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Francis Beckwith gives a quick lesson on hermeneutical discrepancies (in the context of ecumenical dialogue) that I found concise and worth posting. The comment comes from conversation about Ligon Duncan’s interpretation of the Fathers.
Joey Henry asks Bryan: “What makes your interpretation better than Dr. Duncan then?”
What sort of answer do you expect to this question? It really can’t be answered at the high level of abstraction at which you ask it. These sorts of issues–whether or not one is interpreting an author better than another reader–can only be resolved by getting your hands dirty. Pick the author, the relevant texts, and each make his case.
Suppose I were arguing with Mr. X over whether the Bible is discussing tennis when it states in Genesis that Joseph served in Pharoah’s Court. If I say “no” and Mr. X says “yes,” it’s just strange to then ask me, “What makes your interpretation better than Mr. X’s then?” The only thing that “makes” it better is that it explains and accounts for more than Mr. X’s and is consistent with everything else we know about ancient Hebrew and Egyptian practices. Bryan is making such a case contra Dr. Duncan’s case. After he makes the case you don’t ask “What makes your interpretation better than Dr. Duncan then?” since, for Bryan, it’s his case that does it. So, if you think he’s wrong, get your hands dirty. But short of that, asking conversation-stopping non-questions at levels of abstraction not appropriate to the inquiry is a complete waste of time.
I apologize if that sounds snitty, but if I roll my eyes one more time I’m not sure I will be unable to remove them from underneath my forehead. 🙂
Passionate adherents of the world’s major religions tend to be branded as intolerant on ethical issues; as if they were the only ones “pushing” our morality off on other people. The below conversation demonstrates that people who makes such accusations against religious people are liable for recrimination. The excerpt comes from Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998), 148-49.
Bill was a friendly, tolerant sort, willing to talk with me about Christianity until the question of homosexuality came up. My apparent lack of tolerance made him uncomfortable, and he said so. “That’s what bugs me about Christians,” he said. “You seem nice at first, but then you start getting judgmental.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I said. It was a leading question.
“It’s not right to judge other people.”
“If it’s wrong to judge people, Bill, then why are you judging me?” This question stopped him in his tracks. He’d been impaled on his own principle, and he knew it.
“You’re right,” he admitted. “I was judging you. Kind of hard to avoid it.” He paused a moment, scratched his head, and regrouped. “How about this? It’s okay to judge people, as long as you don’t force your morality on them,” he said, thinking he was on safer ground. “That’s when you cross the line.”
“Okay, Bill, can I ask you a question?”
“Is that your morality?”
“Then why are you pushing your morality on me?” Bill was getting stuck on Plantinga’s tar baby. He tried a couple more false starts but couldn’t extract himself. Finally in frustration he said, “This isn’t fair!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I can’t find a way to say it so it sounds right.” He thought I was playing a word trick on him.
“Bill, it doesn’t sound right because it isn’t right; it’s self-refuting,” I explained.
At this point in the conversation some people throw up their hands and say, “Now you’ve got me confused.” In these cases I respond, “No, you were confused when you started. You just now realized it.”