19 May 2014

Finding the Pure Language of God

One of the intents of Jesuit priest Richard Simon back in the 1670s–80s was apologetic in nature: the Old and New Testaments as they've come down to us could not bear the weight of the formal cause or principle of the Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura (while both scripture and tradition work together in the life of the church, scripture wields the primary authority, and thus is the final arbiter in matters of faith and practice), which had already by the time of the seventeenth century come to bear much schismatic rot as well as devolved more and more into the practice of solo scriptura (tradition has no bearing upon the church’s interpretation of scripture). Simon wrote:
There is no one, Jew or Christian, who does not recognize that these Scriptures were the pure language of God. . . . but since men were the guardians of the sacred books, indeed of all other books too, and since the first originals have been lost, it is in all ways impossible that there have not been many changes, as much because of the length of time as by the negligence of copyists. (Histoire Critique du Vieux Testament, Rotterdam: 1678, p. 1)
By raising doubts in particular about the integrity of the Hebrew text—due to the redacted emendations of the public scribes who came along after the original authors—thus allowing for certain inaccuracies in the minutiae of detail (such as didactic abbreviated renditions of certain events, dischronology, etc.), Simon concluded that scripture should not be viewed as presenting an inerrant chronological history, setting forth the full history of Israel. As an offshoot of this conclusion, he sought to expose the Christian’s need for a teaching authority upon which these doubts could be put to rest. Enter: the magisterium of the Catholic Church (or the collegiate episcopal magisterium of the Orthodox Church). Such an authority could helpfully clear away the crisis of interpretation caused by this thicket of textual problems revealed through the application of proper (higher/source critical) hermeneutics. Protestants, by contrast, did not have any sure means with which to restore the "lost originals" of scripture or to know which translation or interpretation most closely approximated the Bible's "original" texts.

Woodbridge's 1685 ed. of Histoire
In the debates that followed—both with traditionalist Protestants and Catholics and radicals like Jean Le Clerc (the father of Red Letter Christianity), Simon stood in the much more moderate position of appropriating Augustine (who held like the traditionalists that the Spirit accommodated the cultures and language of men to convey God’s meaning—but without error), arguing for divine inspiration, but then pushing the envelope toward higher criticism with his views about the "errors" contained in the church’s received holy text. With respect to intellectual history, it’s easy to underestimate Simon’s reach and influence: Modern biblical criticism in many ways started with Simon in France and only then worked its way into Germany. Ask most Old or New Testament scholars today in what geographical locale the majority of their studies focused. Germany will most likely be their answer. France may not even show up.

Even though much of what Simon wrote wasn't necessarily new (e.g., Ezra's denial of total Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; Cappel's work on vowel points and accents in the Hebrew text; Morin, who followed Cappel in his depreciation of the Masoretic text; and La Peyrère's pre-Adamite theory, to name a few), he nevertheless stands out precisely because of his modern (Enlightenment) position: Unlike earlier commentators who failed to exegete apart from their church's doctrinal presuppositions, Simon would, in "perfect neutrality," simply translate and interpret unbeholden to any particular tradition (it's amazing how long this sort of approach has enjoyed influence).

But back to the main point of this post, which is really just a longish introduction to get to some poetry, namely, John Dryden's Religio Laici. In 1682, right on the heels of the English translation of Simon's Histoire, Dryden wrote Religio, dedicating the piece to "an ingenious young Gentleman my Friend; upon his Translation of The Critical History of the Old Testament, compos'd by the learned Father Simon." In the poem, Dryden takes on Deism as well as Roman Catholicism, in favor of Anglicanism. I want to get much deeper into his response in coming posts, particularly as it relates to the issues raised above about textual instability and ecclesial authority.

But for now, whether or not you think the text of scripture is unstable, inerrant, or whatever, on what basis do you place your belief about scripture’s authority (assuming you have this belief)? The answers, depending (perhaps ironically) on your tradition, are invariably: the authority of the church (whether magisterium, creed, or confession), the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the testimony of the scriptures themselves, the basic historical reliability of the texts, and any combination of these. Did I miss any?

Dryden's Religio Laici and the Question of Authority: Series Overview

"Finding the Pure Language of God"

"Vain, Wretched Creatures"

"Strange Confidence: On the Infallibility of Tradition"

"With Great Zeal, and Little Thought"



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