Posted on: May 22nd, 2023 Either/Or: Levinson vs. Machen

For better and for worse, my theological mind is the product (to some extent) of Westminster Theological Seminary, founded in reaction to the “liberalization” of Princeton Seminary, by J. Gresham Machen (and others) in the 1920’s.

Machen most famous book, perhaps, bears the title Christianity and Liberalism. In it he lays down a stark “either/or”: you can be a Christian, or a liberal, but not both. In this stark, antithetical opposition, you must choose sides: are you a Christian, or are you a liberal?

In the introduction to his 1985 Sinai & Zion: an Entry into the Jewish Bible, Jon Levenson displays a completely different attitude. Describing a situation in which premodern Jewish exegetes of the Hebrew Bible were faced with problems (even contradictions) in the text, Levinson writes:

In the great work of post biblical Judaism, the Talmud, for example, one rabbi doubts that Moses wrote the last eight verses of the Torah on the grounds that he could not have written about his own death and burial. The retort is immediately offered that it was not Moses but God who composed these verses. Moses wrote them down in tears. The revealing point is that the … position [that] assumes that a commitment to tradition does not require the Jew to ignore empirical evidence in the name of an increasingly blind faith. One wonders where the Talmudic sage who voiced the doubt would have stood in the modern dispute, when so much more evidence against mosaic authorship has been developed. In any event doubts or ambivalence about Mosaic authorship of the Torah and a host of other traditional beliefs appear on occasion in medieval commentaries which the tradition accepts. Even the possibility of scribal error in the text of the Torah as it reaches us seems to have occurred to some of the great rabbinic exegetes. It is surely the case that a few of them were willing to entertain the notion that the plain sense of a verse can contradict the normative law (halakhah) which the Talmudic rabbis derived from it. In instances of this sort, what is interesting and possibly enlightening for the modern situation is that awareness of the contradiction does not seem to have dampened the exegetes commitment either to the observance of halakhah or to the exposition of the plain sense of scripture. This would imply that Jewish tradition includes a form of biblical scholarship which is more than mere repetition, rearrangement, or extension of data known through the tradition itself. Tradition, so understood, will include novelty, even contradiction. It will not be fossilized, but vital, growing, and to a certain extent, changing.

John Levinson, Sinai & Zion, 6–7.

Now, this posture of Levinson’s—which resonates quite well with the recent emphasis of David Bentley Hart in his Tradition and Apocalypse—stands in stark contrast to that of J. Gresham Machen. It is, quite simply, vastly superior, not least in its admission that tradition (which here would include the Bible which is always already interpreted) is manifold and diverse, riddled with inconsistencies. (Here we remember that our faith is not in the Bible or in any tradition, but rather in the Lord Jesus Christ.)

To put it simply, you can have Levinson and Hart, or you can have Machen. For me, the choice is clear.

Share Button

Filed under: Bible, Book Notes (& articles, too), philosophy, the Christian Life / Prayer | Comments Off on Either/Or: Levinson vs. Machen