Monday, 1 September 2014

Why is scripture so unclear? Wittgenstein suggests

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Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein translated by Peter Winch (1997) - a note from 1937:

Why is ... Scripture so unclear? 

If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning? 

- But who is to say that the Scripture really is unclear? Isn't it possible that it was essential in this case to 'tell a riddle'? And that, on the other hand, giving a more direct warning would necessarily have had the wrong effect? 

God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies - but might we not say: It is important that this narrative should not be more than quite averagely historically plausible just so that this should not be taken as the essential, decisive thing?

So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper and the spirit may receive its due. I.e. what you are supposed to see cannot be communicated even by the best and most accurate historian; and therefore a mediocre account suffices, is even to be preferred.

For that too can tell you what you are supposed to be told. (Roughly in the way a mediocre stage set can be better than a sophisticated one, painted trees better than real ones, - because these might distract attention from what matters.)

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Comment. I think this is right. I read the passage nearly thirty years ago (when I was an atheist) and it has stuck in my mind since - although I did not re-read it until today.

My understanding of what Wittgenstein says is that the form of the Gospels (and of the Bible as a whole) tells us the nature of the doctrine which is being communicated

- Negatively that the doctrine is not about a mass of precise statements, and positively that what is important about it is being clearly communicated both despite and because of the unclarities of its communication.

In other words, if (as we believe) Scripture is true, then it is also clear - clear enough, clear in the necessary ways. 

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This fits my oft-stated conviction that the proof-texting/ chapter-and-verse way of reading scripture segmentally - as if it was a law book or list of rules - obscures its truth and leads to confusion and conflict.

(And the same applies to abstracted summaries such as the Catholic catechisms and the Thirty Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession and Articles of Faith.)

Or, at least, such a method requires constant checking back against the primary truth of scripture; which is to be found in the simple overall truths rather than the parts.

(Just as the morality of good law is to be found in the spirit, and not in the letter - and indeed when the letter of the law is - rarely - good, this is usually for the wrong reason.)
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1 comment:

Geoff said...

Bruce,
Soame Jenyns spoke of this very issue:
“If I have told you earthly things,” says he, “and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?”1 that is, if my instructions, concerning your behaviour in the present, as relative to a future life, are so difficult to be understood, that you can scarcely believe me, how than you believe, if I endeavoured to explain to you the nature of celestial beings, the designs of Providence, and the mysteries of his dispensations; subjects which you have neither ideas to comprehend, nor language to express? Jenyns, A View of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion.

I typed up the full quote here: http://shallowthoughtswithgeoff.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/on-the-weird-stuff-in-scripture/

I hadn't remember the passage you quoted from Wittgenstein because I read his stuff when I was an undergrad Bible major and his statements seemed to me "so elementary." But really, what he noted was quite profound. Thank you for reminding me of that. I dug up my volume and reread the 1937 section.