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November 20, 2010


Clarion Journal

Dear Ron,

Remarkable connections, as usual. I enjoy your ability to zoom back to see the wider angle in which a particular debate is enfolded, how the debaters may in fact be related, and what their more ancient lineage is.

My two cents:

First, I come from an education where the literal-grammatical-historical was held high as THE conservative evangelical hermeneutic. Anything else was suspect and broad-brushed as liberal. Many in that tradition also insisted on verbal plenary inspiration that included an every-word-inerrancy (though we denied charges of a dictation theory). We would have said, 'every word was God-breathed as holy men of God were borne along by the Spirit.' (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21). Where we took the Antiochian approach over the edge was in a hermeneutic that claimed to take the genres seriously BUT backfired by demanding that any Scripture that COULD be taken literally MUST be taken literally. I don't need to tell you how this pre-empted a proper read of the creation narratives in Gen. 1-2 or the millennium visions of Rev. 20.

What we didn't realize (and what you are suggesting) is how that approach completely caves in to modernist-rationalist assumptions. In fact, Leo Strauss traces this modern approach to Spinoza who he believes actually set up this system of interpretation with the intention of appearing very faithful and careful in his treatment of Scripture, but subtly and purposely creating a scientific method that makes the Bible subject to science and the hermeneutical scientist. It enables us, further, to contain the revelation of the Word to a Bible-sized box that we stand over and master and to which we apply rules that work on every other piece of literature. Even if we claim the Bible is a source of revelation, we thus treat it in fact as an object to be scrutinized and dissected in the laboratories of our seminaries.

Is this kind of literalism really taking the Scriptures seriously? I would argue that it fundamentally contradicts Paul's assertion in 1 Cor. 2 that the to rightly understand the spiritual thoughts (revelation) that had been imbedded or expressed in spiritual words (Scripture) absolutely requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not merely make us better at l-g-h science. Rather, the Spirit must illumine our hearts ('let there be light' - 2 Cor. 4) so that we can see (lit. 'behold') the revelation that came to the authors who then witnessed to that revelation in human words and within human cultures.

My belief is that Origen's allegorical approach (only one layer of his larger system), was not simply spiritualizing on a whim everything one came across in the text. His critics, in accusing him of excessive allegorization, typically pointed to his commentaries on Gen. 1-3, where we are once again realizing as he did that the story is not about six literal days of twenty-four hour periods.

Instead, he was attempting to work through at least three things that we must ponder afresh: a. To take genres seriously, including the Bible's occasional use of 'myth,' instead of buying into the modern fallacy that myth does not communicate truth. b. To explore spiritual meanings in texts that, if now taken literally, contradict Christ's Gospel commands (e.g. the conquest narratives). c. To actually believe that illumination is essential for us to move 'beneath' the surface meaning or 'first reading' of a passage in order to access the realm of revelation.

Back to the people you've mentioned. Among the modern Antiochians, I think N.T. Wright differs from my first teachers in that he knows when to drop the 'literal' wherever the symbolic is clearly intended. Nor do I think he's bound by fundamentalist definitions of 'inerrancy'. On the other hand, he takes the 'historical' far beyond anyone in our camp, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because in the third quest for the historical Jesus, he may win the day on behalf of conservative theologians in his defence of Christ's life, death and resurrection as historical facts (and not just allegorical truths). But it can also be a curse because it places a very heavy weight of interpretation on background research and speculative reconstructions to which we have little access. This is a problem because the way the Scripture portrays interpretation and illumination, the keys are to be found in a. the text itself and b. in the work of the Spirit.

Here I am referring to the commentaries of Karl Barth but more so, Brevard Childs and his 'canonical contextual' hermeneutic. His point is that the first context of any text is NOT the original historical setting (which so often we do not know) nor the original author (who often wrote long after the events and through a series of redactions). The first context is the Canon itself in its final form and as received by the people of God as authoritative for their community (and ours). In other words, the key to any interpretation has been left for us in the text itself. In fact, where historical details and context have been expunged from the text, this is by design, so that we will let that go and attend to the words as they speak to us. We are not meant to overhear an ancient prophet speaking to an ancient audience and then apply principles to our lives if the shoe fits. Rather, Nahum, for example, removes references to the defeat of Nineveh so that we will fill in those blanks with our enemies when we read the book: your day is coming cancer, your day is coming divorce, your day is coming war--God will have the last word and you will be no more. Instead of dissecting supposed historical circumstances, as far as is possible, we let the text speak for itself.

Having said all that, I get the sense that even the canonical-contextual approach can still be within the Antiochian stable of approaches, though perhaps also a waypoint on our way to Alexandria.

As for Alexandria, thank you Ron for pointing out the names, ancient and modern, associated with that tradition. Sticklers may discard Origen (prematurely) but Gregory of Nyssa is no one to be trifled with. By his role in the final form of the Nicene Creed, he defines whether we are in the orthodox faith rather than the reverse. But also, I hope we can come to grips with how carefully but generously the Alexandrians were about engaging with the Greek philosophers. It is fashionable today to speak in terms of Platonism infecting Christianity and the need to purge our theology of any vestiges of 'platonic dualism' (as if that were the same thing as Gnosticism). I would argue that the Alexandrian tradition thoroughly and wisely plundered the best of Plato's thought but more than that, recognized his influence all over the New Testament. To remove anything that smells of Platonism from our faith, one best be prepared to take their scissors to the Bible: say goodbye to everything written by John, most of Hebrews and half of Paul. Alexandria can teach us, not just to engage Plato, but how to enter inter-faith dialogue that waters down nothing but applies the Word of Christ in evangelism while listening well for the true light that others have found in their quest for God.

What I am hearing here is that to explore modern Alexandrian hermeneutics, we might start with Peterson, Merton, and Boersma, but also Balthasar and others in the Nouvelle Theologie movement. Thanks Ron, for raising this.

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