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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Thiselton cites Hodge on propositional and non-propositional language

The following quote is taken from Anthony C. Thiselton's essay "Can 'Authority' Remain Viable in a Postmodern Climate?" This is taken from his Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works with New Essays (2006).

In context the discussion is on language and the power of language to shape the world. That language is multi-functional and multi-layered. Thiselton suggests that "a number of the more traditional discussions of the authority of the Bible have suffered impoverishment through inadequate and simplistic understandings of the nature and function of language."

Although I pray the day will never dawn when I procreate, if indeed I am entrusted with a young mind to shape and form you can bet that Thiselton will be required reading. For those of you not familiar with Thiselton let me simply say that he was the most brilliant biblical hermeneutical mind of the 20th century. Without him Conservative biblical hermeneutical scholarship would be even more in the dark corners of anti-intellectual thought than they already are.

But Thiselton is not a postmodern advocate, by any means. I mention that to say that the following quote does not represent a hasty attack on Evangelical or Conservative thinking.

The terminology "propositional" and "non-propositional" sets the discussion off in unhelpful directions, but what those who use this term generally seek to express is that some genres within the Bible authoritatively declare the truth of certain states of affairs. If such terms are useful, distinctions of genre must also be borne in mind. For it would be patently absurd to claim that poetry or parables are "propositional" in the same sense as historical assertions within the Passion narrative that record the facts of the crucifixion. This unfortunate terminological misunderstanding may well have been set off by the reaction of the conservative Charles Hodge of Princeton (1797-1878) against the liberal Horace Bushnell of Yale (1802-76). Bushnell earned the name "father of American Liberalism", and his theology of the atonement fell short in ways that provoked Hodge. But Bushnell appealed to the role of metaphor in the Bible in ways that in principle would seem almost axiomatic to most biblical specialists and to virtually all literary theorists today. The problem was not that Bushnell appealed to metaphor, but how and when he did this. To call Jesus a "sacrifice", he urged, is the same level of metaphor as to call him a "lamb". Rather than debating the scope and function of metaphor, Hodge reacted by claiming the whole of the Bible was "propositional" and "cognitive". The Bible "is a storehouse of facts". He had no interest in the creative power of metaphor. In 1870 after fifty years of teaching he declared as praise for Princeton: "I am not afraid to say that a new idea never originated in this seminary." The consequences of this dreadful polarization have devastated American theology and hermeneutics for about a century, and the damage remains in terms of extremism here and there on both sides. (p. 631) (Bolding is mine)


Jason Hesiak said...

Interesting that we posted at about the same time on about the same topic. What do you think Hodge would have to say to the following, which frames the question slightly differently (I think)...





Jonathan Erdman said...

Here are a few quotes from Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) that I posted over at your blog, Jason, that I thought I might copy and paste over here:

The whole sense of the book might be summed up in the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence. (from the Preface)

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright. (6.54)

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. (7)

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical. (6.522)

These are, it would seem to be, the things that Wittgenstein says we must "pass over in silence." Not because they are unimportant, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Crf. Eccl. 5
"Many dreams and many words are hevel. Therefore, fear God."

Melody said...

So...Jason seems to think you've asked a question...but as far as I can tell you've just posted a quote from a theologian who understands literary device, which is well and good...but doesn't really seem to be asking anything.

So...what are you questioning?

Jonathan Erdman said...

It is just interesting to note that a major scholar that I respect sees many of our current problems stemming from a false dichotomy between so-called "propositional" and "non-propositional" language.

It seems rather typical for conservative Christian circles to draw a line in the sand at precisely the wrong point and then proceed to take a life-or-death stand on the issue. We talked a bit about that in the post on J.P. Moreland whose 2004 address to ETS seemed to imply that the preservation of the entirety of the Christian faith depended upon a rejection of everything "postmodern" and exclusive devotion to the propositional view of truth.

I think Moreland is wrong, but in the end he is free to have his opinion. What is so backwards about Christian circles is we get so infatuated with one man's thinking that he ends up becoming a quasi-Messianic figure who we readily follow into what one might describe as an intellectual jihad against all the other foolish believers who have got is so wrong. After all, if we don't destroy all other theories of truth (save the propositional) then will be the last stand for Christendom!

Melody said...

Yeah, I had to look up propositional and non-propositional to even figure out what that meant. Possibly it was a bad definition...non-propositional language can't have a truth value?
Is that too simplistic or is that pretty much it?

I think alot of people draw their lines in the wrong places...I definately agree that conservative Christians have a lot of stupid things they argue over/stand firm on, but I get equally frustrated with liberal Christians...

It's just easy to get sidetracked...I think.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Proposition (per Moreland):

The thing that is either true or false is not a sentence, statement or other piece of language, but a proposition. A proposition is, minimally, the content of a sentence. For example, "It is raining" and "Es regnet" are two different sentences that express the same proposition...What is it that makes a proposition true? The best answer is facts. A fact is some real, that is, obtaining state of affairs in the world, for example, grass’s being green, an electron’s having negative charge, God’s being all-loving...

Melody said...

It's the same sentence...but ok.

But almost nothing could really be a proposition...so that seems...limiting.

Even the examples he used...if you want to be really nitpicky...and I frequently find that I do...might not be entirely factual, but more of an opinion.

Jonathan Erdman said...

You sound like a raging postmodern. What gives???

Melody said...

Don't be silly. To be postmodern I'd have to believe something absurd like words having no ability to convey meaning at all.

I know almost nothing about postmodernism except that it come, interestingly enough, after modernism. Actually.

Jason Hesiak said...


I was asking Johnathan what he thought Hodge would think of both the quote in my post and my response to it.

And for giggles to all,

The "post" at a horse race is at the beginning and the end.