Robert Webber and Meta-narrative


Robert Eugene Webber (1933–2007) was an American “theologian” who was influential in the Convergence Movement. Webber authored the book, The Younger Evangelicals. According to the cover, it was an introduction to “a new group of leaders who are shaping the future of a movement.” The younger Evangelicals have incorporated into Evangelicalism much of Postmodern thinking. Like most Evangelicals who have capitulated to Postmodern thought, such as Brian McLaren, Stanley J. Grenz, et al., Webber’s book presents an author with a woeful deficiency of philosophical and theological thinking, and a dearth of historical knowledge.

In his chapter titled “Theology: From Propositionalism to Narrative,” these deficiencies become quite evident. After a brief report on a personal experience, Webber begins,

During the modern period the primacy of reason gave rise to arguments for or against the existence of God. Both believers and nonbelievers followed the rules of evidence to arrive at statements to support or deny the propositional statement, “God is.”
Both believers and nonbelievers thought they had good reason to believe or disbelieve this proposition. Those who believed were convinced that they knew something about God through God’s revelation of himself which they could interpret with the use of reason. Those who did not believer were quite confident that their knowledge of the origin and working of the world was based on reason and science. Consequently, the believer and the unbeliever were at a standstill. Both thought they had good reason to believe or not to believe.
In the twenty-first-century world, the attitude toward the use of reason has shifted rather significantly. The new attitude, born out of cultural shifts, is that the use of reason and science to prove or disprove a fact is questionable. This conclusion is no argument for irrationalism. It points rather to the postmodern conclusion that we deal with “interpreted facts.” The believer looks at creation and speaks of God as the Creator. That’s an “interpreted fact.” The nonbeliever looks at creation and assumes the world derived from chance. That, too, is an “interpreted fact.”

Robert E. Webber, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 84.

It seems to be typical of postmodern, evangelical authors not to be familiar either with history or philosophy. Such is evident in the above quote. Webber says that it was the primacy of reason in the modern period that gave rise to arguments for or against the existence God. It would not take much effort to read early and Medieval Christian authors to discover that arguments for the existence of God have been proposed for rational debate since the beginning of the Christian era. In fact, Paul proposed a rational argument for the existence of God in Romans:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures (Rom. 1:18–23).

For every argument for God’s existence proposed by believers, there were unbelievers proposing counter arguments against God’s existence. This was not something that arose in the modern period. It is certainly true, however, that such arguments and counter arguments involved reason, since that is what God gave us to enable us to think, however incompetently by some. That someone believes something that is in fact not the case is not the fault of reason but of the reasoner. That 5/4ths of people have trouble with fractions is not the fault of mathematics. One must wonder if Webber thinks he has good reasons for his characterizations, or mischaracterizations, of reason.

Webber presents reasons for why he believes that, “In the twenty-first-century world, the attitude toward the use of reason has shifted rather significantly.” He reasons that this new attitude, “born out of cultural shifts,” has proposed that “the use of reason and science to prove or disprove a fact is questionable.” If someone is going to question reason, one wonders what faculty one might use to enact this question; reason, perhaps? Webber believes that “the use of reason and science to prove or disprove a fact is questionable,” and he reasons that the conclusion is “no argument for irrationalism.” So, Webber reasons that to use his reason to question reason is not unreasonable? For Webber, apparently not, and he believes he has a good reason: “It points rather to the postmodern conclusion that we deal with ‘interpreted facts.’ The believer looks at creation and speaks of God as the Creator. That’s an ‘interpreted fact.’” Of course one must ask, “Is it an ‘interpreted fact’ that we deal with interpreted facts?” Self-defeating statements are characteristic of postmodern thinking.

Webber goes on the conclude, “Thus in the postmodern world, both believers and nonbelievers are people of faith. One has faith in the story of the Bible; the other has faith in the story of reason, science, some other religion, or the god of his or her own making. The case for the Christian faith is no longer reason against reason but faith against faith in opposing stories” (Webber, 84). Without the use of reason, how is one to adjudicate between faiths?

Webber is unable to follow his own beliefs, however: “Classical Christianity knew nothing of the concept of propositionalism as held by Christians after the Enlightenment. Classical Christianity interpreted the faith more as a story that swept from creation through the fall to the rescue by God through Jesus Christ and to the final outcome in the new heavens and the new earth” (Ibid.). He claims that we deal with ‘interpreted facts’ but he is unable to recognize that his statements about “Classical Christianity” are, by his own principles, only his interpretation of these “facts,” which, in fact, are not facts. Webber must never have actually read the writings of the proponents of Classical Christianity — Iraenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc. — all of whom presented propositional statements and arguments for and about God. Nor is he aware of the Classical Christian creeds that presented Christian doctrines as propositions to express Christian belief: The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, The Creed of Chalcedon, the Athanasian Creed, etc. In fact, Classical Christianity did not interpret the faith more as a story. Classical Christianity presented the faith as the truth proclaimed for belief. But truth is a quality predicated of propositions. All one needs to do to see this is actually read some of the writings of Classical Christianity.

Of course Webber would respond, “I said ‘propositionalism as held by Christians after the Enlightenment.’” One can only assume what he means by ‘propositionalism.’ Combined with his statements about reason and science he must mean the effort to express truth in terms of propositions rather than stories. It is curious that Webber presents his case in the form of propositions rather than stories. If Christians should focus on stories, why doesn’t Webber tell us a good story about propositionalism rather than give us his own propositions about the superiority of story? Apparently Webber is just as ignorant of the Enlightenment as of Classical Christianity. The expression of truth in propositions is not something that was developed by the Enlightenment. In fact, there was not only one “Enlightenment.” There were many conflicting and contradictory views proposed by many different proponents of many different enlightenments. There were many “enlightenment” thinkers who were not advocates of mechanism, particularly not when the notion of “machine” was used to define the nature of man. But those who wrote and taught and preached during the Enlightenment did not invent reason or “propositionalism.” This is simply how humans, at least some humans, discuss and propose and think about issues. It is characteristic of postmodern thinking to paint the Enlightenment as the source of everything against which to be “post-modern.” Such thinking serves only to justify the post in post-modernism.

Oh, but Webber does talk about some of the early church fathers:

The common hermeneutic of the early church fathers was to interpret the Bible through the story of creation, incarnation, and re-creation. This approach is found in second-century theologians Tertullian and Irenaeus; in the third-century work of Origen (with some fanciful aspects not accepted by the church); and in the work of fourth-century theologians such as Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Cyril of Alexandria.

Ibid., 85.

But to which church fathers does he refer? Tertullian (160–220) was one of the two greatest early Christian apologists, the other being Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202). As Harold O. J. Brown puts it,

Irenaeus and Tertullian were really productive theologians. Their apologies mark the emergence of Christianity as an intellectual force in the Hellenistic world.

Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 77.

As apologists they argued propositionally for the objective truth of Christianity. Tertullian became part of the group known as the Montanists, after the founder Montanus who believed in new revelations and was condemned by the Early Church as a heretic.

Concerning Origen (182–254), Brown says,

Origen is one of the most productive as well as imaginative intellectual figures in the history of Christianity; only a few, such as Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, can be compared to him.

Ibid., 87–88.

It was not the case that Origen had “some fanciful aspects not accepted by the church” as Webber says. Origen believed in the preexistence of the soul and that everyone, including the Devil, would eventually be saved. In 400 AD, Origen was condemned as a heretic.

Athanasius (c. 296–373) stood against the Arians in defense of the deity of Christ. He did this with arguments in form of propositions.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the Cappadocian Fathers were,

The three brilliant leaders of philosophical Christian orthodoxy in the later 4th cent., namely St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (from his birthplace, where his father was bishop), and St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa. They were the chief influence which led to the final defeat of Arianism at the Council of Constantinople of 381.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “Cappadocian Fathers.”

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology refers the philosophical language used by the Cappadocian Fathers:

These three Cappadocian Fathers contributed significantly to the defense of Nicene theology during the 370s and 380s against the teaching of Eunomius of Cyzicus, a supporter of Arian theology. They effectively incorporated Greek philosophical language to defend the idea that God is three persons but one essence.

Brian Matz, “Cappadocian Fathers,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 159.

Cyril of Alexandria (378–444) was a prolific author writing commentaries on many books of the Bible. According to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology,

In Cyril’s early episcopacy he was engaged in the Arian controversy. He strongly supported the Nicene Creed’s statement that the Son is “of the same substance” (homoousios) over against Eunomius, who maintained that the Son was unlike the Father.”

David R. Maxwell, “Cyril of Alexandria,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 226.

Sounds pretty propositional to me!

Webber does not understand what a meta-narrative is. A meta-narrative is not necessarily a story in the way Webber presents it. It is an overarching discourse that is designed to explain reality. Lyotard explains:

Science is originally in conflict with narratives. By its own criteria, most of these turn out to be fables. But, insofar as it is not reduced to stating useful regularities and that it seeks the truth, it must legitimize its rules of the game. It is then that it holds a discourse of legitimation on its own statute, which was called philosophy. When this metadiscourse makes explicit use of this or that great narrative, such as the dialectic of the Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the reasonable or working subject, the development of wealth, we decide to call “modern” science which refers to it to legitimize itself.

Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport Sur Le Savoir (Paris: Les Éditions De Minuit, 1979), ion Postmoderne, 7. “La science est d’origine en conflit avec les récits. À l’aune de ses propres critères, la plupart de ceux-ci se révèlent des fables. Mais, pour autant qu’elle ne se réduit pas à énoncer des régularités utiles et qu’elle cherche le vrai, elle se doit de légitimer ses règles de jeu. C’est alors qu’elle tient sur son propre statut un discours de légitimation, qui s’est appelé philosophie. Quand ce métadiscours recourt explicitement à tel ou tel grand récit, comme la dialectique de l’Esprit, l’herméneutique du sens, l’émancipation du sujet raisonnable ou travailleur, le développement de la richesse, on décide d’appeler « moderne » la science qui s’y réfère pour se légitimer.”

Lyotard specifically refers to this as a “metadiscourse” (métadiscours). Even this brief statement shows that a meta-narrative is not story telling. It is a propositional discourse designed to explain everything. Stuart Sim provides a helpful clarifying explanation of the notion of meta-narrative, or grand narrative:

Grand narrative Jean-Francois Lyotard described as grand narratives theories which claim to provide universal explanations and trade on the authority this gives them. An example would be Marxism, which processes all human history and social behaviour through its theory of dialectical materialism. According to dialectical materialism all human history has been the history of class struggle, and it denies the validity of all other explanations, laying sole claim to the truth. The ultimate goal of human history is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ where class struggle has been eliminated for the common good and individuals are no longer exploited. Most religions offer a similarly all-embracing explanation of human history to fit their particular schemes. Lyotard’s contention is that such schemes are implicitly authoritarian, and that by the late twentieth century they have lost all claim to authority over individual behaviour. It is part of living in a postmodern world that we no longer can rely on such grand narratives (or ‘metanarratives’), but must construct more tactically oriented ‘little narratives’ instead if we wish to stand up against authoritarianism. In Lyotard’s view, we have now seen through grand narratives and realized that their claims to authority are false and unsustainable.

Stuart Sim, “Grand Narrative,” in The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, ed. Stuart Sim (London: Routledge, 2001), 261–62.

Webber has mistaken the term ‘narrative’ for story. A meta-narrative is not a story in the way Webber thinks. Sim’s example in the quote above is Marxism. Dialectical materialism is hardly a story. Dialectical materialism is an explanation and interpretation of the significance and goal of human history. It is not merely the story of humanity.

Even in Webber’s telling the “metanarrative” of the Bible Webber cannot refrain from making propositions:

Creation is an act of God bringing something into being out of nothing (ex nihilo). Once there was nothing. Now there is time, space, and history.

Webber, 85.

Nowhere in the creation account is the expression “ex nihilo” used, not even in the Vulgate, nor is there any statement corresponding to the English phrase “out of nothing.” This is an inference from the text expressed by Webber in propositional form. Throughout his recounting of the Christian “metanarrative” Webber engages in repeated propositionalism. I wonder what happened to his story telling.

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The American University System is Worse Off Than I Imagined

In her inaugural address at the installation of her presidency of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust made the following assertions:

The “Veritas” in Harvard’s shield was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion. We understand it quite differently now. Truth is an aspiration, not a possession. Yet in this we — and all universities defined by the spirit of debate and free inquiry — challenge, and even threaten, those who would embrace unquestioned certainties. We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.

Drew Gilpin Faust, “Inauguration of Drew Faust,” Harvard Magazine (November-December 2007), Accessed 9/5/2021, https://www.harvardmagazine.com/extras/inauguration-of-drew-faust.

One need only ask, Does Drew Faust possess the truth that truth is not a possession? Is it an unquestioned certainty for Drew Faust that we should challenge and even threaten those who would embrace unquestioned certainties? If this kind of thinking is what qualifies a person to be the president of Harvard University, then the university system of the US is much worse off than I imagined.

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Adventures in Self-Defeating Statements


Philip D. Kenneson is Christian author who demonstrates that someone who is not a philosopher should not attempt to deal with the subtleties of philosophical issues. However, in his chapter titled, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” Kenneson provides us with a panoply of self-defeating statements that can serve to sharpen our own thinking skills.

He starts of with the following:

My hunch is that some readers are quite suspicious of my title, suspecting that the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing has infiltrated this collection of essays dedicated to defending the gospel. Let me assure you that I am not a relativist. But the reason I am not a relativist may not bring you much comfort; it is because I don’t believe in objective truth, a concept that is the flip side of relativism and that is necessary for the charge of relativism to be coherent. In other words, one can defend objective truth or relativism only by assuming that it is possible for human beings to take up a “view from nowhere”; since I don’t believe in “views from nowhere,” I don’t believe in objective truth or relativism. Moreover, I don’t want you to believe in objective truth or relativism either because the first concept is corrupting the church and its witness to the world, while tilting at the second is wasting the precious time and energy of a lot of Christians.

Philip D. Kenneson, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” Christian Apologetics Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R.Phillips and Dennis L.Okholm (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 156.

Kenneson declares, “I don’t believe in objective truth or relativism.” Of course one must ask, “Is that objectively true?” He claims not to be a relativist because he does not believe in objective truth or relativism. Kenneson seems completely ignorant of the fact that objective truth and relativism are not matters of belief. Even though he says he does not believe in objective truth, he must assume that his statements are objectively true else he is simply wagging his finger as Cratylus.


He claims that objective truth is the “flip side of relativism.” Of course this is not necessarily the case. Some truths are at once relative in one sense and objectively true in another. For example, it is true on August 19, 2021 for me to assert, “Today is August 19, 2021.” However, if I were to make this same assertion tomorrow, it would be false. So, this assertion is true when asserted on August 19, 2021, but false when asserted on August 20, 2021. However, the statement made on August 19, 2021 is forever objectively true that it was true on August 19, 2021. It is objectively true for all times, in all places, in all contexts, in all cultures, in all languages that the assertion made on August 19,2021 that “Today is August 19, 2021” was true. So, the truth of this assertion is both temporally relative, true of made on that date but false if made on any other date, and eternally objectively true because it was true on the day that the assertion was made.

Of course Kenneson has a different kind of relativism in mind when he says the flip side of objective truth is relativism. He is no doubt talking about epistemological relativism. Epistemological relativism is the view that knowledge is relative, either to time, to place, to society, to historical circumstance, to culture, to conceptual framework, or to personal training, or to one’s conviction. In this sense, it is certainly true that the flip side of objective truth is relativism. This is a case of either A or ~A, where ~ means “not” or “non.” This is called the law of excluded middle.

There is no middle between A and ~A. This principle is grounded in being. There is no middle between being and non-being. Anything that is not A is ~A. It could be B, or C, or D, etc., but each of these is in the category of ~A. Anything that is not colored red is ~red. It might be green, or blue, or yellow, but each of these is not red. There is no middle between red and ~red. This is illustrated the chart in Figure 1. Knowledge is either objectively true, A, or it isn’t, ~A. If objective truth is A, then ~A might be relativism, objective falsehood, doubt, emoting, or wagging one’s finger.

Figure 1

However, for someone who does not believe in objective truth, he sure does make many statements that purport to be objectively true. Let us consider some of these:

  1. “Let me assure you that I am not a relativist” (Ibid.). Either this statement corresponds to the state of affairs — that Kenneson is not a relativist — or it doesn’t. Kenneson presents this statement as if it corresponds to what he actually is and that it is objectively true about what he believes himself to be.
  2. “But the reason I am a relativist may not bring you much comfort; it is because I don’t believe in objective truth . . .” (Ibid.). It is objectively true that the emphasis is in the original). Either this statement is objectively true, A, or it is not, ~A. It is then either relative, doubtful, a wagging the finger, false, or simply emoting. Kenneson presents this statement as if it corresponds to his actual belief and is an objectively true statement about what he believes.
  3. “. . . objective truth, a concept that is the flip side of relativism and that is necessary for the charge of relativism to be coherent” (Ibid.). Kenneson presents this statement as if it is an accurate statement; that is, that it is objectively true and corresponds to the state of affairs.
  4. “. . . one can defend objective truth or relativism only by assuming that it is possible for human beings to take up a ‘view from nowhere’;” (Ibid.). This statement also assumes a correspondence theory of truth. Not only that — it also assumes that the statement is an objectively true statement. If it is not objectively true, A, then it is one of the ~As; relative, doubtful, a wagging finger, false, and/or emoting. If the statement is relative, then it is not objectively true, and therefore it has no universal significance. It is only his own point of view and does not provide the ground for anyone else to concur. If it is doubtful, then the same consequence follows. If Kenneson is simply wagging his finger, then he is not making any kind of claim. If he is simply emoting, then we can feel sorry for him. The fact is, Kenneson’s assertion is false because it purports to do what it denies. Kenneson presents this statement as if he has a view from nowhere by which he can make statements that apply to everyone, at all times, in all places, in any culture, from any language. But this is the very notion of objective truth.
  5. “Moreover, I don’t want you to believe in objective truth or relativism either because the first concept is corrupting the church and its witness to the world, while tilting at the second is wasting the precious time and energy of a lot of Christians” (Ibid.). Now either the “first concept” is corrupting the church, or it is not. This assertion assumes a correspondence view of truth, that is, that the “first concept” is in fact corrupting the church. Now, it is either objectively true, A, or it is not, ~A. Also, this statement assumes a view from nowhere. Kenneson presents this statement as if it is not simply his own point of view, but that it is an objectively true statement that corresponds to the actual state of affairs.

Here I have identified five instances in which Kenneson assumes objective truth and a correspondence theory of truth, and this is only the first paragraph.

  1. For someone who does not believe in objective truth, he sure does make a lot statements as if they are objectively true and not simply his own point of view.
  2. For someone who does not subscribe to a correspondence view of truth, he sure does present his views as if they correspond to the actual state of affairs.
  3. For someone who does not believe in a “view from nowhere,” he sure does set up his assertions as if he has such a view.

These observations are not merely the imposition of my own assumptions. Rather, these observations are the self-referential statements of Kenneson. Kenneson’s own statements prove his position to be self-defeating and therefore ~A. Kenneson asserts, “the correspondence theory of truth,’ is not the only paradigm available” (Ibid., 157). Now, either this statement corresponds to the state of affairs, A, namely, that the correspondence theory of truth is not the only paradigm, or it doesn’t, ~A. The law of excluded middles is not grounded in an always, already present assumption of objective truth. It is a self-evident, undeniable first principle of thought and being. It cannot be denied without affirming it. Even the Buddhists hold to this law, as Th. Stcherbatsky points out in Buddhist Logic:

The active part of consciousness, its spontaneity in cognition begins with an act of dichotomy. As soon as our intellectual eye begins to glimmer, our thought is already beset with contradiction. The moment our thought has stopped running and has fixed upon an external point, so as to be able internally to produce the judgment « this is blue », at that moment we have separated the universe of discourse into two unequal halves, the limited part of the blue and the less limited part of the non-blue. The definite thougt (sic) of the blue is nothing more than the definite exclusion of the non-blue . . . there is nothing intermediate.

Th. Stcherbatsky. Buddhist Logic, in Bibliotheca Buddhica: XXVI (Leningrad: ЛЕНИНГРАД, 1932), I.400.

As we have seen, Kenneson asserts, “one can defend objective truth or relativism only by assuming that it is possible for human beings to take up a ‘view from nowhere’;” Kenneson makes this statement as if it is objectively true. But, if objective truth requires a ‘view from nowhere,’ then Kenneson’s claim is false. The expression “view from nowhere” is taken from the book by Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). Of course, either Kenneson’s view is a view from nowhere about everyone else’s views from somewhere, or his statement is simply his own view from his own somewhere, in which case it cannot necessarily apply to anyone else’s views. Nagel’s and Kenneson’s claim is not only sefl-defeating, it confuses first and second intention.

Kenneson declares, “But the fact that most Christians throughout most of history have done well without the concept might encourage these latter Christians to ask why they feel so much is at stake here” (Kenneson, 158). Either this statement corresponds to the actual state of affairs, A, or it does not, ~A. This is yet another correspondence statement. In this case, it is absolutely false. How does Kenneson know that “most Christians throughout history have done will with the concept”? He certainly could not have interviewed most Christians throughout history, since “most Christians throughout history” are in heaven now. He would have had to read the writings of “most Christians” that have been preserved. Yet the writings of “most Christians” affirm a commitment to the correspondence view of truth and the fact of objective truth. This can seen both in the overt statements of these authors, or in their assumptions that are evident in their overt statements. Kenneson simply does not know philosophy or history.
Kenneson gives the following observations by Richard Rorty:

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world and God are out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the former are out there, that they are not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that many things are brought into being by causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there — cannot exist independently of the human mind — because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world and God are out there, but descriptions of the world and God are not. Only descriptions of the world and God can be true or false.

Ibid., 159.

If truth cannot be out there, then this statement, which is out there in Kenneson’s article, cannot be true beyond his own mind. If both Kenneson’s and Rorty’s statements cannot exist independently of their own minds, then they do not apply to anything or anyone beyond their own minds. Kenneson asserts, “The world and God are out there, but descriptions of the world and God are not.” If descriptions about the world and God are not out there, then Kenneson’s own statement that the world and God are out there is not out there and is only in his own mind. If descriptions about the world and God are not out there, then from where did Kenneson get the notion that the world and God are out there? And if descriptions about the world and God are not out there, then why did he even write this article and put it out there? Kenneson makes these statements as if they are universally and objectively true and out there. Both Kenneson and Rorty have imbibed the very philosophical tradition that they decry. It is the Ockhamist, Cartesian, and Kantian notions that undergird their own statements. Kenneson is counting on the correspondence of his statements to what is out there. But this is the very correspondence view in which he does not believe. One might even say, Kenneson’s statements are really “out there!”

Kenneson concluded the above quote, “The world and God are out there, but descriptions of the world and God are not. Only descriptions of the world and God can be true or false.” But if descriptions of the world and God are not out there, then on what basis can they be known to be either true or false? Of course, Kenneson’s own article belies his claim that sentences cannot be out there because he has put his own sentences out there. If sentences are not out there, then what is on these printed pages? Since the sentences of his article are in fact out there, and since, according to Kenneson, the truth it not out there, then Kenneson’s sentences are not true.

No doubt Kenneson would say these criticisms are based on an assumption of the correspondence view of truth in which he does not believe. Of course, many people do not believe in God, but that does not mean He does not exist. But Kenneson’s own statements are also based on the correspondence view of truth as we have already pointed out. In fact, Kenneson is completely ignorant of the history of the correspondence view of truth. This view was not, as Kenneson claims, a product of the Enlightenment. As a philosophical position, the correspondence view of truth goes back at least to Plato. But, the Bible assumes a correspondence view of truth. The Bible makes affirmations about reality that are assumed to correspond to the actual events that took place, or the persons who acted and spoke. The Bible describes the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible assumes that these descriptions correspond to the actual Person and events. Does Kenneson want his readers to think that the descriptions of Jesus and His work are not “out there”?
Next he talks about a different model of truth:

What I am asking you to do is to try on a different model of truth. Within such a model, truth claims are inseparably bound up with human language and are, therefore, inextricably linked to matters of discernment and judgment, which means they are irreducibly social or communal affairs. Within this model, it makes no sense to speak of either objective truth — “truth as viewed from nowhere”— or subjective truth — “truth for me.”

Ibid.

If it is the case that truth is “irreducibly social or communal,” then Kenneson’s own statement is irreducibly social or communal and does not apply to all societies or communities. But Kenneson makes this claim as if it is out there, that it corresponds to the actual state of affairs, and is absolutely true for all societies and communities. Why does Kenneson think that he can tell other societies or communities that it makes no sense to speak of objective truth or subjective truth? On the basis of his own “model of truth,” Kenneson has no basis upon which to tell other societies and communities what does or does not make sense. The most he can say is that it makes no sense in his own society or community. Additionally, Kenneson says this as if he has a view from nowhere that transcends all societies and communities. Once again, Kenneson’s statement is self-defeating.

Kenneson says that within his model “it makes no sense to speak of either objective truth — ‘truth as viewed from nowhere’ — or subjective truth — ‘truth for me.’” But this is exactly what Kenneson is claiming. He is claiming that his model of truth is irreducibly social and communal, which is to say, “it is truth for me in my society and community.” This is also self-defeating.
Kenneson’s statement that truth is “irreducibly social or communal” is part of the definition of relativism; truth is relative to one’s society or community. Kenneson claims not to be a relativist, but relativism is his own notion of truth. So, if Kenneson’s statement is true, it must be false.

In Kenneson’s next venture he attempts to deal with the charge of linguistic relativism;

let me, for a moment, pick on the work of James Sire, if only because I think he has earned the right to be taken seriously. Sire’s most recent offering labels the position I have sketched above—that truth claims are inseparable from human language— “linguistic relativism.” While there is much to like in Sire’s work, I believe he has created a bogeyman out of the “linguistic relativist.”

Ibid., 160

Kenneson is blissfully ignorant of linguistic relativism. Sire does not label Kenneson’s view as linguistic relativism. Rather, Sire describes the view that was espoused by the proponents of linguistic relativism, in this case he refers specifically to Richard Rorty. Linguistic relativism, also called “linguistic determinism,” has been attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) and Edward Sapir (1884–1939). (See Vyvyan Evans, The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 196–98 for his arguments that neither Whorf nor Sapir advocated the strong version). The view that Kenneson espouses fits the claims of linguistic relativism. It is not Sire who has created a “bodeyman” out of linguistic relativism. Linguistic relativism as been demonstrated to be a false position. As John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, has pointed out;

Language does not shape thought in the way that one might reasonably suppose, nor do cultural patterns shape the way language is structured in the way that one might reasonably suppose. Rather, the way a language is structured is a fortuitously ingrown capacity. It is a conglomeration of densely interacting subsystems, wielded at great speed below the level of consciousness, endlessly morphing into new sounds and structures due to wear and tear and accreted misinterpretations, such that one day what was once Latin is now French and Portuguese. . . .
However, the perception capacity itself is the same regardless of the language. To be sure, a feeler, hooked into a certain patch of perception, enhances the speaker’s sensitivity to the relevant phenomenon, and this book in no way denies the solid evidence for that. Yet the experiments in question have shown us that the enhancement qualifies as a passing flicker, that only painstaking experiment can reveal, in no way creating a different way of seeing the world along the lines that a von Humboldt, von Treitschke, or anyone else would propose.

John H. McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 148–49.

Both Whorf and Sapir argued against the notion that language shapes thought:

Moreover, the tremendous importance of language cannot, in my opinion, be taken to mean necessarily that nothing is back of it of the nature of what has traditionally been called “mind.” My own studies suggest, to me, that language, for all its kingly role, is in some sense a superficial embroidery upon deeper processes of consciousness, which are necessary before any communication, signaling, or symbolism whatsoever can occur, and which also can, at a pinch, effect communication (though not true agreement) without language’s and without symbolism’s aid. I mean “superficial” in the sense that all processes of chemistry, for example, can be said to be superficial upon the deeper layer of physical existence, which we know variously as intra-atomic, electronic, or subelectronic. No one would take this statement to mean that chemistry is unimportant — indeed the whole point is that the more superficial can mean the more important, in a definite operative sense.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought, And Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. John B. Carroll (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1956), 239.

Against the claim of being a relativist, Kenneson gives what he calls a “paraphrase” of some observations by Richard Rorty.

“Relativism” is merely a red herring. Realists are, once again, projecting their own habits of thought upon us when they charge us with relativism. For the realist thinks that the whole point of philosophical thought is to detach oneself from any particular community and look down at it from a more universal standpoint. When the realist hears that there are those of us who repudiate the desire for such a standpoint he cannot quite believe it. He thinks that everyone, deep down inside, must want such detachment. So the realist attributes to us a perverse form of his own attempted detachment, and sees us as those who refuse to take the choice between communities seriously, as mere “relativists.” But those of us who are trying on this new paradigm can only be criticized for taking our own communities too seriously. We can only be criticized for ethnocentrism, not for relativism. To be ethnocentric is to divide the human race into the people to whom one must justify one’s beliefs and the others. The first group—one’s ethnos—comprises those who share enough of one’s beliefs to make fruitful conversation possible. In this sense, everybody is ethnocentric when engaged in actual debate, no matter how much realist rhetoric about objectivity he produces in his study.

Kenneson, 161.

Kenneson, as Rorty, has both misunderstood and misrepresented the situation. It is not the case that deep down objectivists think that everyone must want some to detach from some particular community. In fact, Kenneson does this very thing when he objectively asserts that this is what objectivists/realists think. Being objective or relative is not simply a choice. In fact, Kenneson and Rorty objectively declare that to be ethnocentric “is to divide the human race into people to whom one must justify one’s beliefs and the others.” But this statement assumes realism and objectivity. It is presented as a non-relativistic truth-claim. But if truth is ethnocentric, then there is not non-relativistic justification for ethnocentric truth, as Harvey Seigel points out:

Assume relativism correct. Then the relativist position has strong, indeed compelling justification — it is a rationally justifiable position. Justification involves good reasons. But good reasons cannot be biased or non-neutral or arbitrary (by definition of ‘good reason’). Therefore, if relativism is correct, there must be some non-arbitrary, neutral, ‘absolute’ or ground from which we can make that judgment. Thus relativism, which denies the possibility of such a framework, is incorrect. In short, if relativism is true, it must have a non-relativistic ground, which possibility it denies. Thus relativism, if true, is false. Thus relativism is false.

Harvey Siegel, “Relativism Refuted,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, 14 (Oct. 1982), 49.

Good reasons to accept the ethnocentric notion of truth cannot themselves be ethnocentric, relative to one’s society or community. But if truth is ethnocentric, then there are no good reasons to accept ethnocentrism.

Kenneson declares,

In short, because I have neither a theory of truth nor an epistemology, I cannot have a relativistic one of either. My point is that Christians need not continue to answer “the truth question,” and the sooner we see that we needn’t, the sooner we can get on with the business of being Christians, which in no way entails accepting a certain philosophical account of truth, justification and “reality.”

Kenneson, 161.

This claim by Kenneson is simply false. If he has not theory of truth nor an epistemology, to what has he dedicated so much on these pages? To appeal to his readers to try on “a different model of truth,” and then to assert that he has no theory of truth is not only false, but disingenuous. Was Kenneson only pretending to reject the correspondence theory of truth? To reject one theory of truth in favor of another is either to engage in an epistemological discussion in an effort to promote one epistemology over another. Either Kenneson does not understand what epistemology is, or he is simply misrepresenting his case.

So, if Christians do not need to continue to answer “the truth question,” then it follows that Christians do not need to answer the question of whether it is true that Jesus did for our sins. Is it true that the sooner we stop asking the truth question the sooner we can get on with the business of being Christians? If we do not need to ask “the truth question,” then why should anyone get on with the business of being a Christian?

He says that getting on with being Christians “in no way entails accepting a certain philosophical account of truth, justification and ‘reality.’” But attempting to persuade his readers not to believe in objective truth or the correspondence theory of truth, or to persuade his readers to try on a different model of truth is precisely to entail accepting a certain philosophical account of truth, justification and reality. Contrary to Kenneson’s aim, his article is the very reason the church must spend time and effort dealing with these issues. It is Kenneson’s kind of thinking that is corrupting the church.


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GOD IS NOW HERE

I must attempt to put a stop to one common illustration that is supposed to characterize the nature of majuscule Greek mss. NT majuscule mss were written in a majuscule script in which there were no upper and lower case letters as we have in English, and there were no spaces between the words (see the diagram below). The common characterization is, GODISNOWHERE in which the words could be divided into, GOD IS NOW HERE, or GOD IS NOWHERE. This is supposed to give a sense of how NT majuscule mss could be ambiguous in meaning. There are at lease two serious problems with this characterization, however.

Sinaiticus Portion

1. The representation is a fallacious comparison between English and NT majuscule Greek texts. English is not written without spaces between the words. However, the earliest Greek majuscule mss were in fact written this way because this is the way these persons wrote their language. It was just as easy for a Greek reader to read his language as it is for English readers to read our language. So, the confusion of an English expression without spaces between the words does not represent any supposed comparable confusion on the part of a Greek reader of the time. No doubt, there were ambiguities in Greek writings just as there are in any language. But, an improperly formed English expression is not an accurate characterization of a properly formed Greek majuscule text. It is simply unreasonable to think that because someone else’s native language is difficult for the non-native speaker to read, that a native speaker would have the same level of difficulty in reading it. What may be difficult for the modern English reader was not a problem for a 1st century Greek reader, else there would be no explanation why these mss with this kind of writing proliferated. If it was so difficult for Greek readers to read, why did they use them in the first place? They used them because that was just the way they wrote, just like our words are separated with spaces because that’s just the way we write.

2. There are no NT Greek majuscule mss in which we find an expression out of context. No doubt there are some fragments that contain few words or single expressions, but these are not representative of a NT Greek text. The difficulty in reading some fragments is precisely because there is no context in which to place them. If the English expression above were put into a context comparable to the contexts of NT books, the ambiguity would be removed. A single out-of-context, improperly formed English expression is not an accurate characterization of a properly formed Greek majuscule text in its context. This is especially true since there would be no statement in the Greek NT that would actually claim that God is nowhere. Nevertheless, no representation using an improperly formed English expression is an accurate characterization of a properly formed Greek majuscule text in its own context.

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Perspicuity of Scripture

I firmly believe in the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture. That notion has been traditionally defined as the clarity of Scripture in terms of the basic principles of personal salvation. Norm Geisler’s explanation is a very good one:

The oft-misunderstood principle of biblical perspicuity does not claim that everything in Scripture is clear; it affirms that Scripture’s central teachings are clear. As stated popularly: In the Bible, the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. Indeed, the gospel itself is stated in one-syllable words, none of which is over four letters: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). Also, Jesus said plainly, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Doubters and distorters only need be asked, “Which of these words do you not understand?” (Norman L. Geisler, Church, Last Things, vol. 4, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2005), 92).

An objection to the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture is that the need to learn the biblical languages, to be familiar with the historical contexts in which the various portions of Scripture were composed, and the need of a myriad of other technical skills demonstrates that the Scripture is in fact not available to be understood by just anyone. I admit that there are many technical skills that must be developed in order to do serious Bible study. I myself have spent years attempting to develop abilities in languages; Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek (both Classical and Koine), German, and Latin; expand my grasp of philosophy in the areas of philosophy of language, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of history; expand my understanding of theology and the principles of exegesis; understand the history of the church and the history of theology, and many other efforts. I do not claim to have achieved any degree of success in any of these endeavors, but I am always studying, and researching, and reading in order to be able to develop what skills I do have. It may seem that this is a capitulation to those who argue that Bible study is not available to the average person, but the exact opposite is the case. In fact, the skills that  are developed over years of studious labor are available to anyone who wants to go down that path. Anyone can go to school and work on developing the skills necessary to do advanced study. I am myself only an average person who has and still does work very hard to develop these skills. Someone who does not want to dedicate his or her life to this kind of pursuit cannot thereby claim that Bible study is not available to him or her. All of these skills are available to anyone who wishes to pursue them and work at developing them. In order to get more than a cursory knowledge of the Bible, someone does not wish to pursue such a life will need to rely on those who have done so. Whether one not you have spent your life in pursuit of the skills necessary to do advanced study, you can still understand the message of salvation by grace through faith. The basic message of the Scriptures is perspicuous to anyone who has developed a rudimentary understanding. Advanced Bible study is difficult, but it is not out of your reach because the Scriptures are too difficult to understand. If advanced study is out of your reach, it is because you have chosen not to put in the labor necessary to acquire the skills one needs to do that kind of study.

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The Last Adam

I am constantly amazed at how individuals who exhibit many of the characteristics of being good exegetes will make the absurd error of referring to Jesus as the Second Adam. A simple reading of the relevant texts would lead one to eschew such an error. The relevant passage in this instance is 1 Cor. 15:45 depicted in the chart below Figure 1:

Figure 1:
1 Cor 15-45
It does not take a Greek scholar to see that Jesus is referred to as “the Last Adam,” not the “second Adam.” Indeed, nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus ever referred to as the “second” Adam, and 1 Cor. 15:45 is the only place where Jesus is referred to as “the Last Adam.”
In 1 Cor. 15:47 Jesus is referred to as “the Second Man,” but not the “second” Adam (see chart Figure 2).

Figure 2:

1 Cor 15-47

It may seem trivial to quibble over these designations, but it is theologically and exegetically important. As the Last Adam, Jesus is the progenitor of a new humanity that has been created in His likeness, Eph. 2:10. There were three previous Adams in biblical history, see chart in Table #1.

Table #1:

Four Adams

The previous Adams all failed to accomplish the task they were given. That task is set out initially in creation account: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves upon the face of the earth” (Gen. 1:28). The creation account, the creation days are divided into two major parts. The first three days are dedicated to subduing the earth. The last three days are dedicated to filling the earth. In day one God creates light shining upon the earth. In day four God divides the light in to day and night. In the second day God creates the expanse that separated the waters above from the waters below. On the fifth day God filled the waters with living things. On the third day God separated the waters from the dry ground. On the sixth day God filled the dry ground with living creatures and with mankind. The pattern is set, then, as subduing and filling. Whereas God subdued and filled, the First Adam was commissioned to fill and subdue; in other words, to imitate God. This commission is repeated with reference to the Second Adam and the Third Adam, each of whom failed to fulfill the commission.
The church was also given this commission in Matt. 28:18–20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit [filling], and teaching them [subduing] to observe all that I have commanded you.”
In the case of the first Adam, mankind continued to inherit the sin nature. But in the Last Adam, mankind was given a new birth into the family of God. By Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection, mankind has died to sin and is raised to a new life. Indeed, Jn. 3:5 gives the picture of the new creation: “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’” Every translation places the definite article before the word ‘spirit,’ but there is no definite article in the text. This is not a reference to the Holy Spirit. It is, rather, a re-enactment of the creation what was by water and breath. The new creation is also by water and breath. The water is not a reference to baptism, or to the Word of God. It is a reference to the cleansing that washes one clean from sin. In Jn. 3:10 Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” Where would Nicodemus have understood these things? From the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel that pictured the regeneration of the nation of Israel in the image of the dry bones. They would be washed with water to make them clean, and God would breath into them the breath of life. This is the picture re-enacted in Jn. 3:5.

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Reformed View of Immutability

While studying the book of Daniel, I came across an interesting statement by Richard Pratt. Pratt asserts, “When we speak of historical contingencies affecting the fulfillment of prophecies, we have in mind a concept of contingency that complies with the emphasis of traditional Reformed theology on the sovereignty of God. In the first place, this study affirms the doctrine of God’s sovereign immutability. Unfortunately, this doctrine is often misunderstood to teach that God is unchangeable in every way imaginable. But such an outlook denies the biblical portrait of God’s ability to have meaningful interaction with the creation (to judge, redeem, answer prayer, become flesh, etc.). It is for this reason that Reformed theologians have distinguished ways in which God is immutable from ways in which he is not. For example, Louis Berkhof puts the matter succinctly: ‘The Bible teaches us that God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were, lives their life with them. There is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purposes, His motives or actions, or His promises.’ We can summarize Berkhof by saying that Reformed theology has identified at least three ways in which God is unchanging: (1) God’s character does not change; he cannot become something other than what he is. (2) God’s covenant promises are immutable. He will not break his covenant oaths. (3) God is immutable in his eternal counsel or plan for all of history. God has an unchangeable plan, and this plan governs every detail of history.” (Richard L. Pratt, Jr., “Hyper-Preterism and Unfolding Biblical Eschatology,” in When Shall These Things Be? ed. Keith A. Mathison (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), 124.). Notwithstanding Pratt’s views on eschatology, I do not subscribe to his view on immutability, and in fact Pratt’s view does not conform either to the traditional Reformed view of immutability nor to the current Reformed view. Francis Turretin, a 17th century Reformed theologian, for example, states, “Immutability is an incommunicable attribute of God by which is denied of Him not only all change, but also all possibility of change, as much with respect to existence as to will” (“Immutabilitas est attributum Dei incommunicabile, quo negatur de Deo non tantum omnis mutatio, fed etiam possibilitas mutationis, tam quoad existentiam, quam quoad voluntatem.” Francisco Turrettino, Institutio Theologiæ Elencticæ (Amstelodami: Ant. Schouten, & Th. Appels., 1696), Third Topic, Q. XI.225.). Thomas Ridgley, an 18th century Reformed theologian, asserts that God is immutable not only in His essence but also in His will: “That God is unchangeable in his will: thus it is said of him, He is of one mind, and who can turn him? Job. xxiii. 13. this is agreeable to his infinite perfection, and therefore he does not propose to do a thing at one time, and determine not to do it at another.” (Thomas Ridgley, A Body of Divinity: Wherein the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, are Explained and Defended (Glasgow: John Bryce, 1770), 38.). John Dick, a 19th century Reformed Pastor and Theologian affirms the same view: “I proceed to speak of his immutability, by which we understand not only that his duration is permanent, but that his nature is fixed, immoveable, unaffected by external causes; in every respect the same from eternity to eternity.” (John Dick, Lectures on Theology (Oxford: David Christy, 1836), 102–3.). Herman Hoeksema, a 20th century Reformed Theologian avers the same position: “He does not grow older, does not increase or decrease in Being or power, is from eternity to eternity the same in essence and in all His virtues, in His mind and will. His love and life, the absolute fulness and Self-sufficient God. When in the Scriptures we read that God repents, or when He speaks a word which at a later moment is changed into the very opposite, as in the case of Hezekiah’s sickness, or of Jonah’s commission concerning the destruction of Nineveh, these instances may never be explained as presupposing a change in God. Rather must we remember that the eternal and immutable God reveals Himself in time, and that what is thus revealed to us in a succession of moments is eternally and unchangeably in the mind of God.” (Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966), 76.). Even Pratt’s quote from Berkhof does not tell an accurate story. Although Pratt quotes from Berkhof, he fails to quote enough, so the reader gets a distorted view of Berkhof’s position. Berkhof goes on to assert, “And if Scripture speaks of His repenting, changing His intention, and altering His relation to sinners when they repent, we should remember that this is only an anthropopathic way of speaking. In reality the change is not in God, but in man and in man’s relation to God. It is important to maintain the immutability of God over against the Pelagian and Arminian doctrine that God is subject to change, not indeed in His Being, but in His knowledge and will, so that His decisions are to a great extent dependent on the actions of man;” (L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 59.). Pratt’s view is not consistent either with the traditional Reformed view or with the current Reformed view. The contingencies he describes are perfectly consistent with the traditional view of immutability and do not require any sense in which God changes.

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N. T. Wright, History, and the Bible

I am utterly astounded that an author of the renown of N. T. Wright would so completely ignore and/or distort the historical and biblical facts simply to maintain a pet theory. That the assumptions and sweeping claims of E. P. Sanders—claims that have formed the foundation of the New Perspective on Paul—have been so completely demonstrated to be false should still be employed as a foundation for Wright’s theories is absolutely beyond understanding. As D. A. Carson puts it, “Several of the scholars [in the book sited below] found that at least parts of their respective corpora could be usefully described as reflecting covenantal nomism. One conclusion to be drawn, then, is not that Sanders is wrong everywhere, but he is wrong when he tries to establish that his category is right everywhere [D. A. Carson, “Summaries and Conclusions,” in The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, vol. 1, Justification and Variegated Nomism, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 543.]. Once it has been shown that Sanders’ claims do not characterize all, or even most, of Second Temple Judaism, any interpreter must put forward strong evidence that Sanders’ covenantal nomism is in fact the background against which Paul should be interpreted, evidence that is completely absent and is not forthcoming. It seems that some prominent persons are simply so far beyond the possibility of admitting when they were wrong that they will take whatever means to salvage their reputations and hang on to their pet theories (please pardon me for being so critical, but I am just utterly aggravated that this kind of writing—or Wrighting—is continually foisted upon a reading Christian public when the overwhelming evidence has so clearly proven that he is wrong).

In order to justify his claims about the definition of the phrase “the righteousness of God” as “God’s covenant faithfulness,” in his book, What Saint Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright launches into such a remarkable case of historical and exegetical gymnastics as to boggle the mind. After describing a “Hebrew law court” scene that has historical foundation neither in history nor in the Bible, Wright argues,

What happens, then, when we put the covenantal meaning of God’s righteousness together with the metaphorical level drawn from the law-court scene? God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies. She longs, that is, to be justified, acquitted, vindicated. And, because the God who is the judge is also her covenant God, she pleads with him: be faithful to your covenant! Vindicate me in your righteousness! [N. T. Wright. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997),  98–99].

Before we look at the above claim, let us consider what Wright says as a preface to his mischaracterization of the Hebrew law court. First, he says, “For a reader of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, ‘the righteousness of God’ would have one obvious meaning: God’s own faithfulness to his promises, to the covenant” [Ibid., 92]. Of course, there is simply no justification for such a claim. Wright refers to “Isaiah 40–55” as if this were somehow evidence for his claim, but he fails to produce any statements or point to any specific passage(s) in this wide range of material that would support his assertions. Later he says, “There are many other passages which support this reading of ‘God’s righteousness’; for instance, the great prayer of Daniel 9” [Ibid., 96]. Of course, Daniel 9 offers no such support for Wright’s claims (it is understandable that Wright would not point to any particular verses since there are not any to which he could point). If anything, the prayer of Daniel in chapter 9 argues decidedly against Wright’s claims. Daniel points out several times that God is righteous and that is why Israel is desolated and destroyed. Because God is righteous, He has brought destruction up Israel because they have “we have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly and rebelled, even turning aside from Your commandments and ordinances” (Dan. 9:5).

When it comes to Daniel’s supplications, Daniel does not call upon God’s righteousness since it is because of God’s righteousness that Israel is in the state of destruction and exile: “Righteousness belongs to You, O Lord, but to us open shame, as it is this day” (Dan. 9:7). Rather, Daniel calls upon God’s compassion and forgiveness: “To the Lord our God compassion and forgiveness . . .” (Dan. 9:9). So, neither Daniel nor any other biblical passages support Wright’s claim that the righteousness of God should be understood to mean God’s covenant faithfulness. In fact, that God remains true to His covenant promises is based on the fact that He is righteous. God’s righteousness is the foundation of His covenant faithfulness. As Mark Seifrid points out, “All ‘covenant keeping’ is righteous behavior, but not all righteous behavior is ‘covenant keeping.’ It is misleading, therefore, to speak of ‘God’s righteousness’ as his ‘covenant faithfulness.’ It would be closer to the biblical language to speak of ‘faithfulness’ as ‘covenant righteousness’” [Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism,” in The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism, vol. 1, Justification and Variegated Nomism, ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 424].

Wright talks about the Old Testament law court as a way of understanding his sense of the phrase “God’s righteousness.” He says, “In the lawcourt as envisaged in the OT, all cases were considered ‘civil’ rather than ‘criminal’; accuser and defendant pleaded their causes before a judge. ‘Righteousness’ was the status of the successful party when the case had been decided; ‘acquitted’ does not quite catch this, since that term applies only to the successful defendant, whereas if the accusation was upheld the accuser would be ‘righteous.’ ‘Vindicated’ is thus more appropriate. The word is not basically to do with morality or behavior, but rather with status in the eyes of the court—even though, once someone had been vindicated, the word ‘righteous’ would thus as it were work backward, coming to denote not only the legal status at the end of the trial but also the behavior that had occasioned this status” [Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Romans.” In Acts, Introduction to Epistolary Literature, Romans, 1 Corinthians, vol. 10, The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 398–99]. In a footnote to this paragraph, Wright refers to Gen. 38:26: “A good example of this can be seen in Genesis 38:26, when Judah acknowledges that his daughter-in-law Tamar is in the right and he is in the wrong. This states a legal position; only secondarily, and by implication, does it comment on the morality of their respective behavior” [Ibid., 399,n5]. Wright’s characterization of the story of Judah and Tamar is, however, quite incorrect. The problem arose as a result of Tamar’s behavior, which was, because of her pregnancy, interpreted by others as the result of “playing the harlot” (ht;nÒz:, za4nt`a4h). According to the standard Hebrew lexicon, the verb hnz (znh) indicates “to become involved with another man, to commit fornication (as wife, betrothed) Gn 3824” [The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (2001), s.v. hnz.”]. The entire episode concerns the behavior of Tamar which has been identified as “playing the harlot.” When it is revealed that Tamar was pregnant by Judah, Judah acknowledges the unrighteousness of his own behavior, as he says, “She is more righteous than I;” Why is Tamar more righteous that Judah? Judah identifies his unrighteousness as his lack of action: “inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” It is precisely because of their relative behaviors that one is acknowledged as more righteous than the other. Additionally, the characterization of “more” makes sense only in terms of an absolute standard of moral conduct. Judah is able to acknowledge Tamar as “more righteous” because of the absolute standard of moral conduct by which each is judged. Wright has not only got the idea of God’s righteousness wrong, his example works against his own claims.

The supposed background to Wright’s claim that we quoted earlier in fact is a factually incorrect report of the actual historical background. Wright claims, “God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies” [Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 98]. The problem with this characterization, or rather, mischaracterization, is that Israel is not standing before God pleading her case against the wicked pagans. In fact, God, as the Judge, is charging Israel with going after the pagan nations and abandoning the covenant. Israel is not “righteous” and longing for God to hear her case. God is the one who is bringing the case against Israel who is unrighteous, as Daniel said and as the other prophets repeatedly declared. In order to attempt to hold on to his discredited theory, it seems that N. T. Wright will go to any lengths, even distorting the historical and biblical facts.

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Opening Verses of John Chapter 2

There is an important flow of thought of the previous section, from Jn. 1:19–51, that impacts one’s understanding of the upcoming material. In Jn. 3:22–30 the author records an interaction between John the Baptist and some of his disciples concerning Jesus and the fact that everyone was going to Him rather than coming to John. In 3:30, John states, “It is necessary for that one to increase, but for me to decrease.” This is exactly the flow we see between 1:19 and 51 and the beginning of chapter 2. In verses 19–28 of chapter 1, the focus is on John who is being interrogated by the religious leaders. Throughout this section John denies any independent authority and identifies himself as the forerunner prophesied in Isaiah. In the section from 29 to 34, the focus shifts slightly as John points to Jesus and identifies Him as the Lamb of God. In 35–42 the focus shifts even more as some of John’s own disciples leave him to follow Jesus. In verse 43–51, John is out of the picture altogether, and Jesus is not calling His own disciples.

D. A. Carson attempts to make the case that the miracle of the transformation of the water into wine takes place on the seventh day. He argues that another day should be added to John’s sequence: “This is achieved, not by appealing to the variant at 1:41 but by observing that when the Baptist’s two disciples attach themselves to Jesus it is already 4:00 p.m. on the third day—and they spent the rest of that day with him (1:39). That means Andrew’s introduction of Simon Peter to Jesus takes place on the next day, the fourth; the Nathanael exchange occurs on the fifth; the changing of water into wine on the seventh” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), 168). It seems very unlikely that John, having explicitly identified the series of days by specific markers: Th’/ ejpauvrion (te4i epaurion) in verse 29, Th’/ ejpauvrion pavlin (te4i epaurion palin) in verse 35, Th’/ ejpauvrion (te4i epaurion) in verse 43, and finally Kai; th’/ hJmevra/ th’/ trivth/ (kai te4i he4merai te4i trite4i) in 2:1. For John to introduce an additional day without a specific marker, and to do so with such subtlety that it would inevitably generate a question, seems completely outside the theme of this material. As Carson himself notes, “Only here does John provide a careful record of a sequence of days” (Ibid.). To conclude that this careful record is interrupted by the introduction of an additional day so carelessly  unmarked simply does not fit.

Rather than concluding this week on the seventh day, John seems to conclude it on the sixth day. This seems to place the events in the setting of the sixth day, the day when man and woman are created. The symbolism depicts Jesus as the last Adam who successfully obeys God’s commandments and fulfills all righteousness. By the time we get to chapter 2, Jesus is the focus. John has done his job well. He has pointed us to the Messiah that is coming, who will release His people from captivity and bring them the new wine of the kingdom.

1. The Time – Notice the time is the third day. If day one was 1:19–28, day two 1:29–34, day three 1:35–42, and day four was 1:43–51, then 2:1 is probably the sixth day of that first week.

There are at least two features that make this significant. First, if we remember the association we made with the creation week, we think of what happened on the sixth day of the creation week. Man was created. As Jesus was there at the creation of the first man, so He is here at the creation of the new man. Secondly, when we think of the “third day” we think of the resurrection. This is the event that brought about the possibility of becoming a new creation in Christ.

2. The Situation – Cana was a very small town somewhere near Nazareth of Galilee. A wedding was being held and Jesus and His disciples were invited. The way the statement is made seems to indicate that Jesus’ disciples were invited because they were with Him, but that the wedding had not been planned with them in mind. Perhaps the extra men was the cause of the early depletion of the wine resources.

3. The Sign – Mary came to Jesus and told Him that the wine was depleted (v. 3). Jesus’ answer was not disrespectful. Mary probably assumed that Jesus could use this event to show His supernatural power. Jesus said to her, “What do we have in common? My hour is not yet come!” Jesus was telling her that she must not continue to function as if their relationship was the same as always. Jesus was embarking upon His earthly ministry and everything must progress according to the Father’s plan. It was not His hour to reveal Himself openly.

John points out that there were 6 large water pots capable of holding about twenty gallons each. Verse 7 notes that they were filled to the brim. This is important to indicate that there was no room to add anything to these pots. Also, these were pots that kept water for various ritual washings, so there would be no residue of wine in the pots to account for the wine taste. John points out that the water pots were made of stone rather than earthenware. Stone was not capable of becoming ritually unclean. The water was used to cleanse the hands and various utensils from ritual uncleanness. Following the Babylonian captivity, such practices were extended to things that were not formally included in the Mosaic law. “The laws of purity prescribed that vessels, clothes or persons which had been defiled by contact with something unclean should be washed in water (Lv. 11:24–15 (sic), 28, 32, 40; 15 passim; 22:6). But water was also used to wash things which had been in contact with something sacred: meat what had been offered in sacrifice was a most holy thing, and therefore the metal vessel in which it had been boiled had to be scoured and rinsed in water; it was an earthenware vessel, it was to be broken (Lv 6:21)” (Roland de Vaux, Religious Institutions, vol. 2,  Ancient Israel (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), 461.).

When the headwaiter tasted the wine which Jesus had created from the water in the pots, he remarked that this wine was the good wine. The custom was to serve the best wine early, and to serve the poorer quality wine later when the guests would not be as discerning about the taste.

4. The Significance – By this sign, Jesus presents Himself as Messiah, King of Israel.

For the Nation of Israel this meant;

a. The kingdom of God is often presented in terms of a banquet, and especially a wedding feast. Matt. 8:11; 22:1–14; Rev. 19:7–9.

b. The kingdom age was often pictured as a time of abundance symbolized by the new wine. Gen 49:11–12; Joel 2:19. The depletion of the old wine during this wedding feast symbolizes the obsolescence of the Judaism that was prominent in Jesus’ day. The old was replaced by the new, which was even better.

c. By supplying the good wine, in a sense taking over the responsibility that was the bridegroom’s, Jesus is depicted as the Bridegroom who will supply the new wine of the kingdom. Wine was not only symbolic of the joy of the kingdom, but became associated with sustenance and life. Wine was also a symbol of covenant blessing. The warnings in Deuteronomy 28–29 include the curse, “You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the  wine  nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them.” However, the repentance and restoration of Israel included the promise of an abundance of new wine (Hosea 2:22; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13). Israel was depicted as God’s wife. Jer. 31:32 depicts God as Israel’s husband: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,  not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord.” It is interesting that the metaphor is used in the announcement of the new covenant. In Isaiah 62 the ultimate restoration of Israel is couched in terms of marriage

It will no longer be said to you, “Forsaken,” Nor to your land will it any longer be said, “Desolate”; But you will be called, “My delight is in her,” And your land, “Married”; For the Lord delights in you, And to Him your land will be married. For as a young man marries a virgin, So your sons will marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you (Isa. 62:4–5).

For the Christian this means;

a. The joy of salvation is frequently symbolized by wine in the OT (Ps. 104:15). Jesus provides an abundance of joy. The Lord made between 120 and 150 gallons of wine. It is interesting to note that when God instructed Israel to tithe to the LORD, He also instructed them to take a tenth and have a feast (Num. 14:22–27). Even in John Jesus is presented as the Bridegroom

b. The New wine symbolizes a new life in Christ. The old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. This is why the author makes the note that this wedding feast took place on the third day.

This sign was designed to prompt faith in His disciples that He is the Messiah of Israel, and it functions in accord with the basic theme of John to present Jesus as Messiah, the God-Man who brings the Kingdom of God to the earth.

There is an interesting hint of an Old Testament relationship indicated in the opening verses of chapter 2. The structure of this section which began at 1:19 certainly seems to indicate an intent to present this material as the first week of Jesus’ ministry and to link this with the creation week. If this is accurate, there seems to be an effort to link the concepts of the first creation and the new creation—the first kingdom, in a sense, and the new kingdom; the garden and the millennial kingdom. Consequently, there may be an effort to link Jesus and Adam. Adam was, of course, the first man. Jesus is designated by Paul as the second man (1 Cor. 15:47), and the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). Jesus is the second man because He is the progenitor of a new humanity. Jesus is the Last Adam because we have had at least three Adam’s prior to Jesus— Adam, Noah, and Israel—and each new beginning ended in failure. Jesus is the Last Adam since the New Beginning in Jesus will never end, and Jesus will not fail. We will not need another Adam. We will not need to start over again.

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Authorial Intention

The Goal of Interpretation and the Intention of the Author

The question of the goal of interpretation is not so much a question of what one is trying to achieve. Almost everyone agrees that the ultimate goal of interpretation is to obtain meaning. The question is, where is the meaning? When we ask, “Where is meaning?” we are asking about the locus of meaning—were is meaning located. If the goal of interpretation is meaning, we must know where the meaning is in order that we might head in that direction. There are three places meaning can be located—in the mind of the author, in the text, and in the mind of the interpreter. Now, at any given point, meaning may be located in all three places. However, from the point of view of the interpreter, the locus of meaning is one of two places. Either the locus of meaning is the mind of the author, or the text. It is, of course, obvious that before there is a meaningful text, there must be an author with a meaning he desires to communicate. However, from the point of view of the interpreter, the meaning in the mind of an author is totally inaccessible apart from some communicative act by that author in which he communicates that meaning from his mind to the mind of the interpreter. This communicative act is his text. A text can be either spoken or written. The meaning that is caused by the author is carried to the mind of the interpreter by means of a meaningful text. Consequently, from the point of view of the interpreter, it would seem that the locus of meaning is the text.

Therefore, it would seem that the goal of interpretation is to discover the meaning of the text. However, this is not a universally held position. Tremper Longman III, who was at the time of the publication of his book, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, was Associate Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, said, “Interpretation then has as its goal the recovery of the author’s purpose in writing” (Tremper Longman, III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 64–5.). In fact, Longman claims, “If literature is an act of communication, then meaning resides in the intention of the author” (Longman, Literary Approaches, 64.).

To consider the proposal that meaning is in the intention of the author, we should  first distinguish between various uses of the word ‘intent’ when we talk about the intention of the author. There are six causes of meaning, three of which relate to the idea of intent, or intention.

1) The efficient cause, the agent, that by which meaning is caused, namely, the mind of the author. This is the intent in the mind of the author: “I didn’t intend to say that.”

2) The final cause, the purpose, that for which meaning is caused, namely, to communicate. This is the intent of the author as to the purpose for his communication: “My intention (purpose) was to help you.”

3) Material cause, the material, that out of which meaning is caused, namely, words and symbols, language.

4) Formal cause, the form, that of which meaning is caused, namely, the meaning of the text. This is the intent of the author in the expressed meaning of the text.

5) Exemplar cause, the pattern, that after which meaning is caused, namely, the Logos, God, the Divine communicator.

6) Instrumental cause, the means, that through which meaning is caused, namely, logic, reason (Class notes on Semantics by Norman L. Geisler, 1987.).

If, by intention of the author, Longman is talking about the author as the efficient cause of the meaning, his proposal seems to present an insurmountable problem for the interpreter. If the meaning of any communication is in the intention of the author, then, in order to grasp the meaning of the author’s text, the interpreter must attempt to reconstruct the author’s intention. Now, after having gathered all relevant information, and after having developed what the interpreter believes to be the intention of the author, how does the interpreter then validate his hypothesis? The immediate problem, as has been observed by Grant Osborne, is that, “while the original authors had a definite meaning in mind when they wrote, that is now lost to us because they are no longer present to clarify and explain what they wrote” (Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 7.). Osborne unequivocally asserts that an author’s intention is “lost to us.” If it is lost to us, how can we then use it to tell us what the text means or how it should be received by us? But also, what Osborne’s statement implies is that if an author is available, then this would solve the problem. The interpreter could simply confront the author and question the author about his intention. However, let us assume that the author is present and, all I need to do is have the author critique my hypothesis about his intended meaning and correct my misunderstandings of his intention. This is illustrated in Figure 1.

This presents an additional problem, however. In order for the author to communicate his critique of my hypothesis about his intended meaning, he must do so by communicating with me, and this involves presenting me with another text, either oral or written. This is illustrated in Figure 2.

 

Now, in order to understand the meaning of his critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning in his original text, I must construct another hypothesis of his intention in communicating his critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning in his original text. However, before I can apply his critique to my original hypothesis of his original intention, I must validate my new hypothesis of the intention of the author in communicating the text of his critique of my original hypothesis. How can I do this? By having the author critique my hypothesis of his first critique of my original hypothesis of his intended meaning of his original text. Now, in order to understand the meaning of his subsequent critique about my subsequent hypothesis about his subsequent intention about his original critique of my original hypothesis of his original intention of his original text, I must construct an additional hypothesis . . . ad infinitum. The point is, if the meaning of any text, whether oral or written, is located in the intention of the author, then it is forever inaccessible to me as an interpreter. This is illustrated below in Figure 3. And what if the author is unavailable for comment?

Consequently, if the goal of interpretation is the intention of the author in writing, then our goal is unattainable and meaning can never be understood. But, this does not fit reality. The fact is, people have been communicating for many thousands of years and their communications have been understood by their audience(s), although often there is misunderstanding. Nevertheless, the fact that communication does occur indicates that it is possible to grasp the meaning of an author’s communication even if we do not have direct access to his intention.

The Goal of Interpretation and the Meaning for the Reader

Have you ever been to a small group Bible study in which the basic approach to a passage was, “What does this passage mean to you?” In these kinds of studies there are usually as many “meanings” to a passage as there are people in the group, and, often, the group pools its collective ignorance.

Just as there has been a history of actual communication, there has also been a history of misunderstanding. People have understood one another, and they have misunderstood one another. How many times have you read a text and did not grasp its meaning? Indeed, how often have you written a note, perhaps in the margin of your Bible, and when you later come to read it, you cannot remember what you intended? This fact has led many to propose that the goal of interpretation is the meaning for the reader. According to these proposals, meaning is something that resides in minds. Since a text is an inanimate object and not a “mind,” meaning cannot reside in the text. However, if there cannot be meaning in a text, and since the mind of the author is inaccessible to the interpreter, then the only place left for meaning is the reader. Radical reader-response theories propose that meaning is in the response of the reader to the text. The influence of Immanuel Kant is unmistakable in this perspective. Just as Kant held that the mind supplied the intelligibility (categories) of sensible experience, so for these theorists the mind supplies the meaning for the sensible text. Similarly, as sensible experience supplied the “stuff” of knowledge, so, roughly, the text, by virtue of the cultural parameters of the linguistic community, supplies the stuff of meaning and sets the broad limits of meaning, but the meaning of any text is supplied by the reader, not either the text or the author. The proponents of radical reader-response theories would say that everyone’s interpretation is valid. But this creates another insurmountable problem for the interpreter. As Aristotle put it, “not to have one meaning is to have no meaning, and if words have no meaning there is an end of discourse with others, and even, strictly speaking, with oneself” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Tredennick (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980), 167, Book IV, Chapter iv. 1006 b.). In other words, if every reader supplies his own meaning to a text, then there is no determinate meaning communicated, and communication is at an end (strangely, those who propose a radical reader-response approach to meaning do not want their own readers to read into their texts a meaning other than the one they put into the text). Consequently, if the goal of interpretation is the meaning for the reader, and every reader’s interpretation is valid, then there is in fact no goal to interpretation, and no interpretation because there can be no communication.

The Goal of Interpretation and the Meaning in the Text

It would seem, then, that since the locus of meaning, from the point of view of the interpreter, is not the intention of the author, or the mind of the reader, that this leaves only one possible location, namely, the text. The locus of meaning, from the perspective of the reader, must be the text. The author is the efficient cause of meaning. The author has expressed his meaning in a text. The text is the location of the meaning. The text carries the meaning from the mind of the author to the mind of the interpreter. Consequently, the goal of interpretation is to discover the meaning of the text. Meaning can reside then, in all three places at the same time: it can be in the mind of the author as the meaner, it can reside in the text as meant, and it can reside in the reader as meaning. There is, of course, the possibility of misunderstanding on the part of the reader. This is caused by several factors. One factor can be the inadequate communication skills of the author. He simply did not adequately convey the meaning he intended. This can be judged only by the author and not by the reader, however. There are also the inadequate skills of the reader. The reader may not be skilled in the science and art of interpretation. That is why we study hermeneutics. Simply because someone has read a book or article, or a monograph or professional paper, etc., does not mean they have understood the meaning of the text. In the Licona/Geisler debate over inerrancy, this kind of problem is rampant. Many individuals who have offered observations and criticisms have failed to understand the issue, and consequently, they make proposals that completely miss the point.

Since the Bible is the Word of God, we can rest assured that God has not made some kind of mistake in communicating His Word. Consequently, when misunderstanding occurs, the error must be attributed to the reader, not either to the human author or the Divine Author. Also, since the intention of the author in the sense of what an author had in mind when he wrote his text, or the way he wanted his text to be received, is inaccessible to the reader apart from the text itself, we cannot go behind the text, or under the text, or over the text, or around the text, or in front of the text to the author’s mind to discover his intent. All we have is his text, and meaning must come from the text. Additionally, we cannot use what we suppose to be an author’s intent to tell us what a text means. Meaning comes from the text, and it is the text that tells us how we should read it, not some amorphous, unprovable speculation(s) about what was an author’s intention.

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