Evangelical Sociolect and Shibboleth

Posted by Vlad December - 26 - 2009 - Saturday

Every community has its own language, a way to affirm itself and demarcate insiders from outsiders. It is as true in high school cliques as in religious groups, and though it’s hard to fault people for simply being people in the latter case it is harder to swallow, especially when the jargon is clothed in personal piety (or superiority). The illegitimacy of it all is underscored by some concluding reflection in Bill Mounce’s brief discussion of emphatic pronouns in the Matthean makarisms. He writes (on his own site and Koinoniablog.net, 12/14/2009):

Notice that it does not say, “Blessed are those who have had a conversion experience, for theirs is the kingdom.” In fact, Jesus later says that many who claim to have done great things for him are in fact strangers (Matt 7:23). What will you do with this?

My suggestion is to first of all confirm that I correctly understand the emphatic use of αυτος. (I am.) Secondly, ask yourself if your theology can handle this. If you have been following my blog for very long, you have probably gleaned that I am moderately reformed. But what I most try to be is biblical, and the Bible says that God shows mercy only to those who have shown it themselves. That the only people who will be filled are those who hunger and thirst for [His] righteousness. That the only ones who will inherit the kingdom are those who are poor in spirit and have been persecuted for that fact.

Talk of this kind is often met with angry blog comments, but the fact of the matter is that this is what the Greek text says. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs, and theirs alone, is the kingdom of God.”

If a person’s theology can’t handle that, then their theology is simply wrong. How does the emphatic αυτος fit your theology?

Why expect angry comments? I think the same exegetical theological point could be made in a way to avoid them, but Mounce is not clothing his insight in the right context, in the story that his moderately to myopically Reformed readers find self-affirming. I’m truly curious why this is so, since I don’t think Mounce’s rather broad theological point comes, straightforwardly, from this particular text. Indeed, he may be putting too much weight on this pericope, to say nothing of the pronoun.

James Dunn addresses the language game of saved-ness thus:

It would be a mistake to take any one of Paul’s metaphors and to exalt it into some primary or normative status so that all the others must be fitted into its mould. Something like this has indeed happened with the metaphor of justification in classic Protestant theology. In popular evangelism it has happened with the metaphors of salvation and new birth. In such cases there is an obvious danger. The danger is that the event of new beginning in faith comes to be conceptualized as of necessity following a particular pattern, the same for everyone. Equally dangerous is the assumption often made that the same language or imagery must always be used, that experience of individuals must conform to the language which describes it. Instead of diversity of experience and imagery there can be pressure to reduplicate both pattern and jargon, in effect to mass reproduce believers according to a standard formula. No so with Paul. For him the crucial transition was a many-sided event, and not necessarily the same for any two people. And it required a whole vocabulary of words and metaphors to bring out the richness of its character and the diversity of individual cases.—James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 332

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.