Monday, July 15, 2013

Dialog with Vaughn Ohlman, part deux

In a previous post, Vaughn Ohlman was kind enough to respond to some of the concerns I expressed. His comments (and my response) can be seen below:
One big issue in your above post is headcoverings, about which I have two immediate things to say: 

1) Headcoverings is taught in a didactic, not narrative, passage, so I am confused as to why you are bringing it up.

  2) I would refer much of your question to RC Sproul SR:

 The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church...? - R.C. Sproul Sr.

My response to this is below:

Regarding your first point, there are numerous ways in which I could respond. I could contend the whole issue of "head coverings" as such. The Greek text does not actually say "head-coverings" anywhere in I Cor. 11, and that still remains a widely disputed text within Paul's letter to the Corinthian church. But even if I were to agree with that translation, your concern about it being a didactic passage, and not a narrative passage, is not above reproach either. One's interpretation of historical events necessitates an understanding of the context, culture, and occasion in which Paul's letter was written, just as much as the didactic commandments which Moses recorded in the Torah, and therefore can be legitimately understood as narrative in that broad sense (as viewed by future generations, like us today). But you are correct in that Paul's statements within I Cor. 11 are didactic. I don't deny that at all. I affirm that they were indeed didactic. But just because they were didactic, does not necessitate that the context, culture, and occasion in which is was originally delivered is without limitations in it's application for Christians in a different context, culture, and occasion. As a professed theonomist, I am sure that you are aware that there must be some limitations in applying didactic passages of Scripture. For example, the didactic commandments which Moses recorded in the Torah ought not to be applied verbatim today. Moses did not write the Torah to us today, but he did write it for us today. That is an important distinction to make in defense of dogmatic claims about morally binding (i.e. standing) laws. There are contextual and cultural limitations inherent with the Torah as a whole, which is why the Westminster Divines (many of whom were theonomic) held that only the general equity of the judicial laws (within Torah) were morally binding. That is to say, even though the judicial laws were didactic, they are only morally binding outside of the context and culture in which they were delivered insofar as they illustrated God's moral character (i.e. His "moral law"). And the application varied from culture to culture, generation to generation. I would argue that the same is true with every didactic passage of Scripture, including  those found in 1st Corinthians 11.

Paul did not write to the church of Corinth in a vacuum. First Corinthians, as we know it, was the second letter to that church (I Cor. 5:9). And two events led Paul to write it. First, Paul had received a report from Chloe's people indicating that there was trouble in the church (I Cor. 1:11; 11:18). (Notice the similar phrase repeated by Paul in the first and eleventh chapter, the chapter in which "head-coverings" are mentioned.) Second, members of that Corinthian congregation had contacted Paul in writing (I Cor. 7:1), asking him for counsel on various culturally sensitive issues. Those congregational concerns span from 7:1 to 16:12, and in no way should every didactic answer to their written questions to Paul be interpreted as Paul writing his answer to us today. For example, in I Cor. 7:26-31, Paul writes to them didactically, saying:
I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I have already discussed this "passing away" of the present "world" in numerous posts (here, here, here, here, here, and most importantly here), which explains the time constraints of this "present distress" mentioned by Paul. Irregardless of whatever eschatological agreements or disagreements there might be between us, clearly, whatever cultural concerns undergird these "didactic passages," it is awkward to argue that Paul wanted all Christians, of every culture, of every age, to not seek a wife (as he clearly says above). Just because the passage is didactic to those in Corinth, that does not mean Paul meant it to be didactic to those in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in the year 2013. Admittedly, there is general equity to all of Paul's didactic statements, and insofar as we can deduce Paul's application of God's moral law, there is an example set before our very eyes of deducing the general equity of such moral laws for our culturally relevant circumstances; but only once they can in fact be deemed as exegetically tenable moral laws of God. But such an application today can hardly be justified by a simplistic claim of any passage being "didactic." 

The Christian's understanding of this principle affects every interpretation of New Testament history, whether the much larger historical narrative has been deposited in the Church in the form of didactic letters or not. Our understanding of what Paul taught them, in Corinth, at that time, helps Christians today understand the way in which Paul's didactic statements do and do not apply today. And to insist on doing so is not at all a contradiction of 1st Timothy 3:16, as you claim on your blog. If all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness -- it is only profitable insofar as it is understood in the historical and cultural context of the entire letter. If the context undergirding those historical events does not necessitate it's interpretation as a standing law, it's not profitable to teach it as a standing law. It then becomes profitable for reproof and correction of those who are training others foolishly under the guise of "righteousness." 

This is manifest in a variety of ways within 1st Corinthians itself. Regarding other concerns of the Corinthian congregation presented to Paul in writing, every passage between 7:1 and 16:12 can easily be misunderstood and misinterpreted as standing laws if not handled carefully. The perspicuity of such passages is not always as great as our modern baptistic culture claims. With every one of the "didactic" statements from Paul to the congregation of Corinth, whether it's a statement about celibacy, singleness, and marriage (I Cor. 7), or food offered to idols (I Cor. 8), liberty of conscience (10:29), praying or prophesying with "head-coverings" (11:4-5), getting drunk at the Lord's Supper (11:21), eating at home (11:34), the gift of tongues and prophecy in worship (Ch. 12-14), or the claims of some who say there is no resurrection of the dead (15:12), the occasion of all those statements must be interpreted in light of the letter's own historical and cultural context.

Regarding the specific passages pertaining to "head-coverings," I want to point out my own position, just so I am not misunderstood. Even though I do not personally believe Paul is referring to "head-coverings" in I Cor. 11, I do not believe that women today who wear head-coverings in worship are sinning. In fact, as far as I can tell, it's a public display of their love of obeying God (or what they believe God's Word requires of them). And to that degree, I commend them for holding firm to their personal conviction about the didactic elements of God's Word to them. But I do not believe it is exegetically or historically tenable to argue that such a practice has always been required by God's moral law, and that Paul directed those didactic statements to Christians in Sheboygan, Wisconsin as well; nor do I believe it is reasonable to claim dogmatically that to depart from such a practice is "dangerous" (as you claim on your blog). I believe that teaching the moral duty of such a practice in all christian churches is creating an unnecessarily embarrassing subculture of Christianity which does not edify all christian churches or the families therein. And that which does not edify, ought not to be enforced upon all Christian churches or presented as a standing law for all Christians in public worship.

Concerning your second point, in referencing RC Sproul Sr. as your source of justifying 19 centuries of tradition, his statement that "The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century," is a fabricated construct of his imagination (pun intended). Not only is that not true, historically; it is also almost too broad to qualify with such absolute "universal" certainty. It is far easier to falsify such an exaggerated claim, given the breadth of Christianity throughout history. Of course, Sproul Sr. is notorious for making such broad, sweeping, oversimplified statements to accomplish his own didactic purposes. And I am not surprised that he once made such a statement. I also wouldn't be surprised if he has changed his mind since.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Ohlman also commented about my initial concern, namely his claim that there is one aspect of redemptive historical hermeneutics which, as he says, "rejects the whole cloth rejection of example itself." His comments in that regard are below: 
I think underlying this issue we have a difference of what this method actually is. The book I actually read explaining the redemptive hisotrical method and contrasting it with the previous hermeneutic said two things:
 1) That the old commentators (Calvin et al) did NOT use the redemptive historical method and
 2) That the RH method rejected narrative examples *completely*. 
If either or both of these are wrong, then my source was wrong. The paper you reference was not meant to deal, in detail, with this issue. Nor was it a grand reference paper. It was meant to layout my hermeneutic for dealing with narrative examples. In my book, the Covenant of Betrothal, I propose a whole list of ways in which I believe narrative examples must be examined for their use as normative for us today. I don't know if you had a chance to examine the whole list. 
I have since worked on a larger paper which I can send you if you are interested.

My response to those statements are found below:

Regarding your first point, I don't see how relevant it is for older commentators, such as John Calvin, to have used the Redemptive Historical method of interpreting Scripture in order for it to remain a valid approach. My main point in emphasizing it's validity was to clarify that it does not conflict with theonomic ethics per se, at least not Greg Bahnsen's thesis on theonomic ethics (which you promote on your blog). I may have misunderstood your position, but the statement on your blog against RH clearly inferred a contradiction between RH and theonomic principles of interpretation. In fact, I would argue that RH in connection with Greg Bahnsen's thesis actually helps guard against interpreting historical narratives and didactic passages foolishly as standing laws for all cultures at all times.

Regarding your second point, I believe your source was indeed mistaken. Perhaps that statement was originally written hyperbolically by the author to simplify a contrast with another hermeneutical principle. As you may already know, many faithful reformed theologians such as G. Vos have been been proponents of RH, without needing to reject historical examples completely. Nor, with men like Vos, was there a conflict with theonomic ethics per se. 

Regarding your final statements, I am interested in learning more about your hermeneutical approach to historical narratives. I have read much of the online version of your book, The Covenant of Betrothal, and I didn't consider it to be very clear in regard to hermeneutical principles and guidelines. In fact, I thought the book took far too much for granted. But there is only so much that I am able to gather from the resources on your blog, especially since those resources you provided have not been geared toward explaining my concerns in detail. And so, I'm hopeful that the larger paper you recommended would help provide that much-needed clarity. I will contact you offline for that resource.

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