Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Hebrews and Hermeneutics

I was reminded in Hebrews class again today of the complete inadequacy of the older evangelical hermeneutical paradigm. It was not wrong on the original meaning (although it frequently cheated with its own method). It was wrong rather about its canons of application (e.g., the vastly inadequate Fee and Stuart motto--it can't mean something it never meant).

The use of Psalm 40 in Hebrews 10 is an excellent case in point because it foils all the coping mechanisms of the older paradigm.

For example, it is clear that the original meaning of Psalm 40 was not about Jesus. Psalm 40:13 mentions the iniquities of the psalmist. In the original meaning of the psalm, therefore, Psalm 40:6-8 were not Jesus speaking but the psalmist speaking.

Secondly, the original meaning surely was not meant to do away with sacrifices entirely any more than the critiques of Psalm 51, Isaiah 1, Micah 6, or Jeremiah 7 were (unless you want to say that these verses contradict Leviticus at the very core). When Hebrews reads these words on the lips of Jesus as an indication that his death does away with the sacrificial system, this is a quite significantly different meaning than the passage had originally.

The author of Hebrews, as it were, lifts a section of this psalm from its context on the lips of David (as he would have likely read it) and figuratively places it on the lips of Jesus as he enters the world. I say figuratively because are we really to suppose that the author pictures Jesus literally saying these words as he descends through the clouds? It seems more likely that the author is simply expressing the purpose of Jesus taking on a body.

Perhaps the most interesting point is that the author of Hebrews is making his point from the Greek translation of the OT which reads differently from the original Hebrew. The Hebrew says, "my ears you have opened." The Greek reads, "a body you have prepared." We therefore face a choice. Are we going to accept that inspiration is not limited to the original meaning--indeed to the original text--or is inspiration of the biblical authors a spiritual task that was not limited by the historical or the original meaning?

By the way, this phenomenon also legitimates textual criticism and deconstructs a King James only perspective. Both texts can't be original. If a KJV person considers the reading of Hebrews 10 original, then its version of Psalm 40 is not original. But if a KJV person considers the reading of Psalm 40 original than its version of Hebrews 10 is not original.


Dick Norton said...

Count me as one who believes that the author of Hebrews firmly considers the words from Psm. 40 are indeed words spoken by Jesus himself of his own mission. If the author uses a Psalm that has no Messianic meaning in and of itself, then he makes a very poor case to the Hebrews he was trying to save from apostasy. They would have immediately seen the fallacy of his argument, and would have deemed his argument invalid. There was a considerable body of testimonia (scriptures believed to be Messianic in meaning) from which N.T. authors drew -- scriptures that were Messianic in meaning when they were first written. Any Jewish enemy or any Jewish believer who was considering "drawing back" would not have accepted quotes from this testimonia as proof of Jesus' messiahship, if they did not agree to the Messianic meaning of these scriptures. And can you, my friend, say for certain that Psm 40 and the other O.T. passages in question were NOT on the lips of our Lord as he "opened the scriptures" to the disciples from Emmaus? Your arguments are not new, Ken. They are old, and, I believe, they are discredited. I would humbly ask you to re-consider the arguments of Fee, Kaiser, and many others.

Ken Schenck said...

I don't have a problem in theory with the idea that Christ literally said these words when entering the world. I'm just not 100% sure what it would mean. I think for the author of Hebrews, he would have pictured Christ's Spirit somehow vocalizing these words as he descended from the highest sky into the upper atmosphere as he was about to partake of blood and flesh (2:14). I don't think he would have meant that Jesus said these words as he came out of Mary's womb or perhaps somehow in the womb. These kinds of things are what it would mean to think that Jesus literally said these words when entering into the world. I don't have a problem with the first option. I'm just not sure this is really what the author of Hebrews was trying to say.

But I can't even think of a way, not even a far fetched one, in which the only meaning of Psalm 40 would be about Christ. What would it mean for Jesus to say, "my iniquities have overtaken me" in 40:12? Can you think of how this verse could be part of a psalm whose only meaning was as a messianic psalm?

Dick Norton said...

I don't see Psm. 40 as "only" Messianic. If it was written by David, as I believe it was, then we can be sure that David was deeply aware of his own sinfullness. He was ALSO aware of the promises of God. He knew that God was building him a house (II Sam. 7:11) and that this house was "for a great while to come." (II Sam. 7:19). He knew that he was to be the progenitor of a dynasty that would bring Messiah into the world. In some of what he wrote or was written about him and his dynasty (Psm. 2, Psm. 8,Psm. 45, Psm. 110, and Psm. 40) there is a "Messianic Awareness." He knew that he was the beginning of a line of which Messiah would be the great final member. Psm. 40:6-8 is all about his glorious Son. See how they are set off in the Psalm by v. 5 beforehand, and vs. 9-10 afterward. This is about God's "thoughts" to Israel, about His deliverance, and faithfulness, and salvation. And while these verses are ultimately about Messiah, they also are the cry of David's heart about himself. The author of Hebrews knew this, and it fit perfectly into his message. Hebrews consistently speaks of "shadow vs. reality" with regard to the priesthood, the covenants, the tabernacle, the sacrifices, etc. Here Messiah is the antitype, David is the type. David is the shadow, Christ the reality. And more importantly, his readers would have read Psm. 40 (and Psm. 2, and Psm. 8, and Psm. 45, and Psm. 110, and Jer. 31) in this way, or else the author's message would have fallen on deaf or scornful ears.

Ken Schenck said...

I am very comfortable with God inspiring the words to have a double meaning (a sensus plenior). But I can't imagine any Jews prior to the NT hearing any meaning about a Christ in these words. There are no clues in the text that point to any such shift after verse 5. If I listen to the text of Psalm 40, I will conclude that the "I" and "me" of the psalm is the same throughout. Indeed, Hebrews quotes 40:9 in 2:12, so there is no shift in the author of Hebrews' mind after verse 8.

This is a fundamental point. Your method does not allow me to listen to Psalm 40 in its most obvious meaning (or any of the other texts you mention). It requires me to play games with its straightforward sense because of something written 1000 years later in a vastly different setting about it.

People like Kaiser are ingenious--they have to be to find ways to finagle the evidence so that the way the NT takes the OT has some semblance of the original meaning (your proposed solution, for example, has a complexity that would hardly occur to an ordinary person). I soon realized in seminary (mind you, while taking courses with Oswalt and Wang) that I'm not nearly that smart. I take the OT texts at face value and draw on my Wesleyan revivalist tradition to allow that the Spirit can inspire the texts to mean things that weren't in the original author's minds. The path you are following is the Calvinist infusion of Hodge and Warfield into the Wesleyan Methodist tradition in the 50s by way of Paine and others.

Thankfully, I'm just a stupid Pilgim. :-)

Dick Norton said...

I believe in "sensus plenior" only in the very narrow sense that a passage can have a double meaning ONLY if the original author meant it to have a double meaning. It's like Isaiah seeing in his own son a near-term sign to Ahaz (Isa. 7:14, 8:3-4,8) and a long range promise about a coming Messiah (Isa. 9:6). If you see only author-contemporary meanings in the O.T., then please explain how Jesus could "open the scriptures" to His disciples so they could see the many things taught "about him" in the O.T. And I continue to want an answer to how the author of Hebrews could play games with the O.T. scriptures and still get his readers to follow him. Knowledgeable Hebrews would have ridden him out of town on a rail (or whatever the author-contemporary version of that would be.)

Ken Schenck said...

I think a fundamental issue here is what these individuals would find persuasive and this gets at the fundamental paradigm shift I have undergone. If you went up to Matthew and asked him, which Scriptures did you have in mind when you said that Jesus being from Nazareth is a fulfillment of the prophets, plural. Matthew apparently did not have a single Scripture in mind. The closest are 1) of Samson, "he will be called a Nazirite" and 2) Isaiah 11:1 where a branch (Nazir) will rise. Neither of these have to do with a village in Galilee. The second had to do with a king in the line of David.

Now let's say you said to Matthew, none of these passages predict that the messiah will come from a village in Galilee. I think he would say something like, yes, but that is the truth the Spirit put into these texts.

I think it is our modernist paradigm that assumes historical=convincing, whereas, like good Pentecostals, they were more convinced that only the Spirit could reveal the true meaning of the text.

If you said, but Matthew, Hosea 11:1 isn't even a prediction about the future, let alone a prediction that the messiah will go down to Egypt and come out again. I think he would say, that is not the point. This is the meaning hidden in the verse by the Holy Spirit.

Dick Norton said...

Ken, thanks for engaging in this conversation. I'm afraid we're just shooting past each other, though. It seems to me that I believe the Holy Spirit inspired the O.T. authors with timeless truth. You seem to me to believe the O.T. authors are simply writers of miscellany without any theological value; that it only becomes inspired when the Holy Spirit fills the miscellany with some bit of Christian truth. You believe my view is Calvinistic and old fashioned. I believe your view is old fashioned modernism. I'm sad!

Ken Schenck said...

I hope I've shown you the proper respect. Obviously I don't like Kaiser's perspective, but I do have great respect for you as a person, an intellect, as a man of faith, and as someone who has served the Lord well throughout your life.

I certainly would not represent my position the way you do. I believe that God inspired all the biblical authors to speak truth, give commands, give promises, give rebukes, etc. to each of their particular audiences. Psalm 40 in its original meaning is a wonderful example for me and all of us to follow in seeking the Lord's help in a time of trouble. I have no problem repeated the words of the psalmist as an inspired model of prayer for me today.

And I affirm that the author of Hebrews was inspired to hear in its words an expression of one purpose of Christ's coming into the world--to do away with the Levitical sacrificial system in his body on the cross.

It's a both/and to me. The psalm stands in its own right and it stands as a witness to the significance of Christ.