“The life of the common law has been in the unceasing abuse of its elementary ideas.” So observed S. F. C. Milsom, a Cambridge legal historian and one of the greatest scholars of the common law.
It was important to the authority of the common law that it demonstrate continuity– so important that leading common lawyers and judges like Edward Coke and Matthew Hale could insist that the law had never changed. Its authority lay in the assumption that its precepts had always been there, “the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.” And yet the world changed drastically over the course of centuries, and it was essential that the law adapt in order to remain viable. How did it manage to maintain continuity but also adapt? By “abus[ing] its elementary ideas,” as Milsom says. By continuing to use many of the same terms and concepts, but using these in different ways (often supported by fictions), declining to notice or dwell on the abuses or adaptations. In this way, the magnificent achievement of the common law has been able to span centuries, always the same, always changing.
I suspect that something similar happens– and must happen– in any kind of living tradition. Old ideas and terms get “abused,” used in new ways, in order maintain the necessary connection with the past while also adjusting to new conditions and challenges.
Of course, this process invites criticisms, of different kinds. One kind of criticism (coming from what we might call the conceptual purist) points out the “abuses.” Equivocations are occurring. The whole thing may seem a bit dishonest. And yet the people doing the “abusing” are usually not being consciously dishonest: they are doing their necessary jobs, usually in good faith, using the terms that seem appropriate for those jobs, mostly unaware that they are engaging in any sort of equivocation. The transformations occur subtly and mostly inconspicuously– except to the detached critic.
A different, more sweeping kind of criticism comes from those who dislike or disdain the whole enterprise. They may think the common law, or whatever the tradition in question may be, is an illegitimate and oppressive thing. So to them, the small “abuses” are especially objectionable because they are employed in service of a larger grand abuse.
And it is always possible, of course, that these critics are right. Which is to say that whether the tradition or enterprise is a good thing worth maintaining is always a possible question. I think the common law is admirable for providing necessary social coordination and order over the centuries. But the point is debatable, obviously.
What prompts me to make these (perhaps mundane) observations here is the discussion yesterday of Jonathan Green’s post on “translation.” Jonathan suggests, if I understand him correctly, that we can understand the Book of Abraham as a “translation” if we appreciate that translation need not be a mechanical, word-for-word rendering of a text; it can be more creative than that, with a lot more input from the “translator.” Skeptical commenters suggested, to put it crudely, that this just isn’t translation; or at least it isn’t what Joseph or his followers have understood “translation” to be.
This was my initial reaction as well. And it may be my considered reaction; I’m not sure. One inclination is to think: “If you believe that the BofA is an inspired text, and scripture, fine. There’s a lot to be said for that conclusion. But why must you insist on calling it ‘translation’? Sure, you can call it that– nothing prohibits you from using words in any way you want to– but you’re just not using the word in the way that almost anyone concerned with the question uses it. You’re equivocating.”
That would be the “conceptual purist” objection. But maybe it’s a bit off the mark here, as it is with the common law or other living traditions. For some people and some purposes, it is important that the book be a translation. Something would be lost if we just came out and said, “It was an expression of Joseph’s prophetic imagination,” or something of that sort. The tradition would be impaired. And the larger point is that this sort of equivocation– or, if you like, abuse– just is the way living traditions maintain themselves.
Of course, others will make the more sweeping or disdainful criticism. They will regard the adaptations as dishonest measures in support of an illegitimate or oppressive tradition. And as always that presents a debatable question, about which people will disagree. But if you believe that, as I’ve sometimes put it here, God is at work in the church to bless people and to accomplish His purposes, you will be less sympathetic to this kind of criticism, perhaps more sympathetic to the “abuses” or adaptations that help to maintain a valuable tradition.
You might end up with a picture of God working in the world, in various mysterious ways and various places (including in the church) to accomplish His designs– working through fallible people (including prophets and saints) who rarely or never fully grasp those designs, rarely or never grasp just how God is using them His wonders to perform. It isn’t nearly as clean a picture as we might like. I can’t say I am fully comfortable with it. But does it fit with our experience of things? And maybe some adjusting of concepts like “translation”– and “apostasy,” and “restoration,” and “revelation”– is part of that process.
Just wondering . . . .