Category Archive: Hermeneutics
We get at the meaning of baptism not by ignoring the properties of water but by musing on those properties. Eucharistic theology properly emerges from considering the meaning of meals, of bread and of wine, of broken loaves and full cups. So, too, we get to the rich and richly varied sensus plenior of the sacramental word not by moving past the letter to a spiritual sense, not by treating the letter as a husk for removal. We get at the riches of Scripture precisely by luxuriating in the letter, by squeezing everything we can from the text as written — Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis, p. vii.
It’s come to my attention that there are some people who teach that we shouldn’t identify something in the Old Testament as a type of Christ unless the New Testament makes that identification explicit.Â So it’s okay to say that the rock in the wilderness was a type of Christ because Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 10.Â But it’s not okay to say that the story of Joseph is a type of Christ because the New Testament never says so, even though it should be clear to any Christian reading Genesis that Joseph is rejected by his brothers, goes down to the pit, rises again in glory, ascends to the throne at the right hand of the king, is reconciled to his brothers, and ends up feeding the world, so that all the nations are blessed in him.Â In spite of how much that sounds like Christ, this view says, the New Testament doesn’t say explicitly that Joseph is a type of Christ and therefore we shouldn’t either.
Here’s a question I have for such people: When God says in Genesis 3:15 that the seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent, do you think that’s talking about Christ’s victory over Satan?Â Surely the answer would beÂ “Yes.”Â Â I don’t think that’s the only thing that promise refers to.Â It includes other victories over enemies, other crushings of the heads of serpents, such as Jael’s crushing the head of Sisera or David’s crushing the head of Goliath.Â But surely that promise ultimately points to Christ’s victory over Satan, the crushing of Satan’s head.
But where does the New Testament ever make that typology explicit?Â There are certainly passages which talk about Christ triumphing over Satan (e.g., Col. 2:15), but they don’t allude to Genesis 3:15.Â In Revelation 12:9, we hear about the “great dragon,” who is “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan,” but even here we don’t hear that Christ crushed his head.Â Instead, we’re told that war broke out and Michael won the victory and cast the serpent to the earth.
The only fairly clear allusion to Genesis 3:15 that I can think of in the New Testament is in Romans 16:20: “And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.”Â But here it’s the church which has SatanÂ crushed under its feet.Â Granted, the church is the body of Christ, and so this may be (and I think is) a fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, but it certainly doesn’t state explicitly that Genesis 3:15 is speaking about Christ.
Furthermore,Â the only explicit connection to Genesis 3:15 here in Romans 16 might be the term “crush.”Â After all, Genesis 3:15 says nothing about feet, and Romans 16:20 says nothing about the serpent, its head, or its bruising of someone’s heel.Â In fact, you’ll search the entire New Testament and never once find any reference to the serpent bruising someone’s heel, let alone Christ’s heel.
If you can find another passage in the New Testament that explicitly indicates that the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 is a type of Christ, please point me to it.Â But I don’t think there is one.Â
On the principle of the people I mentioned in the opening paragraph, then, we may not say that Genesis 3:15 is speaking of Christ.Â But surely it is.Â And just as surely, then, the principle must be wrong.Â If it is the case that we may not identify something as a type unless the New Testament does, then Genesis 3:15 doesn’t speak of Christ.Â If Genesis 3:15 does speak of Christ, then we may indeed draw typological connections even if the New Testament doesn’t.
The Bible is a complex book.Â Consisting of sixty-six books written over several millennia, it describes a bewildering array of characters and events.Â The Bible seems especially complex and difficult to modern Christians, because, however hard we try to think biblically, we have been subtly but deeply influenced by modern philosophy and science.Â Often, even when we have rejected the explicit conclusions of science, we unconsciously adopt a scientistic mind-set.Â One example of this is our tendency to operate on the modern assumption that all ideas can be defined with infinite, scientific precision, and that concepts can and should be distinguished very sharply.
The more you study the Bible, the more you will find that it cannot be forced into this mold.Â Ideas and symbols in the Bible meld together, overlap, and stretch out in a thousand different directions.Â This is not to say that the Bible is irrational or unscientific, or that we cannot make any meaningful distinctions.Â But a modern reader cannot escape the sense that the Bible speaks a very different language than he learned in “Chem. Lab” or Philosophy 101.Â As theologian Vern S. Poythress has noted, the biblical world view acknowledges the reality of “fuzzy boundaries.”
Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck drew a distinction between pagan and biblical thought that may help to clarify this idea.Â Bavinck said that modern (and ancient Greek) thinkers attempted to find the “essence” of a thing, that which makes a thing uniquely what it is, by subtraction.Â To discover the “essence” of a pencil, we subtract its color, its size, its shape â€”Â all of which may vary without changing the nature of the thing and all of which may describe something other than a pencil.Â (There might be a red apple as well as a red pencil, a six-inch slug as well as a six-inch pencil, etc.)Â When we have subtracted all the variables, what we have left is the “essence” of the pencil, what might be called “pure pencilness.”Â (Of course, what we really have left is nothing at all.)
Scripture, by contrast, describes the essence of a thing by addition.Â Only when we know the fullness of a thing, all of its attributes, do we really know its uniqueness and “essence.”Â God’s “essence” is not some “bare minimum” of deity, or some “basic attribute” from which all the other attributes can be derived.Â Instead, the “essence” of God is the fullness of all his attributes â€”Â Peter Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power, pp. 93-94.
Lest that sound too abstract, Leithart relates it to his main theme, the kingdom of God: we can’t know what the kingdom of God is by subtracting everything it has in common with something else to determine what makes it unique, nor can we really know what the kingdom is by reducing it to some basic elements.Â Rather, we need to hear all the various ways in which the kingdom is described, all the images that the Bible uses to depict it, and so forth.Â The more we hear, the more we say, “Yes!Â The kingdom is like that, too.”Â These various images don’t contradict.Â Rather, they offer different perspectives on the kingdom.Â And just as you know a diamond better the more facets of it you see, so we know the kingdom better by looking at its facets, turning it, as it were, so that we can see it from all angles.
That’s an important point.Â But what Leithart says earlier, drawing on Poythress, should not be overlooked.Â Why do we assume that the Bible defines everything precisely?Â Probably because we’re used to a sort of scientific description of things.
But the Bible often presents “fuzzy boundaries.”Â It’s not always easy to fit the Bible’s various images of the kingdom together.Â Various perspectives may seem to us to conflict: How can it be both this way and that way?Â How can the Bible teach this and that?Â The conflict, of course, isn’t in Scripture but in us.Â We don’t understand how both things can be true.Â So our calling is to teach both, to live with the fuzziness.
Nor may that fuzziness necessarily be resolved by more study.Â It’s not necessarily the case that God has given us all the data we’d need to resolve these apparant conflicts, to figure out how this relates to that or how this and that can both be true.Â In other words, God may not have given us everything we need to produce a fully systematic theology.Â That shouldn’t scare us, though, because we can trust that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness.
In fact, men in other fields have to live with a certain amount of mystery, too.Â Even in science, I’m told, people work with the concept of the “black box.”Â The scientist puts inÂ a certain input and the same thing happens every time, even though the scientist has no idea how it works.Â It’s a “black box” to him.
And so with theology.Â Think of the Lord’s Supper.Â How is is exactly that we can be nourished by Christ’s body and blood and receive His life as we eat bread and drink wine together?Â I don’t know.Â I do know that God says that’s what happens.Â I don’t know how it happens.Â I can’t explain it.Â It’s fuzzy to me.Â Calvin’s answer?Â By the power of the Holy Spirit.Â And that’s as good an answer as any.Â But notice how that answer is pretty much a black box answer, leaving all the mystery while glorifying God.
Living with the fuzzies may be hard sometimes, especially because we want all the answers and we want them to fit nicely in our minds.Â That’s part of how God made us: we want to see how things work and make them fit.Â But living with the fuzzies is another way of saying living by faith.Â It’s trusting God and echoing what He tells us, even if we don’t understand it all.
In his Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, Rikki Watts illustrates how allusions work:
As an Australian student studying in the United States I was fascinated by my lecturer’s occasional references to “four-score and seven years ago” and the uniformly “knowing” response of my American fellow-students. Only on learning that the phrase was the first line of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address did its significance become apparent. By evoking the Founding Father’s ideology these few words functioned as a hermeneutical indicator, pointing not so much to the text of Lincoln’s address per se â€” but to the larger interpretation of American history which Lincoln’s speech assumed and with which it interacted (p. 3).Â
Watts points out that when a person uses the phrase “four-score and seven year ago,” he is deliberately alluding, not merely to Lincoln or even to the Lincoln’s speech, but to the particular view of history which is embodied in that speech.
Even more importantly, this “history” is not the “objective,” detailed, even quiescent version of the academic Ã©lite, but rather a popularist, highly processed and digested, yet pungent and persuasive “history,” cast in terms of the parameters set by the Founding Fathers mythology. That is, although the text is a part-citation, its primary function is to allude to and therefore to invoke, a powerful hermeneutical framework originating with the Founding Fathers, namely, the ideologically shaped popular recounting of the “essence” of U. S. history” (p. 31).Â
So, too, when a biblical author cites Scripture, he isn’t referring simply to the few words he quotes, isolated from their context, nor is he even referring only to the original context of the line he quotes. He’s alluding to the whole framework assumed and generated by the passage he’s quoting and he’s inviting you to read what he’s writing in terms of that framework.
For instance, when Mark starts his Gospel by quoting Isaiah 40:3, he isn’t simply saying that this verse â€” or the passage it appears in â€” is a prediction of the future which happens to have been fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist. He’s also inviting you to read the whole story of John and of Jesus â€” his whole Gospel! â€” in terms of the narrative assumed and interpreted by Isaiah, the narrative of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, entrance into the Promised Land, sin in the land, exile from the land, and future restoration, the narrative in which the coming of a voice crying the message of Isaiah 40:3 is the preparation for the climax, when God would at last return to become Israel’s king. Mark isn’t simply alluding here to one specific prophecy; by quoting these particular words, he’s inviting you to read his whole Gospel in the light of Isaiah’s (and the Bible’s) telling of Israel’s story. He’s not simply invoking a verse of Scripture; he’s invokiing Isaiah’s whole understanding of God and of history.
In his response at the end of Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, N. T. Wright draws some helpful distinctions:
Strictly speaking, the opposite of metaphorical is literal. These two words refer to the way words refer to things, not to the things themselves. Confusion arises, not least in present discussions, because this pair is regularly muddled up with the words abstract and concrete, which indicate not the way words refer to things but rather the sort of things words refer to. Thus “Plato’s theory of forms” refers, literally, to a doubly abstract entity (the forms themselves, by definition, are abstract, and the theory is an abstract idea about those abstractions). If I say “Plato’s whole box of tricks,” intending to refer to that same theory, I am referring metaphorically to the same abstract entity (or entities). Alternatively, if I talk about “my car,” I am referring literally to something concrete; and if I say “my old tin can,” I am referring metaphorically to that same concrete entity. Matters are made much worse because, in popular usage, literally is regularly used to add emphasis to a sentence without any serious intent to mean what it says (“we were literally driving at the speed of light”; “my grandfather is literally as old as the hills”). We are thus bereft of the literal meaning of literal, and we find ourselves wallowing in all too many metaphorical meanings of metaphorical (pp. 261-262).
In a footnote, Wright then adds this, which should be of interest to all the many concrete workers in my congregation:
The word concrete is interesting in itself. We today may think of it as referring literally to the compound regularly used in building and so on; hence, we may think of it as referring metaphorically, as in the last sentence, to solid physical entities as opposed to abstract ones. But its original meaning, from the Latin concrescere, had to do with the putting together of solids, so that the meaning “physical, nonabstract” is the more literal meaning and the meaning “the substance used in building” the more metaphorical (p. 318n23).
A thesis for discussion: The modern exegete’s reluctance to deal with symbolism and typology and his quest for quasi-scientific certainty in exegesis (i.e., a strict grammatical-historical approach) has produced few, if any, helpful, Christ-centred commentaries on Leviticus.
Often exegetes of Scripture get nervous about symbolism and typology, or even about conclusions drawn from literary features of the text (repeated words, chiasms, and so forth) â€” after all, those things aren’t completely provable or (as one person expressed it to me once) they aren’t “falsifiable.” You never have the kind of certainty about symbolism that you do about Greek grammar or about the identity of the Pontius Pilate referred to in the Gospels.
As I read through Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne a question came to mind: How would you respond to someone who asked you to prove that many of the names in this book are plays on words or have some symbolic reference? I’m thinking of names such as Dr. Fillgrave or the pub manager Mr. Reddypalm who just wants his little bill paid (by the candidate for the election).
Clearly those names aren’t just random syllables Trollope has put together, nor are they simply common English names which Trollope happened to pick because they sounded nice. Trollope crafted those names, intending them to have significance (and intending them, especially, to make us chuckle).
But if you were exegeting the novel using the sort of strict grammatical-historical approach many exegetes apply to Scripture, what would you do with those names? If you were to approach Trollope with the same caution with which some exegetes approach Scripture, with the fear of not having quasi-scientific certainty in your exegesis, could you say anything about the significance of those names? What kind of proof would you provide someone who claimed that Dr. Fillgrave’s name isn’t funny?
The proof wouldn’t be grammatical or historical. Part of your response, I suspect, would be to take the questioner to a number of other books (including perhaps The Pilgrim’s Progress) in which characters have significant names: It’s a common feature of English literature. But your questioner would likely say that you haven’t proven anything; you’ve simply moved his question from Doctor Thorne to the rest of English literature.
You might also want to assert that the meanings of the names do fit well with the way the characters are described in the book and with the events that involve them. In other words, within the framework of the story, this interpretation of the names seems to fit and make good sense and even contribute something to the story. Would that satisfy your questioner? Probably not. But I’m not sure how much more proof you need.
Recently, I’ve been reading N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, in preparation for preaching a series of sermons on Mark’s Gospel starting sometime early next year. I’ve waded into Wright’s work from the shallow end, starting with the books of sermons and meditations and progressing gradually to the heavier works.
In this volume, Wright make a point which might be obvious but which hadn’t actually occurred to me before. Many of the people attending conservative evangelical churches would be strongly opposed to deconstructionism, viewing its approach as a form of deadly relativism. And yet these same people often bypass careful exegesis in favour of “what this passage means to me” or “what this passage means for me,” which might be different from “what it means to/for you”: a form of radical deconstruction-like relativism!
Most Bible-readers of a conservative stamp will look askance at deconstructionism. But its proposed model is in fact too close for comfort to many models implicitly adopted within (broadly speaking) the pietist tradition. The church has actually institutionalized and systematized ways of reading the Bible which are strangely similar to some strands of postmodernism. In particular, the church has lived with the gospels virtually all its life, and familiarity has bred a variety of more or less contemptible hermeneutical models. Even sometimes within those circles that claim to take the Bible most seriously — often, in fact, these above all — there is a woeful refusal to do precisely that, particularly with the gospels. The modes of reading and interpretation that have been followed are, in fact, functions of the models of inspiration and authority of scripture that have been held, explicitly or (more often) implicitly within various circles, and which have often made nonsense of any attempt to read the Bible historically. The devout predecessor of deconstructionism is that reading of the text which insists that what the Bible says to me, now, is the be-all and end-all of its meaning; a reading which does not want to know about the intention of the evangelist, the life of the early church, or even about what Jesus was actually like. There are some strange bedfellows in the world of literary epistemology (p. 60; cf. pp. 54, 66).