Friday, March 30, 2012

Holy: Understanding it Better Through Emotional Intelligence

The odds today (3/30/12) of someone winning the current lottery jackpot is incredibly small and yet many people are willing to gamble their hard-earned money for its potential payoff (around a half-billion).  I will not state my personal views on gambling, because then people "will not see the forest for the trees" and they will get caught up in the issue of whether this form of gambling is morally corrupt or not.  Setting that tree in the forest aside for now, there are two important people who have influenced people's view of what to do in the face of uncertainty like that found in gambling.  One of them suggests that the wise wager for the person with uncertainty is to consider the possiblitity that the claims of the Bible and God are in fact true, since the implications at the end of life can be catastrophic, if in fact they end up true.  This is the argument of Blaise Pascal, who is known for "Pascal's Wager".   The other of the two suggests boldness in the face of uncertainty, so a person must take a leap into the face of uncertainty.  This is the  argument of Soren Kierkegaard, who is known for his "leap of faith".   I think the current state of biblical scholarship on the definition of holy is more like a "leap of faith" than a "Pascal's Wager". 

This is important, because this general outlook toward risk and uncertainty is very important in many areas of life including scholarship.  It is likely behind the sticker on some pickup trucks that reads: "No Fear".   The current "No Fear" attitude among some scholars to the possibililty that the original Hebrew and Greek words for holy may not mean "set apart" is somewhat telling.  It is important do as Edwin H. Friedman, author of A Failure of Nerve, suggests.  He recommends that we do not look at just the intellectual aspect of an issue, but also the emotional processing connected with it.  Uncertainty and its emotional component of fear or no fear is therefore extremely important. 

People and some scholars today seem to have "No Fear" even when probability and statistics suggest that they ought to fear.  For Pascal, it was not viable to take a "leap of faith", but rather he suggested that a person hedge their bet toward God because of the relative possible outcomes.  This is not a radical leap of faith. It is not a person "with both feet firmly planted in the air."   It was a moderate option to protect a person against the worst possible outcome.  This is an important shift in emotional processing that works alongside the mind's intellectual aspect.  It is part of the combination that makes up emotional intelligence of one kind.  The leap of faith is a different kind of emotional intelligence.  It dares against even against fear.  That is a different kind of emotional intelligence.  They both are combating "a failure of nerve", but in different ways.  They view probability differently and handle it differently. 

At one time (not necessarily a better time) biblical scholarship favored the approach of Pascal as it handled uncertainty in manuscipts or in interpretation by preserving both options in the face of uncertainty.  In this way, a person made sure that at least one of the two choices they preserved was in all probability the right one.  They thought it was dangerous to eliminate the less probable or minority position as long as uncertainty remained.  This also follows the ancient practice of preserving marginal readings in manuscripts, even if in greater probability the one preserved in the main text was correct. 

At a later time (not necessarily a better time) biblical scholarship moved more (yet not entirely) toward the approach of Kiekegaard and challenged uncertainty with greater boldness.  The most extreme form is not seen in bilical scholarship so much as in the existential call to "be bold" in the face of uncertainty about one's own identity.  What you see in biblical scholarship is that you can still find the marginal readings in a Greek text of the New Testament.  Some readings may be ranked on their probability as very low and yet they are still preserved.   Still at another level the argument as to which manuscript tradition is more reliable is more like the idea of setting one option aside and going with just one option.  Having brought up this as only as example to illustrate my point, don't get caught in this tree and miss the forest.  My point is to simply say that part of and not the whole of what has been done in action with regard to ancient Greek manuscrips is more like the emotional processing of the "leap of faith".  If an emotional wager approach like that of Pascal is used, I think biblical scholarship on the texts would shift or change. 

The key is to realize is that with the wager approach versus a leap approach, emotional uncertainty is dealt with differently.  Peace is preserved not by eliminating an option or setting it aside dramatically in proof of a person's nerve and boldness, but rather by keeping both options on the table until further evidence gives proof that one option is no longer possible.  It is somewhat like the statement that when all other options are made impossible, the the one that remains (however improble it may have once looked) is the right one.  In other words, ambiguity is sometimes acceptable and only eliminated when another option becomes impossible. 

I consider most of the possible meanings for the biblical word we translate as holy as now impossible.  They are rightly eliminated.  But also I believe we are still left with two possibilities.  This ambiguity is not as threatening as some scholars may think as long as we wager correctly and keep both options on the table and especially are careful that the one with greatest implications is not eliminated.  I think holy means whole has the greater potential implications for our understanding of God and our living of life.  That is the one that most scholars have gambled on eliminating, because as the most renowned in the twentieth century (Rudolph Otto and Norman Snaith) of their company have said in the past they realized that "wholly other" and "set apart" are based on a probability, not on certainty.

It is only later that the issue of probability is set aside as seen the Evangelical Quarterly in 1979 when Brian Daines supposedly warns against playing games with biblical words and his example is that of the interrelation of the Engish terms holiness, wholeness and health.  This leads to the full elimination of the option that holy means whole that just a generation before was still an option, even if then only a secondary option.  But it is only in the abstract for his writing that this position is suggested.  It is not in the heart of his own article.  The abstract for his article boils it down to the fact that "the implications of semantics for biblical study have been set forth at a high academic level by such writers as Professor [James] Barr and Dr. [Anthony] Thiselton, ...."   It seems that the writer of the abstact took two scholars refered to in Daines' footnotes and placed one of the postions of these scholars, Barr's position, in the place of Daines' postion.  Daines says:

... some of the mistakes made by expositors....

a) That we can get the meaning of a word by examining its Hebrew or Greek root or even the root of the English translation.

It is a popular view that the 'true' or 'correct' meaning of a word is in some sense the original one, the oldest that can be traced. In fact the present uses of words often bears little relation to older ones. The original meaning of "history" was "investigation" and the English word "nice" originates from a Latin word meaning "ignorant". The same applies to the biblical languages. Even if the Hebrew word for "holy" came from a Semitic root meaning "to be separated" (which in itself is open to dispute) this does not imply that the Hebrew word as used in the Old Testament means this any more than if I say you are nice I mean that you are ignorant.

The meaning of a word can only be found by studying its contemporary use. Looking at an older state of the language simply sets up ideas that have to be modified or disregarded. An even worse error is to try to understand the meaning of Greek or Hebrew words by referring to the root meaning of words in the English translation. Therefore "holy" is claimed to mean "clean" in the Bible because
that was an early meaning of the English word. Such turns of argument fall into double error. The older meaning has nothing necessarily to do with present usage of "holy" in English let alone
the way words were used in another language thousands of years ago.   (p. 210 The Evangelical Quarterly)

I have two comments I want to make.  First, as a student of semantics (the study of meaning within the broader study of language [linguistics]), I disagree with the abstract's assessment, but I agree far more with Daines' balanced assessment on the meaning of holy.  I also agree with the general principle that he and James Barr promote with regard to contemporary use.  We have to be cautious with the use of root meanings and with etymological arguments.  It can only be a part of our process in trying to learn the meaning of a word.  Daines' example from Latin meaning of nice is valid.  I have never heard anyone ever argue that holy at its root means clean.  He does overstate, however, the idea of a "double error".  Some though not all, who clarify the meaning of a word in English translation, are not making the argument for what the original means from a translation, but rather clariying what the translation was meant to communicate when the word was chosen by its contemporary translators.  Charles Spurgeon I would place in this group and likely Ray Stedman years later.  They are only clarifying an earlier contemporary meaning for earlier translators, not proving that the Hebrew means what they thought it meant.  That is a separate issue.  Their argument is an argument against those who later want to re-assign a meaning to an earlier use of the word holy.  This does not exclude the separate issue of what the word means in the original Hebrew or Greek.  For example holy, in English, did not mean "set apart" exclusively, unless we want to now assign it that meaning.  It does not have that central meaning in its early use in English translations.  That is a valid use of a root meaning and it does not lead to a double error as long as a scholar understands that this does not prove what is right, but what earlier translators thought was right.  Daines seems to miss that point.   Or maybe he applies his statement to broadly to include "all" as making this mistake when they refer to the earlier meaning of "holy" in English translation.    

Second, Barr is fairly well-known to be given to exaggeration and is guilty of sometimes being hypercritical in making his points.  I wish he were still living, so I could address him directly by email or phone.  He certainly brought forward some great points from semantics and linguistics to biblical scholarship, but that does not make all that he says equally valid.  With him you sometimes have to throw the bathwater out to find the baby.  Thistelton is another admirable scholar, but I still have some reservations where I find he is not solid either.  I have not run across his comments directly on the topic of holy, while I have those of Barr.  Barr refers to this issue in his 1961 book on Semantics.  Barr's argument is an overstatement of what he actually proves, because he is missing the point that is being made in many cases and so accuses some people of a double error that they are not making.  I think he is accusing some people of ignorance in cases where they are not ignorant.   For a play on words from Daines' example: He should be nicer than that. 

So I suggest that in terms of wagering or emotional intelligence and processing that we keep both on the table till one of the two can be eliminated by its sheer impossibility.  This is not easy, because both have some plausibility.  My firm task is the eliminate one of the two by using the tools that Barr suggests and even a few more.  I think the emotional processing of Blaise Pascal is more healthy than that of Soren Kierkegaard.  I  consider it more emotionally intelligent.  Please pray for my emotional processing and intellectual processing to come together and to make greater sense of biblical words we translate as holy. 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Holy: Understanding it Better by Distinguishing Status from Proof

At present, the definition of holy as "set apart" enjoys the greatest status as far as possible definitions of holy.  Prior to its rise in the late 1800s and its continuing rise in the 1900s (the 20th century), the definition of holy as "whole" held the same higher status (with "set apart" as only its secondary or narrow definition).   So it becomes very important for every serious scholar to not substitute status for evidence. 

Status should follow after evidence and it should follow proof.  Status should not itself be proof or evidence.  This sounds quite obvious to anyone acquainted with science or scholarship.  Yet it is easily forgotten.  Luther once said that he preached a theology of the cross, not just a theology of glory.  Good ideas also can suffer for a time. 

Sometimes sitting down with scholars to discuss the definition of holy, I have often (but not always) noted a bias toward "set apart" that is heavily ingrained.  This is likely because of the status of that definition at the present time and because of the status of the scholars that hold that position.  The problem is that status can bias even some of the better scholars against testing two options equally. 

Status itself is not wrong or harmful.  Status is an excellent thing like glory, when it follows from evidence or proof.  But current status is not proof that the definition of holy is correct.  The order cannot be reversed.  I would argue that the number of scholars that hold one definition versus another is something that deserves attention, because in itself it is not wrong.   Yet greater than status is the merits of the argument that resulted in the status. 

This is why in some of my blogs, I point out that some of the evidence from some scholars of status is shaky or probable at best by their own admission.  So their personal status as scholars and their endorsement of a definition for holy cannot rest on their recognized scholarly status. 

The reason my previous blog is so important and why it is taking extra time to complete is because it is an example of my attempt to set aside status from before the year 2000 and before the year 1900 (both are approximate dates for the status change for both definitions).  I want to fully test both of the views alluded to above side by side using recognized units from within Scripture and each unit's immmediate context as the best test for the meaning of holy.  May the better definition and its merits get the status it deserves following the year 2000 (again approximate)!

In Christ,

Pastor Jon