Monday, May 28, 2018

Rhetorical criticism

Recently, Steve Matthews wrote a series of articles on his time at Knox Seminary (link), a follow-up to his 2008 book, "Imagining a Vain Thing." The subject of his book is a controversy surrounding then professor Warren Gage. I've recently been reading through Warren Gage's works which I find, on the whole, to be quite insightful. I can see some of the points Matthews makes in his criticisms here and elsewhere (link), but I also think he is, for whatever reason, harsh in his conclusions. Mainly, while Matthews does not believe that Gage is a Christian, from what I have read, Gage consistently aims to defend Reformed soteriology.

What I do want to do in this post is note a potentially useful apologetic method when arguing about textual variants and canonicity. Gage refers to this method as "rhetorical criticism." Rhetorical criticism involves considering structural or thematic issues within a text when attempting to argue for or against given variants. In this post, I'll just be dealing with the former. It is for this reason I bring up the aforementioned criticisms by Matthews. Consider one of Matthews' remarks:
...even if Gage were to establish his case for the existence of chiastic structure in John and Revelation and for intertextuality between these two books, precisely no logically valid doctrinal conclusions could be drawn from it. One can imagine and intuit anything he wants from a literary pattern. If Gage claims to divine a particular meaning from the use of chiastic structure in the Biblical text, a thousand others can draw a thousand different conclusions, and all of them will be just as legitimate as those intuited by Gage. For that reason, literary patterns do not and cannot furnish us with knowledge... nothing valid can be inferred from literary patterns... (link)
Maybe Matthews did not intend his statements to be read this way, but if he did, a blanket statement to the effect that a structure or order embedded in a book or books isn't meaningful or useful strikes me as narrow-minded. It's also quite interesting when compared with statements made by other TrinityFoundation authors about the meaningfulness or usefulness of logical principles being embedded throughout Scripture. Although it's possible Matthews would not agree with these authors, I doubt it, especially given that Matthews seems to contradict himself when he later writes, "chiastic structure is simply a technique ancient authors used to organize their material." I could be wrong about what Matthews is getting at in his article and book, but is that not an inference he thinks would be valid?

In any case, at the very least, surely Christians ought to at least be able to appreciate the beauty in a design or pattern. Noting a particular example of a pattern and being a bit awe-struck isn't an inappropriate reaction. Frankly, the patterns Gage recognizes have the potential to be just as convicting as, say, Clark's ability to reduce non-Christian views to absurdity. Both are plausible in their intention to provide a gracious occasion for belief in redemptive, revealed truths.

Structural order in particular has the plausible effect of drawing one's attention in a certain way. For instance, when I see the chiastic structure inherent in the Flood narrative (link), my attention is drawn to the truth that God remembered Noah and the creatures in the ark. That's the pivot point of the specified structure. Is that an invalid inference? No. There is a structure. The structure "ascends" to a certain point and, upon reaching that point, it correspondingly "descends." Is this to say that the pivot point is any more true than the bookends of it? Of course not. That was never in question. But a literary as well as logical structure underlies the narrative.

Yet another consideration is that a belief needn't be validly derived in order to be useful - indeed, to even be known, as in the case of foundational or externally justified beliefs. Anyone who agrees with Clark's philosophy of science can at least agree with the first half of the above. If I think a baseball is flying towards my face, I'm not going to take my time to reason out whether or not I should duck or block it with my glove. I'm going to do one or the other! I didn't need to carefully lay out a number of premises in order for my quickly formed belief that "I really, really would prefer to duck or block this baseball to avoid being hit in the face" to be highly useful towards a self-preserving course of action.

Now, keeping these and preliminary points in my post on textual criticism in mind (link), let's turn to consideration of how rhetorical criticism in the form of a biblical text's structure might be able to provide a Christian apologist with an alternative avenue by which he can argue for or against certain textual variants. A case study can be found in Gage's book, "A Literary Guide to the Life of Christ in Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts," in which Gage argues that the "longer" ending of Mark is canonically authentic.

To begin, I don't see anything in Mark 16:9-20 which is logically incoherent with the rest of the canon of special divine revelation. So it passes the " logical coherence test," if you can call it that (since there is no live possibility of divine revelation actually failing any rigid "test" like that). Yet there seemingly are no preconditions for knowledge given in Mark 16:9-20 which are not given elsewhere, so from an apologetic standpoint, both positions are defensible in that respect.

Next, Gage defines what he calls "deltaforms" throughout Mark. Basically, these are pivot points in Mark around which a truth is exemplified or expounded in different contexts roughly equidistant from the pivot point. It's very complex and very beautiful. I will give a short example to clarify what he means:

Mark 1:24 I (the demon) know who You are, the Holy One of God!
Mark 8:27 He asked His disciples, "Whom do men say that I am?"
Mark 14:61 Again the high priest asked Him, "Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?"

The pivot point is the middle verse, both other verses being 288 verses away from it. The bookends both inform or relate to the pivot point. Another example:

Mark 1:10-11 And immediately as He came up out of the water, the heavens were rent, and the Spirit descended upon Him like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'
Mark 9:7 And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!’
Mark 15:37-39 And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and gave up the spirit. And the veil of the temple was rent in two from top to bottom. And the centurion … said, ‘Truly this Man was the Son of God’

Approximately 320 verses from the pivot point (Mark 9:7), in which the Father's voice expresses that Christ is His Son, we find bookends. These bookends express the same truth, a truth also expressed by voices which speak that Jesus is the Son whose baptism rent heaven and whose baptism-crucifixion rent the temple veil.

The structural argument for the "longer" ending of Mark, then, is that their are pivot verses or deltaforms which extend to this longer ending. We can suspect that there is such a pivot or deltaform when we see textual echoes. Mark 16:17-18 echoes Mark 6:13-14. Mark 11:15 lies roughly between those verses:

Mark 6:13-14 And they were casting out many demons and were anointing with oil many sick and healing them. And King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known
Mark 11:15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to cast out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and seats of those who were selling doves
Mark 16:17-18 [I]n My name they will cast out demons … they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover

Demons are cast out and the sick are healed by Jesus' name in both the front and back side bookend passages. Gage notes that in driving out the moneychangers at the pivot point, Jesus also "performed a sort of exorcism on the temple." He further notes that Mark 11:15 can function as a pivot point for other "bookend" passages in Mark, like 6:12 and 16:20, 10:17-18 and 12:32, and a dozen or so others.

Gage finishes his structural discussion by observing "23 separate deltaform structures that include correspondences extending into the longer Markan ending." In other words, sections in the longer ending of Mark are at least 23 times anchored to earlier bookend passages by means of a pivot point, as in the above examples. In fact, some of these sections in the longer ending are found to be "back" side bookends for more than one pivot point in Mark, meaning that these sections are anchored to multiple earlier, "front" side bookend passages, depending upon which pivot point one wishes to consider.

Now, given this information, I can anticipate a few replies. Matthews or others could argue that while a logical structure must necessarily be embedded in the text of Scripture in order for it to qualify as divine revelation, an ordered structure of a different variety - chiastic, deltaformic, etc. - is not. Therefore, an argument might be given that Scripture does not explicitly identify any such order of the latter variety, so they cannot be known.

But I believe would miss the point. Yes, for all we know, God could have revealed Himself in any number of ways. But this would equally apply to the actual content of divine revelation as well as its structure. To be saved, to know anything, it is not necessary that I know Jesus wept and was deeply moved by Lazarus' death. Yet because this contingent truth has been revealed, I can know it. Likewise, while an ordered structure of a text may not be necessary for me to be saved or know anything, if there is a structure, I can know it. Contingent divine revelation is just as knowable as necessary divine revelation; anything being divinely revealed is sufficient for us to know it.

The other reply I can anticipate is that one could argue that just because an ordered structure can appear to extend to the longer ending of Mark, such does not prove that the longer ending of Mark is divinely revealed. While true, this would also miss the point. As I mentioned in a post on textual criticism (link):
...while I think the goal of the textual critic shouldn't be to collect texts, compare and contrast them, and use that as an evidentiary basis to infer or reason to what has been specially divinely revealed, there certainly would be use in disposing ourselves and others to a causal process which tracks truth about what has been specially divinely revealed and codified in physical media - in this case, texts. So one function of textual criticism could lie in its capability to cause externalist knowledge of special divine revelation. In any case, there is certainly some apologetic role textual criticism may play within one's worldview, so long as it is remembered that apologetics is subservient to and in fact derives from one's epistemology.
True, rhetorical criticism cannot prove something has been divinely revealed. Then again, nothing can prove that, so such a criticism is fundamentally flawed and fails to acknowledge the practical means and purpose of apologetics.


Alex said...

Hey, I've come to believe that Samuel Clarke was right about the Trinity. You agree with him, right?

Ryan said...


steve said...

I hope this doesn't mean Ryan is going to start drinking poison or grabbing cobras :-)

Ryan said...

What can I say? I like to live on the edge.

Ken Hamrick said...

Welcome back, Ryan! Where have you been?

Ryan said...

Ha. I've been around, still lurking. Just been busy these last few years: new fiance, church, and job. I'm in a certification program and getting married, both of which will happen next May, so new living situation upcoming as well.

Things should hopefully calm down a bit by next summer. Still have mid-long term desire to go back for a philosophy degree. Might do something online for a masters, not sure and don't plan on having anything set in the immediate future, as I'm happy with where I'm at for now.

How about you? Where are you writing now?

Ken Hamrick said...

I moved to, with an occasional article at There's nothing wrong with being happy where you're at.

Ryan said...

Are you thinking about publishing on traducianism or other related subjects? I'd be interested in an ebook or pdf of your compiled material at some point, if you ever got the chance.