Monday, 21 January 2008

Shaftesbury on Scripture

According to Karl Pfisterer (The Prism of Scripture: Studies on history and historicity in the work of Jonathan Edwards [Frankfurt: Lang, 1975]) the early 18th century Lord Shaftesbury shows what happened to the philosophy of history when taking Scripture seriously ceased to form part of the intellectual pursuits of certain thinkers (318ff.). Shaftesbury’s 1711 Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times reveals underlying assumptions about propriety that caused Shaftesbury effectievely to abandon Scripture as reliable history, and to regret the appearance of the vulgar in its pages and among its interpreters (332-3). His aesthetic judgement came into conflict with his deference to learned divines who traditionally respected the authority of Scripture:

The text ‘was “multifarious” when it should be “single”, “voluminous” and not “short”, “of the most difficult interpretation” and not “uniform”… This authoritative opinion put Shaftesbury both at a polemical advantage and into an embarrassing situation. Over against the “mere enthusiasts and fanatics” he could point out that the Bible was also a learned document. By the same token, however, Shaftesbury also saw that Scriptural variety included examples that from the literary point of view bordered on those characteristics which he had denounced as defivciences in enthusiastic pieces of work.’ (330-1) This led him to a very selective reading of the text: he just couldn’t cope with its multifariousness, or its cast of soldiers, shepherd, maids and plebs. He professed admiration for the Greek allegorists who tried to take the classical texts away from the vulgar by locking up its real meaning in allegory (332), though since he didn’t feel the pressure to take the whole of the Bible seriously he could dispense even with the need for allegory and just ignore the vulgar bits altogether (333).

If I were Peter Leithart, I’d find a clever way to show in just a few sentences how this was gnosticism – a refusal to take material seriously, specifically the material, historical forms of divine revelation, in favour of elitist emphasis on the mind…! Robert Boyle, at the time of Shaftesbury’s birth, had already argued that vulgar subject matter was no bar to the integrity and authority of Scripture – what was at issue was that Shaftesbury privileged certain aesthetic criteria. [Not unlike certain Muslim apologists on the uniqueness of the Qur’an.]

When he mentions Shaftesbury’s admiration for the Greek allegorists Pfisterer makes a grand claim in passing:

‘In this way the vulgar qua vulgar lost its identity and historicity. The classic case of such a loss of identity in Western history was, of course, the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament both in its sophisticated and simplistic ways.’ (333)

I want to ask, whose identity was lost? While the allegorists of the patristic and medieval period (and the Protestants today who simply ignore the Old Testament in practice) might have flattened the Old Testament in order to suck hidden meanings out of it, and might have effectively denied at least the importance of its historicity in their use of the text, this is hardly essential to Christianity, nor universal among Christians. Edwards’ A History of the Work of Redemption, a major source for Pfisterer’s generally excellent work, is just one among many testimonies to the importance of the Old Testament as history, its events and the identities of its characters as necessary steps on the one great journey – God’s people being redeemed by their God.

Does Pfisterer have the Jews in mind here? If so, then he is implicitly standing with those who tacitly acknowledge Rabbinic and modern Judaisms to be the legitimate heirs of the Old Testament – but this is precisely where historic Christianity necessarily begs to differ. The Jews who are heirs to the Old Testament are Jesus Christ, his apostles and the majority of his followers in the generation after his resurrection. Even if in practice the Gentile majority within the church has in various ways misunderstood and mistreated the texts and the physical descendants of Abraham who did not acknowledge the Messiah’s coming, that does not change the essentially supercessionary character of Christian theology. [See Peter Leithart, A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament, pp. 17-26 for further discussion.]

Perhaps Pfisterer did have the Jews in mind. In a footnote on page 346 he claims that ‘Shaftesbury and Edwards shared a common anti-Jewish Occidental tradition. Shaftesbuy expressed the final authority of this tradition by translating it in terms of natural characteristics. Edwards belonged to a way of thinking that opened up that tradition towards a common future history’. Shaftesbury’s incipient racism is obviously deplorable. Edwards’ anti-Jewishness is not so obvious, however. A History of the Work of Redemption calls all believers ‘the church’, whether they lived before Christ or afterwards. His concern is with unity all the way through, not merely eschatological unity. And again, given what has been said about Edwards’ and orthodox Christianity’s attitude to the Old Testament, is Pfisterer mistaking rejection of 18th century Judaism for an attitude of anti-Jewishness? The believing Jews before Christ and after Christ are ‘Jewish’ in an ethnic and cultural sense, and the real question is who is the heir of the Old Testament? Who properly inherits, transmits and augments the faith of Israel before 30AD – Rabbinic Judaism of the church? Has the Messiah come?