Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Infamous Middle Shuffle...

I was reminiscing about one of my seminary exegesis professors this past week with someone and then again today was reminded of an assignment he always had his exegesis classes do. I went to Asbury, and so there was of course a primacy among most professors on coming up with Wesleyan-Arminian interpretations. I doubt anyone who has looked at this blog for very long will doubt that I am an advocate for Wesleyan-Arminian theology, but the Bible simply says what it says, and we just have to deal with it.

This professor always had his beginning exegesis classes do an interpretation of Acts 13:48, which says something like, "As many as had been appointed to eternal life believed." Well of course this sounds Calvinist. There was an underground rumor that if you suggested the verb in the sentence was in what is called the "middle" voice, you would get an A on the assignment. The translation would then become, "As many as had appointed themselves to eternal life, believed."

Don't get me wrong. I loved this professor. But in more than one respect, this story illustrates much that is wrong with biblical interpetation. First of all, any professor who basically requires you to parrot back what they want to hear in order to get a good grade is a bad teacher. We all know there are both liberal and conservative teachers who are the same way on this score. Tell them what they want to hear and you'll get an A. Disagree with them and watch out. That's bad teaching.

But this professor's infamous "middle shuffle" illustrates a more important point. Exegesis is not about the possible but about the probable. The goal of interpretation is not to find a possible way to support convenient conclusions for my tribe. The goal is to let the text say what it says.

There is no evidence whatsoever for the middle voice in this verse. The rule I teach in Greek is that you should always assume forms like this one are passive if they make sense. If they don't make sense, then you might explore a middle. Acts 13:48 makes perfect sense grammatically and contextually as a passive, "had been appointed." It is a "naughty verse" for my theology. But I'll just have to deal with it (and I can) and accept the most likely meaning of the text.

P.S. Here I am of course talking about original meaning interpretation, exegesis. I have gone on record as supporting the coherency of theological interpretation as a legitimate form of Christian reader-response which is perhaps even more important than original meaning interpretation.

10 comments:

Bob MacDonald said...

Surely you mean knotty. I am not a Calvinist nor a Wesleyan nor a Methodist - but I am all into Anointing and Election - just not exclusively - so God's choice is the one. 'Lord if you will you can make me clean'. And Jesus said 'I will, be clean'. Let those 'ear who have ears. Take care where you pause in your reading. Generalizations prematurely collapse the probabilities, thinking quantumly for a moment.

Anonymous said...

I would like to hear your take on Acts 13:48, from an Arminian standpoint.

Rick

Ken Schenck said...

My current sense of these sorts of passages is that the New Testament authors both spoke of those who believed as "chosen," "elect," "predestined," etc and they spoke as if anyone might come and as if it were possible to be truly in and end up truly out. Philosophically, these claims seem mutually exclusive, thus the later theological traditions that have answered these questions in alternative ways.

My current sense is simply that this sort of biblical language was philosophically imprecise, even phenomenological, if you would (language of how things appeared looking on). Both Calvinists and Arminians can thus resolve the language by resorting to their respective "rest of the story." The Calvinist will say that it only seemed like truly converted persons ended up lost. The Arminian might say that language of election is "after the fact language," only used to express God's strong acceptance of those who respond in faith rather than to imply His determinative rejection of those who do not.

Brian Small said...

I suspect I know which professor you are referring to. Unfortunately, I can think of another instance in which he engaged in dubious exegesis to support his theology.

Anonymous said...

I do like Wesley's take on the passage, that it demonstrates/emphasizes that God is still the initiator of grace.

Rick

Josh said...

Hi Ken,

I'm grateful for your post and our "conversation" this weekend on this subject. Interestingly, I explained my dilemma with John 20:23 to my wife and I'm sure the Spirit spoke through her. She said, "It sounds like a warning to me." She expressed succintly what I was feeling inside about that verse as one of those "incovenient truths" of the gospel.

Thanks again.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for a juicy idea to post on here too, Josh!

Anonymous said...

The question here is are we capable of transgression once in the promised land!

Bob MacDonald said...

Obviously we are capable of transgression 'once in the PL' - how else do we respond to the exile? Compare the language in the Song and Lamentations and one realizes that the poet sees the connection. And I don't think we can consider escape from this thesis - maybe you don't. The letter of 1 John indicates the same result. Can't be learned from words but words do help instruct once the process is begun.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bob!Perhaps this will helps one in exploring further the doctrine of sanctification.