Review: The Violence of the Biblical God

the violence of the biblical god

The Violence of the Biblical GodL. Daniel Hawk, foreword by John Goldingay. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A study of the narratives of violence in scripture and the multiple perspectives one finds in the text regarding God’s involvement in that violence.

The incidents of violence in scripture, and particularly those where God commands, or actively participates in that violence, pose a great challenge for any thoughtful believer both in his or her own reading of scripture, and in discussions with skeptics who point to these passages, and especially the book of Joshua. Does not this deeply conflict with the New Testament witness to the love of God in Christ?

L. Daniel Hawk takes a different approach than others who I’ve seen address this question who either rationalize the violence of God against the Canaanites, or in various ways argue that it actually wasn’t nearly as bad as it appeared. Hawk’s approach argues that “it may be more important to think biblically than to seek biblical answers” (p. xiv). He proposes that one of the reasons there are so many different responses to this question is that the canon itself speaks with multiple voices that do not all agree. He seeks to take an approach that sees all of the canon as authoritative scripture without muting portions that are in conflict with others.

His work begins with a survey of the approaches taken to this question through church history, and then outlines his own narrative approach, eschewing the “quest for a Theory of Biblical Everything” (p. 18) to listen to the biblical narrative in its complexity as it tells in multiple voices the story of God’s work to redeem a fallen world that is violent by “coming down” and entering into that world. He traces this through the fall, the slaying of Abel, and the flood as an accelerating death spiral that God sorrowfully brings to conclusion with the flood, while saving both creatures and one human family to begin anew.

With Babel, Hawk sees a new approach of a God who “comes down,” first confusing the languages of those who would make a name for themselves, and then coming down to make great the name of Abram (Abraham) through whom he begins a redemptive work. He consults with Abraham in his plan to violently destroy the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, and honors his plea for the righteous. To stand with Abraham means to stand against others, as in the case of Abimelech, who Abraham had deceived. As evident in the deliberation between Abraham and God regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, violence is not a paroxysm of anger but what it means to do what is needed within the context of fallen creation to set things to rights.

He then studies the narratives of God’s descent into Egypt to break the power of Pharoah that held Israel in slavery. Only through violence will Pharoah recognize a power greater than his, and to create a new people through the overturning of the power of Egypt. Hawk notes that no emotion or expression of caprice or anger is evident in these episodes, but rather God doing what was needed to deliver and establish this people of the promise, to show God supreme over all other powers. The narrative then continues with this new people as he establishes this covenant, deals with the disobedience of his people (an incident that evidences God’s anger), and the violence that both responds to sin, and yet restores his relationship with the people to whom he has committed himself.

Before turning to the text of Joshua, and Israel’s conquest of Canaan, he jumps forward to God’s assent to give Israel a king like other nations. God first commits himself to Saul, and then to David and his family. His work in the nation becomes taken up with the power dynamics and violence of these kings while acting as a check against their ungodliness and injustices. With the fall of Israel comes an end to this way of working in the world through the instrumentality of the nation as a political entity. His approach will still work through human agents but in another way.

Finally, Hawk comes to Joshua. He contends that exodus and conquest are inextricably connected to God’s decision to renew the world by forming a people. He states, “No exodus, no conquest. No violence, no Israel” (p. 165). He demonstrates the focused character of the invasion against the kings of Canaan that arises neither from caprice or judgement to establish a space in which Yahweh alone, and not the gods of the kings is worshiped. In this book there are narratives both attributing violence to God and counternarratives in the latter part of Joshua that indicate this is not God’s “preferred mode of working in the world.” Hawk notes that while God’s coming down and entering into the making of Israel as a nation involves God in violence, this is not a warrant for other wars.

With the fall of Jerusalem and the exile, Hawk sees a move of God “to the outside.” Instead of working in and through human systems, God refuses to meet violence with violence, or engage the earthly powers, but takes the violence of the world upon himself in Christ, and in the resurrection, establishes a rule outside the world’s systems.

The conclusion Hawk reaches from this narrative survey is a call to move from debates over who is reading scripture rightly to a dialogue that listens to the full complexity and the biblical text. He doesn’t argue for “anything goes” but sets interpretive parameters that include an understanding of divine violence that doesn’t arise from petty caprice, that often God does not use violence in judgment but to accelerate already evident deterioration (as in Sodom), that biblical accounts are testimonies, not templates, and cannot be use to justify wars advancing national or group agendas. Yet Hawk also seems to recognize that the diverse voices of God’s work inside, and from the outside, create the basis for respectful dialogue between Christians who base a peace stance on the narrative of God’s work from the outside, and Christians working “within the system” who face the choice of engaging in state-sanctioned violence in the resistance of evil.

For me, Hawk’s work challenged a long held assumption of how we read scripture. Do we believe that the Spirit of God speaks with one voice. Or does our understanding of scripture allow for a complexity of voices that reflect the complexity of being both in and not of a fallen world? Where one comes down on this may well affect one’s response to Hawk’s reading. What commends that reading to me is that it does not gloss over or mute the hard passages or seemingly conflicting testimony (for example, the commands to utterly devote to destruction the Canaanites and a strategy of gradually supplanting the people).

More profoundly, we see a God who neither remains aloof in the face of human evil and violence nor acts with petty flashes of anger, but rather a settled purpose to redeem through a covenant people, one that involves God in that violence, yet ultimately ends with the taking of that violence on God’s self in Christ. We also find in Hawk a model of an interpreter of scripture taking the text as it stands, listening humbly, and promoting dialogue between different perspectives rather than ruling everything not one’s own out of court in a “Theory of Biblical Everything.” Such models are all too rare and greatly needed in a time where people seem to polarize around everything.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Lost World of the Torah

lost world torah

Review: The Lost World of the Torah (The Lost World Series Volume 6), John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Like other books in this series, argues that Torah must be understood in its Ancient Near East context as a legal collection teaching wisdom and covenant stipulations rather than legislation, and cannot be appropriated into a system of moral or social ethics today.

The first five books (Torah) of the Bible are challenging for any person who believes the Bible inspired by God and having authority in one’s life. John Walton, joined in this volume by his son, have written a series of books premised on the inspiration and authority of the Bible, as well as the fact that it is an ancient work, reflective of its Ancient Near East context. The Walton’s argue that we often read these texts through our own cultural lens of how law and legislation work, and may be used to establish biblical “positions” or “precedents” for all sorts of modern moral questions. This is problematic not only because what we have is not a codified system of laws (there is much that is not addressed), and some of the laws support practices like slavery or requiring that a rapist marry the woman he has raped, that we would judge unacceptable. Like other “Lost World” books, they proceed by a series of propositions, with an appendix on the Decalogue.

The Walton’s, identifying similarities between Torah and other ancient legal collections, argue that the purpose of these collections is not legislation but to articulate wisdom about how society is to be ordered under the ruler of the state. The purpose is order that reflects well upon the king. Additionally, in the case of Torah, it is a covenant document similar to Ancient Near East (ANE) suzerainty treaties, where the various provisions outline how the people are to remain loyal to their suzerain, in this case Yahweh or God. The statement, “you shall be holy for I am holy” is a conferral of status rather than an objective for the people of Israel, and Torah is wisdom for how they might be who they are by status. There is a distinction between ritual instructions in Torah and other codes. For others, rituals serve to meet the needs of the gods. Yahweh has no such needs and instead, these serve both as means of worship, and maintain and restore covenant order.

The Walton’s then move beyond noting the similarities and differences of ANE codes and Torah to consider similarities and differences of context. They note that many of the similarities in provisions reflect not dependence on other codes but rather that they are both embedded in the same cultural “river.” What differentiates Torah from these other codes is that it also reflects God’s covenant with Israel and God’s presence among them, instructing them how they might retain the enjoyment and blessing of that presence.

The final part of their work addresses the church’s use of Torah and particular focuses on what Torah is not, and what interpretive practices are invalid. They discourage the common practice of dividing Torah into moral, civil, and ceremonial law, arguing that these divisions are both artificial, and undermine understanding Torah in context as an integral whole. Typically, we lift out the “moral” teachings, and seek to derive principles for our contemporary situation, perhaps along with New Testament teaching, which is situated in a different, Greco-Roman cultural river. They point to a number of areas in the Torah where this is problematic: marriage, economy, political system, social status and hierarchy, international relations, warfare, and diplomacy, respect of personhood, taxation, property ownership and rights, crime and punishment, and sexual ethics. They contend that Torah was not for salvation, but arose as instruction for living under the covenant. It is a metaphor of health, not a system of moral instruction, and cannot be used as prooftexts for contemporary problems. Taking Torah seriously reads it as a wisdom text disclosing the gracious character of God toward his people and God’s intention that they flourish under his care as their suzerain, as they pursue covenant faithfulness in adhering to his wise instruction.

There is much here that is helpful. Instructions we would find morally objectionable (those upholding slavery or patriarchy, for example) fall in line with the kind of order one would expect in the Ancient Near East and commend Yahweh as ruler of his people, but do not serve as legislation for the contemporary church.

What I find missing, and perhaps troubling is how then we are to read scripture, including the New Testament, also embedded in a cultural river, and according to the Walton’s, also not a source of moral instruction for us, but rather “wisdom.” They write:

“The decision between ‘do not conform to the pattern of this world’ (Romans 12:1-2) and ‘become all things to all people so that by all possible means [we] might save some’ (1 Cor 9:22) does not default in either direction. It means that we exercise wisdom in knowing where to conform to the culture of our day. This wisdom must be exercised by those who can understand the culture well enough to understand the cost of either decision, and it is these people whom we should appoint to lead the community. But making those decisions is not the same thing as following a rigid set of rules, especially not a rigid set of rules that was written to a different culture” (p. 230).

I recognize the value of reading contextually and avoiding prooftexting, but I’m troubled here with language that seems to elevate the wise interpreter above the “rigid set of rules” they interpret. The language of “rigidity” reveals a disposition toward scripture that seems troubling. Were Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians or Corinthians about how to lead a life worthy of their calling rigid? Or those of Jesus on divorce, grounded not in a particular culture but in God’s creational intent? I agree that the Bible is not primarily a book of moral instruction, yet does not scripture aid those saved by grace, God’s workmanship, who created for good works in which we are to walk (Ephesians 2:8-10)? The Waltons’ conclusion smacks of a “hidden knowledge” accessible to the wise that seems a long way from the perspicacity of scripture. I would have been helped if they would spell out more of how scripture may be appropriated, and not mostly by how it may not.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest

the lost world of the israelite conquest

The Lost World of the Israelite ConquestJohn H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Explores the biblical accounts of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, looking closely at the ancient Near East context and arguing that this was not a divinely commanded genocide or Holy War.

One of the more troubling parts of the Bible are the narratives of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, and the apparent genocide of the Canaanite people at God’s command. Often this is justified as a judgement on the wickedness of the Canaanites. It is even more disturbing when these texts are appropriated to justify other “Holy Wars” or culture wars against evil in society.

In this fourth installment to the “Lost World” series, John H. Walton is joined by his son J. Harvey Walton, in a close study of the biblical texts often understood as God’s command of Holy War against Canaan as divine judgement. Similar to Walton’s approach in other books in this series, the authors combine careful work on cultural backgrounds with close reading of the pertinent biblical texts. Like other books, they present their study as a series of propositions, grouped into six parts.

First, they lay groundwork in asking the question of how we interpret the Bible, emphasizing that it is an ancient document and that often our problem is what our expectations of what the Bible is, which differs from its true nature. In this case the Bible is neither defining what goodness is for us nor telling us about how to produce goodness, but rather in the context of God’s covenant with Israel, how God is bringing about the goodness he purposes. Thus, we must never read these texts as warranting Holy War or a kind of jihad in our own context.

Second, the Walton’s argue that the Canaanites are not depicted in scripture as guilty of sin and that the usual textual indicators for divine retribution against the Canaanites are absent. Critical to their argument is showing that Genesis 15:16 does not indicate that the Canaanites were committing sin, but that God is deferring his action against the Amorites, with whom he had allied.

Third, they argue that the Canaanites are not guilty of breaking God’s law because they did not partake of the covenant and its stipulations. Their expulsion from the land is not analogous to the expulsion of Israel from the land for their unfaithfulness to the covenant.

Fourth, the Waltons look at the language and imagery of the conquest and contend that the descriptions of the Canaanites follow ancient Near East conventions for describing an enemy as “invincible barbarians” Likewise, the behaviors described as “detestable” are from the framework of God’s ideals for Israel under the covenant and not indictments against the Canaanites for crimes against a covenant they are not under. And finally, the language of conquest recapitulates that of creation, in which disorder (chaos) is replaced with order (cosmos). Disorder must be cleared, not as punishment against the Canaanites, but to establish God’s covenant order through Israel.

The fifth part is perhaps most significant in its discussion of herem, most often translated as “utterly destroy.” They argue rather that it involves the idea of removing something from use, so that a new order or use can be established. Killing people is not inherent in herem, but rather the destroying of the identity of a community, particularly the identity markers associated with idolatrous worship. Killing may happen in the course of this, as it tragically does in all ancient wars, but this is not the focus of herem.

Finally, the authors contend that this offers a template for understanding the New Testament, not in attacking those outside the community of faith, but making herem all identities in conflict with absolute allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus. What is to be attacked and removed from use is not outsiders, but our own false allegiances, false identities or any identity that competes for paramount status with our identity in Christ.

This, along with the argument that God does not command ethnic genocide in these passages is important. Yet this argument left me troubled. The plain reality is that even if this wasn’t genocide, people died to set up this new order of God. If they died, not because they were guilty of sins or crimes against God (because they were outside the covenant and its stipulations), but simply as part of a process of destroying the identity of a community, this seems a distinction without a difference. The idea of retributive action at least seems to carry the sense of a just judgment, even if it does involve bloodshed. “Removing an identity from use” driving them from the land, seems more humane, except that the same number of people die, only as “collateral damage” of the conquest. There is something about this that seems more heartless. It also seems to dance around the plain sense of texts that herem in the context of the conquest does involve the destruction of lives in city after city. I did not feel the authors dealt adequately with this problem.

What I’m left with is that these are difficult texts, similar to Genesis 22 in which God commands the sacrifice of Isaac. The last minute substitution of the ram does not make this less challenging. Likewise demonstrating that these texts offer no warrant for genocide is only marginally comforting. Perhaps our difficulty is that we expect God to be nice, a “tame lion” as it were. We would rather a God who remains above the fray than one who gets involved in wars of conquest to effect his purposes. We don’t like the idea of trying to justify the ways of God when they seem unseemly. We likewise are uncomfortable with a God who takes on flesh and blood and dies for us. Many Christian heresies are efforts to sanitize this event. I don’t want to say that is what the authors are doing here. They obviously care deeply about scripture. But I also don’t think we can soften the shocking effect of these passages, or should. These passages remind us both of the tragedy of the human condition, and that God accommodated that human condition in not remaining aloof from war and death even as God worked out redemptive purposes for humankind, first through Israel, then for all of us.

 

 

 

Review: Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature

interpreting old testament wisdom literature

Interpreting Old Testament Wisdom Literature, Edited by David G. Firth and Lindsay Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A collection of articles on the wisdom literature of the Bible, discussing each book as well as recent developments in Wisdom literature scholarship.

Many of us find the Wisdom books (commonly Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) as both confusing and compelling. Is there some rhyme or reason to the organization of Proverbs? What is the point of Job, his suffering, and all those long speeches? Is everything really hebel or as it is sometimes translated, empty, as Ecclesiastes would tell us? And Song of Songs, is it a sensuous love story, or something more?

The collection of essays in this volume touch on all these questions and more in their survey of the recent scholarship of the Wisdom literature. The work begins with Craig Bartholomew’s overview of current Wisdom literature scholarship. I found his framework of seeing this scholarship in terms of a series of “turns” quite helpful: historical criticism, then literary criticism, followed by postmodern criticism, and finally theological criticism. He surveys the important contributions of each. His most helpful advice:

“What Christian scholars should not do is continue to work away at sites in wisdom studies determined by others who have no interest in reading Old Testament wisdom as Scripture. We always need to be in dialogue with scholars of diverse views, but a Christian perspective will alert us to particular work sites crying out for hard labour if we are to retrieve Old Testament wisdom as Scripture today” (p. 33).

Part Two of the work devotes a chapter each to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Ernest Lucas covers a wide range of issues from questions of structure in Proverbs, the focus on character and consequences in its nuances and contradictions, the personification of Wisdom, and the use of women in various personifications, questions of gender in who is speaking at different points in Proverbs, and the connection of wisdom and creation. Lindsay Wilson’s essay of Job focuses on the faith of Job, and how this is expressed both in the trial he undergoes, and the trial to which he would subject God. Katherine J. Dell’s essay reviews recent scholarship in Ecclesiastes, considering particularly the question of the unity of the book and the tension between pessimism, realism and joy, all of which one will find at some point. Rosalind Clarke explores the question of what wisdom might be found in the Song of Songs, finding evidence that there is wisdom for women, parallels to the personified Woman Wisdom of Proverbs, and in the role of Solomon.

Part Three on Themes considers broader issues. It begins with a delightful essay asking “Is Ruth Among the Wise?” In Hebrew scriptures (as opposed to those most of us read) Ruth follows Proverbs 31 and Gregory Goswell proposes that this “encourages an appreciation of its heroine as an example of the wisdom ethic that is taught in the book of Proverbs” (p. 117). Leonard Boström takes on the theme of retribution in Wisdom literature, that our actions will bring good or bad consequences based on the character of the act–that the righteous will prosper and the wicked suffer. The discussion of the differing portrayals of this principle in different books was helpful under the common but sometimes challenging understanding that retribution traces back to a sovereign creator who ordains in his creation certain consequences for actions, but that this does not reduce to an uncomplicated formula as, in the case of Job, the righteous suffer, and the wicked sometimes prosper. David G. Firth looks at wisdom in Old Testament narrative, and the paradox that the wise often are not approved by God, when “wisdom” is not accompanied by obedience to God. Christopher B. Ansberry considers the contribution of Wisdom literature to biblical theology, where there often seems to be a disjunct between the two. He highlights contributions to cosmology, anthropology, and ethics, and also how Jesus is presented as the wise man par excellence. Simon P. Stocks calls our attention to the “wisdom psalms” and the way their voicing parallels Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 8. Brittany N. Melton concludes the book with what I thought was one of the highlights of the collection, an exploration of “divine absence” in the Wisdom literature. She concludes:

“Wisdom is the way to God, but is not always attainable. As such, the determination to find wisdom was fuelled by the sages’ search for divine presence. And yet, even if wisdom is found, the mystery of God is preserved. In the wisdom literature we have a prime example of the tension between divine presence and absence. Insofar as wisdom is personified and takes on a much larger literary presence than God in these books, this speaks to divine absence. Where is God? He is hidden behind Wisdom (p. 216).

What I appreciated about this collection of essays was not only the many connections they made for me (including that of thinking of Ruth in light of Proverbs 31), but also that they exemplified Craig Bartholomew’s exhortation to scholars. Each studied these works as scripture, and engaged in their retrieval as scripture today, nourishing in this reader the desire to read these works of wisdom once more to hear in them the word of the Lord. This is an important resource not only in the academic setting, but for all who would teach the Wisdom literature, and who want their students or congregants to not only be informed of the latest scholarship, but to be shaped by hearing these books afresh as “scripture today.”

Review: The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers

The hermeneutics of the biblical writers

The Hermeneutics of the Biblical WritersAbner Chou. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An argument for interpreting the Bible in the way the prophetic and apostolic writers interpreted prior texts, using careful exegesis to understand authorial intent, working intertextually, discerning the theological meaning, and its significance for the current day.

Readers of the Bible encounter a puzzling phenomenon when they observe how the biblical writers use and interpret prior biblical texts. It often seems they do not quote and use scripture in the ways we do. They sometimes conflate two or more passages, and we find ourselves wondering how they could apply a passage in the way they do. It seems to defy grammatico-historical exegesis. Some commentators observe a discontinuity between our own reading and interpretive practice, and those of biblical writers, particular apostolic writers. They cite the influence of midrashic interpretation and pesher exegesis, following first century rabbinic practice.

Abner Chou argues for a continuity of hermeneutic practice extending from the prophets to the apostles that ought in turn shape our own hermeneutic practice. He traces how prophets paid careful attention to the words of prior scripture, the Pentateuch, seeking through careful exegesis to grasp the authorial intent, and moved from this theological meaning under inspiration to draw out the theological significance of this truth for their own readers and those to follow. Chou contends, not that they wrote better than they knew but that they knew better than we credit. In turn, the apostolic writers followed a similar practice, as they reflected on the scriptures, and the work of Christ, and their use of these scriptures represents similar careful exegesis, attention to theological meaning, and drawing out further theological significance. Chou considers each of the New Testament writers in turn. What makes for continuity and agreement among these interpreters in their intertextual work is their common approach to interpreting the biblical text within a redemptive historical perspective.

Chou supports his case by dealing with difficult instances such as the use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 (“Out of Egypt I called my son”). He also traces the use of various words and themes like”seed” through various biblical uses and allusions to show a continuity of interpretation with progressive understanding. The extensive use of this material, though the author apologized for not offering an exhaustive treatment, was a rich study of biblical themes. Like other writers, he argues for “redemptive trajectories” but for him, the trajectory stops at the terminus of the New Testament and further projections, for example, with regard to roles of women in marriage and the church, are not warranted.

While some will object to this, there is much material for fruitful reflection with regard to the unfolding of redemptive history and the continuity between the testaments. His conclusions for our own interpretive and applicative practice offer sound insights in careful exegesis that understands the centrality of Christ. His fourfold framework of application that leads to worship for God’s works, learning of theology, moral responses, and a worldview shaped by redemptive history is a helpful rubric for our uses of scripture in the obedience of faith.

I had two criticisms of this work. One is that the author does not address hermeneutical scholarship that does not agree with his proposal. It would seem in an academic text that this would be a given to establish the superiority of his method. There is no discussion of first century rabbinic practice, only the assumption that the apostolic hermeneutic was the prophetic hermeneutic.

Second, I felt the work was excessively repetitious in trying to drum into the reader his thesis. Some skillful editing would have made this a far more readable text. Also, Chou repeatedly misused the phrase “hone in” for “home in” (cf. this Writer’s Digest article).

I do hope Chou will address these shortcomings in his future scholarly work. Showing how biblical writers read, interpreted, and responded to scripture, and how the many writers under God the Spirit’s inspiration wrote one book with theological continuity is a vital project to answer the skepticism about scripture in many quarters. This will enhance the warm love he evidences for the scriptures in his writing, and I presume, with his students.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Biblical Authority After Babel

Biblical Authority After Babel

Biblical Authority After BabelKevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: A proposal that the five Solas of “mere Protestant Christianity” provide a framework to check the interpretive anarchy for which Protestant Christianity is criticized.

One of the most serious criticisms of post-Reformation Protestant Christianity is that it unleashed a kind of interpretive anarchy, a confusing of the languages similar to what happened after the tower of Babel incident in scripture. In fact, one of the major appeals of Roman Catholic Christianity is that in the Pope and the Magisterium, the church speaks with one voice on issues of doctrine over which many Protestants differ. It is a criticism made trenchantly in recent works by Brad Gregory and by sociologist Christian Smith, who converted from evangelical Protestantism to Roman Catholicism over what he calls the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that characterizes what he calls the “biblicism” of Protestant Christianity.

Kevin Vanhoozer, a theologian who has written extensively about biblical interpretation addresses this criticism in his newest book. He argues that the five solas of the Reformation so shape and inform our reading of scripture as to preclude the kind of anarchy of which Protestantism is accused.

The book is arranged around the traditional five solas of Reformed tradition: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. I will try to summarize the major contours of a careful argument he makes that eventuates instead in what he would call a “unitive interpretive plurality.”

First of all, he contends that sola gratia means that we understand scripture as as a gracious initiative of the triune God to communicate his gracious work in Christ to us and that the Bible, its interpreters, and interpretation are all caught up in this gracious initiative. This seems quite important in addressing what kind of book scripture is and the origin of its communication and our capacity to discern its meaning.

Second, sola fide recognizes God’s trustworthy authority in creation and salvation and in attesting to this work through human testimony and the appropriate response of faith. Faith alone is not faith isolated from listening to others and the epistemic humility of faith avoids the extremes of certainty and relativity.

Third, sola scriptura is not solo scriptura. While scripture is the final authority it is not the only authority. Our reading of scripture is informed by the other solas and the insights of the church as a whole. Vanhoozer affirms the biblicism of his position but calls for a catholic biblicism that listens to the testimony of the church about the scriptures.

Fourth, solus Christus implies the priesthood of all believers, and it is to this priesthood that Christ has entrusted the keys to the kingdom household, which Vanhoozer sees as the local congregation. We do not interpret scripture individually but as part of interpretive communities in local congregations who interpret in communion with other local congregations.

Finally, soli Deo gloria means that local churches are “holy nations” whose uniqueness and communion glorifies God as these nations “conference” with each other around their understanding of holy scripture, experiencing continuing renewal as they read scripture together. Rather than mere uniformity, the church manifests a robust unity within diversity that makes it hardier and more able to adapt to the different settings in which it finds itself.

Each of the chapters develops these ideas and then summarizes them in a final section. Then, in his conclusion Vanhoozer summarizes his argument and concludes that this is a better form of catholicity than Roman Catholicity.

As I worked through this argument, I found much that I could affirm wholeheartedly. He begins, not with scripture but with God’s gracious initiative. I heartily affirm his call to a humble faith that refuses to idolize certainty but equally steers clear of skepticism and relativity. He steers clear of the caricatures of biblicism that are rightly criticized. And I found his vision for unity that is not uniformity bracing.

I do think the most difficult part of his argument for the contention he would make is the part about local churches as interpretive communities. I think it a healthier thing that local churches function as interpretive communities than individuals in isolation. What counters the danger of pervasive interpretive pluralism for him is this idea of conference–churches in a gospel-shaped conversation with each other. This sounds nice in theory, but through the 500 years of Reformation history, where has this been practiced, and is there some reason that it might be practiced in our present day when it has not been for all this time? Where are there vibrant examples of congregations, particularly from different theological streams within Protestantism, in conversation with each other? Where are there examples of irenic efforts to listen to one another and address contradictory understandings of scripture around matters like political engagement, gender roles in home and church, the weight we give to dominion and to creation care, and more?

It is striking to me that one of the few examples of such “conference” that I can think of was the initial statement in 1994 and subsequent conversations of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. This was not a conversation between Protestants about a “mere Protestant Christianity” as Vanhoozer calls it but rather one between a subgroup of Protestants and Catholics. With the deaths of Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, who provided much of the impetus of these conversations, they seem to have waned. The conversations did not downplay difference but also emphasized common ground and the work of listening to each other, for often differences arise from misunderstanding. Might these be a model for the kind of “conference” that might be possible?

I don’t think there is a structured way in which the kinds of “conference” Vanhoozer describes can occur for the whole global church. But might his framework begin to inform the practice of local congregations more, around a disposition to commune and confer with fellow believers across denominational, cultural, and other differences, and to read scripture together in ways that enrich and renew each other, as an expression of our shared convictions around the grace and gospel of God? Might it also inform our disposition toward one another, where we determine not to suspect and criticize each other but to confer with and learn from each other, and seek to hear together what the Spirit is saying to the churches? While it might not rectify all the problems critics see in Protestant Christianity, it might be a start toward a catholicity that begins to prepare us for the coming of the Bridegroom.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: The Future of Biblical Interpretation

future of biblical interpretation

The Future of Biblical Interpretation, Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: A festschrift for Anthony Thiselton exploring from different perspectives the tension between plurality of interpretations of the Bible, and responsible hermeneutics.

Plurality of interpretations is perhaps one of the more troubling aspects of Protestant biblical interpretation. Not only does it account for numerous denominational divisions but there is the troubling phenomenon of Christians thinking everyone is his or her own interpreter without controls or answerability to others.

This volume explores the question of how to practice responsible hermeneutics in this context, as well as with a text that we believe both the Word of God and the product of multiple human voices. It is a festschrift to Anthony Thiselton, author, in the 1980s, of the ground-breaking The Two Horizons, where he brings to bear the work of figures like Heidegger, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein in the broader field of hermeneutics to explore one of the basic sources of much interpretive plurality, the unawareness of the historical horizon of the biblical text as well as the contemporary horizon of the interpreter (including traditions of interpretation that might shape the contemporary interpreter).

Perhaps in this case, the best way to give a sense of this book is to provide a table of contents of topics and contributors:

Introduction
Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm

1. The Future of Biblical Interpretation and Responsible Plurality in Hermeneutics
Anthony C. Thiselton

2. Biblical Hermeneutics and Theological Responsibility
Stanley E. Porter

3. Biblical Hermeneutics and Scriptural Responsibility
Richard S. Briggs

4. Biblical Hermeneutics and Kerygmatic Responsibility
Matthew R. Malcolm

5. Biblical Hermeneutics and Historical Responsibility
James D. G. Dunn

6. Biblical Hermeneutics and Critical Responsibility
Robert C. Morgan

7. Biblical Hermeneutics and Relational Responsibility
Tom Greggs

8. Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility
R. Walter L. Moberly

Conclusion
Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm

Thiselton’s opening essay is perhaps one of the most interesting. Drawing on Bakhtin, he argues for the importance in dealing with plurality of being aware of the polyphony of voices in the corpus of scripture. Responsible hermeneutics neither holds these voices in conflict, nor mutes some to privilege others, but seeks the larger perspective to which all of these contribute.

There were several interesting issues raised in individual essays as well as in the conflicting perspectives between some essays. Stanley Porter raises interesting questions about theological interpretation, and particularly the privileging of pre-modern theology in many discussions. Richard Briggs argues that scriptural responsibility in hermeneutics is a fostering of dialogue between different ideas of “scripture as.”  James Dunn argues for the priority of the historical horizon in interpretation, certainly reflected in his New Perspective work on Paul. By contrast, Robert Morgan argues for the role of theological criticism over against the text. The final two chapters explore the relation of biblical interpretation to our relationship to the church authority as well as to its traditions and creeds.

While I do think the interpreters raised different and interesting ideas from their own perspectives (something the editors wrestled with in the end), I found myself troubled in two respects. One was that for a group of people who are concerned with meaning, one found it a challenge to understand what they were arguing at times. This book actually assumes that the reader is highly conversant with the hermeneutic issues being discussed, the relevant philosophers and the particular uses of language in the field.

Related, but more troubling to me is that seems this work reflects an assumption of opaqueness rather than perspicuity of scripture. As I write this I certainly am aware of the fact that not every verse in scripture is utterly clear. But Robert Morgan’s theological criticism in particular seems to affirm there are times where the theologian must go against the clarity of the biblical text. In Moberly’s concluding essay, he begins with a discussion of the Pauline authorship of the pastorals and the unsettling discovery during seminary that biblical criticism calls this into question despite the clear attestations of authorship and relationship. By the end, he acknowledges himself agnostic on the matter and states that “literary theory makes it possible to take the first-person voice of the letters with full imaginative seriousness, and one can unreservedly inhabit the imaginative world of the text in preaching, while leaving open the relation between the literary voice and the historical author” (p. 156).

It seems to me that these writers often accept the hermeneutic of suspicion about these texts. I would contend that the mental gymnastics that differentiates between “imaginary Paul” and Paul, the apostle and martyr is a corrosive one that undercuts the preacher’s ability to speak the word of the Lord to the people of God. I do not see how “imaginary Paul” can speak with authority to the Timothys of this world, for example, about “taking your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), but the apostle who was stoned and beaten many times and who would die for the gospel certainly could and can.

So, while I would wish in no way to detract from Anthony Thiselton’s scholarship, nor from the value of a collection like this for elucidating the current discussions in hermeneutics, I must express serious reservations about the value of this work either for addressing the issue of plurality that is its purported task or for the edifying and equipping of the people of God. I’m not sure this is a future of biblical interpretation I can commend.

 

Review: Abusing Scripture

Abusing ScriptureAbusing ScriptureManfred T. Brauch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Summary: The author explores the different ways we misread the Bible and consequently interpret and apply it in ways that abuse both the intent of the text, and sadly, in some cases the people with whom we apply these texts.

I teach the Bible in my work, and on occasion, in the congregation of which I am a part. That is both an exciting and sobering opportunity for me. One one hand I believe that I am explaining what God has said through human beings, and that this can be powerfully transformative in lives. On the other hand, I am keenly aware that how I explain and apply a text can either lead people to such transformative encounters with the living God, or mislead them. I’m always mindful of James’ comment that “we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NIV).

Manfred Brauch is concerned that we might in fact abuse the scriptures in our mishandling of them. This is strong language which he defends in his opening chapter by the fact that we may well do violence to the intent of the text by our mishandling of it. And this violence in turn may warp the understanding of Christian truth by those who hear such teaching, and may, often unintentionally, result in causing others in the Christian community deep pain, or in misrepresenting the message of Christ.

He begins by focusing on the nature of scripture and argues that it is both intentional and incarnational and that abuse occurs when we ignore either the intent of the Bible or its incarnational character, both as the word of God and as given to particular people in a particular cultural context. In succeeding chapters Brauch six ways we mishandle scripture in our interpretation and application:

  1. The abuse of the whole gospel. We may tend toward a focus on a gospel of personal salvation or a social gospel, focusing on the redemptive work of Jesus and its impact on overcoming injustice and setting right the structures of society. Neither alone are the whole message of scripture.
  2. The abuse of selectivity. It is often observed that differing positions on an issue like gender roles can both cite scripture for their view. The issue often is selective use of scripture, ignoring passages that may not agree with one’s view. Often, we need to listen to all the relevant texts and look particularly for those that reflect the overarching redemptive trajectory of scripture.
  3. The abuse of biblical balance. This differs from the abuse preceding it in overemphasis on a particular doctrine while under-emphasizing others. We may focus on certain sins while ignoring others. Again, we need to hear all these perspectives and consider a both/and rather than either/or approach.
  4. The abuse of words. Most of us read, and certainly preach the Bible in translation. Care must be used to be certain that the words we use and meanings we attribute to a word accurately reflect what the author would have understood, as best as we can ascertain. Brauch uses as an example the word cephale and argues for how our translations as “head” may ignore the dimension of “headship” that has to do with “source” and instead uses the term hierarchically.
  5. The abuse of context, both literary and theological. Literary context concerns the place of a particular passage in a larger narrative. Theological context has to do with relating a particular theological idea to the larger theological themes of a book, or even all the books of a particular writer, like Paul.
  6. The abuse of context, relating to historical context and cultural reality. We may universalize what is particular to a historical context or assume that teaching in a context must be applied in the same way in very different cultural contexts–for example, how we understand Jesus healings on the sabbath and the implication for early Christians of whether and how to carry over Jewish sabbath practices.

He then concludes by considering what it could mean if those who differ over scripture and give weight to one part while ignoring others would simply begin to listen to the witness of each other. And he includes appendices going deeper on selective issues of interpretation. And most helpful throughout is that Brauch illustrates both abuses and the proper handling of scripture using contemporary issues.

This book is important for anyone who teaches the scriptures and seeks to be thoughtful of engaging the disparate views one encounters with others who may even claim a similar, evangelical faith. It advocates neither a culture war nor expulsion of those who differ, but the engagement that takes both the scriptures and our hearers seriously. Church leaders facing sharp doctrinal challenges might read this to think through how this might be approached both irenically and yet with doctrinal integrity.