Saturday, March 01, 2014

Those Pinheads Still Tantalize

Most of my close friends know that I'm pretty good at making mountains out of molehills, but I'm beginning to think that I'm something of an amateur in that department when compared to some. When I was a history major in college (yes, they did have colleges as long ago as all that, though we had to write our notes in the sand with sticks) my medieval history professor was fond of saying that most medieval theological speculation amounted to disputations about "how many angels could dance on the head of a pin". Although I'm not going to ask my alma mater for a refund of my tuition money, I found out later that the question was not about pin heads but about needle points, nor was it a genuine medieval debating point at all but a lampoon of such debates invented by Isaac D'Israeli in the 19th century (though based, no doubt, on the genuine question, posed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, whether several angels could occupy the same space at once). This is not to deny that some medieval scholars worried about some rather bizarre things. Whether Christ was a hermaphrodite, for example, or whether there be excrement in paradise, were both genuine "talking points" among medieval theologians. I am not a medieval theologian (though some who deny that I am a theologian might not be so quick to deny that I am certainly close to being medieval) but I have certainly wondered about some extremely finial details in my own line of work. In spite of some small training in languages, however, I find that grammatical questions have lost some of their luster for me. This lackluster state was brought into higher relief for me recently when I read the following comment on a friend's blog:
In Luke 18:14 we read, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (From the parable of the publican and the pharisee.) Now what has happened here? Is the “justification” of the publican—a type for all sinners—a definitive act, or has he only entered into a process which is less than complete? If it is the latter, how do you account for the perfect tense of the participle “justified,” and indeed, what would be the point of the parable?
The question seems to be about justification: does it happen all at once, or is it a process? That is indeed an interesting question, in my opinion. Does the text from Luke, however, really support the assumption that one or the other possibility can be ruled out by means of an appeal to the grammar of the sentence used in the story? The author of Luke is a slightly better stylist than the authors of the other Gospels, but his attention to grammatical detail has never struck me as something to make a Really Big Fuss about. This question seems to make a rather bold claim about what the author of Luke might mean by employing a perfect tense rather than the imperfect. I'm not sure whether an aorist would have made things any clearer (in the sense of making the question less pressing, since the aorist would be pretty ambiguous by comparison, but see below), but the whole thing seems rather like claiming that an undergraduate is intentionally exploring new depths of existential angst by purposely employing both present and past tenses in a five page essay on the writings of Swift.

Well, OK, that was a dumb comparison, because the person who wrote the question is not an undergraduate and is indeed asking a good question. I'm just not convinced that the written Gospel narratives, which are arguably drawn from an oral tradition, make their theological claims in such delicate, if not cryptic, ways. Funky parables are bad enough--why complicate things with subtle points of grammar as well? Is there meant to be some kind of gnosis here that I'm missing?

The same Inquisitor posted another question to the same blog, along the same lines, about a passage drawn from Saint Paul:
In Romans 5:1-2, we read “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…” The Greek participle is not perfect but only aorist, I admit; but the results are clearly perfect: we have peace, we have obtained access, we stand. How do you interpret this verse?
I certainly do not dispute the fact that "How do you interpret this verse" could be an interesting question, but to make the point of the question hang upon this kind of point (get it? Point? Pin point? Come on, it's funny!) of grammar is, well, pointless--though it has helped untold numbers of academics earn their tenure in departments of religious studies I suppose, and that's no infinitesimal point these days.

These sorts of questions, to me, sound like sola scriptura on steroids--we must make careful sense out of every jot and tittle in the text, the question seems to say, else we utterly fail to make the case for our interpretation. My own experience with the Scriptures has been rather different. It seems to me that doing justice to the text must always move forward in the context of the tradition and the magisterial authority of the Church. This does not mean that we cannot pay close attention to textual questions, of course, but it does mean that sola grammatica is not a good interpretive principle. If it really is one: I don't want to attack a straw man here, and questions on blogs are not necessarily reflective of entire hermeneutic communities. But they might help to explain how at least some people approach their questions about things other than religion, and that could prove rather unfortunate, it seems to me.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...