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In Defense of Nuance

As many people know, I have been heavily influenced by the pragmatics revolution in linguistics in the 1970s as well as the cognitive school of linguistics. I don’t agree with everything in each of these schools, both because I am a Christian and also because some of the data from the cognitive neuroscience of language has overturned some of the ideas in each of these views of language. However, I have come to see that forms are not basic to language. What is basic is the thought that lies behind language. It is based in the way in which the mind organizes reality, interacts with others, and many other things.

Common Sense Realism

Needless to say, however, I don’t see this in the hermeneutics of much of evangelicalism today. Indeed, what has been so sad to me is seeing how the patriarchalists/hard complementarians have been so heavily influenced by Common Sense Realism. Given the fact that the development of this system of thought concludes after the Civil War in the attempt to idealize the Confederacy with the Lost Cause writings and groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy. What many people are not aware of is how Common Sense Realism was defended by many people in the south both before and during the Civil War[1]. To understand Common Sense Realism, one must understand that classic empiricism believes that the external world provides sensations to the mind. They are then delivered to a representational element of the mind to which we have access. Common Sense Realism was much more radical in that it denied the representational element of the mind. In essence, our minds have direct access to reality.

To put it bluntly, that is a *very* naive position. In terms of our understanding of reality, our minds have to make sense out of what we are seeing. The rise of gestalt in cognitive psychology at the beginning of the 20th century started the dismantling of this position. To give just a few examples, look at the moving parts of this GIF:

Actually, there *are* no moving parts to look at, because nothing is moving. The reason for this illusion has to do with the way neurons processing color and motion interact. Here is another problem. Look at this picture, and see if you can figure out which monster is bigger: the monster in the front or the monster in the back:

Most people will say that the monster in the back is bigger. However, both monsters are *exactly* the same size. You can get a ruler out an measure if you don’t believe me. If you are starting to see problems with simply saying that you have direct access to reality, you are seeing the problem with Common Sense Realism.

However, these problems are not just limited to vision in human cognition. They also play a role in language processing as well. Let’s take the example of sine wave speech. Here is a recent viral example. Listen to the following audio, and see if you can hear the phrase “Green Needle:”

Now, listen to this audio, and listen for the word “Brainstorm.”

Now, what if I told you that the audio was the same in both of those examples? In fact, it is. I linked to the exact same audio excerpt on YouTube. In fact, whichever of the two you think about before you play this audio, whether “green needle” or “brainstorm” is exactly what you hear. And yet, the audio is *exactly* the same in both instances[2]. This is an example of what is called “Priming” in the psycholinguistics literature. What you hear is determined by the stimulus you receive beforehand, whether from your own thoughts or from someone actually saying the word immediately before the audio is played[3].

But priming also works in terms of meaning in language. Now, much like the “Brainstorm/Green Needle” example above, it has to be relevant to the meaning that a word, phrase, or sentence *could* have in the listener’s mind. So, for example, one time when I was teaching Sunday School class, I did a little experiment to illustrate these things. I asked for two volunteers. I asked them to decide who wanted to go first, and I sent the other person out into the hallway. I gave the first person a list similar to the one below. The directions were to read all of the words in the list, and to define the last word, and write the definition down:

CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Akron Beacon Journal, morning news, paper.

I then sent the first person out in the hallway, brought the second person in, and gave the second person the same task but with a different list similar to the following:

ink, ink jet, laser jet, 8 1/2 x 11, printer, sheet of paper, paper

I then brought the first person back into the room and told them both that they both had the same word to define. I asked them to read their definitions. I mean, they should have the same definitions because they both had the same word. However, their definitions were completely different – and could be easily traced back to the list they read beforehand.

Indeed, priming can even interfere with the retrieval of the meaning of a word or phrase. Consider the study of Devrah Klein and Gregory Murphy who set up an experiment in which two phrases were shown on a screen, and the instructions were to read both words, and once you understood the meaning of the second word, you hit a button. The critical issue in the experimentation was the time it took to recognize the meaning of the second phrase. Basically, it took longer for individuals to understand pairings like than it did for pairings like . The classic interpretation of this experiment is that, in a pairing like , the phrase “shredded paper” interferes with the mind’s ability to retrieve the meaning of “liberal paper[4].”

At this point, it should be obvious that Common Sense Realism has been shredded by cognitive psychology. What we perceive is often *not* what is real, and, indeed, what we perceive often depends upon stimuli that come before our perception of the meaning. However, does that mean that *everything* reduces down to relativism on the basis of our past history and experience?

The answer is no. Obviously, as we have said, the words and sentences must be able to be taken in more than one sense. But could one raise a further objection and say that, on *controversial* issues, we can’t ever come to any concrete conclusions? Again, the answer is no, and for a rather ironic reason: the concept of priming we discussed above. Priming is related to conceptual frames. The real error in all of this thinking is that brain’s knowledge of language is like what you find in a dictionary. The simple reality is that it is more like what you find in an encyclopedia. That is why it is difficult to shift from “shredded paper” to “liberal paper,” because you won’t find anything having to do with “shredded paper” in the encyclopedia entry on “liberal paper.” The reality is that the use of a word like “menu” opens up all the conceptual knowledge associated with a restaurant. It is awkward for a store to speak of a menu of all of the DVDs they carry. However, it makes much more sense to speak of a menu of food that you find in a restaurant. You expect to find words like “ordering your food” to be used with restaurant. Thus, one has to look at the nature of the *all* the encyclopedia entry in order to understand the meaning of a word like “menu” or even a phrase like “ordering your food.”

It is this clustering of words and concepts that is so important to exegesis, and why one must take great care when one does exegesis to ensure that you are constructing the encyclopedia entry properly, and not allowing current controversies in society or something you may have heard about a few hours earlier prime the way you understand the text. The *author* must prime the text, and *he* must be allowed to form the encyclopedia entry. If you don’t allow that, then you are not seeking to understand what the author said.


And yet, there are an entire group of people online basically saying that any attempt to construct the author’s understanding of reality in this way is “nuancing.” For example, take a look at this Tweet I saw a while back:

The sad thing is, often such a position is seen as having a high view of scripture. However, given the information that I just presented, one can easily see that it is not. It reeks of Common Sense Realism. What Summer calls “scripture” is really nothing more than her perception of what scripture means, and nothing more. However, given the information we have just presented, that perception could be simply due to current political controversies priming her to see scripture in that way. In fact, knowing how these patriarchalist/hard complementarians work, they tend present the cultural problems *before* they go to scripture making it highly likely that they are priming the listener to accept their interpretations of scripture. It would be like taking a word like “paper,” and saying it means something like “a sheet 8 1/2” x 11” that you put in a printer to print out documents,” and ignoring phrases like “The New York Times,” “The Wall Street Journal,” and other phrases that are setting up the frame we are talking about in the very same text we are talking about, or in other discussions about the same thing because you think that the sheet of paper interpretation will better fix our societal ills. Peter England is *right* here. You have to look at how scripture sets up the rest of the encyclopedia entry.

In reality, this isn’t serious scholarship. Whenever anyone uses the word “nuancing” in this way, it is a defense mechanism. They don’t want to deal with the reality that their understanding of scripture is easily challenged *by* an appeal to context or the rest of what scripture says. So that they can keep on believing what they believe, they say that any attempt to challenge this interpretation linguistically is “nuancing.” That is why linking submission to government in Romans 13 must be separated from submission to the exploitative Roman taxation system Paul speaks of in the very same text. That is why the texts that speak of children as a blessing must be separated from texts like Proverbs 25:16-17, 27-28 that speak of exercising liminality and moderation in regards to acquiring blessings, and not just acquiring things simply because they are blessing. It is why ανδριζομαι must be stripped of its military context in 1 Corinthians 16:13, and ideas of manhood read into the use of that word in a military frame without the slightest shred of evidence that such a meaning exists within a military frame.

And yet, it isn’t consistent. Imagine a Jehovah’s Witness quoting “The Father is greater than I” [John 14:28], and when the Christian tries to point out the context of the incarnation in this context and the rest of what scripture says of Christ’s incarnation as well as his deity, would it be right for the Jehovah’s Witness to say “That’s just ‘nuancing?'” What if they quote John 17:3 describing the Father as “The only true God,” and the Christian points out that the text says Jesus had glory with the Father before the world was only a few verses later in verse 5, would the Jehovah’s Witness be right to say this is “nuancing?” And yet, in both of these instances, we are doing exactly what Peter England suggests here: going to all scripture says about Christ, as well as what the context says, and allowing it to nuance what the individual verse says. So, why is it *not* nuancing when it *protects* what Summer believes, but it *is* nuancing when it *doesn’t* protect what Summer believes? Isn’t that a *bit* inconsistent?

But it is even more dangerous than that. Again, I must go back to the issue of priming. Why would an individual ignore who scripture sets up this encyclopedaic knowledge in Romans 13, Psalm 127/Proverbs 25:16-17. 27-28, or ανδριζομαι in 1 Corinthians 16:13? Two reasons: history and current controversies. Most of these ideas, as I have said, reek of the stoicism and utilitarianism of the Victorian era in the American south…especially after the war. But more than just being fed a philosophical system from tradition by many of these patriarchalist/hard complementarian teachers, people also have great fear. When I hear individuals pushing this ideology talking rhetoric about “safeism” in regards to Covid-19, and how you can’t use safety to overthrow people’s rights, I just want to ask them if it is okay to use safeism in regards to government tyranny to impose unbiblical teachings on individuals. You see, it is not just that ideas found in Confederate Idealism in regards to gender are promoted as Biblical truth. It is that fear is a major motivating factor…fear that, if we reject these ideas, we will have social and societal collapse and we will all end up under a totalitarian government [and, in fact, that may be inevitable already because we have rejected these ideas, so we might want to get to following them]. Again, it is well known that emotions like fear relate to attention. It causes you to focus on the current cultural problems and frame the text in that way, even though the text itself isn’t framing it as relevant to our current cultural problems.

Indeed, this also explains a problem I first heard about in graduate school. I had a friend who was a New Testament major. She had a professor that she really liked and would always talk about. When I was talking about these issues with her, I remember she relayed a quote from this professor that went something like this: “The main problem with evangelicals in their exegesis is that they confuse the idea that scripture was written *for* us with the idea that scripture was written *to* us.” I don’t know much else about this professor, but I agree with him. When we confuse those two things, we end up reading our cultural problems into the text, and it destroys our ability to properly understand it. Indeed, so much of what is seen as “obedience” today is nothing more than what I might call exegetical pragmatism. Exegetical pragmatism determines the correct meaning of the text by what is most pragmatic given our current cultural problems. The problem is, it is easy to do, and, given the concept of priming we have discussed above, can be done subconsciously.

Toward a Biblical View of Obedience

So, then, given how easy this is to do, how do we reconstruct the concept of obedience in a way that is faithful to the way the text itself frames things? I think the answer is to think beyond individual words to larger structures that relate back to things like, attention, foregrounding/backgrounding, continuation, and other ways in which the mind works. We could also speak about social contracts and what the authors of scripture assume about social relations. Every command of scripture is built upon connections to the ideology of scripture and to its way of seeing reality. Hence, before we talk about *any* commandment of scripture, we must have this relationship in mind so that we can properly frame the commandment itself. And all obedience must be done with that heart. In essence, what God has communicated to us in scripture is his own way of thinking. When we do this, we are simply thinking God’s thoughts after him. Indeed, this is why so much of evangelicalism has spent time *reacting* to culture rather than presenting the Biblical alternative *to* the way culture thinks. I remember growing up how I was told that it was sinful to eat in a church building because Paul said “Do you not have homes to eat in” [1 Corinthians 11:22]. I found out later that the real concern was that people came to church only for the meal, and never listened to the sermon. I was also taught that I should only use the King James Version of the Bible. I found out later this was because, during Bible reading and memorization, everyone had a different translation, and it was chaotic. I am not saying that the individuals who taught me those things weren’t Christians. Some of them were very strong Christians, and very honorable individuals. It is only to say that the obedience spoken of here clearly was manufactured in reaction to cultural problems. This is the kind of obedience that exegetical pragmatism produces, and it is ugly.

But I have also seen the kind of obedience that stems from a full understanding of the word of God and how it is linked together conceptually. And, ironically, it wasn’t from someone who is Reformed. It was from a Seventh Day Adventist. While I realize that Seventh Day Adventists have *certainly* engaged in their fair share of exegetical pragmatism, that isn’t the case with this girl. Her obedience, innocence, kindness, and gentleness just shine with a beauty that is unmistakable [not a beauty that is the product of sadistic admiration for cultic exegetical pragmatism]. I also found that her concept of obedience is extremely well thought through. It is Biblical and simple, but elegant and beautiful. Indeed, it is sad that a Seventh Day Adventist is killing us when it comes to obedience, but, indeed, this is a real weakness when it comes to Reformed thought. But, it is also a real weakness in evangelicalism as a whole. We are so easily distracted by cultural issues because we want to make a difference.

However, perhaps the biggest difference we can make is seeking to understand the scriptures as a system of thought in and of itself, and seeking to live that before others, being ready “to give a reason for the hope that is within us” [1 Peter 3:15]. Indeed, this text is interesting. We are all aware of the word απολογια which is where we get our word “apologetics” from. However, that is the context of the verb αιτεω “to request.” Apologetics should be done as a result of a *request* from unbelievers for a reason as to why we are so different. I love how the Cornilescu version translates this: Fiţi totdeauna gata să răspundeţi oricui vă cere socoteală de nădejdea care este în voi, dar cu blândeţe și teamă, “Being always ready to respond to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, but with gentleness and fear.” Respond and ask go together here as they do in the Greek. Notice also how the response is to be with gentleness too, not masculine macho toughness. Indeed, acting aggressive requires very little strength. It requires much *more* strength to be like Ben Carson, and still remain gentle even when someone is yelling in your face! It is also to be done in fear and reverence, not exploiting individuals by putting a camera in their face and then posting it on YouTube for all to see. Instead, people should see our difference, and naturally ask where that came from, and we give our answer with gentleness and respect…even if they don’t return the favor[5]. But all of this begins by living in terms of the scriptures and thinking God’s thoughts after him…not crying “nuance” when the thoughts don’t match up to what we think is for the good of society at the given moment. Apologetics should flow out of Godly living, and, sadly, I think the reason our apologetics is weak is because our understanding of the Christian life is weak. The existence of exegetical pragmatism in our own communities such as what you find in patriarchalist/hard complementarian teachings is a prime example of this weakness. My prayer is that we reject it, along with its self-serving rhetoric, and return back to the scriptures as the foundation of our life so people will ask a “reason for the hope that is within us.” Amen!

[1]Duncan, Ligon. Common Sense and American Presbyterianism: An Evaluation of the Impact of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy on 19th Century American Presbyterianism. MA Thesis. Covenant Theological Seminary. 1987. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/42791123/Common_Sense_and_American_Presbyterianism_An_Evaluation_of_the_Impact_of_Scottish_Common_Sense_Philosophy_on_19th_Century_American_Presbyterianism

Interestingly, Duncan sets out to prove that the strong belief in inerrancy at Princeton University during the time period of the Civil War wasn’t a result of Common Sense Realism. However, he does admit that Southern Presbyterianism was heavily infected with Common Sense Realism, with defenders of the philosophy such as R.L. Dabney. Given that this is the end of the development of this ideology of gender, it isn’t surprising that terms like “nuance,” used among these patriarchalist circles, reek of the ghosts of Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart.

[2]In reality, the audio is of the word “Brainstorm,” the Ben10 character.

[3]That is not to say that this will work for *every* example of speech. The reason “brainstorm” and “green needle” work in this example have to do with similarities in frequency between these two phrases.

[4]Klein, Devrah. Murphy, Gregory. The Representation of Polysemous Words. Journal of Memory and Language 45,259–282 (2001) Available at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

[5]I must make clear here. I am not considering becoming a Seventh Day Adventist. But I admire them for the way they conduct themselves in a Godly fashion…both this girl as well as Ben Carson. The two of them are *very* honorable people.

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