S-T-O-P Means Stop

In 25 years of ministry one of the most profound changes I’ve seen is the growing inability and/or unwillingness of Americans to read texts according to the intent of the author. One of the major reasons for this change was the mutation of the Modernism in North America from rationalism and empiricism to subjectivism. Mind you both forms of Modernism have much in common. In both cases the subject of the verb is always the autonomous “I.” For the rationalist “I get to decide what is reasonable and true on the basis of what I can know comprehensively.’ For the empiricist, “I decide what is true on the basis of sense experience.” The subjectivist says, “Truth is what is true for me.” In that sense, the starting point hasn’t changed but in other respects things have changed.

The argument with rationalists and empiricists was not whether there is such a thing as objective reality (that which is true regardless of my experience of it) but whether it is “reasonable” to believe a truth claim on the basis of an authority or source that transcended my intellect or sense experience. Now the discussion has devolved into the question whether there is anything that isn’t me or my imagination or my experience. Do “you” really exist?

The Late Modern Sea Change
All that to say subjectivism was washing over the American university just as I graduated. I heard rumblings but I didn’t pay attention. At seminary we were still largely fighting with the higher critics and old modernists (mostly rationalists) so I didn’t really see it there even though we had some brief discussions about the subjective turn in hermeneutics to “reader reception” and the like. It seemed like a fad. When I got to the UK in 1993, however, I discovered that it was not a fad and I had to catch up. The language of the university had changed while I wasn’t looking.

In the years since the consequences of this turn have become clearer. It is increasingly difficult to get readers to move beyond their subjective experience of the text to the text itself in its original context, to ask when did the author write it? To whom? Why and what did he intend to communicate? These questions, which my 9th-grade Journalism teacher, Mrs Chafee taught us were basic, are now regarded as quaint and outmoded. Are they really?

Consider this example: when a subjectivist author writes a document attempting to persuade us that the reader’s experience/reception of a text is as important or more important than the author’s intention, that subjectivist author necessarily expects us to read his document according to his intention. If we refuse and receive his words as communicating something about cosmic grasshoppers the entire communication process is frustrated. For the purposes of telling us to do to other authors what he does not want us to do to his words, our subjectivist author must rely on the old-fashioned idea of authorial intent. He must rely on the notion that the author had an intent, that words are signals of that intent, and that the intent can be inferred by understanding the words—that there is perspicuity in language, that it is a vehicle for meaning. Only after reading the subjectivist author are we to begin reading other texts as if the reader’s experience trumps all.

In that case then we’re just playing a game that defies the nature of creation, the nature of the created order and pattern. God gave us language not, first of all, to facilitate my subjective experience, to do with whatever I autonomously will, but in order to facilitate communication between the Creator and his image bearer and secondarily to facilitate communication between image bearers. Of course, the fall corrupted the process. Signs are not as easy to read because our perception is corrupted and because our wills, our affections, and our intellects are corrupted. Nevertheless, God has pledged to restrain the effects of the fall (Gen 9) so that life can continue, albeit brokenly, and communication can continue, albeit haltingly, until the end.

Please do not misunderstand. I understand that readers necessarily receive texts and that, in some way, their experience of the text is distinct from that of the author, that the reader may justifiably perceive messages in the text of which the author was not conscious. This is true in the case of the NT reception of the authors of the typological revelation (the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament in the broad sense of that term). John understood aspects of Isaiah that Isaiah himself probably did not understand. The NT interprets Psalms 110 repeatedly in ways that David probably did not understand fully.

This process occurs even with uninspired texts. Readers do decode messages of which the author was perhaps not aware but recognizing the power of creative reading is not quite the same thing as ignoring the author’s intent or denying that the author had an intent. Again, you might take this post to be a secret message from a cosmic grasshopper but I’m telling you that it is no such thing. In the nature of the created order, words bear a relation to the things they intend to signify. For the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter whether that relation is fixed by nature (realism) or fixed by convention (nominalism) so long as the intent of the sign is understood in a substantially similar way by author and reader.

Consider The Stop Sign
Consider the lowly stop sign. S-T-O-P. In English we add those letters to make a word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it’s an Old English word derived from Saxon and West Germanic words. It may be used as a noun to refer to a bucket or to something that plugs up something. In the case of a stop sign, however, it would not seem to be a noun. That would make the sign an announcement: “Here is something that plugs up something else.” That’s true in a way. A stop sign does momentarily impede cars but is that the intent of the author (in this case the city council) of the sign? Probably not. So, we move on to the the next possibility: a verb. Again, it’s an Old English word with relatives all across Europe. As a verb it may mean “To fill up, plug, close up.” If it’s a verb, what sort of verb it is? In what voice? If we take it as an indicative (what is) does that work? “Things stop.” Well, they do, yes but why would the city council post signs across town announcing that? It seems unlikely. If, however, we take it as an imperative (“do this!”) then it begins to make sense in context.

After all, these signs tend to occur at intersections where autos must negotiate a limited space at the same time but what sort of imperative? If the noun means “a plug” does that mean that the city council wants us all to congest intersections and impede traffic? Probably not. Why would the council want that? To what end? Why would we allow them to tax us in order to post signs to slow our way home from work? Thus, if it is an imperative it must mean something else. In context, it seems most likely that the intent is to require us to cease moving forward long enough to allow others to move or to make sure the way is clear before we continue. Imagine if we chose to ignore the intent of the city council in posting the signs? Chaos!

Most likely someone told us what STOP on a red sign means but this exercise shows that even if no one told us what the signs meant it is possible to decode messages according to original intent by considering the signal in its immediate and broader context. We are able to infer a likely meaning and confirm that inference by experience. In fact, we would probably make all of those decisions very quickly.

Consider The Constitution
In what follows we will consider a more complicated text because it is longer and its original context is farther away from us but I am confident that we can apply the same principles and arrive at a reasonable understanding of its original intent and sense. I understand that what we are about to discuss is a controversial topic but that is why it needs to be discussed because we have before us a living example of the necessity of reading texts in their original context, according to original intent. To be sure: The point I am making here is first of all about hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts). Whether we should decide to agree with the text in question is another matter.

A prime example is the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution was ratified in 1788 and amended with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. The second amendment says:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

This amendment is usually analyzed to include two parts: a preface, “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state” and an operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

There was debate among the framers as to whether a Bill of Rights was needed. The Federalists opposed the Bill of Rights on the grounds that it was superfluous. The Anti-Federalist argument, however, that a statement of specific rights was necessary to keep the government at bay and to protect individual liberties won the day. The original intention of the framers was that ordinary civilians, who composed the state militias (something like the modern state National Guard units), had to be armed in order to form a regulated militia. For some time the preface more or less dominated the operative clause (“shall not be infringed”)  in the interpretation of the amendment.

Interestingly, this leveraging of the operative clause by means of the preface has the appearance of reading the amendment in context while denying the substance of the operative clause. The reasoning has been to the effect that: “We’re not in the 18th century any longer and we don’t have the same sort of state militias any longer and therefore the second amendment can be re-contextualized and re-interpreted to allow civil governments to ban the ownership of weapons.”

Such a reading, however, ignores the intent of the preface and the operative clause. The intent was that the people should be able to defend themselves. If weapons are banned they are no longer able to defend themselves.

In recent case law, however, the situation has changed. There is a helpful, brief summary of the state of the law at FindLaw. Here are two salient paragraphs:

In Heller, the Court held that (1) the District of Columbia’s total ban on handgun possession in the home amounted to a prohibition on an entire class of “arms” that Americans overwhelmingly chose for the lawful purpose of self-defense, and thus violated the Second Amendment; and (2) the District’s requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock also violated the Second Amendment, because the law made it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.

The Court reasoned that the Amendment’s prefatory clause, i.e., “[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” announced the Amendment’s purpose, but did not limit or expand the scope of the operative clause, i.e., “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Moreover, the prefatory clause’s history comported with the Court’s interpretation, because the prefatory clause stemmed from the Anti-Federalists’ concern that the federal government would disarm the people in order to disable the citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule.

Private Individuals have a constitutional right to keep and carry firearms in order to prevent tyranny. As the founders looked at the world, according to their intention in framing the second amendment, to infringe upon that right is an act of tyranny. The constitution did not specify which weapons lawful citizens could keep and carry. It did not envision that law-abiding citizens should even have to apply for a permit to own or carry a firearm. The historical fact is that people kept and carried military-style weapons in the 18th century, when this amendment was adopted. Therefore, it cannot be unconstitutional to keep and carry military-style weapons. We know they did so because that’s what it takes to form a well-regulated militia.

One of the challenges we face in interpreting texts is that of de-contexualization. This is the removal of the text in question and setting it down in another context altogether. In university we did this by only discussing the second amendment in terms of whether people should be allowed to own firearms for the purposes of hunting. We never discussed the second amendment in its original context, according to its original intent. The great difficulty with such a procedure is that hunting has nothing to do with the language or original intent or original context of the second amendment. The only purpose stated in the amendment is the purpose of self-defense.

Reading the amendment against the backdrop of the original setting we can understand why this would be. The United States of America was formed out of a rebellion against a colonial power that was believed by the rebels to by tyrannical and contradictory to the nature of civil government. Were the colonialists unarmed there could have been no rebellion.

The other flaw in de-contextualizing the second amendment and re-contextualizing it in terms of hunting is that it creates a misleading picture of the nature of the weapons that were possessed by the colonists. They owned and carried military grade weapons. Their ownership of military grade weapons was essential to their liberation from British tyranny.

If “tyranny” seems like a strong word, consider just some of the complaints we Americans lodged against the British crown in the Declaration of Independence (1776):

  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  • He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  • He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
  • He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  • He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
  • He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
  • He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
  • For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
  • He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  • He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

“Tyranny” was the word used by the founders in the Declaration:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

It is against these complaints that we must understand the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They were thinking of the instances in which British crown had denied the same to the colonists.

The third argument I used to hear in university was, “Society has changed. We’re a densely populated urban society and the constitution was adopted by an agrarian society.” One is  hard pressed to see how the urbanization of the USA changes the intent or force of the constitution. Could not such an argument be used to obliterate more than just the second amendment? If so, how is this a valid argument? “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is not contingent upon whether we live in urban, suburban, or rural settings. Either we are free or we are not.

The fourth argument: “the founders never envisioned x type of weapon.” Let’s test the validity of this sort of argument by applying it to the first Amendment. When the Bill of Rights was ratified the main forms of mass media were newspapers and pamphlets. We’re now witnessing the extinction of print newspapers and pamphlets. On this argument should we suppose that the first amendment guarantee of the freedom of the press only applies to print newspapers?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

My grandparents couldn’t have envisioned the internet and they were alive for the invention of the airplane and the moon landing. We can be sure that the founders, who rebelled more than 130 years before my grandparents were born never envisioned the internet but they did understand the propensity of government to encroach on the natural liberties granted by God to citizens.

This is why the founders wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Is there any reasonable doubt that the rebels who wrote these words thought that the people, in whom they believed to reside original authority to form a government and even to rebel against the existing government, should not be allowed to arm themselves in order to preserve the liberty for which they were about to die?

The point is this: if we read the Bill of Rights in its original context, according to its original intent, neither the creation of the internet nor the development of firearms from muskets to semi-automatic firearms makes any difference. Their intent was that Americans would be free to publish dissent from the government and that they would be sufficiently well-armed to keep the government in check.

The second amendment, read in context, according to original intent, has nothing to do with sport or hunting. The founders never envisioned that the government would restrict hunting since, in the 18th century, that would have meant starvation. Sport shooting was simply a correlate to hunting. They didn’t have to stipulate these things. They were essential to existence and that had been established, for the purposes of the formation of the Republic, in the Declaration.

As a well-known pundit has been known to say, “words mean things.” Indeed they do. They are signals of intent. Readers of words may disagree with the intent and they may want to change the words or persuade others to use different words with different intent but before any of that can happen we must first recognize the intended sense of the words before us.

Preaching And Application

Application in preaching is a thorny issue. There is no real question among Reformed folk whether preachers should apply the text of Scripture to the congregation. Most Reformed preachers agree in substance with William Perkins on application.

The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a side-effect stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it. However the gospel not only teaches us what is to be done, it also has the power of the Holy Spirit joined to it. When we are regenerated by him we receive the strength we need both to believe the gospel and to do what it commands. The law is, therefore, first in the order of teaching; then comes the gospel.

He continues in the next chapter:

Application is of two kinds, mental and practical…. Mental application is concerned with the mind and involves either doctrine or reproof (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). When it involves doctrine, biblical teaching is used to inform the mind to enable it to come to a right judgment about what is to be believed. Reproof is using biblical teaching in order to recover the mind from error.

…Practical application has to do with life-style and behaviour and involves instruction and correction.

He continues by using Paul’s categories (instruction, reproof, correction etc). I commend to you the reading of Master Perkins.

It is sometimes suggested that there is a species of Reformed preaching known as redemptive-historical or biblical-theological preaching that does not practice application. I’ve heard many redemptive-historical or biblical-theological sermons in 32 years and I doubt that there’s ever been a time when the text of Scripture was not applied in some way. Now, to be sure, that application might have been limited to a small range of possibilities but there is almost always some application, even if that application is only “find yourself in this text.” One might not like that application, one might think it unduly limited in its scope, but it is a kind of application.

This is one part of the problem in this discussion. Often folk operate with an a priori definition of “application” whereby they set up a test to determine what counts as application and then convict other approaches of denying application because the preacher is operating with a different definition of application. Some assume that application must be some appeal to the moral law (the third use of the law as the norm for the Christian life). Certainly that is one species of application but there are other species as we saw above. Perkins began with a hermeneutical question: how do the categories of law and gospel operate in this text? Only after answering that question was he prepared to move on to the following questions about whether the text requires a mental or practical application. As Mike Horton has observed out the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) helps us here with the phrase, “good and necessary consequence.” An application is an implication regarding how we ought to think or behave that is drawn from the text, that flows out of the text itself, that is not imposed on the text or brought to it (something the preacher wanted to say and found an excuse to say it). When the divines said “necessary” they meant logically necessary, something that follows from the text at hand. This way of thinking assumes the basic Reformation view of the essential perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. What must be known about the Christian faith and life can be known from the text. We understand Scripture to be intentionally and sufficiently clear that with the use of a proper way of reading Scripture (hermeneutics), by comparing Scripture with Scripture (analogy of Scripture), and by testing our interpretation with the  rule of faith (analogy of the faith), i.e., answering the question: does it contradict the faith as confessed by the church? The application must flow from intent of the text in its original or its broader canonical context.

As Perkins suggested, there are different types of texts in Scripture. To his basic distinction between law and gospel we might add (as he was well aware) differences in literary style (didactic, narrative, poetry/song, wisdom). Different sorts of texts require different types of application. If every text produces the same “application” then we may rightly ask whether the preacher is really following the text. The application of John 3;16 is not the same as the application of Matthew 5:17 or Genesis 1 or Proverbs 1 or Psalm 23. These are different sorts of texts requiring different sorts of applications. The application must be determined by the text. Sometimes the proper application is simply “repent and believe,” but often the application is more extensive and ethically oriented than that. It’s almost always appropriate to ask of a passage (and to find the answer to the questions from the text), “What does this text teach me about Christian virtue?” (e.g., faith, hope, and love) or “What does this text teach me about the third use of the law?” Our catechism is in three parts (guilt, grace, and gratitude) for a reason: it follows the pattern of the book of Romans and many passages in Paul where he frequently preaches the gospel and then makes a moral application. For example, he preaches the gospel in Ephesians 1:1-2:9 and then makes what might be considered a moral application, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (ESV).

There is a sense, however, in which he’s still preaching the gospel. He doesn’t really begin to explicitly and extensively preach the law in its third use, to speak about the morally and logically necessary virtues which the gospel should foster in Christ’s people by virtue of their mystical union with Christ, until chapter 4:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (ESV).

The Apostle Peter, on the other hand, sometimes does things in a different order. He sometimes give the moral application and then the gospel rationale. For example, 1 Peter 2:13 is followed by vs. 21 where he gives the gospel warrant for the moral exhortation. The apostolic pattern, whether in Hebrews or in the Johannine epistles or the gospels is to connect the gospel to faith and that to the third use of the law. The latter does not appear nakedly in Scripture but always in a broader context.

What Is A Sermon?
Above we began looking at application in preaching. Another difficult aspect of this discussion is the lack of consensus as to just what a sermon is. In broad terms, this post assumes that a sermon is a close exposition of God’s Word that contains both declaration and application (as defined in part 1 and as elaborated below). Declaration is the announcement or proclamation of the law and the gospel. A sermon may be “redemptive-historical,” i.e., one that focuses on locating a passage in the progress of redemption and revelation or it may be topical (e.g. the second service or the catechism sermon, which tends to focus on the doctrinal or moral sense of a text or series of texts as guided by the catechism). There is a place for both. It is clear that the apostles did not feel compelled to choose between redemptive-historical and topical sermons and the Reformed tradition has never felt the need to choose between these two.

What is application? It is an appeal to the congregation to reckon with the implicit or explicit doctrinal, moral, or practical implications in a given passage of Scripture. Any particular application will be determined by the text. It might be a simple call to faith or it might be a detailed exhortation to godly living or a doctrinal truth. The teaching, nature, and immediate (and broader) context of the preaching text must determine the application.

Perhaps it’s helpful to say what application isn’t.

1. It is not bare lists of “dos and don’ts.” For many, application seems to entail lists of things to do or 10 steps to a happy marriage. A sermon may certainly have implications for Christian marriage and texts certainly should be applied appropriately to marriage and other relationships but the preacher, in the act of preaching, is not a marriage therapist. This is not to say that the preacher should not apply a text to how husbands and wives should love one another, but, as R. B. Kuiper used to say, any sermon that could be preached by a rabbi (or we might add, an imam) isn’t a Christian sermon. The one thing that that Christian preacher knows, that neither rabbi nor the imam knows, is the gospel of Christ’s holy incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension for his people. This must be the basis for any exhortation to obedience and sanctity. Exhortation to obedience and sanctity is absolutely necessary but no more so than the gospel itself. To separate the two is moralism or rationalism or both.

2. It is not ten steps to a happy/fulfilled life. See #1. In general if you see Joel Osteen doing it on TV, it’s probably not something you want to do.

3. It is not a partisan political lecture or learned disquisition on the latest novel. That’s why we have political analysts on TV and public radio or Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio.

4. It is not an angry rant about whatever last irritated the minister. I’ve heard too many sermons in Reformed/Presbyterian congregations that were little more than a rant by angry, a disillusioned minister. One of the first sermons I ever heard in a Reformed congregation was by a visiting pastor who is now with the Lord. The visiting minister began laying into us about our idolatry of the state football team. I can still see his face contorted by anger. He had a point. We are all idolators by inclination and many of us probably were guilty of idolizing the local football team. It’s always appropriate to preach the law in its first use (see HC Q. 2) and usually in its third use (see HC Q 2 and questions 86–129) Many of us probably were (and remain) too deeply invested in the team and its success. There’s no question that God hates idolatry and that he will not share his glory with another (see the first and second commandments). So, in a sense, the preacher succeeded. I remember the sermon. He did make some of us feel guilty for our sins, but I don’t recall hearing the gospel. I don’t recall that he ever told us what Jesus did for us idolaters and that, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, there is hope for us idolaters. I do recall being impressed, however, by his anger and evident disappointment with us and his bitterness. Venting is not application; it’s just self-indulgence.

5. It’s not an expression of the minister’s private views. It is the announcement of God’s truth, by his ordained servant, as revealed in his inerrant Word.

The Spiritual Senses
So far I have tried to add a layer to the preliminary thoughts on application in part 1. I characterized application as an appeal to the congregation in which necessary theological, moral, and practical implications of the text are drawn out and explained to the congregation.

How, however, does the preacher find those “good and necessary” inferences? The answer begins with good exegesis. By that I don’t simply mean translating the text properly (of course the preacher is working from the original languages), good word studies and the like. I mean paying attention to the original intent of the text in its immediate context and in its broader canonical context.

It is often assumed that application means bringing the text to the people. This isn’t entirely false but it must be defined carefully. William Wilimon has warned us about doing theology “in translation mode” (and here) By this he means that rather than the text being sovereign over us, we make ourselves sovereign over the text. Instead of using Scriptural metaphors, we change the metaphors and thus the nature of the message just that much. In translation we’re in charge now.

Rather than preaching in translation mode we do better to draw the congregation into the text. That’s a form of application, leading them out of their experience, their thought world, their autonomy and into the thought world, the conceptual world, the historical world in which the Word of God was given. By this I don’t mean just historical data but preaching in such a way as to draw them in, to make them want to identify themselves with the immediate passage and the broader story of Scripture. More on this below.

Having drawn people into the world of the text, the preacher may then ask questions of the text to build bridges between the people and the text. Traditionally, the church asked three questions: what does this text teach about doctrine, eschatology, and morals? These questions come from 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope, and love. These are good questions. Not every text will yield an answer to each question but we should ask the questions.

There is much more that could be said. Of course these questions must be grounded in a historical reading of the text. The great error of the later patristic and medieval uses of these questions is that they frequently turned into an opportunity to talk about me, my soul, or the church. This was a sort of pious, subjectivist, Narcissism. Luke 24 does not say that the Lord Jesus explained how all the Scriptures were about the disciples and their hearts burned within them. No, he taught them that all the Scriptures pointed to him. He is the center of the story of Scripture. We come second or even third.

Subjectivism in application isn’t spiritual. The goal of the preacher is the be faithful to the text, not to do the work of the Holy Spirit. The preacher must trust that, as the he faithfully announces the Word and applies it carefully (as defined and described in these posts) the Spirit will do his sovereign, mysterious work on his own time-table. If our application is not grounded in the original intent of the perspicuous text, if it isn’t grounded in the history of redemption, then it may tend to become silly putty in the hands of the preacher.

This essay first appeared as a series on the Heidelblog in 2013.

The Cruelty Of Nominalism

Are Symbols Arbitrary?
Recently there has been considerable controversy generated in a university classroom where the prof required students to create a sign with the word “Jesus” on it and then to step on the same. One student, a Mormon, refused and was disciplined for his refusal. The governor of Florida became involved but apparently the teacher has not been sanctioned in any way.

Now it emerges that, in the instructor’s guide apparently used by college professors (really? When did university professors and graduate students begin using instructor’s guides? But I digress), the author asserts

This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.

This claim begins to explain, ahem, what is afoot. Why on earth would a university professor ask his class to do something so provocative and moreover why is it that, apparently, only one person objected to the exercise? The prof was catechising his pupils in the dominant religion of our late modern age and most of the students were either afraid of the academic consequences of disobedience or already agreed with the premise: nominalism, i.e., the relation between a sign (signum) and the thing signified (res signata) is actually arbitrary. The corollary to this now widely accepted premise says that anyone who asserts a stable relation between sign and thing signified is only covering up a will to power.

You know about this debate and you’ll recognize it when we consider it in more familiar terms. First the secular then, in the next post, the sacred. When you hand a dollar bill (if anyone still does that any more) to a clerk, she accepts that bill as a symbol of 100 pennies. Considered on its own, not as a symbol, the materials that make the dollar are not worth 100 pennies, especially if those are older pennies with copper (they are now made of zinc). Why, then, does the clerk accept the dollar as if it were worth 100 pennies? Because the government says it is worth 100 pennies. From the 1930s through the early 1970s there was some relation between the dollar and an actual valuable commodity, gold but that relationship ended and now the dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” What that is worth is the subject of another post and perhaps another blog altogether.

Thus, in our current economy, when we hand a dollar bill to a clerk and he accepts it, we are practical nominalists. In that instance both clerk and customer assume the relation between the sign (the dollar bill) and the thing signified (100 pennies) is the result of a convention or agreement. We agree that the dollar is worth 100 pennies even though the dollar bill, considered as a commodity, is not actually worth 100 pennies.  Theoretically, the dollar bill could be worth 50 pennies or 1000 pennies. The relation between them is arbitrary.

In the pre-modern era, we exchanged commodities. If one wanted something of value, one had to exchange something of equal or greater value but trading chickens across a counter became burdensome. Thus, we “rationalized” the economy, we substituted signs for the thing signified. Typically, however, we understood that there was a stable relation between the sign (a coin) and the thing signified or the coin might actually be made of valuable commodities (e.g., gold or silver). Put in medieval theological and philosophical terms, prior to the 1930s we tended to be realists when it came to money. We understood a close relation between the coin and what the coin represents. Since the early 1970s, however, we have become nominalists. We have agreed to a more fluid or even arbitrary relation between coin and commodity.

I’m not an economist nor do I play on television nor am I a “gold bug” exactly. I understand that there were certain deficiencies with the gold standard but there were also certain advantages. The main point here is to come to a clearer understanding of what nominalism and what its consequences are. My thesis is that many of us living in the late modern world, particularly those who are 30 and under, are nominalists and we do not realize it. Those who are over thirty are more likely to assume a more stable relation between signs and things signified, i.e., they tend to more realist in the the way they relate signs and thing signified. They tend to be less suspicious of assertions that “this is true.” To those 30 and under, the assertion that one proposition is true and the other false is more likely to ring hollow and raise suspicion that the person making the claim is really hiding an ulterior agenda. They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.

Consider how the argument is being mediated to you: a computer. What is a computer? It is a glorified adding machine fiddling with zeroes and ones. Why zeroes and ones? Some decided to do it that way. It’s arbitrary. It could be ones and twos. Why is the keyboard the way it is? It’s arbitrary. There were other keyboards. Why are stop lights red, yellow, and green? It’s arbitrary. Things could be other than they are. Growing up in a fluid world, which Zygmunt Baumann has described as “liquid modernity” has created a generation of skeptics and doubters.

Scott Jaschik, who wrote on this controversy today, points out that the instructor’s guide does not say to “stomp on Jesus” but misses the point. He begs the question (assumes what has to be proved) and accepts the reigning nominalism, that there is no relation between the sign and the thing signified or that the relation is purely arbitrary. Juan Williams at Fox News does the same from an even more emotive, subjectivist perspective. The objection, that students were required to step on a sign and not on the thing signified, misunderstands the outcry (which is probably coming mostly from those over 30 and probably mostly over 40). Everyone can see that a sign is not the thing signified but we cannot simply assume, as Jaschik does (and as Jim Neuliep, the author of the instructor’s guide does), that the relation is purely arbitrary or that there is no relation at all. Note that Juliep has been leading this exercise for 30 years. That is significant because it is in that same time span that the radical decoupling of signs from the things signified has penetrated the broader, popular culture, including evangelical and Reformed communions.

An Example From the Sacred
It is widely held in our time that the relation between signs and the things signified is arbitrary. Traditionally, such a view has been known as nominalism. In the first installment we considered a secular example (money) to illustrate the problem of the decoupling of signs and things signified.

To give a sacred example, when a believer comes to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine, what is he receiving? If your first thought was “the body and blood of Christ” you’re headed in the right direction. On reflection, however, other questions follow? How do believers eat the body and blood of Christ? What is the relation between the sign (signum), bread and wine, and the thing signified (res signata), i.e., Christ’s body? There are four major options:

  • The signs signify (testify to) the body of Christ in which he was conceived, obeyed, died, and was raised but they only signify. Thus the relation is purely intellectual or memorial.
  • The signs signify (as defined) the body of Christ (as defined) and through them the Spirit feeds us on the body of Christ.
  • The signs signify the body of Christ, which is locally present in, with, and under the signs.
  • The signs become the body.

The first was Zwingli’s view. Yes, I’m familiar with W. P. Stephens’ argument but am not persuaded. Even in his most mature writings Zwingli never moved beyond a memorialist view. This is the view held by most post-Second Great Awakening American evangelicals and by many Reformed/Presbyterian laity.

The second was the view articulated by some of the second-century Fathers, Ratramnus and others in the 9th century, by most of the Reformed in the classical period (including Calvin) and is confessed by the Reformed churches.

The third is the confessional Lutheran view.

The fourth is the Romanist view, first articulated by Radbertus (in controversy with Ratramnus) in the 9th century and formally adopted at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and ratified at the Council of Trent in 1562. Contra the frequent claims by Romanists it was not taught by Irenaeus in the second century.

These views of the Lord’s Supper (holy communion, the eucharist) illustrate four different relations between signs and things signified. You can see immediately that how one relates signs to things signified has great spiritual, theological, and practical significance. In the life of the church many are unwilling to administer communion frequently because they think of the supper as a memorial or as a funeral. It involves an intense grieving process and the idea of enduring such a wrenching thing every week is too much to bear.

Those who think of the supper principally as a sacramental meal in which we are fed by the body of Christ mysteriously, by work of the Holy Spirit, are more likely to favor more frequent communion. The weight of the sacrament is upon being met and fed by Christ and upon the visible sealing the promises of the gospel. When we consider Christ’s death we must consider our sins, and that is sad, but the gospel is good news and the supper is fundamentally gospel.

The Lutheran view has much in common with the Reformed but by locating the thing signified within the the sign it threatens the very existence of the sign itself. As Ratramnus argued in the 9th century, our faith does not make Christ present but faith is essential to receiving Christ. No one receives Christ without faith. That would be magic. Since faith, trusting Christ’s promises is the sole instrument by which we receive Christ and his benefits (<em>sola fide</em>), those who locate Christ within the elements or who—even worse—claim that the signs become the thing signified destroy faith and thus, in their attempt to ensure Christ’s presence have actually, ironically, as it were chased him away.

Thus, we find ourselves between two poles, that which makes the sign essentially arbitrary and that which conflates the sign with the thing signified. A picture of a horse is not a horse. If one places that picture on the ground and saddle it, one will not go far. One has saddled a picture, not a horse. If, however, the only relation between the picture and the horse is in our intellect or in our memory of the horse, then the relation between the sign and the thing signified is fluid and unstable.

This is last option is the one I want to consider with you for a moment. Now, not everything is a sacrament. There are only two sacraments and a sacramental relation is different than the ordinary relation between signs and things signified. A picture of a horse is a sign but not a sacramental sign. There are no divine promises of salvation attached to the picture of the horse. Nevertheless, the relation between the picture and the horse is important.

The Hermeneutic of Love
One of the great and evil things that has beset the late modern world is the destruction of the hitherto stable relations between the sign (e.g., a word, a picture) and the thing signified. I’m grateful to my old friend Warren Embree for alerting me to this problem in the mid-1980s in discussions and later in Warren C. Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1991). Much of that work was a reflection on Augustine’s account of the relation between signs and seals but it was also an argument for what he called a “hermeneutic of love” in contrast to the then wildly popular, late modern, deconstructionist “hermeneutic of suspicion.” In the second half of the 20th century it became quite popular to argue that there are no stable relations between signs and things signified, that the relation is arbitrary. It was suggested that those who argue for a stable relation between signs and things signified were really just asserting power over others, by seeking to control them through controlling the meaning of words. In short, part of the argument was whether the relations between signs and things signified is a matter of truth or a matter of power. Behind that argument lies an even more fundamental argument: whether God is, whether he has created nature and whether as a part of his creation he has willed a stable relation between signs and things signified.

The relation between signs and things signified was a matter of considerable debate through the middle ages. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) , for most of his career, taught a strong form of nominalism. This provoked a reaction from his critics (e.g., Bernard of Clairveaux, 1090–1153) and brought condemnation of his theology (for modalism in the doctrine of the Trinity).

There was another school of thought in the middle ages, realism, that identified the names with things named via their essences. For the realists (via antiqua) the intellect abstracts the universals from particulars (e.g., sense experience) of this thing and that. Those essences were said to belong to the divine being. This down and dirty summary is bound to upset historians of philosophy but the upshot is that the realists managed to put both God and the creation in a box of sorts. They set up a world in which things couldn’t be other than they are and the realist knew how they could be, how they had to be.

This realism provoked a reaction from nominalists such as William of Ockham (c. 1280–1350), who taught that the relations between names and things named is a mere convention. Where the realists said universals are real, Ockham and the nominalists (via moderna) argued that it is particulars that real and universals are illusory. This is why Ockham proposed his “razor,” to eliminate what he saw as unnecessary assumptions about the nature of being.

Contrary to the way the story is sometimes told, the Reformation was not product of nominalism. It is true that Ockham and others did make it possible to reconsider some long held assumptions but the Reformation itself was not a species of nominalism but neither was it a species of realism. How then did they relate signs to the things signified? On the basis of the divine nature and will. In Calvin, e.g., God’s Word is reliable because it is true to the divine nature. God wills what he does because he is what he is, i.e., his will is consonant with his nature. Thus, signs are the product of the divine will and the divine will is related to the divine nature. As a consequence, the relations between signs and things signified is stable because the divine will and nature are stable.

In the modern period, i.e., the early stages of neo-paganism, for those who accepted the renewed, Enlightenment assertion of the ancient, pagan maxim that “man is the measure of all things” (Protragoras d. 411 BC) the God of the Christian faith became, at best, a hypothesis, a limiting notion. Really the mysterious, dynamic, powerful God of Scripture and of the historic Christian confession became a remote deity incapable of knowing or being known. Still, the relations between signs and things signified was generally considered stable but now not so much because of what God had ordained or even because of the nature of God but because of the prevailing rationalism of modernity.

The late modern reaction to the rationalism (and empiricism) of the earlier phases of modernity has been a skepticism not only about the relations between signs and seals about even about our ability to perceive reality. As I began to suggest in part 1, the idea that symbols are “arbitrary” and have chiefly emotive value is rooted in such skepticism.

Why is such nominalism cruel? It is because it makes signs essentially meaningless. Without meaningful signs  discourse is reduced to the will to power (rather than a search for truth). It begins with the assumption that truth is lost to us. It’s cynical. It destroys communication and communion between persons.

I was raised in a time that largely assumed a naive sort of realism and, as in the middle ages, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Today’s young people are being indoctrinated in skepticism about truth and signs. The very idea of nature or fixity, an essential assumption to behind a stable relation between signs and things signified, has come to be viewed with suspicion.

It’s easy, however, to see why stable relations between signs and things signified is so important. Here you are reading text about signs. If there’s not at least relative stability, if I, the writer, and you, the reader, cannot count of a relatively stable relation between signs and things signified then who knows what these characters mean and why  you are staring at them?

Ironically, to the degree we accept nominalism we really are at mercy of the reader and the interpreter (“reader response” anyone?). As Stanley Fish said, there is no “text.” Absent the totalitarianism of the reader, what then? We must fly blindly to authority. In our search for liberty from fixity and authority we know find ourselves at the mercy of some superior authority: from libertinism to totalitarianism.

Some Christians are fleeing to Rome to overcome late modern skepticism. Of course, this move only postpones or relocates the problem. Rome claims magisterial authority to say what Scripture teaches but who knows exactly what Rome really says that Scripture teaches? Those documents (papal decrees, conciliar decrees etc) must be interpreted and they are arguably more difficult to interpret since they manifestly contradict each other. Then, of course, there is the gnostic appeal to a secret, unwritten apostolic authority. It’s hard to see how a secret tradition that, for all we know, exists in the imagination of a few cardinals does anything but add to the crisis.

Nominalism destroys perspicuity but that perspicuity (the essential clarity) of the biblical text was basic to the Reformation. For the Reformed confession the text of Scripture is inherently superior to the reader. As we understand it, the text forms us, it interprets us, it norms us. Late modern subjectivists would have us become the text, the norm but we are not “canon” (rule) but the ruled but that only works if the text is essentially, sufficiently clear and we can only talk about clarity (perspicuity) if there are stable relations between signs and things signified, if the world we perceive with our senses is sufficiently, reliably what we perceive it to be.

Of course that’s the way the world is because God, though utterly free, is not arbitrary. He might have willed differently than he did but we can trust what he has said because he reveals himself in ways that are consonant with himself. Nominalism is cruel but God is not cruel, he is love (1 John 4:8). The greatest sign of God’s love is his Son, the Word (John 1:1). About him we can be neither nominalists or skeptics. In him the relation between sign (“Word”) and signified is stable. It must be stable—the eternal Word incarnate, true and eternal God and true man. The Apostle John saw and touched the Word: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands….”