A Good Warning for Bloggers and Dissertation Writers

John Frame in “Machen’s Warrior Children,” regarding theological polemics in his community (and, let’s face it, ours):

Overall, the quality of thought displayed in these polemics has not been a credit to the Reformed tradition. Writers have gone to great lengths to read their opponents’ words and motivations in the worst possible sense (often worse than possible) and to present their own ideas as virtually perfect, rightly motivated and leaving no room for doubt. Such presentations are scarcely credible to anybody who looks at the debates with minimal objectivity.

Writing a dissertation presents many temptations to misrepresent one’s opponents. But, as Alan Jacobs has pointed out in his A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, loving my neighbor as myself means working to understand him in the best light.

Jacobs opens his work with a description of a scene from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Don John has made it appear that Hero, who is to be married the next day to Claudio, is a fornicator. Jacobs comments:

Only Hero and Don John (the innocent victim and the villain) actually know that the charge of fornication is false.

Or do they alone know? That depends on what counts as knowledge. The first to speak on Hero’s behalf—after her own father, Leonato, has accepted the charges against her (“Would the two princes lie, and Claudio lie?” [l. 153]—is the Friar who was to officiate at the ceremony:

Hear me a little:
For I have only been silent so long,
And given way unto this course of fortune,
By noting of the lady. I have mark’d
A thousand blushing apparitions
To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames
In angel whiteness beat away those blushes,
And in her eye there hath appeared a fire
To burn the errors that these princes hold
Against her maiden truth. Call me a fool;
Trust not my reading nor my observations,
Which with experimental seal doth warrant
The tenure of my book ; trust not my age,
My reverence, calling, nor divinity,
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error. (ll. 155–169)

It should register with us that the Friar lays no claim to some intuited gnosis or supernatural revelation divorced from the realm of the senses. Like Claudio and Don Pedro, he derives his judgment from what he sees, and he sees what they do: Claudio, as noted, has spoken of Hero’s blushes, but has interpreted them differently. And what the Friar calls attention to here is precisely the importance of interpreting the sensory phenomena correctly, and, moreover, the need for the interpreter to possess certain virtues in order to ‘read’ Hero’s blushes as they should be read—which is to say, in accordance with the truth of the situation and of her character.” 3–4

Jacobs points out that Beatrice is also certain of her friend’s innocence, but not for the same reasons as the friar. It is her “intimate personal knowledge of Hero” which makes her sure that Hero is blameless. 5

Benedick, for his part, trusts Claudio’s character and Beatrice’s. He eventually sides with Beatrice and the Friar. He “comes to share their conviction by acknowledging their claims to interpretive and moral discernment.” 8

“This scene from Much Ado About Nothing provides,” Jacobs says, “a remarkably comprehensive outline of a hermeneutics of love.” 8

So love believes the best, and love provides knowledge that empiricism misses. A high standard!

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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