Scripture as “Language” and MLK50
Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was an English philosopher of history and an essayist who has always been considered “a bit outside the mainstream of the conservative movement.” It has been said that he was a thinker who went beyond politics. While he remains little discussed by modern conservatives, his writings, particularly on the nature of historical inquiry, remain prescient. Oakeshott may also offer guidance for issues now facing American Christianity, specifically the discussion surrounding the recent MLK50 conference, and subsequent conversations. In this article, I suggest that Oakeshott’s thinking may even help Christians remain consistent in their own thought.
According to Oakeshott, there are two kinds of history. One is “what actually happened.” Another stands for a kind of inquiry, a mode of understanding, which “is not merely an attitude or a point of view…. It is an autonomous manner of understanding.”1
In this view, historical inquiry is explanatory (chiefly of the human condition), not an exercise in seeking guidance from past experience. Experience, of course, does often guide but that guidance is not primarily historical. “[E]ven the most severely ‘historical’ concern with the past is still liable to be compromised by seeking the answer to questions which are not historical questions and by asides and even judgments which belong to some other mode of understanding.”2
Oakeshott sought to counter the primacy of the practical (politics) in thought. Rather there are multiple modes through which life can be understood. As a historian, Oakeshott understood himself to be examining the past without ulterior motive. In his mind, this is what distinguishes the historian from other thinkers who look to the past to provide specific guidance for their practical concerns. Oakeshott stood athwart the predominate view that human undertakings must be viewed in terms of their practical benefit.
The true Oakeshottian sets aside preoccupation with practical concerns, thus elucidating an impractical past. This is not to say that the historian ceases to have practical concerns. “Past… is an understanding of present in terms of change it may be perceived to record or to conserve.”3 The impracticality of examining history through Oakeshottian glasses is immensely “practical” because it teaches by example to answer the real human need: understanding of self. This meaning-focused and purposeful view of history. gives us a vocabulary of “self-understanding and self-expression.”4
Oakeshott’s conviction was that humans are notoriously bad at understanding themselves, especially their limitations, and that they fail most evidently in this when they attempt to erect structures aimed at a utopian future. This is particularly acute, in Oakeshott’s view, in modern ideological politics.
To truly understand ourselves, we must detach from “the self-forgetting tasks of practical life, that always beckon us, and look at ourselves from a different angle.”5 We must stand back from the world in order for the important truths of the world to emerge. Examining one’s self from the standpoint of a different mode of thinking (of which there are many, but Oakeshott predominantly focused on philosophy and history) inherently realizes that humans find meaning outside of themselves. If we fail to do so, we passively submit to the view that politics, the practical way of life (“making one’s way in the world”), is our only source of meaning.
Thus, for Oakshott, studying political theory or history to dig for contemporary policy recommendations negates their real worth, that being teaching the student about the human condition.6 Their uses as modes of thinking are valuable insofar as they allow the examiner to know something meaningful about himself; something about the moral condition; for example,”Xerxes did die and so must I.”7
“In his classroom, Oakshott forbid the study of political and historical texts until the character of these modes of thinking were rightly understood,”8 and until the student could be “emancipat[ed] from the primordial and once almost exclusive practical attitude of mankind.9 The student was to learn a way of thinking and appraisal that was detached from the end of being equipped for practical use. The great texts were not a depository of practical instructions, but rather ways of thinking (or “languages” as Oakshott phrased it).10
That being said, the great texts were not chained to their own time, but had value beyond sociological phenomenon; they offered eternal truth because they did not dwell on issue of momentary concern, but explained the human condition. As Timothy Fuller has observed, Oakeshott’s way of thinking “is compatible with the Platonic/Augustinian idea that meaning is not constituted in the interminable course of temporal events, but elsewhere.”11
He also rejected Marxist historicism, as well as Whig history, by holding that history’s job is not to justify a present state of affairs via narratives of progress towards a particular desired end. Progressive theories about the end of history written from the standpoint of the author’s context, aren’t historical. They are retrospective politics. Oakeshott’s history is a distinct mode of interpreting human conduct because it is detached from utopian ends. It is a discipline with its own subject matter.
R.G. Collingwood’s argument that history is the discipline dedicated to the study of the human mind and the historian should not to employ the past toward his own ends but to reconstruct it from the point of view of those who lived it, would have been amenable to Oakeshott.12
Historians in the Collingwood or Oakkeshott mold don’t seek rote memorization of a succession of events. They seek to understand the rational human minds behind actions and thereby understand something more generally about humanity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is one mind common to all individual men. Of the works of this mind history is the record.”
The point is that the discipline of history was not something owned by the inquirer to be wielded about at his leisure for his own ends. Rather it is a mode of thinking that shapes the mind of the inquirer by telling him something different about himself than he could have learned elsewhere. Per Collingwood, “History is for human self-knowledge… The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.”13 Oakeshott’s philosophy of history does not deny the legitimacy of other uses of history such as applied history, per se; rather, in my view, by standing above and prior to other uses it informs them.
Scripture as “Language”
The Christian approach to scripture should be a bit like Oakeshott’s approach to history. The Bible is not a life improvement manual for your best life now. It is a record of God’s dealings with humanity and self-revelation. This is not to deny the literal commands of scripture, nor is it to confine them to a far off context as if they have no bearing on the present. The exact opposite is true if we believe in the activity of the Holy Spirit. What Oakeshott’s view does show us, however, is that this practical application of scripture must be conditioned by the “language” of scripture (or scripture as “language”); its place as the dominant mode of thought.
For example, when we talk about “justice” it must be defined and conditioned in application by the governing language (mode of thought). Our conception of justice must be informed by scripture, rather than our own subjective, momentary perception. Before scripture informs any action it must be ingested and integrated in terms of thought (a way of thinking), which is accomplished incrementally through the objective work of the means of grace, of which the proclamation of scripture is one.
Scripture is not an instrument given to us to make our own. It is the instrument God uses to make us his own (Rom. 10:17), conforming us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:28-30). Scripture of course makes demands of man that require action. It is not ignorant of common human concerns (Heb. 2:18). But in the first instance, its use for us is not as a repository of information to be thrown at modern problems. Scripture is a “language,” a way of thinking to which our minds must be totally conformed (Rom. 12:2, Col. 3:2, 1 Cor. 2:2). It confronts us with the reality of the human condition as it truly is, and then provides the only remedy. All “practical” concerns can only be addressed when informed and defined by, this way of thinking, after the old man has been put off (Eph. 4:22-24).
“Our” Mode of Inquiry
One problem with the current racial reconciliation debate is that much of the discourse is informed by non-scriptural modes of thought couched in scriptural terms. It is not fully informed by scripture as “language.” Certain participants in the debate appear to not have considered scripture in a “detached” fashion; rather they approach scripture as an accepted source of authority in order to find practical suggestions in order to support their practical conclusions or motivations drawn from other modes of thinking, other “languages.”
This point has been made (though not with appeals to Oakeshott) by people like Darrell Harrison and James White, though to no avail. To the shame of reasoned Christian discourse, both men have been effectively ostracized from the debate. Yet, they remain the two most consistent thinkers on the issue, a quality that can be admitted and admired without necessarily affirming any of their conclusions. In both men’s appeals, they espouse a scriptural “language” in opposition to the various, “practical” ways of thinking offered by other participants.
In the context of the racial reconciliation discussion, Darrell Harrison has argued against an emerging theology of sin (and repentance) by proxy between human beings. What is most concerning about such proxy sin talk is that it is antithetical to scripture’s “language” on the subject. In Christian thought there are two sides to human sin that place us squarely in rebellion against God. First, original sin, which is imputed to us through our lineage in Adam (Romans 5:12-21; Psalm 51:5). This guilt condemns us before God from birth prior to and regardless of any personal sin actually committed inside of time (see the Thirty-Nine Articles, IX, stating that everyone “deserveth God’s wrath and damnation” due to “the corruption of the Nature of ever man.”) As Calvin phrased it, “Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath.”14 Scripture provides no other basis for “sin by proxy” other than our Adamic lineage, which is to say human lineage.
Second is the actual sin committed on the individual level then compounds our guilt and adds to our record of sin (our debt for taking honor from God by not honoring him as we justly should) before God for which we must atone. According to Anslem, the two “types” of sin are really two sides of the same coin, one flowing seamlessly from the other: “the sin of Adam was one thing but the sin of children at their birth is quite another, the former was the cause, the latter is the effect.”15
But there is no hope of independent atonement, per Anselm: “But, so long as [man] does not pay for what he has wrongly taken, he remains in fault. Nor does it suffice simply to give back what was taken away, but for the contempt shown he ought to give back more than he took away.”16 And again, “When you render anything to God which you owe him, irrespective of your past sin, you should not reckon this as the debt which you owe for sin. But you owe God every one of those things which you have mentioned.”17
This conception of sin, in both its forms, was established even before Augustine (being the first to speak of sin’s transmission in terms of concupiscence) and Anselm 18 in orthodox Christianity. Irenaeus was a clear precursor: “In the person of the first Adam we offend God, disobeying His precept.”19
Both Catholics and Protestants should agree on this incontrovertible point given that they draw their hamartiology from the same primary sources. God’s divine justice requires atonement, since merely pardoning sin would defy the fact that man as creature owes God a debt of worship and fealty. A substitute of God’s own choosing must be provided.
Speaking of any other form of proxy diminishes the doctrine of original sin and cheapens the atonement of Christ. It skews what scripture teaches about our identity being defined under one of two federal heads, viz. Adam or Christ (1 Cor. 15:22). To develop any other derivative theology of sin and atonement, to speak of sin applying to man or being removed from man’s account any other way is contrary to scripture and confuses the mindset established by scripture through which Christians are to think and view the world.
My original sin is received by nature of me being part of the human race and does not distinguish between any arbitrary sub-designation created by man. My actual sin is committed by me and me alone. And my sin can only be imputed to one person, the God-man Jesus Christ. And in turn righteousness can only be imputed to me by the same Christ. The only one who will stand before the judgment seat and answer for my sins is me. And the only one who can claim the blood of the lamb to cover said sins for myself is me. Christianity has always emphasized, to one degree or another, the focus on the individual’s status before God in this way (see Romans 9:6-13).
The Problem with National Repentance
As shown, thinking of sin in terms of “proxy” is fundamentally averse to a scriptural “language.” Yet, some participants of the racial reconciliation discussion have attempted to justify speaking of sin in this way by scripture, amounting to an inconsistent wedding of two distinct ways of thinking. Therefore, a call for national repentance flowing from speaking of sin, contra scriptural “language,” in terms of proxy is problematic.
C.S. Lewis once shed light on this in his essay on national repentance. Per Lewis, the call for national repentance draws us away from self-examination and contrition, and allows for self-exoneration that is focused on the sins of others. In the context of Lewis’ essay, the young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor (for a Foreign Secretary or a Cabinet Minister is certainly a neighbour). “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing but, first, of denouncing the conduct of others.”20
Misappropriated repentance of this type departs from Biblical ways of thinking and necessarily inserts as justification other modes of thought, whether Marxism or modern progressivism. As Oakeshott held, one independent mode of thought does not necessarily discount or discredit another mode of thought as legitimate or true, but it does exclude it within its own realm of independence. Christians are charged to think only in Biblical “language.” This does not mean that other modes of thought are illegitimate. It just means that they are not “our” modes of thought. We must ask ourselves when talking about racial tensions, historic oppression, politics, and justice in the context of the church (or a Christian conference) which mode of thinking is appropriate to apply.
Far from focusing on the sins of others, scripture drives the sinner into the depths of his own depravity and then points him upward toward the righteousness of Christ. It subsequently produces in the Christian the humility of Christ which responds to oppression with grace and long suffering, serving to heap coals on the heads of the oppressor, burning them with their own shame. Humility and swift forgiveness always convicts the heart of the true Christian because it shows Christ anew to him in the midst of his sins and, like Peter hearing the rooster crow for the third time, plunges him into despair of his sin as a catalyst for renewed repentance.
I have wondered in my observation of the discussion surrounding MLK50 where the preaching of the story of Joseph is. Where is the parable of the Good Samaritan (the narrative hermeneutic of Luke 6:27-41), who was surely the oppressed figure therein but nevertheless acted with Christlikeness toward the aggressor to the condemnation of the other passers by. These passages teach the “language” of scripture.
Certain participants of the racial reconciliation discussion of course believe that they are employing a Biblical worldview. They are applying convictions drawn or reasoned from scripture to life. But they are doing this (in my view) absent scripture’s “language” that comes from accepting scripture in a state of detachment (without ulterior motive) so that it can reform and shape the reader into its own way of thinking that is, in the first instance, unconcerned with practical implications. It is concerned rather with forming a new “language” (rather than a new “literature” per Oakeshott’s usage) in the mind of the believer; it is explaining to them the human condition, among other things. This “language” should be evident in any instance of church discourse. Instead, I see the “language” of the world, which is to say one occupied with politics as the world does politics, and where meaning is drawn solely from one’s political prospects. It is a Christianized worldly “language” that draws from scripture for policy recommendations on the problems that the world’s “language” insists must be addressed.
What I am identifying has manifested itself to varying degrees in various actors. It cannot be blamed on any one person but rather is an indictment of the whole. I also take both “sides” to be genuine in their contentions. Yet, the “language” of scripture seems to only be evident on one pole of the debate, which is largely being shunned. Perhaps that is because that side is exposing something about the self, the human condition, that is all together unsettling, too transcendent and impractical perhaps, to those who are preoccupied with the practical.
(1) Oakeshott, Michael, On History (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), 3.
(2) Ibid., 118.
(3) Ibid., 9.
(4) Ibid., 21.
(5) Timothy Fuller, “Introduction” in On History, xiii.
(6) Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991) 181.
(7) On History, 20.
(8)Fuller, “Introduction,” xvii.
(9) Rationalism in Politics, 171.
(10) Ibid., 209-10.
(11) Fuller, “Introduction,” xix.
(12) The Idea of History, J. Van Der Dussen, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press., 1993 ), 282-302; R. G. Collingwood referred to Oakeshott’s philosophy of history as “a brilliant and penetrating account of the aims of historical thought and the character of its object.”The Idea of History, 153.
(13) Ibid., 10.
(14) Institutes, II.1.8.
(15) On the Virgin Birth and on Original Sin, xxvi.
(16) Cur Deus Homo, Bk. 1. XI
(17) Cur Deus Homo, Bk. 1.XX
(18) See generally On the Virgin Conception and on Original Sin.
(19) Haeres., V, xvi, 3; see also the Augsburg Confession (1530): “It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit. Rejected in this connection are the Pelagians and others who deny that original sin is sin, for they hold that natural man is made righteous by his own powers, thus disparaging the sufferings and merit of Christ.”
(20) Lewis, C.S., “Dangers of National Repentance,” The Guardian, 15 March 1940 in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970), 189.