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.

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