The history of biblical interpretation—a tale of two cities

The history of biblical interpretation is a tale of two cities—not London and Paris (Dickens), or even Jerusalem and Athens (Tertullian), but Alexandria and Antioch. In the third and fourth centuries Alexandria stood for an allegorizing approach to interpretation that sought to maximize the theological payload of a sacred text. Antioch stood for a more constrained approach that was more concerned to uncover the original historical meaning of the text than to exploit it to meet the theological needs and prejudices of the later reading community. The chart shows very roughly how this division has persisted right through the history of interpretation—indeed, it is arguably the defining feature of the history of interpretation. If anyone wants to suggest significant corrections or additions to it, please let me know.

A hymn of praise to the anti-Caesar

This is a much debated passage, a good part of the discussion having to do with the question of whether it reflects a “high christology”. Is Jesus presented here as a preexisting divine figure who becomes incarnate as man, who dies (for the sins of the world), and who then is re-identified with the divine kyrios? The part about preexistence and incarnation I have my doubts about, though I wouldn’t rule it out—it appears to rely far too heavily on the single phrase “being in the form of God”. The climactic identification of Jesus as kyrios is clear.

But the standard high christological or incarnational reading in most cases completely misses the Jewish-narrative-historical-eschatological-whatever import of the passage. In other words, Philippians 2:6-11 is not another iteration of the evangelical divine redeemer myth; rather it speaks of the significance of Jesus in the historical clash between YHWH and ancient paganism. To recover this perspective we simply need to suppose that Paul, or whoever wrote this extraordinary hymn to the anti-Caesar, was thinking both biblically and contextually.

Modern evangelicalism is the new Gnosticism... well, sort of

I have long harboured the suspicion that in certain respects, in certain habits of thought, modern evangelicalism has more in common with second century Gnosticism than with first century Christianity. I accept that the analogy is impressionistic and cannot be pushed very far, but I still think that there is something in the view that modern evangelicalism operates with a core a-historical redeemer myth not so different from Gnostic redeemer myths: the redeemer descends into the world to rescue people from their sins and, in the end, transport them to their true home in heaven. This mythicized narrative controls much of the language of evangelical piety, worship, evangelism, and popular theology. It barely makes contact with the biblical narrative of a historically situated people.

Election, A radical New Perspective on

Calvinism is right to highlight the biblical rhetoric of election, foreknowledge and predetermination. It is wrong, however, in its understanding of the narrative in which that rhetoric is deployed; it is wrong about the purpose of election.

Reformed orthodoxy claims that election is an absolute premise of personal salvation. John Piper, for example, writes:

Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional in that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.

We are not saying that final salvation is unconditional. It is not. We must meet the condition of faith in Christ in order to inherit eternal life. But faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith. It is because God chose us before the foundation of the world that he purchases our redemption at the cross and quickens us with irresistible grace and brings us to faith.

Election and the martyr church

Context is everything. Take Paul’s highly rhetorical statement out of context, separate it from friends and family, subject it to solitary confinement throughout long periods of cultural change, beat it about the head a bit, interrogate it mercilessly from behind the blinding light of a rationalist individualism, and you could probably get it to sign a confession that it is a longstanding supporter of the Calvinist doctrine of the election of a limited number of predetermined individuals to salvation. But before it was so dreadfully abused by the theological mukhabarat, it was a happily law-abiding member of an argument, and I suggest that our humanitarian task now is to rehabilitate it.

The election of Gentiles

The story of what happened in Pisidian Antioch is well known (Acts 13:13-52). Paul and Barnabas are invited to speak in the synagogue. Paul relates how God chose their fathers, brought them out of Egypt, suffered their folly in the wilderness for forty years, destroyed the “seven nations in the land of Canaan”, gave them that land as an inheritance, raised up David as a king, from whose descendants he has finally “brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised” (13:17-23). The rulers and residents of Jerusalem rejected this saviour and had him executed, but God raised him from the dead, which Paul understands as a fulfilment of Psalm 2:7—meaning that God has given to Jesus, as Israel’s king, not the land of Canaan but the nations as his inheritance (Ps. 2:8).

Redefining evangelicalism

Scot McKnight has started working through David Fitch’s massively titled book The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions). I strongly recommend following him if you’re interested in the future of modern American evangelicalism.

My own feeling is that an evangelicalism that understands itself according to the standard definition of Bebbington and Noll, which Scot cites, does not have much of a future. On the one hand, I agree that evangelicalism has become largely “an empty politic”. On the other, the standard definition provides us with, at best, a severely emaciated account of how the idea of “gospel” or euangelion works within the biblical narrative. The two failings, of course, are not unrelated.

Paul's argument about election in Romans 9

I have been trying for a few weeks to write a response to some difficult questions, put to me by a friend, about the Canaanite genocide, hell, election, and the “ludicrous contortions that a Calvinist needed to make in order to explain how God was fair to judge the non elect”. I have come to the conclusion that this whole issue of “election”, which is so badly represented by neo-Reformed writers and preachers today, needs to be addressed properly. Well, quasi-properly—this is only a blog, after all; it is meant to provoke thought, shake assumptions, imagine alternatives, not provide definitive answers. My plan is to examine the major New Testament passages that have a bearing on the theme in some detail, starting today with Romans 9, and then to write a summary Lexicon piece.

Did Jesus preach to the spirits in prison between his death and resurrection?

Here’s another approach to Easter at an exegetical tangent. This question came up as part of a discussion about the supposed “intermediate state” between death and resurrection. My view is that Jesus died, was dead, and was raised from dead, setting a pattern for all subsequent deaths and resurrections. This seems to me the point of Acts 2:31: Jesus was not abandoned to Hades, he was not left in the grave, he was not left dead, his flesh did not see corruption (the women only went to embalm his body two days after he died); he was raised to new life. Peter Wilkinson, however, seems to think that Jesus could not simply have been dead, body and soul, but that his spirit or soul had to be somewhere. He points to this passage in support of his view. It’s certainly a difficult text to understand, but I don’t think it is saying that between his death and resurrection Jesus went somewhere (hell?) to preach to an obscure and limited set of “spirits” from the time of Noah.


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