Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Lonergan and Lightfoot, Pt. 2

In my first my post upon Lonergan and Lightfoot, I focused upon Lightfoot's refutation of the Tübingen dating of the New Testament texts in order to consider why Lonergan might have taken it as a signal example of what he means by the term "appeal to the data" (again, cf. Method in Theology,  In this second part, I want to focus upon Lonergan, and consider more precisely what he means by this term. In doing so, I will begin where I ended the first post, by quoting from Stephen Neill, whom Lonergan cites on the matter of Lightfoot and Tübingen:
Hardly less crushing was the blow delivered to the Tübingen theories by the genuine Clement and Ignatius. If the theories were correct, certain phenomena should have been observable in these letters. In point of fact, not merely is none of these phenomena to be observed, but what is to be found is so contradictory of what to be expected as to raise the question whether any of these phenomena were ever at any time found in the Christian world.
The above is a wonderful example of critical realist thought in action. We have a hypothesis about early Christianity, one presented to us by Baur and the Tübingen school: that into the second century Pauline and Petrine Christianities remained fundamentally opposed and unreconciled. We have a derivative of this hypothesis: the Johannine tradition is the result of a rapprochement between Pauline and Petrine Christianity, and thus must have originated significantly later than the early part of the second century. These hypotheses allow us to anticipate finding certain matters in the relevant data, and not finding others. We should, for instance, anticipate some evidence of tension between Pauline and Petrine Christianity, and little to no evidence of synthesis between the two. Preferably, we would probably want to be able to situate 1 Clement and Ignatius respectively as either Pauline or Petrine. We should, for instance, anticipate finding little to nothing that looks like Johannine material. The difficulty for Baur and Tübingen is that what we should expect on their hypothesis is not there, and much that we should not expect is. Paul and Peter are remembered as co-labourers in 1 Clement. Johannine material abounds in the letters of Ignatius. Etc.

This is the heart of what Lonergan means by "appeal to the data." We have defined the question: to what extent does Baur's hypothesis adequately apprehend early Christian development? In answering that, we have not simply pitted our own countervailing hypothesis against him, but rather asked whether or not his hypothesis can withstand the data. In this case, we have found that the hypothesis does not withstand. We have found that to be the case because we had defined what we should expect in the data if the hypothesis be true, and discovered that the opposite was the case.

Appeal to data is particularly crucial in a discipline as hoary as New Testament studies. All too easily one can substitute disciplinary common-sense for careful attention to the data. For instance, one might state that the canonical gospels report the destruction of the temple, when of course careful attention to the data reveals that in fact they report prophecies about the destruction of the temple (empirically not quite the same thing). Or--a pet peeve of those who work in or even just read contemporary synagogue studies--one might repeat the old absurdity that there is no evidence of synagogue buildings in the first-century Galilee. Such hypotheses, however well anchored they might be in the disciplinary consciousness, are dashed hopelessly against the rocks of data by the waves of attention.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Lonergan and Lightfoot, Pt. 1

I was reading in Lonergan's Method in Theology the other day, and found my heart warmed to discover a reference (on p. 143, n. 1, to be exact) to J.B. Lightfoot's refutation of Ferdinand Baur's dating of the New Testament writings (due to the fact that Baur was long situated in Tübingen, his work and that of those influenced by him are often referred to "Tübingen theories" or the "Tübingen school"). Lonergan uses it as an exemplar of the appeal to data that should characterize the work of empirical investigation, including but not limited to the work of doing history. Given my interest in both Lonergan and NT chronology, let me consider more fully what Lonergan has in mind.

Ferdinand Christian Baur was by any reasonable measure a genius. He was, however, a genius operating at the level of his time. That time was dominated, especially in Germany, by the towering figure of Georg Hegel, Baur's older contemporary. When he turned to thinking about the dates of the New Testament, Baur developed a quasi-Hegelian narrative of dialectical development in the early Christian movement. He found warrant for that narrative in the Clementine literature, a large body of mostly romantic literature centred upon the person of Clement of Rome, remembered as the third (sometimes fourth) bishop of Rome after Peter. Baur made two crucial decisions with regard to this literature: first, he argued that much of it dated to the second century; and he saw in the literature's depiction of a struggle between Peter and Simon Magus coded reference to a struggle between Petrine and Pauline Christianity. Thus, he argued, Christian life during the first and the earlier part of the second centuries was dominated by a fundamental opposition between two contradictory forms of Christianity. This opposition was eventually reconciled, with the Gospel of John the fullest exemplar of Christianity after such reconciliation. The Acts of the Apostles, in showing Peter and Paul standing together in chapter fifteen and more generally showing Paul getting on with the apostles in Jerusalem, anachronistically projects the conditions of that reconciliation back on to the first Christian generation. Baur's understanding of the time that this development must have taken, and his reading of the Clementine material, leads him to the argument that the Gospel and Letters of John could not have been written until c. 170 or so.

This is where appeal to data comes in. Lightfoot demonstrated the implausibility of this narrative by showing that it simply could not withstand the data. There are some problems that should be obvious from the off. For instance, Gal. 2:1-10 presents Paul and Peter (and James and John) reaching agreement, comparable to what we find in Acts 15  (and Galatians was one of the five texts Baur allowed that Paul had written). In point of fact, it seems only by an argument from silence that one can say that the presentation of their relationship in Acts is more irenic than it was in reality. Luke might very well omit conflicts that occurred, but what he reports in terms of agreements are little if at all greater than in Paul's own writings. But Lightfoot's appeal to the data went well beyond this sort of observation, and in the process gave birth to some of the most prominent critical tools still used in the study of the Apostolic Fathers.

The Apostolic Fathers refer to a group of non-Christian Christian texts that are generally believed to have been written in the late first and early second centuries. They include, for instance, 1 and 2 Clement, letters attributed to the above-mentioned Clement of Rome. Let's begin with 1 Clement. Lightfoot showed that it was almost certainly written by the end of the first century (he places it around 95). And that's a problem for Baur, because 1 Clement talks about Paul and Peter together, with no hint of conflict between precisely the time that Baur holds that there remains an unreconciled conflict between the two. And Baur faces even greater problems by the time that Lightfoot is done working through another set of core documents among the Apostolic Fathers, the writings of Ignatius.

The letters of Ignatius were a mess. Eusebius, in the fourth-century, provided a list of seven letters written by Ignatius, but we had more than those seven. Moreover, what we had existed in multiple recensions. Lightfoot patiently worked through the material, persuasively showing that the so-called "Middle Recension" (i.e. not the shortest, but not also the longest) of the seven letters mentioned by Eusebius were those written by Ignatius. He moreover argued persuasively that they were written no later than 117 (the probable latest date of Ignatius' death, as our best data suggests that he died under the emperor Trajan). Now, this is again significant, as Lightfoot is also able to show that these letters are loaded with Johannine imagery. He concludes that Ignatius likely knew John's Gospel. And that's a huge problem for Baur, given that the argues that John's Gospel and letters could not have been written for several decades after that point!

Of the above arguments advanced by Lightfoot, Ignatius' knowledge of John's Gospel is probably the only one that might be seriously contested in 2017, with some people arguing that Ignatius knew not the gospel itself but rather the sort of tradition that is reflected by the gospel. But this does not seem likely to provide much aid to Baur. If already by 117 there existed something close enough to John's Gospel that a researcher as competent as Lightfoot could conclude that it is John's Gospel, the suggestion that John's Gospel or letters could not have been writing for another forty or fifty years would seem to push the limits of the data. Baur's argument isn't that it wasn't written until then, but rather that it contains theology that Christians could not have produced prior to that time. Yet, if much of that theology is present in Ignatius by 117, then that constitutes a probably fatal blow to Baur and his Tübingen school.

In Method, Lonergan specifically refers readers to the account of Lightfoot's refutation of Baur given in Stephen Neill's The Interpretation of the New Testament (1861-1961). With that in mind, I will quote from Neill (here from p. 60 the revised edition of this work, which Tom Wright undertook in 1986):
Hardly less crushing was the blow delivered to the Tübingen theories by the genuine Clement and Ignatius. If the theories were correct, certain phenomena should have been observable in these letters. In point of fact, not merely is none of these phenomena to be observed, but what is to be found is so contradictory of what to be expected as to raise the question whether any of these phenomena were ever at any time found in the Christian world.
This perfectly encapsulates what Lonergan means by "appeal to data": our hypothesis tells us what to expect in the data and what not to expect, so when the data contains what we should not expect and none of what we should, our hypothesis is probably a non-starter.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Way to Irenaeus

I've been spending the long weekend in part rereading the prolegomena to Lonergan's The Triune God: Doctrines. This work has an interesting publication history. Published as part of a two-volume Latin work while Lonergan was teaching at the Gregorian in Rome, an English translation of just this initial section was published back in the 1970s as The Way to Nicea. More recently (2009, to be exact), as the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto worked at publishing Lonergan's Collected Works, a new translation was published (with the Latin on the opposite page, as in a book from the Loeb Library) as the first part of The Triune God: Doctrines. Although at first the intention was to retain the earlier translation, it was decided that a new translation was necessary, so as to integrate it more fully into the larger, two-volume work. But I digress.

The prolegomena is a work that rewards rereading. This has probably been about my fifth time reading the work, in both the earlier and the more recent published versions. It is essentially a dialectical account of the development of trinitarian doctrine in the ante-Nicene period. This time around, I took note of an argument that I had no doubt noted before, but which on this reading seemed to me to be of particular import. I refer to Lonergan's suggestion that alongside the development of dogma during this period, the early Christians were developing the very idea of dogma. That is, the Christians of the first century did not have a clearly-defined concept that we might call "dogma." We see this in the fact that Christians of this period typically are trying to articulate their thought through narratives, rather than through philosophical or theological discourse. We perhaps see the first movement towards dogmatic presentations of Christian thought in Paul's writing, but still here we find that whenever he comes to the heart of his thought he seems almost invariably to fall back on narration. He retells the story of Israel, with Jesus now as in some way its culmination. Within the gospel tradition, and a bit after Paul, we see John's Gospel engaging in what we might think to be an early experiment in dogma, but still retaining the basic narrative form. Perhaps around the same time or a bit later, we see in the Gospel of Thomas a significant formal shift beyond narrative and towards dialogue, which might profitably be seen as a notable step towards the intentional objectification of knowledge that dogma demands.

Lonergan does not dwell at length on the above New Testament material, nor does he touch upon the Gospel of Thomas (probably because a complete text of Thomas had only recently been discovered when Lonergan was working on these studies). But he does suggest that with the gnostic thinkers of the first half of the second century we begin to see a significant breakthrough towards dogma. A concerted number of Christian writings begin to appear that might reasonably be described as "theological treatises." They in many ways retain much of the narrative form, but this increasingly is subordinated to explicit theological reflection. Lonergan suggests that much of what is most characteristic of these works--the speculation upon aeons and the like--represents the perhaps inevitable marks of thought seeking new ways to articulate itself. The shift from this work towards persons such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus is that these later investigators could see the limitations of earlier investigations, and correct accordingly. Thus controls were placed upon speculation. Justin's emphasis upon Jesus as Reason incarnate perhaps makes great sense in this context.

As my primary interests are in the first and to a lesser extent second centuries, I'll leave off the narration here. What I find compelling is that it seeks to identify within the movement from the earliest Christian writings through to Nicea a coherent narrative that can account for both the formal and substantive shifts occurring in Christian thought at this time. History thus becomes something more than a chronicle of vaguely related events, and rather a process, or rather a set of densely interrelated processes.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Historian and the Resurrection

My friend Matt Kovacs wrote on his FB wall today the following questions: "Is it an improper a priori objection to the resurrection to automatically discount it due to it being supernatural?
Should one automatically object to the claim of resurrection as an answer to the origins of Christianity before any data is presented, simply because it would suppose a supernatural claim?" I can't imagine why today, of all days, he would think of this question (that was sarcasm, BTW). Anyways, after some discussion on his wall, I thought I'd blog a longer answer to those questions, framed as an implementation of Bernard Lonergan's thought about specialized knowledge.

A major aspect of Lonergan's thought is the need to cultivate specialized knowledge. His argument rests in part upon the recognition that methods must be commensurate with the questions they seek to answer. Historical questions must be answered by historical method. Metaphysical questions must be answered by metaphysical method. The difficulty with excluding the possibility of resurrection by excluding the supernatural a priori is that it potentially uses metaphysical method to answer a historical question. Now, one can in principle use the fruits of methodological investigation as data in historical investigation. If the supernatural can be excluded on metaphysical grounds, then that can serve as a datum in historical study. With that datum, we now know that any supernatural explanation is a non-starter. But the crucial point is to note that we've arrived there not via historical method but rather through metaphysical. It is not a historical conclusion, but rather a metaphysical conclusion arrived at prior to any historical investigation, and thus taken as a supposition for such work. This then answers Matt's questions: insofar as investigations have taken place antecedent to the work of historical investigation, and insofar as the fruits of those investigations reasonably exclude the supernatural, then it is legitimate to adopt that as a starting supposition in the work of doing history.

Practically, this brings us to the matter of expertise. Another part of why Lonergan encourages the cultivation of specialized knowledge is that no one can master everything that could be possibly mastered. If one is diligent, one can become an expert in a broad area of study, whether it is history, theology, physiology, etc. Within these broad areas however, one must further specialize. I would claim expertise in early Christian history, but not in the history of Reformation England, and even within early Christian history I would claim greater expertise in the first century than, say, the fourth. And this has important consequences for the matter under discussion. Historians do not tend to have expertise in metaphysics or, we might add, physiology. The time that they spent becoming historians precluded the development of such expertise. Conversely, experts in metaphysics or physiology tend not to have expertise in history, for much the same reason. What this means is that any investigation of, for instance, the physiological possibilities that could have followed from Jesus' crucifixion requires inter-disciplinary collaboration. The historian will tend not to have the expertise to pronounce on it alone, while the physiologist will tend not to have the expertise to get into the nitty-gritty details of what we know about Jesus' crucifixion and post-mortem appearances.

The above can be demonstrated by reference to the swoon theory, which is really a covering term for a range of hypotheses that hold that Jesus did not die on the cross but rather merely appeared to do so. He then, so goes the theory, regained consciousness post-burial and left the tomb. There are certain details of the crucifixion and resurrection narratives that could be taken to support this. The narratives emphasize that Jesus was only on the cross for a few hours, whereas crucifixions could ordinarily take days; we thus might think that he was taken off prematurely. There is the report that his legs were not broken, which could account for why he is described as walking in the days after his revival. There is the report that he still had visible wounds after his resurrection, which indicates that there was an awareness that the resurrection did not entail much healing: exactly as we'd probably expect from someone taken prematurely off a cross just a few days earlier. It could potentially account for why those who knew him had difficulty recognizing him after the crucifixion: no doubt he would have been quite marred by the ordeal. In fact, it could potentially explain virtually every detail of the narratives, apart from how the stone got rolled away, but for that one need merely posit that there were visitors to the tomb prior to those recorded in the gospels. But before a historian could affirm that this is what happened, she or he would need to consult with those with the requisite physiological knowledge, and inquire into the likelihood that Jesus could have been mistaken for dead on the cross, that he could have been capable of walking around a few days later, etc. The typical historian lacks this specialized knowledge.

Ultimately, it's not clear to me that the question of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead is really a question within the historian's ambit. The historian's task is not simply to establish what happened in the past, but to inquire into human operations in the past. An example that I often use is Hurricane Katrina. A meteorologist is keenly interested in how hurricanes work: what drives their destructive force, how do they emerge, etc. These are of very limited interest to the historian qua historian. The historian rather is interested in how the federal government responded, what might account for failures or successes in its response, etc. That's what the historian does. Likewise, the historian is interested in the question of whether Jesus was crucified. She or he is interested in the year in which said crucifixion took place (30 and 33 C.E. being the leading candidates). She or he is interested in the fact that the belief that he had risen from the dead took hold among his followers and had demonstrable consequences. She or he is interested in these consequences. She or he is less interested in the physiological or divine processes that generated that belief, just as the historian studying Hurricane Katrina has limited interests in how hurricanes operate.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Chronology and Dialectics

I often joke that my interest in the chronology of the New Testament, especially the dates at which the texts were written, is purely the product of an obsessive-compulsion. While not denying that there is perhaps something vaguely pathological in the pleasure that I derive from such objectively tedious work, the truth is that there is much more to it than that. And for that something more, one must look to this thing that Lonergan calls dialectics.

The term "dialectics" of course has a long pedigree in western thought. But in Lonergan's particular understanding of it, it becomes the study of the conflicts immanent in our lives together as human beings. Writes Lonergan, in Method in Theology: "[t]he materials of dialectic, then, are primarily the conflicts centering in Christian movements. But to these must be added the secondary conflicts in historical accounts and theological interpretations of the movements." And here we have in nuce the question behind the question of New Testament chronology. Actually, the questions because the question. Excluding hypothetical texts such as Q, there are by my count thirty-three extant Christian texts that could arguably be dated to the first century (the twenty-seven canonical texts, plus 1 Clement, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas). It makes a substantive difference for understanding the conflicts that emerged in the first century whether these texts were written during those first seventy or so years of Christian history, and in what approximate order. That is the first question. But arguably as crucial is the second question, namely the modern conflicts over the matter of when the texts were written.

This second question is best elucidated, as are many things, by appeal to Ferdinand Christian Baur. Back in the mid-19th century, Baur argued that many of the New Testament texts were written at dates that we now know to be impossibly late. We know that now because we have access to information that Baur did not. Indeed, much of that information was generated in response to Baur. But the really interesting story with regard to Baur is not simply that he made empirical judgments that turned out to be false, but rather why he made them. At the risk of oversimplifying (a constant danger with a mind as lively as Baur's), he began with a roughly Hegelian framework of early Christian history, which he then used to evaluate such questions as the dates of the New Testament texts. In other words, he dated John's Gospel to the late-2nd century in large part because that best fit with how he thought early Christianity had to have developed.

Now, of course, no one is immune to preconceptions, prejudices, and the like. But what the example of Baur drives home is the necessity to constantly be moving back and forth between the data and our heuristic anticipations. We anticipate that certain things will be the case in the data. To the extent that the data meets our anticipations, we can judge the anticipations to reasonably apprehend reality. To the extent that they do not, we need to generate new anticipations. My interest in chronology, especially the dates of the New Testament texts, is thus ultimately a way of testing the extent to which the relevant data meets my anticipations about Christian origins. It means querying those anticipations, revising or abandoning them as necessary, affirming them when reasonable. And in carrying out this work I address not only dialectical development in the ancient world, but also in the modern: for our evaluation of Baur's understandings of Christian origins, or of Lightfoot's, or Harnack's, or Robinson's, or Meyer's, or whomever's turns to a remarkable extent upon the degree to which they can be said to have adequately or inadequately apprehended the realities that they studied. Their place in the history of thought about Christianity is not altogether separable from their capacity to think well about Christianity.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Atheism and Empathy

I've noticed an interesting trend among some atheists. Not all, perhaps not even most or even many, but certainly some. That trend is an incapacity for empathy. This comes out in their thinking about religion. Again and again I see an incapacity, either willful or constitutional, to understand religious persons or groups from their own perspective. Instead, what you find is an insistence upon articulating those persons' beliefs from the atheists' perspective, and then critiquing that articulation. This almost inevitably distorts what is being critiqued. Usually the critique is well and good, but the problem is that what is being critiqued bears little actual relationship to what real, living religious persons or groups hold to be the case.

A classic and recurrent example of this is the notion that the only difference between monotheism and polytheism is numerical, i.e. monotheism is just polytheism with fewer gods. On a strictly etymological basis this might be true, but a reliance upon strict etymology to understand actual, human realities is an indisputable symptom of a grossly inferior mind. This notion of monotheism as simply reduced polytheism in fact reveals a deep unfamiliarity with monotheistic and polytheistic religions. It ignores the fact that in traditions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, the divine one and the divine many are in fact different orders of reality. In the Abrahamic faiths, those orders tend towards the antagonistic: the one-ness of the God of Abraham obviates the very existence of other gods. Where other superhuman intellects are allowed to exist, they are not gods at all but rather angels or other servants of the One. In Hinduism, the gods are all manifestations of Brahman; the one-ness of all is expressed through the multiplicity of the many. What I just articulated are themselves horribly imprecise descriptions of the relationship between the one and the many in world religions, and they miss a great deal of nuance and diversity, but they have the advantage of being horribly imprecise descriptions that aim to describe the actual things under discussion, rather than an ideologically-motivated pastiche of those things. And what we can state with reasonable confidence is that few if any monotheists understand the one as simply a numerical reduction of the many. The one is virtually always understood as qualitatively different. To articulate monotheism otherwise simply indicates that one has not yet grasped a basic fact about human religiosity, and that because in one's rush to critique one has not listened to what others are saying. This is, again, quite simply a lack of empathy.

Now, such lack of empathy is hardly unique to atheism. Indeed, one could define fundamentalism--whether in Christianity or Islam or elsewhere--precisely as the substitution of ideology for empathy. And that is why atheism, in its most dogmatic and anti-rationalistic mode, takes on an intellectual form remarkably similar to Christianity or Islam in their most dogmatic and anti-rationalistic mode. That is because they are all suffering from a similar intellectual deformation. In the human sciences, where the aim is to grasp human realities, empathy is more than a moral value. It is an intellectual one, without which failure is inevitable.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Heuristic Lessons from the Oral Tradition

"Oral tradition is always something spoken." So begins the first line of Eric Eve's Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition. With this statement, we must recognize an obvious heuristic reality: by definition, nothing that we read in ancient texts is oral tradition. There is no oral tradition in the gospels, by definition. How then can scholars claim to study the oral tradition "behind" the gospels?

The answer is obvious: inference. This is exactly how historical investigation always works. By definition, we do not find the past in the material that we utilize in the work of historiography. The texts, the artifacts, the architecture, etc.: these remains of the past all exist in the present. None contain the objects that historians want to know about, the entities, relationships, events, and processes that we seek to define and understand. Yet, we can use such remains of the past to infer such matters. Oral tradition is just one such an entity that we seek to define and understand, oral traditioning one such process.

This raises a critical challenge to the current historical skepticism that grips much of NT scholarship, and has in various forms for much of the last century. We are told confidently that we cannot know very much about what the early Christians were doing in the first decades of the movement. Why? Because we do not have direct access to that time. Our knowledge of the period is mediated by texts, by artifacts, by architecture, and such mediation constitutes a barrier to knowledge. Yet, the same skeptics frequently have no difficulty telling us how oral tradition processes worked in that same time, using the same remains of the past as their primary data, using the same basic practice of inference that is used to define and understand any other objects from that time. Indeed, their skepticism is typically predicated upon their understanding of how these remains came about: precisely because they judge these remains to be the result of complicated processes, they judge them to be of limited utility for the work of history. Except: that can only be argued if these remains have already been used in the work of history! Put otherwise, such skeptics are denying the very conditions upon which their skepticism is predicated.

If we can know that "behind" the gospels lies oral tradition, then there is no reason in principle that we can't also know, for instance, who was involved in developing the oral tradition, or where such development took place, or when. If we can answer "What?", then "Who?", "Where?", "When?", even "Why?" are in principle also answerable. And if we can know these things, then there is no reason in principle that we can't know how these matters interact with other objects from this period: with the expansion of the Christian movement, the development of ecclesiastical structures, the elaboration of doctrine, etc. If we can infer one thing about the past from texts and artifacts and other remains in the present, then we can in principle anything. "Postmodern" arguments about the impossibility in principle of knowing about the past dissolve immediately, corroded by the acid of self-reversal. There can of course remain arguments that the extant remains of the past are such that we cannot answer this or that particular question in practice, but arguments from principled skepticism are refuted by the very act of making statements about what happened in the past.