Friday, December 09, 2005

Doubts About Josh Strodtbeck's Posts on Scripture

Josh Strodtbeck at Here We Stand has recently posted two posts on the Bible and inerrancy (here and here). Positing an opposition between "Fundamentalism" and "Modernism," he hopes to find a Third Way between them.

His posts show his usual sharp intellect, fortunately minus what my high school teacher once called the "arrows of acrimony." They are openly exploratory and deliberately provocative. And so far they have garnered mostly favorable comment.

But . . . . since everyone else's at Here We Stand's being agreeable, I guess I'll have to be critical. And like a good wolf surveying a herd of fleeing caribou, I avoid the main body and pick off stragglers.

The most visible weakness I see is this statement that the type of Bible reading Josh is criticizing ("fundamentalism") is historically linked to "modernism" and both are fairly recent (say, post-Descartes, historically). This is another version of Thomas Hall's genealogical story, and like most such stories, I don't think it holds up.

Read Luther on Genesis. He is a fundamentalist there, doing all the creation science-ID-"God of the gaps" things fundamentalists do. (I'll post up some nice examples in the coming days.) Whether he's right or he's wrong, he's not some Kantian or Cartesian several centuries before his time; he's typical of Bible readers.

Now what about Philo, Origen, Bernard, allegory, and all that? What about it? Such a school of interpretation existed alongside the historical-grammatical one for centuries, indeed for almost the entire history of scripture reading (and the almost here is simply the academic habit of CYA). What I don't accept is that either one is the fruit of some great shift in consciousness, such that we can accept or reject it without dealing with the text itself.

In fact, most Christians, most of the time, have completely ignored issues of genre in their reading of history -- check out Irenaeus's Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, where the fall, Babel, King David, and the Babylonian exile are all on a single ontological level. Evidently he didn't get the memo that Genesis 1-11 is "Ancient Near Eastern creation myth" in genre and hence not to be put on the same level as history.

Better yet, read Kugel's The Bible As It Was. This is a brilliant exposition of how commentators established much of what we know read into the Bible in the intertestamental period. The results are shared in much of the Talmud and the New Testament, as well as in the intertestamental literature (Book of Enoch, etc.)

Kugel finds these very first Bible commentators shared four main assumptions:

1) The Bible is cryptic: a good interpretation will often (indeed should) show that the details give a reading quite contrary to to the surface picture.

All interpreters are fond of maintaining that although Scripture may appear to be saying X, what it really means is Y, or that while Y is not openly said by Scripture, it is somehow implied or hinted at in X (p. 18).

2) The Bible is relevant: it is all speaking to us today. Kugel points out that the genre of relating Amos or Isaiah to current events in Rome, for example, was immensely popular in the intertestamental period. (I am not exaggerating when I say that Hal Lindsey has a very respectable intertestamental pedigree as a Biblical interpreter.) He also explicitly contrasts this with our tendency to see culture as placing a gap between us and the text we are interpreting, such that we cannot simply directly apply it.

3) The Bible is perfect and perfectly harmonious. Factual errors or inconsistencies were only apparent; in fact they were reinterpreted (along the lines of assumption 1) as pointing to some hidden truth. Eventually, this assumption leads to the doctrine of "omnisignificance": that ever single letter and even point (in Hebrew) of the Scripture has deep significance.

Thus the fact that Jacob is said to dwell "in tents" (Gen. 25:27) was used to support the notion that he, unlike his brother Esau, had had some sort of schooling -- that is, the plural "tents" here is interpreted to imply at least two tents, one for school and one for home. . . . In similar fashion, all sorts of other, apparently insignificant details in the Bible -- an unusual word or grammatical form, any repetition, the juxtaposition of one law to another or one story to another -- all were read as potentially significant, a manifestation of Scripture's perfection (p. 21).

4) All Scripture is somehow divinely sanctioned or inspired. Intertestamental writers sometime express the idea that this or that book of the Bible existed on "heavenly tablets" before the human transmitters thereof had ever been born. Curiously, though, this assumption was rather less stressed than the cryptic, immediately relevant, and perfect character of the Bible.

In the same way, all of the Biblical heroes were seen as models of perfection, despite what the text might imply. The review here gives a good example of how the application of these interpretive principles governed the reading of Jacob and Esau. Someone reading Genesis for the first time might think Esau rather the better character. But Kugel shows how Esau was turned into a bad character by a reading of every jot and tittle.

What's the relevance of these points to Josh's post? Like Josh, I'm just throwing out stuff here. But the following points strike me as important:

1) While fundamentalists and modernists (like Luther) do agree that the Bible is not cryptic, the idea of necessary factual accuracy, perfection down to the very words, and immediate relevance: all of these worst features of "fundamentalist" hermeneutics have a long pedigree. They may be wrong, but dismissing them as "late" is simply not convincing.

2) Genre is not a pre-modern concept, it's part of the same historicism that makes us smile to see Roman soldiers painted at the crucifixion with medieval lances and plate armor. Such "historicism" that distances the texts of the past from us is not unknown in the past, but it is ragingly popular today. That's not to say it's wrong -- but its validity will have to stand on its own merits.

3) The

a) "historicist" (the text speaks primarily to its own time, and only secondarily to us),
b) non-cryptic (the passage's point should be easily accessible to a reader with the right cultural background),
c) big idea (it is the main thrust of the passages, not the jots and tittles that matter)
d) complex character (characters that mix light and shade are more interesting and worthy than those exclusively good or evil)

lodestars of the best contemporary exegesis that Josh is here advocating may well produce powerful exposition. But they have not been dominant for a long time. And their recent dominance within exegesis has certain troubling features. And as newly dominant ideas, we don't really have much of a track record to judging their effectiveness in building up the church.

The kind of exegesis done with these assumptions in conservative and God-fearing but highly literate and non-fundamentalist church circles is very attractive to me. I too find arguments about mustard seeds being or not being the smallest seed to be insufferable. But, we have to recognize that doing this kind of exegesis is a choice, one that has no more respectable in pedigree than the various alteratives (the intertestamental style Kugel describes, the kind of exoteric jot and tittle reading we call fundamentalist, and so on.) Certainly the fact that New Testament exegesis of the Old Testament is based on the school described should give us pause before we anathemize nit-picking and verbal inerrancy.

Also posted at Here We Stand

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