Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hodge and the phenomena of scripture

A year ago on another site I argued that Hodge made allowance for the phenomena of scripture to inform his idea of inspiration. Apparently the observation made some headway because not soon after Paul Helm posted his understanding of Hodge's view. I still wonder, though, if Hodge is not a little more ambiguous than he is commonly said to be on this matter.

I am primarily interested in the places where Hodge writes:

“The nature of inspiration is to be learnt from the Scriptures; from their didactic statements, and from their phenomena.” (ST, 1.153)

“Our views of inspiration must be determined by the phenomena of the Bible as well as from its didactic statements.” (ST, 1.169)

While interpreting the passage that includes the second quote above, Helm explains that for Hodge there are two types of phenomena: "The first refers to apparent features of Scripture arising from internal consistency and the relationship between its teaching and established facts from elsewhere, which, if they are true, are relevant to the denying of inspiration and especially of infallibility." Helm concludes: "So there’s an important difference in method between saying ‘the phenomena must be taken into account’ and ‘the phenomena must be taken into account in a way that gives them parity with the teaching of Scripture respecting its own inspiration, or priority over that teaching’."

I don't think this is setting the stage quite right here. I think it is precisely the case that if the phenomena are relevant enough to the conception of inspiration that we are trying to understand in the first place then they must be attended to in a way that they will help mediate the meaning of inspiration for us. How could phenomena possibly be given priority over the teaching of scripture if scripture's teaching is precisely what we are in the process of constructing? How can a teaching that has yet to be distilled from scripture be given priority in its own construction?

Perhaps Hodge was trying to guard, insofar as possible given the conceptual tools available to him at the time, against the prospect of theologians constructing a theory of inspiration as they saw fit relying too heavily on passing fads in philosophy. But I'm not sure that he thought phenomena were off limits for the very construction of our understanding of inspiration. I mean that is the only way to try to understand what scripture is trying to say about itself in the first place. Even someone like Hodge, who is trying to defend conservative Reformed positions from naysayers, would have to concede that.

"Phenomena" has to open up for Hodge to go beyond merely genre and fact when it suits him. It has to refer to more than genre and fact at some point when theorizing. At least in one instance, he says that phenomena may also encompass what he refers to as "the usage of antiquity, sacred and profane" when it comes to formulating our understanding of the concept of inspiration. Helm's dichotomy of "phenomena" and "didactic statement" is apparent to me in the one quote that he exegetes (ST, 1.169), but the idea of phenomena broadens further in scope (as it must) in order to be relevant to the discussion at hand, namely the very construction of our understanding of scripture's teaching about inspiration. So Hodge explains:

“The idea of inspiration is therefore fixed. It is not to be arbitrarily determined. We must not interpret the word or the fact, according to our theories of the relation of God to the world, but according to the usage of antiquity, sacred and profane, and according to the doctrine which the sacred writers and the men of their generation are known to have entertained on the subject.” (ST, 1.158)

So here we seem to have another dichotomy suggested to us by Hodge, but this time during the course of the very construction of a doctrine of inspiration: phenomena (being an "umbrella-term" as Helm points out) referring to usage of antiquity of the concept in this case. There's also a mention of doctrine, namely that which was current in antiquity. Yet strangely enough, once an understanding of inspiration is eventually established with the help of these phenomena, the only questions Hodge wants critical persons to ask are: "Do the sacred writers contradict each other? Do the Scriptures teach what from any source can be proved not to be true? The question is not whether the views of the sacred writers were incorrect, but whether they taught error? For example, it is not the question Whether they thought that the earth is the centre of our system? But, Did they teach that it is?" (1.169) Now are these questions suggested to him by the didactic statements in scripture? By scripture's phenomena? Or perhaps his own cultural milieu?

I have a number of questions to ponder at this point:

Isn't there some diversity to be appreciated in the doctrines "entertained" in antiquity on the topic of inspiration?

Would not the phenomena of sacred writings from antiquity also have an important analagous role to play in the constructions of inspiration entertained by those generations?

Where did the "doctrine" which "the sacred writers and men of their generation" entertained come from?

How/what/where/when/who qualified as "scripture," "inspiration," "canon," "inerrant" in antiquity?

What's the criteria for identifying the difference between what a biblical writer believed and what he taught and how does that approach practically differ from saying there are incidental errors here and there and moving on?

Is the difference between what a biblical writer believed and what he taught suggested to Hodge by phenomena or didactic statements in scripture, or perhaps an urgent 19th century historical/cultural factor?

Even if Hodge in his historical context thought it prudent to try to stress "doctrine" over "phenomena," might it not make more sense for us today to focus a little more than he did on things like "usage of antiquity" since so much more data from antiquity is available to us now?

With all that has been learned since Hodge's time in biblical studies about conceptual , textual and hermeneutical practices in antiquity, for example, is it really adequate to simply do "word studies" to get the gist of inspiration (as Hodge appears to have done)? Can we not now be much more thorough than that? Couldn't the Old Princeton illuminaries have been more thorough than they were in this regard? Is that where people like Stonehouse, Kline, Silva, Dillard, etc. tried little by little to pick up the slack and be more thorough in their appreciation of scripture when refining their understanding of inspiration?

Because of the churches' ever-increasing knowledge of antiquity and progress made by the churches' biblical scholars (and others), is not "inspiration" necessarily a tentative construct, a theological work in progress? Should we understand Hodge's idea of "fixed" as meaning "derived from scripture as thoroughly as possible and less dependent on passing fads in philosophy"?

Either way, why are the only two questions one is permitted to ask when being critical: "Do the sacred writers contradict each other? Do the Scriptures teach what from any source can be proved not to be true?" Are not these kinds of questions prompted by passing fads in modern philosophy? Are we more culturally aware about this factor than Hodge was?

I have been thinking about these and other questions in recent days. Of course, it is not ultimately important to me if Hodge meant what Helm says he meant or something else. Yet upon reflection, I wonder if things are not a little more complex than supposed. In any event, I do find it interesting that many of these questions are "pre-" inspiration questions, meaning "it is important to keep ourselves reminded that the doctrine of inspiration which has become established in the Church, is open to all legitimate criticism, and is to continue to be held only as, and so far as, it is ever anew critically tested and approved." (Warfield, "The Real Problem of Inspiration") If some of the questions asked above are so fundamental that the doctrine in question (inspiration) turns out to be what we are attempting to construct anew in order to test and approve it, then it will help none to continue to invoke it, for it is precisely its very construction that is being revisited with a faithful, yet critical, eye.