Is the Bible a collection of historical texts stuck in the past? Is it a sacred text that transcends and overrules its historical origins? Or do we somehow have to hold these two perspectives in tension?
By and large, historical-critical approaches to biblical interpretation assume the first perspective; popular faith-motivated approaches assume the second. Modern evangelical scholarship, meanwhile, generally wants to have its cake and eat it, holding out for some version of the third position: first, we establish what the text once meant; then we consider what it now means. But this is a rather unstable and perhaps even spurious compromise, and the Bible remains at the centre of a strenuous tug-of-war between the historians and the theologians.
There was an interview with a Lutheran priest on the radio this morning from the cathedral in Oslo. He spoke of how he had preached the peace of Christ every week… and then described the dreadful shock of learning that the bombing and killings had been carried out not by radical Islamists, as everyone had immediately assumed, but by a blond Norwegian who claimed to be a fundamentalist Christian. In fact, among the many thousands who were flocking to the cathedral to light candles and pray were a significant number of Muslims—refugees from countless, distant, bloody conflicts. One young Iraqi was thankful that the church was open for prayer to all who believed in God.
James K.A. Smith, who stayed in our house in the Hague with his family a few years back, wrote last week about the state of contemporary theology, complaining in particular about the “balkanization” of professional theology today. He attributes this—in part, at least—to a shift in the way theologians identify themselves. Traditionally theological identity was determined by denominational allegiance: Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran. Now theologians appear to have developed a taste for more abstract and theory-laden labelling: “ecclesiocentric”, “apocalyptic”, “radically orthodox”.
Jeannine K. Brown has a very sensible introductory chapter to her book Scripture as Communication, in which she provides some straightforward definitions of the key terms in this field of study. So “hermeneutics” is the “analysis of what we do when we seek to understand the Bible, including its appropriation to the contemporary world”. “Meaning” is the “communicative intention of the author, which has been inscribed in the text and addressed to the intended audience for purposes of engagement”. “Exegesis” is the “task of carefully studying the Bible in order to determine as well as possible the author’s meaning in the original context of writing”. She then highlights three factors to which the exegete needs to pay attention in order to “bridge the cultural gap” between the original setting of the Bible and our own place in space and time. These are genre, literary context, and social setting. Finally, “contextualization” is the “task of bringing a biblical author’s meaning to bear in other times and cultures” (19-26).
The limitations of the New Perspective on Paul in its standard form can be illustrated from a piece by Tim Gombis. Tim strongly affirms the New Perspective and nicely expresses his bemusement over the “fear-mongering and hysteria” that the approach has generated in certain quarters. But when you read his summary of the core issues, it is apparent that what we are dealing with is a rather narrowly circumscribed debate about “Paul’s relationship to his Jewish heritage and his discussions related to the Mosaic Law”.
Two papers by the same person given at the SBL International Meeting in London this week cut across each other in a rather alarming fashion, in my view, creating a dangerous hermeneutical intersection, with the risk of a serious theological pile-up. Well, yes, that’s overstating it, but the two papers, when juxtaposed, certainly give some insight into the nature of the tension between a dogmatically driven theology and newer perspectives on the New Testament.
Actually, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve attempted to schematize the relationship between history and theology. But I think it is central to the current theological task, so another attempt won’t go amiss. Modern evangelical theology is largely an abstraction. It is a very basic abstraction, very communicable, in many ways very appealing, and it can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. But a price has been paid for this accommodation to the narrow, privatized domain of modern religiosity.
First, it has made it very difficult for us to read scripture well, because the whole chaotic, glorious thing has somehow to be chopped up, pared down, allegorized, and in various ways misinterpreted in order to fit into a very small conceptual box.
Secondly, we have a very weak grasp of what is in fact the central narrative element in the Bible—the concrete historical existence of a people called in Abraham, in reaction against socially constructed blasphemy, to be a corporate, visible and credible witness to the full reality of new creation. In my view, this is why we find it so hard to integrate social and environmental values into our life and witness.
I will be at the Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting in London next week. First time to go to one of these things. I will be presenting a paper in the Paul and Pauline Literature section on Monday afternoon on “Sibylline Oracles and the Judgment of the Greeks”, but the other contributions look like they will be much more interesting and probably much more scholarly. If you’re going to be there, please look out for me.