Saturday, 10 June 2017

Change, Continuity, and Value

Larry Hurtado recently wrote a post about "How We See Historical Change." As I find increasingly that this is precisely the focus of my thinking, I thought that I would comment upon his arguments here. I begin with the observation that the study of historical change is to be carefully distinguished from the study of a particular time and place. It is perfectly legitimate to study the life of Paul in his particular time and place. In a limited sense, that entails the study of change: the change in his self-understanding and horizon that occurred on the road to Damascus; changes in his practices and policies and thought over the years; short-term changes that he wrought through his operations, such as the foundation of churches. But that is not quite the same as inquiring about Paul in a longer-term perspective, something akin to what the Annales School (notably Braudel) termed history in the longue durée. Braudel helpfully describes the distinction between the shorter and longer terms as the distinction between history at the level of named individuals and history operating a level of abstraction above such individuals. As such, insofar as we can advert to the individual in discussing the long-term, it is because the individual instantiates and embodies processes occurring at a higher level of abstraction.

Once this distinction is grasped, one bristles at the following quotation from Hurtado:
It’s not clear...that Jesus-believers of Paul’s time (ca. 30-60 CE) thought of themselves, their faith and practices as “primitive” or “embryonic” of some more mature and complete form of Jesus-devotion that might be worked out across time. I get the impression, instead, that Paul (for example) thought of the convictions and teachings that he delivered as adequately formed and fully appropriate for his situation. So, if we refer to those early years of the Jesus-movement as embryonic or the seeds of something that developed later, I think that we’re importing a value judgment that isn’t based on the evidence.
Everything up until the final sentence of this paragraph can be granted without serious quibble. Paul and his contemporary Christians do not seem to have understood what they were doing as primitive or embryonic. In fact, one might very well argue that they lacked the conceptual apparatus to do so, as this language of development was not itself fully developed before the nineteenth century (a point made by Ben Meyer in the opening lines of his Early Christians). The difficulty with this paragraph lies in the final sentence, in that it critiques a straw man. When someone says "The early years of the Jesus-movement were embryonic or seeds of something that developed later," that person is hardly saying that Paul or the earliest Christians saw themselves in that way. It's not even implicit in the statement. Rather, that person is saying that when we examine the matter millennia later, we can identify two phenomena simultaneously: one, that what Paul et. al. thought about particular matters is not identical to what later Christian writers would think about the same; and two, that there is nonetheless an observable continuity in what they thought. In other words: we can identify change with continuity. The fact that the historical actors did not apprehend their place in such a long-term process simply speaks to basic human limitations regarding our own place in history.

The central point of Hurtado's post is that we must avoid inappropriate value judgments in our historical work. That is a fair point. This can perhaps be better explicated if we take our earlier distinction between the short and longer terms and rephrase it in light of Lonergan's notion of functional specialties. We can distinguish between interpretation, which is aimed at understanding what a particular writer intends to communicate; history, which is aimed largely at understanding historical events and the sequence of events; dialectics, which is aimed at understanding historical processes; and foundations, which is aimed at taking a stand on the matters raised by these previous specialties, especially dialectics. In interpretation, we ask what Paul meant; in history, we relate what Paul meant to what Paul did; in dialectics, we relate what Paul did to recurrent conflicts and questions; and in foundations we determine our own positions in such conflicts, our own answers to such questions. Hurtado's warning is essentially the observation that interpretation cannot be reduced to foundations. Granted. The problem is that his method, as proposed, reduces dialectics to interpretation. Questions of interpretation require interpretative answers derived by interpretative method; questions of history, historical answers derived by historical method; questions of dialectic, dialectical answers derived by dialectical method; and questions of foundation, foundational answers derived by foundational method. There are no short-cuts here (and invariably, when short-cuts are pursued consistently, they end in a vitiated intellectual life. Perhaps the prime example in the theological realm is the fundamentalist doctrine of plenary inerrancy, which effectively reduces every imaginable question--not just historical, dialectical, or foundational, but also doctrinal, systematic, scientific, etc.--to a question of interpretation, and tends to correlate closely with the anti-intellectualism immanent throughout much of American Protestantism outside the mainline denominations).

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