Thursday, February 06, 2020
WM 151: Review: McDonald on Erasmus, the CJ, Foucault, and "Epistemes"
WM 151: Review: McDonald on Erasmus, the CJ, Foucault, and “Epistemes” has been posted. Listen here.
This episode is a reading of a draft of my review of:
Grantly McDonald, Biblical Criticism in Early Modern Europe: Erasmus, the Johannine Comma and Trinitarian Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016): 384 pp.
Here is the closing analysis:
This work represents a significant contribution to the reception history of the Johannine Comma from Erasmus to the present. Any future study of this controversial New Testament passage will need to consult, benefit from, and make reference to this work. This reviewer is especially appreciative of McDonald’s debunking of the Erasmian “myths” that have developed relating to his inclusion of the comma in the third edition of the Dutch scholar’s Greek New Testament, as well those relating to the history and influence of Codex Montfortianus.
One of the most intriguing ideas put forward by McDonald in this study is his analysis and application of Michael Foucault’s concept of the “episteme” to understand the division that has resulted over the acceptance of the comma. An “episteme” is defined as “an internally consistent mode of conceiving the world that determines which questions may conceivably be asked, and thus judged to be either true or false” (146). In what he calls “the premodern episteme” critical thought was “subordinated to a theological a priori” (146). This meant, for example, “it was almost inconceivable to doubt the inspiration of Scripture” (146). With the development of the historical-critical method, beginning with Richard Simon and Baruch Spinoza, critical questions were disconnected from theological ones. Though McDonald does not use this term, we might call it the “modern episteme.” Rather than one episteme neatly yielding sequentially to the next, as Foucault envisioned it, McDonald suggests that “the episteme that existed before Spinoza and Simon never ended. Rather their work fractured the hermeneutical consensus, leading to a situation in which two epistemes came to exist in parallel” (147). McDonald describes these two parallel epistemes as follows:
One maintains an essentially premodern attitude towards Scripture, submitting judgement in textual matters to the ultimate criterion of doctrine, while the other has accepted, internalized and built upon the insights of Spinoza and Simon, using the tools of philology, history and sociology to illuminate the beginnings of Christianity (147).
He concludes, “I suggest that many of the conflicts between academic liberal critics and conservative apologists arise out of a basic epistemological incompatibility” (147). It is this fundamental “epistemological incompatibility” that compels disagreement over the Johannine Comma as those who hold the “premodern episteme” continue to a affirm it, while those who hold the “modern episteme” continue to reject it.
According to McDonald then, the reception of the comma represents a proverbial “fork in the road.” As he puts it, “One path was followed by those who insisted on the providential preservation of Scripture. The other was taken by those who believe that Scripture, whatever its source, is subject to the same process of transmission as any other text” (12). The story that results is one of “constantly competing claims, in which outcomes are rarely clear and motives are often obscure” (12).
McDonald is hardly sympathetic to those who continue to uphold the comma against the modern scholarly “consensus”, held since the mid-twentieth century, that the “three heavenly witnesses” passage is a spurious and late “interpolation” (9). He associates renewed debate over the comma to the “revival of the Christian right,” conspiracy theories, and internet discussions, where it has become a “hot-button issue” (9). McDonald suggests, “As a result of an informational cascade amongst non-scholarly believers, the divide between academic consensus and lay conviction is growing” (9). What McDonald does not explicitly seem to acknowledge is that he is hardly a neutral observer. He holds, in fact, to the “modern episteme,” which he so helpfully describes. Nevertheless, McDonald is to be thanked not only for his historical review of the various clashes over the comma, but also for his insights on the epistemological divide over this matter. To paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, when we come to the comma as a fork in the road, the path we take does indeed make all the difference.
Jeffrey T. Riddle, Pastor, Christ Reformed Baptist Church, Louisa, Virginia