Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday Enns: New Testament Interpretation of Old

Enns' writings remind me of some of the unpublished stuff I wrote when I first started teaching college. As I read Enns, I thought of some of the notes Drury wrote after kindly reading some of it.

First, I was doing my "therapy" in those writings for PFSD, Post-Fundamentalist Stress Disorder. PFSD occurs when, after fighting to the death in the fundamentalist infantry, you find out that you're not actually fighting for God but for a peculiar twentieth century cultural phenomenon. Like Paul, you realize you were a "zealot without knowledge." You feel betrayed. You feel stupid. You feel angry. Not that Enns gives off much of this vibe...

But as part of the therapy, you often "shell" your imaginary reader with far more examples than are necessary--and of course the deconstructive examples are pervasive, which of course contributes to the sense of absolute stupidity on your part. I thought of Drury when I read this sentence in Enns, "It may seem that these examples have been drawn out further than they need to be" (131). Drury has written notes like that to me--I got the point three pages ago... :-)

The way that the New Testament interprets the OT provides one of the greatest bits of "naughty data," if not the greatest, in the Copernican Revolution that is currently underfoot in evangelical hermeneutics. Evangelical hermeneutics, as an extension of Protestant hermeneutics, has insisted that the Bible alone is the authority over the Christian. As hermeneutical developments proceeded to understand original meaning more clearly, it became the "original meaning alone" is authoritative over a Christian.

But what if we were to find that, as it turns out, the New Testament itself does not interpret the OT in terms of its original meaning. Does this fact not deconstruct the entire hermeneutic? Does it not imply a controlling factor in interpretation beyond the text itself?

The Ptolemaic scientists of evangelicalism have not missed the potential threat to "normal science," to their paradigm. They have launched a coping strategy, called Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old. The goal is to find as many connections as possible between the New Testament use of the Old Testament and anything that might smack of attention to original context.

But alas, this is supposed to be a review of Enns. Let me try to summarize him.

1. The NT reads the OT in a "Christotelic" and "ecclesiotelic" fashion. That is to say, they read it knowing that Christ is somehow the goal toward which the Old Testament story is heading (154). Enns does not mean that they see Christ in every OT passage. The "ecclesiotelic" way of reading is a way that sees it leading to the people of God as understood in the NT.

2. In other words, and perhaps Enns spends too much of his time showing this--the NT by and large is unconcerned to read the OT in context, indeed sometimes felt free to change the wording in striking ways. Some of his examples include Matthew 2:15's interpretation of Hosea 11:1 (one I've mentioned here often), 2 Corinthians 6:2's use of Isaiah 49:8, Galatians 3:16 and the seed of Abraham, Paul's editing of Isaiah 59:20 in Romans 11:26-27, Hebrews 3:7-11 and Psalm 95:9-10.

3. Enns shows that the NT in such exegetical techniques is doing things similar to the way other texts like the book of Wisdom, Jubilees, or the pesher commentaries at Qumran interpreted the OT. The NT is in the flow of such interpretive traditions, as we see in 2 Timothy's comments on Jannes and Jambres, 2 Peter 2:5's comments on Noah preaching, Jude 9's mention of Michael arguing with Satan over Moses' body, Jude 14-15 quoting 1 Enoch 1.9, Acts 7's mention of Moses' Egyptian education, the idea that angels delivered the Law to Moses, or 1 Cor. 10's idea of a rock following Moses in the desert.

4. Biblical interpretation is a community activity.

So what does he want us to take away from this book? Basically, the message of the Bible is incarnated and thus multidimensional. Secondly, the Bible sets trajectories, not rules, because there is theological diversity present and dialog. Finally, "the primary purpose of Scripture is for the church to eat and drink its contents in order to understand better who God is, what he has done, and what it means to be his people, redeemed in the crucified and risen Son" (170). Scripture is "a means of grace for the church." He appeals to his audience (and perhaps at the time to Westminster Theological Seminary) to listen to the text rather than to shove it in their preconceived categories.

I suspect if we are left at the end of the day wondering what this looks like, it will not surprise us of a Reformed thinker (I'm assuming Enns is Reformed). Part of the Reformed ethos, whether it be Barth or Jamie Smith or William Placher, is to leave it up to God to make the right understanding happen. How do we as a community come to a right understanding of the meaning of Scripture? God will take care of it. Am I wrong?

I would extend this thought in a direction Enns doesn't take it. Where does this trajectory lead? Does it not lead to the consensus of Christendom?


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Of course, one in the evangelical tradition should understand that theirs is still a tradition that is based upon an ancient text, even if it incorporates the consensus of Christendom. Christendom is one of many and diverse understandings within the tradition, which as the late David Smith used to say, "Pay your money and take your choice"...which used to irritate me by the way...:)..

Tradition should be understood by those who teach it that it is only one tradition among many traditions which cultivate a culture and its people. Understanding that tradition is not to be understood in exclusivist claims, but in wide and broad strokes of 'understanding" and "ways of thinking"...this is what breeds tolerance and dialogue and openness...but radicalization of any tradition breeds prejuidice and intolerance...

Ken Schenck said...

Just to clarify, that was the late David Smith who passed in 1998.

dave said...

here's the way it works: the ENTIRE Bible must harmonize; hence, each verse in whatever section it's found, must harmonize with all other verses.

this approach is phenomenally detailed and the general population of researchers and people who consider themselves "Bible scholars/students" do NOT do this kind of homework.

the aforementioned failure of researchers is why we do not and have not found most of the truths that God has for us in His word.

We must spend decades becoming humble before His word and approaching it without sticking our agenda into the pot. is this likely to happen? no.

Ken Schenck said...

Dave, I appreciate your obvious commitment to God and His word. I don't ask you to adopt my understanding but would ask you to at least try to understand my perspective:

1. I used to approach the Bible with something like the approach you mention. I didn't change my perspective because of rebellion or pride or anything of that sort but as a result of the very kind of painful homework you suggest. Maybe I wasn't smart enough. Maybe I wasn't spiritual enough. Maybe I'm just not predestined to get it. But I am post-your-homework. Your comments are my very thoughts about twenty-five years ago.

2. Those who take your approach often end up losing their faith or becoming bitter in the manner I playfully suggested in the main post. In my experience, people like you, who have so much riding on such a minute sense of harmonization, usually end up as atheists. Therefore, as a Christian, I find your approach potentially harmful to God's church and your influence potentially harmful to the kingdom.

3. From my perspective, what you will create as you go verse by verse is exactly that, something you will create. From my perspective, while you think you are honoring the Bible, you will actually do great violence to the Bible because you will not let the words have anything like their straightforward sense. You will instead change the meaning of each verse to fit with some hypothetical harmonization you are trying to create. When you are done, all the verses will be different--they will take on the hidden meaning that only you have been able to find. You will have rewritten the whole Bible to fit your needs rather than letting each verse simply say what it seems to say.

I believe you are playing a trick on yourself. Think of it. You believe that you especially, in a one-on-one hammering it out with God, will be able to unlock the true harmonization of all the verses together. Perhaps it is not true of you, but I believe many a person has started this quest with a hidden sense of their own greatness. They will unlock the mystery. They are up to the challenge. It can be a hidden pride. Perhaps this does not apply to you but I believe it applies to many.

4. Given what I think I know about how words work and about the historical context of the Bible, I can't see how your approach...

a) really understands how words work--it doesn't understand how to read words in context and thus rips the Bible's words from any likely meaning they had when God first inspired them. Instead, without realizing it, you are reading the words against your context.

b) inadvertantly does not realize that you also read words from a certain perspective, that your every verse fitting with every verse perspective is merely a unity of understanding from your perspective, not the absolute perspective you seek at all but a perspective locked in your context.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Thus faith stands!

dave said...

i do understand your is yours and not the LORD's (His word instructs us to compare Scripture with Scripture and that no Scripture is of private interpretation)...perhaps that's why you abandoned your quest for truth 25 years ago and began to follow a god of your own making...maybe it's just "too hard" or perhaps you are not one of those "predestined..." not everyone is and I wonder if you fit your own criteria of your point number 2. no one is capable of doing what you claim like-minded Christians are in that point (harm God's church). Before the foundation, Jesus did all of the work and that included predestining those who He would seek and save. NO ONE can frustrate God's plan; however, that's a possibility from your perspective...and "reasonable" given the god you've chosen to serve.

we all read words from a certain perspective: a sinful one that will not see clearly. that's why the Bible must interpret itself.

Jesus said, if one looks lustfully, he's committed adultery in his heart. in the garden, we had already eaten the fruit by merely looking lustfully at it with our "open eyes" and added words (don't even touch it). the point is the added words. this is your proposal: add words to make the text clearer.

i'm saying leave the words and let the Bible explain them.

your way ends in error.

God's way (compare Scripture with Scripture) ends in truth.

Ken Schenck said...

The idea that you understand because you are predestined and others of us don't because we aren't seems coherent to me. But in the interest of helping others, it is also a convenient way for a person to protect themselves from any questioning of their understanding. Any cult leader or religion might resort to this argument for any belief or interpretation.

I know enough about the Christian Reformed Church to know that it basically believes that it is the small group to whom God has just happened to revealed the right understanding. All the other Christian groups are far less likely to include the elect, and their failure to see it your way is a sign of their lack of predestination. Coherent, yes. Suspicious if we use the kind of reasoning that normally would lead us to step out of the way of moving traffic, yes.

Your interpretation of 2 Peter 1:20-21 illustrates your point for you and my point for me. For me, you interpret these verses in a way you have inherited from tradition without knowing it--the reader doesn't get to come up with the interpretation of Scripture. The verse more likely, in my opinion, referred to the prophet's own opinion, not ours as readers.

So for me, you mistake tradition for the Bible. I bring grammatical and syntactical evidence to support my interpretation. For you, I simply am not predestined to understand the true meaning of the verse, your interpretation, and no evidence is needed because, de facto, you are right and everyone who disagrees is unenlightened.

Again, no one can argue with the way you understand Scripture to interpret Scripture, because your group and tradition is inspired to know the correct way to configure which are the clear and which the unclear verses. The rest of us can't see it because we are not chosen.

For me, comments by 2 Peter on making your election sure or Paul's comments on the possibility that he might not make it to the end in 1 Cor. 9 and Phil. 3 lead me to conclude that Paul's language of predestination in Romans 9 cannot mean what Augustine and Calvin thought it meant. Scripture itself cannot resolve which of these verses is clear and which unclear because it does not tell me how to connect one book with another. We are forced to do it by the very nature of the situation of a collection of individual books.

So you believe your group has the Spirit's illumination--a force outside the Bible that tells you how to bring one Scripture to bear on another. And I cannot argue with you because I connect the passages differently and, therefore, de facto, am predestined to be damned (or at least not predestined to be saved). So I can only hope that this analysis of your proposition shows it suspicious enough that your ideas will not hurt the faith of others. Eventually, I am convinced, those with the heart of Christ--if they get out much--will realize that this line of reasoning leads to an understanding of other Christians that is incompatible with God's heart as revealed in Scripture.

Josh said...

Ken, just landed on your blog for the first time, good stuff. Your first response to 'dave' is an excellent (and gracious) description of the process of working through that process, of trying to harmonize the "entire bible." What a mess that gets to be in every way. I am early in the process of deconstructing the way I read the bible, and you are exactly right, atheism lies right around the corner of literalizing and harmonizing the bible to death.

John Mark said...

Ken, if I understand you, you place emphasis on at least two things, the work of the Holy Spirit, and tradition. In your book on interpretation you say it is when we are "in fellowship with the church of the ages that we are most likely to hear God's Spirit on any particular belief and practice."
This is one of the reasons I have become a something of a student of church history. But I feel you may be speaking at a deeper level than this. I have a remarkable talent for missing the obvious, and don't want to do it here. What does it mean, in your view to be in fellowship with the church of the ages? And, I wonder what the implications are for Wesleyan's?-I know, you probably don't have time to deal with that....

John Mark said...

What I meant was, are you speaking of the central doctrines of the church as formulated in the creeds, etc.? I know that is a simple question, but I have a simple mind...
I do think I'm fairly coherent, though:)......When I read Church history, I still see Wesley, for example as being considered controversial then and now.
Anyway, I enjoy reading you, and being in on the conversation, even when it is above me, as is all too often....what can I say, I majored in music, not religion...

Ken Schenck said...

JM, sorry I'm so slow to respond. Usually it's when I have to think! And I hope you and others will grill me to make sure I'm not barking up the wrong tree...

I see the creeds as part of the communion of the saints. But I think there are implicit matters of consensus even beyond the creeds. For example, ex nihilo creation is not in the creeds explicitly. And the way we fit the Bible together as a story would be part of it.

By referring to this as consensus and as communion, I don't have to associate common Christian faith with the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodox churches.

I also leave room for people at one time and place to be off track. Someone (was it you) asked about the apparent implication that God could let the church go off track for centuries on topics. But I suppose the problem is still there that God might have waited till the Protestant Reformation to set the church back to the Bible too...