Responding to Critiques of Inerrancy

410sPVQPOsL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Can We Still Believe the Bible?, Craig Blomberg offers some observations on critiques of inerrancy and the idea that inerrancy “dies the death of a thousand qualifications” (pp. 126-130).

He first employs Paul Feinberg’s definition: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”

Blomberg says that inerrancy, then, actually has far less qualifications than most major doctrines like the Trinity or various schools within soteriology and eschatology. Feinberg’s definition has only four qualifications, all of which are left to hermeneutical and exegetical debate within these caveats. I think this should be true, but all too often inerrantists want other inerrantists to affirm whatever narrow definition they have created for themselves, leaving such little wiggle room that one wonders if inerrancy can mean anything at all. That said, Blomberg is right to fight for a healthy definition of the term rather than pretend that it is not an issue — especially here in the States.

He also argues that some people falsely consider “infallibility” or “verbal plenary inspiration” to be clearer terms. However, “the meaning of ‘inerrancy’ is morphologically straightforward: without error,” he explains. “What complicates matters is not the meaning of inerrancy, but the debate over what constitutes an error.” This gets to the heart of some of the standard external and intramural debates about inerrancy, though there is a whole hermeneutical battle being fought even within many inerrancy-affirming faculties.

Here are snippets of Blomberg’s responses to three main critiques about errors in the Bible, which I find helpful to remember in these conversations:

1.We live in a scientific world that values high degrees of precision in countless walks of life. … [H]ence by default we frequently impose modern standards of accuracy on ancient texts in hopelessly anachronistic fashion. Imagine being told one day that your job performance was going to be assessed based on standards not invented until the forty-second century, or shortly before. You’d be outraged. But often without realizing it, we impose on ancient documents twenty-first-century standards that are equally inappropriate. …

To this day, we use round numbers; ancient cultures did so regularly. … A grammatical or spelling “error” in any culture refers simply to nonstandard writing or usage of words; it is not as if there is some divinely mandated correct way to turn oral speech into letters or to arrange words to make a coherent thought. … The reporting of people’s words is a particularly significant example of where the ancients employed noticeably less precision than we moderns do. … In fact, when one historian borrowed from existing sources, it was considered good literary style and an appropriate way of owning information for oneself not to reproduce all the words verbatim…”

2. Another mistake many people make is to confuse inerrancy with literal interpretation. Even the expression ‘literal interpretation,’ as it was employed by the Reformers, meant taking the words of Scripture according to their most straightforward, intended meaning, not ignoring figurative language. … Entire passages and even whole books of the Bible may employ literary forms or genres that are misunderstood if taken completely historically. Apocalyptic literature affords a classic example. …

To affirm the inerrancy of Revelation 13:1-10 does not commit us to believing that a dragon or a beast actually exists as depicted in these verses. Instead, it means that the realities to which they point—Satan and a coming antichrist—really exist, and John really did have a God-given vision in which these individuals were represented by the creatures described. Indeed, defenders of inerrancy do not reflect often enough on what it means to say that nonhistorical genres are wholly truthful.”

3. Inerrancy does not preclude the hermeneutical need to distinguish between situation-specific and timeless commands or models in Scripture. Applying Old Testament texts in the New Testament age requires believers to filter each passage through the grid of its fulfillment in Christ (Matt. 5:17-20). Believers should not bring bulls or goats with them to church to be slaughtered to atone for sin … Christ has paid it all, as our once-for-all sacrifice for sin (e.g., Heb. 9:24-28); we obey the Levitical commands by trusting wholly in Jesus’s full and final atonement. …

When ancient Christians greeted one another with a holy kiss, they were following a culturally common and non-erotic practice of greeting friends. If kisses in certain modern cultures are not a common greeting and are likely to arouse romantic feelings, then some cultural equivalent such as a warm handshake or appropriate kind of hug should be substituted. These are all issues of proper hermeneutics and contextualization, not the direct application of a belief in inerrancy.”

John the Seer vs. Caesar

Screen-Shot-2017-02-25-at-8.51.28-PM-300x299While compiling notes for my dissertation on the Book of Revelation, I came across this note on Revelation 1:16 in Craig Koester’s Revelation commentary:

The section climaxes by noting that [Jesus] holds seven stars in his right hand (Rev 1:16). This cosmic imagery conveys sovereignty. An analogy appears on a coin from Domitian’s reign that depicts the emperor’s deceased son as young Jupiter, sitting on the globe in a posture of world dominion. The coin’s inscription calls him “divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian,” and the imagery shows him extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power. John has already identified Jesus as the ruler of kings on earth (1:5), and the imagery of the seven stars fits the book’s larger context, which contrasts the reign of Christ with that of imperial Rome. (p. 253)

Koester is referring to the coin in the image (above), used in Rome around AD 88-96 during the reign of the brutal Caesar Domitian. Koester’s insights here give us an interesting look at the background of John the Seer’s writing during hostile Roman persecution. It also helps us think about the later date of Revelation’s writing (the end of the first century) versus a potential earlier dating (some say it might’ve been written closer to AD 65). This is enough to chew on a little bit.

But it offers us more than that. This information helps shed light on the theology of Revelation.

First, it serves as an example that much of Revelation’s imagery (beasts, numbers, etc.) is a direct shot at the Roman empire. Many believe (and I’m largely convinced) that Revelation is written during intense Roman persecution and this letter was first written to encourage the church during that time. However, as a non-preterist, I believe portions of the letter are speaking of future events—i,e., Jesus hasn’t come back yet; the New Jerusalem isn’t here yet; etc. In any event, this note might help us better understand the anti-imperial leanings of John.

Second, it shows us how high John’s Christology was. He’s not merely putting Jesus on par with some exalted or glorified person. Rather, he’s portraying Jesus as divine—specifically pitting Jesus’s true divine sovereignty against the supposed divine sovereignty of the Roman emperorship. Roman caesars liked to pretend to be gods, but John is reminding them and us that there’s only one true God. Jupiter is seated on the world with stars hovering around him? Ha! Jesus created the world and clutches the stars in his hand.

As I argue in my dissertation and elsewhere, John explicitly and purposely ties Jesus into the divine identity of YHWH, and this little note only adds to the case.

My 5 Favorite Books of 2017​

It’s become a somewhat annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. But people love books lists as they consider last-second Christmas gifts or are looking for ways to spend their Amazon gift cards.

There are a few reasons why I’ve compiled this list. First, I love reading and I love to share what I’m reading. Second, I’m also always encouraged by others’ thoughts and their lists often help me pick out a few last books for my Christmas wish list. Third, I get a lot of books from publishers, and while I don’t review or share books I don’t end up liking, I’m always willing to recommend a good book if it is, in fact, good.

In no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2017. Check out my 2015 list and 2016 list at my old Patheos blog.

Hengel Son of GodThe Son of God by Martin Hengel

Published in 1975, this book was one of many in which Hengel dismantled and reconstructed Christological debates in the mid-20th century, arguing that Christians believed in the divinity of Christ very early on. In this book, Hengel explains the role the title “Son of God” played in that early development of divine Christology. Only coming in at around 100 pages, Hengel still does some significant Christological heavy lifting.

Way of the Dragon StrobelThe Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel

Of all the books I read this year, this one was the most impactful on me personally. It proved to be the final straw that broke my social media camel’s back. I deleted all my social media accounts soon after finishing it.

Through biblical exegesis, personal reflections, and interviews with men like J. I. Packer and Eugene Peterson, Goggin and Strobel lay out the case for a view of ministry and leadership (and indeed, life) that resembles the way of the Lamb—generosity, self-sacrifice, wisdom in speaking truth, love, etc. Too often, we fall into the way of the dragon (Satan himself)—selfishness, pride, vitriol, hate, etc. And where I saw myself falling into the way of the dragon the most was on social media and the struggle of “platform.”

On God and Christ NazianzusOn God and Christ by St. Gregory of Nazianzus

I’ve read this book several times, and reading it again in 2017 reminded me of its beauty. Simply put, it is one of the most important books (originally a set of sermons) in the history of the Christian church due to its formative impact on Trinitarian theology and Christology. If the Trinity debate made you scratch your head or piqued your interest in the subject, this is a must-read. We’d all do well, actually, to read the Fathers on the Trinity before we get too far down the Trinitarian road.

Sojourners and Strangers AllisonSojourners and Strangers by Gregg Allison

Over the past year, I’ve been in the eldership process at my local church. Since it’s been nearly two years since I served in a church staff position and about five years since I was a pastor, I decided to read this book over the summer to brush up on my ecclesiology and to solidify (or challenge) some of my core beliefs. I was not disappointed. Allison masterfully deals with every topic in ecclesiology—from how theology proper trickles down, to the qualifications of elders and deacons, to the sacraments/ordinances, and much more—without avoiding thorny issues or over-simplifying complex matters. And though it is an ecclesiological tour de force, it’s written accessibly and from a pastoral heart.

Tyndale House Greek NTThe Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House

I received a copy of this only a few weeks ago, but I love it more than I thought I would. Obviously, I’ve not read the entire NT in Greek in the past few weeks, but I’ve found this edition to be my go-to for casual reading or reference since the day I cracked it open.

It’s simplified—almost like a Greek “reader’s Bible”—but still contains basic textual notes. It’s not something I’m using in my doctoral work (it’s not built for that level of analysis), but it’s a perfect on-the-go Greek NT for someone like me, who needs as many practice reps in Greek as he can get!

 

 

Basics for Interpreting the Book of Revelation

I didn’t grow up a Christian, but as soon as I began following Christ and attending a local church, I was almost immediately introduced to the Book of Revelation via the movie Left Behind. Like most Southern Baptist churches in the 90s, we talked a lot about the rapture, the Antichrist, the Tribulation, and miscellaneous details we could supposedly understand by decoding Revelation’s bizarre language and imagery.

Relatedly, I always remember being told I’d spend forever in Heaven, once I was raptured with Jesus and this world was destroyed. When I thought about Revelation, it was mostly wars, meteors, and desolation. Many of you can probably relate. I’m grateful, though, that I’ve been able to study Revelation for many years now, including as a major piece of my dissertation. In my experience, Revelation has been underplayed, under-appreciated, and simply misrepresented.

While there are many ways to approach interpreting Revelation, here are a few basics to consider first.

1. Revelation is not a book about destruction and fear.

Revelation certainly has its destructive elements—bowls of wrath poured out, beasts, the fall of Babylon, etc. However, these elements point to a greater hope, a hope found in God’s justice in his war against sin and death and evil. These sometimes terrifying elements of the book serve to show us that God is making all things new and redeeming the world fractured by the Fall (Rev. 21-22), not that he’s coming for us with a fireball in one hand and a lighting bolt in the other. Revelation has destruction within it, but it isn’t about that. It’s about our hope in the culmination of God’s promises.

2. Revelation is not about escaping Earth.

“This is not my home, I’m just passing through” is a sweet hymn, but it’s wrong. We don’t spend eternity in some far away place in the sky. Rather, we spend eternity right here, on this planet, the way God intended from the beginning (Gen. 1-2). This place is our home, though it’s certainly due for a major renovation. Sin didn’t cause a Plan B in God’s sovereign blueprint. He’s not abandoning his original plan for an Earth sprawling with image-bearers just because we messed things up; no, he will resurrect his people just like he resurrected his Son (1 Cor. 15). Heaven and Earth were joined together in the beginning, and they’ll come back together in the end (Rev. 21-22).

3. Revelation is not merely about future, end-times events.

This is probably the most misunderstood portion of Revelation. To be sure, it is an apocalypse in the sense that it deals with visions, prophecy, judgment and redemption, etc. However, we should remember that the book is also addressed to a specific audience in specific time (Rev. 1-3), and deals with issues that the original audience could understand and apply. It’s safe to say that Rev. 21-22 are about future events that haven’t happened yet, but the rest of the book is debatable. Likely, most of Revelation simultaneously applies both to its original audience and every generation afterward. Many of the allusions to Babylon, an antichrist, etc. can be applied to Rome and the Caesar the original audience knew, while also being representations or types for many generations of worldly kingdoms and rulers.

4. Revelation is not divorced from the rest of the Bible.

The numbers vary depending on who you ask, but most scholars say that Revelation has approximately 600 references or allusions to the Old Testament. In my study of Revelation, I’ve seen these allusions over and over again. Revelation’s author, John, never directly quotes the OT, but there are unmistakable allusions or hat-tips to the OT every few verses. John likely sees himself as a type of prophet, self-consciously telling the story of how Jesus finally fulfills all of the promises and expectations of the prophets, from Daniel to Isaiah to Zechariah to many others. Revelation is very much a capstone to the Bible’s unified storyline, not a freaky add-on to the end.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Yesterday a comment on the Internet[1] sparked some reflection about the nature of neighbor-hood and the people who inhabit the Middle East. The comment in question seemed to conflate America, and particularly its Christian inhabitants, with an idealized version of Israel on the one hand, and Middle Eastern peoples, particularly devout Muslims, with Israel’s OT enemies on the other. In doing so, the commenter was saying both that we should take care of our neighbors –fellow Americans – and keep at bay those who hold to Islam because the Arab peoples can only ultimately be consigned to idolatry and violent hatred for Isaac and Jacob’s descendants.

There are a number of issues here, but I will focus on two. I think they can be summarized in two questions – who is my neighbor? And, who is Israel?

Regarding the first, Jesus makes it plain in the Gospels that if one wants to discern who counts as a neighbor, he should first think of the person with whom he has the most enmity and work from there. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is chosen because to a Pharisee that would have been the most theologically and ethnically offensive choice. Jesus’ point is that neighbor-hood is not nationalistic – the Samaritans were viewed as outside Israelite society; it is not ethnic – the Samaritans were viewed as a sub-par ethnically mixed group by “pure” Israelites; and it is not about theological correctness – the Samaritans were viewed as worshiping incorrectly by citing Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the proper site for worshiping Yahweh. In other words, the definition of neighbor-hood starts with the person I least want to be my neighbor and then works from there. In 21st century rural Deep South America, I’d imagine the epitome of someone who is the opposite[2] of a resident of that area in terms of nationalism, ethnicity, and theology would very likely be an undocumented Syrian refugee. That is the starting point for neighbor-hood for a Christian.

This, I think, is fairly easy for many Christians to grasp. What may be harder to work through is the subsequent statement about Middle Eastern peoples only being able to produce idolatry and hatred towards Isaac and Jacob’s descendants. In other words, the idea is that in the Old Testament Israel was the faithful worshiper of Yahweh, and now, since America is Israel, we are the faithful Christian nation. Conversely, in the OT the descendants of Ishmael and Esau were always idolatrous and at enmity with Israel, and now, since the Middle Eastern nation-states are Ishmael and Esau, they can do nothing but produce idolatry and enmity.

I don’t know any other way to say this – that is just a very poor reading of the Old Testament. In fact, I’m not sure anyone with this view has read the Old Testament very much(not a shocking proposition in light of the incipient Marcionism in many churches). In the Old Testament, Israel commits idolatry over and over and over again.[3] Israel is unfaithful to Yahweh and Yahweh almost destroys them many times.[4] Conversely, it is the nations that many times exhibit obedience to Yahweh in contrast to Israel’s disobedience. Rahab in Joshua 2 and the Gibeonites in Joshua 10 are prime examples. Further, God in the OT Prophets promises to save not just Israel but the nations – the Ishmaelite nations particularly – as well. The promise of salvation that Christ fulfills is not for an ethnic group but for all people. Justification by faith is for Jews and Gentiles, Jacobites and Ishmaelites alike. There is nothing inherent in anyone aside from our common inheritance of Adam’s sin nature.

To claim that Americans, or Germans, or Brazilians, or Chinese, or Kenyans, or anyone else has some kind of advantage over any other ethnic group with respect to the way Adam’s sin has affected us all is unbiblical. To claim that the gospel of Jesus Christ is in some way not for another ethnic group is unbiblical. To claim that a certain ethnic group is not my neighbor based on our political, nationalistic, ethnic, or theological differences is unbiblical. This kind of thinking has no place in the kingdom of God or his Church.

 

[1] I will not link to or quote this comment for two reasons: 1) I have no desire to draw any more attention to it that I already am, and 2) the sentiments expressed are by no means held only by this one person. Through personal experience and observation of our current culture I am certain this kind of thinking is prevalent throughout the USA.

[2] Of course, the Samaritans were not the opposite of the Pharisees; they were closely related to one another in many ways. A closer analogy might be African Americans, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, but really throughout American history. You could also posit a non-English speaking undocumented Hispanic immigrant. The list goes on.

[3] E.g. Exodus 32, Joshua 7-8, Judges 8, 2 Kings 12.

[4] See for instance Exodus 33, and Joshua 7-8 and Judges 20-21 when the herem (command of total destruction) is placed on tribes within Israel. This command is given to Israel to destroy the nations in Canaan but in these and other instances Israel is so unfaithful that Yahweh turns the command on their heads.

Book Review: Andrew Streett’s The Vine and the Son of Man

During ETS and SBL this year I was able to read through Andrew Streett’s welcome contribution to Fortress Press’ “Emerging Scholars” series, The Vine and the Son of Man: Eschatological Interpretation of Psalm 80 in Early Judaism. Streett, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Redeemer Seminary in Texas, revised his dissertation (Univ. of Wales Trinity St. David) for this volume.

In the monograph Streett argues

(a) that Jewish and Christian interpreters found material in Psalm 80 pertaining to events at the end of the age, a time that some interpreters believed had already come upon them and their communities; and (b) that the meaning derived from Psalm 80 most often comes from the images of the vine (vv. 9-17) and the potentially messianic man (vv. 16b, 18), which because of the ambiguity of the text are open to a wide variety of interpretations (1).

The reader familiar with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures will recognize the potential fruitfulness of exploring the history of interpretation of Psalm 80, as it is alluded to in significant passages of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, as well as in Second Temple literature and Rabbinic Judaism. But, as Streett notes, the study of Psalm 80 and its use in later Jewish and Christian writings, and particularly a study of its eschatological interpretation, is relatively scant. Streett’s volume therefore fills a lacuna in the study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

The book is tightly organized, beginning with two chapters on Psalm 80 in its historical and literary contexts respectively. Over the course of the remainder of the work (chapters 3 – 7), Streett traces the use of Psalm 80 through various Hebrew Bible, Second Temple, and New Testament texts, including Daniel 7 and John 15:1-8. Streett is particularly keen to show how Psalm 80 came to be read messianically and then christologically, and how it is an exegetically feasible reading.

This type of book – one that traces the history of interpretation of a particular passage through its various stages- seems to me to be increasingly popular, and I think rightly so. While the outline of this book and others like it may appear relatively simple, the work done by Streett in this volume is important and useful on a number of levels. First, it sheds light on a comparatively understudied but still important passage in ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and one whose varied interpretations helps us to understand why Christianity ultimately departed from Judaism. The interpretation of Psalm 80, and particularly the Gospel authors’ reading of it as a reference to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, is one of the hermeneutical tipping points for early Christianity. Streett’s careful exegesis of the passage, coupled with his nuanced explanation of how ancient Jewish and early Christian writers read it differently, is of great assistance to scholars of these ancient texts and of the history of religion.

Second, Streett provides readers with what I consider to be a robust interpretive method. He describes it as “eclectic”, drawing on both historical and literary tools. On the latter, he is most interested in describing how Psalm 80 can be read canonically and intertextually (11). This type of reading, that situates a passage of Scripture while at the same time reading it as part of a larger whole, is one that I wholeheartedly commend.

Third, while Streett does not describe his project this way, in my mind it is helpful for Christians who wish to understand better the rationale of the New Testament writers as they used the Old Testament. The Vine and the Son of Man demonstrates that, while there are other interpretive options for the passage, early Christian messianic and christological interpretation of it fits well within the realm of possibilities when considering the intentions of the author of Psalm 80.

On that note, one question I continue to have after reading the book, and after re-reading the relevant passages to this question a number of times, is what Streett means by “meaning,” “intention,” and “intentionality.” A number of times Streett uses these terms to my mind in seemingly disparate ways, so that at one point they can refer to a (single?) intent of the original author – i.e. “what it meant” – while at others they seem to refer to what later readers understood it to mean, and at still other times they appear to refer to what the passage means in a canonical context. Perhaps Streett means all three, and maybe more, but it is still not clear to me exactly what he means by meaning or intention.

I would also hope to see a subsequent article or book on the interpretation of Psalm 80 not just in the New Testament but in early Christianity and perhaps even beyond. It seems to me that these types of projects would be bolstered by looking at the history of interpretation not only in the Christian canon and its background literature but also in subsequent Christian writings.

That question and small quibble aside, The Vine and the Son of Man is a carefully argued, methodologically robust, and therefore welcome addition to the study of the Hebrew Bible in subsequent literature. I would recommend it to those interested in a rigorous study of the Psalter, the history of interpretation, or early Christian origins and exegesis.

 

NOTE: I received this book in exchange for a fair and impartial review.

 

Adolf Schlatter on Theological Method

I stumbled across an essay on the theological method of Adolf Schlatter that is instructive to the theological task. One of Schlatter’s overarching points is the need for interpreters to take the proper time to actually observe what is in the text.  Here is one golden quote from Schlatter:

We will continue to see exegetical works appear that show how the author pored over commentaries about the text but left the text unread. We will see dogmatic treatises which reveal that the writer knows his dogmaticians, especially from his own school of thought, but that he has never seriously observed the religious matters that actually come to pass.

This quote is found is one of Schlatter’s points about the challenge of the theological task to integrate the details of the text into faithful construction of the whole, but coheres well with his overall point on observation.

Robert Yarborough has done us a service with his translation and commentary of Schlatter’s method. The entire essay is worth a read.

 

The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism

My current course load includes one class on the Former Prophets, and this week we’ve dealt with the critical theories about these books’ composition. Of course for Joshua-Kings the prevailing scholarly consensus is the “Deuteronomistic (or Deuteronomic) History,” most famously postulated  by Martin Noth but having undergone many subsequent revisions. For Noth and most OT scholars, the DtH builds on the earlier Documentary Hypothesis, and specifically on de Wette and Welhausen’s claim that the D (Deuteronomic) source was written in the 7th century in response to Josiah’s reforms. According to Noth, the Dtr uses D and attaches to the larger narrative he writes to compose the entire DtH, spanning from Deuteronomy through Kings.

I’ve been knee deep for months in both of these critical theories, and one particular thread sticks out to me. I’ve read biblical scholars across the spectrum on this, from primary sources (e.g. Noth’s seminal volume) to Robert Polzin’s literary approach to Provan et al. and Alexander’s more conservative approaches. The common denominator that runs through them all is a criticism of the methods and conclusions of the original theories. Even Noth, who assumes the Documentary Hypothesis, is critical of the variety of contradictory conclusions that are made in response to Welhausen and de Wette’s seminal articulations.

These criticisms can be grouped, I think, into three categories. First, there are criticisms of the methods used by pioneers of the two theories. Both Polzin and McConville, for instance, criticize Noth for relying on changes in noun/verb numbers to identify sources, noting that this is an arbitrary source critical device and that it has not yielded any sort of scholarly consensus in subsequent scholarship (more on that in a moment). The same types of criticisms are leveled at Welhausen from all manner of OT scholars across the theological and philosophical spectrum (see e.g. T.D. Alexander’s forceful critique in From Paradise to Promised Land).

Second, and related to the arbitrariness of method, is the arbitrariness of the historical assumptions that lie behind these approaches. The most prominent and important of these for both theories is that D was composed in response to Josiah’s reforms in the 7th century. And yet, today, the opinion of the guild seems to be that there is nothing in particular that requires this conclusion. As McConville points out, there are equally valid reasons for thinking much of DtH is pre-exilic (esp. Joshua-Samuel) as there are for thinking that it is post-exilic, and there is nothing in the text that demands a 7th century (and beyond) setting. So the methods used and the historical assumptions that govern these theories are suspect.

Third, and because of the arbitrariness of both method and assumption, both the Documentary Hypothesis and DtH are criticized because neither the approach nor the methods used have led to anything like a scholarly consensus. If one reads the history of both of these critical theories, it becomes readily apparent that with each and within each subsequent generation of scholarship, there is much more disagreement than there is consensus, either with past or present peers. McConville, for example, notes the variety of perspectives on DtH since Noth, many of which directly contradict one another. One would think that if the methods are “objective”, as modern biblical scholarship claims to be,  these would yield a consensus position. And yet they have not.

I would add a fourth criticism, which is that the progenitors of these theories were highly influenced by German philosophy and Enlightenment suspicion. They went to the text looking for, e.g., a Hegelian dialectic development of ideas and texts, for ways to chop up the text so they could then deny its authority, and to verify positively a historical background using “objective” methods. This, too, has been highly criticized by recent biblical scholarship from across the theological spectrum, in that most biblical scholars now recognize the postmodern turn, thus rejecting “objectivity”, and also have moved on from the German philosophical schools of the last two and a half centuries.

All of this leads me to two questions that are (obviously) mostly rhetorical.

First, if the 1) methods, 2) assumptions, 3) conclusions, and 4) philosophical underpinnings of the seminal works for both of these theories are questioned by virtually all contemporary biblical scholarship, why do we still refer to them as if they represent scholarly consensus or as if they are the only way to understand the composition of the Pentateuch and Former Prophets?

Second, how can any non-confessional scholar look an evangelical in the eye and claim objectivity of method and conclusion when a) neutral objectivity is an Enlightenment myth and b) the supposedly objective methods and conclusions are claimed by their own peers to be arbitrary and contradictory?

One final comment: I named this post “The Silliness of (Some) Source Criticism” because I do not want to suggest that source criticism is of no value. It does have value. But when it is appropriated and used in service of “objectivity” and German philosophy, and then left to its own devices by subsequent scholarship, it devolves into self-contradictory silliness.

The Pure and Undefiled Religion of Critical Biblical Scholarship

UPDATE: After reflecting on the fact that this discussion occurred on a Facebook thread, I’ve removed direct quotes. It’s also been brought to my attention that to include quotes from a private Facebook thread is not allowed by their privacy policy. Please know that their inclusion in the original post was to illustrate the nature of the discussion, not to direct attention to those individuals. My apologies for any offense given in including them in the first place.

I want to make clear at the beginning of this post that I’m arguing against particular comments by particular members at SBL, not the organization as a whole. I am a member of SBL because a) I have benefited greatly from the insights of many of its members and b) I support its mission to “Foster Biblical Scholarship.”

Yesterday on Facebook Twitter Timothy Michael Law posted,

Has RBL merged with the Evangelical Theological Society and not told us?

In the comment thread on the same post on Facebook it became clear that there was some controversy over the review Tom Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty, written by a fellow evangelical. Many of the commenters on Law’s post did not appreciate the fact that someone in the same camp as Schreiner reviewed the book or that said reviewer did not offer any substantive critique, especially at a methodological level. While I can appreciate that critique, it also became clear throughout the comment thread that many of those who posted not only were irritated at the reviewer but more importantly at the idea that evangelical work would be admitted to RBL (and by implication SBL) in the first place.

I then attempted a few times to point out the irony of these biblical scholars’ attempt to exclude confessional scholarship while at the same time accepting and many times promoting a plethora of ideological readings. I also tried to point out that modern biblical scholarship holds to its own presuppositions just as much as confessional biblical scholarship. This comment of mine summarizes most of the points I was trying to make:

In other words, keep your confessional commitments to yourself. In response I’ll simply point out again the plethora of “Asian feminist pansexual reading of Exodus 19” papers at SBL.

And no…, that’s not a conservative evangelical trying to use postmodernism to legitimize myself, it’s pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of asking some people to leave their commitments at the door while welcoming all other presuppositions with open arms. If you want a “non-confessional” society, then have one. But that’s going to mean kicking out a lot more people, or at least excluding a lot more papers, than just confessional evangelicals.

Suffice it to say that there was much discussion on whether confessional scholars ought to be allowed to contribute with their confessional cards on the table, so to speak. At the end of the day it seemed that many wanted to exclude explicitly confessional scholarship and instead rely on the assumptions and methods of critical biblical scholarship. While the former’s stance towards the text can be questioned, it was clear from the comments that the latter should not be questioned, nor should those who do be considered participants in a scholarly enterprise.

“Pure and Undefiled Religion”

To be honest I’m dumbfounded by this entire thread. I thought we’d moved beyond this sort of autonomous, tradition-escaping, scientific positivism in just about every field there is, including biblical studies, but it appears to be alive and well within SBL. (Of course I shouldn’t be too surprised given the 2010 “Farewell to SBL” kerfuffle.) To begin, earlier in the thread everyone seemed to be on board with the idea that presuppositions can be critiqued, that is until I suggested that the presuppositions of modern biblical scholarship be critiqued. This then led one commenter to proclaim that this need not happen and that modern biblical scholarship is about data, not presuppositions. I don’t intend to be unnecessarily incendiary, but I simply don’t see how this position can be held by anybody acquainted with the last 100 years of philosophy. There is no such thing as a bald fact; there are only interpreted facts. So to claim that the SBL is interested only in a dispassionate study of data which leads to presupposition-less, verifiable conclusions makes little sense in light of the insights of postmodernism. Further, as Craig Bartholomew among others has ably demonstrated, the last 250 years of biblical studies have been dominated by and carried along in the current of a whole host of Enlightenment philosophical trends, including Cartesian and Kantian epistemology, Hegelian dialecticism, Heideggerian phenomenology, etc. etc. etc. The Enlightenment was not some gift from the gods of reason dropped from the empirical heavens, but is rather just as much a philosophical movement (or movements) and is thus open to evaluation and critique.

Will the Real Historian Please Stand Up?

A second astounding claim made by the aforementioned commenters is that critical scholarship pays attention to history while evangelical (or at least confessional) interpretation does not. Again, I’m dumbfounded. One has only to look at the work of people like Ray Van Neste or John Sailhamer or Stephen Dempster or Brevard Childs or N. T. Wright or Richard Hays or Stephen Fowl or George Knight or….and the list goes on. All of these scholars are well schooled in the issues surrounding the study of the historicity and historical development (or lack thereof) of the text, and yet come to different conclusions than those held by much of the academy for the last 100-200 years. What the commenters have a problem with is that confessional scholars don’t share their conclusions about historical issues, not that they don’t participate in historical studies.

Of course this brings us back to the first point, which is that modern biblical scholarship, no less than any other enterprise, is in many ways carried along and in some cases determined by its presuppositions. Approaching the biblical text as a purely human product devoid of unity or contemporary purpose is bred from the above Enlightenment commitments. Of course, seeing the Bible as a Christological unity is no less presuppositional. And this is not to say that presuppositions cannot be changed or modified; Bernard Lonergan among others has demonstrated how that happens.

One particular way that assumptions change is through an overwhelming confrontation by data, and I suppose this is what the commenters expect – for me and others to either ignore data or be confronted by it so overwhelmingly that we cannot help but approach the Bible differently. But the truth of the matter is twofold. First, there are many quality evangelical scholars who know intricately the data and the arguments for reading it a certain way, and yet interpret it differently. Take the authorship of the Pastorals – both Ray Van Neste and George Knight confront the supposed airtight case for pseudonymity and overturn it. Ironically, these commenters chide confessional scholars, evangelicals among them, for their holy huddle and refusing to have their assumptions questioned. But I wonder, how is this not the same on the other side?

On a historical level, there is also the irony of many commenters deriding other approaches to the text as “failed projects of modernity.” BIblical theology was explicitly mentioned a number of times in this regard. But what this fails to recognize is that biblical theology was originally a reaction against the growing realization that modern biblical studies was itself a failing project of modernity. I think the history of interpretation is a neglected field, and this is a fine example of where it gets us.

Finally, again on a historical level, the assumption that an ecclesial reading is not scholarly ignores both the history of the text and of its interpretation. The Bible is forever intertwined with the church, and to try to separate them is a fool’s errand. And to claim that the first 1750 years of biblical interpretation, not to mention interpretation prior to Jesus of Nazareth, is at its heart not scholarly and inherently faulty is to identify not as an enlightened progressive but as a quintessential example of chronological snobbery.

Poor Richard…

Of course now the question is, what about people like Richard Hays or Joel Green, who operate with explicitly confessional assumptions? Are they now out of SBL? Is it only the atheist, or the one who pretends to be one, that can be a member? I suppose they’re out, as are a host of others. I suppose that’s fine, if the members choose to vote that way. But I suspect once the full implications of this “non-sectarian objective utopia” are realized, people might back off a bit.

 

Jason Hood on Michael Bird (Luke Wisley)

At the beginning of June, Jason Hood posted some reflections on what he learned from Michael Bird as his doctoral supervisor. Jason’s post really resonated with me, so I thought I would repost two of his thoughts with my own reflections.

* MASTER your content; being a GENERALIST, a category I learned about from Michael and something to which I still aspire, does not mean slagging off, nor does it mean ignoring one’s responsibility to become a specialist (a requirement for entering the guild). Michael, like Howard Marshall, put stress on “making the primary sources your mistress” (IHM’s phrase).

Besides the incredible phrase ‘make the primary sources your mistress’ this thought really hits home for me. It is incredibly important as a pastor, scholar, or layperson to really know the primary sources. From the pastoral and scholarly side, a lack of knowledge of the primary sources is reflected in preaching and research that is guided by secondary literature rather than the text. Theological education must stress mastering the text (which inevitably means being comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) and letting secondary literature expand your exegetical horizons rather than letting it be the ultimate guide.

* KNOW YOUR PERSONALITY, primarily so that you can be comfortable in your own skin with your own limits and tendencies. Not everyone will take a fancy to you, but you’ll probably enjoy life and work more.

I enjoyed this little note from Jason. It’s one that I need to learn. There is a huge temptation to allow the work you are producing to dictate your worth and value. This is followed by the endless temptation of measuring yourself against all the other research students you meet. I’ve found that giving into these temptations makes one miserable. Know yourself, your gifts, and be as faithful as you can to work hard and develop further. That’s all you can do. So I think Jason is right, if you know yourself you’ll enjoy both life and work more.

I encourage you to read the whole post.