On Typology: A Polemic

Tony Sig

A couple months ago, Ben Myers wrote a dandy post against the types of books that force students to read, not the primary sources about which they are supposedly to learn, but books talking about them.

“Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one?”

Spot on. To the “student book” I would like to add another problematic form of writing that does pretty much the same thing, with the results, if anything, being more sinister. This form is common in the same student books but exists outside of them as well: Namely, the organization of theologians and their thought into typologies. Myers again, in a more recent post, lays out a new atonement typology in patristic thought contra Aulen, yet having laid out a more complex scheme says:

“Even from these summaries, one can see that these themes are normally found not as separate ideas but as closely interwoven motifs.”

Myers, I think, sees the work that his typology can do, but in the very act of constructing a new one is able to see the myriad ways his improved scheme falls short of accurately and fully describing the works under discussion.

But it’s not simply that typology cannot accurately represent the works that fall under its sway that riles me up – surely one should be able to accurately summarize a view without it being some kind of betrayal –  it’s that once a theologian or work has been typologized and the scheme imbibed into the academic bloodstream, it becomes unnecessary for the student or pastor to bother with the thinkers who fall into the ‘bad’ category. As with the ‘student book,’ we no longer need bother with primary sources, but not having read them, we can roundly dismiss them!

A classic example of this can be found in the way Anselm is routinely marginalized as a proto-evangelical who (from scratch!) came up with “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Here we see not only the influence of Aulen but also the neo-patristic synthesis of modern Orthodox theologians. (One of David Bentley Hart’s lasting labor may be in his multiple defenses of Anselm and Duns Scotus against such typologies)

Speaking of the Orthodox, we also often see typology being used in service of declension narratives; yet using them this way works as a kind of shortcut past the harder work of constructing a disciplined genealogy. Even in the sustained work of Hans Frei or Karl Barth it’s not hard to feel that something is lost in the anti-liberalism – this despite the post-liberal I am.

The surest way around these problems seems to me to be to adhere to this dictum: Primary sources are for everyone, secondary sources are for specialists.

Ancient Documents and Magic Words Syndrome

Tony SigI was reading a journal article for my Latin class and was again reminded of something that I’ve been ruminating on for a while.  Historiography continues to fascinate me and is something I hope to dedicate plenty of energy to.  One of the most questionable activities that many historians and exegetes like to play around with is what I like to call “Magic Words Syndrome.”  If you’ve ever been reading a commentary and the exegete postulates an entire literary history for a document (in time, a critical edition of the text might be produced) we don’t have, belonging to a theoretical community we don’t know about, coming from an original oral source we’re unaware of, all based on a tiny handful or even a couple of words, then you know what I mean when I say Magic Words Syndrome.

This shows up in postulating “dependence” and “allusion” as well.

What is it about the fact that a document is in Greek or Latin that makes people believe that authors didn’t actually use language in some comparable way to the way we learn and use a language?  Nobody looks at three words in Joyce’s Ulysses and does this.  That’s because he wrote in English, and English is familiar to us, we use it with very little thought or in general, attention to detail.  Could you ever imagine someone arguing like this? –

“You see how Joyce uses “in the yard” here?  Clearly he is alluding to passage X in work Y who too uses “in the yard” in similar circumstances, that is, the protagonist is in fact coming into a yard.  Furthermore we know, based on person Z who is a contemporary of Joyce, that the use of work Y was “in the air” and broadly known of by crazed Irish intellectuals despite the fact that it is far from clear whether Joyce himself knew about work Y.  Either way, my argument does not depend on this. My own footnoted person T wrongly asserts that here Joyce is relying on work W because W uses “into the yard,” the preposition clearly shows that her reading is foolish nonsense.  Academic person H has argued, unconvincingly in my opinion, that the original form of the phrase in work W was “in the yard,” but the best sources all say “into,” thus this need not change our rendering. Furthermore it is my contention that “in the yard” needs to be understood according the neo-platonic use of the yard to signify the Elysian Fields, popular at the time in France, which surely Joyce knew about, himself being very familiar with random French neo-platonists.”

Now of course academics can often legitimately pick up an allusion.  The other day I successfully recognized one to Wesley on Facebook hidden in a stack of comments.  But that doesn’t change the fact that very often I think these kinds of papers and books are operating with a kind of reasoning that doesn’t take into consideration the way people actually use language.  It certainly doesn’t strike me as convincingly historical.  Partly this springs from the readings I did a few years back on hermeneutics.  It escapes me that entire worlds can be extracted from so little.  It seems like irresponsible reading to me.

All this to say, I need to read more on the writing of history.  de Certeau here I come!