Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Who's a scholar?

I was musing yesterday at the "scholarly" coping mechanism that has evolved in biblical studies to gloss over scholarly developments and consensuses. On the one hand, we should probably celebrate that all points of view can get published, a situation bequeathed to us from postmodernism and pluralism. But I can't help but feeling that in an age where it feels like people have given up on even trying toward objectivity, in my mind there's a glut of special pleading out there now on the biblical studies book market.

It seems like whenever a study or trajectory of real significance arises, some "conservative"--meaning someone resistant to change--then commissions a counter-study to address it. Such counter-studies, far from actually disproving the new development, more innoculates the complacent, who can now simply say, "You can see that the new book by D. A. Carson or John Piper shows that this or that is not in fact true but another liberal conspiracy to corrupt the masses."

So Krister Stendahl in the 60s and E. P. Sanders in the 70s expose the faulty understanding of Judaism that has pervaded scholarship since its inception. Now finally D. A. Carson, Mark Siefrid, and Peter O'Brien strike back with two volumes, Justification and Variegated Nomism. It can now become the "scholarly" excuse for ignoring genuine developments. Of course the volumes themselves are far more "new perspective" than old. They remind me of the current "conservative" views on race. There are no Republicans in Congress today who have the same views as Strom Thurmand did in the 50s. Like it or not, the perspective on Judaism has changed, and these sorts of works are more foot dragging than real defenses of older views.

So also N. T. Wright introduces the actual ancient background of the New Testament into his interpretations of Scripture and it begins to make its way down into the masses. Commission a study! So John Piper produces a "scholarly" volume refuting it to innoculate the masses. Sorry. Just because you can write a book doesn't mean you haven't been caught snoozing in the cockpit.

Another reactionary "scholarly" innoculation is D. A. Carson and Greg Beale's Commentary on the Use of the Old Testament in the New. Sorry. The truth doesn't care. The New Testament simply isn't majorly concerned with the context and original meaning of Old Testament passages.

There have been a glut of new commentary series it seems this last decade, but most of them promise to fill Amazon with these sorts of innoculatory pacifiers. Books to allow us not to grow, not to wrestle truly with hard issues.

Oh where is objectivity to be found? Nowhere, of course, but there are better and worse examples of the attempt. It used to be that we simply ignored the experts. Now the anti-intellectuals have infiltrated them, across the spectrum of scholarly disciplines in America.


Jim said...

ken, you aren't correct on at least one point.


Ken Schenck said...

I will be interested to look at your dissertation but I can't imagine how you can defend it. Occasionally I find that NT passages draw in some of the literary context, certainly they can bring in the narrative context. But from Matthew to Paul to Hebrews I generally find that they are not wired to read the OT in total context, meaning in terms of their original meaning. I don't fault them for this--they seem excellent examples of ancient Jewish interpretation.

Dick Norton said...

Ken, if you "don't generally find" then perhaps you need new spectacles! The N.T. authors did indeed quote the O.T. from it's total context, which is what give their quotes such power. Try looking at them without your liberal filter in place! Or else call them (the authors) just silly and not worthy of serious study.

Ken Schenck said...

I know I fail, Rev. Norton, but I really do try to look at the interpretation of the biblical texts from as objective a standpoint as possible, neither presuming so called conservative or liberal conclusions. But when I look at how Matthew interprets texts like Hosea 11:1 or Jeremiah 31 (usual suspects I know), I can't imagine how anyone could read either of these texts as straightforward predictions of events in the life of Jesus. I don't think Matthew took them that way and thus I don't think he was silly or ignorant. He seems to be reading these passages much like the missionary couple that took a passage in the OT about mountains and took it as a life verse for their ministry in Haiti. Or there was my sister's sense that God wanted my family to move to Florida because she read the words in Judges, "Thou hast given me a south land." So also, although Hosea 11:1 was about the continued sin of Israel despite the fact that God called them out of Egypt sparks in Matthew a verbal connection to Jesus, who at one point moved out of Egypt. Does Matthew want us to think about the exodus? Maybe, but he is certainly not interpreting Hosea in its full literary context, let alone in its total historical context.

These are the sorts of things I mean.

Ken Schenck said...

I thought I would also post this comment I made in the Facebook edition of this post:

"I knew when I whipped this off that I would probably need to follow up on the word 'conservative.' Obviously (to me), I am conservative in many respects--I would resist any change to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, for example. I am now, interestingly enough, conservative by advocating for objectivity in a postmodern context. I try, although fail, neither to think 'conservatively' or 'liberally' but to let the chips lie where they seem to fall (with the proviso that faith can trump evidence, especially when it is honest about the evidence)."

The comment then went on to discuss what Craig Moore and others have called "Climategate." :-)

Anonymous said...

Nice post.

I liked your previous posts about a Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible too.



John C. Poirier said...

I'm on your side on the NT use of the OT--the NT writers hardly ever take the OT context into consideration. In fact, they often appear to be working with quotations from a testimony book, so that they don't even *know* the original context.

Michael F. Bird said...

Ken, these are fairly inflammatory words buddy, I'd ease down the tempo a bit. FWIW:

1. JVG I & II are better volumes that you suggest. Vol. 1 has been criticized for being too pro-Sanders in contrast to Carson's conclusion. It shows that CN is a viable category to describe patterns in the ancient world, but it is not a heuristic or exemplary model either since the degree of nomism was, well, variegated. In Vol. 2, I've found most of the contributors esp. Moo, Silva, and Eskola to have written very balanced pieces engaging the insights of the NPP with their genuine failings.

2. On OT in NT, the contributions are mixed and they are hardly rubber stamping Beale's tirade against Enns. You should take each author on its own merits there. I wouldn't say EVERY OT citation is out of context, in fact, in some cases Paul like Paul's use of Gen 15.6 I think he's right - righteousness then circumcision is the chronological order!


Ken Schenck said...

They were and I'm sure if I knew these individuals personally I probably wouldn't have felt free to swing like this--a sin that lieth at the door of the blogger and to which I have not been immune. I don't mean to impugn the character of individuals like Beale or Piper. Too late not to hit the "Publish" button so here we are.

You bring out something very important to be said. I am decrying more the reasons these volumes were commenced than the individual essays in them. I suppose that is an underlying point--the essays themselves do not necessarily deliver on what they were aimed to do.

Ken Schenck said...

I would use Genesis 15:6 as a good example of the potential disconnect between original meaning and NT use in that the original Hebrew might easily be translated, "And he trusted in the LORD and considered it to Him (that is, to the LORD) righteousness." It seems to me that the most likely reading of the grammar of this verse is that Abraham was reckoning Yahweh righteous rather than the other way around.

David said...

It seems that Paul did not have too much interest in the original historical and literary context of Psalm 68:18 when he “quotes” it in Ephesians 4:8. He actually re-wrote the verse (making the subject as the giver of gifts) and applied it to Christ, casting him in the image of a conquering commanding general of a Roman Triumph.

I am not suggesting that all NT writers had no interest in the original historical, literary or religious context of the OT. Yet, at least, we must admit that they were much more willing to apply OT passages to Christ, the Church, etc., that were quite foreign to their original intent when it suited their theological agenda and purpose.

Daniel O. McClellan said...

Ken, another text completely ripped from its original context would be Psalm 82, quoted by Christ in John 10. Christ's interpretation is actually a few steps removed from the original meaning, and pretty much identical to the rabbinic understanding.

Marc said...

The thing about the Wright/Piper or New/Old perspective debate is that Piper's stance is simplistic and traditionalistic: the reformation got it spot on, a simple Gospel we can all understand. Innovation and complexity are bad by definition.

This suggests that, as in many scientific developments, the old perspective is going to last until it's proponents die off and a new generation arises for whom the new perspective does not sound so strange.