Sunday Toon: The Scholar’s SnareAugust 31, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Never a dull moment around here: yesterday, Challenger Grim spent a good chunk of the day arguing that I was wrong to reject the notion that everybody’s world view is based on some kind of arbitrary, non-logic-based and non-evidence based faith. Meanwhile, in JP Holding’s Sunday Toon for today, Holding accuses me of failing to understand that faith must be a conclusion based on evidence and reason. And if that weren’t ironic enough, Grim went from here to Holding’s home turf, where he proposed devoting an entire thread to discussing what a “screwball” I am for denying that all knowledge is based on arbitrary faith—and Holding sympathized with him! Apparently, Grim is unaware that Holding’s definition of faith explicitly rejects the kind of faith that Grim is arguing for, and/or Holding is unaware that Grim’s definition of faith is as toxic to his own definition as it is to skepticism. Either that, or he just doesn’t care so long as he gets to mock non-Christians (plus any believers who fail to live up to his “scholarly” standards of what it means to believe).
Back to the Sunday Toons, Holding installment for today addresses my post on Apologetics vs. Bible Based Faith. According to Holding, “[t]his is a simple one, because poor Dumplin’ Dumbash doesn’t know what faith actually is.” Holding assumes that because I wanted to talk about a significant subculture that define their doctrines in terms of what they call “Bible-based faith,” that I don’t know what faith is. He then links to an article that describes his own definition of “faith” in terms that come fairly close to what I would say genuine faith would need to be. And that, unfortunately, leads him into a couple of significant problems.
Let’s look at his essay on faith. He starts by giving four examples of people using the word “faith” in a way that a lot of Christians would be perfectly comfortable with, but which Holding says are in error. He then gives us his own “scholarly” definition, based on the works of such latter-day luminaries as Malina, Neyrey, deSilva, and Crook.
The Greek word behind “faith” in the NT is pistis. As a noun, pistis is a word that was used as a technical rhetorical term for forensic proof. Examples of this usage are found in the works of Aristotle and Quintiallian, and in the NT in Acts 17:31:
Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
There is a particular snare that lies in wait for the unwary scholar, and it has to do with how scholarship works. You do not become a noted and respected scholar by just nodding your head and agreeing with what other scholars have already said. To rise to prominence in the scholastic world, you have to accomplish something unique and important. The obvious discoveries are going to get snatched up early on, meaning that the careers of subsequent scholars will depend on finding things obscure and/or insignificant enough to have escaped notice up to now. You won’t advance to academic prominence by making discoveries that are merely trivial and obscure, however, so you must also find some way in which your discovery has some kind of hitherto unappreciated significance.
In short, the trap nature lays for the scholar is the temptation to zero in on obscure, trivial details, to inflate their significance, and then to convince yourself and others that you have accomplished some significant, scholarly achievement by doing so. (There’s a further temptation to consider yourself elite and superior to those who do not possess your knowledge of profound scholarly minutiae, but perhaps the reader will have already seen some examples of this elsewhere 😉 ).
This becomes a serious problem, because the over-emphasis on minor details and one-off cases can obscure the scholar’s grasp of the bigger picture, and even create outright contempt for it. We see this in Holding’s example of an atypical usage of pistis in Acts 17. Because he wants to promote the idea that his scholarly knowledge of minor details is actually a profound insight into some fundamental truth, he zeroes in on a verse that fits his conclusion instead of looking at the broad picture of how pistis is actually used in the NT. Let’s look at some of them, substituting Holding’s definition where the text says faith:
“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little forensic proof! [Note: oligopistos, from oligos, (“little”) + pistis (“forensic proof,” according to Holding).
And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed Seeing their forensic proof, Jesus said to the paralytic, ” Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.”
And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your forensic proof; for truly I say to you, if you have forensic proof the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.
And He said to them, “Where is your forensic proof?” They were fearful and amazed, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?”
“I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find forensic proof on the earth?”
but I have prayed for you, that your forensic proof may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by forensic proof.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from forensic proof to forensic proof; as it is written, ” BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FORENSIC PROOF.”
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his forensic proof is credited as righteousness,
For if those who are of the Law are heirs, forensic proof is made void and the promise is nullified;
Without becoming weak in forensic proof he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb;
So forensic proof comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
Now accept the one who is weak in forensic proof, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.
Obviously, this is a tiny sample of all the verses that mention faith (pistis) in the New Testament, and it should be very clear that, while pistis can be used to mean something congruent with “forensic proof” (just like “package” can be used to mean male genitals), this is not how it is typically used, and knowing this particular linguistic variation does not necessarily give you any special insights into what “Biblical faith” really is. Holding, however, says otherwise:
[N]ote that in very few cases is this form of pistis, as meaning a proof, in view. The meaning does give us a clue as to the nature of other meanings. It is often used as a noun to refer to the Christian “faith” as a set of convictions. In far many more cases the meaning intended is in the sense of faithfulness, or loyalty as owed to one in whom one is embedded for service (in this case, the body of Christ). This now leads to an expansion of the pistis concept as derived from deSilva. As deSilva shows, the relationship between the believer and God is framed in terms of an ancient client-patron relationship. As God’s “clients” to whom he has shown unmerited favor (grace), our response should be, as Malina and Neyrey frame it, a “constant awareness” of prescribed duties toward those in whom we are indebted (God) and the group in which we are embedded (God’s kin group, the body of Christ). This “constant awareness” is the expression of our faithfulness of loyalty — in other words, this is our pistis, or faith. “Faith” is not a feeling, but our pledge to trust, and be reliable servants to, our patron (God), who has provided us with tangible gifts (Christ) and proof thereby of His own reliability.
Notice that Holding insists that this one non-standard usage gives us “a clue” about what the other usages mean, but he doesn’t offer any reason why this should be the case. And it’s poor linguistic scholarship: meaning is determined by usage in context, not by what other usages might mean in other contexts. Calling the variant usage a “clue” is simply reading into the text what you want to find there.
Regardless, Holding is kind enough to segue from the linguistic legerdemain to a discussion of his oft-alluded-to concept of “patronage.” Here again, though, he falls into the scholar’s snare: the “client-patron” relationship that his favorite scholars refer to is nothing more than what the New Testament writers more bluntly refered to as being God’s slaves. Granted, “client-patron” sounds more civilized and Enlightened than “master-slave,” but the notions of “constant awareness of duty towards the Master” and of the requirement for faithfulness are references that will be familiar to anyone who has read passages like Matthew 24:
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Holding’s favorite scholars may indeed have found an obscure, ancient client/patron practice, and Holding may think that he’s got some special access to a secret, scholarly gnosis because he knows about it, but they’ve fallen into the snare of using the obscure to displace and denigrate the original emphasis, as given by Jesus and the apostles.
I said there were two problems with Holding’s definition of faith, and the Scholar’s Snare is only one of them. The second problem is a bit more serious: I agree with his definition completely!
Peter’s primary appeal here [in Acts 2] was threefold: He appealed to the evidence of the wonders and signs performed by Jesus; he appealed to the empty tomb, and he appealed to fulfillment of OT prophecy. In short, his appeals were evidentiary. One of course might wish to dispute the validity of the evidence, but in context this is beside the point. The point is that Peter grounded belief in Christianity on evidence — or, as the definition of pistis in Acts 17:31 would put it, proofs.
This, as I vainly tried to convince Challenger Grim, is what faith should be. When you base your faith on the evidence, you have the assurance that your beliefs are consistent with the truth, because the evidence is the truth, and all you’re doing is agreeing with it. The problem for Holding and other Christians is that this kind of faith requires that God actually show up in real life. Notice that in his commentary on Acts 2, Holding gives us a number of ways in which God allegedly intervened in real life: by working miracles through Jesus, by raising Jesus from the dead, by giving prophecies to the Old Testament prophets, and by fulfilling them in the New. (Strangely, he doesn’t refer to his own commentary as a “kiss my hiney’ whinefest” for proposing that Christian faith ought to be based on God showing up in real life, but I guess he judges himself by a different standard.)
The problem with Holding’s definition of faith is that it’s too good for Christianity. By saying that Christian faith needs to be based on evidence and even proof of God showing up in the real world, he puts genuine faith out of the reach of Christians today, because none of us today have any of those proofs. God does not show up in real life, as Holding’s definition of faith requires Him to, in order to give us the necessary evidence and proof that would make it possible for us to have what Holding calls “Biblical faith.”
What we have today are stories, not proofs. So long as God does not show up in real life, all we have are the stories men tell about God allegedly showing up and giving them proofs sufficient to justify their faith in Him. We have stories about Krishna and Hercules, too, and like the biblical stories, when we compare the words of men to what we observe in the real world, we find inconsistencies. Major inconsistencies, in the case of the Gospel. And if men tell us stories with obvious, significant inconsistencies with the real world, and we believe those stories despite their conflict with the evidence, we are not manifesting what Holding calls an evidence-based, “Biblical” faith, we’re just being gullible.
Holding’s main “parody” page tells us that it would be “idiotic” to expect God to actually show up in real life. And yet, by his own definition of faith, neither he nor any other living Christian can actually possess genuine faith, since God’s failure to show up eliminates the possibility that they could have any access to the kind of evidence/proof needed. For a religion that insists on faith as a requirement for salvation, that’s very bad news indeed.