Ever since the day that I read Brevard Childs’ The Church’s Guide to Reading Paul: The Canonical Shaping of the Pauline Corpus (Amazon.com) there has been a tug-of-war within me. There is something important about the historical-grammatical approach to Scripture, but there are times when the influence of historicism seems to lead to mere speculation that has no bearing on the thought and life of the Christian church. On the other hand, we have a canon of Scripture that has been handed to us by the church as a standard for such things. It is the canon of Scripture as chosen by the church through the guidance of the Holy Spirit that is Scripture for us (we can save the discussion on “who’s canon” for another time since there is a basic unity amongst major orthodox Christian tribes). Yet we do not want to de-historicize Scripture so that it becomes some sort of ethereal book.
The early church spoke of reading Scripture as literal/historical; allegorical; moral; and anagogical/eschatological. I am a novice of interpretive history, but this seems to have been a dominate model until the Reformation. At that point it was “back to the sources” in an attempt to here the original authorial intent. This hermeneutic climaxed with F.D. E. Schleiermacher. For many this is the method that has been adopted. The text means what it meant through authorial intent.
Is there any sense in which the meaning can morph from being locked into static “history”? Is there a way in which we can approach Scripture from another angle? Let me say it this way: Can we read biblical text both from a historical perspective and from a canonical/dogmatic perspective?
If not, why not? If so, where to these two paradigms meet and how do these two paradigms influence the church?
“At that point it was “back to the sources” in an attempt to here the original authorial intent. This hermeneutic climaxed with F.D. E. Schleiermacher.”
I think we need to be a little more generous in reading Schleiermacher. True he was academically concerned with the historical meaning of texts but was also open to allegorical readings which embody our own religious experience. In fact this was for him the supreme proof of Christianity. That it’s revelation most closely paralleled our own living religious experience. Now to the question:
“Can we read biblical text both from a historical perspective and from a canonical/dogmatic perspective?
If not, why not? If so, where to these two paradigms meet and how do these two paradigms influence the church?”
I think here we need to look to the Jesus of Nazareth,
“Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”
He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”
He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” ”
Jesus gives them the dogmatic answer “no” backed by an anthropological reading (allegorical).
The Pharisees point out that this is not the legal historical reading (found in the law of Moses).
Jesus tells them that such a law acts against the larger anthropological principal and is thus not valid.
The disciples point out that this is a hard teaching.
Jesus lays out the ideal (ethical) response to this reading.
I think in re. to your question, Brian, the issue of inspiration and illumination also needs to be addressed. I think too often “some” believe that we can somehow construct an “Apostolic” mode of interpretation (or even “Dominical”), but the reality is, is that the Apostle’s (Jesus etc) engaged in sensus plenior at points; which is only available to an “inspired” reader vs. an illumined one (us) in my mind. So to say, lets look at “how” Jesus interpreted doesn’t hold much muster to my mind.
@Dan: It would seem to me that Jesus interpreted part of canon by canon. I don’t know if I would say it was allegorical. He said yes, one aspect of the Book of Moses says divorce is OK, but in the context of Scripture (and history?) we know that it is an exception to an earlier, more authoritative rule. In other words, the creation ideal matters more than than the Mosaic clause.
re: “The text means what it meant through authorial intent”–
Note that pre-critical, pre-Reformation authors like Augustine believed in authorial intent as the goal of interpretation as well; see On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.41; 1.37; 2.2.3; 2.5.6; 2.12.18 (Robertson ed.).
Of course, Augustine believed in multiple senses as well, and justified this by arguing that polysemy is divinely intended (3.27.38).
So, he could have his authorial intent and eat his multiple senses too–even though it involved some special pleading that he had to paste on top of his quite sophisticated and empirically grounded model of semiotics….
re: your larger question–I’m really, really unconvinced that the two alternatives are either (a) “read like the medievals with their model of multiple senses” OR (b) “read like a post-Enlightenment ‘historical critic’ with nothing to say to the Church.” –though I am aware that a number of recent authors are presenting the situation as if these are the only two models.
I do think Childs is a helpful resource in formulating a response that moves beyond these two options. Hans Frei is another helpful resource.
There’s no question Jesus is making that move (But isn’t it interesting that he makes the further move re: eunuchs? In which he seems to say that the creation ideal was, in fact, not an ideal). What interests me is the idea that, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” There seems to be an assumption here about revelation that many evangelical Christians don’t consider, that revelation itself has been compromised (Not in minor ways but in central ethical teachings as well).
This is why I think its essential that the Church read both in historical and dogmatic ways. Here I’m thinking of Origen’s allegorical readings of all that baby smashing going down in Judges. A literal historical reading here is impossible here if we are to maintain the ethical position of the Gospel.
Not if the historical reading is descriptive.
I would agree, though, that we need to read in historical and dogmatic ways (TI); but how that is parsed seems to be what’s under discussion in the first place.
@Michael: I tend to agree that it is not an either/or, but a both/and (or a third way, as you seem to be suggesting). While Childs is new(er) to me it was probably the most paradigm threatening book I have read in some time.
@Dan: I can agree with the statement “revelation has been compromised” in the paradigm of a progressive, unfolding apocalyptic form, but not so much a “Moses was wrong”. Jesus doesn’t say Moses was wrong. Rather, Moses was not the ideal.
@Bobby: The parsing is the key concern.
Or Moses, was always intended to point beyond himself (the reality res 😉 ), so Gal 3.
@Bobby: Yes, great point.
I know I bang on about Peterson but his book”Eat This Book” is a brilliant theology of scripture. In it he argues for the relational aspect of scripture to not be swallowed up by either historical or canonical approaches. In many ways he follows Barth understanding that although the Bible is God’s Word and authoritative it also becomes the Word of God as it is read. The Bible needs to be revelatory to whomever picks it up regardless of their ability to know the story behind the text.
As a pastor, i think about this single issue every day! It seems to me the church has lost its own authority of God’s Word and it has been passed on to historians! Thanks for the thoughts Brian.
@Mark: You’re welcome. I tend to be warming toward the canonical perspective. I have tried the historical-grammatical for years and I find it hard to let the text stand over me rather than I over the text. I think Josh has Eat This Book. Maybe I will borrow it to hear Peterson’s argument.
Which is what Vanhoozer is trying to do with scripture/theology by reframing how we approach it through the category of drama (borrowed from von Balthasar).
Sometimes I don’t think we need to just pick one approach, I don’t see any of them, really, mutually exclusive one from the other. I do think the relational/Trinitarian definitely needs to take priority, per Mark’s points and the “common man.” Which really is what everyone is relative to God. I don’t think scholars are going to have the box seats in heaven, per se (some); it’s funny, I think, how we think about things that way (I’m just picking up on Mark’s comment on the historians/scholars) — I would imagine that things are really the inverse from the way we think about them. That the laity and the “faithful” are on top (if there is a top) (the fools I Cor 1).
RE: Moses was wrong etc.
Brian and Bobby,
This is a bigger can of worms than the post initially wanted to open but I’ve been curious about the question of how we are to read the Hebrew scriptures. There’s a sort of tension I think between a hermeneutic of continuity and a hermeneutic of rupture. Mine tends to be more of a hermeneutic of rupture where the Hebrew scriptures are read through/against the New Testament. The world of the Hebrew scriptures is certainly the milieu in which Jesus lived his earthly life. It is the source of his preaching and the ground of his being but I can’t help but see a powerful critique there as well.
There’s a strong sense of a dialectic brought to a point in the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus. I wonder if, because of our Christian cultural situation we tend to downplay the rupture. We start to see the scriptures like a harmonized gospel and fail to see the antithesis between the narratives. I wonder what Jews think when they hear our theological discussions. Mostly I see worry about a reading of the New Testament through the Hebrew Bible which serves to flatten the distinctions, to airbrush the antithesis.
@Bobby: In part, this has been one of my primary concerns regarding the direction in which evangelicalism has been moving. I am not a Fundamentalist (at least in my own mind), but I do worry that we may be seeing the unraveling effects of reliance upon a historical-grammatical approach to Scripture. There seems to be an unraveling of doctrine that is resulting. At this juncture I need to develop a fuller bodied view of the Scripture, canon, and church dogma.
One key will be the willingness not to retreat, but to refuse being boxed into one approach. I think we can do historical work if we come to see the primary work of the Spirit’s inspiration as taking place during canon formation. Maybe I just want to have my historical cake and eat my dogmatics too!
@Dan: One staple of orthodoxy has been the refusal to separate Christianity from its roots in Judaism. I am not willing. I do not see a rupture. A transformation? Sure. An apocalyptic in-breaking that reformats previously “simple-to-understand” categories? Sure. Rupture. I don’t see it.
The story of the church is still the story of Israel. It is one people of God throughout time. Jesus, Peter, Paul and the rest were not divorced from this context. Did the Spirit evolve things for the Gentile mission. I’d say yes, but that is not rupture. Evolution and rupture are different.
Thanks for your response. I have not dialogued with Evangelical Christians (My circles are primarily Catholic, Mainline, Buddhist and Jewish) about these sorts of issues before and I appreciate your patience. I note your reluctance to use the term rupture and understand that it is a word, from a perspective of faith, would be troubling. Perhaps change would be a less loaded term?
I would say the process of evolution is the product of a series of changes. That the church is rooted in the story of Israel but also in the Hellenistic world (See Hugo Rahner’s Greek Myth Christian Mystery) as well as the movement of the Spirit.
I’m not sure how much of a Jewish readership your blog has or how frequently you dialogue with Jews within your own faith community or private life but the notion that ‘the story of the church is still the story of Israel’ is troubling to me as I believe the notion of rupture is troubling for you. I’m wondering if such language can be used in effectively ecumenical dialogue?
@Dan: As far as I know we do not get much interaction from Jewish readers. Now that doesn’t mean we do not have any. Rather, no one has said anything about being Jewish.
Even if a Jew did not like the idea that the Christian story is a continuation of Israel’s narrative that doesn’t mean we should deny it. Christians are responsible to the foundation upon which the church was built: the Apostle and prophets. As far as I know these were all Jewish. So while a modern Jew may or may not like such language, it is the Jews who gave us Gentiles their gospel to whom we are responsible.
As concerns Christianity being Jewish and Hellenistic, sure. That being said, I don’t think early Judaism was void of any Hellenism so the transition is not as odd as it may seem at first.
I feel your pain as well. In a sense, my whole undergrad experience at Multnomah was tensed by the struggle you’re noting (e.g. LGH vs. Canonical); primarily because of Ray Lubeck and his Canonical vs. (basically) the rest of the faculty who were/are LGH. I always tended toward LGH, but at the same time remained sympathetic to Canonical (even taught a Bible Study Methods Lab for Ray– and then TA’d for him, later). One prof at Multnomah, more sympathetic to Ray once stated that his view was now what he called a Literary, Grammatical, Approach; I think that probably hits where I’m at still (vs “Literal”). I do think though that Theological Interpretation and the Inner Logic of the theology that the Text presupposes really needs to be trumpeted; which is why I find Vanhoozer and even Torrance so attractive in this regard. Keep up the good work, your evolution 😉 , I think, is similar to mine (a bit).
When I was a dispensationalist my herm. could be characterized by rupture or discontinuity; of course I realize that’s different than what you’re getting at. I’ve been reading more Covenantal approaches (like TF Torrance, now Vanhoozer, Barth et al), which try to see rupture/apocalyptic shaped by and within the continuous story of the history of redemption; so that the pre-history, history of Israel is not so much the history of the church; but in fact, the history of God’s life in Christ (and thus the church’s history could be said, instead to be couched in Christ’s life or the imago Christi). So I accept a more “rupture” like herm. (I don’t know if you’ve read Nate Kerr at all), curiously, though, when I hear someone use the language of “rupture” in conjures in my mind a more Anabaptistic mode of thinking (pace Kerr); I don’t know if that’s where you’re coming from.
I do see a continuity per the history of the story of the Bible, between Israel and Jesus (seems hard to not see that). But then even thinking through more of an Irenaean recapitulation, there is still room for the idea of rupture and apocalypse since Jesus comes in and recreates everything (Col 1) even the history of Israel that serves as the framework that mediates Him to the world.
I’d probably need to understand better though, what your background is; and what is informing your thinking on “rupture” per a herm.
“I do see a continuity per the history of the story of the Bible, between Israel and Jesus (seems hard to not see that). But then even thinking through more of an Irenaean recapitulation, there is still room for the idea of rupture and apocalypse since Jesus comes in and recreates everything (Col 1) even the history of Israel that serves as the framework that mediates Him to the world. ”
I haven’t read Kerr but it looks very interesting. As to where I’m coming from I’m essentially a Catholic Girardian (Following closely the readings of Fr. James Alison and Fr. Raymond Schwager) which defiantly has some resonance in Anabaptist thought. My reading of the Hebrew Bible is thus as a partially mythologized text still preoccupied at times with sacrifice while at the same time having anti-sacrificial currents (Most pronounced in the Prophets, i.e. ‘I desire Mercy and not Sacrifice’). The New Testament functions as the ultimate de-mythologizing text (With Christ the innocent victim of human violence at the center). It is from that stance, the stance of the crucified and risen Christ who has revealed the mechanisms of human violence, that one reads and de-mythologizes the Hebrew Bible. The Gospel narrative ends up serving as a hermeneutical key of sorts to explain the tensions within the Hebrew Bible (Just as Israel falls away and returns to the God of Abraham so the text itself slips in and out of mythical readings for human violence).*
Sorry there’s a lot of jargon in there but I hope this helps you get a hold of where I’m coming from with this reading of rupture.
*It should be noted that Sandor Goodhart (A Jewish Girardian) would maintain that the Hebrew Bible is already a demythologizing text. I’m not totally sold on it (I believe along with Girard that the Gospel is unique in this way) but he has some very clever readings and does great work.
Interesting. We are definitely worlds apart then, you’re background is certainly rather unique. I’m sure I probably disagree with most of where you’re coming from, but if you love the historical Jesus of the Bible, the second person of Trinity; and are in union with Him through faith alone, by grace alone by the Holy Spirit then that’s the most important thing.
Have a good one!
Cheers to you Bobby! I definitely agree with you..
Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
– Romans 3:24
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