Quote of the Day

Right now I’m doing some research on the nature of wisdom in Solomon’s judgment over the case of the two women claiming the same baby. I came across this great quote from Richard Briggs:

Complaints against the supposition that this is a paradigm of wise judgment have come thick and fast from various quarters, including the rabbis, some feminist critics, and most memorably, Mark Twain. We shall take our cue from Mark Twain, if only because he is generally more fun than most scholars (83).

Richard Briggs, The Virtuous Reader, Baker Academic 2010.

Toward a Holistic Hermeneutic

Chris Morgan, Dean of the School of Christian Ministries at CBU, and I have recently published an article in the most recent issue of The Journal of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Right now the journal is available online, but it will also be published in print later this spring.

Our introduction reads:

In this article we argue hermeneutics ought to be holistic. A proper method for biblical interpretation ought to include a concern for exegesis, narrative, doctrine, the church, and application. Much like an orchestra, each of these fields has a part to play in biblical interpretation, and, while each may have a featured part at some stage, none should be allowed to play a purely solo act. Exegesis both rests on and results in theology, for example. Similarly, churches not only shaped the original context of the biblical material, they are still the primary interpretive context and central focus of the application. Our hope is that a holistic hermeneutic can produce a fuller symphonic interpretation. In what follows, we seek to sketch the overall contours of these aspects, suggest how they fit together, and offer an example of this method in practice.

You can access the article and read it in its entirety here.

Hermeneutics and the Eternal Generation of the Son

In two weeks I’ll be presenting a paper with the same title as this blog post at the Southeast Regional meeting of ETS in Birmingham, AL. I’m also presenting the same paper at the ETS Far West Regional meeting in LA in April. I’ve never presented the same paper at two different conferences, so it will be interesting to get feedback in Birmingham and then tweak (rewrite?) the paper for the April conference. I was only planning on presenting in LA, but I’ll take any excuse to go to Sweet Home Alabama and get some good BBQ.

Here’s a paragraph from my introduction explaining my aim and thesis:

This paper seeks to explore and compare the hermeneutical presuppositions and methods of, on the one hand, early Christian interpreters who saw the doctrine of eternal generation taught in Proverbs 8 and, on the other hand, modern interpreters[1] who do not see the doctrine here. What makes the difference in interpretation? It is surely not exegetical rigor – both the pre-modern and modern interpreters have rigorously explored the text with every available interpretive tool.[2] And in the not uncommon case that one assumes modern exegesis is more rigorous and scientific than pre-modern interpretation, it should be noted here that modern commentators cannot come to an agreement on the passage’s meaning, either as a whole or in determining what specific verbs mean (e.g. qana, v. 25). This is in spite of a general commitment to a method (historical-critical, or its close cousin, historical-grammatical for evangelicals) and a conclusion – the passage does not teach eternal generation.[3] In other words, the issue has to lie elsewhere, and I propose here that the difference between those who affirm eternal generation, both in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere, and those who deny it is their theological and hermeneutical foundations. This paper will compare and contrast the aforementioned interpreters’ approaches in order to demonstrate that this is indeed the case.


[1] In using the term “modern” I mean post-Enlightenment, which includes both modern and postmodern readers. While the latter tend to eschew the objectivism and scientific positivism with which moderns approach the text, postmodern readers still tend to retreat to modernistic exegetical methods in their interpretation.

[2] Thus this paper is not an exegetical defense of eternal generation from Proverbs 8, but rather an argument that those who see the doctrine taught here have legitimate theological and interpretive rationales for doing so.

[3] One notable exception is Richard M. Davidson, “Proverbs 8 and the Place of Christ in the Trinity,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 17.1 (2006): 33–54, but even here it should be noted that he does not use the language of eternal generation but only hypostatization. His focus is more on the incarnation language in the passage than on the relationships between the persons of the immanent Trinity. See also Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., “Wisdom and Creation,” JBL 104.1 (1985): 3–11.

The Thorny Issue of Historical Background Research

I just sent in a review of David DeSilva’s recent book, The Letter to the Hebrews in Social Scientific Perspective (Cascade Companions; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012). As the title indicates, it is a social scientific study of Hebrews. In the review I articulated my concern with some fundamental assumptions with this approach to biblical studies, which I’ve reproduced below.

(If anyone knows if quoting my own review on my own blog is copyright infringement, please let me know. I’ll adjust accordingly. I also plan on updating this post with the relevant bibliographic info if/when the review is published.)

. . . the issue is with the broader tendency in biblical studies to make a sharp distinction between what it meant and what it means (xii) and therefore to place the onus of interpretation on reconstructing historical background, from author to audience to cultural influence, rather than on the text itself.

The issue here lies primarily in the idea that the intended audience of the biblical books, and even more conspicuously, the biblical canon, is almost completely focused on first century readers. But this, both for non-believing interpreters and for confessional Christians, is not the case; the biblical authors frequently mention other readers besides the community to which the letter is originally addressed, and, for confessional Christians, the Bible is not only a collection of historical documents but also and foundationally the Word of God for the people of God. That is, it is the Word of God for all Christians, near to the original context and far from it. To thus locate the interpretive crux on reconstructing the context of the original audience seems at best to dichotomize falsely the book’s readership between original readers and future readers; this is neither authors’ intent, human or divine.

Furthermore, this exacerbation of the importance of historical reconstruction often yields little actual benefits. Ironically, this is nowhere a more acute problem than with Hebrews; we are left in the dark, or at least in the twilight, on both authorship and audience. DeSilva cannot escape this despite his best efforts, and is left to generalizations that are of little assistance. So, for instance, on the question of audience, even after a detailed discussion of its makeup, DeSilva is left to this innocuous conclusion: “In all probability, the community was probably composed from a wide range of social strata . . .” (37). Additionally, this approach tends towards valuing cultural background over Old Testament background, and DeSilva does not escape this. A mere page after listing the litany of OT books upon which Hebrews’ author draws (10), DeSilva makes the altogether puzzling comment that Heb. 12:5–6 is much more dependent on Seneca than it is on Prov. 3:11–12, the passage that is directly quoted (11).  This sort of baffling retreat to cultural background over explicit OT quotations and allusions is frequent throughout the book, and is symptomatic, in this reviewer’s opinion, of this type of approach to biblical interpretation.

This is not to deny the validity of studying the cultural milieu of the biblical books, or even the fact that at times this study may provide valid insights, but rather to say that I think modern biblical studies overemphasizes it to an unhelpful degree.

Thoughts?

 

Athanasius and Proverbs 8

Right now I’m researching the hermeneutical foundations for the patristic and medieval use of Proverbs 8 to support the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. One of the essays I’ve been working through for the last few days is Luise Abramowski’s “Das Theologische Hauptwerk Des Athanasius.”[1] My German is below poor, so I hope I’m understanding Abramowski correctly, but what I take the article to be saying is that a number of hermeneutical principles worked together to allow Athanasius to understand Proverbs 8:22-31 as teaching eternal generation.

  1. John 1:14, 16, etc. necessitate seeing Jesus as the divine embodiment of wisdom. In other words, Athanasius begins with the assumption that Jesus as the Logos is enfleshed Wisdom, and therefore that Wisdom must not be a creature (as the Logos is not a creature).
  2. This means that Proverbs 8:22-31 cannot refer to Wisdom as a creature.
  3. The genre of Proverbs, as paroimia, should be understood as either “Sprichwort” (Latin, proverbium; “proverb”) or “Gleichnis” (“likeness,” “allegory,” “parable”). In other words, the tentative nature of the language and message of Proverbs should give the reader pause before proceeding with any definitive interpretation, even of individual words.
  4. Regarding ktizein, there are verbal parallels that suggest it can mean something other than ontological creation (e.g. Prov. 9:1).
  5. It is important for Athanasius to identify the “person” speaking in each verse, and especially between the pre-incarnate Logos and the incarnate Christ (e.g. v. 22 vs. v. 25).
  6. Related to this last point, Athanasius found it highly important to understand individual passages in light of their placement in and reference to the biblical storyline, especially as it relates to the Word becoming flesh.

All of this led Athanasius to reject Arian subordinationism from this passage and turn to eternal generation as the alternative interpretive solution. I’m not sure what I’ll do with that yet, but I do find it interesting that, at least in my opinion, Athanasius seems to be operating with some fairly standard interpretive principles: pay attention to genre and context, pay attention to the biblical narrative, and pay attention to textual details and parallels. The one principle that I think gets people nervous nowadays is that Athanasius starts with the assumption that the NT (e.g. Hebrews 1) interprets Proverbs 8 as it was originally intended. Modern interpreters tend to prefer to isolate Proverbs 8 (or any OT passage) from its reception history, and especially NT reception. I’ll refrain from commenting on that, for now at least.


[1] Luise Abramowski, “Das Theologische Hauptwerk Des Athanasius: Die Drei Bücher Gegen Die Arianer (Ctr. Arianos I-III),” Communio Viatorum 42.1 (2000): 5-23.

Narrative Criticism and North America

Over at Crux Sola, Christopher Skinner has a very intriguing post on narrative criticism research on the Gospels being geographically located mainly in North America or to North Americans who study abroad. Conversely, research in Europe has continued to focus more on historical questions. I think his question is an intriguing one, why are North Americans and Europeans asking different questions?

As I’m at my second UK university, I can verify that generally (but not all) of the research among faculty members is of a historical nature. A correlation I’ve noticed has been that scholars who are doing more narrative critical work tend to be those who are seem to be either be more hermeneutically self-aware or who are interested in reading the Bible as scripture. This isn’t the only factor, but a trend I’ve noticed.

Do you have any thoughts?

Doctrine and Interpretation

What is the relationship between doctrine and interpretation, specifically in terms of the former’s influence over the latter?

I’ve recently finished Scott Swain’s Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, and am currently reading Kevin Giles’ The Eternal Generation of the Son. Here are there answers:

Swain says,

Church dogma, we might say, is a sign of Christ’s victory through Word and Spirit within the common mind of the church. It is for this reason an ancient landmark that should not be moved.

To the extent, therefore, that the church’s dogmatic deliverances are indeed faithful summaries of the scope, shape, and substance of scriptural teaching, their use in interpretation does not constitute the imposition of an external burden or alien standard upon the interpreter of Holy Scripture. Church dogmas provide instead a divinely authorized interpretive key for unlocking the treasures of God’s word, a blessed pathway into Holy Scripture.

Giles similarly states,

What we must recognize is that there is no reading of Scripture apart from a communal understanding of it, apart from tradition. The question is not, do I accept that my communally held beliefs inform my exegesis or not – they unquestionably do – but, which communal beliefs will I prioritize? . . .the best tradition to inform our interpretation of Scripture is what the best of theologians across the centuries have taught, especially when it is codified in the creeds and confessions of our church.

What do you think? Do, and perhaps more importantly should, the three ecumenical creeds or the seven ecumenical councils have any bearing on our interpretation? What about more contemporary confessions?

Kevin Vanhoozer on Inerrancy

Below is Kevin Vanhoozer’s presentation of an Augustinian perspective on inerrancy of Scripture that was shown at the annual ETS meeting in November. I’m generally in agreement with most of Vanhoozer’s work on hermeneutics and am also happy with his nuancing here as opposed to some others. Hope you enjoy.

HT: Mike Birtd

Distinctives in the Fourfold Gospel Corpus

Nijay Gupta, quoting Eddie Adams, recently posted some thoughts on the distinctiveness of each Gospel. While there certainly may be some truth to Adams’ list, namely in noting some of the unique literary devices used by the Evangelists, I personally find the list dissatisfying, particularly for its lack of theological engagement. This is seen in Adams’ first distinctive, which for him is that Matthew’s Gospel is more Jewish and more explicitly tying itself off to the OT.

But this is, in my opinion, to get the point exactly backward. Matthew is not the most Jewish nor the most oriented towards the OT; instead, each of the four Gospels’ different orientation towards the OT is exactly what makes it distinctive.

As I tell my students, the four Gospels each present a broad picture of Jesus that demonstrates he comes to:

  • Restore Israel, through which he will
  • Restore the entire creation, and therefore Jesus comes to
  • Bring salvation through his life, death, and resurrection to God’s fallen world

I then go on to point out that what makes each of these books unique is not their purpose, or even their outline (Jesus’ beginnings, ministry, Jerusalem, death, resurrection), but the lens through which they view Jesus. Specifically, which Old Testament lens do they use?

In my estimation, Matthew views Jesus through a New Moses/New Israel lens, Mark through a New Exodus lens, Luke through a New Elijah/New David lens, and John through a New Creation lens.

This approach, for me, focuses on the literary and theological distinctives of the Gospel writers instead of on rather subjective historical reconstructions of the provenance, date, and audience, and also gives a more robust picture of both the literary and theological goals of the author and therefore their distinctiveness in comparison to the other Evangelists.

What do you think?

Typology, TIS, and Biblical Theology

On Saturday Jim Hamilton contrasted the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement’s and biblical theology’s understanding of typology. The gist of Hamilton’s argument is that TIS focuses on the divine author’s intent in understanding typological patterns and readings, whereas BT (or Hamilton’s approach to it, anyway) focuses on the human author’s intent.

Patrick Schreiner responded this morning with a post of his own, pointing out three ways in which he believes the divine author’s perspective is emphasized over the human author – the NT use of the OT, paratexts, and the idea of biblical authors “speaking better than they knew.”

I’ll throw my hat in the ring here, but before I do I’ll say that I appreciate both of these men’s spirit and writing. They both do a great service to the church in their thinking, and I’d imagine they are a blessing to their local churches as well. I’ve benefited greatly from both of their writings, whether it’s Patrick’s blog or Jim’s books.

For me, though, I wonder if both of these posts are articulating a false dichotomy between the human author’s and divine author’s intent. While Hamilton wants to emphasize the human author, Schreiner wants to emphasize the divine, at least in some places. And yet, don’t the two work together? As Tyler Wittman put it in a comment on Hamilton’s post,

I think since Holy Scripture is at once something written 100% by God and 100% by human authors, we simply have to deal with the text as it stands. Asking whether or not the human author intended this or that type may be the wrong question of Scripture, as if understanding the literal sense must be either/or.

The problem is that such a question seems to presuppose a competitive relationship between the divine and human authors.

This is, for me, exactly right. On the one hand with Hamilton I want to say yes, we need to understand the human author. But on the other hand I want to say with Schreiner that yes, we need to understand the divine author. And in contrast (I think) to both, I’d say that the two must be understood together. It is not as if I am seeking one author’s intent to the exclusion or downplaying of the other in the text; rather, it is in the text that we see both authors’ intent at the same time. Further, intent is a primarily textual phenomenon; it originates with the author but is known predominately through the text. To distinguish between what the divine author was thinking and what the human author understood seems to me to be impossible.

I’d also say, contra Patrick, that the NT uses the OT far better and far more faithfully to the human authors’ intents than I think we sometimes give credit. Intertextuality, sometimes quite complicated intertextuality, helps explain many of the passages Patrick cites, as well as others. G. K. Beale and John Sailhamer have dealt extensively with Matthew 2 and Hosea 11, and I have attempted to provide a thorough textual explanation for Paul’s use of the Sarah and Hagar story. The other examples he mentioned can be solved, in my opinion, through discussion of context (e.g. Rachel and Ramah – the Jeremiah passage is in the middle of ch. 31, about the new covenant).

So with Hamilton, I want to affirm the human author’s typological abilities. But with Schreiner I want to affirm the importance of considering the divine author’s intent. Contra to both, though, I want to affirm that these two work in concert, not in contrast or even in focusing on one and downplaying the other.