Were Jesus, Peter, and Paul interpreting the Bible wrong?

Today we conclude our discussion of Peter Enns’ excellent book, Inspiration and Incarnation, as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. We’ve already discussed Chapter 2—“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”—in which Enns tackles the difficult question of how to understand the Bible as special and revelatory when Genesis in particular looks so much like other literature from the ancient Near Eastern world, and Chapter 3-—“The Old Testament and Theological Diversity”—which addresses some of the tension, ambiguity, and diversity found within the pages of Scripture. Today we turn to Chapter 4—“The Old Testament and its Interpretation in the New Testament” to discuss a phenomenon that has bothered me for years: the seemingly strange interaction with Old Testament texts by New Testament writers.

I’ll never forget the first time I found myself questioning Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea. I was in high school, doing some sort of Bible study centered around Christ’s fulfillment of prophecy, and I encountered Matthew 2:12-15, where Matthew recounts the family of the young Jesus feeing Egypt. Referencing Hosea, Matthew writes, “and so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” But a simple reading of Hosea 11:1 revealed that the prophet was not writing about the young Jesus or even a future Messiah, but of Israel being “called out of Egypt” and slavery under Pharaoh. (See Hosea 11:1-3.) To say that this text referred to Jesus seemed to go against the grammatical-historical grain; it seemed like a bit of a stretch. But who was I to criticize a biblical writer for his exegesis?

Through the years, I would encounter New Testament passages like these over and over again, passages that seemed to play fast and loose with the original meaning of Old Testament texts. I’m obviously not the first to notice this, as Enns explains: “To observe how the New Testament authors handle the Old Testament is to conclude that their notions of what constitutes a proper handling of the Old Testament do not always square with our own instincts-in fact, quite often, the differences are striking....A convenient label often attached to such an approach is ‘grammatical-historical,’ meaning that the words of the text in front of you must be understood in their original grammatical (i.e., interpreting the text in the original language) and historical contexts. Although this is a healthy approach to reading literature in general, when this method is applied rigidly to apostolic hermeneutics, we sometimes find we have painted ourselves into a theological corner…” (p. 116).

According to Enns, the only way we can begin to understand why New Testament writers handled scripture this way is to understand the hermeneutical conventions of their time, which are rooted in the literary conventions of the Second Temple period, and to appreciate the degree to which the apostolic writers positioned their reading of Scripture in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

“To put it succinctly,” writes Enns, “the New Testament authors were explaining what the Old Testament means in light of Christ’s coming.” And they were doing so using Second Temple interpretive conventions.

Enns goes on to examine various passages from Second Temple literature to show how “biblical interpreters exhibit for us an attitude toward biblical interpretation that operates on very different standards from those of modern interpreters. They were not motivated to reproduce the intention of the original human author. They were much more concerned to dig beneath the surface to reveal things (“mysteries” as the Qumran scroll put it) that the untrained and impatient reader would miss” (p131).

He points to five examples of New Testament authors utilizing Old Testament texts in this way:

  • Matthew 2:15 quoting Hosea 11:1
  • 2 Corinthians 6:2 quoting Isaiah 49:8
  • Galatians 3:16, 29 speaking of Abraham’s seed 
  • Romans 11:26-27 quoting Isaiah 59:20
  • Hebrews 3:7-11 quoting Psalm 95:9-10

He also points to examples in which New Testament writers refer to the extra-biblical accounts from Second Temple Judaism in their writing:

  • Jannes and Jambres in 2 Timothy 3:8 (Their names do not come to us from the Old Testament text but from the second temple interpretative world.) 
  • The dispute over Moses’ body in Jude 9 - (an account not found in the Old Testament text itself but in Second Temple literature). 
  • The account in Acts 7:21-22 referencing Moses’ Egyptian education (found not in the Old Testament, but in Second Temple works like Philo’s Life of Moses)

These examples show that, just as the creation account of Genesis 1 should be read in light of other Ancient Near Eastern creation texts, so the New Testament writers should be read in light of Second Temple texts. Reading them in this way does not diminish their authority or power, but simply helps us understand them better when our own cultural and hermeneutical assumptions may get in the way. It helps explain why the text behaves differently than we expect, (or perhaps want), it to behave.

Enns argues that when New Testament authors spoke of Old Testament passages, they were bringing a specific hermeneutical insight to them. “The term I prefer to use to describe this eschatological hermeneutic is christotelic," he writes. "I prefer this over christological or christocentric since these are susceptible to a point of view I am not advocating here, namely, needing to 'see Christ'; in every, or nearly every, Old Testament passageTelos is the Greek word for “end” or “completion”. To read the Old Testament 'christotelically' is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading." (p154).

He points to Luke 24:44-4 where Jesus said, “This is what I told you while I was with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.’’ The text goes on to report that Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

According to Enns, Jesus is not appealing to the Old Testament for proof texts, but rather saying that “all Scriptures speak of him in the sense that he is the climax of Israel’s story.”

(If you’ve read any N.T. Wright this is starting to sound eerily familiar.)

“The Old Testament as a whole,” Enns concludes, “is about [Jesus], not a subliminal prophecy or a couple of lines tucked away in a minor prophet. Rather, Christ—who he is and what he did—is where the Old Testament has been leading all along. To see this requires that Christ open our minds as he did the minds of his disciples. In other words, to see how Christ fulfills the Old Testament—the whole story, not just some isolated prophecies—is not simply a matter of reading the Old Testament objectively, but reading it ‘Christianly,’ which is what we see in the New Testament time and again.” (p. 120)

“There can be no question that such a thing can be counterintuitive for more traditional evangelical doctrines of Scripture,” Enns confesses, “since this is eisegesis (reading meaning into Scripture) rather thanexegesis (getting meaning from Scripture).” Still, there are practical applications for followers of Jesus and readers of Scripture today:

“A Christian understanding of the Old Testament should begin with what God revealed to the apostles and what they model for us: the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ for Old Testament interpretation. We, too, are living at the end of the story; we—as were the apostles—are engaged in the second, christotelic reading by virtue of our eschatological moment, the last days, the inauguration of the eschaton. As we read and interpret, we bring the death and resurrection of Christ to bear on the Old Testment. This is not a call to flatten out the Old Testament, so that every psalm or proverb speaks directly and explicitly of Jesus. It is to ask oneself, ‘What difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this part of the Old Testament?”

I love that last line, and I long to see those who teach, preach, and write about Scripture do more of this.

So, what do you think? Does Enns’ approach help resolve some of the tension you have observed in how New Testament writers interpret Old Testament passages? What does it mean, practically, to preserve and celebrate (as much as we can) the original intent of the authors of the Old Testament while still asking ourselves, ‘what difference does the death and resurrection of Christ make for how I understand this part of the Old Testament’? And can you think of a sermon, book, or conversation in which this was done well?

As a former English Lit major, I find myself wondering if we might think about this as we think of references to poetry in literature, where the meaning of the original poem carries new weight in light of the context of the second piece. What do you think?

And a programming note: We’ll take a little hiatus from our Bible series while I choose and start on another book for our discussion. Any suggestions?

Check out the rest of the series

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“The Bible is diverse because life is”

It’s Monday! Today we continue our discussion of Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation, as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. (Have I mentioned how perfect this book fits into that theme? Five times already, you say? Okay, good.)

Anyway, last week, we talked about Chapter 2—“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”—in which Enns tackles the difficult question of how to understand the Bible as special and revelatory when Genesis in particular looks so much like other literature from the ancient Near Eastern world. Today we move on to Chapter 3—“The Old Testament and Theological Diversity”—which addresses some of the tension, ambiguity, and diversity found within the pages of Scripture.  

Growing up in the conservative evangelical culture, words like  “tension,” “ambiguity,” and “diversity” were kept a safe distance from conversations about the Bible, which was, as God’s word, expected to be absolutely internally consistent. But early on, I began to notice conflict.  

Why did Chronicles present such a different account of King David’s reign than that 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, often with specific details in direct conflict with one another? (See 2 Samuel 24:9 vs. 1 Chronicles 21:5, 2 Samuel 24:13 vs. 1 Chronicles 21:12, 2 Kings 8:26 vs. 2 Chronicles 2:22 for just a few examples.) Why does Proverbs 26:4 say, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself,” while the following verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes”?  Why are there variations in the all-important resurrection accounts?  How do we reconcile the Bible’s common deed-consequence pattern ("if you obey, you will be blessed") with the suffering of Job? Why does wisdom literature seem to present conflicting insights into the value of wealth? 

Invariably, I would be referred to Gleason Archer’s massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, a heavy volume that seeks to provide the reader with explanations for every conceivable puzzle found in the Bible—from whether God approved of Rahab’s lie to where Cain got his wife. (Note to well meaning apologists: it’s  not always the best idea to present a skeptic with a five-hundred-page book listing hundreds of apparent contradictions in Scripture when the skeptic didn’t even know that half of them existed before you recommended it.) 

The goal was always to either ignore or explain away these differences, or else the authority of Scripture would be threatened. Over time, I began to feel like I couldn’t read the Bible with my intellectual integrity intact, and my faith suffered as a result.  It is ironic, really. So concerned with protecting the authority of Scripture, I failed to submit to it. I failed to accept it for what it was, not what I thought it should be. 

Since then, I’ve been blessed to encounter Christian scholars like Peter Enns and John Walton, along with Jewish interpretations of Scripture that have shifted my perspective. I love how, when folks in the Jewish community confront Scripture, they don’t freak out over its conflicts and tensions, but rather engaged them—and with enthusiasm! I’ve learned from Christian scholars more about the historical contexts that influenced the way different scriptural texts were written.  And I’ve gone back to my English major roots which have helped me see Scripture as a collection of various genres—from poetry to history to  stories to philosophy to law.  I’m still struggling to make sense of much of Scripture, particularly the violent stories of the Old Testament, but this new perspective has helped me engage difficult texts with more heart and integrity. 

According to Enns, we would do well to learn a few things from the Jewish readers of Scripture whose emphasis in engaging the holy text is “not on solving the problems once and for all but on a community upholding a conversation with Scripture with creative energy.” In contrast, “the history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture,” says Enns. “The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside, namely, by scholarship hostile to Christianity...It is a great irony that both the critical and evangelical options (as distinct from the Jewish model) take part in the same assumption: God’s word and diversity at the level of factual content and theological messages are incompatible.” 

Enns rejects this assumption, arguing that “a false assumption of how the Bible ought to behave stands behind this critical and evangelical view. As a corrective, one must observe how Scripturedoes behave and draw conclusions from that.” In other words, taking an apologetic and defensive approach accepts the worldview offered by modernity and defends the Bible by a rational standard that, according to Enns, “the Bible itself challenges rather than acknowledges.” 

As evidence, Enns works his way through multiple examples of theological diversity in the Old Testament—from seemingly conflicting advice  found in Proverbs, to the tension between the deed-consequence pattern found in Deuteronomy /Proverbs and the story of Job, to stark differences between the accounts of David’s reign in Chronicles and Samuel-Kings, to differences in wording between the 10 Commandments as recorded in Exodus and the 10 Commandments as recorded in Deuteronomy, to contrasts in laws regarding everything from slaves to the generational consequences of sin to Passover. Enns engages each of these examples with too much depth and insight to summarize here. He does not offer explanations meant to resolve the tensions, but rather acknowledgements meant to understand them—context, genre, authorship, culture, intent—suggesting that “the Bible is diverse because life is. And god does not shy away from it.”  So, for example, Enns explains that an author recounting the reign of King David  to an exilic audience (Samuel-Kings) would have an entirely different purpose, perspective, and agenda than an author recounting the reign of King David to an audience that has returned to the land after being released from Babylon (Chronicles). A book of wisdom literature, he notes, would assume that advice differs from context to context, situation to situation.  I highly recommend reading this section for yourself as it contains great insights without glossing over these important differences.

Enns concludes that the diversity found in Scripture is not fundamentally contrary to the Bible being the word of God, but instead “tell us that there is no superficial unity to the Bible.” So what does it tell us about the nature of Scripture, and by extensions the nature of God?

 According to Enns, it “demonstrates to us how fully God participates in history.” 

“If we take seriously both the historical dimension of Israel’s story and God’s making himself a part of that story,” he writes, “one would expect this complex historical matrix to be reflected in the pages of the Old Testament, which is precisely what we find. The various books of the Old Testament were written in differing historical contexts and for different purposes. This is why...Samuel-Kings and Chronicles can look so different from each other while talking about the same things. And not only are there different historical periods to take into account, but different genres of literature as well.” 

This reinforces Enns’ incarnational analogy, which we discussed earlier in the series

“For God to reveal himself means that he accommodates himself,” concludes Enns. “To be understood, he condescends to the conventions and conditions of those to whom he is revealing himself. The word of God cannot be kept safe from the rough-and-tumble drama of human history. For the Bible to be the word of God implies the exact opposite.”

In this sense, “the diversity of Scripture—and the tensions that this diversity introduces—bears witness to God’s revelation rather than detracts from it.” 

The chapter ends with a reminder of the importance of Jesus, God’s word in human form:

“Can Christians speak of a unity to the Bible? Yes, but it is not a superficial unity based on the surface content of the words of passages taken in isolation. The unity of the Bible is more subtle but at the same time deeper: It is a unity that should ultimately be sought in Christ himself, the living word.” 

Next week we will move on to Chapter 4 in which Enns discusses the Old Testament and its interpretation in the New Testament.

So, what do you think of this analysis? Have you struggled to reconcile every potential conflict in Scripture? How have your views on this evolved?

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Can God speak through myth?

Today we continue our discussion of Peter Enns’ excellent book, Inspiration and Incarnation, as part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. 

As we move to Chapter 2—“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”—I am struck afresh with just how perfect this book fits with our theme. In it, Enns focuses on three specific problems/questions raised by the modern study of the Old Testament and uses those specific problems/questions to engage in a broader conversation about the nature of Scripture. According to Enns, many evangelicals have assumed a defensive posture when it comes to confronting the linguistic, historical, and archeological evidence that shows the Bible to be “firmly situated in the ancient world in which it was produced,”  for fear that such “situatedness” detracts from its divine nature. Rather than ignoring or lamenting the evidence, Enns suggests we allow it to teach us something about how the Bible ought to be read and interpreted. “The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions,” he writes. “I have found again and again that listening to how the Bible itself behaves and suspending preconceived notions (as much as that is possible) about how we think the Bible to behave is refreshing, creative, exciting and spiritually rewarding.” (p. 15)

Last week, we discussed Enns’ incarnational analogy— in which he posits that just as Jesus assumed the language, culture, and life of a first-century Jewish teacher, so the Bible belonged in the ancient worlds that produced it. “It was not an abstract, otherworldly book, dropped out of heaven,” Enns writes. “It was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures.”  

This week, with Chapter 2, we get an up close look at the ancient world that produced the Bible, particularly the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature shaped much of its content. 

A Reality Check

Enns first highlights the impact of Akkadian Literature, which likely predates the biblical text and which includes creation and flood accounts remarkably similar to those we find in the Bible. (If, like me, you had a mini faith crisis in Intro to Ancient Literature after reading Enuma Elish or Gilgabmesh, you will know exactly what he’s talking about.) He also notes the similarities between The Code of Hammurabi and the laws found in Exodus, between Hittite suzerainty treaties and Deuteronomy, and between the Egyptian instructions of Amenemope and the book of Proverbs. He then points to archeological finds such as the Tel Dan inscription and the Siloam Tunnel Inscription to highlight the likely historicity of King David and Israel’s monarchs as well as similarities in how ancient people reported historical events.  I won’t get into detail here, but I strongly encourage those unfamiliar with ANE texts to study this chapter, which will serve as something of a reality check regarding the context in which the Bible was written and the worldview it shares with the sacred texts of other ANE cultures. 

These similarities raise some important questions: Does the Bible report historical fact, or is it just a bunch of stories culled from other ancient cultures? What does it mean for other cultures to have an influence on the Bible that we believe is revealed by God? If the Bible is a “culturally conditioned” product, what relevance does it have today? Can we really say that the Bible is unique? Can really say it is the word of God? 

“The problem...is that showing how at home the Bible is in the ancient world makes it look less special in some respects—less unique,” writes Enns.  “What can we say about the uniqueness of the Bible when, in so many areas, it bears striking similarities to the beliefs and practices of other nations?” (p. 32)  According to Enns: 

“The newfound evidence for the cultural settings of the Bible led many to conclude that the Bible is essentially defined by these cultural factors. The ‘context of Scripture’ became the primary determining factor in defining what the Bible is...The conservatives’ reaction was also problematic in that it implicitly assumed what their opponents also assumed: the Bible, being the word of God, ought to be historically accurate in all its details (since God would not lie or make errors) and unique its own setting (since God’s word is revealed, which implies a specific type of uniqueness)...Conservatives have tended to employ a strategy of selective engagement, embracing evidence that seems to support their assumptions...but retreating from evidence that seems to undercut these assumptions.” (47)

In the midst of all this, “the doctrinal implications of the Bible being so much a part of its ancient contexts are still not being addressed as much as they should,” says Enns. He proposes a new way forward, beyond the liberal/conservative divide that involves adjusting our expectations about how the Bible should behave. 

Enns proceeds to do just that by helping the reader adjust his/her expectations regarding: 1) the creation and flood accounts, 2) customs laws, and proverbs, and 3) monarchy. 

Genesis and Myth 

Today I want to focus on the creation and flood accounts, because they provide perhaps the best (and most controversial?) example of what it means to adjust one’s expectations when it comes to reading Scripture, a critical part of learning to the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be. 

As Enns notes in the book, it’s become almost impossible to discuss Genesis as myth without making people angry, as the word “myth,” in everyday use, has come to mean something other than a literary genre. The distinction between myth and history, says Enns, “presupposes—without stating explicitly—that what is historical, in a modern sense of the word, is more real, of more value, more like something God would do, than myth. So, the argument goes, if Genesis is myth, then it is not ‘of God.’” 

Enns clarifies the fact that myth is an ancient, pre-modern, pre-scientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories. He then raises the question: “Why is it that God can’t use the category we call myth to speak to ancient Israelites?” 

He writes:

“The reason the opening chapters of Genesis look so much like the literature of ancient Mesopotamia is that the worldview categories of the ancient Near East were ubiquitous and normative at the time. Of course, different cultures had different myths, but the point is that they all had them...What makes Genesis different from its ancient Near Eastern counterparts is that it begins to make the point to Abraham and his seed that the God they are bound to, the God who called them into existence, is different from the gods around them...The biblical worldview described in Genesis is an Ancient Near Eastern one. But the ordering of the world (e.g., the separation of water from land) did not result from a morbid conflict within a dysfunction divine family, as we read in Enuma Elish. It was simply this amazing God who spoke.” (p. 53, 54-55) 

In other words, the author is making a theological point, not a scientific or historical one.  

Enns reminds the reader that the worldview described in Genesis is a decidedly ANE one, portraying the earth as a flat disk supported by pillars, with water above and below, and a solid, fixed firmament. This is how Abraham would have understood the universe, how the writer of  Genesis would have understood the universe, and how the first storytellers, readers, and listeners of Scripture would have understood the universe. It is therefore coutnerproductie to try and impose our own advanced (and yet, in the grand scheme of things, still limited) assumptions regarding cosmology onto the text. 

To me, this is the money quote: 

“We do not protect the Bible or render it more believable to modern people by trying to demonstrate that it is consistent with modern science....It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a  modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship. And that point is made not by allowing ancient Israelites to catch a glimpse of a spherical earth or a heliocentric universe. It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later. To do so borders on modern, Western arrogance.”  (p. 55) 

Concludes Enns, “this is what it means for God to speak at a certain time and place—he enters their world. He speaks and acts in ways that makes sense to them. This is surely what it means for God to reveal himself to people –he accommodates, condescends, meets them where they are. The phrase word of God does not imply disconnectedness to its environment.” 

And again we are reminded of Christ—the fullest and most complete revelation of God—who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but humbled himself and became like us. If God is willing to put on human flesh in order to communicate to us, why wouldn’t he be willing to speak human languages—complete with human literary devices and human words and human cosmological assumptions—to communicate? 

I find this freeing...

In college I was trained to fight against this view of Scripture with every fiber of my being, and yet, when I began seeking a more intellectually honest faith, it was this view of Scripture that finally released me from gripping fear and doubt. 

I had been asking questions that the Bible didn’t answer. I had been forcing onto it my own modern, Western assumptions. I had been trying to explain away every possible contradiction, every historical or scientific "problem," in order to force the Bible into my own predetermined paradigm. I believed that in order for the Bible to be God’s word it had to conform to my ideals of historical and scientific proofs. It was a bit like demanding that Jesus be fully human without getting thirsty, or without sleeping, or without assuming a language and ethnicity and gender. 

And when the Bible didn’t perform as I expected it to perform, I nearly lost my faith. 

This is why I am so thankful for scholars and like Enns who have helped me confront my own prejudices and learn to love the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be. (Thanks, Pete!) 

Next week we will discuss this a bit further, with some additional examples....

***

So, what do you think? Have you had to confront the similarities between the Bible and other ANE texts? What is your reaction when Genesis is described as “myth”?

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Wright's 5 Recommendations for Reading Scripture Today

It’s Monday, which means it’s time to continue our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be.

As part of the series, we’re working our way through several books, and have already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Up next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns.  But currently, we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, and today I want to discuss Chapter 8, entitled, “How to Get Back on Track.” 

Wright really picks up the pace with this chapter, which begins with a reminder to readers of what he means when he talks about “the authority of scripture.” 

The authority of scripture...

“The whole of my argument so far leads to the following major conclusion,” says Wright, “that the shorthand phrase ‘the authority of scripture,’ when unpacked, offers a picture of God’s sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community...We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.” 

According to Wright, “this means that ‘the authority of scripture’ is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel.” 

One thing I’ve appreciated about Wright’s approach in this book is the emphasis he places on dynamic, spirit-led activity—the call to God’s people to join in God’s work of redemption, reconciliation, peace-making, and creative activity in the world. This way of speaking about the authority of Scripture stands in contrast to how it is often spoken of among Christians, as a phrase invoked to shut down conversation and bolster one particular interpretation of Scripture. (For example:  “I don’t believe in evolution because, unlike you, I believe in the authority of scripture.”) 

To me, Wright’s approach makes the most sense of 2 Timothy 3:16:  “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 

The authority of scripture affects the work of God’s kingdom, “at every level, from the cosmic and political through the personal,” says Wright.  “Though this can happen in the supposed ‘desert island’ situation,’ where an individual reads the Bible all alone,” he says, “it normally comes about through the work of God’s people, from those who translated and published the Bible itself (even on a desert island, one is dependent on others!) to those who, like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, helped others to understand it and apply it to their own lives.” 

In other words, the Bible is intended to be read, wrestled with, applied, debated, cherished, and celebrated in community. 

Tradition....

Honoring the authority of scripture means living in dialog with previous readings and respecting tradition, Wright says.  Those Christians who have come before us may have been wrong about some things, he notes, but “every key figure in the history of the church has left his, her or its mark on subsequent readings of scripture.” 

“Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our responsibility, in the Communion of Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the final say or making them an ‘alternative source,’ independent of scripture itself.” 

This approach reminds me a little of Scot McKnight’s approach in The Blue Parakeet, where he encourages Christians to read scripture with tradition, not merely through it. 

Reason...

Honoring reason in the reading of scripture means “giving up merely arbitrary or whimsical readings of texts, and paying attention to lexical, historical considerations,” says Wright. This keeps us from accepting readings that propose, for example, that Jesus was really an Egyptian freemason or that the book of Mark is about overcoming alcoholism. (Apparently, these views can be found in actual published books!) 

In other words, the interpretation should make sense. 

Honoring reason also means “giving attention to, and celebrating, the many and massive discoveries in biology, archaeology, physics, astronomy, and so on, which shed great light on God’s world and the human condition,” says Wright.   And it means engaging in civil, reasonable discourse. “This is why public discussions and debates, rather than shouting matches, are such an urgent requirement, says Wright. “Far too much discourse on contentious issues has consisted of rhetorical moves designed to wipe one’s opponent’s pieces off the board before the game has begun...Reasoned discourse is part of God’s alternative way of living, over against that of violence and chaos."

A good reminder.

Five recommendations...

Wright concludes with a five-part recommendation for approaching scripture today: 

1. A totally contextual reading of scripture: “Each word must be understood within its own verse, each verse within its on chapter, each chapter within its own book, and each book within its own historical, cultural, and indeed canonical setting,” says Wright. A contextual reading of scripture also means understanding and appreciating our own contexts and the way they predispose us to “highlight some things in the Bible and quietly ignore others,” Wright adds. “Such a contextual reading is in fact an incarnational reading of scripture, paying attention to the full humanity both of the text and its readers. This must be undertaken in the prayer that the ‘divinity’—the ‘inspiration’ of scripture, and the Spirit’s power at work within the Bible-reading church—will thereby be discovered afresh.” (Love that.)  This is an exhilarating process that will never be finished, Wright says, (with all the enthusiasm and joy of someone who truly loves his job as a biblical scholar). 

2. A liturgically-grounded reading of scripture: “The primary place where the church hears scripture is during corporate worship,” says Wright. “This means, we must work at making sure we read scripture properly in public, with appropriate systems for choosing what to read and appropriate training to make sure those who read do so to best effect.” Anglican worship, (to which Wright is certainly partial!), at its best, serves as a “showcase for scripture” in which “the authority of God places a direct challenge to the authority of the powers that be,” and in which the reading of scripture together in community is itself an act of worship. (Wright offers some specific suggestions for preserving a liturgically-grounded reading of scripture—including warnings against dropping certain portions of scripture from liturgical readings because they are startling or strange, as well as warnings against making sermons the focus of corporate worship— that we don’t have time to discuss in detail here.)

3. A privately studied reading of scripture: “For all of this to make the deep, life-changing, Kingdom-advancing sense it is supposed to,”  Wright says, “it is vital that ordinary Christians read, encounter, and study scripture for themselves, in groups and individually.”  Wright notes that Western individualism tends to highlight individual reading as the primary mode, and liturgical reading as secondary, where he sees the two working hand-in-hand. 

4. A reading of scripture refreshed by appropriate scholarship: “Biblical scholarship is a great gift of God to the church, aiding it in its task of going ever deeper into the meaning of scripture and so being refreshed and energized for the tasks to which we are called in and for the world,” says Wright. This means honoring the “literal sense” of scripture—not by taking everything literally, but rather seeking to understand what the writer intended.  Biblical scholarship can help Christians do this better, and therefore “needs to be free to explore different meanings.” Such scholarship needs to be accessible and applicable to everyday Christians. 

5. A reading of scripture taught by the church’s accredited leaders: Leaders must be trained and encouraged to keep the teaching and preaching of scripture at the heart of the church’s life, “alongside and regularly interwoven with the sacramental life focused on the Eucharist,” says Wright. 

I think these are strong recommendations. I especially appreciate Wright’s emphasis on both individual and corporate readings of scripture. This is one reason why I love combining Episcopal worship on Sundays, with good, old-fashioned Bible studies on weeknights, with private “quiet time” with my Bible and a book of hours each morning and/or evenings. For me, this represents the best of all worlds, and powerfully integrates scripture into my daily life. (Too bad I rarely engage them all in a given week!) 

What do you think of Wright’s five recommendations? 

Where do you see your own church tradition excelling, and where do you see it falling short?

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N.T. Wright on the Enlightenment, postmodernism, and common misreadings of scripture

It’s Monday, which means it’s time to continue series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be.  

As part of the series, we’re working our way through several books, and have already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Up next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns.  But currently, we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, and today I want to address Chapter 6, entitled “The Challenge of the Enlightenment,” and Chapter 7, entitled, “Misreadings of Scripture.” 

I confess I checked out few times while plowing through Chapter 6, which explores the effect of the Enlightenment on biblical interpretation and scriptural authority. Because this is just the sort of stuff you bring up at parties to make friends. 

Here Wright notes that “much of what has been written about the Bible in the last two hundred years has either been following through the Enlightenment’s program, or reacting to it, or negotiating some kind of halfway house in between.”  And so Christians need to be aware of which Enlightenment assertions “must be politely denied, which of its challenges may be taken up and by what means, and which of its accomplishments must be welcomed and enhanced.” 

Without casting Enlightenment rationalism as categorically evil, Wright details some of the problematic consequences of Enlightenment assumptions regarding the biblical text: false claims to absolute objectivity, the elevation of “reason” (“not as an insistence that exegesis must make sense with an overall view of God and the wider world,” Wright notes, “but as a separate ‘source’ in its own right”), reductive and skeptical readings of scripture that cast Christianity as out-of-date and irrelevant, a human-based eschatology that fosters a “we-know-better-now” attitude toward the text, a reframing of the problem of evil as a mere failure to be rational, the reduction of the act of God in Jesus Christ to a mere moral teacher, etc.  

Wright then discusses how the rise of historical biblical scholarship has both helped and hurt the Church, arguing for something of a middle-way between anti-intellectualism on the one hand and the glorification of it on the other. According to Wright, “to affirm ‘the authority of scripture’ is precisely not to say, ‘We know what scripture means and don’t need to raise any more questions.’ It is always a way of saying that the church in each generation must make fresh and rejuvenated efforts to understand scripture more fully and live by it more thoroughly, even if that means cutting across cherished traditions.” 

And I especially like this: 

“Not all who try to follow the Bible in detail as well as outline are fundamentalists,” says Wright,  “nor are they all guilty of those cultural, intellectual, and moral failings which North American (and other) liberals perceive in North American (and other) conservatives. Equally, not all who question some elements of New Testament teaching, or its applicability to the present day, are ‘liberals’ in the sense pejoratively intended by North American conservatives or traditionalists.” 

Wright urges Christians to avoid plugging their ears and refusing to acknowledge the insights that can be gleaned from historical criticism on the one hand, and accepting historical criticism wholesale on the other. 

“There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is ‘true after all, and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes,” he says.  

As the chapter continues, Wright tackles postmodern scholarship, which he believes has offered some helpful critiques of Enlightenment assumptions while providing useful analyses of how certain texts might be received by particular groups, but which tends to veer into the complete dismissal of large portions of the biblical text. And so Wright sees postmodernity’s effect on contemporary Western readings of Scripture as “essentially negative.” “Postmodernity agress with modernity in scorning both the eschatological claim of Christianity and its solution to the problem of evil, but without putting any alternatives in place,” he says. “ All we can do with the Bible, if postmodernity is left in charge, is to play with such texts as give us pleasure, and issue warnings against those that give pain to ourselves or to others who attract our (usually selective) sympathy.” 

Wright’s solution is “a narratival and critical realist reading of scripture,” which he doesn’t flesh out in this chapter, but will in future ones...which is good, seeing as how I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. 

Chapter 7 gets a little more interesting because Wright lists common misreading of Scripture—by the religious right and the religious left. 

His list of misreadings on the right includes:

- the rapture 

- the prosperity gospel 

- the support of slavery (so I guess he’s referring to readings both past and present) 

- undifferentiated reading of the Old and New Testament

- an arbitrary pick-and-choose approach to Scripture, complete with an implicit canon-within-the-canon, which, for example, is tough on sexual offenses but says nothing about the regular biblical prohibitions against usury

- support of the death penalty

- “discovery of ‘religious’ meanings and exclusion of ‘political’ ones, thus often tacitly supporting the social status quo”

 - readings of Paul that leave out the Jewish dimension through which his letters make the most sense

- attempted “biblical” support for the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of scriptural prophesy - an overall failure to pay attention to context and hermeneutics

[I can think of plenty more, starting with this idea that the Bible presents us with a singular picture of “biblical womanhood” that more closely resembles the June Cleaver culture of pre-feminist America than the familial norms of biblical times -  not that I’m biased on that one or anything. :-) ]

His list of misreading on the left includes: 

- claims to objective or neutral readings of the text

- claims that modern history/science “disprove” the Bible or render it  irrelevant or unbelievable

- the cultural relativity argument which assumes that “the Bible is an old book from a different culture, so we can’t take it seriously in the modern world.” 

- caricaturing biblical teaching on some topics in order to be able to set aside its teaching on other topics

- “discovery of ‘political’ meanings to the exclusion of ‘religious’ ones”

- the proposal that the New Testament used the Old Testament in an arbitrary and unwarranted fashion

- the claim that New Testament writers did not think they were writing ‘scripture,’ so appealing to their work does them violence

- “a skin-deep-only appeal to ‘contextual readings,’ as though by murmuring the magic word ‘context’ one is allowed ot hold the meaning and relevance of the text at arm’s length."

- reducing “truth” to scientific statements on the one hand, or to deconstruct it altogether on the other. 

Wright believes a critical realist reading of the text is something of a third way between two extremes, one that can “take the postmodern critique fully on board and still come back with a strong case for a genuinely historical understanding.”

He argues that we do have serious and academic methods by which we can “say definitively that some readings of ancient texts are historically preferable to others,” and that those should be employed thoughtfully and humbly by the Church. 

In chapter eight, “How to Get Back on Track,” Wright will propose a five-part recommendation for approaching scripture today.

Good. 

It's all getting a little theoretical to me.

 ***

So, did any of that make sense to you? What do you think of Wright’s assessment of the Enlightenment and of postmodernism? What would you add to the list of biblical misreadings—on either the right or left?

Check out the rest of our Bible series here.

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.