Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Evaluation of Bayer's Luther Book

Oswald Bayer's Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation is must reading for anyone interested in Luther and Lutheran theology generally. Ably translated by Thomas Trapp, this work was originally 30 hours of lectures for a general studies course at the University of Tuebingen in the Winter Semester 2001/2002. Bayer compares his work to a documentary film drawing on a deep repository of archival footage to present a topic from multiple perspectives. Like all documentaries, sustained scholarly examination must sometimes be sacrificed to achieve an orderly, organic presentation.

Bayer claims that he is bringing Luther into a conversation with other truth-seekers, e.g., Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher (xx); he declares he is asking the questions: "What is true? Likewise: What has enduring value within the river of historical change? (xix) Accordingly, "his contemporary interpretation" is a "re-presentation in the double sense of the phrase." Firstly, the "historical subject matter,"which has determined the modern consciousness, must be brought again into modern consciousness; secondly, this subject matter must be examined from the perspective of its truth. Bayer's exploration relies upon over forty years of research into Luther texts of various genres: "sermons, treatises, written polemics, table talks, lectures and dispositions; predominant are the three genres of catechisms, prefaces to biblical books, and hymns" (xix). As expected, Bayer does not disappoint: his work with Luther is masterful, and his systematic theological emphasis is everywhere apparent. Moreover, the book is highly engaging; easily readable by those who read neither Luther monographs are systematic theology tomes for a living!

Bayer divides his presentation into an Introduction presenting the "Rupture between Ages" of the old and new eon, a four chapter presentation on Basic Themes (e.g., Luther's understanding of theology, his understanding of the sinful human before the justifying God, the Reformational turning point in his theology, his understanding of the authority of the Holy Scriptures), and finally 12 chapters dealing with Individual Themes (e.g., creation, human being, sin, Christ, Holy Spirit, church, faith, the two realms, eschatology). Everywhere Bayer emphasizes the divine promissio, the promise made and kept by God, and the content and contour of private and corporate life lived on the basis of that promise.

There is so much to be praised in this book, and I am sure that most readers will be as thrilled by its publication as the both Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson are, both of whom are capable theologians contributing endorsements on the text's back cover. I enjoyed reading the book, and I learned from it as well. Bayer does succeed, I think, in combining sound Luther research with systematic theological investigation. But frankly Bayer's own question haunted me in the reading of the text: Is his interpretation true? What of sixteenth century are we leaving behind in finding that of "enduring value within historical change"? Moreover, is Bayer's own systematic program true? Is it internally coherent and consistent, externally applicable and adequate, and sufficiently fruitful for further research? I have lately been quite fascinated by the realization of the dissimilarity between the ontological and semantic presuppositions of theology in Luther's time, and the ontological and semantic presuppositions of interpreters of Luther's theology in our own time. I believe, in fact, that the emergence of the Kantian paradigm in theology over the last two centuries has made it difficult sometimes to understand Luther's theological work on its own terms. More importantly, however, the hegemony of that paradigm has made it difficult for contemporary theologians to engage deeply the fundamental questions of theology, questions that go to the heart of the question of whether or not theological language has truth-conditions.

With respect to this text, I wish to offer constructively four questions, questions that arise for most Christian believers today who have not learned the standard theological moves routinely practiced by theological practitioners downstream in the Kantian tradition. The four are these:

  • Is it possible to build systematic theology and a Luther interpretation on the basis of the primary use of theological language being performative?
  • Is it possible to account for the authority of Holy Scriptures in terms of the existential effect the texts have upon their readers?
  • Is it possible to deal with creation, either systematically or in Luther interpretation, without raising explicitly the causal question?
  • Is it possible to have Christian faith, (e.g., the faith of Luther), in the absence of explicit metaphysical commitments?

All of these questions are weighty, challenging, and clearly take us beyond what would normally be discussed in a review. However, each is incredibly important to evaluating the ultimate success of Bayer's Luther interpretation. If, as Bayer and many assume, existence is linguistically-constituted, then divine promises make all the difference in the world, not only to who we ultimately are, but to whom God ultimately is. If the being of the Word is a function of what the Word does, then one needs to be excruciatingly clear about the identity conditions of what the Word does, and those conditions that merely accompany, but do not determine, what the Word does. But seemingly, what the Word does is deeply dependent upon the cultural horizon of the time, a horizon itself constitute by presuppostional ontological, semantic and epistemological commitments. It is simply obvious that the Word will strike the heart differently if the auditor believes that there is actually a God that exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, a God who cares, who loves, and who ultimately is causally efficacious in salvation.

Perhaps this is enough said for now. I whole-heartedly recommend Bayer's book for general reading, and for use both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bayer on What Makes the Bible become Holy Scripture

Bayer believes that Luther's foundational thesis, Sacra scriptura "sui ipsius interpres," is not primarily a claim of the hermeneutical circle: the parts interpret the whole, and the whole interprets the parts. It is instead a statement of the effect the text has on one reading, hearing and interpreting it. Bayer, in fact, the text is best translated as, "the text itself causes one to pay attention" (Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Introduction, p. 68). Bayer writes:
"The authority of Scripture is not formal but is highly material and is content driven. It is the voice of its author, who gives; who allows for astonishment, lament, and praise; who demands and fulfills. Scripture can in no wise be confirmed as having formal authority in advance, so that the content becomes important only as a second stage of the process. The text in its many different forms - - particularly in the law's demand and the gospel's promises - - uses this material way of doing business to validate its authority" (69).

This statement accords well, of course, with Bayer's claim that the Word is what it does. Bayer is stating that which to many contemporary theologians is obvious: There are no properties of the text that establish its reliability outside of the meaning of the text. That is to say, there are not syntactical or causal facts about the text considered apart from its meaning, that would properly dispose one to believe that what the text announces is true.

Bayer labors, of course, to defend the text's autonomy. The meaning of the text is not established or constituted in the act of interpreting it. The external meaning of the text confronts the reader and transforms her. The Bible is the Holy Scripture because of the power the Bible has to, as Luther says, "draw the individual into itself, and into its own power" (71).

Bayer thus makes the following claims:
  1. The authority of the text is wholly constituted in the meaning the text has with respect to my life.
  2. The meaning of the text is objective; it exists apart from my act of interpretation.
  3. The Spirit is involved in the delivery of the meaning of the text to me.

Notger Slenczka sums it up very well when talking about the normativity of the text: "The normative function of Scripture demonstrates its claim to be normative by basing it on the way it is existentially verified when it interprets itself, in the way Scripture conveys its own intended meanings" (quoted in Bayer, 77).

Generally, I am sympathetic with what Bayer, Slenzka, and many contemporary theologians suppose: The authority of the text is established by its effect on its reader. I am sympathetic because I know the problems of trying to argue for an artificer/artifact causal relationship between God and the text. However, if one could trace some kind of causal chain back from the text to God, as was done in former years, then some type of authority would be established such that the text's claims might be deemed reliable. When I say 'reliable' I am not claiming that each and every proposition of Scripture is timelessly true - - however, we might want to unpack that - - but simply that there is some epistemic warrant for regarding the text as saying what is generally the case with respect to the divine and God's relationship to human beings. My reflections often take me in this direction:

Imagine two texts s and p. (We shall allow s to be the bible and p to be some other text.) Now imagine cultural context c, such that s in c is part of a sufficient condition for bringing about existential meaning m, meaning that is of a life and death matter to me. (We can surely admit that the Holy Spirit does most of the causal lifting in this.) Now imagine p in c*. Clearly, there is no reason that p should not form part of a sufficient condition for m apart from the de facto non-operation of the Holy Spirit. It seems, thus, that Bayer's position, and that of all who suppose this way of moving forward, presupposes that as a matter of fact, the Holy Spirit will not provide casual input for p, even if He does so for s. The reason that the Bible is the Holy Scriptures, instead of some other book, is that the Holy Spirit is effective in it for realizing m, but not for the other book.

When one thinks somewhat carefully about these matters, one must thus distinguish between the descriptive observation that the Bible, and many other books, can strike readers with existential truth, and the prescriptive claim that the Bible ought so to strike one as having existential truth. Until we can give an analysis of why the Bible ought so to strike one as donating being and the meaning of one's being, we have not engaged the issue of what the claim to formal authority was trying to answer.

I can well imagine a time where the Bible does not strike many people as giving existential truth. This time has indeed happened in much of the first world. In what position is then the theologian left who has rejected all claims to establish the text's normative status solely in its effects upon people? Theologically, one must then say that the Bible is not the Holy Scriptures any longer, that it no longer has a normative claim upon us. One must wait then for new books that can engage the salvific situation of humankind. Those books, like those before, will be evaluated by their effects upon us, and thus new truths - - whatever we might now mean - - will be laid before us.

It is a tough time to be a theologian. It is important that we always realize how much is lost when we move forward in ways meant to avoid the problematics of Modernity.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Signum Philosophicum est Nota Absentis Rei, Signum Theologicum est Nota Praesentis Rei."

The words mean "the philosophical sign is a mark of an absent thing; the theological sign is a mark of a present thing." The proposition is recorded in the Tischreden of Luther (WATR 4.6666.8f), and it is used by Oswald Bayer (Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Introduction to state a general principle in Luther's semantics: "The signum itself is already the res; the linguistic sign is already the matter itself (52). For Bayer, the promissio that is the center of Luther's theology is unpacked by equating the word in language with the reality itself. In promises, words are not given either extensional (or even intensional) interpretations, but themselves are their own reality. This view of things - - which I have elsewhere termed the donational view of language - - is thought by Bayer to be the deepest presupposition of Luther's theological semantics, a view which Bayer claims is akin to the view countenanced by Austin in his 1955 Harvard lectures later published as How to Do Things with Words: the notion of performative language. Bayer writes:

"In contrast to every metaphysical set of statements that teach about the deity, this assertion [e.g. "To you is born this day a Savior"] declares that God's truth and will are not abstract entities, but are directed verbally and publicly as a concrete promise to a particular hearer in a specific situation. 'God' is apprehended as the one who makes a promise to a human being in such a way that the person who hears it can have full confidence in it" (53).

In evaluating this we must remember, of course, that it has proven difficult in practice actually to distinguish clearly performative and constative assertions. Bayer's position, however, supposes they can be compartmentalized. He goes on to say, in fact, that the performative sentences of promissio, for Luther, must be sharply distinguished either from the descriptive or the imperative. Quoting again:

" . . . one cannot take the promise, which is not a descriptive statement, and transform it into a descriptive statement. Secondly, one cannot take the promise, which is not in the form of a statement that shows how something ought to be done, and transform it into an imperative. . . . the truth of the promise . . . .is to be determined only at the very place that the promise was concluded; more accurately, where it was constituted. This means it is located within the relationship of the one who is speaking . . . . and the one who hears. . . . If it is correct that the one individual is in the position of hearer in the relationship that is constituted by this promise, and if that is verified, it excludes the possibility that he himself can verify the promise. . . . To seek to verify this oneself would be atheism; it would be no different than for me to try to verify myself in my own subjective piety or if I would seek to verify myself by means of a defined atheism. In such situations a human being wants to speak his own truth about himself, but he makes God into a liar in the process" (54-55).

There are a number of claims made here that must carefully be distinguished and examined. That there are such statements as "I promise to pay you $1000" is, of course, true. That such statements cannot be fully analyzed into a set of descriptive statements is true as well. Reporting is a different linguistic activity than promising. And that such statements are not themselves reductively analyzable into a set of imperative statements is true also. However, one must distinguish between a reduction of the performative to the descriptive and the imperative, and an unpacking of the palpable presuppositions that the performative has, presuppositions that are statable in terms of the descriptive and imperative.

In "I promise to pay $1000", the following statements are putatively presupposed: "I exist," "you exist," "$1000 exists," "I ought to pay you $1000." The first three sentences are descriptive, and the fourth imperative. Now notice that here the verba of the sentence do not themselves constitute the rem, but presuppose definite res: the existence of two agents, and the taking on of an obligation. This is not to say that 'x promises z to y' can be reduced to the existence of x, y and z, and a set of imperative statements concerning the three. There is more to promising than the taking on of an obligation. However, an obligation is nonetheless presupposed in the promising.

With regard to the promise of salvation "to me," it would seem that the same structure of presuppositions obtain: God exists, I exist, and some state of affairs to which 'salvation' properly applies exists (at least in a possible world) such that God is under obligation to bring about salvation to me. (This is rather jarring, of course, to think of God being under obligation, but it does seem like promising demands it. Maybe it is "analogical obligation" . . . . It seems that if God were to retain impassibility, promising could maybe not be attributed to God at all.)

But let us examine more close what Bayer has to say about truth and verification. He claims that the "truth of the promise is determined where it is constituted," in the one speaking and hearing. But what exactly, is this to mean? Clearly, Bayer here is not talking about a correspondence, coherence, or even pragmatic notion of truth. In fact, we are told, that the individual cannot verify the truth of the promise. To do so, moreover, would involve one in atheism. This claim demands analysis.

If 'Bob promises to pay me $1000 on April 1' and does not do so, he has broken his promise. This much is clear. Moreover, we would not normally say that his promise is true or false. It was, to use Austin's language, an "infelicitous' performative utterance, but it was not false. Truth or falsity does not append to promises qua promises. So it is not clear what the "truth of the promise" is supposed to mean. One could say that the promise was made, the promised being kept presupposed some state of affairs S, such that if S does not obtain then the promise is broken. Or alternately, one might say that the descriptively-stated presupposition for the keeping of the promise did not obtain such that that statement is not true. But this is not to say that the promise was false; it merely was not broken. One could then state whether it was true that the promise was broken. Such statements about promises have definite truth conditions; we can easily verify when they might be true or false. Bayer does not seem interested, however, in the truth-value of statements about felicitous performative promise statements, but rather about promises themselves.

Bayer's discussion of verification is quite an independent issue from putative presuppositions of promise-making. It might be atheism, I suppose, to claim that we can verify the truth of the descriptive statements that state of affairs S obtains such that S makes true the truth of the statement, 'God has kept promise P'. But I am not sure anything could finally count against the claim that God's promises are kept. One might, in fact, claim this as an analytical truth, or better, a rule by which we play the language-game of the Christian God. Clearly, there are a number of issues that Bayer needs to clarify.

Personally, I have always been chary of the move to an exclusive analysis of fundamental theological assertions in terms of performative utterances, a move that does not presuppose metaphysical and philosophical assertions like these:

  • There is a God
  • This God has intentionality towards His creation
  • One attitude of divine intentionality is promising, and promising keeping
  • Agents exist who are so constituted as to be cable of being promised to by God.
  • The ontological and semantic situations are different than epistemological one: Truth is logically distinct from verification
I invite others to post comments on this issue. I want someone to give me an example of a performative utterance that presupposes neither descriptive nor imperative utterances. It seems like this is necessary before one gets too excited about an analysis Austin gave for certain kind of utterances in 1955.

What Luther was talking about in the Tischreden concerns the ontological situation, not the semantic one. Luther knows that the language of theology must always refer to that which is present because, God truly is ubiquitously present in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Later in the text, Bayer makes clear, for Luther, that philosophy knows neither the efficient or final cause of this world. Perhaps Luther's statement quoted at the beginning of this post has more to do with this, than a general denial of extra-linguistic signification in the primary assertions of theology.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On the Performative, the Constative, and a Peculiar Move within Lutheran Theology

It has become commonplace within Lutheran theology to downplay the notion and use of descriptive true/false statements. While it is true that in natural languages we regularly assign both intensions and extensions to account for meaning and truth-conditions, there is a strong recent tradition in Lutheran theology that does not want to do this. Here we are told confidently that much of the language of Scripture is playing quite a different kind of game entirely, quite a different kind of game than uttering statements having truth-conditions. Citing How to do Things with Words, John Austin' text from over 60 years ago, some theologians find in performative utterances the key to unlock what it is that theology is doing when it is doing what it is doing most fundamentally.

The idea is simple enough: Constative utterances say something and performative utterances do something. Theological utterances are uttered between the demand of the law and grace of the gospel in the concrete existential situation of the believer before God. Thus, instead of the language about God being about truth and falsity, it is at best "felicitous or infelicitous.' For Austin, the marks of felicitous performative utterances include:

  • The existence of conventional procedure governing the utterance of certain words in certain situations;
  • The situations being appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked;
  • The procedure being executable by the participants correctly and completely;
  • Where to inaugurate the procedure depends upon the person inaugurating it to have certain thoughts and feelings, the person so inaugurating it must have certain thoughts and feelings, and all the participants involved must have the appropriate thoughts and feelings;
  • The participants conducting themselves accordingly.
If one or more of these conditions are not met. The performative utterance will be unhappy. Austin makes use of some examples:

  • 'I do' - - as in the course of a marriage ceremony.
  • 'I name the ship the Queen Elizabeth' - - as uttered when smashing the bottle against the hull.
  • 'I give and bequeath my watch to my brother' - - as occurring in a will.
  • 'I bet you a sixpence if it will rain tomorrow.'
For Austin, it is not merely the words themselves, but the words in the appropriate circumstances, with appropriate motivations, and appropriate conventions that bring about the happy performance. Presumably, the same is to obtain in theology as well - - though the conditions are not explicitly worked out.

Of course, Austin himself knew that the distinction between the constative and performative was difficult to maintain. Take for instance the claim, 'there is a dangerous animal here.' While it seems structured as a constative, in certain circumstances is it not elliptical for the putative performances: 'I bet there is a dangerous animal here'; 'I guarantee that there is a dangerous animal here'; or 'I warn you that there is a dangerous animal here'?

Because of this problem, Austin was working at his death upon clarifying the distinction between the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary as a substitute for the previous distinction. In stating what is by means of a locution, one is doing so with illocutionary force, that is, one is normally assuring, or warning, or ordering, or expressing an intention. The perlocutionary subsequently deals with the effects of the illocution in the feelings, thinkings, or actions of the audience, speaker, or other person.

We could at this point talk about how Searle revised his teacher's theory, but for our purposes what is important is to see that illuctionary acts make use of locutions in order to bring about a perlocution. That is to say - - using the early vocabulary - - a performative utterance has propositional content, an intensional or extensional meaning. Furthermore, the utterance presupposes facts and conventions, many of which can be explicated if one were to take the time. For instance, to say 'I bequeath my watch to my brother' with sincerity, presupposes that I have a watch, that I have a brother, that I intend a situation of my brother having a watch, and that there is a social convention whereby of bequeathing such that the state of affairs of my having my watch will give way to my brother legally possessing it.

Within some of these quarters of Lutheran theology an explication of religious and theological statements is given in terms of performative utterances in order, I believe, to escape the thorny question of truth. Thus, to say that "I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins in the name of Christ Jesus' is not thus to commit oneself to any specifiable ontological situation involving divine states of affairs, relations, properties, and events. It is rather a performance that, to use Austin's later terminology, has a perlocution. The hope is that the utterances can existentially empower without suggesting any "death-dealing metaphysics."

But a moment's reflection shows how wrong-headed it is to think that perlocutions are somehow psychologically independent of what is being asserted. If one has a social convention of bequeathal, it makes all the difference in the world to the perlocutions generated in the inheriting brother by this illocutionary act, whether he does have, in fact, a brother, and whether or not the brother has something to bequeath.

Analogously, having one's feeling and emotions affected by the declaration of forgiveness of sins has everything to do with whether one believes one has sins, and whether or not Christ is thought to be the kind of being that could in principle forgive them.

While Scripture is filled with what Austin would have at one time called performative utterances, this does not mean that one can escape the truth game. Truth pro me is still truth. I will be dealing with some concrete texts in coming posts. My purposes are entirely constructive. We must as theologians grasp the contemporary philosophical situation with respect to the philosophy of language, if we are going to be making moves in the philosophy of language that are to accomplish such heavy theological work.