Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Biblical Logic

People who live since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century, when a supposedly “scientific” view of reality came into vogue, have trouble with the Bible because they feel compelled to reconcile various parts of Scripture that seem to be contradictory, or at least not to mesh very will with each other. And they feel compelled to reconcile what we read in the Bible with the findings of today’s science and cosmology. The modern view of truth is that words, to be true, must correspond to an external, scientifically verifiable, reality. In this view the Bible is true because it can be proven to correspond to “truth,” scientifically and logically established. The Bible, then, is referential to truths that are external to the Bible.

Consider, though, what this does to the authority of Scripture. Instead of the Bible being the authority for our view of reality, science and logic become the criteria, and Scripture must be forced into their mold. But Jesus Christ said, “Thy Word is truth.” In other words, we begin with Scripture and try to understand it on its own terms, without forcing its words into the framework of a world view that came into vogue only three or four centuries ago. Instead of letting our culture build our world view, we start with the Bible’s world view and allow it to critique the pathological world views being foisted upon us by Western or other world cultures. (On biblical logic and world-building, consult such titles as G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 1980, or Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 1974.)

This means that when we read the Bible we must enter its own world and be governed by its logic, or we misread its message. Biblical logic is not linear, like modern logic that says “If this condition exists, then that follows.” Biblical argumentation is circumferential, rather than linear. That is, to make a point the speaker or writer surrounds his topic, approaching it from as many angles as possible — and any particular way of approaching the subject may not necessarily be consistent (by modern standards) with the others. The purpose of a biblical argument is not to prove a point, but to “talk it to death.” Obviously, in a biblical argument the “winner” is whichever speaker is left standing after the problem has been bombarded from all possible viewpoints. The loudest or most persistent voice, in other words, is the one whose argument prevails.

The Book of Job is a primary example of biblical logic. Though Job’s three friends offer perfectly good arguments that are consistent with other parts of Scripture, they are ultimately in the wrong because Job meets Another with a more powerful voice than they who is finally able to confront Job with his own presumption. The young man Elihu interrupts the debate with what he considers to be a conclusive argument in defense of God’s ways. Nevertheless, neither Job nor God take any notice of Elihu’s utterance. Only when God himself speaks does the issue come to any resolution, even though God’s argument was anticipated in many of the things Elihu had said.

Proverbs 26:4-5 provides another example of biblical reasoning:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

The question is, How should one respond to a foolish person’s utterance? By “modern” logical standards the advice of the second couplet contradicts that given in the first. But the approach of biblical logic is to surround the question and bombard it from two directions at once.

A New Testament example of biblical logic appears in Paul’s discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20. Paul’s argument for the certainty of resurrection seems to be circular. He asks, in effect, “How can you deny the resurrection, since we testify that Christ has been raised?” On the other hand, if there’s no resurrection then Christ has not been raised, after all. There’s no “logical” way out of this circle, so the escape is provided not by reasoning but by an event that demonstrates the power of God: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20).

Although the above may challenge some traditional assumptions regarding the message of the Bible, it is well to follow the example of the Jews of Beroea, who “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

For an extended version of this entry, see the study Biblical Logic and Interpretation on the Laudemont Ministries web site.