In Praise of Aerosol Cheese

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Wow, my post on Bob Jones and fundamentalism has provoked a large reponse from readers -- almost all of it helpful and constructive.  Carl has also offered some insightful comments immediately below. 

I would respond to Carl by saying that it certainly is necessary for the Christian antithesis to be rightly handled and placed within a proper context. When it is not, the Christian anthesis can be as much of a menace as a virtue.  But one must first possess such an antithesis in order to do this at all. I am all for the criticism of a wrongly handled and applied antithesis. But these days, I am almost overjoyed simply to find an antithesis anywhere.  Perhaps the best defense of a positive fundamentalist approach to antithesis is the description of BJU that I have received from so many emails today.  It seems that it is precisly because they stand so firmly on the Bible that they are listening so thoughtfully and benefiting so positively from voices outside of their own tradition.

With this in mind, let me just bounce some comments off of Carl’s numbered points:

1. I really don’t have anything to say other than that aerosol cheese is one of America’s greatest achievements. (And, really, should an Englishman be throwing culinary stones?)

2. Without doubt, the hermeneutic of suspicion is indeed worthy of suspicion. But here again, one has to possess an idea of antithesis in order to rightly apply it. The Bible gives us lots of reasons to be properly suspicious in our interactions with the world. In this vein, I do not mind admitting that Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 2:14 – “the man without the Spirit cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God” – causes me to be, well, suspicious when a professing non-Christian sets out to tell us what the Christian message is. The apostle categorically tells us that such a person cannot grasp the gospel, and I accept his teaching as a fact. Now, this does not mean that I cannot learn from a non-believing scholar. I have learned many valuable things from scholars who do not profess the biblical gospel. But my point is that there is a good bit of the much-maligned hermeneutic of suspicion in the pages of the New Testament. Therefore, while I understand suspicion of the hermeneutic of suspicion, I also confess to being a little suspicious of the suspicion of the hermeneutic of suspicion because of the clear antithesis presented by Christ and the apostles.

3. This leads directly to Carl’s next point, which is worth restating: “An overwhelming emphasis on antithesis creates a situation where others are only ever critiqued, not learned from, while we remain blissfully above correction.” That is a true and important point. There is not one of us who is above correction, and help in that department can come from any number of sources, some of them surprising. In this respect, it is a wholesome thing for seminaries to introduce students to constructive “liberal” writings, just as it is important for all Bible and theology teachers to read widely and appreciatively outside of their own tradition.

I further agree wholeheartedly that we may modestly acknowledge the effect of situatedness without falling into full blown relativism. This is one of the chief benefits of historical theology, as Carl no doubt would be glad to point out. I also agree that the kind of confessionalism that acknowledges both the content and source of one’s tradition is a healthy corrective.

But again, one has to have an idea of the Christian antithesis in order to fall into these errors. My concern is that in avoiding these errors, so many today are throwing out the antithesis itself. Instead of being too critical, many – and especially members of the academy – are so uncritical. It is just so cool to be un-antithetical, and that is worrisome. This is most dangerously seen in the subject of exegetical and theological method, where in their resolve not to be fundamentalistic, many are prone to adopt scholarly methods that are altogether opposed to their confessional commitments. (See Sinclair Ferguson’s foreward to the recently published “Justified in Christ” for more on this.) What they need, in my view, is a clear sense of antithesis – not so they can close their ears to other voices, but so that they may have biblical discernment with respect to what they are hearing.

(Personal aside: I am not a child of fundamentalism and therefore I do not have nightmares from my fundy upbringing. I know that others have had a different experience and that they do have such nightmares. Perhaps this is why I am more open to showing appreciation to the fundamentalists and their antithesis. My own impression is that our generation of Reformed scholarship is so determined to give a black eye to the errors of fundamentalism that we are slipping instead into liberalism. This concern is the very thing that has led me to a new appreciation of the fundamentalists – especially the best ones.)

4. I also agree that charity of spirit is a virtue. Charity means that we honestly seek to understand the other position and to express it is terms they would acknowledge. But much that goes by charity these days is nothing of the sort. For all too many – especially today’s theological innovators – charity and antithesis are simply, well, antithetical. This I reject. It is not automatically uncharitable to disagree and to criticize.

Moreover, and it was this that somewhat prompted my original post on BJU, I believe the fundamentalists should be treated charitably, too. More often, though, they are mocked and marginalized and their worst examples are made to represent them all – especially by those who cry loudest for charity of spirit. So, while I agree with Carl in principle, I am far less convinced that there is more charity on one side of the antithesis line than on the other.

For what it is worth, the many people who have written me to give me inside scoops about the Bob Jones fundamentalists indicate they they are in fact humble towards the problems of their past and charitably open to helpful voices -- all while firmly maintaining a clear antithesis between the light and the darkness.

So, thanks, Carl, for your thoughtful rejoinder, which ably shows the dark side of antithesis.  I hope this presents a constructive response.

Posted August 3, 2007 @ 5:08 PM by Rick Phillips
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