Thursday, March 31, 2011

Holy: Understanding it Better Through ALL the Evidence

When it comes to evidence, I am committed to it. What stands in its way are: the suppression of evidence, inconclusive evidence and hearsay evidence. The way to break through any of these is to: ask, seek and knock. It is like when you want to travel from one place to another. You ASK directions from your current location to your destination, you SEEK or travel according to the directions you are given and you KNOCK upon your arrival at your destination.

Hearsay evidence happens when we ask directions from someone, who does not know the way to our destination. They give us bad directions. Inconclusive evidence is when we are seeking or traveling, yet we are not yet in a position to knock on the door. There is the danger of getting ahead of ourselves in our claims. Suppression of evidence happens when we have arrived at our destination, yet we fail to disclose what we found, when the door is open. In my experience, I have asked a lot of questions and received some great directions. Yet I feel that too many scholars are guilty of reaching a final conclusion from inconclusive evidence, when they ought to see themselves as still seeking and not yet having knocked at the door. They fail to seek all the way to the final destination.

Here are some examples of where seeking means that we have to watch out for inconclusive evidence. Both of these scholars, Rudolph Otto and Norman Snaith, admit as much in their primary books on holy yet too often this is forgotten, because the majority the pages in their books imply a final destination on the meaning of holy.

I want to present the evidence that suggests seeking rather than knocking as my and our current position on the defintion of holy. These are pieces of evidence that could be called inconclusive, indirect or inferred. This does not mean they are faulty. In fact they are refreshingly honest. It only means that seeking is distinguished from knocking.

They are:

Translation evidence - it is important to understand that in many European traditions there is a history of understanding the ancient Hebrew as related to the idea of wholeness through the choice of words like the English word holy. This word was not chosen because of its relation to set apart. This evidence by itself is not final, yet it is indirectly helpful.

Decipherment evidence - the process of decipherment for languages that are unknown at the time of discovery is now an organized process. This evidence is still inconclusive, yet only because it has never been fully applied to the ancient Hebrew word for holy. I am only beginning to work out this process. This is process that promises an arrival at a door.

Language evidence - the multitude of languages around the world have words that indicate parts and wholes as well as words for set apart. What would be worthy of detailed study would be to look at the prominence of each of these concepts. One linguist's study suggests that words having to do with part-whole are the most prominent in the languages of the world. It would be indirect evidence, but still get us further along the way.

Part-Whole evidence - this is a topic that is very hot in some circles as a philosophical or worldview starting point. It is always important to understand a worldview in terms of its strengths and weaknesses and potential pitfalls. This is very indirect, yet still helpful.

Concrete evidence - this is really a sub-set of decipherment evidence and yet it deserves separate mention, because of the importance of both learning and studying. It is important to study words and learn concrete objects in real life. This could yield very direct evidence, if a link between a picture of a concrete object and a worded text can be shown on some ancient object or in some ancient manuscript. This approach is also seen in the work of the now deceased Mary Douglas, the great anthropologist. This is not suprising since anthropologists are more aware of the concrete than many language experts or biblical scholars. Her primary insight is on the idea of whole stones for an altar and the holy altar text of Deuteronomy. Some scholars began working on this, yet haven't finished the work that needs to be done here.

Etymological (letters) evidence - this evidence has a lot of its weight relying on the connections between letters and knowing the history of letters (or alphabets). This evidence becomes more reliable as you dig deeply into it. Yet it's reputation has been damaged by quick conclusions rather than deep digging. Seek before you knock should be written on all this work! So far, this evidence is by scholarly admission inconclusive, but still valuable.

Contextual (cognates) evidence - this is perhaps the most popular among pastors and second-rate scholarship. The quick conclusion is that because something is in a context, then it indicates the meaning of something else in the context. Again, not so quick! Is it parallel? Is it significantly limiting? Are there any other possibilities? This evidence increases plausibility, yet again it is only conclusive when we know its status as a parallel or otherwise and when we know all the possibilities and can see that a word in the context makes a significant limit on what the word we are trying to define means. This option is very important evidence, yet not for amateur linguists!

Dictionary evidence - this is very indirect, but it gives laypeople access to what past translators were thinking, when they chose to use a translation like the English word holy for a word in the Hebrew text. The path to holy is traced and it comes through words clearly connected to whole. Now when you turn to the Latin language and start digging there, then things get more complicated. That needs more digging or seeking.

Lexicon evidence - this one falls into the idea that we know a lot already or we know it all category. When people see 7 lexicons that agree, they assume that the knock on the door of arrival has occured. Again, not so fast! In the field of evidence, it is not how many say the same thing, but how many are eyewitnesses. You don't want to follow the many just repeating the words of just one. In the late 1800s a corner was turned on the meaning of holy in Hebrew and in Greek. For Hebrew, Gesenius seems to be the popular lexicon compiler that others follow. They rely on his witness. For Greek, Cremer seems to be the popular lexicon compiler that others follow. They rely on these two witnesses. From one witness for either the Hebrew or the Greek, spring many witnesses. Few after them seek further. They do not seem to seek out earlier lexicons for further questioning of witnesses. Neither is the search into other texts very significant. I found an unsearched set of "texts" yesterday. I think this is a very worthwhile project in which I have sought a little bit. It is time consuming however.

Impact evidence - the evidence of world history and life change is important. At the time of past transformations of the church by the renewing of minds, there has been a large world impact. In my church's broad background, there is the impact following the transformation of Martin Luther when his mind was renewed through his renewing understanding of righteousness. This is repeated many times all the way through the time of Charles Haddon Spurgeon and his renewing understanding of goodness. So far, the meaning of set apart despite having 100 plus years on the central stage has resulted in no such impact. This is indirect evidence, but it is evidence from outcomes and benefits. Whole also seems to have not had the same impact as there other words in the last 500 + years, but it has never been freed from a dual meaning depending on the context of holy in Scripture. So it remains untested as a singular idea. 

Ancient culture evidence - every day there is new evidence from ancient cultures around the globe being unearthed. I saw another example last night. While these cultures are not linked to ancient Hebrew culture directly, they are part of the ancient world. I think we can get clues as to possible meanings for holy and the closer the culture is to that of Hebrew culture, the more significant a finding it may be. Yet all these ancient cultures should be studied for the range of possibilitites, so we are not blinded by our singular worldview from the present. I have seen very indirect evidence from as far away as North America that could be significant when combined with other evidence, since it would never be better than indirect.

Communication evidence - there is a heavy bias in our education system towards communication theory built on classical grammar rather than on classical rhetoric. Let me only say this much. It is very eye opening, when one starts from the underlying concepts behind rhetoric rather than grammar. These classical views are not entirely out of sync with each other, but I believe one is superior to the other and gives indirect evidence on the meaning of holy that is significant. Eugene Nida, despite other weaknesses in the field of translating, carried forward the insights of rhetoric very effectively. That is his real genius, not his dynamic equivalence theory.

Psychological evidence - very indirect is all the work on the workings of the brain and the work on what it takes for transformation to happen. Nevertheless people who are stuck emotionally on the inside, can learn a lot about the renewing of the mind through this literature. Very indirect, but still helpful.

Original Language Speakers evidence - sometimes it is assumed that because a Jewish speaker of antiquity compared to ourselves gives a defintion for holy, it must be correct. That is a dangerous assumption, because they are not contemporary with the texts, even if they are Jewish. So sometimes the definition of holy is determined by this kind of indirect evidence way too quickly. Seek rather than knock are the watchwords.

Finally, I want to say this is not all the evidence that can be given, but I leave it up to you to add some if you like. Yet I hope it does summarize some important ways to "Ask, seek and knock."  Together we can avoid the pitfalls of hearsay evidence, inconclusive evidence and suppressed evidence by following this entire process to reach our final destination of one central meaning for holy.  Happy asking, seeking and knocking!

In Christ,


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Holy: Understanding it Better Through Continuous Learning

John Wooden was not just a great basketball coach, but also a great teacher. He once said: "When you're through learning, you're through." When I hear some scholar's comments about the meaning of holy, I can tell "they're through." They have stopped learning.

The problem is that the job is not done. The very best scholars admit there is more work to be done. These scholars go beyond just copying the work of previous lexicons. But it is far easier to feel the comfort of being "through learning."

For pastors and for lay people this is also a temptation. The work can seem daunting, but it is not. The course has already been mapped out by others, who have solved far more difficult problems. The problems of deciphering Linear B, the Mayan glyphs or the Egyptian hieroglyphs were far more daunting. But certain individuals working on each of these languages didn't believe they were through learning. It was their failed colleagues who imagined that.

Just remember this: "When you're through learning, you're through." Maybe we need to go beyond the business world's "continuous improvement" to also promote "continuous learning" among scholars and Christians.

In Christ,