Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Thoroughly Post-Modern Biblical Interpretation

Post-Modernism is an odd movement of our time. As it affects theological reflection it has both its good and bad aspects. The good news is it takes less atomistic approaches to the Bible. For example, it is concerned with canonical theology as a whole, Biblical theology as whole. These are not bad things in themselves. But there is an under current to much of the post-modern stuff that I read from A.K.A. Adam and others that is disturbing at several levels.

Here is a link so you can read some things about post-modern criticism and philosophy as it applies to the Bible---

http://churchandpomo.typepad.com/conversation/2006/10/a_postmodern_bi.html


Let's take the issue of epistemology first. Post-modernism in so far as it has helped caused a shift in epistemology is deeply indebted to people like Stanley Fish formerly of Duke but now at the law school at Florida International, believe it or not. Fish is a thorough-going reader response kind of guy. He is the type of person who is likely to smile when you say "meaning is just in the eye of the beholder". He does not really believe texts have meanings. He believes that active readers give texts their meaning.

I was always taught to call this eisegesis-- the inappropriate reading into the text of something that is not there. He is not at all interested in arguments about "the intention of the author". He thinks those intentions, whatever they were can't be known and don't matter. Meaning happens-- its not encoded in texts, and the issue of authorial intent is a moot point. The funny thing about this is that when some people have misread his own work on John Milton, and totally misrepresented what he said--- he objects "but that is not what I said or meant." But he doesn't have a leg to stand on. He gave up claims about objective meanings in texts and authorial intent. As for me, I would much rather listen to Kevin Van Hoozer on these subjects (see his "Is There a Meaning in This Text?") or more remotely E.D. Hirsch's classic study "Validity in Interpretation".

Why is this important when it comes to the study of the Bible? There is a simple answer--- THIS IS GOD'S WORD. I do not get to decide for myself what God's Word says or means. It would be arrogant for me to think so. It is for me to discover the meaning of the text encoded in the sentences and paragraphs, for it had an objective meaning long before I ever looked at the text or studied the text. God through the vehicle of various inspired human beings put that meaning there. Post-modernism has problems with objective truth claims, especially texts that make claims on us before we can even begin to make claims about them. It likes to use the pejorative term 'foundationalism' when people start talking about objective truth claims. Frankly, this seems to me to be yet one more human ploy to hold the truth claims of the Bible on us all at bay. Put simply most post-modern theory involves an epistemology that violates the whole Biblical theory and reality of 'revelation'-- a truth conveyed by God through human vehicles to us in perspicuous words that involve truths that not merely relative but absolute and makes an absolute claim on us all.


The second problem with thoroughly post-modern Biblical interpretation is it tends to be docetic. What do I mean by this? It wants to suggest or imply that historical issues are not really all that important to theology with rare exceptions. It doesn't really much matter whether there was a historical Moses or not, we have these books that appeal to the name of Moses called the Pentateuch and since they are part of our canon they have authority for us, whatever degree of historical substance there may or may not be to the historical claims in the text.

Some would suggest that we treat the Bible as pure story, pure narrative, indeed there is a whole school of approach which wants to treat the Gospels as ancient works of 'true fiction', with the term 'true' defined in almost purely theological terms. What is wrong with theologizing, or doing canonical theology in this way? What is wrong with treating the NT in a 'history of ideas' kind of way-- as if the resurrection was just an interesting idea played with in different ways by different NT authors? The answer is simple. Christian faith is a faith founded on a certain irreducible number of historical events. Like Judaism it is an historical religion, such that without the history, there would be, or at least should be, no religion.

That's the difference between historical religions and pure philosophies of life. A good example of a religious philosophy of life, not grounded in historical events, would be Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science, which in its original essence was a mind over matter philosophy of life. Her theory, even though she herself was often a physically very sick person, is that physical illness is an illusion of the mind, and if one knows how to practice mind over matter, then one can be well. You don't need medicine. Sometime you should read Mark Twain's famous and detailed critique of this religion-- it is simply called "Christian Science" and it is published by Prometheus Books. It is quite the expose. Why do I bring up this example? Because it shows where docetic use of the Bible and docetic approaches to theology can lead. Denude the Bible of its historical substance, boil it down to just stories or just a pile of philosophical principles or just a collection of theological and ethical ideas and what have you got?? You've got something that bears no resemblance to the presuppositions and actual theologizing that is being done in the NT or OT.

Listen for a minute to Paul. He puts it this way to his Corinthians who had docetic tendencies--- " If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile: you are still in your sins. The those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitable people on earth." (1 Cor. 15.17-19). He goes on to add 'If the dead are not raised, then 'let us eat and drink for tomorrow we will die'" (vs. 32). Did you catch what he just did? He just suggested that both Christian theology and Christian ethics are founded in and grounded in an historical event-- the resurrection of Jesus. If that did not happen then far from Christianity being a spiritually beneficial thing, or a comfort it is to be seen as a delusion, and its practitioners pitiable. If Christ isn't raised then the basis for good conduct between now and death is undercut. We should instead embrace hedonism. Oliver O' Donovan's wonderful work on 1 Cor.15 has shown just how much Paul's theology and his ethics are grounded in the Christ event.

"My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness..." Indeed, and this means we dare not do theology as if we were just tossing about a bunch of interesting ideas and seeing what permutations and combinations we can come up with. The meaning of these texts matter theologically and ethically because the history which they enshrine actually happened. Revelation came in the form of events and words and deeds in real time in real space involving real persons. This ought to be obvious to Christians for whom salvation is not a Gnostic self-help program by which if we just gain the right insider knowledge and are enlightened we can save ourselves. No, salvation is something that took place outside of our own cerberal cortex through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. If those things did not happen, there is no salvation-- period. Not for anyone.

Those who suggest "its true because it is in the canon" and then say "lets do canonical theology" have got the matter completely backwards. It's in the canon because its true-- some of it is historically true, some of it is ethicaly true, some of it is true in other senses, including theological ones. But it isn't true just because its in the canon. Its true because a truthful God inspired various writers to write these books especially to tell the truth about Jesus Christ and other important historical figures in the Jewish and Christian story of salvation history. Thus, color me post- post-modern. I hope you are as well.

34 comments:

Bill Barnwell said...

Isn't this wishy washy handling of the text similar to the approach of "Bishop" Spong and his supporters?

Matt said...

Hi Dr. Witherington,

Once in awhile, I read something that has me vocalizing agreement and pointing at the screen (or book, or newspaper, or pamphlet....), to the point where others observing me would likely be annoyed, curious, or both. Reading "Thoroughly Post-Modern Biblical Interpretation" was like that for me (although I was mercifully quiet enough to avoid waking my family this morning). Great and necessary essay.

Here's a question, though: How would you place the whole Radical Orthodoxy idea, which seems to avoid falling into the traps of actual postmodern philosophy while using the postmodern framework to express itself. I wonder if it's perhaps in the same way that some of the Patristic writers attempted, perhaps imperfectly, to express the Gospel in Neoplatonic terms in late antiquity) (note: I've really only scratched the surface of writing regarding Radical Orthodoxy, so it's not like I'm deeply engaged or even deeply familiar with it).

In Messiah,

Matt

Ben Witherington said...

Well I think that for some of the radical orthodoxy crowd, post-modernism is a matter of style rather than substance-- a rhetorical technique to be more persuasive. A good example of this is Rob Bell. Now there are those, like Brian McClaren however who have drunk too deeply from the well of relativism....

Blessings,

Ben

Ed Brenegar said...

Thanks for your helpful description of postmodernism. There is another aspect of it that concerns me. It isn't really a system of thought, but a collection of disconnected reactions to the worst aspects of modernism. In that sense, it is really just another form of modernism. The proponents of a postmodern Christian approach deny this, but I have as of yet not found their arguments compelling. The scholar who you link to in your post , Jamie Smith, has written a very helpful book called Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? It is basically a treatment of the value of three postmodern theorists to the work of theology. It is a helpful book, but in the end not compelling. What they claim as postmodern thought is similar to ideas found in traditional biblical studies. Yet, not completely. For example, there is an appeal to context as you have also noted, but the context is not historical but literary. So, it sounds good, but ultimately an incomplete process of interpretation.
Last comment ... I was at a conference recently, and attended a seminar on postmodernism. I asked the speaker, "If postmodernism follows modernism, what follows postmodernism?" His answer? "Nothing." I think what he meant is that postmodernism is culmination of intellectual progress. Instead, I see it as a deadend.

Ross said...

Thanks for this. I am extremely worried by the way clergy, especially in my own tradition, just don't believe there is any objective, historical truth. Everything seems to be about finding the truth for yourself, which is fine as long as you believe there is truth to be discovered. What it normally seems to mean is finding the 'truth' that works for you.

Best wishes

Preston said...

While I would certainly support your criticism of any theology that does not proclaim the truths that the Bible claims, I think a lot of the responses to the various historical criticisms are well founded. Critique of historical criticism does not necessarily hinge on a rejection of historicity, but rather the rejection that the texts are reducible to the kind of historical scrutiny that limits meaning of the text to the immediate historical context of the text. (Might scripture even have providential meaning? I think so.) We receive our biblical texts within a history of interpretation, including a canonical context that informs our reading of isolated texts - and we rightly give greater weight to what is canonical than to what is not canonical. That is, by the nature of the received canon, we tend to read Mark with greater weight given to what Matthew says, rather than to what the gospel of Thomas says. Much of historical criticism attempts to read texts without the context of a received tradition, cononical and dogmatic, and often fails to take seriously the church as an institution with a doctirnal history, and that we come to the text at hand with some formation. I guess what I would say is that this is not just ok, but essential to do any theology or reading of scripture that is in the service of the church.

I guess I'am sympathetic to readings of scripture that are willing to place texts into a broader ecclesial and traditional context, but certainly not ones that are willing to sacrifice one historical context for another - either ours for the 1st c., or the 1st c. for ours.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Preston: Thanks for your thoughtful post. I think I agree entirely with what you are saying, but there are good historical reasons why the material in the canon is more helpful to us in understanding the text than other materials: 1) it is earlier material, either from apostles and eyewitnesses or from those who were close to them. See my new book What Have They Done with Jesus?; 2) it passed the trith test of close scrutiny from all those who were the original eyewitnesses. See for example Lk. 1.1-4. From a strictly historical point of view, on any subject one should go with the earliest and best witnesses. These happen to be the ones that made it into the canon. Other early documents are simply not the best witnesses (e.g. the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement, the Gospel of Thomas) because they either do not comport with the other earlier witnesses in character or content, or they actually take an approach that is antithetical to the earlier witnesses (e.g the Gnostic and pantheistic tendencies in Thomas, or the anti-Semitism of Barnabas).

Finally, there is a difference between meaning and significance. Meaning is what is encoded in the text. A text can however have a larger significance (what you are calling providence) or a rather different application in different setting such as ours.

Here are two key hermeneutical rules we must follow: 1) What it meant back there is still what it means today; 2) a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.


Finally, there is a difference between hyper-criticism, calling itself historical criticism (e.g. old style atomistic form criticism) and the historical study of the text, using the basic principles any historian would use. History is one thing, but humility is necessary in historical study. My ability to reconstruct what happened or 'prove' something is limited. This does not mean that the historical substance of something is dubious. It may just be the limits of the method.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Steve Bedard said...

I really appreciate your warnings against post-modern biblical interpretation. It is this type of thing, although in a different form, that Stan Porter and I responded to in our book Unmasking the Pagan Christ. We traced the thought of one particular author and former New Testament professor (Tom Harpur) who struggled with picking and choosing what was true from the Gospels until he finally completely removed Jesus from history and embraced a fully allegorical approach. What is ironic is that Origen, who is often used as the poster boy for the non-historical approach, actually taught that the historical interpretation should be retained in the majority of cases (De Principiis 4.1.19). Most post-modern biblical scholars are not as radical as Harpur, but it does demonstrate the dangerous path they are treading.

Sandalstraps said...

Bill Barnwell,

You do yourself and your theological cause a disservice when you put quotation marks around John Shelby Spong's title. Like it or not, he is a bishop, having served as the Episcopal Bishop of Newark for more than twenty years.

I don't share his theological commitments, nor do I share many of his epistomelogical assumptions, but I can't stand it when people call his credentials into question. It is a cheap shot unbecoming of Christians.

You are welcome to argue that his standing as an Episcopal bishop reflects poorly on the church that chose him for such a role, but you are simply not welcome to deny that he is in fact a bishop, or to imply that your disagreements with him somehow call that into question.

Greg Simmons said...

Ben,

Thanks for a very thorough post on post-modernism. Seeing as I am not a bible-scholar, my vocabulary will remain simple...partly because my faith is simple.

You bring up some very serious concerns about the interpretations and teachings of some of today's leaders. The concern I have is that their approach seems to move more toward a position of "enlightenment" instead of Scriptural understanding. Sadly, taking this approach smacks of human ego displaying pride that "we" understand more about the "true" nature of God than "you" do. The other detrimental effect of this "thought loop" (my definition - thoughts that are true because the truth of the thoughts in and of themselves is true) is an attempt to split the hairs of faith. This allows people (smart or not) to rationalize their interpretation based on the historical data they have chosen - simply because it supports their point of view.

All of this stems from the erroneous belief that text has no meaning until the reader gives it meaning. Ever heard the phrase, "Reading into it more than was there"? Why this makes no sense? If the intent of the writer doesn't matter or worse, doesn't appear to exist, then throw out instruction manuals, warning labels, house plans, medical dosage instructions, etc. The intent of the writer is paramount to understanding what was written. Avoiding the warnings of mixing bleach and ammonia can have fatal effects, but if I as the reader don't believe that, then it must not be true.

Is this not elevating Self / Reader to the level of Arbiter of Truth?

Klaus Nurnberger said...

On the importance of history for the interpretation of the Bible you may find my research useful. The Bible is a product of human history but that does not preclude the agency of God. According to the biblical witness God enters human history, picks up people where they are (with their concrete needs and interpretations) and leads them where he wants them to be. This is a historical process that happened in biblical history. See my web site www.klaus-nurnberger.com for a position paper, abstracts of two books and further details. There is also a blog "puzzled-bored-upset-by-the-bible". I would appreciate your comments there.
Klaus

Dave said...

I haven't been all that worried about Post-Mo crowd, I thought the concern over it was mostly over-reaction and hype, until recently. But I can see the effects of this especially on some of the bigger UMC message boards. I am amazed at how steep & slippery that path down is.
The masses out there of UMC'ers that are defining their own personal religion amazed me. The lack of biblical basis was scary. As was pointed out, if you don't believe the bible holds truths, then what foundation are you standing on?

Jonathan Erdman said...

He is not at all interested in arguments about "the intention of the author". He thinks those intentions, whatever they were can't be known and don't matter. Meaning happens-- its not encoded in texts, and the issue of authorial intent is a moot point. The funny thing about this is that when some people have misread his own work on John Milton, and totally misrepresented what he said--- he objects "but that is not what I said or meant." But he doesn't have a leg to stand on. He gave up claims about objective meanings in texts and authorial intent.

Usually if I run into such an obvious contradiction I assume one of two things:
1 - The guy is an absolute moron and an idiot.
2 - I may not be understanding the guy's argument to begin with and perhaps it is more subtle than I have understood it to be.

I think that it would be a touch sell to posit #1.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Have you read Vanhoozer's article "Discourse on Matter" in which he reexamines some of his assumptions made in some of his earlier works?

It is in a collection of essays in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads

I disagree with the "intent" of the author emphasis implied here. What is the point of entering the mind of the author? Shouldn't the focus be what is communicated in the text? Why do I care what Paul was thinking when he wrote Romans? All I care about is what Paul wrote in Romans. Even Vanhoozer even makes a slight modification on his "authorial intent" emphasis, although he does, for the most part, stick to his guns!

If Paul could come back from the dead do you really think that he could divine what his intentions were in everything he wrote? Even Peter seemed confused re: Paul's writings saying there were things that were hard to understand!

Ben Witherington said...

Steve and Klaus thanks for your posts. Glad this discourse is being undertaken in various forms. As for Jonathan you seem to misunderstand the issue of intentionality. This is not a synonym for mind reading or what is behind the text and purely in the mind of the author at all. We are talking about the trajectory, sense, intended meaning in the text itself.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Steve Bedard said...

Ben, speaking of the need for solid biblical interpretation... I lead a lay Bible school and I will be teaching a course on the Bible, touching on inspiration, inerrancy, interpretation, inclusion in the canon and so forth. I am looking for a good text that is accessible to lay people, good scholarship, evangelical but not fundamentalist. Can you recommend one?

dmmowers said...

Would you call the critical-realist position espoused by your friend Bishop Wright primarily in his work The New Testament and the People of God post-modern in the fact that it rejects the positivistic notion that we can view the text through a set of value-neutral lenses?

Does a wholesale rejection of postmodernism cave to the fundamentalist viewpoint that each text has one and only one meeting which is "absolute truth?" How can we boil away our own presuppositions in order to find this "absolute truth?" What about the more evangelical varieties of groups like feminist or liberation theologians who, on the one hand, being people of faith who love the Bible, challenge us to view the text from a perspective different from our own? What merit do these groups have if each text has one and only one absolute meaning?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Steve: I so wish I could recommend one. That's why I've just wrriten one for Harper. The little book by Wright is just o.k. The little book by Achtemeier has its moments but is not great. The older book by Marshall is better but is showing its age and is a bit too brief. Not bad is Bruce's Are the NT Documents Reliable? There is still some stuff of value in Warfield's classic study the Inspiration and Authority. I like some of C.H. Dodd's The Authority of the Bible. As you can see--- I have no go to choice.

As for the question about brother Wright, I think Tom is very critical of post-modernism at times. For instance I once heard a scathing but cheeky review of Dom Crossan at the SBL which sounded rather 'modernist' to me.

It is not true to say that old school historians were ever under the illusion that any one approaches texts from a value neutral viewpoint. Its just that they do not agree that a considerable degree of objectivity and clarity is impossible.

Blessings,
Ben

preacherman said...

Thanks for this post.
Great thoughts.

Jason Barr said...

Good thoughts, some with which I agree and others with which I do not. While I am generally concerned with the accomodations evangelical Christianity seems to have made to modernism, and thus welcome postmodern critiques of modernism, I feel the need for caution among Christians lest we develop uncritically the same accomodations to postmodernism and relativism. It is my belief that, while Christianity is lived out within particular cultural contexts and as such has many particular manifestations, the story that should first and foremost shape our lives even within those particular contexts is that of the crucified and risen Christ, as he is revealed in the canonical Scriptures which have been proven time and again to be the best sources of information about Jesus- who he was and is, and why that should affect us corporately and individually.

While I would probably be a little more friendly to individual practitioners and scholars within the emerging church and other "postmodern Christian" movements, I think you and I both share that belief.

I would be interested in your take on a work like Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context, by Stanley Grenz and John Franke. They seek to articulate a Christian hermaneutic based not on modern forms of foundationalism (whether it be the conservative Biblical literalism that ends in isolated verses being taken out of context as prooftexts or the liberal foundationalism that subjects the text to and reinterprets it in the light of certain modern ideals, most notably the progress myth) but rather based on a method more akin to a conversation between the Biblical texts, as seen within their historical and cultural contexts (such as is I believe the approach of your socio-rhetorical commentaries), the history of interpretation and the traditions of orthodox Christianities throughout the history of the church, and the current cultural setting.

They are very much not relativists, like Middleton and Walsh in Truth Is Stranger than it Used to Be they seek to find a Biblically-based, historically Christian worldview (or metanarrative, if you will) to guide the life of the church in the cultural milleu that is emerging.

Thank you for your work, and have a good day.

ktismatics said...

Is there any consensus as to why some evangelicals are exploring the postmodern theorists? E.g., are there particular problems in Biblical interpretation that they're trying to resolve by going to nontraditional sources? I get the sense here that people believe the "post-evangelicals" are trying to escape something rather than trying to find something. Why is that?

Ben Witherington said...

I like the work of Stan Grenz and do not disagree in the least with your hermeneeutical statement about the problems with fundamentalism or as they like to call it foundationalism. The issue actually doesn't usually come down to hermeneutics, it usually comes down to epistemology and whether we can know absolute truth, and if so, what is it. Contextual exegesis properly down is not in any way a post-modern thing. Nor is indigenizing the Gospel. These things have been done forever. What postmodernism does bring to the table is even more literary sensitivity and sense of the importance of story-- and I applaud both of those things.


As for why Evangelicals are running from modernism, I think you've probably answered your own question. Its more what they are running from than what they are running to.

Blessings,

Ben

Jonathan Erdman said...

As for Jonathan you seem to misunderstand the issue of intentionality. This is not a synonym for mind reading or what is behind the text and purely in the mind of the author at all. We are talking about the trajectory, sense, intended meaning in the text itself.

There is quite a bit that I seem to misunderstand, especially when treading on shakey ground of philosophical hermeneutics!

In any case, it has been on my mind quite a bit, the issue of how closely a text is tied to the author's "intention." You used the term in this post, and so I thought I would pick your brain.

I went through an essay by Wolterstorff last night in which he describes his approach not as "authorial intent," but as "authorial discourse." He wants to distance himself from the intention of the author, with only a slight accomodation. And, as I mentioned, Vanhoozer whom you have referenced seems to also be moving away from using the word "intention" as the focal point of interpretation. The movement is away from the author and towards the text, while at the same time Vanhoozer/Wolterstorff reject the movement made by Gadamer and others who move completely to the text and completely away from the author. It seems as though V/W are looking for some alternative...

I've posted some quotes and reactions to Wolterstorff on my blog. The article is from Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, which is shaping up to be a fine read.

Brandner said...

Hey Ben, great analysis. A bit over my head as a fairly new Christian, but it was great reading. It points me to all sorts of new areas of reading.

I was curious if you've read the new Dawkins book... review found on The First Post http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/index.php?menuID=4&subID=819

Again, wonderful blog.

T

Ben Witherington said...

Mr. Dawkins and I are not acquainted even in book form....

Ben

Troy said...

Professor,

I hesitate to post, as you have certainly thought these things through more than I have. I also offer thanks at the outset, as your blog was a key point of entry into NT studies for me; your Jesus Quest book was excellent, and led me to Sanders, to Wright especially, whose goals are ambitious beyond belief (yet who continues to deliver on page after page).

I will make a personal observation however: reading the OT through last year in my EFM class (an Episcopal class for laity out of Sewanee) was a bracing experience. For one, the OT books are very different from one another. The 'direct prophecy' of writers like Amos or Ezekiel is not the same thing as what is found in Kings, say, or even Exodus, which are essentially history texts (though in Exodus, especially, laden with theology). I must say the military content of Joshua left me reeling. It is very hard for me not to see a human, even nationalist, component in portions of those accounts. I seem to recall one verse where God throws down large rocks from heaven onto an enemy of Israel.

I heartily agree that the canonical gospels reflect earlier and more precise tradition than the gnostics; until someone shows me otherwise, I see little reason to doubt their core witness and I have placed my faith in Christ because of them. There can be no doubt, Christianity, and Judaism, are historical faiths. But the Jesus material in the gospels has an entirely different provenance from what we know about Moses, for example, or the patriarchs before him. We both agree the early nature of the gospels gives them more credibility than 2nd or 3rd century gnostic texts. The gnostic gospels, of course, are distorted by more than time; their extra-Christian agenda clearly affects them. But the Moses material we have is much farther removed from Moses' life than anything in the canonical gospels, ditto the patriarchs or Joshua's conquest of the land.

And as you note in a personal story in Gospel Code, I think, God uses his oracles over and over in ways not associated with the original historical context. I have experienced the same thing, feeling God is using a particular verse to speak to a particular area in my life. This is part of much Christian experience, but surely goes beyond, though not completely beyond, contextual reading.

I guess at this point I am struggling with how to understand scripture, how to understand the human component. At the moment I hold a fairly low or human view of the bible books, yet I believe God was in covenant with Israel (in some mysterious blend which held both the individuals in the nation and the nation itself), and certainly that Jesus was who he said he was and died and rose to prove it. I think Machen, who held a high view of scripture, said long ago one can be a Christian and hold such views if the faith in Christ is genuine.

Viewing the Bible as God's word becomes sad for me when it is used to marginalize certain groups, specifically women and gays.
This surely happens, often with good intention. Yet the epistle writers and the coders of the Levitical law were limited by their social context even if they were also communicating revelation.

I don't have an easy answer, but your post brought all this to mind.

And as someone who studied lit. crit. in grad school and now teaches it on the basic level (if there is such a thing) I always thought Fish was weak. Actually, I found Wright's brief discussion of meaning in texts refreshing in POG, but this would lead into another post.

With genuine love

ktismatics said...

Though this last comment by Troy is directed to Dr. Witherington, I'd like to commend it: clearly and sincerely stated, open to possibilities within the larger context of the historic faith. If Troy explores alternatives to traditional hermeneutics, I would believe it's with good intentions. It's possible that he's afraid of the timeless truths embedded in the Scriptures, that he's feeling the conflict of being in the world but not of it. Alternatively, he might be afraid that the traditional interpretations of Scripture are distorted; he might be feeling the conflict between the need for change and the resistance that change always confronts. Sorry for this brief intrusion -- back to Troy's comments.

Steve Bedard said...

Although I have a high view of Scripture, I can identify with some of what is being said, especially about the OT. Although I consider the NT to be historically reliable, I get more post-modern the farther back in the OT I go. A look at Kings and Chronicles shows that the writers were not afraid to give their theological spin on history. How important is it that the OT record is accurate regarding the historical David? Moses? Abraham? I become less sure the farther we go back. I can accept Genesis 1-2 as spiritually true without insisting on 6 literal days or a 6000 earth. But where this line is drawn, I am not sure.

Dave said...

Ditto here on some of the OT writings especially when balancing those with some of the NT texts. For instance, Noah and the Flood, and God using it to wipe out the evil in the world, and then balancing that with Pauls in Romans 3:25 where he says that God has not dished out his wrath, or Jesus at the beginning of Luke 13, basically saying that stuff just happens and it's not due to punishment.
Many folks have been essentially taught the dual nature of God between the NT (loving) and OT (wrathful). This leads sense of on-going revelation of God, in that God is evolving or changing, which in turn creates our post-modern problems of the changing truths...
How do we (lay folks) make sense of that? How can we answer to our inquisitive, taking-nothing-at-face-value youth?

Matt said...

I'm wondering if I can go out on a limb that could become rather thin, but perhaps it's worth speculating some on this. On the one hand, understanding of some of the difficult passages in the OT can be helped greatly at times by more historical/cultual understanding of the context. For example, I had recently been challenged with Numbers 5 as a supposed "trial by ordeal" for women, and it was in doing a little bit of digging into the Near Eastern cultural context that I was able to discover that it was, if anything, remarkably advanced and equitable for the time. Glenn Miller of Christian Think-Tank notes regarding this,

"the trial of bitter waters (Sotah) is a an amazing provision by God for a woman to publicly clear her name (and indict a dysfunctional husband in the process). This is the procedure invoked by a jealous and/or paranoid husband who suspected his wife of infidelity. God gave this law to protect the woman from physical and economic abuse from a capricious and petty husband. In many of the cultures of that day, men had absolute dictatorial rights over their wives. If they suspected adultery, they were allowed to kill the woman without any appeal on her part. There was not a process of justice, or process where they BOTH had to appear before a higher authority. In fact, in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1720 BC.), CH 132, women who were suspected of this type of infidelity were required to throw themselves into the Euphrates river--if they drown, they were guilty; if not, they were innocent! (Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 171). God would instead provide a public vindication process, before His leaders, his people, and the couple. If the woman was vindicated, the man would bear the stigma of unfounded and paranoid jealousy, and slanderous accusation before his friends/family (with possible legal consequences). Her rights were protected by this very ceremony. This was a very, very advanced pro-women procedure for those times."

Here's where the speculation really kicks in, and I hesitate to write it down because the whole set of issues related to certain OT texts really are difficult, and can't be treated too simplistically from a conservative position or a liberal position. I've wondered if another key to understanding some of the more difficult passages of the OT, say for example, in Joshua (A more historical/cultural argument is found (again) here in Glenn Miller's writings), can be better grasped by viewing them Christologically, through the "lens" of the coming of Messiah as described in the New Testament. Perhaps one could view the key issue as being that the preservation of the people of God was of utmost importance, not only to the Isralites themselves, but to all humanity, as it was through them that Messiah was to come forth as the Savior of all peoples.

Again, this is very speculative in regard to an issue in which I'm not sure we can fully understand until that 1 Corinthians 13:12 time in which we shall know just as [we] also are known.

Peace,

Matt

Troy said...

Sincere thanks to those of you who have also commented here. My time is very limited at the moment. I will get back to this thread...Monday at latest (family, career...how is one to to this kind of work).

Certainly this is a healthy dialogue and I appreciate the support.

t

Troy said...

Dr. Worthington's blog has moved past this entry, and in some sense I feel I should respect that. Special thanks to ktismatics whose warm words are sincerely appreciated. Special thanks also to Matt who has provided important outside information. I will read Miller's essay on Joshua when I can. The information on Numbers 5(certainly one passage which shocked me) is appreciated, even if all my questions are still not resolved for it.

Surely, at essence Matt is right. It's easy to misunderstand the OT, or the NT, if one does not look closely and take the time to understand what is truly being said. The cursing of the fig tree in Mark is a good example. Here I have to part company with Julia Sweeney, who found this story an example of Jesus' irrational rage (though of course, if the rest of Mark is historical, the fig tree is the least of my concerns). Many NT critics have noted the role the story plays in Mark, however, coming close to the Temple 'cleansing' and the prediction of its destruction...it was a prophetic-symoblic act...it was probably not the time of year for figs and Jesus knew it, etc.,...the material which must be admitted into discussion of this pericope goes on.

Surely I must try to do the same with the OT, when possible, as I strive to understand what I can of it. It does seem that the core of the OT law, both the decalogue and the passages on which Jesus draws for his famous distillation of 'all the law and the prophets' (love God, love neighbor) will be necessary as long as human beings are what we are. There seems to be a love-core, or at least love-strand, in the law which Jesus elevates over other pieces of the law, (once, at least, resulting in even stricter behavioral ideals).

And there are many passages of exquisite spiritual beauty in the OT. The 23rd Psalm is one everyone knows. It is religious language at its most sublime. Ditto chunks of Isaiah, or the story of Peniel, or of Abraham, in Genesis.

But, for the moment at least, it seems perilous for me to say that the entire bible is God's Word, as if it is all the product of a Divine mind. I don't actually understand how that is not fundamentalism. The world view limitations of the authors must be taken into account; likewise the manner in which human knowledge is trasmitted and shaped into narrative. To be fair it seems all of us (Jesus included) take passages from the scriptures and leave others aside.

What to make of the Bible is one of my biggest questions right now, and I keep looking for a book which addresses the middle ground between non-believing skepticism and every word is God's communication to us. Most times I focus on the gospel message and assume, with the creed, 'He has spoken through the prophets' in some still mysterious fashion.

Where this is coming home for me right now is with the gay question which is so contentious in the ECUSA. Love and compassion must be my first response towards all human beings. And until more is understood of homosexuality, it seems perilous to me to rely on Leviticus and Paul to tell me what to think of it, let alone to use these passages to tell gay men and women they must remain lifelong celibate and cannot marry. Also, even if homosexuality is discovered to be a neurosis or aberration of heterosexuality (and much evidence is not in, may not be in, for some time) my response must still be love and compassion towards those people. That may well include supporting gay marriage. The closer one is to a gay person, the more one sees the depth of their feelings.

Now I am slipping off topic, however. The bible is clearly the foundation of our faith, especially the gospels and the other NT letters, but this does not have to mean every word in the book is from God. The texts we have don't seem to support this at least. I could be wrong and I'm still looking.

Anyway, thanks for the support. I am going to peek into each of your blogs to see more of what you're all up to.

Love and peace

zane said...

Interesting article. I agree that it is a mistake when some postmodern thinkers argue that there is no objective truth behind the canon. But, at the same time we must be careful to see this as a justified reaction to what the objective truth crowd has done in crafting their “orthodoxy.’

Think of objective truth as a picture laid out longwise in front of us. The picture exists. It can be described if it can be clearly seen. However, we view the picture through a glass that gradually blurs the picture behind it along a continuum that ranges from a crystal clear view on the left to a completely unintelligible blur on the left. The issue in epistemology is not really whether there is a picture behind the glass (our lens) but how far along the continuum we are able to see clearly enough to accurately describe what is behind.

At what point does our view become so distorted by the blurring of the lens that we cannot reliably determine what is depicted behind it? Do we reach a point where we cannot see well enough through the lens to know what is pictured? I think the answer is clearly “Yes!”

Is that point different for where we do not know for ourselves and where we do not know well enough to tell others what is there? In other words, shouldn’t we be very careful about telling others what they should see in parts of the picture where we find our own vision blurred. (The necessity for caution goes double for those areas where we label the views of those who disagree with us as unacceptable or unchristian.) I think we should we should stop telling others what to see well before we reach the point where we ourselves don’t see with a large degree of certainty.

Many who are attracted to the postmodern schema are there as a reaction to what they (we) have experienced from orthodoxy regarding this epistemological model. Very often they have looked at the picture and been told by orthodox voices that there is no blurring. They are told that the picture is completely clear left to right and they only want to see it as blurred because they don’t like the picture. But their look tells them that the blurring is real and they see the orthodox denial of the blurring as either the result of blindness or dishonesty.

Another orthodox line is to suggest that the seeker is wrong to bring up the blurriness as it is the area of “faith” and their questions should simply be settled by shoring up their faith- typically their “faith” in the particular orthodox group’s interpretation or projection as to the content of the blurred portion of the picture as the “truth.” My reading of James Fowler’s work on the stages of faith suggests to me that this is often the manifestation of stage three Christians reacting to the challenging questions posed by stage fours.

In any case, we should encourage honest efforts to improve our vision, to remove the blur, to know the truth. It is not arrogant to suggest that there are several possible readings of unclear passages. It is arrogant to suggest that there is one way to discern God’s way if at the same time we insist that we are the final arbiters of that way and that any who question our methods or conclusions are out to destroy the faith.

Growth and learning never take place in the comfortable middle. We must honor those who dare to raise questions and move in different directions. They may prove to be wrong. Unless we are ready to suggest that Christendom has reached the penultimate stage in its development, that orthodoxy has it completely right, that we are completely aligned with the will of God (a view that is ultimately arrogant and wrong), then we need to honor the fact that the only voice that is really “right” is the voice of someone who is correctly identifying the direction in which we need to move showing us the way toward God . . . but in any case, it is a voice that is advocating movement, not stasis. John Wesley explained that we all have views that are wrong. The problem is that we don’t know which views those are. Without the questioners to challenge our “truth” we will never know.

Rusty B said...

Dr. Witherington
This is really an unrelated question about interpretation involving your two volumes Women in Early Christianity and your rhetorical-social commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. I apologize for putting it here but couldn't find another forum to ask the question.

On the passage of 1 Co 11:2-16 in Women, concerning the metaphorical meaning of Head, you mention that it means source. In your commentary, you agree with Fitzmeyer that it carries the idea of authority rather than source. Is this a negation of your position on Head in Women?

Thanks,
Rusty Bullerman