Is the Scriptural Reasoner’s Heart Hardened or Warm?

Peter Ochs, University of Virginia

A meta-question, perhaps. What is the relation between scriptural reasoning as we want to perform it and “hardening the heart?” Here are initial reflections about the answers that our three traditions of reading appear to share and also answers they may not share.

It is not good to have a hard heart . No challenges to this claim, it seems.

God is more in charge on this matter than we are . There appear to be differences about this claim, but only in degree. For both Vincent and Basit, Muslim reasoning about the Qu’ran does not question God’s absolute authority nor the radical difference (the “ontological difference,” as some call it) between God and human. Stanley’s patristic sources do not question this authority, either. (This surprises me only to the extent that one might expect the Incarnation to provide greater human access to divine authority, but for Stanley, Origen, and Augustine, divine and human natures appear to co-exist but not really mix.) Shaul’s medieval Jewish scriptural reasoners presume both the authority and the difference, but, of the three traditions, they seem the most anxious about it. While Stanley and the responses by Basit, Willie and Bill appear concerned about any philosophic admixtures behind Shaul’s hermeneutical suspicions, Shaul appears simply to be extending suspicions that are already present, albeit more apologetically answered, in the rabbinic and medieval readings. Israel does, we are reminded, tend to argue with its God.

The revealed texts are windows to God’s will, however ‘darkly’ we can see through them. Again, all three appear to agree, but again the Jewish reasoners appear less accepting than both the Muslim and Christian reasoners that we are shown.

A hardened heart fails to perceive explicit signs of God’s identity and authority, as those signs appear in experience or in the world. Same differences again. Here, the Muslim reasoners appear to have the most developed notion of what it means to perceive divine signs.

A hardened heart fails to acknowledge God’s identity and authority even when it appears to perceive it. Same differences again.

A HARDENED HEART, ONE MIGHT CONCLUDE, WOULD FAIL TO READ THE SIGNS OF GOD’S IDENTITY AND AUTHORITY IN SCRIPTURE. I think this is the most critical claim for scriptural reasoners and also the most contested. Both Vincent and Basit refer to the ayaat as they appear comparably in both scripture and nature. If Pharaoh hardens his own heart by failing to see or respond to the ayaat in nature, then I presume the same would apply to those who fail to see or respond to the ayaat in scripture. But would this mean, for example, that the Jewish reasoners who appear to argue with God and argue with the revealed text are hardening their hearts? I trust all the rabbinic and medieval Jewish exegetes would say “yes,” if “arguing” meant “denying the identity of” or also “denying the ultimate authority of.” But their own practice suggests that they presume, in some manner, that the God who speaks scripture withholds ultimate authority, in some cases, until his human addressees have struggled with him. The struggle, it appears from Shaul’s sources, is not over the “graphemes” of the revealed text but over their meaning. The argument appears more in the form of “you could not have meant this in this way” than of “you must change this statement.”

Now I do not see this kind of struggle in the Muslim and Christian reasonings we have been offered. I would agree with Stanley and Basit that we need not import Greco-Roman or Enlightenment notions of “free will” in order to argue out the meanings and problems in the scriptural sources. BUT, I don’t take this to mean that there are no intra-textual grounds (and intra-traditional grounds) to protest God’s will or to protest what would appear to be the plain sense of scripture. In a time when covenantal boundaries are weakened, scriptural reasoners have practical reasons for fearing that protest means protest against the boundaries or from outside the boundaries. But for those who do not doubt their commitments for and within the boundaries, then – and for them–I do not know how scriptural reasoning becomes reasoning if there is no room for protest. From Abraham and Moses and the Psalmist and R. Akiva and R. Hillel (and R. Halivni after the Shoa, and R. Magid), I trust we have prototypes for reasoning in response to our own protests as well as in response to divine command. As long as protester and commander are locked in unbreakable bonds of commitment and dialogue and love, protestation would appear to be a sign of a warm and open heart, rather than a hardened one.