not what we might think.  We assume that postmodernists object to the canon on the grounds that the canon is false (what we might call a a de facto objection).  But, that is actually more of a modernist objection. In contrast, the postmodernist objects to the belief in canon on the grounds that there is no basis for knowing, regardless of whether it is true or false (what we might call the de jure objection). In other words, when it comes to the Christian belief in the canon, the big complaint of the postmodernist is, ‘How could you ever really know such a thing?  Given all the disagreements and chaos in early Christianity, it would be arrogant to claim your books are the right ones.’  Thus, the postmodern concern has to do with the grounds for our belief in the canon.” 

(Can the New Testament Canon be Defended? Derek Thomas Interviews Michael Kruger)

Book of Genesis, Ningpo Bible.

Book of Genesis, Ningpo Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The postmodernist’s de jure objection, as “de jure” indicates, is that no one has the right to tell someone else what is true or not; except maybe in situations such as “your fly is open” or “your home or your home-made sausages are burning.” As the French symbolist poets loved to say, un poème est un prolongement, “a poem is an extension.” Extension of what? Why, the longings of the reader, naturally. Prolongement means “extension.” I am relating prolongement to “longing” whose only connection are their “historical sedimentations” (etymology) as Jacques Derrida, the father of “Deconstruction” would have said. In postmodern literary theory ( where “deconstruction” is a pivotal concept) there is no difference between critical historical facts and a game of shuttlecock (Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation). Have you ever tried to think critically while playing shuttlecock? Or is “tacticallly,” for you, the same as “critically?”

Theology for the postmodernist – indeed anything that suffixes in “logy” (Greek logos “meaning”) – is not about certitude but about attitude, your attitude to fidelity; the fidelity to human and verbal relationships expressed most poignantly through the stories we tell or would like to tell – about ourselves. Here is Walter Brueggemann, the postmodern biblical theologian in no uncertain manner warning against the desire for certitude:

We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity. So, what we all want to do, if we can, is immediately transpose fidelity into certitude, because fidelity is a relational category, and certitude is a flat mechanical category.. So, we have to acknowledge our thirst for certitude, and then to recognise that if you had all the certitudes in the world, it would not make the quality if your life any better because what we must have is fidelity. …It all went haywire in the 17th century with Lutheranism and Calvinism when we tried to outscience science and switch into categories of certitude …Fidelity is like having a teenager in the house and you never get it settled for more than three minutes, and you’ve got to keep doing it again or you don’t have a relationship.” (Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann).

In contrast to postmodern “Christianity,” there is “premodern” Christianity that stands on the “biblically based epistemological presupposition that ‘the one living and true God has self-attestingly revealed Himself in the Christian Scriptures’ (Robert L Reymond).” (Larry D. Pettegrew).

(Robert L. Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979) 72).

 Postmodernism presupposes that there is no truth ”out there,” and proposes that a communal, and sociable, attempt be made to make life as enjoyable and humane as possible. “It (postmodernism) does not see religion as a set of beliefs about what is real and what is not. Rather, religion is a choice—something to be incorporated into one’s worldview if he chooses. Thus, postmodernism leads a person to believe in what he likes rather than what the Bible presents as universal truth.” (Larry D. Pettegrew).

To use two popular postmodern terms, everyone should be free, says the postmodernist, to “construct” their own “narrative.” Hence the postmodern term “constructivism.” I propose another post modern neologism: “narrativism” – telling stories about how the world – if not the Bible – fits or should fit into my world. But not in a selfish way; rather in a way that is faithful to the needs of others.

So, the postmodern clarion call is ”fidelity, not clarity.” Clarity, for the postmodernist, is clearly an illusion. And now we arrive at the jump-on point of postmodernism, where premodernists jump off, namely, the reader. Meaning logos, says postmodernism, has its locus in the reader, not in the text. What counts is not the context of the text but the pretext of the reader. The reader has faith in himself and it is credited to him as rightfulness. In postmodernism, the independent text is a tissue of yarns.

Premodernists (Calvins andLuthers) , as well as modernists (Richard Dawkins, for example), however, will insist that authors have something specific they want to say. “Precisely because they have authors, texts don’t mean just anything. The author’s will acts as a control on interpretation. Thanks to an author’s willing this rather than that, we can say that there is a definite meaning in texts prior to reading and interpretation. As God’s will structures the universe, so the author’s will structures the universe of discourse” (Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). (In Pettegrew).

Earlier, I spoke about the postmodernist’s pet gripe: the “logy” logos ([objective] meaning) in the old school’s eye. This is where “logocentrism”’ comes into my story. Logocentrism is “a philosophy holding that all forms of thought are based on an external point of reference which is held to exist and given a certain degree of authority” (Merriam Webster dictionary).

A fundamental mental operation is classification (categorisation), which we use to sort out the manifold “external points of reference;” in other words, the way we perceive objective reality. The postmodernist denies the existence of this external reality, except perhaps for the books he writes denying external reality, the food he eats and other life enjoyments and conveniences. One kind of categorisation that the postmodernist rejects is binary oppositions; for example, brainy – stupid, good – bad, intelligent – stupid, homosexual – heterosexual, true – false. There is one binary opposition, though, that the postmodern will – indeed must – accept; namely, premodernism – postmodernism. But I suppose private – public is another binary opposition that postmodernists would find apposite. The postmodernist, be he or she a theologian or a hooligan, arrives only to depart for the next departure lounge.

Derrida writes that there is no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God. A student of postmodernism describes the absence of presence this way:

“…if we were to bring Derrida into the discussion, then it becomes pretty clear that religion is the carrier of a metaphysics of presence par excellence. Religion banks on nothing less than the presence of ‘God,’ or the divine, or whatever. And then when you think about the importance of the ‘Word’ in religion–you know, the whole ‘revelation’ thing—Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism (logos “meaning”) is pretty devastating.”

But what is so postmodern about rejecting the “whole ‘revelation’ thing?” Wasn’t that the “Enlightenment’s” claim to fame two centuries or so ago? Another name for the “Enlightenment” is “Modernism,” which put man at the centre. Whereas theology, previous to the “Enlightenment,” was the handmaiden of science, after the “Enlightenment,” theology was reduced to its “charwoman.” (Frederick Copleston in one of his volumes on the history of philosophy, I read in my student days). Modernism reached its high point (I suggest its low point point) in “Positivism” (Auguste Comte), the acme – and acne – of man-centredness. The Christian view is that the universe has a central focal point, which is God. Brian Walsh says:

The problem, Brian Walsh says: is that ‘the end of religion’ and ‘the death of God’ are modernist, Enlightenment dogmas. They are the ultimate conclusion of the modernist blind faith in human autonomy. In the hubris of a modernist world-view, the voice of God and the experience of spirituality gets drowned out by the self-assured, arrogant voice of ‘rational men.”

Derrida, writes Ronaldo Munck “ questions the accepted notions of truth and believes that no interpretation can be the final one. So, deconstruction… does not set out to unmask ‘error’ because that assumes we know what ‘truth’ ls. Deconstruction directs us to the margins of a text, it bids us look for the excluded, the concealed, the unnamed. Deconstruction, then, followlng Gavatrl Sp|vak’s introduction to Derrida, seeks ‘to locate the promising marginal text, to disclose the undecidable moment, to pry it loose with the posltlve lever of the slgnlfler, to reverse the resident hlerarchy. onlv to dlsplace lt; to dlsmantle ln order to reconstitute what ls always already lnscrlbed.” (Marxism @ 2000: Late Marxist Perspectives by Ronaldo Munck).

(In linguistics, the “signifier” is the word, while the “signified” is is meaning. They both comprise the lingustic “sign” – See Ferdinand de Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics).

So, indeed, it is true that “deconstruction does not set out to unmask ‘error.’” Well, that is exactly what I set out to do with Jacques Derrida’s “Tower of Babel” error when he said that “Babel” means “Father God,” (which it doesn’t). But then I went and spoiled it (not totally) with my own error about Derrida’s error. But all’s well that begins badly, for what does it matter if you’re wrong or right; as long as you’re relating.

Finally, what does “inworming” in my title mean? It’s the deconstructing of narratives (Wood, D.C. 1979 An Introduction to Derrida. Radical Philosophy, 21) resulting in a “tactical subversion of the text.”

This approach or philosophy – Derrida will not call it a method – advocates an inwormlng or tactical subversion of the text, to reveal its contradictions and assumptions. It does not do so, however, from the perspective of an external validation, nor does it seek to offer a better text. Thought systems are assumed to rest on binary oppositions (good/bad, true-false, nature/culture. man/woman, and so on), with an assumed privilege of one over the other. One side ls primary the other derivative. So, Derrida’s approach, somewhat too briefly is as follows: ‘One of the two terms governs the other…To deconstruct the opposition   is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment’ (Marxism @ 2000: Late Marxist Perspectives by Ronaldo Munck).

Why only explain “inworming” at this late stage of the narrative? Call it a strategic reversal, a tactical subversion. A deconstructive overturning – in the end is my beginning.

In deconstruction and its sister postmodern theology, the inworming never stops – for the worm never dies. Nor does the worm ever die in Christian “old paradigm” theology. There is, though, a difference between the two worms: the postmodern worm is kinder and gentler. The fundamental question, says the “old time” theologian  remains: “What is true?” But then, a (Jewish) postmodern theologian will reply with another question: “Your truth or my truth.” 

Passivity and Suffering in the Passion of Christ

(See follow-on related post On passivity, mood and free will in Christian regeneration: With a little help from Glen Miller and Little Richard).
Friday?

To focus on the physical suffering of our Lord is secondary to a much deeper meditation on His spiritual suffering. How, though, do you talk for five minutes, never mind a half an hour or more about such an intangible unearthly thing as spiritual suffering? Isn’t it much easier, and more experiential, to go the more palpable route by describing how Jesus’ body was broken for ”you.” For Jesus did indeed say, “Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

What is the Lord asking us to remember – on Good Friday? The graphics; the whipping, the flaying of skin and flesh, the blows with rods and fists, the one-inch razor sharp thorns (no, not three-inch ones)? Many a sermon has taken that emotive route, with great effect; “Jesus did all that for me.” The question is whether that route really gets to the root of Christ’s Passion? I suggest we are led astray by the term “passion.” In normal English usage, “passion” means “strong emotion” of short duration. Armed with this – as we shall see – faulty understanding of meaning of the term ‘The Passion,” the preacher may ask the congregation to try and feel some of the emotions Christ felt hanging on the cross. It’s the sort of meditation common in the Roman Catholic “Stations of the Cross.”

The heart of the “Passion” lies in its historical (etymological) meaning. “Passion” comes from the Latin root passio “to render.” So when we suffer, we have to submit to causes that deprive us of our freedom or well-being.

When I was at the 1993 Congress of Philosophy in Moscow, where I presented a paper, I attended a session where the French philosopher,Paul Ricoeur, “one of the most distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century,” (Stanford Encyclopedia) spoke on “suffering.” He spoke in English. I noticed, after he had used the word “suffering” several times, that his context nothing to to do with the English meaning of “suffering,” namely, extreme distress or pain. I studied the mesmerised faces of the audience. It seemed to me that even if he had talked backwards, they would’ve accepted it as Gospel. Hopefully the backward flip that I have done with my prospective sermon has faired a little better.

As I had some familiarity with Ricoeur’s philosophy, I was pretty sure that his “suffering” had nothing to do with extreme mental or physical pain but rather with one of his important philosophical themes, namelypassivity in actionSee END NOTE1). At question time, I asked him what he meant by “suffering.” The problem was, I said, that in French there exists the two words “subir” and “souffrir,” which originate from the same etymological root. “Souffrir” means “suffering”(extreme pain), while “subir” has the meaning, as in the King James Bible Version, of “suffer little children to come unto me,” (Mark 10:13), that is, let, or allow, them to come to me, or don’t take in action that will prevent them coming to me. So, when Ricoeur used the word “suffering,” he was thinking “subir” (passivity). And what was Ricoeur’s response? He meant “subir” (passivity) not “suffering.” He had committed a common error in French-English, English-French translation called “faux amis”(false friends). (For an example of a Yiddish-Hebrew “false friend” see When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?

To return to the Passion of Christ; its main meaning is the French “subir” – passivity, submission, undergo, be subjected to.

There are different degrees of passivity. For the Christian, the highest degree is when Jesus had reached his lowest point – in the garden of Gethsemane: “falling with his face to the ground, he prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’” (Matthew, 26:39). This leads on to he more evident events in his Passion.

What kind of suffering (passivity) must it have taken to submit to not only the brutal onslaught of men but to the crushing anguish of being torn from the bosom of his Father. How does one begin to grapple with such a mysterium tremendum? (See Rudolph Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy”). Human wisdom is useless. Understanding has to be granted from above, as does everything that is the Gospel is granted from above. To see even darkly into this holy “mystery,” one has to have the same vantage point as Christ; looking from above. He always was from above; we, if he has drawn us to him, has also drawn us up above, into heavenly places. We’re seated there now, yet still suffering in this world. Every Christian knows when he is suffering, but few realise they’re doing so in heavenly places; which makes all the difference to one’s attitude to towards that suffering.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:3-10).

A very important point. Just because Christ is passive in his Passion, this does not mean that he is helpless. Not at all; He is deeply involved. The deepest aspect of this involvement is his voluntary emptying of Himself (Philippians 2:5-10).

Scripture (the words) is not the revelation itself. “Revelation”is when the Holy Spirit of God reveals to you the meaning of the words. This meaning is far deeper than the linguistic meaning. The Passion begins more or less when Jesus is led “from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters (John 18:28) and ends in his Death with, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30). The Passion is one of those moments, but of course, a pivotal one.

I ask the question again: What is Jesus really asking us to remember? After all, there were thousands that suffered a more barbarous and excruciating death. It is this: He suffered the full wrath of His Father. All the horror of sin was concentrated in those few hours. But worse; He was also cut off from the Father. To understand some of this requires to be borne on high by Christ, but first we have to be born again. Only then will I be able to see what the world or no psychology can see.

“It is finished.”

Now “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you (the Father), the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent”(John 17:1-3).

1“Ricoeur’s account of the way in which narrative represents the human world of acting (and, in its passive mode, suffering)” “Asserting Personal Capacities and Pleading for Mutual Recognition

Kluge Prize Winner 2004 – Paul Ricoeur Acceptance speech of Paul Ricoeur – December 2004

“I identify myself by my capacities, by what I can do. The individual designates himself as a capable human being—and, we must add, as a suffering human being, to underscore the vulnerability of the human condition.”

Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation

The Ten Commandments, In SVG

About a month ago I was listening with mind half-cocked to an audio by a (North) American Christian scholar on “Ancient heresies.” I was sure I heard the words “play dough.” Owing to the fact that the discussion touched on Greek philosophy, I thought he was talking of Plato, pronounced by Americans as Plado. In fact, he was indeed talking about how some doctrines were handled like play dough. As I love preying and playing on language especially when the play helps to reveal reality, how I wished I could have used Plado(UGH) somewhere in my writing. Well today my wish is coming true. The occasion is my reading of David Stern’s  Midrash and Indeterminacy. Here is his opening paragraph:

“Literary theory, newly conscious of its own historicism, has recently turned its attention to the history of interpretation. For midrash, this attention has arrived none too soon. The activity of Biblical interpretation as practiced by the sages of early Rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, midrash has long been known to Western scholars, but mainly as either an exegetical curiosity or a source to be mined for facts about the Jewish background of early Christianity. The perspective of literary theory has placed midrash in a decidedly new light. The very nature of midrash (as recorded in the Talmud as well as in the more typical midrashic collections) has now come to epitomize precisely that order of literary discourse to which much critical writing has recently aspired, a discourse that avoids the dichotomized opposition of literature versus commentary and instead resides in the dense shuttle space between text and interpreter. In the hermeneutical techniques of midrash, critics have found especially attractive the sense of interpretation as play rather than as explication, the use of commentary as a means of extending a text’s meanings rather than as a mere forum for the arbitration of original authorial intention.”

What’s the difference between Stern’s “interpretation as play rather than as explication” and my interpretation of Stern, which is: “interpretation as play dough rather than as explication.” Nothing. Stern hates arriving at final destinations and prefers, like a Derridaring Jew, shuttling from one departure lounge to another through the “dense space (read: playdough) between text and interpreter.”

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann (Photo credit: On Being)

 

And what about Walter Brueggemann, the “biblical theoligan?” For Brueggemann, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Derrida says to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus there should be an unrestricted interaction between suffering persons longing to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all post-modernists (who all believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as Being, no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only (human) beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. And if the Bible stories are able to buck – and back – them up, thank you God (See Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann).

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

And then there’s Jacob Neusner, the most prolific writer on Judaism with about 950 publications. What does his life work come down to? I suggest to this excerpt from his writing:

“l wonder, however, whether in the context of faith-whether concerning Moses, Jesus,or Muhammad, such a thing as “critical history” in the nineteenth-century sense indeed can emerge. I ask myself whether, to begin with, the sources came into being with any such purpose in mind. And I question whether when we ask about history in the sense at hand, we address the right questions to sources of such a character. And, anyhow, what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love? (A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus,” in Jacob Neusner, “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity”, p. 88).

Indeed, “what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love?” (Neusner above). Why indeed do we need, as David Stern says, to dichotomize facts and interpretion? As the French symbolist poets loved to say – and Walter Brueggemann as poet would also love to have said, un poème est un prolongement, a poem is an extension. Extension of what? Why, the longings of the reader. Prolongement means “extension.” I am playing with “prolongement” and “longing” whose only connection is its “historical sedimentations,” as Derrida would say). In postmodern literary (pioneered by Derrida) there is no difference between “critical historical” facts (Neusner above) and a game of shuttlecock.

To return to Stern’s “shuttle” (above): [The] literary discourse to which much critical writing has recently aspired [is] a discourse that avoids the dichotomized opposition of literature versus commentary and instead resides in the dense shuttle space between text and interpreter. In the hermeneutical techniques of midrash, critics have found especially attractive the sense of interpretation as play rather than as explication, the use of commentary as a means of extending a text’s meanings rather than as a mere forum for the arbitration of original authorial intention.” Authorial intention is out. Give me the reader’s intention instead.

Which reminds me of Rabbi Bronstein “crash course in Reconstructionist Judaism. In brief, he said it doesn’t matter whether the Torah is objectively true, as long as it is accepted as true – at a deeper level than objective truth, which is for Bronstein the “obvious” level. What can be less objective than The truth, and more objective than My truth. Recall Neusner’s “what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love?”

What, for Neusner, and everyone else here, can be more obvious than salvation, holiness, and especially pulsating joy. But doesn’t Jonah’s critical historical text say “salvation is of the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9). Shhh – do you want me to lose my tenure! Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) says it doesn’t matter whether all the Bible stories are just “stories,” myths, folklore; what’s important is that they are shared myths, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters, in Reconstructionist Judaism, is not the Book but the binding – of communal love and joy (Neusner).

Jacob Neusner

 

The Jews, “the people of the Book.” No, I’ve got it back to front: “The Torah, the book of the People.” That’s better.

Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, a reconstructionist Jew, believes that the Torah stories, even if not true in the historical sense, are central to Jewish life. The Torah, she says, is one of the “noblest employments of the mind and soul aiming at knowledge and wisdom.” Fuchs-Kreimer – who is a reliable spokesperson for Reconstructionist Judaism says much more: “Perhaps religious experiences provide no new information about the universe. Rather, they give us the emotional impetus to tell certain kinds of stories. We may indeed be nothing but a pack of neurons and our religious experiences may be neurological phenomena; nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences come from our higher cognitive functions. When we choose to link ourselves to a religious civilization, we opt for a narrative tradition that will shape raw experience in particular ways.” The weight of evidence, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, shows that religious experience cannot provide any new evidence – “knowledge and wisdom” – about the universe. But, according to Fuchs-Kreimer we can’t deny that we feel it in our bones that there is something else besides neurons and meat loaves. So, we tell one another stories about how those emotions emerged, but we don’t go overboard to the point of hysteria only to drown in historia. Meaning doesn’t have to be objective for “if there is nothing but matter, all the more do we need stories to make meaning” says Fuchs-Kreimer, and it’s stories – the more evocative the story the better – that make or break a religious civilisation. There’s no “core self” so we need to make up stories – based on authentic emotion, naturally – to “tell us who we are.” And that, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, is the basis of “tradition”, of Jewish tradition, of solid Jewish tradition (See The Torah: shared myths and other stories in Reconstructionist Judaism).

What have all these Jewish scholars have in common? (for all intents and purposes, Walter Brueggeman, a Gentile Lutheran, might as well be a Jew, a Lutheran Jew). Herein lies the genius of the Jew-Ish (Hebrew ish “man”): He rips the the text, the historical – read: “surface” – text, out of the hands of the Holy One of Israel and from his inwormings, he spawns and spins the Holy Israel of One. On earth or in (reconstructionist) heaven, there’s nothing like Israel.

Fellow Jews, if you love wallowing in the sediment of literary theory, then post-modernism, reconstructionism and deconstruction are for you. All I say to you is:

What advantage then hath (you) the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, “That thou might be justified in thy sayings, and might overcome when thou art judged” (from Psalm 51:4). Don’t play with God’s word; rather build your interpretations on a surer foundation, and what surer foundation is there than “let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:1-4).

The Flat and the Fat: The Poetic Gospel of Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, the biblical theologian, states “the truth of the Gospel cannot be articulated in flat, certain prose, but it must be articulated in a poetic rhetoric in which when you hear it, you as the listener, still get to decide what it means.” (Brueggemann’s Q&A session). I examine this statement in terms of the rules of rhetoric (discourse) and the distinction between the intentionality of a text, that is, what the writer wants the text to mean, on the one hand, and the listener, or reader, getting to “decide what it means,” on the other. 

Living in our post-modern, post-structural age, we need to be reminded that idea that the original intentions of a poet, or any writer, can be discovered through a responsible reading has been expressed a century before the first  stone was laid for the construction of  the wall of China. It was the Chinese philosopher, Mencius (372–289 BC), who said: “Therefore, a commentator of the Shijing (Book of Odes) should not allow literary ornaments to harm the wording, nor allow the wording to harm the intent of the poet. To trace the intention of the poet with the understanding of a reader — only this can be said to have grasped the poet’s intention.”

For the poet, there are two main links in the chain of being; the one is God, the other, the poet. It wasTorquato Tasso,  (1544-1595), the Italian poet of the late Renaissance, who said, “No one merits the name of creator except God and the Poet. (Non merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta).

Brueggemann has written about 60 books, most of them on biblical topics. The book he is most proud is “Finally comes the poet” in which he describes how, through the proper use of the imagination, the Bible can breath new life into the depressed soul.

 He grew up in a community that didn’t value the arts. “I think the arts are always in contention with moralism and my community was all on the side of moralism. So my attempt to discover the arts that characteristically speak of openness in ambiguity has been a huge thing for me. That is why personally, my personal accomplishment is in my book, “Here finally comes the poet.” It was my struggle to say that the truth of the Gospel cannot be articulated in flat, certain prose, but it must be articulated in a poetic rhetoric in which when you hear it, you as the listener, still get to decide what it means.”

 Art” (the arts) for Brueggemann opens in ambiguity; not only art but the whole modern system of knowledge opens in ambiguity, where “you as the listener still get to decide what it means.”

If I have rightly interpreted Brueggemann’s intentions (which I can only do through the words he uses), he is saying that not only the arts but all of reality is wrapped in a blanket of ambiguity, universal ambiguity. Modern educators also advocate an openness to ambiguity, but do not see ambiguity behind every bush. A deconstructionist might say that ambiguity can never be behind nor in front of every bush, or behind any bush; for the simple reason that ambiguity is the bush. Christians can learn much from deconstruction: the devil isn’t behind the bush, silly; he is the bush. But I digress. Here is a modern educator’s view of openness to ambiguity:

 The component of openness and tolerance of ambiguity is much neglected in schools. What we learn in school is how to do things correctly, to find the one and only right answer. Learning how to avoid mistakes prevents us from being open for other experiences. Risk-taking, socially and cognitively, is often being rewarded negatively. Working in a group or a class does not seem to go along with non-conformity. School is not normally considered to be the place for relaxation. In general , I believe that the pedagogical concept of open teaching and learning, open school and open instruction, recognizing the ecological/environmental living and learning conditions for an all-round education towards creativity” (Klaus K. Urban: Assessing Creativity: A Componential Model 167-186, in Creativity – A Handbook for Teachers, World Scientific Publishing Company).

 Let’s apply this openness to ambiguity to a text, a biblical text. For Brueggemann, the biblical text is the inarticulate text, which requires to be artistically articulated by the reader’s “poetic rhetoric.” I would add “passionate,” of which I think Brueggemann would approve. So we have the reader’s “passionate poetic rhetoric.”

Rhetoric” has two meanings: 1. the negative meaning of “grandiloquence,” in plain lingo, “hoopla;” the bread and butter of most politicians, and 2. the positive meaning of “the art of discourse.” The second diagram shows how “rhetoric” slots into the “humanities.” “Rhetoric” applies to the sciences as well, indeed, to any kind of writing; letter writing, for example – and theological writing!

 

 Now, to a biblical text as an illustration of the distinction I want to make between:

  1. Brueggemann, who says, in his “Here finally comes the poet” that “the truth of the Gospel cannot be articulated in flat, certain prose, but it must be articulated in a poetic rhetoric in which when you hear it, you as the listener, still get to decide what it means.”

    And

  2. The intentional meaning of the Gospel, that is, the novel idea that the Gospel intends to say what it wants to say, and to do it in articulated “flat certain (of itself) prose.”

Consider the following sentence of Jesus from the Gospel of John:

I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Brueggemann says away with the inarticulations of the “flat certain prose” of traditional biblical inspiration, and displace it with my personal passionate “poetic rhetoric.” How, I ask, in the name of rhetoric (the rules of discourse), do you think you have the imaginative right to exchange the logos with your internal rhetorical rhema.

 The distinction between “internal testimony” and “inspiration” is related to the popular distinction in “God-gave-me-a-Rhema-today” circles between rhema (“the Holy Spirit talking to me” as someone said) and logos (the “flat” word written for all). This distinction is false. Rhema and logos are synonyms for “word,” any kind of word, spoken or written. Debonnaire airs it well:

This false dichotomy between the two words has been used to give false credibility to doctrines that tickle the ears, trouble hearts and minds, and lead astray. For in fact , when we examine the scriptures where both words (rhema and logos) are used, we see that a word/rhema is not more inspired of the Spirit of God than a word/logos. Neither is it larger or more personal.”

To consider rhema personal, round and fat, and the logos impersonal square and “flat” (Brueggemann), indicates symptoms of schizologia: a split between what “this verse means to me” and what “this verse means,” what this verse intends, that is, what Jesus means by the words, which, surely, is as clear as prosaic day. (See my Schizologia: Internal Testimony versus Inspiration of Scripture).

What should also be clear to any basically competent exegete is that the Bible  consists of different genres such as legal codes, psalms, historical narrative, prophecy, and symbolic narratives (apocalypses). Whether the text be immediately clear or requiring deep study, it is to the text we must bow (I’m using a metaphor, of course).

“The spiritual native beauty of heavenly truths, is better conveyed unto the minds of men, by words and expressions fitted unto it, plainly and simply, than by any ornaments of enticing speech whatever; and therefore we say with Austin, that there is not anything delivered in the Scripture, but just as it ought to be, and as the matter requires.” (John Owen: Exposition of the letter to the Hebrews, Volume 1).

Jacob’s (Jacques) Gate: Rhetoric, grammar and pragmatics in Derrida’s Deconstruction

In several previous posts, I pondered on the literary theory of “deconstruction.” (See here and here). It was Jacques Derrida, the Jewish French philosopher (1930-2004, who coined the term “deconstruction.” The question is, “Is deconstruction merely a fancy term for “destruction” where, after digging beneath its archaeological sedimentations, all I find are etymological bones.

The discussion is divided into two parts: 1. What is deconstruction, and 2. Rules of language, which show up the weaknesses in deconstruction.

Part 1 – Deconstruction

Here or there, says Derrida, the French Jewish philosopher I have used the word deconstruction which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of…being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentations of the language which we use – and that is not destruction.

(Derrida, J. 1972 Structure, Sign and Play. In: Macksey, R. & Donato, E. (eds.) The Structuralist Controversy. Baltimore, P. 271).

In Derrida’s deconstruction, language is the sediment of the desire to mean, to communicate, and has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin; its existence is a network of differences between signifiers (sounds or written symbols signifying meaning), each tracing, tracking, leaping over the other, where the story of reality consists in nothing more more than pseudo-stable signs (signifiers and signifieds) chasing after one another’s enigmatic tales.

In deconstruction there is no necessary connection between the desire to signify (to mean) and the signifiers that evoke that desire.

[I]f language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal (single) meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for ‘origins’” (J. Derrida 1981, Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone, 278-93).

But surely, if you give a specific chunk of discourse an unlimited number of contexts, no communication is possible. For example, if it is true that language has no locatable centre, and all is free play, I would be free to allocate any meaning I desire to Derrida’s paragraph above, and in so doing bury myself in nostalgia for the time when language was not an “unrestricted interaction of signifiers,” but I should, advises Derrida, not pull my syntactic sinews and semantic flesh together, for to do so will only result in the return (nostos) of suffering (algos).

This kind of linguistic free play is linguistic foul play. I say this because, all deconstructionists are at bottom constructivists. A constructivist believes that knowledge is not discovered but constructed. In other words, reality is not  “given” (existing out there), but  “taken” (from your constructive imaginations). 

Part 2 Rules of language and the weakness of deconstruction

Derrida, however, insisted that you could only understand deconstruction if you obeyed the rules of grammar, rhetoric and pragmatics.

“What I, on the other hand, must recall to your attention – and I will remind you of it more than once – is that the text of an appeal obeys certain rules; it has its grammar, its rhetoric, its pragmatics. I’ll come back to this point in a moment, to wit: as you did not take these rules into account, you quite simply did not read my text, in the most elementary and quasi-grammatical sense of what is called reading.

(J. Derrida. 1986. But beyond…(Open letter to Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon). Translated by Peggy Kamuf. Critical Enquiry, Autumn, pp.155-170, p.157)

The context of the above quotation is Derrida’s response to McClintock and Nixon [1986] whom he rebukes for misunderstanding the context in which he was using the term “apartheid” and for gross distortions, according to Derrida, of his theory of deconstruction. (McClintock, A. & Nixon, R. 1986. No Names Apart: The Separation of Word and History in Derrida’s ‘Le Dernier Mot du Racisme.’  [The lawst word in racism], Critical Enquiry, Autumn, pp.140-154).

Therefore, it is Derrida himself who insists that his writing obeys certain rules, the abuse of which leads to misreading his intentions. Accordingly, Derrida does believe in communication, i.e. codes that mean (Lawlor 1983; Scholes 1988). But for codes to mean, they must mean something particular, that is, they must be connected to a particular (specific) context – or contexts. Contexts can be plural but should, surely, never be unrestricted. Recall (above) Derrida’s description of “deconstruction” as an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for ‘origins.’” Typology is an example of plural contexts; for example, from the Christian perspective, the exodus is an historical event in itself, and so it unfolds within a historical context, but the exodus also points to the believer in Jesus passing through the “waters” of regeneration (Catholics would say the literal waters of baptism).

Derrida cannot have his cake and eat it; he can’t have a communication, a message, a specific interpretation, and his free play at the same time. It goes without saying (it too much) that although interpretations are imperfect vessels of meaning, they nevertheless mean. (See my Tower Derrida’s Tower of Babel).

What are these rules of “grammar, rhetoric and pragmatics” to which Derrida refers? “Grammar” refers to how words are used in sentences, “rhetoric” refers to the art of discourse, which aims to improve language facility in speaking and writing in the the different functions of language such as transacting (providing) information and persuasion.

Now, when we say language means something, we mean at least two kinds of meaning: sentence meaning (what Geoffrey Leech calls “semantic meaning”) and meaning beyond the sentence (in linguistic terms, suprasentential, intersentential meaning). This intersentential meaning is called “pragmatic meaning” (Leech), that is, the way sentences are used in larger chunks of discourse (Language use). So, there is a difference between sentence meaning (semantic meaning) and the meaning of a discourse as a whole (pragmatic meaning).

(Leech, L.G. 1983. Principles of pragmatics.London. Longman.1983].

The sentence in isolation from a functional (sociolinguistic) context only has potential meaning. It is this potential meaning which has to become actualised in language use. What is meant by the potential meaning of sentences?

It is obvious that every sentence in isolation from its functional context must contain meaningful units. For example, each of the three words in the sentence I am reading is a meaningful unit. These three units are combined into a larger meaningful unit, namely, the sentence.

The sentence, in turn combines, with other sentences to form an even larger unit called discourse. And it is only at the discourse level that parts of sentences and sentences come alive. Meaning at the sentence level and below is referred to in linguistics as semantic meaning, while meaning at the discourse level is referred to as pragmatic, or sociolinguistic meaning. So, from the point of view of discourse ( language use), the sentence has potential meaning only.

The distinction between semantic and pragmatic meaning can also be explained in the following way (Leech 1983):

- the meaning of X, which is the semantic or sentence meaning,

and

what you mean by X, which is the pragmatic or sociolinguistic meaning.

The sentence “I am reading” means that there is somebody, namely me who is reading. This meaning is the semantic or sentence meaning.

We use “I am reading” in a life situation:

Student A is sharing a room with Student B. Student A is reading in the room while Student B is out. Student B returns, sees Student A bowed over a book, and shouts: What are you doing? It is obvious to Student A that Student B is not requesting information as to whether Student A is reading a book – it is obvious that this is so.

Suppose Student A’s answer is I’m reading. The semantic meaning of this utterance is clear, namely, Student A is not eating, or sleeping, but reading. But what does Student A mean by I’m reading and what does Student B mean by What are you doing?

Here are a few possibilities of the pragmatic meaning of these two sentences, one a question, the other the answer to the question:

Question: “What are you doing?”

1. Hey, what are you doing in my bed?”

2. What a miracle, you’re reading a book!

3. We’ve been looking all over for you, and here you are all the time, rotting at your desk.

Answer: “I’m reading.”

1. I vant to be alone.

2. It’s no good, I’ll never speak to you again.

3. I’m so bored, the TV is not working; what else is there to do but read – yawn.

4. Who the blazes do you think you are to speak to me like that?

5. You illiterate idiot, go back to your comics.

So the pragmatic context of language does not merely go beyond the sentence meaning, it actually makes the sentence meaningful, and actual meaning (enacted in language use) is the only kind of meaning that we can live by. (See my Structure in Grammar and in Function: A Marginal Note).

Let us now return to the sentence we started with, namely, Derrida’s definition of deconstruction (keeping in mind that this definition is far from exhaustive).

Here or there I have used the word deconstruction which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of…being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentations of the language which we use – and that is not destruction.”

Deconstruction, therefore, deals with the dregs of what language used to mean, while grammar, rhetoric and pragmatics deals with language use, what it means on this page. 

And, unsurprisingly, there are no mistakes in deconstruction, because, reality is a taken, not a given; in other words, you construct your reality, and if you do so using the historical sedimentations of language as your foundation, you would be doing deconstruction. Here is an example, which, again unsurprisingly, originates in the confusion of tongues at Babel. The example is Derrida’s “mistaken” view of the origin of the very term “Babel.”

We read Derrida writing about reading Voltaire. Voltaire makes the following assumption about the etymology of “Babel”:

BA = father BEL = god

We follow Derrida following Voltaire. Derrida refers to Voltaire’s observation that Babel besides being a proper noun has, as a common noun, two further meanings, namely (1) disorder, and (2) perplexity, i.e. the perplexity which confronted the architects before the interrupted work. All these senses, he claims, became confused. This is so. But watch what happens.

We observe Derrida in his “Des Tours de Babel” imitating Voltaire’s interpretation of Babel as “father-God”. But Voltaire is wrong, for BEL has nothing to do with God; Babel derives from BAB-ILU and does not mean “father-God”, but “gate-God”.

(J. Derrida. 1985. The Tower of Babel. In: Graham, J.F. (ed. and Trans.). Difference in Translation . Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Here is another edition. The English translation“The Tower of Babel,” of the French “Des Tours de Babel” loses the play on words of “detour” and “des tours”).

What does Derrida’s “Des Tours de Babel” lose in taking the wrong detour? Not much is lost on the BA(B) because what Derrida considers to be the father seme does not disseminate into the remains of his tortured text. But it is the unbeautiful gate ILU, mistaken for BEL (God) which ties the rest of “Des Tours…” into an unsacred knot (p.203-4 of “Des Tours…”).

Towards the end of his detour in “Des tours…”, Derrida is upset in the saddle of his own interventions: an unstrategic spillage, displacing the displacement of his own pluralities. I’m reminded of Walter Brueggemann’s “pluriform” versions of the “big story”.  He gives the example of Mark’s Gospel. “Luke came along and said that’s (Brueggeman’s emphasis) not the way the story is put together and so from what I understand from New Testament scholars, he put it together very differently…there is a big story but it is profoundly pluriform.”

 He gives the example of the “pluralism of our faith”: you’re a new pastor whose moved to town and you don’t know any of the families. A mother dies and and you ask the five daughters what their mother was like. You’ll get five contradictory stories where they’ll say “she wasn’t like that at all.” And you’re the pastor and have to weave that altogether. (My transcript of part of the Q&A session of the 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. (The audio and the Brueggemann’s theses can be found here).

To return to Derrida. The law/lore of deconstruction imposed on the text sanctions (which can mean either “commands” or “forbids,” but in deconstruction means both! depending on which detour you want to take) Derrida to pass the gate off for God; ILU for (B)EL. The question is whether this disclosure of the sediments of repetition and reversal of gate and God weaken the foundations of deconstruction? On the contrary, it is these very fortuitous (strategic?) repetitions and reversals – every loss is always aGAIN – which make more explicit the hidden sedimentations of language.. I try and show why this is so:The gate re-opens (is it the same gate?), revealing a path (the same path?), a track, a trace, departing from the tower of Babylon and arriving at a stairway in Bethel. The stairway rests on the earth and reaches up to heaven. On the stairway, angels coruscate up and down. At the top of the ladder stands the God of Genesis; at the bottom, Jacob, the heEler of God; asleep:

I am the Lord the God of your Ab[FATHER]raham and the God of Isaac [LAUGHTER]. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the West and to the East, to the North and to the South. All people on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

Jacob awakes; filled with awe he bursts into worship and praise:

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it…How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of God.

Jacob’s gate is the gate of El, while Jacques’ gate; well, that’s his BEL.

(For a fuller explanation of Derrida’s error see Babel: Can Derrida’s Tour (Surprisingly) Translate Us Anywhere?

Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann

Part of my title is ambiguous: “The deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann.” Do I mean that I am going to deconstruct Brueggemann or that I am going to examine Brueggemann’s deconstruction of hermeneutics? I leave the reader to decide on the (re-)interpretation. After all, it’s Brueggemann’s thesis that every text must be continually reinterpreted. Besides, I think I’m (relatively) better at talking about deconstruction than deconstructing.

 I offer a few thoughts on Walter Brueggemann, the biblical theologian, for whom theology and Bible interpretation is not a matter of certainty but of fidelity; fidelity to the divine office of creative imagination. One of his books is entitled, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination

 Here is a transcript of part of the Q&A session of the 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. (The audio and the Brueggemann’s theses can be found here). There are four Q&A sessions. In this discussion, I deal with Session 1.

QandA Session 1 (Parts in brackets have been added)

Question:

 How do you live with the ambivalence of biblical narrative.

Brueggemann

 “We all have a hunger for certitude. The problem is the Gospel is not about certitude, it’s about fidelity. So, what we all want to do, if we can, is immediately transpose fidelity into certitude, because fidelity is a relational category, and certitude is a flat mechanical category (such as systematic theology, says Brueggemann in his theses ). So, we have to acknowledge our thirst for certitude, and then to recognise that if you had all the certitudes in the world, it would not make the quality if your life any better because what we must have is fidelity. …It all went haywire in the 17th century with Lutheranism and Calvinism when we tried to outscience science and switch into categories of certitude …Fidelity is like having a teenager in the house and you never get it settled for more than three minutes, and you’ve got to keep doing it again or you don’t have a relationship.

Questioner 

“Part of the job of the pastor is help people see the difference between the two (certitude and fidelity), or to deconstruct their certitude.”

Brueggemann 

“Yes, that’s right; to realise that the promise for certitude that is given by any voice is a phoney promise that cannot be kept. There’s not enough certitude to make us happy and make us safe.”

If Brueggemann believes that the Bible has no certitude, then, deconstruction is definitely up his street. We need to know, though, that “deconstruct” is not at all the same concept as “take apart,” or any of the many other wrong understandings of it. It’s far more complicated (and confusing) than man could ever dream. It’s a specialist term invented by the Jew, Jacob (Jacques) Derrida.

In Derrida’s deconstruction (there is no other kind of deconstruction), language – the sediment of the desire to mean, to communicate – has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin; its existence is a network of differences between signifiers (sounds or written symbols signifying meaning), each tracing and tracking the other. In deconstruction there is no necessary connection between the desire to signify (to mean) and the signifiers that evoke that desire. Desire for such a connection results in nostalgia; the return (nostos) of suffering (algos):

[I]f language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for ‘origins’” (J. Derrida 1981, Dissemination. Translated by Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone, 278-93).

Now, if signifiers, namely, what words appear to mean, are continuously jumping, bumping toppling over one another, this does not mean, according to deconstruction, that they are doing so in order to arrive at some specific meaning, or essence. Indeed, deconstruction attempts to reverse the Platonic (no, nothing to do with no-sex, this time) notion that “essence is more valuable than appearance. In deconstruction however, we reverse this, making appearance more valuable than essence,” where “essence” connotes a specific meaning, which deconstruction eschews.

Neuralgia, nostalgia. Non-deconstructionists are painfully aware that the dictionary meaning of “nostalgia” has nothing to do with its etymological meaning of a “return (nostos) of suffering (algos)” (Derrida above). So, we must be careful of getting bogged down in the historical sedimentations of language, as is the wont of deconstruction. And where did – I suspect – Derrida find his deconstructive inspiration? Surely, from the letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning and the different levels of meaning PaRDes:

Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain” (“simple”) or the direct meaning.

Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense.

Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.

Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in ‘bone’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning, as given through inspiration or revelation.

I elaborate on Brueggemann’s distinction between “certitude” and “fidelity.”

For Brueggemann, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Derrida says (above), to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus unrestricted interaction – if I understand Brueggemann – between suffering persons desiring to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all poststructuralists (who believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as Being, no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only (human) beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. And if the Bible stories are able to buck – and back – them up, thank you Holy Spirit.

Jesus: The Truth will make you certain and free.

Brueggemann: The Truth will make you uncertain and flee.

The Truth necessarily brings suffering and makes you feel very unsafe. Unsafe in the world, yes; for the supernatural reason that the biblical story clashes with the world’s story/stories (the world system). 

En passant, much of rabbinical Judaism, but certainly not all, resonates with the idea that life is mainly about what makes us happy and safe. We still, though, don’t know what Brueggemann means by “fidelity.” He explains: “The symbol of that (fidelity) is the way of the cross. The way of the cross is always to be departing certitudes so that we may be in the company of Jesus.”

According to Brueggemann, therefore, fidelity means being in the company of the crucified Jesus, but this can only become a reality if we “depart” from our “certitudes;” If language has consensual meanings, I presume Brueggemann means by “certitudes,” all certitudes. Surely, though, if we are to be faithful (fidel) to the way of the cross, as Brueggemann suggests, we need to be certain that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

What Brueggemann is advocating, in different words, is that we shouldn’t be cocksure about anything, even about, “Verily (surely, certainly, truly) I say unto thee, that this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice” (Matthew 26:34).

Derrida, Jean Paul Sartre, Andre Gide, Albert Camus, as well as every postmodernist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist, in fact, anyone who doesn’t believe in Certitude, would ask the question: “What fun’s left once you find the Messiah, once you’ve found the “Cross?” After all, the ideal, says Renan, is fundamentally a utopia. What is more ideal than Truth? 

Brueggemann is on a journey; never arriving, always departing; a sitting on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge. That, as I said elsewhere, is deconstruction. But doesn’t Jesus himself make his disciples uncertain? Here is Brueggemann:

And Jesus doesn’t make any of his disciples certain. I think that’s why essentially teaches in figures and parables and enigmatic statements that always have to be reinterpreted… When you’ve emptied everything out to make it plain and clear and unambiguous, you’ve emptied it out of what’s happening in the transaction.”

Jesus did, in contrast to Brueggemann’s assertion, make his disciples certain (much of the time). The Bible certainly states:

And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it. 34 But without a parable He did not speak to them. And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples” (Mark 4:33-34).

I’m emptied out. And it’s also time to pack my suitcase for the next departure lounge.

(To be continued – at the next departure lounge).

Speaking pure Hebrew without vowels

Here is a Jewish view of the Torah Scrolls.

“In looking at the scrolls themselves, the first thing we notice is that they are written in Hebrew without vowels and one’s Hebrew has to be very good in order to read them. The absence of vowels in the text is, I suspect, to safeguard the purity of this gift of God because in its original form Hebrew was a language spoken without vowels.”

With regard to the last clause, “in its original form Hebrew was a language spoken without vowels”:

I would imagine that any language spoken without vowels would not be a language at all, because all spoken languages, by definition, require the speaking of both consonants and vowels, even the p(u)r(e)st of all languages. Try it it yourself; try saying “pr drvl.”

The reason why the original Torah was not written with vowels was because the original writer/s (Moses, and/or others) and readers could understand the txt wtht vwls. So why write more than is necessary especially when the Hebrew vowels had to be written underneath the consonants, which botches up the neat linearity of its consonantal structure. The Gematrists might disagree and attach a more Kabbalistic reason for the absence of vowels, indeed for the absence of spaces between groups of letters in the Torah, which is the usual way words are written in other languages.

All languages begin spoken. So we have speaking before writing, where writing represents speaking. Well that’s the linguistic way of seeing it.

A language is a dialect with an army (and a navy): The case of modern Hebrew

Without Christian missionaries, many indigenous languages would never have acquired a written form. Many of these languages would have never acquired the status of a “language” and would have remained in the less honorary state of “dialect.” Sometimes it took more than a missionary to do the job; it took an army and a navy. The Jewish linguist, Max Weinreich is famous for the quip A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot – “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy (1945).

If a country has a big army, few would be willing to mess with it. Which brings me to the Zionist state of Israel. According to Neturei Karta (Ultra-Orthodox Judaism), the
Zionist movement’s early misfortune was that it lacked what other nations possessed, namely, a state and army. “Their salvation is possession of a state and army etc. This is clearly spelled out in the circles of Zionist thought, and among the leaders of the Zionist State, that through changing the nature and character of the People of Israel and by changing their way of thinking they can set before the People of Israel ‘salvation’ — a state and an army..”

Neturei Karta gives several reasons why the Zionist State is contrary to the Torah. Here is their first reason:

“FIRST — The so-called “State of Israel” is diametrically opposed and completely contradictory to the true essence and foundation of the People of Israel, as is explained above. The only time that the People of Israel were permitted to have a state was two thousand years ago when the glory of the creator was upon us, and likewise in the future when the glory of the creator will once more be revealed, and the whole world will serve Him, then He Himself (without any human effort or force of arms) will grant us a kingdom founded on Divine Service. However, a worldly state, like those possessed by other peoples, is contradictory to the true essence of the People of Israel. Whoever calls this the salvation of Israel shows that he denies the essence of the People of Israel, and substitutes another nature, a worldly materialistic nature, and therefore sets before them, a worldly materialistic “salvation,” and the means of achieving this “salvation” is also worldly and materialistic i.e. to organize a land and army. However, the true salvation of the People of Israel is to draw close to the Creator. This is not done by organization and force of arms. Rather it is done by occupation to Torah and good deeds.”

((See Neturei Karta’s other reasons here http://www.nkusa.org/AboutUs/Zionism/opposition.cfm).

Neturei Karta states that this the “Orthodox” position of the “People of Israel.” Many Orthodox Jews (those who are strict observers of the Torah precepts) would not find any contradiction between Zionism and Orthodoxy.

Could it be that modern Hebrew, the lingua Franca of Israel, is a language today because the Zionist State has a strong army (if not such a strong navy)?

Elohim: A bamboozle of grammar and meaning

Ibn Anwar, in his “Elohim. One or Plural?” responds to Tony Costa:

Here is the excerpt from Anwar.

Reverend Tony Costa said,

“The Hebrew word “elohim” is a third person masculine plural noun. It is grammatically always plural. It is used of the one true God Yahweh but when it is used of the true God “elohim” is generally followed by the singular verb. For instance Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God ["elohim"; plural noun] created ["bara"; singular].”. “Elohim” is also used of false gods in the Old Testament, used of human judges and angels. The context is vital in the use of “elohim”. This noun is used of Yahweh more often than the other Hebrew words”el” and “eloah”.”

Anwar’s Response

… Reverend Costa says in the first sentence of his brief thesis that, “”The Hebrew word “elohim” is a third person masculine plural noun.” That is right. The word is a combination of the noun Eloa [it is pronounced Eloah due to the vowel markers chataf, segol an chirik) with the pronominal suffix (masculine plural ending) +iym(í). However, he has made a crucial error in the next sentence where he says, “It is grammatically always plural.” It is a scriptural and grammatical fact that whenever the word Elohim refers to God the creator who deserves worship the co-text and context clearly uses ‘signals’ to make the word singular. What are the ‘signals’? Let us examine the first verse of the Bible as a starting point.

“bereshit bara’ ELOHIM et ha shamayim va et ha erets”

The verb used in the verse is bara’ which is a verb inflected in the perfect third person singular which has already been mentioned by Rev. Tony. However, what he failed to mention is that the verb controls the meaning of the subject(elohim). If the word elohim really denotes a plural subject grouped in one(collective noun or uniplural) as Trinitarians would suggest surely it would have used the plural (bar’u). Elohim in verse 1 is understood and translated as singular in all English Bibles because it behaves as a SINGULAR noun(the Elohim is the subject of the verb bara’ which is singular). In fact Genesis 1:26 follows the same rule! The verse says,

“And God (Elohim) said (vayomer), let us make man in our image…”

The noun elohim is the subject of the singular verb vayomer as a result of which determines the former as singular.

End of excerpt from Ibn Anwar.

I now examine Anwar’s argument in terms of the distinction between the linguistic terms “grammar” and “meaning.”

In linguistics, “grammar” has a wide and a narrow meaning.

Costa (and I would think most who read him) distinguishes between the narrow meaning of grammar (the “cement”) and vocabulary (the “bricks”) of language, where wrong grammar does NOT affect the meaning. For example,

How….milk have you got?

(a) a lot (b) much of (c) much (d) many

Answer – much.

We went….the store by car. (a) at; (b) on; (c) for; (d) to

Answer – to.

Here is the use of the wrong verb form with the noun

*They likes sugar.

And more pertinent to our topic:

*God judge (present tense) mankind.

In the dictionary we find vocabulary (lexis), not grammar; for example, we find prepositions but not how to use them. Or verbs (for example “create”) but not their conjugations; for example, I create – he creates.

In Hebrew we have “Elohim bara,” a plural noun with a singular verb, which in normal Hebrew would be regarded as ungrammatical. Tony Costa is talking about a grammatical issue, not a meaning/vocabulary/lexical issue. So, although it is true, as Ibn Anwar points out in his example (“And God Elohim said vayomer, let us make man in our image…”) that the noun “Elohim” is the “subject of the singular verb vayomer, where vayomer determines Elohim as singular,” this fact is independent of the fact that Elohim is a grammatical plural.

Here’s the nub:

Although it is true, as Ibn Anwar points out that “bara” (as a singular verb) determines the meaning of “Elohim” to be a singular, this fact is independent of the fact that “Elohim” is a grammatical plural.

Tony Costa cannot, of course, use his grammatical argument for a lexical (meaning) purpose, namely to assert that if Elohim is grammatically plural then it follows that it must MEAN plural. So Ibn Anwar, you are right on that score.

Ibn brings his presuppositions into the ring while Tony Costa brings his; the former, Islamic, the latter, Christian presuppositions. Here’s the presuppositional rub – from my presuppositional view: it is God who opens the eyes. It is through this divine opening that God comes to sup with us. Evidence won’t convince without Revelation.

So, whose presuppositions are true? God knows.

Theological Aphasia and Language as Communion

There is language as communication and there is language as communion. The difference between the two is that the second is always personal. For those who believe in a personal God, language as communion is possible between both man and God. I describe some of the issues of human language in the secular and theological context.

The three paramount concerns of language, or aims of discourse, are the creation, expression and communication of meaning, which could be summarised as “learning how to mean” ( Halliday, M.A.K. Learning how to mean. London, Arnold, 1975). ”Functions” of language is the major dimension of language study ” (Kinneavy, 1983:131) because the functions of language tell us about the why (content), the where (context) and the how (well) of language use.

Roman Jacobsen defines the different functions of language:

The Referential function (transactional, informational) corresponds to the factor of context and describes a situation, object or mental state.

The Expressive (“emotive” or “affective”) function relates to the addressor (speaker) and refers to utterances that do not change the denotative (informational) meaning of an utterance but adds information about how the addressor feels about something.

The Conative function involves influencing or trying to change the Addressee’s (listener) behaviour.

The Poetic Function focuses on “the message for its own sake” (Jacobsen) as in literature and slogans. The Phatic function (the term was coined by Bronislav Malinowski) involves language in interpersonal/social interaction; for example, greetings and casual chat. (”Phatic” from Greek phatos ”spoken.” Aphasia is a speech defect). The Phatic function is the “getting to know you (better)” function; small talk, where the emphasis on the communication of information is small, while the emphasis on the communication of feelings is big.

The Metalingual (“metalinguistic” or “reflexive”) function – what Jakobson calls “Code” – is language used to think about, discuss, describe itself. (See my “Cognition and Language Proficiency”).

Chomsky suggests that expression, not communication, is the central function of language (Chomsky, Language and Responsibility, 1979:88). Ryle (1959), in a similar vein (at the end of his introduction to “The concept of mind”), states: “Primarily I am trying to get some disorders out of my own system. Only secondarily do I hope to help other theorists to recognise our malady and to benefit from my medicine.”The “purgative” (“suppository”) function of language is one function that did not occur to Jacobsen; and neither to Chomsky – I suppose.

Consider Devitt and Derelny’s view on the origin and functions of language. (Devitt, M., and Sterelny, K. 1987. Language & reality: An introduction to the philosophy of language. Basil Blackwell). Devitt and Derelny (1987) are committed to “physicalism”, that is, people are nothing but complex parts of the physical world. Devitt and Derelny (1987:127) maintain that language originated out of a need to understand the environment and ourselves in order to use and control the environment. Primitive man conveyed meaning through body language such as grunts and gestures. Grunts and gestures caught on out of which linguistic conventions were born. The capacity to think – according to Devitt and Derelny – is borrowed from those who created these conventions and thus primitive thought was made easy. The drive to understand leads to more complicated thoughts, to more complicated speaker meanings to more complicated conventions.

“If this sketch is right, we have, as individuals as a species, engaged in a prodigious feat of lifting ourselves up by our own semantic bootstraps…The picture is of a language of thought expanding with the introduction into it of a public language.” (Devitt & Derelny, 1987:127).

Devett and Derelny’s description echoes the modern atheistic-Darwinian view of the origins and function of language. Contrast this view where the main emphasis of language is theological:

“God speaks humans, like the rest of creation, into being. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’…” (Genesis 1:26). In the creation stories in Genesis God’s speaking is God’s doing. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light'; and there was light” (Genesis 1: 3). The relationship between God and creation and the relationship in particular between God and human beings is mediated by the Word. God creates by speaking and humans are to listen and then in light of what they bear address God and one another. Human speech, therefore, is neither exclusively nor even primarily a social phenomenon between neighbors, but first and foremost a theological reality. Speech has something to do with who God is and what it means for humans to live, first, before God, and second, in communion with one another” (“Before God:” A Crisis in Sin and Redemption” by George Stroup).

(The excerpts above are from one of Stroup’s lectures. This lecture has been fleshed out in his book “Before God”).

The language of theological reality in Christianity  is the biblical narrative, which is at enmity with the worldly narrative. Here is the biblical communicative relationship between addressor and addressee:

“In biblical narrative humans are called to listen because it is God who speaks first. Human speech, therefore, is true when it responds obediently to the prior reality of God’s Word and God’s address. False speech—the lie—is not simply the distortion of the truth, although it is that, but, more significantly, it is speech that is not obedient to the Word by which it has been addressed, but an attempt to find some ground, some basis, other than the reality of God’s Word and God’s address…To live before God and to be truly and faithfully human is, first, to allow oneself to be addressed by God, and, second, to speak truthfully to God. It is listening to and speaking obediently to God that is also the basis for allowing oneself to be addressed by and to speak truthfully to one’s neighbor.”

In sum, those who reject the theological priority of language suffer from theological aphasia. The Apostle John provides a scriptural basis for Stroup (above):

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3 ESV).

In the phatic function of language, says Malinowski, ”The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship, which is consummated only by the breaking of bread and the communion of food.” For the Christian, communion – which is the gathering of believers to break bread before the Lord’s Table – is the consumate theological emphasis on the Word made flesh.

Life, life, eternal life: The word made Fish

Towards the end of Albert Mohler’s “Thinking in Public” podcast, “Why we can’t all just get along: A conversation with Stanley Fish” (Jan 11 2011), Fish, a legal scholar and literary critic, and Mohler are discussing Fish’s latest book “How to read a sentence and write one,” in which Fish describes the marks of a good sentence. He ends his book with some of his favourite sentences. Fish tells Mohler that his favourite sentence is from Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Here is his description:

I end the main body of the book with my favorite sentences from the book which is a sentence from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and that sentence describes the moment when Bunyan’s hero Christian having discovered that he is burdened with original sin and mourning to rid himself of it starts to run from his village toward a light that he barely sees and now here is the sentence, “now he had not run far away from his own door.  But his wife and children perceiving it began crying after him to return.  But the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on crying ‘life, life, eternal life.’” That is both a great sentence absolutely amazing sentence, the way in which it is structured and a lesson in what it is that sentences can and cannot do.  Sentences can send us in the direction of something greater than they and therefore greater than us so sentences in a way perform their best office when they turn us in the direction of life, life, eternal life.

[Fish calls Bunyan's delectable chunk of discourse, a "sentence." As we all know, a sentence ends  with a full stop (period)].

Mohler:   I have to end by asking you the question that came to my mind at the end of your latest book. In a secular age is it perhaps true that for most sentences are all that remain?

Fish:  Yes.  And that is what I call in the book at a certain point the religion of art.  And when the liberal ethos doesn’t so much as give up religion but puts it in a corner it has to worship something. And what it usually worships is art, and one form of that art are sentences.  But I believe that the sentences that really matter don’t, neither invite nor allow that worship but in fact encourage you and invite you to search for something greater. (Podcast transcript can be found here).

Fish reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which studied in my French course at university. Brian Simpson writes on Flaubert’s novels in the John Hopkins magazine:

The novel on your bedside table did not spring fully formed from the head of its maker. It was mulled over, massaged, fleshed out, scratched through, revised, set aside, and revised some more.”

Simpson quotes Flaubert: “When I’m finished with my novel . . . I’ll bring you my complete manuscript. . . . You will see through what complex mechanics I manage to make a sentence.”
(Gustave Flaubert in an April 15, 1852, letter to his lover Louise Colet).

As in Flaubert, so in Fish; language, not the plot, counts; because all that matters is what natters.

Flaubert, Simpson continues, rewrote each page of Madame Bovary at least four or five times, and many a dozen times. In an 1855 letter to Louise Colet, he confided, “Last week I spent five days writing one page.” At the end of such weeks, he had finished only 500 words. But they were 500 perfect words.”

And for Jacques Neefs, an authority on Flaubert, “the vision is in the revisions.”

That’s Fish all over: vision is revision. Never standing still, always moving; never arriving always departing. Art for art sake, L’art pour l’art, in it’s many forms: language for language sake, painting for painting sake, sculpture for sculpture sake, where language, the supreme art form, cuts, not through, but into the Word – made, not flesh, but Art. The reason why there is no attempt to cut through language is because for Flaubert and Fish, there is nothing outside Art, outside the Art of language. Only sentences remain (Fish above), only sentences live, only sentences are eternal, only sentences live eternally. Sentences, says Fish, must be religiously nurtured (“the religion of art”- Fish), for they are the springboard to newness of life, to a newness of more sentences. There’s no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God; always departing never arriving. All these men remind me of Jacques Derrida and my friend, Bill, who asks: “So what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived?  There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”

The Word was made flesh (the Messiah), and the flesh was made fish (the word). There’s the Fisher of men and the fisher of words. For the fisher of words, there will be – unless something changes – no resurrection from the boggy sediments of language, but only a sentencing to an eternity of sentences – “one has to worship something” (Fish above). Or perhaps there will only be a sentencing to a single phrase, drumming over and over and over in those finely tuned literary ears: Bunyan’s “life, life, eternal life.”

Towards the end of Albert Mohler’s “Thinking in Public” podcast, “Why we can’t all just get along: A conversation with Stanley Fish” (Jan 11 2011), Fish, a legal scholar and literary critic, and Mohler are discussing Fish’s latest book “How to read a sentence and write one,” in which Fish describes the marks of a good sentence. He ends his book with some of his favourite sentences. Fish tells Mohler that his favourite sentence is from Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Here is his description (my italics and underlining):

I end the main body of the book with my favorite sentences from the book which is a sentence from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and that sentence describes the moment when Bunyan’s hero Christian having discovered that he is burdened with original sin and mourning to rid himself of it starts to run from his village toward a light that he barely sees and now here is the sentence, “now he had not run far away from his own door.  But his wife and children perceiving it began crying after him to return.  But the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on crying ‘life, life, eternal life.’” That is both a great sentence absolutely amazing sentence, the way in which it is structured and a lesson in what it is that sentences can and cannot do.  Sentences can send us in the direction of something greater than they and therefore greater than us so sentences in a way perform their best office when they turn us in the direction of life, life, eternal life.

Mohler:   I have to end by asking you the question that came to my mind at the end of your latest book. In a secular age is it perhaps true that for most sentences are all that remain?

Fish:  Yes.  And that is what I call in the book at a certain point the religion of art.  And when the liberal ethos doesn’t so much as give up religion but puts it in a corner it has to worship something. And what it usually worships is art, and one form of that art are sentences.  But I believe that the sentences that really matter don’t, neither invite nor allow that worship but in fact encourage you and invite you to search for something greater. (Podcast transcript can be found here).

Fish reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which I read in my French studies at university. Brian Simpson writes on Flaubert’s novels in the John Hopkins magazine:

The novel on your bedside table did not spring fully formed from the head of its maker. It was mulled over, massaged, fleshed out, scratched through, revised, set aside, and revised some more.”

Simpson quotes Flaubert: When I’m finished with my novel . . . I’ll bring you my complete manuscript. . . . You will see through what complex mechanics I manage to make a sentence.”
— Gustave Flaubert in an April 15, 1852, letter to his lover Louise Colet

As in Flaubert, so in Fish; language, not the plot, counts; because all that matters is what natters.

Flaubert, Simpson continues, rewrote each page of Madame Bovary at least four or five times, and many a dozen times. In an 1855 letter to Louise Colet, he confided, “Last week I spent five days writing one page.” At the end of such weeks, he had finished only 500 words. But they were 500 perfect words.”

And for Jacques Neefs, an authority on Flaubert, “the vision is in the revisions.”

That’s Fish all over: vision is revision. Never standing still, always moving; never arriving always departing. Art for art sake, L’art pour l’art, in it’s many forms: language for language sake, painting for painting sake, sculpture for sculpture sake, where language, the supreme art form, cuts, not through, but into the Word – made, not flesh, but Art. The reason why there is no attempt to cut through language is because for Flaubert and Fish, there is nothing outside Art, outside the Art of language. Only sentences remain (Fish above), only sentences live, only sentences are eternal, only sentences live eternally. Sentences, says Fish, must be religiously nurtured (“the religion of art”- Fish), for they are the springboard to newness of life, to a newness of more sentences. There’s no centre, no arriving, no presence, no God; always departing never arriving. All these men remind me of my Jacques Derrida and my friend, Bill, who asks: “So what’s the deal with having a messiah who’s arrived?  There’s a question for you. Where is the mystery once he’s exposed and had his say?”

The Word was made flesh (the Messiah), and the flesh was made Fish (the word). There’s the Fisher of men and the fisher of words. For the fisher of words, there will be no resurrection from the boggy sediments of language, but only a sentencing to an eternity of sentences – “one has to worship something” (Fish above). Or perhaps there will only be a sentencing to a single phrase, drumming over and over and over in those finely tuned ears: “life, life, eternal life.”

How do you say that in Hebrew like a Hebrew?

When I was a French teacher in the 1970s at the Catholic St George’s College in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), my pupils were very bad at French pronunciation. For example, Bonjour Monsieur became either “Bonjews MooseEar,” or “Bonjewer Monsewer.” No surprises there; most English-speaking learners of foreign languages are linguistic klutzes. When, though, I find pronunciation on a par with my French pupils on the BlueletterBible site – this time, Hebrew – I get a little more critical. I often consult the BlueletterBible site for the Hebrew and Greek of the biblical text. I was reading Ex. 31:15a about the sabbath rest, the shabbat shabbaton.Six days may work be done; but in the seventh [is] the sabbath of rest (Hebrew – shabbat shabbaton), holy to the LORD” (Exodus 31:15a). שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה וּבַיֹּום הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתֹון קֹדֶשׁ לַיהוָה שבת shabbath שבתון shabbaton – sabbath of rest I stress the last syllable /ton/ on shabbaton because there is something wrong with Blueletterbible’s pronunciation of שבתון shabbaton. Click on the loudspeaker on the right side of “of rest” and listen to the pronunciation of שבתוןshabbaton. The “t” (tet) is pronounced “th” to give “shabbathone.” The /th/ sound exists in Greek but not in Hebrew. The /thown/”in “shabbathown” is the American pronunciation 0f /ton/. I wish that BlueletterBible would find someone who knows how to pronounce Hebrew; but not a liberal or reconstructionist Jew, because he would probably know less Hebrew than the person BlueletterBible’s got doing the job now. If, though, BLB does employ someone who speaks proper Hebrew, they must ensure he doesn’t speak with a lithp. And if they persist in digging in their heels, wouldn’t they be bibically better off running a B&B? I have to say that when it comes to Hebrew, I’m no fountain of wisdom1I once mixed up my Hebrew “ems”- my mems: the final Mem םwith the lower case מ. I told everybody, who all happened to be very fruM Jews – that my confusion was a pure case of meMory loss. “Yeah right!”

Translation, transflation and betrayal: Plato’s Gorg(i)as

“Translation” is the process of decoding the ideas of one language (the source language, say, French) and encoding them into another (the target language, say English). In A Jewish view of a French bottom, I discussed the French expression de fond en comble, which the Head of Modern Languages at the University of South Africa translated as “from top to bottom.” I alerted him to the fact that it didn’t mean “from top to bottom” but “from top to toe.” As anyone who is on nodding terms with human anatomy should know, your bottom is nowhere near you toes, unless you’re a midget.

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Had the Professor been betrayed. Betrayed? By what, by whom? Was I to blame for being de fond en comble (from top to bottom; to toe?) impossible? Or is the impossibility of translation to blame? Is it true that traduttore, traditore :“to translate is to betray?”  Is Robert Payne, Chairman of the Translation Committee of the American PEN Organization, correct when he says:

“The world’s languages resemble infinitely complicated grids, and the basic patterns of these grids scarcely ever coincide. [Except] on some rare occasions translation does succeed – beyond all possibility.” [1]

And:

“Whenever we translate exactly and accurately it is a coincidence–in the sense of the purest accident. And the task of the translator is to move sure-footedly among these accidents, he cannot do it by logic.”[2]

If Robert Payne is right, this would mean that the structure of a language defines the structure of thought. In his study of the differences between Hopi and English, Edward Sapir was ostensibly the first to propose this idea.  His associate, Benjamin Lee Whorf picked up the idea and developed it into his system of “linguistic determinism,” where a language determines what we think, which implies that differences in language reflect differences in world view. In such a “linguistic relativity” view, human beings are like Orwellian zombies (Orwell’s “1984”) who are conditioned to think only what the language of  “Newspeak” dictates.

There is much research to show that traduttore, traditore “to translate is to betray” is not as radical as the above writers claim. I think there is a bigger problem than the translation between languages; the main problem lies with translation within languages. What I mean is the miscommunications and misunderstandings (often wilful) between people speaking the same language. Betrayal, therefore, does not only occur between languages, but also within languages, which often means between personalities.

As I said earlier, the usual meaning of the term “translation” is decoding the ideas of one language and encoding them into another. But there is another meaning of “translation” that only involves one language.  “Translation” has the literal meaning of  trans “across” and latus “carry”. “I can’t get across (transfer my thoughts) to you”,  is a familiar complaint.Here is an example from the university of Fort Hare where I taught English language and Applied Linguistics:

I now want to consider cultural differences (i.e. differences in the way one symbolises and constructs one’s world) in the educational domain. I present one example of how academics who share the same mother tongue (in this case English) can disagree. The example is of lecturers’ judgements in the evaluation of a student’s writing.

When I asked some of my Practical English students at Fort Hare to write a definition of culture, they invariably came up with rote textbook descriptions culled from their other subjects: “Culture refers to the norms and values…” etc. Now, norms and values are the kind of “objective” things that do indeed belong to specific groups, which an individual has to conform to. But let us for a while suspend this traditional definition of culture and consider it anew.

Here is an (uncorrected) extract from an essay of one of my more imaginative Practical English students. The title was “Home is where the hope is”. I have substituted “culture” for “home” in the student’s text:

“In a universal perspective home [culture] may be defined as an individual continent or world, where its inner circumstances is perfumed and gorgeoused by the sounding existence of happiness created by freedom of religion, personal custom, uncramped dignity, norms and values. The happiness which permits its development, a compounded feeling which proves itself to be only love which is strong as death, that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually by called by the name is evanescent as a dream.”

I asked (separately) two Practical English lecturers and one philosophy lecturer for their judgements. I quote:

First Practical English lecturer: “What a lot of nonsense. It does not make sense.”
Philosophy lecturer: “I like it. I would give it a good mark. A bit flowery.
Second Practical English lecturer: “He has imagination. Creative. A good effort.”

One other lecturer’s comment on the text was “celebration” – it seems that from these lecturers’ comments above that there are two broad ways of looking at text (and life): celebral or cerebral.

I discussed the above student’s passage with the first Practical English lecturer and the philosophy lecturer together. Here are two quotes, one from each of them:

First Practical English lecturer (addressing the philosopher and me): Both of you are philosophers. You are used to extending boundaries. I like to impose them. My training is in the legal field. It is different to yours. I look for the limits of things. You look beyond the limits of things.

Philosophy lecturer: If you think this passage is meaningless you should try Derrida for size.

(See more in my Culture, Conceptual Frameworks and Academic Ability: A Biocultural Perspective).

So, betrayal (traditore) does not only occur in translation (traduttore) between languages, but also within languages. We saw that “translation” has the literal meaning of  trans “across” and latus “carry”. Plato’s dialogues illustrate this miscommunication problem. One Greek (Socrates, for example) tries to get another Greek (Gorgias, for example) to see his (Socrates) point of view, all the time convincing Gorgias that his (Socrates’ point of view) was Gorgias’s real thoughts screaming to get out. Finally, they do see I to I – but not without some clever engineering  on the part of the master of dialectic, himself, Socrates. What  happens, though, when Gorgias hasards to direct the dialogue? It goes to potty; Gorgias transflates into Gorgas: Trans-latus ends up as trans-flatus.

Earlier, I mentioned the “linguistic relativism” of Whorf and Sapir (the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or “Warp and the Woof” hypothesis), which, by definition, is “cognitive relativism,” where speakers of different languages think different thoughts. “Postmodernism” goes beyond – goes below the belt of linguistic/cognitive relativism.  If you think “inarticulate, meaningless, fragmentation, incoherence, let’s have fun with nonsense”, you’ll get an articulate, meaningful, unified, coherent, sensible picture of postmodernism. Here is one of Cornelius van Til’s favourite illustrations of modern philosophy (from 17th century onwards): Imagine an infinite number of beads with no holes in them, and an infinite length of string.[3] Now, let me take Van Til’s necklace and try and make a postmodern necklace for your Mother – and then translate her tongue into French.


[1] 3. Payne, Robert. “On the Impossibility of Translation”, The World of Translation. New York: PEN, 1971, pp 361-4.

[2] Ibid, p.363.

[3] This is one of Cornelius van Til’s favourite illustrations of modern philosophy (from 17th century onwards). Van Til is a Christian philosopher and theologian in the Reformed tradition. His critique of Karl Barth’s idea of history is incomparable.

A Jewish view of a French Bottom

In When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?, I mentioned that one of the perils of translation is “false friends” (faux amis), which is the idea that a word in the target language ( the language you are translating into) may look like the word of the source language (the language you are translating from) but does not share a common meaning. For example, the Yiddish naar/nar originates from Hebrew na-ar, but Yiddish naar and Hebrew na-ar have different meanings. The Hebrew na-armeans“lad, young boy,” whereas the Yiddish naar, means “fool.”

Translation between languages, though not as demanding as translating translators from one place to another, bristles with problems. In the 1980s, I was teaching French at Mmabatho High School, South Africa. I went to visit Professor Haeffner, the Head of Modern Languages at the distance university, the University of South Africa. The occasion was my desire to do a B.A. Honours in French (which is done after the B.A., which I had obtained from the University of Cape Town).

I met Professor Haeffner in the corridor outside his office. He was very bristly and discouraging; but not as much as a rabbi accosted by a gentile who wanted to become, not merely one of the “sons of Noah” (bnei Noach), but wanted to go the whole hog – be a Jew. The Prof was not taken in by bits of paper (B.A. ShmeeA). He wanted to test me then and there – in the corridor – whether I was Honours matériel. Now what can you ask someone in a corridor that will convince you that he will be able to do “French Honours.”

Prof – What is a “military parade” in French (Aside - “I’ve got the Yiddishe fool; watch him say “parade militaire”).

BogRaphy (moi) – un défilé militaire. (Aside -Who’s laughing inside now!).

Before Prof could ask me another, I shot back:

BogRaphy: “What does de fond en comble mean?” (BogRaphy’s ghost voice: de fond en comble means “from top to bottom” OR “from top to toe”).

Prof: (bristling – this time with confidence): “From top to bottom.”

Bography: Wrong. That’s only half-way (I twist my arm behind me and, like a onederringjew, index myderrière – for those who don’t know French – toches).It means top to toe.

A mutual hee hee hee. And that’s how I laughed my way into B.A. Honours (French). I returned to our little house in Mmabatho, built a make-shift wood and green fibre-glass lean-to on the side of the house, and spent many gutsy gusty night hours agonising over J.-P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet’s contrastive analysis of French and English. If a Frenchman had to stagger into this conversation and groan – that in his English Honours translation class – he was (also?) “agonisant” over Vinay and Darbelnet, it would mean something completely different: he didn’t survive the course. Another “false friend” faux ami.

Agonie (French) refers to death pangs or mortal agony.
Agony (English) means severe physical pain or mental anguish.

In When is a Hebrew youth not a Yiddishe fool?, I mentioned that one of the perils of translation is “false friends” (faux amis), which is the idea that a word in the target language ( the language you are translating into) may look like the word of the source language (the language you are translating from) but does not share a common meaning. For example, the Yiddish naar/nar originates from Hebrew na-ar, but Yiddish naar and Hebrew na-ar have different meanings. The Hebrew na-armeans“lad, young boy,” whereas the Yiddish naar, means “fool.”

Translation between languages, though not as demanding as translating translators from one place to another, bristles with problems. In the 1980s, I was teaching French at Mmabatho High School, South Africa. I went to visit Professor Haeffner, the Head of Modern Languages at the distance university, the University of South Africa. The occasion was my desire to do a B.A. Honours in French (which is done after the B.A., which I had obtained from the University of Cape Town).

I met Professor Haeffner in the corridor outside his office. He was very bristly and discouraging; but not as much as a rabbi accosted by a gentile who wanted to become, not merely one of the “sons of Noah” (bnei Noach), but wanted to go the whole hog – be a Jew. The Prof was not taken in by bits of paper (B.A. ShmeeA). He wanted to test me then and there – in the corridor – whether I was Honours matériel. Now what can you ask someone in a corridor that will convince you that he will be able to do “French Honours.”

Prof – What is a “military parade” in French (Aside - “I’ve got the Yiddishe fool; watch him say “parade militaire”).

BogRaphy (moi) – un défilé militaire. (Aside -Who’s laughing inside now!).

Before Prof could ask me another, I shot back:

BogRaphy: “What does de fond en comble mean?” (BogRaphy’s ghost voice: de fond en comble means “from top to bottom/from top to toe”).

Prof: (bristling – this time with confidence): “From top to bottom.”

Bography: Wrong. That’s only half-way (I twist my arm behind me and, like a onederringjew, index my derrière – for those who don’t know French – toches).It means top to toe.

A mutual hee hee hee. And that’s how I laughed my way into B.A. Honours (French). I returned to our little house in Mmabatho, built a make-shift wood and green fibre-glass lean-to on the side of the house, and spend many gutsy gusty night hours agonising over J.-P. Vinay and J. Darbelnet’s contrastive analysis of French and English. If a Frenchman had to stagger into this conversation and groan – that in his English Honours translation class – he was (also?) “agonisant” over Vinay and Darbelnet, it would mean something completely different: he didn’t survive the course. Another “false friend” faux ami.

Agonie (French) refers to death pangs or mortal agony.
Agony (English) means severe physical pain or mental anguish.

Purgatory: The Greatest Doctors Go There

The Concept of Mind

The Concept of Mind (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: A portrait of Noam Chomsky that I too...

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naom Chomsky

(This is a follow-on from Deconstruction: Onederringjew’s glorious route to nowhere).

The problem for interpretation, translation and communication that Derrida poses is whether it is possible to ever know what one’s mother tongue is made of through all the pulling and tearing at her syntactic joints and semantic flesh (Johnson 1985). Can the mother tongue (the source language) ever communicate her meaning through translation into another language (the target language). The problem lies deeper than the differences between languages; it lies in the mother tongue itself. How many times have you not confronted someone who speaks the same mother tongue as you –  your mother? – with “what do you mean!” The blogosphere may justifiably be described as the bogosphere : your bog and my bog; which is one of the reasons – very minor – why my blog user name is “bography.” (See my B(i)ography of truth).

What do you think is the primary function of language? Unless you’re smoking something or are the greatest linguistic scientist of all time, you will probably reply “communication” or something to that effect. But what does the greatest linguist1 and one of the ten most quoted people of all time say? The central function of language is not communication but expression (Chomsky. 1979. Language and Responsibility. Sussex: Harvester Press). “Expression,” of course, means self-expression. And Chomsky (like Derrida), of course, is Jewish. As my mother would have said of Derrida and Chomsky: they are greste dokteirim “great doctors,” but lacking one thing, the main thing; they’re not medical doctors.

Self-expression usually entails a purging. For Gilbert Ryle, this purging reaches into the very bowels of his mind – into the “ghost in his machine.” At the end of his introduction to “The concept of mind” (1959), Ryle says: “Primarily I am trying to get some disorders out of my own system. Only secondarily do I hope to help other theorists to recognise our malady and to benefit from my medicine.” Ryle’s main reason for writing is to purge his system. I suggest that this urge to expurge is also true of Chomsky and Derrida.

“Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name: and deliver us, and purge (כפר kaphar) away our sins, for thy name’s sake (Psalm 79:9).”

“How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge ( katharizō “catharsis”) your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:14).

1“Linguist” has two meanings: the non-academic meaning of “someone who knows (how to speak) several languages, and the academic meaning of someone who is a specialist in the linguistics (linguistic science).

Deconstruction: Onederringjew’s glorious route to nowhere

Deconstruction is a literary movement invented by Jacques Derrida, a Jew, naturally. What is deconstruction? No one really knows, but think they know. They think it means “to take apart,” “to unpack” (an idea). It doesn’t mean that. This is what I “think” it means. Deconstruction is a journey; never arriving and always departing; a sitting on suitcases, all packed and ready to leave for the next departure lounge.

In contrast to deconstruction, I’m reminded of the Christian theologian and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards (quoted in R.C. Sproul’s “Sitting on suitcases): “No person who seeks to go on a pilgrimage to a glorious and exotic place will take up permanent residence at an inn along the way.” The person Edwards describes is like a sojourner who gets stuck along the way because he loses sight of his glorious destiny. The deconstructionist, however, doesn’t believe he is stuck in a rut, not only because there is, for him, no such thing as destiny or glory, but also because there is nothing to stick to. Here is Derrida’s definition of deconsruction:

Here or there I have used the word deconstruction which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of…being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentations of the language which we use – and that is not destruction” (Derrida 1972: 271′ my italics).

What does Derrida mean by “historical sedimentations.” The meaning of a word can be studied in two ways:

1. What the word means now (called “synchrony” in linguistics; Greek syn “together” + chronos “time”),

and

2. What the word meant in the past – the history, the etymology (called “diachrony” in linguistics; Greek dia “through” + chronos “time”). “Nice” is a nice example. Here are its layers of “historical sedimentations” from an etymological dictionary.

late 13c., “foolish, stupid, senseless,” from Old French nice “silly, foolish,” from Latin nescius “ignorant,” lit. “not-knowing,” from ne- “not” (see un-) + stem of scire “to know.” “The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj.” [Weekley] — from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c.1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to “agreeable, delightful” (1769); to “kind, thoughtful” (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word. By 1926, it was pronounced “too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.” [Fowler].

“Deconstruction appeals to history, to the historical sedimentations of language. In language use, speakers/writers try and find common (univocal) meanings to the words they use. OnedeRRingjews like DeRRida think otherwise. He says:

if language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for “origins”. (Derrida 1981a: 278-93. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul).

According to deconstruction, language has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin, where there is no necessary connection between meaning (the signified) and words (signifiers). Well that’s at best silly, at worst, words fail me. Deconstruction plays with language only to prey on language. So then “where can deconstruction lead us, if anywhere?” asks Merrill 1984:126. (Merrill, F. 1984 Deconstruction Meets a Mathematician: a-semiotic Enquiry. American Journal of Semiotics 2(4): 125-152).

Deconstruction leads us to the via rupta? Via rupta means a way cut through the forest, or broken by a plow, wheel, travel or other means. “Route” and “rut” are derivations of via rupta. And that’s deconstruction: a ripping apart of “syntractic joints and semantic flesh” (Barbara Johnson) en route to the glorious mystery of nowhere. Nice.

P.S. I had a paper published on deconstruction (1997). The full paper can be read here).