Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fundamentalism and its Rhetoric of Fiction

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

Rhetoric: the art of speaking or writing effectively.
Fiction: something invented or feigned by the imagination.
Fundamentalism: A movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teachings.*

One of the so-called “fundamentals of the faith” of Fundamentalism is that the Bible is “The Word of God.” Here are two articles from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).** 

Article I: We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God…
Article X: We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God, can be ascertained with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original…

Fundamentalists who work with the original languages of the Bible, however, know that justifying this confessional tenet is an uphill battle for several reasons. We do not possess a single “autographic” text (i.e., the original author’s copy of the manuscript). The manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date for the most part from the middle ages.

There are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament writings. The earliest are in fragmentary condition and date from the third century and later. There are only a few fragments surviving from the second century. Complete manuscripts of the New Testament date from the fourth century and later. None of these manuscripts agree alike in all particulars. Standardization does not begin until the 19th century with the science of textual criticism. Textual critics have established a more or less agreed upon standardized text of the New Testament—not with prayer but with hard-nosed scientific observations.*** While most papyrus and vellum manuscripts date from the third century and later, all of the New Testament, except for Second Peter and perhaps Acts, are thought to have been composed in the first century.

The fundamentalist “fictional rhetoric” is that somehow God has protected the readings of the original author’s personal copy (which has ceased to exist) through the vicissitudes of the historical evolution of copying the manuscripts. Further, fundamentalists confidently assert that the readings of the non-existent autographic versions “can be ascertained with great accuracy” from the some 5000 extant manuscripts. We do not, however, have a single copy of any autographic text in either Hebrew Bible or New Testament. And if we did how would we recognize it as an original author’s copy? The truth, no doubt disturbing to many, is that the Bible is not inerrant. It is a flawed human product; it constitutes Man’s word about God, as well as many other things. And as an afterthought: if there are no autographic copies how can we verify that the later copies and translations “faithfully represent the original”?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*these are dictionary definitions.
***This paragraph touches only on the tip of the iceberg; see the Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:393-435: “Textual Criticism (OT and NT).” These two articles will give readers a good idea of the complexity of the situation text critics face in reconstructing what they regard as the “earliest recoverable form” of New Testament texts (which is not the same as the autographic copy).

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Christian Arrogance and a Rhetoric of Fiction

A braggart is defined by the dictionary as “a loud arrogant boaster.” Hence people who boast do so to give others a high opinion of themselves or of their accomplishments. Arrogance is defined as “a feeling or impression of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or presumptuous claims.”

In the New Testament boasting and bragging arise from arrogance (Greek, alazoneia) and are regarded as evil (James 4:16). In addition arrogance is associated with access to excessive resources that support life (literally translated, “arrogance of life”). Such arrogance is “not of the Father,” but “of the world” (1 John 2:16). Arrogant boasting (alazones) is thought to be characteristic of people who have merely a “form of religion” but who actually deny its power (2 Tim 3:5). Boasting (Rom 1:30) is further described as a characteristic of “wicked people who suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Hence arrogance and boasting are not simple boorish behaviors, but rather they are included among an impressive array of negative behaviors condemned in biblical texts (Rom 1:28-31) that are characteristic behaviors of people whom God rejects (Rom 1:28).

Further, arrogance is associated in the New Testament with hubris (hubris), extreme pride or arrogance (Romans 1:30; hubris is translated in this verse as “insolent”). Aristotle defines hubris as doing and saying things at which the victim incurs shame, not in order that one may achieve anything other than what is done, but in order to get pleasure from it (Fisher, “hubris,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, 732-33). Instances of hubris in the ancient world were believed to draw retributive punishment from the ancient Greek Gods.

Imagine my surprise to learn that boasting is attributed to Yahweh, the God of ancient Israel, who was fond of saying: “I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5; 43:11, 44:6, 44:8, 45:6, 45:21; compare Deuteronomy 4:35). Of course there were/are many Gods to be found in the ancient world but Yahweh was a jealous God and tolerated no rivals (Exodus 20:3, 5; 34:14). In Christianity the early Christ cults also tolerated no rivals to Jesus the anointed of the Lord: Luke writes: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Apparently, if one’s own God boasts, one tends to hear it as a positive statement of fact and not negatively as a boast. And if the boast concerns a tenet of one’s own religious belief, it is heard as a justification of the rightness of one’s religious belief. Thus, these two “brags” suggest that in the Bible some boasts are “good” while others are “bad”—even though arrogance and boasting as such are condemned in the New Testament.

Even the Apostle Paul boasted. For example, he boasted about some of his converts (2 Corinthians 7:14; 8:24; 9:1-3); he boasted about his own authority (2 Corinthians 10:8); and he boasted about his independence in not taking support from the Jesus gathering at Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:7-11). He boasted even when he knew that some would regard such speech as irrational discourse (2 Corinthians 11:16-33 and 12:1-10).

I am particularly interested in the claims of exclusivity in early Christianity as reflected in Acts 4:12—that there is no other way of salvation except through Jesus. Such an exclusive claim in effect completely dismisses the value of every other religion as meaningless.

What is it that allows people to gloss over disconnects like this (arrogance and boasting are acceptable in some cases but severely condemned generally) in the Bible and not even notice them. There could be many reasons, but they are basically overlooked because we are not taught to read the Bible critically. We have been misled by an effective rhetoric of fiction that touts the Bible as the “Word of God,” a claim that discourages readers from reading these ancient texts in a discriminating way.*

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See “Wry Thoughts about Religion” Jan 26, 2015: “When did the Bible become the Word of God?” and Jan 12, 2015: “What does the Term “Word of God” as applied to the Bible signify?”