Archive for March, 2008|Monthly archive page

A Few More Thoughts on Historical-Critical and Allegorical Exegesis

As soon as the discussion on critical and allegorical exegesis got going, I completely dropped the ball. I was a little busy, a little distracted, and a little in over my head (that’s what I get for picking a fight with somebody who’s working on their PhD dissertation in this area). So Derek’s response was very educational, and he pretty much mopped the floor with my observations, which were very much just sketchy observations, questions looking for answers, and I know that I’m only really going to be able to think more deeply and gain a more wise and nuanced understanding by reading books (not least among them the Bible) rather than publishing screed on my blog. That is, I probably came across acting like I knew more than I did. I don’t know much, I just have a lot of impressions and a general theological framework whirring in the background. But I do finally have a response, so the rest will be addressed directly to my good friend Derek Brown, who is currently researching the fascinating topic of the role of the person of Satan in the Pauline corpus and is very much obliging me by responding to my semi-incoherent ramblings. I am mainly responding to the second point in response to my second point, Derek, if that makes any sense. So here goes.

First, you bring up a good point that I sloppily neglected. Paul of course did have a “special dispensation” in the life of the church and in salvation history, and this certainly extended to his hermeneutical method and then naturally to his conclusions. Further, I appreciate your distinction that Paul’s unique place in the church and in salvation history does not necessarily imply the deus absconditus model that I proposed.

But couldn’t Paul’s unique “knowledge of the mystery of gospel” that was, as you say, “in some way reflective of his status as the apostle to the gentiles” be an opening up rather than a shutting down? Has not the church through the centuries, as mostly Gentile (which, as such, has of course borne its own set of problems), borne the direct fruit of Paul’s work? I completely agree with you that the church is the “eschatological and messianic community” and that “the word of God is near to the eschatological community of God.” But did this eschatological community, the church, as it continued to exist through space and time maintain, not noetically but ontologically, its status as such? In other words, since the word of God was so close to the heart of the church, would later scriptural interpretation, which was essential to the life of the church, not implicitly bear the mark of Paul’s explicit self-understanding? It makes me wonder if, even though later scriptural interpretation may not have borne the mark of Paul’s hermeneutic, the special dispensation Paul possessed was not actually set into motion by his ecclesially centered hermeneutic. In other words, I don’t see Paul’s “special dispensation” as prohibitive of certain forms of later allegorical interpretation but rather necessary for it.

I’m really shooting from the hip here, and granted, I need to read more of Hays on this topic (I never finished “Echoes” but I’m planning to get back to it soon). He’s one of the few who is addressing the problem constructively. His review of Benedict’s book on Jesus and the ensuing correspondence, all in the pages of First Things and available online, is an interesting test case in this regard.

Lastly, I just want to tack something on. Part of what spurred me to finally post these thoughts was a blog entry titled “Critical Allegory” by Peter Leithart, who has written a theological commentary on 1 and 2 Kings and has an essay on the quadriga in the forthcoming IVP book (based on the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference) called Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future. In the blog he interacts with an essay by NT scholar James Barr, who argues that much historical-critical scholarship actually bears a resemblance more to allegory than to a literal reading of Scripture and that the people who are actually interested in a literal understanding of Scripture are conservative scholars who focus only on history (“what actually happened”). Though I haven’t read the article, it sounds like Barr has an overly simply idea of the word literal. N. T. Wright, in his little book on Scripture called The Last Word (in the UK, Scripture and the Authority of God) distinguishes between literalistic interpretation of the Bible (everything in the Bible happened literally, not mythologically or metaphorically) and literal interpretation (what the original authors had in mind when they were writing). Barr, I think, takes the former for the latter. In his understanding, then, I think he’s still reducing biblical meaning to the literal sense. Whereas allegorical interpretation, or more generally, the spiritual sense, goes beyond authorial intent to claim that one can discern God’s overall plan at work in the pages of Scripture and that certain events in the Old Testament typologically foreshadow events in the New Testament. This is where theologians get in trouble for interpreting Scripture according to their theology rather than the other way around, the counterargument of course being that Scripture is a unified whole, a seamless garment (I’m slipping into allegorical interpretation here!) that bears the mark of God’s intent in Christ from the very first pages of Scripture. I don’t think it’s any less Scriptural, just wildly different hermeneutically.

It’s Time for Some New Candidates

I posted the first of these a while back, but the campaign for President has significantly increased in intensity, so I thought I would give an update. My vote’s with Kierkegaard, though I think the Nietzsche campaign is running the most effective ads!

Kant Attack ad:

Nietzsche Attack Ad:

Kierkegaard announces his candidacy:

Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Telephone Poles and Other Poems © 1961 by John Updike.

Allegorical Exegesis, Critical Exegesis

ark.jpgI’ve been thinking for awhile about writing a blog about the tangled and troubled relationship between historical-critical exegesis and allegorical or premodern or precritical exegesis. The issue is too large and complex to write about in one night, so I haven’t undertaken the venture, but I just want to register my frustration with the current state of affairs. Proponents of both tend to lob grenades at each other rather than to take each other seriously. As somebody who’s waded in both areas and appreciates major aspects of both, I’m interested in real dialogue going on. I want to distinguish but not separate; I want to respect the integrity of both without collapsing one into the other; and I want to see fewer straw men constructed by people on both sides. Personally, and maybe this reveals my bias, I tend to hear more dismissive and unfounded comments come from the historical-critical camp, but I’m willing to listen. And to further reveal my bias, it seems like premodern exegesis can easily assimilate most of the findings of historical-critical exegesis but that proponents of historical-critical exegesis often go out of their way to exclude, by definition, any sort of allegorical exegesis. Here are a few things that especially frustrate me.

1. Many biblical interpreters want to do away with all patristic and medieval exegesis (much of it allegorical) but still want to maintain the Christian doctrines as they have been historically expressed in the ecumenical Creeds (though maybe in a qualified sense). In other words, I am saying that I think it is very difficult to draw a line straight from Scripture to orthodox Christian dogma via historical-critical interpretive methods. The church fathers were in fact using much allegorical exegesis to develop and defend those doctrines (see, for instance, Proverbs 8, where the “wisdom of God” is identified as Christ).

2. I don’t find much purchase in the argument that even though Paul interpreted the Old Testament allegorically in various places, he had a “special dispensation” or some such to do so and that other, later attempts are misguided and wrong. The theologians who did a lot of allegorical interpretation saw themselves in continuity with the Apostles, not in contrast to them. I’m not arguing that if Paul did it, that gives us license to allegorize any and every Old Testament text at our whim, but I certainly think it odd that based on our current hermeneutical methods we should not follow in his footsteps. It seems that this implicitly suggests that directly after the New Testament period, God became deus absconditus, a notion for which we probably have Adolf Von Harnack to thank and that Paul Gavrilyuk, as I pointed out a few weeks ago, shows to be more than a little flawed.

3. Critics of allegory tend to forget that it is one aspect of a fourfold sense of Scripture. Most if not all theologians readily accept the literal meaning of Scripture, but many historical-critical scholars take it for the entire meaning. I came across a critic of allegory this week who seemed to think that patristic and medieval theologians were embarrassed by Song of Songs and therefore “explained away” the meaning of the book by means of allegory. No! They were taking the literal meaning for granted, not trying to find an alternative meaning! As a professor of mine at Regent often said, the fourfold sense of Scripture allows one to hear it stereophonically rather than in simple mono. This chap that I was reading on Song of Songs took his method and projected it onto the church fathers, thinking they only had room for one meaning, when theirs, in my opinion, was much richer.

Speak to me! Especially those of you who disagree with me (and I know who you are). Is there a way to conceptualize biblical interpretation that doesn’t necessarily rule out one or the other of these methods? Or do you think they are mutually exclusive? If so, why? Let’s discuss!