Monday, June 18, 2018

Perspicuity 3: Limited Clarity, Perspicuous Theology and the Importance of Historical Context

In his essay on “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Wayne Grudem explains that his theological method is an expression of his understanding of the clarity of Scripture:
“The clarity of scripture tells me that its doctrines can be taught in a way that ordinary people are able to understand. ... Neither Jesus nor Paul nor even the writer to the Hebrews felt compelled to make their teaching of doctrine so inaccessible to ordinary Christians, and I wondered if it might be possible to imitate the clarity of Scripture rather than the opacity of [Louis] Berkhof in writing about theology.”
By all accounts Grudem’s Systematic Theology is admirably clear, but there are problems with the analogy:
  1. Conflating Understandability and Clarity: I am convinced that Paul’s letter to the Romans is understandable both in its overall message and in detailed points of argumentation, but that the letter is far from clear to the general reader is apparent from the history of interpretation—and the testimony of my students. 2 Peter 3:15-16 says of the letters of “our beloved brother Paul,” “that there are some things in them hard to understand.” Indeed. Erasmus wrote that “The difficulty of this letter equals and almost surpasses its utility!” This is an overstatement, but my students sympathize. Although Paul no doubt wrote to be understood, Romans does not approach the clarity that Grudem attributes to his own Systematic Theology. Understandability is not the same as clarity.
  2. Confusing Clarity and Accessibility: The little I have read of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology I find very clear indeed, but that does not mean Berkhof’s tome is accessible to those with no academic training. This is because clarity is not the same as accessibility. What is clear to one reader may be opaque to another.
To be fair, Grudem cites 2 Peter 3:15-16 later in the article, he acknowledges that some texts are more difficult to understand than others, and he explains that, in his view, “The clarity of scripture is a doctrine about its understandability, not about how various people actually understand it.” Still, it seems to me that the Systematic Theology analogy is telling. Although Grudem grants that understanding is a process and that it deepens over time, his commitment to the Bible’s complete accessibility leads him to minimize difficulties inherent in reading the Bible.

In my last post, I discussed one way Grudem minimizes difficulties in understanding the Bible. Here I want to respond to Grudem’s suggestion that “historical background information” is unnecessary “for getting a proper sense of a text” by relating this claim to Grudem’s common-sense approach to theology.

Grudem allows that “[s]ome awareness of the wisdom contained in the church’s history of interpretation” is “useful.” His essay interacts with the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith and cites Mark Thompson’s book on the Clarity of Scripture, which comments on the history of the debate. Nevertheless, Grudem’s discussion of the clarity of Scripture pays insufficient attention to the historical framework within which the doctrine was first articulated. The result, I think, is a case of perspicuity “mission creep” that leads to a new and unhelpful expanded meaning of the term.

In 1516 Desiderius Erasmus expressed his wish for the “Gospels and the Pauline Epistles” to be “translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood,” adding a line that would be taken up by William Tyndale:
“Would that, as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of the journey with stories of this kind!” (Erasmus, "The Paraclesis")
For Erasmus, this does not mean that the meaning of the Bible is completely clear. In a 1524 response to Martin Luther, Erasmus wrote:
“[T]here are some secret places in the Holy Scriptures into which God has not wished us to penetrate more deeply and, if we try to do so, then the deeper we go, the darker and darker it becomes, by which means we are led to acknowledge the unsearchable majesty of the divine wisdom, and the weakness of the human mind. ... [T]here are many passages in the sacred volumes about which many commentators have made guesses, but no one has finally cleared up their obscurity ... yet there are other things which God has willed to be most plainly evident, and such are the precepts for the good life” (Erasmus, “On the Freedom of the Will,” quoted in Thompson 144).
A year later, Luther replied:
“[I]n opposition to you I say with respect to the whole Scripture, I will not have any part of it called obscure. ... Christ has not so enlightened us as deliberately to leave some part of his word obscure while commanding us to give heed to it, for he commands us in vain to give heed if it does not give light” (Luther, “The Bondage of the Will,” quoted in Thompson 147).
By the time the dust had settled at the end of the 16th century, William Whitaker, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, explained:
“[O]ur fundamental principles are these: First, that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear to admit of their being read by the people and the unlearned with some fruit and utility. Secondly, that all things necessary to salvation are propounded in plain words in the Scriptures. Meanwhile, we concede that there are many obscure places, and that the Scriptures need explication; and that, on this account, God’s ministers are to be listened to when they expound the word of God, and the men best skilled in Scripture are to be consulted.” (Whittaker 1588, quoted in Thompson 153)

According to Thompson, “Whitaker explicitly argued that this was in all respects the same argument as that published by Luther sixty years earlier” (153). Whitaker also anticipated the Westminster Confession, which limits the clarity of Scripture to things that are necessary for salvation. For what it’s worth, Louis Berkhof, writing in 1938, said much the same thing.
Thanks to the historical context, we learn that the classic Protestant formulation of the perspicuity of Scripture was, in effect, a statement about the value of reading Scripture, and a claim that everyone should be allowed to read the Bible for themselves. If Whitaker and Berkhof are correct, affirmations of the clarity of Scripture were always limited and never absolute.

To be sure, the traditional limited view of the Bible’s perspicuity may be mistaken, but it should at least give us pause when we encounter a contemporary theologian who advances what appears to be a new understanding of the term. In this case, I think there are good reasons for retaining the traditional view. Instead of affirming Scripture’s “understandability,” why not simply quote Whitaker or the Westminster Confession?

Believers who regard the Bible as authoritative must not let hermeneutical challenges keep them from saying anything at all. But it won’t do to paper over the complexity within which understanding takes place, and it won’t do to neglect historical context.

Other Posts in This Series:
Perspicuity 1: Is the Bible Understandable?
Perspicuity 2: The NET Bible on Old Testament Obscurities

Works Cited
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938.
Erasmus, Desiderius. “The Paraclesis.” Pages 97–108 in Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus with the Life of Erasmus by Beatus Rhenanus. Translated by John C. Olin. 3rd ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1987.
Grudem, Wayne. “The Perspicuity of Scripture.” Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 288–308.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester: IVP, 1994.
Thompson, Mark D. A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Perspicuity 2: The NET Bible on Old Testament Obscurities

The NET Bible makes up for its overly paraphrastic translation by providing detailed notes that are more helpful for original language work than most commentaries. As I make my way through Old Testament books that I have not read in Hebrew before, I have found I can count on the NET Bible notes to comment on matters of Hebrew grammar, word meanings, and text criticism. Often the notes will include a literal translation and explain the rationale, typically stylistic, for the much smoother NET Bible translation. They also justify textual emendations, and identify when the translation follows the Greek or Syriac, for instance, instead of the Masoretic Hebrew text. In Jeremiah, which I have been reading recently, comments such as the following are not unusual:

(1) Explaining the NET Bible’s substitution of “Zedekiah” for “Jehoiakim” in Jeremiah 27:1:
The reading here is based on a few Hebrew MSS and the Syriac and Arabic versions. The majority of Hebrew MSS and most of the versions read “At the beginning of the reign of Josiah's son, Jehoiakim king of Judah” as in Jer 26:1. The LXX does not have this whole verse. It has long been recognized that the text of Jer 27:1 is textually corrupt. The date formula in the majority of Hebrew MSS at Jer 27:1 is contradictory both with the context of the passage which deals with an event in the reign of Zedekiah ... and the date formula in Jer 28:1 which refers to an event “in that same year” and then qualifies it with “Early in the reign of Zedekiah.” Hence it is preferable to read “Zedekiah” here in place of “Jehoiakim” and explain the error in the Hebrew manuscripts as an erroneous copying of Jer 26:1.
(2) The NET Bible offers this smooth translation of Jeremiah 28:1: “The following events occurred in that same year, early in the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah. To be more precise, it was the fifth month of the fourth year of his reign.” The note explains:
The original text is unusually full here and deemed by many scholars to be corrupt: Heb “And it happened in that year in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fourth year, in the fifth month Hananiah…said to…” Many scholars see a contradiction between “in the fourth year” and “in the beginning of the reign.” … However, it is just as likely that there is really no contradiction here. I.e., the term “beginning of the reign” can include the fourth year.
(3) The fourth note on Jeremiah 33:5 is just under 600 words long. It provides a literal translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Jeremiah 33:4-5, comments on the Hebrew syntax, and evaluates a proposed textual emendation. Here is a sample from the beginning and end of the note:
The translation and precise meaning of vv. Jer 33:4-5 are uncertain at a number of points due to some difficult syntactical constructions and some debate about the text and meaning of several words. … Until a more acceptable explanation of how the difficult Hebrew text could have arisen from the Greek, the Hebrew should be retained, though it is admittedly awkward.
(4) After translating Jeremiah 39:8 as “The Babylonians burned down the royal palace, the temple of the LORD, and the people’s homes…,” the NET Bible notes explain:
The reading here is based on an emendation following the parallels in Jer 52:13 and 2Ki 25:9. The Hebrew text here does not have “the temple of the LORD” and reads merely “house of the people.” The text here is probably corrupt.
In this case, the NET Bible’s reading is harmonized out of thin air because there is no manuscript evidence that supports a reference to the “house of the LORD.” Most English translations stick with a minor shift from a singular house to plural houses, and translate “the king’s house and the houses of the people.”

Since we do not have the ‘original’ text of the Old Testament, it should not trouble us that scholars sometimes declare words or phrases in our surviving Hebrew copies to be corrupt, and defend a reading preserved in another language as more likely to be original. Everyone agrees that the great medieval manuscripts printed in modern editions of the Hebrew Bible have errors. Often the copyists’ mistakes are obvious. Sometimes, as in the examples cited above, there is no consensus, but it is still possible to offer reasons in support of a particular conclusion. All modern translations depart from the Masoretic Hebrew text from time to time, but they often do it silently. The NET Bible is more conscientious than most about letting readers know where and why they have done so.

My point here is not so much to commend the NET Bible notes—although they are a fantastic resource and are freely available online—as to put Wayne Grudem’s comments about the clarity of Scripture in perspective.

In his article on “The Perspicuity of Scripture,” Grudem admits that “There are some places in Scripture where we still are not sure what a certain Hebrew or Aramaic or Greek word means.” So he adds this qualification:
“Scripture is able to be understood everywhere where we are able to translate it accurately; moreover, that the yet-unknown words are relatively few in comparison to the whole scope of scripture, and that even where the meaning of a word is unknown, the sense of the passage as a whole is usually quite understandable.”

As my examples above demonstrate, this is a significant oversimplification. I agree that the general gist of a larger passage is “usually quite understandable,” but uncertainty about the meaning of the Bible often extends beyond individual words, to matters of grammar and the text itself. In most cases, careful readers can still make up their own minds and come to an understanding about the meaning of the text. But decisions are required. If clarity means absence of uncertainty or scholarly consensus, we must conclude that not all the Bible is “clear” in the way Grudem defines it.

And sometimes we have lost the clue entirely. No one reading the NET Bible translation of Jer 40:5 would have any questions about the meaning of “Before Jeremiah could turn to leave, the captain of the guard added, ‘Go back to Gedaliah.’” The note, however, acknowledges that this is not what the Hebrew text says:
The meaning of the first part of v. Jer 40:5 is uncertain. The text is either very cryptic here or is corrupt, perhaps beyond restoration. The Hebrew text reads, “and he was not yet turning and return to Gedaliah” … which is very cryptic.
After working through various possible solutions, the translator concludes, “[I]t is perhaps best to retain the Hebrew and make the best sense possible out of it,” and then adds: “All of this shows that the meaning of the text at this point is very uncertain.”

In other words, not all the parts of the Bible are currently “understandable” in any meaningful sense of the term.

Incidentally, the NET Bible’s evangelical pedigree can be traced back to the faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary. Based on the notes, it appears that the translators would agree with the Westminster Confession’s statement that “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.”

Other Posts in This Series:
Perspicuity 1: Is the Bible Understandable?
Perspicuity 3: Limited Clarity, Perspicuous Theology and the Importance of Historical Context

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Is the Bible Understandable?

If you are like me, the answer to this question seems so obvious your initial reaction is to wonder why anyone would think to ask it. Nevertheless, the question was posed recently, and I want to take some time to reflect on it here.

The obvious answer is “yes.” What motivates my work as a college professor is the conviction that ordinary readers can learn to read and apply the Bible for themselves. I would not have welcomed the opportunity to teach an introductory course on hermeneutics regularly over the last fourteen years if I did not think the Bible was understandable.

But what do we mean when we affirm that the Bible is understandable? I take for granted that the Bible is not always easy to understand, and that reading well requires effort and skill. In my classes I explain that I want my students to develop confidence in their ability to interpret the Bible and at the same time grow in humility as they come to appreciate the complexity of the task and their own human limitations. We see through a glass darkly. Scripture is understandable the way God is understandable, and the self-revealing God is beyond our comprehension.

Does “understandable” allow for this complexity? Can those who affirm the Bible’s “understandability” admit that no one knows what this or that or that Hebrew word means, or confess to being unable to resolve a particular interpretive issue? Must we always arrive at answers, or are we allowed to live with questions from time to time?

I gather that the Protestant doctrine of the Bible’s perspicuity or clarity lies behind the question and the answer it invites. Indeed, in a 2009 article Wayne Grudem proposed using “understandability” as an alternative way of describing the Bible’s clarity.

I am going to argue that this substitution is problematic. “Clarity” and “understandability” mean different things, and conflating them leads to confusion. But if we assume for the moment that when we discuss the Bible’s “understandability” we really mean its “perspicuity,” the natural place to turn is the classic statement in the 17th-century Westminster Confession of Faith:
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” (WCF 1.7; online here)
Grudem, however, explicitly rejects the Westminster Confession’s limitation of the Bible’s clarity to “those things which are necessary … for salvation,” and attempts to apply the doctrine in as expansive a way as possible. Grudem grants that understanding the Bible requires effort and time, that other people contribute to understanding, and that our understanding is never complete; he also allows that “there are still today a few words that we are not sure how to translate.” But he insists that if the Bible is authoritative, “clarity” must be affirmed “as a characteristic of Scripture as a whole” and not limited to things that are necessary for salvation: “[T]he meaning of the whole of scripture on many topics is able to be understood by God’s people.” In other words, Grudem defends something like a verbal plenary understandability that extends to (almost) every part of the text.

As a corollary to Scripture’s clarity, Grudem suggests, on the one hand, that “translations should be encouraged,” but he denies, on the other hand, that knowledge of the Bible’s historical context is necessary for understanding—that would put the meaning of the Bible out of the reach of ordinary people.

I share Grudem’s desire to help ordinary people read and understand the Bible. Nevertheless, there are major problems with Grudem’s broad interpretation of the clarity of Scripture. In the next few posts I want to consider weaknesses of Grudem’s approach, explaining why “clarity” and “understandability” should be distinguished, and why the original limited sense of “clarity” as it is presented in the Westminster Confession should be preferred.

Bibliography: Grudem, Wayne. “The Perspicuity of Scripture.” Themelios 34, no. 3 (2009): 288–308.

This is the first post in a series on the perspicuity of Scripture:
Perspicuity 2: The NET Bible on Old Testament Obscurities
Perspicuity 3: Limited Clarity, Perspicuous Theology and the Importance of Historical Context

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Now Playing: Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life

Next up on my commute "reading" list is Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life. If you can get past the evolutionary psychology, the Jungian readings of the Bible, the obstinate refusal to make any concession to political correctness, and the constant barrage of imperatives, there is some good advice here. Plus, Peterson has a sense of humour.

Perhaps my favourite part so far is this middle-aged reflection at the end of chapter 2:
"In my own periods of darkness, in the underworld of the soul, I find myself frequently overcome and amazed by the ability of people to befriend each other, to love their intimate partners and parents and children, and to do what they must do to keep the machinery of the world running. ... This sort of everyday heroism is the rule, I believe, rather than the exception. Most individuals are dealing with one or more serious health problems while going productively and uncomplainingly about their business. If anyone is fortunate enough to be in a rare period of grace and health, personally, then he or she typically has at least one close family member in crisis. Yet people prevail and continue to do difficult and effortful tasks to hold themselves and their families and society together. To me, this is miraculous--so much so that a dumbfounded gratitude is the only appropriate response. There are so many ways that things can fall apart, or fail to work altogether, and it is always wounded people who are holding it together. They deserve some genuine and heartfelt admiration for that. It's an ongoing miracle of fortitude and perseverance. ... People are so tortured by the limitations and constraint of Being that I am amazed they ever act properly or look beyond themselves at all. ... Some people degenerate into the hell of resentment and the hatred of Being, but most refuse to do so, despite their suffering and disappointments and losses and inadequacies and ugliness, and again that is a miracle for those with the eyes to see it."
(For the humour, consider the true-to-life description of prairie winters at the beginning of chapter 3.)

The Rules:
  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
  8. Tell the truth--or, at least, don't lie.
  9. Assume that the people you are listening to might know something you don't.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

John Evelyn's Reading Recommendations

In 1704 the 17th-century man of letters, John Evelyn, wrote out a short book of advice for his twenty-two year old grandson, Evelyn's only surviving male descendant and heir to his estate. Memoires for my Grand-Son was preserved in the family library at Wotton until 1926 when it was transcribed and published. (Tragically, the library itself "was sold and dispersed" in the 1970's. I imagine it looked something like the library in Hatfield house, pictured on the right.)

The contents of the Memoires range from detailed lists of tools that need to be oiled and cleaned once a year to an inventory of "Mathematical Instruments" kept in the room next to the library. According to the editor,
"The chief value and interest of the manuscript lies ... in the admirable fussiness which impelled [Evelyn] to give such details of how a country gentleman should conduct his life and affairs. Many of these details throw light into obscure corners of the domestic economy of the late seventeenth century" (xi).

As you might expect, I was especially interested in the section on "Books & Studys for the Improvement of your knowledge." Evelyn begins the section by insisting on life-long learning:
"I thought I had say'd all that was necessary to be don as to your care within dores excepting that of the Library Appartments, which require your especial and constant Inspection, nothing more becoming a person whose Education has been something above that of most ordinary Country Gents who commonly unlearne and abolish all they had learn'd at schole, university, &c., when they come to their Estates, thro' a slothfullnesse and unacountable neglect of Cultivating their knowledge and the noblest facultys of their Intellectual Man, that is, by advancing toward something usefull as well as for merely entertainement of time. In order to this a constant and setl'd method should be resolv'd upon with an unvariable assiduity, and so order'd that none of these opportunitys be lost which do not necessarily require attendance or any publique Employment, there being none either of greate or buisy but leave such vaccuitys and Interstices as may aford a studious person time of improving his knowledge, which otherwise be cast away & utterly lost. My L. Chancellor Bacon has beside his owne example confirm'd what I have said, tho' he was a person in continual employment as a Lawyer, Judge, Privy-Conseller, & in perpetual buisinesse. The like were Raileigh, Selden, Hales, Vaughan, &c., besides forainers <in> aboundance ... Philologers, Noblemen, Souldiers, Advocats, Divines, Physitians, States-men, &c., (I name them promiscuously), to whom the knowing-world is oblidged for the Improvements of the present Age beyond a Thousand which are past." (pp. 38-40)

In today's jargon, Evelyn might say those who aspire to be leaders need a solid grounding in the liberal arts.

Next, Evelyn lists the kind of subjects a country gentleman should make the object of his study:
"Among these studys & Facultys most necessary for you, I think, would be more than a superficial Tincture of the Laws, Civile, Municipal; History, both in generall and particular by a judiciously chosen Method, Antient, Modern, Greeke, Roman, and from the decline of those Empires to our owne times, accompanyd with Chronologies, Geography, &c. And for the most usefull diversions assistant to innumerable subjects both speculative, but above all practicall, Mathematicks, which ... sharpens and settles the Judgement. ... But to be accomplisht, above all, Algebra. These well studied will furnish also innumerable other knowledges, accompanyd with such Treatises as every day occurr, relating to modern History and Arts, Travelles, discoverys, Transactions Philosoph:, &c., beside the most select pieces of all kinds which your library will afford you, poetical, political, Military, All the Classics, &c., and other noble entertaiments both pleasant and profitable, whilst your maine study should be such as we have recommended to us by the most grave and wisest Ancestors. ... One would not be notoriously Ignorant of anything belonging humanity, or laudably Entertaining at home in private and abroade or in Company, without ostentation." (41-43)
Evelyn commends the practice of keeping a commonplace book, both as an aid to memory and as  preparation for writing:
"In order to all this and all your other studys either by booke or conversation, A well digested Adversaria as to common places should by no meanes be neglected, in which to write down and note what you find most important & usefull in your Readings & not trust altogether to your owne Memory, so in a little time you will find your papers furnish <you> with materialls of all subjects; short notes and Referrences are sufficient for this unlesse wher you meete with some Remarkable passages which may require a larger transcription. From such a Magazine one is inabled to speake or write upon any occasion, & it would not be amisse to pitch upon some usefull subject to exercise your style in & to publish some Fruits of your studys, which cannot be don without Collections, no man being able to build anything whatever without the help <of> others which may stand or last longer <than> the Cobwebs spun out of the bowels of an Insect. But with this Advice, that, when once one has written what is of such intrinsical value as to gaine universal applause, To adventure out againe without extraordinary caution." (43-45)

Last, but not least, Evelyn states that Sundays and Holy days should be devoted to the study of Theology: 
"If now I have reserved that of Theology to the last place, it is not out of forgetfullnesse or that it ought not to have been the very first of all Recommended, but because all the studys hitherto mention'd are to be subservient to This, which, being of all others the most necessary and sublime, ought never to be omitted, That you may be able to give an Account of your Faith & choise of your Religion upon principles solid & rational, and not because it is your Country's profession onely. For this end, therefore, have your first & chiefe recourse to the Divine Revelation, The Holy Scriptures, handed downe to the world by those Holy and Inspired men, the prophets, Apostles and Successors. ... This to be the Employment of Sundays & Holy-days (as they call them) especially, & of every weekday, morning or Evening, after your privat prayers, in which, however short your leasure may be, consistent with other necessary buisinesse you may by degrees arive to a greate deale of the most Excellent knowledge of that unum necessarium in comparison of which all other is unprofitable. Let your choise (after competent acquaintance with the Scriptures, that sourse & perennial fountaine) be the most genuine and antient of those who immediatly writ after the Apostolic age and so downe to the present; nor let the Volumes of the Fathers, Councils, and Controvertists, afright you, these being so very few after the first foure Centurys (and they no way insuperable) which you have not sufficiently supplyd by many excellent Epitomisers of all that is considerable in them." (45-48)
Evelyn was evidently describing his own practice. Toward the conclusion of the Memoires, Evelyn explains that "Most of the devotional papers, books and sermons, were the tiresome [i.e., tiring] exercise of Sundays & Holydays, which in time swell'd into such bulk." (65)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Wesley Hill, Modern Marcionism and Torah Ethics

In a recent column in First Things, Wesley Hill calls out Andy Stanley for stating that the gospel “is completely detached … from everything that came before,” that Christians “are not accountable to the Ten Commandments,” and that “The Old Testament was not the go-to source regarding any behavior for the church.”

From Hill’s perspective, Stanley’s comments amount to a new Christian Marcionism not by denying the inspiration of the Old Testament, but by declaring that it has been superseded by the New Testament, and by implying that the Old Testament is irrelevant for Christian ethics.

To Stanley’s claim that the “apostolic decree” in Acts 15 “was a general call to avoid immoral behavior[,] but not immoral behavior as defined by the Old Testament,” Hill responds:
“New Testament scholars such as Markus Bockmuehl have demonstrated that the rules for Gentile converts outlined in Acts 15 themselves go back to the Old Testament’s guidelines for Gentile sojourners in Israel.” 
To be fair, some of the quotations from Andy Stanley’s sermon remind me of things I tell my students: It is true that Paul seldom refers directly to the Old Testament when he gives ethical instruction. You won't find the apostle trying to persuade his audience to agree with him by appealing to the authority of the Law of Moses as a legal code. And if Christians are "not under law, but under grace," then that law must include the Ten Commandments as well. Stanley is on to something.

I also agree with Stanley that the way the prohibitions in the apostolic decree are authorized is significant. In an essay on “Torah Ethics in Acts,” I wrote:
“Despite the absence of chapter and verse references, Luke’s readers would have connected the prohibitions against things defiled by idols, blood, what is strangled and sexual immorality (15:20) to the Torah. … Nevertheless, the four requirements of the decree are not authorized by Moses. While they are connected to the law of Moses (15:21), James formulates the terms of the decree as his judgement (15:19). In the letter the “apostles and elders” send to the Gentiles, the requirements are authorized by the Holy Spirit and the Jerusalem apostles and elders, not Moses (15:28, cf. 16:4).” (p. 85)
But Paul’s insistence that believers are free from the law, and the fact that the apostles and elders in Acts 15 do not appeal directly to the law when they issue ethical requirements does not mean that the Torah was no longer viewed as a divinely-inspired guide for human behaviour. Surely it was. In Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), Susan Wendel and I asked contributors to consider not if, but how the Law of Moses continued to inform Christian ethical thinking even for those who, like Paul, did not think Torah observance was essential for salvation.


Hill's column demonstrates that the answer to this question can have important practical consequences.

In my essay on Acts, I concluded,
“[A]lthough Luke did not think that Gentile Christ-believers encounter the Torah in the context of God’s covenant with Israel, he presumably took for granted that the law—and controversy stories about the law in Luke’s Gospel—remains authoritative and relevant for Gentile Christ-believers when it is read as prophecy and applied by analogy.” (p. 91) (For what it means to read law as prophecy, you will need to read the essay itself.)

In Luke's writings, the Mosaic law continues to function authoritatively, but it is not the go-to source for Christian ethics--that honour goes to Jesus:
“The law in Luke’s writings plays a supporting role behind Luke’s overwhelming interest in Jesus. While Luke does not think they conflict, it is the example of Jesus, much more than the demands of Torah, that serves as the primary paradigm for the main characters in Acts, and hence for Luke’s Gentile readers.” (p. 91)
In this context, I would want to stress the absence of conflict. As Hill puts it, "One cannot pit Paul's sexual ethics against the Ten Commandments, from which they stemmed."

Sources:
Wesley Hill,  "Andy Stanley's Modern Marcionism," First Things (5.11.18)
Miller, David M. “Reading Law as Prophecy: Torah Ethics in Acts.” Pages 75–91 in Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity. Edited by Susan J. Wendel and David M. Miller. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Wendel, Susan J., and David M. Miller, eds. Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzburger on Hermeneutics

Not surprisingly, Jews and Words, the short collection of essays by the Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, and his historian daughter, Fania Oz-Salzburger, is replete with insightful comments about the process of interpretation:
"We do not oppose the rabbinical habit, old and new, of playing around with the meaning of ancient verses. How can we? In this book we are doing much the same. But there are some differences. Unlike ultra-Orthodoxy, we are not trying to denounce, confine, or silence anyone. More to the point, our approach to the very act of interpretation is different from the traditional rabbis'. For us, the rules are something like this: Read in growing circles around your quotation rather than pluck it out of context. Cherish discovery and surprise more than your own agenda. Acknowledge the shortcomings of texts and authors you love, and the merits of those you dislike. Look hard to see the inner logic of a paragraph, a page, and a chapter." (60-61)

"Reading the words in their contexts, many times over, can reward the reader with an increasing sense of familiarity. Despite recent theoretical skepticism, we do believe that an experienced and sensitive nose can sniff out a trace of the original meaning even of very ancient texts. The original meaning! 'What the author had in mind'! One can smile at a simile, mouth a metaphor, or taste a turn of phrase, getting a sense of what their earliest listeners or readers experienced. We probably miss a great part of the tenor and 'feel' of ancient usage, and often enough we are bound to misunderstand completely, but at times we can grasp it. The careful reader can follow subtle shifts of meaning, trace transformations of a word's role." (158-9).
~ Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, Jews and Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
On a related note, I am now listening to Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, on my ride to and from the library where I spend my week-days. It is by turns laugh-out-loud funny--which feels a bit strange when I'm cycling along a busy Cambridge street--and heartbreakingly sad. I can't recommend it highly enough.