Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Write-Up: Biblical Hermeneutics, Five Views

Stanley E. Porter and Beth Stovell, ed.  Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views.  Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2012.

I would like to thank Intervarsity Press for my review copy of this book.

As the title indicates, this view contains five views on biblical hermeneutics, which pertains to how one should interpret the Bible.

Craig L. Blomberg defends a Historical-Critical/Grammatical approach, which seeks to understand what the authors of biblical documents were saying to their audience within their original historical context.  F. Scott Spencer advocates for a Literary/Postmodern view, one that looks more at the final form of the text rather than the  stages preceding the text’s final form.  This approach highlights such issues as the portrayal of characters, plot, and the ways that a certain biblical text could be read in dialogue with another biblical text.  Merold Westphal’s contribution to the book is an explanation of his Philosophical/Theological view.  Westphal discusses how we all have different perspectives when reading a text, and he also stresses the importance of uncovering, not just what the biblical texts meant within their original historical contexts, but what they mean today.  Echoing Nicholas Wolterstorff, Westphal contends that God can use the biblical texts to instruct the church, even if that instruction may depart from the texts’ original meaning.  Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. presents a Redemptive/Historical View, which affirms that the entire Bible is about redemption through Christ.  And Robert W. Wall explains his Canonical View, which highlights the importance of Christian community in interpreting and applying biblical texts, while also stressing the significance of the canon.  Wall sees significance in the order of the New Testament books, for example, and he believes that this, not only the texts’ original meaning, can instruct Christians.

With the exception of Merold Westphal, these contributors employ their approach to interpret Matthew 2:7-15, which contains a story about Herod and the Magi, as well as Matthew’s seemingly odd interpretation of Hosea 11:1.  Matthew applies a passage about Israel’s Exodus from Egypt to the child Jesus’ departure from Egypt after Mary and Joseph took him there to escape from King Herod’s wrath.  Craig L. Blomberg, using his Historical-Critical/Grammatical method, states that Mary and Joseph most likely fled to a Diaspora Jewish community in Egypt.  Blomberg also sees typology in Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1: that, just as Israel’s departure from Egypt preceded the Old Covenant at Mount Sinai, so does Jesus’ departure from Egypt precede the New Covenant.  F. Scott Spencer, using his Literary/Postmodern approach, reads Matthew’s story alongside the Exodus, noting that, whereas in the Exodus the Israelites were leaving an oppressive regime in Egypt to go to Israel, in Matthew 2 two Israelites are fleeing to Egypt to escape from an oppressive ruler in Israel.  Spencer also makes fun of the Magis’ supposed wisdom, contending that they should not have been so quick to trust King Herod, since they should have known that Herod would have opposed any new Messiah as a competitor for his throne.  Spencer later in the book says that Christians can critically dialogue with this aspect of the plot to ask themselves to what extent their own devotion to Jesus “resists and/or reinforces the powers that exist in our world” (page 159).  Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. attempts to argue that Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea 11:1 is consistent with Hosea 11:1′s original meaning, since the Book of Hosea was about Israel’s departure from exile, to which Jesus’ Messiahship would be pertinent.  And Robert W. Wall uses typology to explain Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea 11:1, contending that Jesus in Matthew was a liberator from sin, as the Exodus was a liberation of the ancient Israelites from bondage.  Wall also addresses the possible significance of the Gospel of Matthew coming before Mark’s Gospel, saying that Matthew connects the New Testament with the Old Testament’s story and hopes.

On some level, there is overlap among the five approaches.  Blomberg seems to use a literary approach in his explanation of Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1.  Spencer’s literary/postmodern method does not dismiss the importance of authorial intent, plus Spencer’s interpretations of Matthew 2:7-15 are arguably relevant to the history of first century Palestine.  And Westphal, Gaffin, and Wall do not say that the history behind the text or the text’s original meaning is unimportant.  One might think that we do not have to choose just one approach to interpreting the Bible, for all complement each other and yield valuable insights.
It is in the second part of the book that the fissures among the approaches are more apparent, however.  In this part, the contributors respond to one another.  Blomberg questions Spencer’s claim that Matthew and Hosea are in dialogue, saying that, while Matthew may be interpreting Hosea, Hosea is not engaging in any dialogue with Matthew, for the Book of Hosea and its concerns preceded the Gospel of Matthew chronologically.  Blomberg also disagrees with Wall’s implication that the shape of the canon is somehow authoritative for Christians, contending that we should look at each biblical book in itself (rather than its place in the canon) to see what it means for Christians authoritatively.  Spencer highlights the limitations of the historical-critical method, and Westphal questions whether Blomberg’s Historical-Critical/Grammatical approach sufficiently demonstrates how the biblical writings can be applied to Christians today, not just to their original historical settings.  Gaffin criticizes many historical-critical approaches to the biblical texts because he believes that they privilege human reasoning above God, and he disagrees with Wall’s canonical approach because he thinks that it exalts the church’s canon above Scripture itself.

A prominent concern in this book is how we can interpret the biblical text without allowing it to mean anything we desire.  Are there any boundaries or limitations that should guide our interpretation of biblical texts?  Blomberg seems to think that we should stick with the historical-critical method (or at least prioritize it) because otherwise we have anarchy.  Spencer tries to argue that the text itself can set limits on what our interpretations can be.  Unfortunately, while Westphal makes interesting points about how something said to one group may mean something different to another group, he did not appear to offer firm criteria for how Christians are to apply the biblical writings beyond their original contexts.  And Wall emphasized the importance of Christian community, but communities can interpret the Bible in damaging ways, so I think that there should be standards of biblical interpretation to which communities are subject.

In terms of my own impressions, I tend to side with Blomberg’s approach, for I believe in trying to read the writings of the Hebrew Bible on their own terms, rather than in light of later Christian beliefs.  I am not sure if I would go so far as to say that we’re in complete interpretive anarchy if we depart from looking for the text’s original, historical meaning, for I agree with Spencer that the text itself can set limits, and that we can get useful things out of the text, even if we are not entirely able to recover everything that the author originally meant.  And yet, I sympathize with Blomberg’s approach because I am tired of how a number of conservative Christians act as if their Westernized, Christocentric ways of reading the Hebrew Bible are so obvious and authoritative.  Do I believe that there is a way to be faithful to the biblical writings’ historical, contextual meanings, while also allowing the biblical writings to speak to subsequent contexts, even to us today?  That is a challenging question, but I do not think that it is impossible to get insight, application, and relevance from texts speaking to a different historical contexts.  There are some overlaps between people now and people then, and we can be inspired by the moral deeds of people in the past, or we can learn from their misdeeds.

While my sympathy is largely with Blomberg, I tend to believe that it would make more sense for evangelicals to hold Gaffin’s Redemptive/Historical view, since that presents the Bible as having a unified Christian message, and also there are passages in the New Testament about people in Old Testament times knowing something about God’s plan.  As Blomberg astutely notes in his response to Gaffin, however, we are never told in the New Testament what or how much the Old Testament figures knew about the coming Christ, nor are we told in the New Testament that all of the Old Testament writings were about Christ.

I have to admit, though, that Spencer’s contribution to this book was definitely my favorite.  He showed how people can read the Bible in rich ways.  Spencer also seemed to be saying that the Gospel of Matthew has political implications, that it is not just about Jesus rescuing people from sin, but that it relates to societal issues as well.  Overall, I wish that all of the contributors went into more detail about this particular topic.  Gaffin, for example, argued that Matthew was echoing Hosea’s theme of Israel being liberated from exile, but I wish that he had gone into more detail about what liberation from exile meant for Matthew.

Good book!

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