Sunday, 27 May 2007

The Philosopher vs. the Biblical Fundamentalist (Round Two)

John F. Hobbins, from over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, has written a response to my post, The Philosopher vs. the Biblical Fundamentalist. In my initial response to Hobbins I claimed that although (or perhaps because) he is a Methodist minister, his position is not a Biblical Fundamentalist one. I believe the reasons for my original assertion will become clear by the end of this post. More significantly, I will argue that even taken on its own terms, Hobbins' position has troubling implications, not only for Biblical Fundamentalism, but for any authoritative view of Christian scripture.

Before delving into my reply to Hobbins, I want to quickly address Matt Nehls' reply to my anti-Fundamentalist argument. Both Hobbins and Nehls agree that the locution, “the Son of Man coming in the clouds”, actually refers to Israel’s apocalyptic victory over its enemies. Nehls posits that this interpretation hinges on the following claims:
First, this passage is Matthew's redactional work on the Markan original (Mark 13) .... Second, in the Markan context, it is clear that the coming of the Son of Man is Jesus' use of first century metaphor for YHWH's reversal of worldly fortune within history at the national level...wherein the true people of God are vindicated and God's enemies are punished....
Nehls maintains that Matthew 16:27,28 is a redaction of Mark 13. In this regard, I think he simply has his facts wrong. Matthew 16:27,28 is actually a parallel of Mark 8:38-9:1. Compare:
Matthew 16:27, 28 (NIV)
Verse 27: For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Verse 28: I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
Mark 9:38-9:1 (NIV)
Verse 38: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."
Verse 1: And he said to them, "I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."
Thus, if Matthew 16:27,28 were a redaction of Mark it would be a redaction of Mark 8:38-9:1, not of Mark 16.

But let us grant, for the sake of argument, that the “second coming” referred to in Matthew 16:27,28 is actually a reference to the apocalyptic victory of Israel. Nehls claims that Jesus' prophecy was fulfilled at the destruction of the temple in 70CE. I find this a rather curious claim since in 70CE Israel was not “vindicated” and its enemies “punished”. On the contrary, the destruction of the temple was but another chapter in the further subjugation of Israel, the exact opposite of what Daniel (and Jesus) predicted. Far from representing Israel's apocalyptic victory the destruction of the temple represented Israel's apocalyptic defeat! Thus, even on Nehls' interpretation (I'm tempted to say especially on Nehl's interpretation) Jesus' prophecy still failed to come true.

To his credit, Hobbins is willing to concede this very point. He writes:
Avery concludes that Jesus was not sent by God, because Jesus predicted that “the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and reward each person according to what he has done. Amen I tell you, there are those standing here who will not taste death until they have seen the coming of the Son of Man in his kingdom” (Matt 16:27- 28), but that isn't what happened. I concur: the prediction went unfulfilled.
While I appreciate Hobbins' candour on this score, I find the caviller nature of his admission quite puzzling. The concession that Jesus made an unfulfilled prophecy is, by the lights of many Biblical Fundamentalists, already to wave the white flag to the sceptic about Jesus' divinity. And for good reason. To admit that Jesus made a prophecy that did not come true is to admit that he made a mistake (in fact, Hobbins says as much later on in his post). But admitting that Jesus made a mistake provides an essential premise for the following argument:
(A) The members of the Holy Trinity are infallible

(B) Jesus made a mistake, and therefore is not infallible,


(C) Jesus is not a member of the Holy Trinity
I don't see how Hobbins could resist the conclusion of this argument. I take (A) to be a simple restatement of the widely held Christian doctrine of divine omniscience and infallibility. Moreover, Hobbins has already conceded (B). This seems sufficient to show that he is committed to (C) as well. Now, if Hobbins is willing to grant that Jesus is not a member of the Holy Trinity, then he and I are on common ground. However, (C) is certainly not a conclusion that any Biblical Fundamentalist I am aware of would be willing to accept. Thus, to the extent that Hobbins is comfortable with (C) he does not count as a Biblical Fundamentalist (at least according to my understanding of the term).

Hobbins' main strategy for resisting the conclusion of my anti-Fundamentalist argument is to challenge the legitimacy of the prophetic test (PT) or at least my application of it. First, Hobbins likens my application of PT to an overly legalistic traffic cop:
Most interpreters of an authoritative text, the Bible, the Constitution, the rules of the highway, are not, thank goodness, strict-to-the-second-power constructionists. Unfortunately, my local policeman is, which is why I got a $217.00 ticket for rolling through a stop sign the other day. Mitigating circumstances, like the fact that no other car was anywhere in sight (not even his; he was hidden behind a building), didn’t cut it with him. I made his day. That’s how Avery comes across to me, a bit like my local policeman.
Ad hominem aside, I do not think Hobbins’ analogy is apt. To the extent that we share his intuition that the police officer was unreasonable, I believe the officer's unreasonableness may be explained as follows: It is a basic fact about human nature that we are all fallible. (As the cliché goes, nobody's perfect.) By being uncompromising in his enforcing of the traffic laws the police officer fails to demonstrate an adequate sensitivity to this fact. However, the same argument cannot, or at least should not, be applied to God (or the Son of God). Even if we grant that the Old Testament prophets sometimes made prophecies that did not come to pass (another curious claim Hobbins makes) it seems quite reasonable to hold Jesus to a higher standard.

But what should we make of Hobbin's observation that several Old Testament prophets, including Jeremiah himself, fail to live up to the prophetic test? In my opinion, he is only strengthening the case against, not only Biblical literalism, but against any authoritative reading of the bible. Firstly, one cannot argue that a moral obligation is not binding by demonstrating that others have violated the obligation. That would be analogous to Bush being caught in a lie and then seeking to justify his lie by pointing out that Clinton also lied. (To use another time-worn cliché, two wrongs don't make a right.) Analogously, far from demonstrating Jesus’ innocence, Hobbins' argument only demonstrates Jesus’ and the Old Testament prophet’s shared guilt.

Secondly, even if we were to grant that Hobbins’ argument is correct, the upshot would be that we reject an unequivocal biblical injunction. I find this a very curious proposal for someone who claims to be both a Biblical literalist and Biblical Fundamentalist. From my point of view, one of the few respectable qualities of Biblical Fundamentalism is its refusal to pick and choose which parts of the Bible it takes to be authoritative, in the manner that many liberal Christians do. However, Hobbins' suggestion that we discard a clear biblical injunction represents a betrayal of what I take to be a core Fundamentalist value.

Finally, Hobbins' take-home point seems to be something along the following lines: We should not take the injunction in Deuteronomy 18:22 seriously since other passages, such as Micah 3:12, seem to disregard it. However, the argument works equally well in the opposite direction. If Micah 3:12 may be used to impugn Deuteronomy 18:22, then we are equally entitled to use Deuteronomy 18:22 to impugn Micah 3:12. More significantly, Hobbins does not seem to consider the wider implications of suggesting that an unequivocal scriptural injunction should be dismissed simply because it has implications he considers unfavourable. Pardon the pun, but Hobbins' argument strikes me a bit like stealing from Peter to pay Paul.


John said...

Fabulous post, Avery. Clean. Well written. I'll try to send some traffic your way.


Thanks John!

John said...


I appreciate your willingness to work through the issues. In my view, philosophers, even after Wittgenstein, are not always careful exegetes of non-philosophical writings. But I don't want to write off your reflections for that reason. See my blog for another attempt to go at it.


John Hobbins

Deep Thought said...

Interesting set of posts with some very good insights. I like how you trod the path of "Jesus was not a prophet' quite well. I am a Catholic theologian by training, and look forward to more from you.


Thanks for stopping by dt!