I’m pleased to welcome as a guest writer to Cloud of Witnesses Dr. Win Corduan, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion, Taylor University, Indiana. Dr. Corduan is the author of several books including Philosophy of Religion (with Norman Geisler), No Doubt About It, Neighboring Faiths, and the recently re-released Handmaid to Theology, which he discusses in this post. He is also a frequent blogger and maintains the website windcorduan.com.
I am extremely grateful to Chris for allowing me to serve as guest writer on his wonderful blog. He suggested that I might want to write a few words with regard to the republication of Handmaid to Theology, which originally came out in 1981, the same year that Ronald Reagan became president and that the Oakland Raiders won their last Super Bowl before moving to Los Angeles for a while. What a year!
There is a famous saying among a certain group of Christians: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” I certainly agree with that statement in the sense that the Bible alone is the inerrant word of God and, thus, our final authority. Now, I don’t know to what extent the folks who repeat the saying really abide by it; I fear that some of them do speak where the Bible is silent, and it even may be the case that they could be silent where the Bible speaks. However, what really intrigues me about this pronouncement is that the Bible does not speak it. Regardless of the merits of this assertion or the consistency of its implementation, it is a statement made up by someone in the English language somewhere in the Western world many centuries after the Bible had been completed. The Bible, of course, was written over a span of 1600 years or so in the Middle East in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
What I am pointing out here is a fact that should be obvious to everyone, but is easily ignored, that there is a gap between the culture and life-world of when the Bible was written and our world. Of necessity, anyone today who is not a time traveler (and I don’t know of any — my flux capacitor, for one, is broken), in order to understand the Bible and to clarify what it teaches, needs to take the concepts of Scripture and express them in terms of his or her own culture. Doing so is simply unavoidable. One can do so in only one of two ways: either consciously, and thereby make sure that one’s contemporary expression is as close as possible to the biblical message or by ignoring it and, therefore, possibly not communicating the message properly to one’s contemporaries.
We like to talk about the fact that what Christians need to do is to read the Bible and apply it. I’m all for that, but if we analyze what we do when we say that we are carrying out this task, it becomes clearer that there are actually a number of steps in between the reading and the application. I like to express this process with a pyramid. Without going into too many details, and intentionally staying away from too much hermeneutical theory for now (please see my series on how to do theology, if you are interested in a more developed articulation of these ideas), we can think of five stages. First we take a particular passage, say whatever happens to be the topic of our devotions today, and we try to understand it the best we can by taking into consideration as much as possible its original intended meaning. This is exegesis. Then we place the passage into a larger context of what we know about the rest of biblical teaching and allow it to fit into “biblical theology.” But now, in order to actually make biblical theology our own theology, we need to pass the biblical message through our “cultural filter.”
For example, I am German by birth, immigrated to the United States as a young teenager, hold a PhD in religious studies, have taught college since the age of 21, winding up with 31 years at Taylor University beginning at age 28, recently retired on disability, and am undoubtedly manifesting a middle-middle-class Western male outlook. We can certainly add a lot more categories to this list, and there cannot be any question that all of these factors influence the way that I read, interpret, and apply the Bible. Someone else from a different background (which would be virtually everyone else) is going to come with their culture and experiences, and so for anyone, as they transform biblical theology into their own “systematic” theology, the finished product is bound to be just a tiny bit different from mine, possibly very different from mine.
The most important point to keep in mind here is that, whatever we do when we go through this process of transferring biblical concepts into contemporary concepts, it is the biblical concepts that are authoritative and that set the standard. The contemporary concepts are there simply to facilitate our understanding and communication. The 20th century saw some bizarre attempts to do things the other way around—starting with Bultmann’s famous statement that we can no longer accept a biblical worldview because now we have light bulbs and can listen to the radio–ending up with secular theology, liberation theology, process theology, and any number of other so-called theologies where the culture has swallowed up the biblical message. So, nobody said this was going to be easy, but there is no way of getting around the fact that we do need to express the biblical message in accessible terms without damaging the biblical message. Our ideal goal, though practically unattainable, would be to create a cultural isomorphism in which our contemporary expression is precisely identical with the biblical expression, no more and no less, though with different cultural concepts. In other words, we would speak within the context of our culture, where the Bible speaks in terms of its culture, and we would be silent where the Bible is silent, except insofar as we need to explain and apply to the 21st century what is not addressed directly in the first century or earlier.
One of the crucial factors in the “cultural filter” is philosophy. Regional cultures have their unique philosophies, which for their inhabitants are thought of as “common sense.” In the United States, pragmatism continues to reign supreme, while in Germany an idealistic, more theoretically-oriented, worldview is still in, and so, as we look at what happens when we express biblical theology as 21st-century theology, we need to take philosophical categories into account.
This is what I tried to do in Handmaid to Theology. The book has a subtitle: An Essay in Philosophical Prolegomena, where I’m using the term “prolegomena” not in the usual Protestant sense of material that you have to get out of the way before you can actually do theology, but (since I was at the time not too far removed from my dissertation on Karl Rahner and Hegel), in the Catholic sense of philosophical foundations for theology. In other words, I tried to identify those philosophical concepts that are most suitable for an orthodox evangelical theology.
In retrospect, it seems unbelievable to me that I tried to do so in a mere 180 or so pages, but I was pursuing one particular set of options, namely, the most fundamental division in philosophy that is relevant to this task: the distinction between a basically Platonic outlook and an Aristotelian outlook. The working assumption was that most anything else either would be unsuitable for expressing biblical truth, e.g., a purely materialistic philosophy, or ultimately a subset of either a Platonic or an Aristotelian approach. Well, if that sounds simplistic, it really is not as you will easily see once you’ve read the book.
As I remarked in my own blog a couple of weeks ago or so, I knew that I was pleased to see Handmaid back in print, but I really was surprised by how excited I was once I held a reprinted copy in my hands. I trust that the book will make a genuine contribution. I suspect that many of you reading this post were not even born yet in 1981 and are coming to the book with a whole lot more philosophical sophistication than its original audience. Thanks for whatever interest you may have in it.
One final clarification: Handmaid has been available for quite a while in the Logos/Libronix digital series, but that’s another story too long to tell now. Just a hint: you’ll find it there under eschatology.