Friday, May 23, 2008

Dr. Ben Witherington: Aldersgate Convention 2008: Other-World or After-Life?

Yesterday Nalika and myself attended Dr. Ben Witherington’s public lecture entitled ‘Other-World or After-Life?’ It’s an exposition of Biblical texts and theology that pertain to Dispensationalism’s interpretation of these texts.

He gave a lively introduction on the background of St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. He untangles the interpretation of the ‘rapture’ proof-text 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 to show that the passage is not about the ‘rapture’ phenomena as propagated by the ‘Left-Behind’ series.

He said that St. Paul so smart that he used an imagery of ‘royal visitation’ as understood by the Thessalonians to bring forth his message about Jesus Christ’s second coming to his immediate readers.

That’s really enlightening but it prompted a question in me. So, during the Q&A session, I submitted my question to him.

I was one of the early ones who submitted my question to the moderator (a Methodist pastor who sat next to Dr. Witherington on the stage). But after a while, when many questions have been addressed without mine being raised, I started to doubt.

I signaled to Nalika that probably the moderator don’t want to read my question to Dr. Witherington. She asked why. I told her that’s because it is a complicated question. She asked further, how. I replied, “Extremely”.

After a few more questions being answered it became more and more obvious that my question was being ignored. Nearing the end of the session, the moderator told us that “it is now 9.27pm, let’s call it a night”. I was bewildered, “Hello Mr. Moderator, I submitted my question early than many others, and why am I being ignored?!” I can’t believe that the moderator ignored my question! You don't invite one outstanding NT scholar just to tell you that rapture is not in the NT!

But Dr. Witherington was gracious. Though he had a long day, having conducted an earlier seminar that day, he offered to respond to all the submitted questions, which were at Mr. Moderator’s undue hands.

As Mr. Moderator (literally) trembling and mispronounced a few words while reading out my question, my ears grew in size anticipating Dr. Witherington’s response.

Dr. Witherington,

Early in the session, you said that St. Paul used a “royal” imagery to put forth his message to the immediate readers. How then can we know that that is not merely St. Paul’s imagination but referring to a “real” future event? In other words, how can we make theological conclusion from an ancient person’s mental make up?

Thank you!
(This is what I wrote. Mr. Moderator only read the entire stem questions, without the addressee and addresser)

Dr. Witherington began, “That’s a wonderful question”. And then he paused for a while. Nalika turned to look at me. At that notice, I sensed two major commotions arose within her during that unusually long pause.

I suspect that, first she was impressed that Dr. Witherington remarked that question was “wonderful” (which could be a sarcastic remark). And that, in effect, boosted her curiosity to the max of wondering how would it be addressed. Sensing her commotions, my mind murmured, “Don’t look at me, I’m just as dead curious as you are”.

After the surreal long pause, Dr. Witherington continued (I forgot his precise words but something to this effect), “We can make theological conclusion from the author’s imagination because God has inspired the author’s mental state.”

I can hear my own breath.

There was absolute silent in the crowd. We expect him to spend some time to talk about it since he remarked it being a “wonderful” question. His one-liner response came surprisingly and unexpectedly short. In fact, the crowd didn’t realize that he had finish responding to the question after a while. How do I know that?

Simple. Because some of the people in the crowd chuckled, thinking that the so-called “wonderful” question is not really that wonderful after all. And their chuckles came only after about 3 seconds after Dr. Witherington finished his sentence. That lag of time is obviously too suggestive to my notice. And I can’t help to deem those chuckles as signs of ignorance. I tried not to think like this, but honestly I really think that those who chuckled do not know the complication and significance of the question.

After the event, I met Yip Khiong at the porch. He asked me whether was I the one who raised that “wonderful” question. I told him, “Yes”. And he remarked that, with that response, the next question would be, “how then should we take that ‘inspiration claim’ to be true?” A theological question that I have been trying to figure out all this while.

Later on, while walking towards the MRT station, Nalika curiously asked whether do I think my question has been answered. While still puzzling over Dr. Witherington’s unexpectedly short response, I told Nalika, “Yes and no”.

Later I sent a SMS to Yip Khiong, “…I was not surprise that you suspected that it was me who asked the question. In fact, I suspected that you’ll suspect that when you hear the question…”

He replied, “I suspected you to suspect me suspecting you are the one who asked…I was unhappy with his answer which is an answer that appears to fail to take your question seriously, failed to address the point…”

Anyway, if chance allows, I might be able to asked Dr. Witherington that next question tomorrow. And if not, I hope that he gives a more extensive address in ‘The Living Word of God’, which I bought at the seminar’s books table sales.


Steven Sim said...

Early in the session, you said that St. Paul used a “royal” imagery to put forth his message to the immediate readers. How then can we know that that is not merely St. Paul’s imagination but referring to a “real” future event? In other words, how can we make theological conclusion from an ancient person’s mental make up?

Actually, I would have difficulty answering that question because it seemed to be a false dilemma question. And the way you frame it - waws it Paul's imagination - that was a very suggestive choice you make me choose.

Paul was definitely "imagining" the future coming of Jesus but that doesn't mean he SAW into a real future like in the case of a vision, but rather, (probably) taking Jesus' words (or a known/strong tradition)based on Mat10:23, that he (Jesus) will return within their lifetime presumably, Paul constructed an imagery (imagination??) of how Jesus would have returned based on Jewish tradition of angels and trumpets fusing them with the idea of royal visitation that time.

So I would say yes, he did imagine/cook up the manner with which Jesus would return, but he also faithfully (rightly or wrongly) believed that Jesus would return soon.

Steven Sim

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Steven,

I share the same thought as you. And precisely that prompted me to ask the theological question: how can we make theological conclusion from an ancient person’s mental make up?

That means I'm curious how reliable is St.Paul's imagination for us to construct theology?

And by 'theology' I mean "true statement about God, eschatology, Christology etc".

The Inquisitor said...

I think the question is unfair, because it is fundamentally not a theological question but a philosophical one which analytic philosophers struggles with.

When and under what conditions do marks, inks and sounds waves becomes words? When there is a "mental idea" attached to it? (John Locke)? Is it a public social practice? (Wittgenstein)Or is it a platonic truth function object of its own? (Tarski) Or is language a sort of function which attaches truth functions to symbols? (Lewis)

What's the relationship between cognitive meanings and references? Or the "sense" of the word and its "reference"?

E.g. The word "superman" and "clarke kent" refers to the same person. Clarke Kent=superman. But their meanings are not the same. That's why though Lax Luther believes that superman is his enemy it is not identical with believing that clarke kent is his enemy. How can this be? What's the relation between the mental "sense" and its reference?

Such puzzles is not to be debated by theologians by settled by linguist. I think your question is a bit unfair to him

Steven Sim said...

I spent the whole morning trying to tell him that the question was unclear and his blog post made it unfair to BW.

I gave up...

Steven Sim

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Dom,

I don't know why do you say the question is unfair. First, that's a theological question, especially when you are trying to locate St Paul's theology from his writings, for eg. to find a 'central' theme in his thoughts.

Perhaps, analytic philosophers are discussing some similar topics too but that does not mean the issue should strictly be identified as one.

And BW3 is playing a linguist role when he is spending all his life studying ancient texts.