The Face of New Testament Studies, part 5

Part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4.

Moving on, we come to Greg Clark’s chapter entitled “General Hermeneutics”. The chapter is essentially a history of hermeneutics. Hence, none of it was particularly enlightening in saying why this method is true or false or the consequences. In fact, I only ended up highlighting the chapter outline. Thus, we will move on.

We come to David A. deSilva’s chapter on social-scientific interpretation. I found this chapter both interesting and balanced. He places social-scientific interpretation among one of the many valid forms for doing exegesis. He says, “It [social-scientific interpretation] represents an attempt to gain a richer and fuller understanding of the historical context of NT texts, informed by awareness that ideas, decisions, commitments, rituals, and group affiliations all take place within, and derive their meaning from, a complex web of cultural information and social interaction.” (p. 119) Framed that way, who could be opposed?

He talks about two basic directions that are taken in social-scientific study. The first  is to look at the social world that surrounded the early church. The second looks at the texts themselves and how the social sciences can assist in understanding the texts. Moving on, he talks about “two major modes in which social-scientific interpretation has proceeded.” (p. 120) The first is in social description, trying to understand the historical facts and state them. The second is by using social-scientific models to understand or explain behavior, cultural patterns, etc.  He concludes, “[t]he two modes are, of course, complementary and are probably best executed when used in conjunction with one another…” (p 121)

The main purpose of social-scientific interpretation, then, is to ask questions from angles not previously explored and hopefully gain new insights into the text in the process. The benefit is that we can come to understand the text better by being less prone towards anachronism, but there are also pitfalls. DeSilva lists five: (i) the possibility of stretching the data available, (ii) anachronism by using social scientific categories of modern groups that may not fit the NT church, (iii) a deterministic use of social scientific models, (iv) the possibility of reductionism by reducing religion to politics or economics or whatever, and (v) the possibility that the roots of sociology are antithetical to Christian belief.

All in all, social-scientific interpretation really can give us new insights into what the original author meant by a text. Moreover, the concerns that deSilva raised were important as it warns us of possible pitfalls so that we can avoid them. With all of that in mind, the important thing is to find the golden mean with regards to social-scientific interpretation. If we do that, we can have our cake and eat it too.

A Simple Argument against Simple Arguments

Take X to be some view; take Y to be some simple and obvious objection to that view that is either based on internal coherence or facts that everybody accepts.

1. If X is accepted by many philosophers and/or taken seriously even by philosophers who reject X, then, Y should not be seen as a defeater for X.
2. The antecedent of (1) is true.
3. Therefore, the consequent of (1) is true.

On (1), the reason why is this. If X were open to obvious defeat, then it is doubtful that many philosophers would accept it and even less doubtful that philosophers who reject X would take it seriously (it is open to simple and obvious refutation after all!). Now, this does not mean that Y does not defeat X, only that it is most likely the case that Y defeats X only by defeating the defeater given for Y (or something even more intricate!). None of this, of course, entails that X isn’t open to obvious refutation by Y, only that we would be out of bound epistemically in thinking so (this last clause is intentionally vague as I think the idea as a whole can be communicated without needing to nitpick details). For those who think the premise is too strong as is, one can add a “probably” after “then” and achieve much of the same result.
On (2), no claim is actually being made here, but if some person would want to propose some position as X, then they would have to defend it.
(3) follows.

Kripke and Intuitions

Consider another case that people who dismiss intuitions would have to dismiss: Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity. Naming and Necessity is seen as a classic in philosophy circles, so dismissing it outright is a pretty heft price. Here’s why they would have to dismiss it: Kripke’s arguments generally rely on intuition.

For instance, Kripke talks about what we would think if such and such were the case. Kripke obviously knows what he thinks about the situation, and he wants (and expects) us to think it too. However, this thinking we are supposed to do is really intuition.

More specifically, take his example of Feynman. Most people cannot give a description that uniquely identifies him (the position held by those he is arguing against). At most, they could say that he is a famous physicist, but that applies to other people too. However, those people are clearly referring to a person, namely, Feynman. But how do we know this last claim that they really are referring to a person and that person is Feynman? The answer is that we know it through intuition. Hence, to dismiss intuition is to dismiss Kripke.

The Face of New Testament Studies, part 4

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the series: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

This installment looks at Stanley Porter’s chapter on Greek grammar and syntax. He begins by talking about tools that are available for Greek study. These do not particularly concern us, but if you are interested in his suggestions and whatnot, feel free to comment below. He then discusses four recent innovations in linguistics that particularly pertain to understanding the New Testament.

First up is verbal aspect theory. To quote Porter, verbal aspect theory “states that verbal tense-forms are selected by language users not on the basis of the action in itself but on the basis of how they wish to conceive of and conceptualize an action.” (p. 89) What this means is that if one comes across a certain verb in Greek, the best way to understand it is not based upon the fact that the verb always means denotes a certain tense (for instance, past, present, future, etc.), but a particular way of thinking of the action (once-for-all, etc.).

He then points out that there is disagreement whether the tense-forms retain any sense of temporal reference. A second point of dispute is the meaning of the various aspects. For instance, does a certain tense-form always mean once-for-all or does it mean something else?

Let’s look at some examples to clarify matters. Porter points out that scholars usually view the aorist as “describ[ing] an action as complete or whole, viewing it in its integrity and from the outside.” (p. 92) Moreover, “the present-tense form is used to describe an action as in progress, evolving, developing, viewing the action from its internal constituency.” (ibid.)

Second is register studies. The main focus here is that differences in language are due to “a variety of factors, including personal choices, literary type, subject matter, and the like” (p.92) The goal of register studies is to hone in on these factors and try to classify them according to differing levels of usage. This section did not strike me as particularly relevant and so we can move to the third innovation.

Discourse analysis is the next innovation and the point here is that the discourse, rather than smaller units like sentences and words, provide the appropriate context for interpreting a text. To me, this strikes me as being in line with speech acts in philosophy of language because the focus is on the main goal of the speech acts instead of the individual words chosen. Clearly the words and how they fit together are important, but the main point is that the key is the discourse.

The fourth innovation is focused on other studies that have sprouted up. However, none of this looked particularly relevant and so it can be passed over. Porter then ends his essay with a conclusion.

Verbal aspect theory is the most important part of this chapter and it seems to be correct in the main. Among Greek linguists who focus on the New Testament and koine Greek (the language the New Testament was written in (excepting a few words from other languages)), verbal aspect theory seems well accepted. In fact, it has even trickled down to the teaching of Greek in seminaries as I have confirmed with a pastor of mine. While it is important to remember that there are still some debated points in verbal aspect theory, this should not be used as an excuse to overlook verbal aspect theory as a whole.

Gettier and Intuitions

Certain people will often eschew a certain premise of an argument because it only relies on intuition. Intuition is faulty, they say, and so it cannot be trusted. They try to rid themselves of believing things simply based upon intuition. Now, intuition is faulty and can be open to defeaters, but that doesn’t entail that intuition should never be trusted. However, the person who denies intuitions runs into a deeper problem.

Edmund Gettier is famous for his paper that shows that knowledge is much more complex than originally thought (this seems to be the simplest way of explaining it without taking a certain stand on the solution). But what exactly does Gettier do in the paper? It’s this: he wants us to intuitively believe certain things (say, that Smith doesn’t have knowledge about Brown’s whereabouts–see case 2). Hence, to agree with the Gettier counterexamples is to use one’s intuition. Therefore, to reject one’s intuition is to reject the Gettier counterexamples, and that seems problematic.