Thursday, February 11, 2010

Spinoza and the Irrelevance of Biblical Authority
James Preus

Chapter One: Background and Project
Main Points:
*Previous scholars tend to paint Spinoza as a 'rationalistic' interpreter of scripture, which misses the rather obvious point that he advocated a historical interpretation.
*The goal of the book, then, is to put Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise within the context of the broader theological and political debates of his time, and, by doing so, to stress that Spinoza's real genius lie in stressing the interconnectedness of theological interpretation and political arguments, in order to undermine the political consequences of interpretation.
*Though Spinoza nominally focused his attention on long-dead Jewish authors, this really provided a cover to comment on current debates.
*Most significant was the one prompted by his friend, Ludwig Meyer's, book, Philosophia S. Scripturae, published in 1666. Essentially, Meyer tried to overcome the schisms in Christianity, predicated on differing interpretations, by developing a method that would lead to a single interpretation.
*Spinoza, in contrast, wanted to make room for a multiplicity of interpretations, in order to prevent the Calvinists from legislating scripture.
*Current politicians both sought to enact laws based on scripture, and to fashion national history after sacred history, so as to turn it into the story of a New Jerusalem. Yet, there was a significant split between the biblicists, who believed (roughly), that Scripture needed to based on text, language, etc., and the Enthusiasts, who claimed to be moved by the Spirit to find the proper interpretation.

Chapter 2: Meyer
*Essentially, Meyer sought to apply Cartesian rationalism to the Bible, in order to find the true interpretations. He began with Cartesian doubt, discarding Descartes's own doubts about the possibility/wisdom of solving theological difficulties through his method.
*He came up with a reader-oriented theory. The reader's interpretations were the site of meaning in the text, and the interpretations possible depended on the resources brought to it by the reader.
*So he proceeds from the assumption that the text is infallible. If we were to doubt that, we would be making merely historical arguments about the text.
*He then critiques theologians, saying they're not nearly attentive enough to the ambiguities of sentence structure, the ways in which meaning can be obscured because we can't hear it spoken, etc.
*He also questioned the tendency to use one text to interpret another, arguing that their intentions may be different.
*Essentially, one interprets atomized sections of text, which may or may not be interconnected, hoping to find the intention.
*All meanings found in the text are true meanings, yet the meanings found in the bible must be subject to analysis by natural reason. (He operates under the assumption of Scriptural exceptionalism.)
*We have – though he doesn't explain how – certain innate ideas or truths about the nature of God and the sacred, that we look to find confirmed in the Scripture. Scripture must be interpreted in accordance with the “internal witness” of reason.
*And yet, despite this, he thinks it impossible to have a properly critical stance toward the bible without outside knowledge.

Chapter 3: Conservative Reactions
Basically, Meyer pissed everyone off, but for different reasons.
*The conservatives resented the implication that natural reason or scientific discoveries could at all offer anything to faith, seeing philosophy as one more golden calf, leading the people astray. Thus, they largely shut themselves out of the revolutions being created in the sciences and humanities.
*The conservative reaction isn't particularly interesting. They basically ignored the ways in which Meyer showed interpretation to be problematic, simply reiterating their privileged knowledge of scripture, the power of revelation, and the infallibility of Scripture.
*They also stressed the exceptionalism of Scripture, arguing that, while meaning might be unclear in other text, the authors of the bible were the penmen of God, so the text was absolutely clear.
*Finally, they also interpreted Scripture through Scripture, ignoring Meyer's argument against such practices, and suggestions that arguments must be accessible to all.
*The reasons are more interesting. First, the fact that Scripture needed interpretation at all contradicted the basic protestant principle that each man is a priest. So the establishment was interested in disclaiming any interpretive work, insofar as possible.
*Yet, Calvinism was an imported doctrine, making interpretation unavoidable (not sure that exactly made sense).
*So, in sum, they were defending their own authority.

Chapter 4: Liberal Reaction
*First, liberal here mainly means a “determination to engage the intellectual culture at large” (107).
*The liberals were generally a little more sympathetic to Meyer, believing philosophy could be of service to theology, but skeptical as to Meyer's application of it. Preus takes two men as examples: Ludwig Wolzogen (pastor, later professor of theology at university of Utrecht) and van Velthuysen (physician and liberal magistrate).
*Two basic points of liberal counter-critique: 1) ordinary usage, not reason, determines meaning of language. 2) the bible was an irreducibly historical book and had to be analyzed as such.
*Wolzogen: more democratic than Meyer, arguing that all readers were interpreters, by virtue of assigning meaning to words, and thus no authoritative interpreter was needed. Also argued superstition was spawned by theologians who refused to look rationally at religious doctrines.
*Van Velthuysen: no 'truths' contained in bible, according to Meyer's model; rather, only historical facts. Historical truths could not be deduced by reason; rather, they had to be attested to by witnesses. Thus, it was a category mistake to treat the bible philosophically.
*Likewise, meaning was discovered by learning language, usage, outside facts, etc. It was impossible to interpret a text outside of a certain linguistic and historical framework. Wolzogen, who promoted ordinary language interpretation, made the claim that, since God had deigned to communicate via human language, it was only appropriate to interpret.
*The analogy is basically to the order of a emperor. We know we must obey his commands, but it is appropriate to ask after their meaning and context. We may not understand everything, because God decided to produce one Bible for all time, with parts written in particular contexts, yet we're bound to it.
* In essence, we must interpret the /bible through reason, in order for it to be accessible. To claim divine inspiration is to be an Enthusiast.
*In sum: Liberals were in favor of rational readings, without being rationalists, advocated learning the languages, and treating the text historically as an object with a long, and complex history that shaped the form that it took.

Chapter 5:Spinoza's Naturalized Bible
This chapter essentially shows how Spinoza synthesizes Meyer, and critiques of Meyer, in order to form TTP.
*To recap: The conservatives had disengaged from the text and history, while the liberals protested the tendency to use the text to awaken preexisting ideas in the mind, arguing instead that meanign must me excavated from the text. Though Spinoza obviously sided with the latter, he went further than them, because he was not held back by the desire to read the meaning of the text in the present, or any belief in scriptural exceptionalism.
*Spinoza turned to natural history in order to expand the notion of interpretation to include history, language, previous interpretation, etc., in what went into interpretive work. Essentially, he was out to subvert the dogmatism of his time, not reject it.
*So, can't start with infallibility of text; must start with its history.
*While there are some overlaps with Meyer, such as Spinoza's belief that one can identify general truth – such as love, justice, and charity in the Bible – Spinoza didn't have any beliefs nearly as extensive as Meyer's claim that the mind possesses a series of truth that the text triggers memory of.
*Rather than Meyer's rationalism (which Preus saw as an echo of Maimonides), Spinoza took a “bottom up” approach, modeled after Bacon, taking the scripture as a source of data out of which a hypothesis could be formed.
*Preus suggests that Spinoza chose to create a natural history of scripture – which Bacon had not – in order to highlight to his friends the difference between his stance and Meyer's.
*Spinoza also said at some point that “the interpreter of the text is like the studier of nature,” meaning that each is a self-contained system which must be studied as a discrete entity. The bible is a system of meanings that presuppose a certain worldview.
*This worldview was teleological, tending to anthropomorphize God. Only by understanding that writers were superstitious and modeled their cosmos after person experience is it possible to understand the text. Thus, the text is sui interpres, in that its interpretation is derived from itself.
*Spinoza thus attacked philosophers for promoting superstition.
*Spinoza supported Meyer's dismissal of divine guidance in interpretation by pointing out that the original participants in history had no need of the spirit; rather, they witnessed biblical events in real time.
*There is no sacred history, and the canon is a historical construct, whose sacredness was determined by finite groups in specific situations. Thus, Scripture is not necessarily binding in the present.
*Deceptively, cleverly, Spinoza used the language of discovering the 'intention' of the text, despite believing there was no god as intender. Contemporary believers, then, were authorized to accommodate the text to fit their own notions of justice, etc.
*Spinoza used anachronism to show the historicity of the text, and argued we can use the Scripture to comment on the present, but only through analogy. Thus, the Old Testament proved that religious functionaries should not have political power and beliefs should not be legislated.
*Preus sees Spinoza as making more radical use of Cartesian and Baconian philosophies, and in doing so, redefining the relation between philosophy and theology. He radically separated the two by making questions of truth and interpretations of textual meaning into separate questions. He also introduced a new theory of religion that made the bible as historical as any other historical religious document.
*Yet, for all that, Spinoza is often accused of having a rationalistic interpretation of religion, largely because of his discussion on miracles, when he suggests a miracle is something that
simply isn't known yet. Still, he thought that necessary for establishing historical truths.

Preus argues Spinoza was relatively ignored because his work failed to conform to either liberal or conservative approaches to history, scripture, though he gives him credit for helping undermine theocracies and create pluralism.

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