Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Trajectory of the Literal: Feedback Welcome

One of the great things about this blog for me is the instant peer review.  I have often been able to get immediate feedback from people doing doctoral level work on various topics of interest.  I recently had a student ask me to explain an interpretation of history I have offered, namely, that one of the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation was a trajectory that would split the books of the Bible apart into historical islands.  The claim is that the historical-critical method was, in many respects, a natural consequence of the drive only to read the Bible literally.  The "problem of biblical theology," the difficulty of finding a historical basis by which to read the books of the Bible as a single book, was an untended consequence.

I explained the hypothesis in this way: "By rejecting non-literal modes of interpretation, the Protestant Reformation set us on a trajectory of not reading any biblical passage in any way other than within the limits of what it first meant. But if we are not allowed to read it beyond what it first meant, then it will be difficult for us to see the same significance in the story of Adam and Eve that Paul did or to find as much significance in the birth stories of Jesus as Christians do."

Any feedback on this hypothesis?  I can't imagine that I am the first to suggest it.


John C. Poirier said...

You're right, but I must ask: What's so bad about that? Why not keep what Paul got right and reject what he got wrong?

Nathaniel said...

I'll take it one step further: the apostolic teaching is that, whether known or unknown by the original human authors, the Christological interpretation of the OT was what it "first meant"; the "original meaning" may or may not have been understood by the "original authors." It seems to me that the primary interpretive task of the apostolic and post-apostolic authors was teasing out "these are they which speak of me."

The question I have is, doesn't this realization negate the entire theological first principle of the reformation? If the reformation distinctive doctrines are based on a mode of interpretation unknown to anyone in Christian history, doesn't that make them by definition new and strange doctrines?

Nathaniel said...


I'm pretty sure that if you reject typological readings as having any substantial weight in the interpretive process you'll find that what Paul got wrong was "everything." But of course this problem isn't just with Paul: all of the apostolic authors are in the same boat.

John C. Poirier said...


When I refer to what Paul got right, I mean "the gospel": the simple message that Christ died, was buried, rose again, ascended to heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit. Although this message was usually supported by OT prooftexts, the truth of it is a materially separate matter. The message came first, and the prooftexts were an afterthought.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I really don't understand enough to answer, but reading yesterday on Alan Segal's eulogies by many of his former students, it seems that the mystical Jesus/Paul split the Christian/jewish sect away from Jewish understanding of the metaphor as a literary tool. Segel's use of literature seemed to affirm all literature as equal, putting scripture in line with other literary works (that was nice).

Wasn't the attempt to purify the image of "god" from mystical elements such as the "two witnesses in heaven" a return to literalism, i.e. monotheism?

Heaven and the son of God were literary devices about the human need for "vision/hope", and the logos of "god within man". (Eastern views fall in line with such understanding, whereas, Western views tend toward deifying Jesus by historicizing his life. The Church split over this doctrine as well).

Funny that the Jewish/monotheistic religion chose to go the opposite direction in their purification of their "faith". The Protestants just split over how to interpret doctrine to "purify the church"!

Now, it seems we have the questions of science that impose themselves upon the text. Bultmann chose to de-mythologize the text. Such criticism came about due to the text being considered a historical work, and science explaining better how to "read the text" not understaing the text as a literary tool.

Traditional views of "God" (ominiscience, omnipresence, omipotence, etc.) aren't compatible with many scientific discoveries, such as the Uncertainty Principle, evolutionary theories, dialectical view of reality, etc.

Literalizing the text suspends scientific knowledge to a static mathematical reality or natural law. Reality is too complex to explain according to quantum theory, because we can't even think in those dimensions. (Again, I am not a scientist, nor an "expert" in science.)

The question still rematins, do human discover math or create math? Do humans discover god or create god? Does reality exist objectively, or is man's mind what creates his knowledge,and understanding to explain reality. Is science man's "progress" in acquiring more knowledge about the world?...or is man's mind created with categories that are interpreted in different ways, according to language?

Nathaniel said...


except that every proclamation of the kerygma in the NT is "according to the scriptures." St Paul even says it twice in a row in 1 Cor 15! The apostolic teaching is "what we have seen was prophesied." Even the resurrection, apart from its interpretation is meaningless. This is why in the first sermon in Acts 2 we hear Peter say:

"For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, 'The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.' Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah."

It is true that Peter saw the risen Christ, but it is not without the correct application of the scriptures that he could profess him as "Lord and Messiah."

Any attempt to get away from that is, in my mind, to severely distort the apostolic message.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The apostolic message was the universalization of mankind. But, universals have no meaning, either, apart from distinctives. One can't "embrace", or make things "happen" with mankind/humankind. Such a "universal" can only be understood and applied within one's life specifically within a particular place, and people.

The "problem" for universalization is geopolitical. And there isn't going to be any resolution about that any time in human history. This was the message of "hope" to those that didn't have a position in the geopolitical power structures. I just don't think that placating men with myth is appropriate when it comes to their real lives. So I don't respect the apostles.

But, neither did Segal, as there was a dispute about a certain professor who wanted tenure and his concern was that they used "biblical minimalism" to prove the point that Israel didn't have certain rights of claim. Of course, some accused him of racism, or prejuidice.

His view, I believe, was the the Jew and Christian religion came from the roots of a Judean constitution (maybe that's not the right term). The mystic argues that the Hellenization/secularization of their religion was desacralizes the sacred. And the concern for "purity" of doctrine or "God's image" has resulted in the division of religion over the centuries.

Nathaniel said...

Angie, for the record, as an Eastern Christian, your description of us is utterly unrecognizable to us. We explicitly deny, reject and anathematize the false belief that the logos is merely "god within man." But we, just like our Western counterparts, profess that the eternal logos of God took on human flesh, was born, died (according to the scriptures), raised (according to the scriptures), ascended, and now sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge all. We do not view heaven or the "son of man" as merely a metaphor. Lastly, the East/West schism has nothing to do with any of this.

I take time to make this painfully clear because there are numerous authors who, taking advantage of the general ignorance about "eastern" Christianity in the world, transfer their own heretical beliefs to the "east" to give them more credibility. Authors that do this should have their own credibility questioned strongly. One such example is Universalism which is again becoming popular due to widespread preference for Greek philosophy in sheep's [Christian] clothing. As a good friend of mine recently said to me: "There are two groups of people who believe Universalism: those who don't know better and those who do."

Nathaniel said...

Angie, I see it as the exact opposite: the apostolic message is the particularization of all mankind in Christ. We'll have to agree to disagree.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Nathaniel, I am not going to argue to change you mind, but I want to offer you another way of viewing things.

Paul's encounter with "christ" (whether real of fabricated) was a "revelation" that his persecution of the Christians was unwarranted. Why? Because Christians are also human. Religion was the cause of much harm, that was propriated by Paul as a zealour Pharisee. And yet, he knew, I'm sure that there were disagreements about the resurrection and many other "doctrines" even within his own faith of Judiasm. Therefore, it was not Paul's revelation to form another religion. That happened as a result of Church politics and political power.

If you are interested in further information about how I am thinking, then go to "Debunking Christianity" home page.

Nathaniel said...

Angie, you are merely putting your own "revelation" into Paul's mouth. None of what you have speculated has any basis in the actual history or evidence that we posses.