Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Ugly Broad Ditch

Gotthold Ephriam Lessing (1729-81) is famous for a great many things, one being the authorship of the trenchant phrase, "the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across."

Lessing's "broad ugly ditch" concerns the supposed jump Christian theology must make from the accidental truths of history to the necessary truths of reason. He writes: "If on historical grounds I have no objection to the statement that Christ raised to life a dead man; must I therefore accept it as true that God has a Son that is of the same essence as Himself?" Lessing's solution to the problem of the ugly broad ditch is not to base the deep truths of religion on the contingent facts of history, but rather to reverse the situation and find in history an exemplification of the deepest truths of religion. These truths are ultimately grounded not in history but in personal experience. Lessing compares his solution to geometry: "Is the situation such that 'I should hold a geometrical theorem to be true not because it can be demonstrated, but because it can be found in Euclid'?" The truths of Christianity are to history as the theorems of Euclid are to Euclid. History no more grounds Christian truth than Euclid grounds geometrical truth.

A distinction used among twentieth-century philosophers gets at the issue about which Lessing is concerned. We must distinguish the context of the origination of a putative truth from its context of justification. Just because probability theory originated among men of rather unsavory reputation playing in the Italian casinos does not mean that probability theory is somehow incorrect. Truth claims must be justified in the logical space of reason, not by an appeal to external historical circumstances. The context of origination (or discovery) of a truth simply is logically independent from the context of its justification. To confuse the two is to commit the genetic fallacy, to claim that an argument is unsound on the basis of the one giving it (and the purposes for which it is given), rather than on the basis of the evidence for the premises and the validity of the reasoning.

Lessing's claim is thus that the "ugly broad ditch" of logical independence separates the context of the origination of Christian truth from the context of its justification, and that this "ugly ditch" is, in effect, necessary to prevent one from committing the genetic fallacy. Christian truth must stand on its own legs; it must not be dependent upon who said what when. Reflecting a bit on this, one realizes that the problematic of the "ugly ditch" forces one to take a position on revelation: what is it for God to "disclose" to us truth that we could not have grasped by free exercise of our insight?

Specifically, we must inquire as to whether revelation is best conceived as external, contingent and accidental, or whether we might understand it to be somehow internal, necessary and reasonable? (I am using "necessary" here in the sense of Lessing, and not making a modal claim.) This question as to the "location" of revelation goes right to the heart of the matter, I believe, and how one answers it determines who one's theological comrades are and, indeed, even potentially what century one lives in theologically. For Lutheran Orthodoxy, there could be no question of the "place" of revelation. It is indeed external; the formal norm of Scripture establishes the material norm of Christ, and both norm theological reflection. For denizens of the heady world of nineteenth century post-Kantian theology, revelation's "place" cannot be external because there can in principle be no bridging of the ditch on that assumption. The contingency of the Biblical text, the contingency of history, the contingency of the Christian tradition all mitigate against a successful justification of the most profound truth of all of life.

Within Lutheran theology we have moved a very great distance indeed since the time of Lessing. We have passed through German idealism, the disintegration of Hegelianism into the right and left wing schools, the rise and fall the Ritschlian School, the rise of fall of Neo-Orthodoxy, existential, phenomenological and hermeneutical theological approaches, and the various theologies of liberation. We have witnessed sophisticated, learned attempts to do theology faithfully, attempts that understand the intellectual and cultural horizon of the time as well as the witness of Scripture and tradition. But the sophistication of the theological enterprise over the last two centuries can sometimes obfuscate certain fundamental questions. The question of the ontology of revelation is central among these questions. It infects all of our theological thinking, oftentimes confusing conversational partners to the point of not knowing even that they are confused! I will close this brief essay with an example of how this is so.

Lutherans have always spoken of sola scriptura, claiming that Christian truth is not founded on the pronouncements of canon law, councils or popes, or in the authority of the patristics or other church fathers. Authority is found in Scriptures. But now the question arises: In the meaning of the written words of Scripture? The standard reply here, of course, is "no!" The words of Scripture are themselves to be understood contextually both synchronically and diachronically. The words of Scripture have meaning within the context of their origination and throughout the context of their transmission, and in the context of Scripture itself being a tertiary witness to the primacy of the Word manifest in Christ and the secondary witness to this Word in the immediate oral tradition. Now this way of things has interesting corollaries because it makes it difficult to claim that unsophisticated readers can ever "know" what Scripture is meaning. (Presumably, one must know the context deeply before one can know the text.) One could simply ignore these problems, but one does it at one's own theological peril. Regardless, the larger problem of Lessing forever looms: Something in the contingencies of history and tradition can undermine Christian truth, the truth upon which our very existence rests.

So another way of understanding Scriptural authority must seemingly be sought, a way that does not abandon Scripture in externality, but which rather protects the sola scriptura from the vicissitudes of scholarship upon the text and context. This way of understanding, I think, must proceed by locating authority somehow immediately within the reading of the text. The text is not authoritative because of some historical, causal connection to a divine nexus, but is rather authoritative because of what it somehow does to the reader in its reading. The place of revelation is now found within the power of the revelatory event itself. The original authoritative externality of the sola is now translated safely into the inner authority of the event of revelation as text confronts reader.

It should be obvious that all of this has very deep repercussions for Lutherans fighting about whether the practice of homosexuality is consistent with Biblical truth. The relationship among the notions of Biblical authority, revelation, Christian truth, and the "ugly broad ditch" cannot be more palpable. It is not my intention here to offer a constructive solution to the problem, but merely point it out. I have always believed that if we could get clear on the problems in theology, perhaps we could get clear on the kinds of discussions that would profitably lead to a solution.