Lessing’s Ugly Ditch

G.E. Lessing (1729-1781) is famous for his “ugly ditch” that he drew between the events of the past and the present. We supposedly cannot have any certainty about whether events of the past occurred, because of the chronological distance between us and those events. The main implication of this for theology and philosophy is that, “accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason” (see Lessing’s Theological Writings, ed. H. Chadwick; London: Adam and Charles Black, 1956), 51-56, quoted in Murray Rae’s article, “Creation and Promise: Towards a Theology of History” in ‘Behind the Text’: History and Biblical Interpretation, edited by Craig Bartholomew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, 267-299, esp. p. 274). This would, of course, also rule out any kind of historical foundation for faith. If not even reason can be historically founded, then how much less faith and theology! There are several answers to this ugly ditch.

The first answer is that, on this argument, Lessing could never be sure that he had himself said these words, because the ugly ditch exists between the time of his writing those words and the time when he seeks to implement that position. Total skepticism about the past must inevitably result in skepticism of the skepticism.

Secondly, as Murray Rae points out, “May it not be that the contingent truths of history are reliably mediated to us through the faithful testimony of tradition?” (ibid.). In other words, can’t something fill in the ditch? Why does the ditch have to be complete discontinuity from the past to us? Isn’t there a trail of people and writings that connects us to the past?

Thirdly, again from Rae, having knowledge about a thing does not mean that we have to be absolutely certain about that thing. To require such a rigid absoluteness of certainty forgets that we are very limited creatures, and depend a great deal on other things and other people. We depend on testimony all the time.

Fourthly, Lessing’s formulation rules out revelation by definition. If, however, God did in fact reveal to us things that He has done in history, then God himself bridges the gap between the past and our own time with all the certitude that the Holy Spirit can give us.

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On Confessing Specific Sins

I have heard many people confess sin in an exclusively generic way: “Lord, forgive me for my sins.” While it is certainly a good thing to acknowledge that there are sins that we have committed that we don’t know about directly, either because of our ignorance, or because of an underdeveloped conscience, or for some other reason; nevertheless, it is not healthy at all to confess this way all the time. Confessing specific sins to God comes with the following benefits (which can also be viewed as reasons to do so):

1. It helps develop our conscience. The work of the Holy Spirit is a gradual one in the Christian life. He sharpens our conscience, so that sins that we were committing unwittingly before become conscious later on. This process can have the incidental effect of tempting us to think that we are worse sinners later in the Christian life, when what is actually happening is that we are becoming more sensitive to our sin. Confessing our specific sins is integral to this process of discovery. We start to see the interconnected nature of our sins, and how one sin leads to another. Confessing only generically will actually deaden our consciences over time.

2. We develop a far more accurate picture of who we are in relationship to God and to other people. Confessing only in a general way tempts us to think that we are far better people than we actually are. There is an epidemic of self-satisfied Christians in the world, who might, on a theoretical level acknowledge that they are sinners, but who become extremely perturbed when told of a supposed actual sin that they might possibly have committed. Whereas, if we are confessing specific sins to God, we will not be so surprised to find out that other people have noticed some of our faults. Confessing only generically will grossly distort our own self-portrait.

3. Confessing specific sins helps us to empathize better with other Christians and with those whose consciences have been awakened to a realization of their sin. All Christians struggle with sin. All Christians fight the good fight. Isn’t that fight hard enough without other people constantly telling us how inadequate we are? Of course we are inadequate! If we were adequate, it would be because we were in heaven. But it seems clear enough that one of the reasons why some Christian lack empathy is because they rarely confess specific sins, and therefore think of themselves as only theoretical sinners, and not actual sinners, and thus better than their struggling church family members. In this way, point 3 connects very closely with point 2. Confessing only generic sin will result in a serious lack of empathy and love for other believers.

4. Confessing specific sins will sharpen our understanding of the law and its requirements, which will in turn hone our understanding of the gospel. The gospel cheapens in our minds when we think we have less need of salvation.

So, with all of this in mind, how do we confess specific sins better? For this, a study of God’s law is indispensable. We must understand the proper rubrics that WLC 99 so eloquently lay out: 1. that the Ten Commandments always lay out the most extreme form of the sin or duty in view. 2. that all sins of the same category are included under the most extreme form (as well as all sins which lead to the most extreme form); 3. that not only outward behavior, but also our inner thoughts are included; and 4. that where the law commands something, the opposite is forbidden, and vice versa; as well as that if something is promised, then the opposite is threatened, and vice versa. It is only as we understand the perfection that the law demands that our consciences will become more adept at self-judgment.

However, a growing understanding of the gospel is also essential, because if we forget the gospel with regard to the confession of sins, then we will simply lose all desire to confess our sins. We will forget the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, and we will therefore think that it is better to live with the burden than to try to rid ourselves of it through Christ. The gospel is the promise of the clean slate, due to Christ’s blood and righteousness, and the promise that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

Thoughts on the Revoice Conference

There are lots of places a reader can go to get information on the Revoice Conference, to be held in St. Louis at a PCA church in late July. The conference website is available here. Rick Phillips’s opinion, Denny Burk’s opinion, Kevin DeYoung’s opinion, Al Baker’s opinion, Greg Johnson’s response to Al Baker, Chuck Williams’s opinion, Robert Gagnon’s opinion, and and a lengthy PB thread including more links to more articles should give readers a basic perspective on what’s happening.

I want to point out a couple of things, mostly in summary of things that have already been said. As Rick Phillips pointed out, there is no need to get hysterical over the conference. I have no doubt that many good and helpful things will be said. I also have no doubt that the intention of the conference is to promote biblical understandings of sexuality. They have said that their purpose is to uphold an orthodox Christian biblical ethic of sexuality. We should believe that.

However, questions remain, most especially about terms and phrases. I have grave concerns over some of the descriptions of some of the workshops, concerns that overlap with what has been said by others. I agree with Kevin DeYoung, for instance, that the phrase “sexual minority” implies something that is not very helpful. Robert Gagnon unpacks that a good bit in his post: by putting homosexuality in the same category as racial minorities, the term can leverage the same amount of emotional reaction against opponents of the LGBTQ agenda as it can against those who are deemed racist, whereas racism and LGTBQ are not even the same kind of issue. What race someone is born into is a genetic and providential thing controlled by God, having precisely zero moral agency involved with the person in question. Homosexual desires are not genetic, and are the result of choice and lifestyle. I agree with Rick Phillips that the desire for same-sex relationship is in itself sinful, not just the acting out of those desires. Therefore, since words can convey identity, I agree that this is an identity issue, and that some of these terms are being used in ways that make those of us versed in the biblical narratives and commandments very uncomfortable. They are being used in ways that incorporate LGBTQ in the very identity of the person. For Christians, this is not an option.

As several of the authors have noted, identifying oneself as gay or lesbian has serious consequences. Rather than saying, for instance, that a person is a Christian struggling with same-sex attraction (which is my preferred way for such people to describe themselves, acknowledging that it is a war against ungodly desires), to say that a person is a gay Christian is to affirm that their gay identity is just as important to them as their Christianity is, or that it is just as irrevocable as their Christianity is. This is just as problematic as saying that a person is a Christian adulterer, or a Christian pedophile, or a Christian rapist. It implies compatibility between Christianity and sin. It implies that Christianity and sin can work together to accomplish some great treasure that will last for all eternity. The simple answer is no, and whether people believe it or not, that is actually the most loving thing a Christian can say to the LGBTQ community. How can we encourage people along a path that is so self-destructive?

On the “And’s”

For most translations that lie within the genealogy of the KJV (which would include the KJV, the RV/ASV, RSV, NKJV, NRSV, and ESV), the normal translation practice is to translate the Hebrew vav and Greek de and kai with the English word “and.” It was thought that the English “and” was the closest equivalent to those connectives. This has resulted in less than felicitous translation choices, the absolute worst being the ESV’s use of “and” at the beginning of the second table of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5. It reads:

You shall not murder. And you shall not commit adultery. And you shall not steal. And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s (emphasis added).

This is quite simply hideous English. Any English teacher will state unequivocally that starting consecutive sentences with conjunctions (especially the same one!) is not good English style. For some reason, however, the ESV translators and English style specialists believed that the practice was fine when it came to translation.

The problem is this: Hebrew vav and Greek de and kai have a far more flexible range of meaning and application than English “and.” We usually reserve the English conjunction for joining together two specific thoughts. However, the Hebrew and Greek conjunctions often say no more than, “I’m continuing the narrative.” Printing in paragraph form is often quite adequate for Hebrew narrative vav’s. What I could wish for earnestly is a new revision of the ESV that takes this difference between English and Hebrew/Greek into account.