Friday, December 21, 2012

My Review of Edward Feser's work The Last Superstition (Abbreviated)

Firstly, I would like to thank Dr. Feser for producing a work that effectively (for the most part) dismantles the fragile straw house of ideas that has been constructed by the so-called "new atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens). Feser employs wit, mental acuity and reason to refute the claims made by Dawkins and company. I have enjoyed reading his work, although like any other book, it has strong points and weaknesses. In reviewing this publication, I have pointed out what I perceive to be strengths or weaknesses.

1. The discussion on nominalism versus realism (theory of universals) was one of the best parts of Feser's book. While I do not agree with his depiction of nominalism in toto, I believe that the discussion is relatively simple. The author's illustration of realism which involves the example of a rubber ball was excellent. Since I teach undergraduates, I really appreciated his approach and how it helps one to understand the Aristotelian or Platonic claims regarding universals. See pages 57-62 for Feser's treatment of Aristotelian hylomorphism along with a discussion of both moderate and extreme realism.

2. Feser also critiques the Humean "attack" on causation/causality (pages 105-110). David Hume (1711-1776) argues that he is able to conceive a thing (a bowling ball, for example) coming into existence without a cause. However, Feser addresses this "argument" by noting that Hume is conflating or confusing the verb "conceive" with the verb "imagine." But the two actions delineated by the respective verbs "conceive" and "imagine" clearly are not the same acts. It is conceptually possible to grasp the concept of a "chiliagon" (a thousand-sided figure) but that does not mean it is conceptually possible to form a distinct mental image of a chiliagon. Hume's argument suggests that he fails to understand this important distinction.

3. The Last Superstition continuously exploits the notion of Aristotelian final causality. The final cause is the telos (i.e. end, result, goal, function or purpose) of a thing. One might say that an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn or that the final cause of a human embryo is a full grown adult. Aristotle believed that most everything in our natural world has a final cause: trees, humans, animals, and artificial objects all have a telos. Thomas Aquinas thus used Aristotle's thought on causes to build a case for the existence of God via unaided natural reason. See pages 114-119 of Feser's work.

4. Having mentioned some positive things about Feser's work, please allow me to include some critical feedback in this portion of my review. Feser has a wry sense of humor. Sometimes his jokes hit the mark and sometimes they do not. There are paragraphs in this book wherein the sarcasm and cockiness just drips like water. Some of the remarks are indeed amusing. Moreover, Dawkins and company probably deserve the sarcasm directed at them. Nevertheless, I would have loved to see less sarcasm, less of a smart-alecky tone and more seriousness pertaining to the task at hand.

5. Feser might also have stayed on task a little more rather than being diverted by political issues or didactic moralizing about contemporary moral topics. The arguments that he makes, for example, against abortion do not contribute directly to his general thesis, although I concur with his take on the issue.

6. Finally, Feser responds to the new atheists on the subject of mind. He contends that universals must exist and if they do in fact exist, then our thoughts about triangularity or squareness (two universals) must be immaterial. After making these observations, Feser maintains that neuroscientific findings cannot rightly be used to refute this Aristotelian and Thomist concept since Aquinas is not doing science (understood in the modern sense of the word) but metaphysics when he insists that universals especially qua concepts and the mind cannot be material things. I do not agree when Feser says that the findings of neuroscience (for instance) should not count against Aristotelian metaphysical demonstrations. Nor does it seem that one must construe mental concepts as immaterial, based on what neuroscience and reflections from modern philosophy of mind have yielded. The findings of neuroscience (like other forms of human knowledge) are provisional. But accounts regarding consciousness being a higher-level brain process have already been developed by philosophers and neuroscientists.


Monday, December 17, 2012

Gospel of Mark's Rhetorical Style

The Gospel of Mark is generally portrayed as being plain or uncultivated and even ungrammatical at points. In his NIB commentary on Mark, Larry Hurtado observes:

"To begin with basics, Mark's account is heavily narrative, conveying the feeling of fast-paced action. His Greek style is simple and unsophisticated, using many simple sentences connected by the word for 'and.' A comparison of events found in Mark and in the other Gospels will show that his version often seems wordy and less well constructed" (page 11).

However, Hurtado offers this qualification of his opening statements regarding the literary style of Mark:

"Yet, Mark did employ certain techniques that demonstrate some skill and literary intent. As we shall see, he sometimes quotes, but more frequently alludes to, the OT and seems to have expected his readers to be sufficiently familiar with it to appreciate these allusions" (ibid.).

(1) According to Hurtado, Mark's Gospel is "heavily narrative" and fast-paced. Therefore, we would expect certain literary devices or discourse markers to be present in Mark and they are. Indeed, one feature of the Gospel of Mark that is striking is the writer's continual use of the Greek EUQUS. It is no wonder that A. T. Robertson (A Grammar of the Greek NT) writes:

"broken and parenthetic clauses are frequent (cf. 7:19 KAQARIZWN); at times he is pleonastic (2:20 TOTE EN EKEINH TH hHMERA); he uses EUQUS (W. H.) 41 times; he is emotional and vivid, as shown by descriptive adjectives, questions and exclamations (cf. 1:24; 2:7); the intermingling of tenses (9:33ff., EPHRWTA . . . LEGIE . . . EIPEN) is not due to ignorance of Greek or to artificiality, as Swete well says, but to 'a keen sense of the reality and living interest of facts; there are 151 historic presents in the W. H. text against 78 in Matthew and 4 in Luke; there is frequent and discriminating use of prepositions (2:1, 2, 10, 13); the connective is usually KAI rather than DE, seldom OUN; there is little artistic effect, but much simplicity and great vividness of detail; the vernacular KOINH is dominant with little literary
influence, though EIPEN, PAIDIOQEN and OYIA are held so by Norden" (pp. 118-119).

(2) It has often been said that Mark's account of Jesus' life contains ungrammatical constructions. But one scholar, who challenges this charge, is David A. Black. Black faces this oft-mentioned criticism of Mark by utilizing the tools of discourse analysis and descriptive linguistics. Black's essay can be found in Linguistics and NT Interpretation: Essays on Discourse Analysis. Nashville: Broadman
Press, 1992.

The name of Black's study is "Discourse Analysis, Synoptic Criticism, and Markan Grammar: Some Methodological Considerations" on pp. 90-98 of the above referenced publication, which he edits along with Katharine Barnwell and Stephen Levinsohn.

Discourse analysis refers to the inspection of macrostructures (i.e. phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and entire compositions) as opposed to lexemes or individual units of sound-meaning (otherwise known as words). Richard A. Young points out that discourse analysis examines genre, structure, cohesion, propositions, relations, prominence, and setting as well.

Discourse analysis is a top-down approach to communicative situations. It probes context (the socio-political and religious climate or Sitz im Leben), the co-text (literary context of a text) and the text itself rather than simply focusing on the potential significations of sound-forms.

In any event, Black avails himself of discourse analytical principles and a descriptivist approach (linguistically) to refute the charge that Mark's Greek is ungrammatical at times. I highly recommend his essay along with Robertson's big grammar which contains information on each NT book and its style. Moreover, Nigel Turner has penned a book on style that also deserves consideration.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Revelation 22:3 and Daniel 7:27

George W. Buchanan contends that the singular third person pronoun in Rev 22:3 (AUTWi) could refer to God or to the Lamb: he does not argue that the pronoun must refer to both referents or antecedents.

One line of reasoning that indicates God receives LATREIA, writes Buchanan, is the fact that the hOI DOULOI could potentially be priests of God, and then they would be rendering LATREIA to the God whom they serve as priests and "slaves" (Rev 1:5-6).

On the other hand, Buchanan continues, Dan 7:27 (LXX) shows that the present nations and governments will one day become "subject to the saints and, of course, also to their leader, the Son of Man, who is here [Rev 22:3] called the Lamb" (Buchanan 612ff).

Buchanan thus seems to argue that strictly speaking the "saints" (holy ones) of the Most High actually receive the honor and obedience mentioned at Dan 7:27; but it seems that he wants to suggest that by the nations subjecting themselves to the holy ones, they also by default render homage to the leader of the holy ones. In this regard, Buchanan may be correct. But this line of reasoning does not seem to demonstrate that the Son of Man is the one who receives LATREIA in Rev 22:3. LATREIA is evidently not mentioned in Dan 7:27.

As Buchanan continues, however, it becomes clear that he is not claiming that the Messiah technically is worshiped or is ever ontologically on par with the Divine One. He appeals to his notion of forensic agency in which one has a principal and a legal agent to establish this point.

The legal agent may receive deference that is really directed toward the principal. But this fact does not indicate that the legal agent is equal (ontologically) to the principal. The concept of legal agency may well illustrates the relationship between the Father and the son of God. At any rate, it is clear that Buchanan is in no way arguing that the Lamb receives worship as the Father receives worship (LATREIA). But as we have also established hitherto, God is the most likely referent of AUTWi in Rev 22:3. He is the one whose face will be seen by those who are part of the first resurrection (1 Jn 3:1-3; Rev 20:4-6). God likely is the object of priestly LATREIA.

As a side note: Edward J Young (The Prophecy of Daniel: A Commentary) writes that the antecedent of the pronoun in the latter part of Dan 7:27 "is people, not Most High."

Louis Hartman and Alexander Di Lella (Anchor Bible Commentary on Daniel) also note that the pronominal suffix of MALKUTEH refers to 'AM ('people') and not to the Most High. It thus seems possible that both the Hebrew text and the LXX say the "holy ones" are obeyed in Dan 7:27.

Source: Buchanan's Mellen Series Commentary on Revelation