Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Andrew Perriman’s Rules for A Narrative-Historical Hermeneutic: An Assessment
In any commentary on the subject of hermeneutics I am always tempted to pontificate and hence beat the proverbial dead horse. I am trying to do better. Hermeneutics is the meticulous process by which we bring to bear rigorous principles of human communication in an effort to appropriately exegete the text of Scripture in order to arrive at the meaning of that text for the purpose of appropriation, sanctification, edification, and proclamation. A first principle of biblical hermeneutics has to be; do no harm. Because we love God and seek to obey His every command, we seek to understand His written revelation. Additionally, because we love the Church, we seek to proclaim with accuracy the teachings and commands of God situated in the sacred text. Hence, the initiative for a sound hermeneutic is love for God and others.
Before I begin to interact with Andrew Perriman’s narrative-historical hermeneutic, a few items are begging attention. In case you want to access Mr. Perriman’s post and read it for yourself, it can be found HERE.
First things first, I must confess I was wrong when I said that Andrew did not respond to me request for comment on Col. 1:16-18 in my previous post. Andrew responded HERE. Andrew asserts “How do I understand Colossians 1:13-20? It says that Jesus was the image of the invisible God, that he was firstborn of every creature, that all things were created by God through him and for him, etc. It is said similarly of Wisdom:” In other words Col. 1:13-20 does not teach that Jesus was God or that He created all things, only that all things were created through Him. Andrew then connects this text with Jewish wisdom and implies that Paul was expressing common Jewish beliefs about wisdom’s role in creation. He also seems to think that Paul may have hinted at Christ's deity but only in contradistinction to the deitized pagan ruler. While I understand Andrew's argument, I must confess that I cannot begin to arrive at such a conclusion within the literary context of Paul's letter.
Andrew attempts to make much out of non-canonical Jewish writings about the role of wisdom in creation and he seems to think this idea shapes much of the early Church’s thought on the ontological nature of Jesus Christ, or at least that is what comes through in his comments. In fact, Andrew is convinced that non-Canonical Jewish writings had a significant influence on the NT authors. I must confess that I have not seen Andrew’s argument for this conclusion and this places me at a disadvantage when it comes to evaluating his specific approach. So far, what I have seen are not as much arguments for Andrew's claims, but rather statements. I admit that I am highly skeptical of Andrew’s hypothesis for a number of reasons that I hope to show throughout my critique of his narrative-historical hermeneutic. Andrew argues that wisdom had a hand in creation. We now turn to the text that Andrew's points regarding this claim to determine if his understanding of wisdom's role in creation is correct.
Proverbs 8 presents wisdom personified, which is a common literary device in Jewish writings. Andrew asserts that wisdom had a hand in creating all things. However, nowhere does the author tell us that wisdom actually created anything or even assisted in creating anything. Great care and restraint must be exercised when reading Jewish wisdom literature. First, we must pay particular attention to the literary form. Second, we should read the text as if it were an impassioned plea to action. Third, we must capture its form and content. [Intro. To Biblical Interpretation, Klein, Bloomberg, Hubbard, Jr.] What is Proverbs 8 really doing? While it utilizes the literary device of personification, that is not the main thrust of the chapter. Andrew surely misses this when he emphasizes wisdom in the way he does. The chapter is bookended by the initial plea, “Listen to wisdom…to you O men, I call out,” and the closing entreaty, “Now therefore, O sons, listen to me.” Just as most of proverbs points us up to true wisdom and pleads with us to attain true wisdom and understanding, so Proverbs 8 is making the same impassioned petition. And what is true wisdom and understanding, but the fear of the Lord!
Contrary to Andrew’s claim that Col. 1:16-18 does not teach that Jesus created all things, the text clearly tells us ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα, for by Him were created all things. In this statement we easily see similar statements made elsewhere in the NT documents. Dan Wallace, in his highly esteemed project, “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics,” says,
“It would be better to say that when ἐν + the dative expresses the idea of means (a different category), the instrument is used by an agent. When agency is indicated, the agent so named is not used by another, but is the one who uses an instrument.”
In other words, when an agent is indicated in the text, like we see in Col. 1:16-18, the agent, in this case the Son of God, is not actually used by another like an impersonal, passive shovel if you will, but is the one who uses the instrument. This points us to the view that Paul was asserting, quite clearly we might add, that Jesus Christ is the source of all that is. Another example is located in John: πάντα διʼ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, by Him everything came into being. (Jn. 1:3) And again, σὺ κατʼ ἀρχάς, κύριε, τὴν γῆν ἐθεμελίωσας, καὶ ἔργα τῶν χειρῶν σού εἰσιν οἱ οὐρανοί· You, Lord, laid the foundations of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands. (He. 1:10) The G-H hermeneutic seeks to remain faithful to human communication and get to the meaning of the author. One of the most basic questions involved in biblical interpretation concerns the purpose of the text from the outset. What is the purpose of the divine author and what is the purpose of the human author. How should we read the biblical documents? To whom were they written? The answers to these questions will, to a large degree, shape our understanding of and inform our hermeneutical method in biblical studies. Should we see the Bible as a fine piece of literature, employing all the literary devices that a modern author might employ or is it something different, something much more than that? If it is more than just another piece of literature, how could that impact our methods for understanding it?
Andrew posits a hermeneutical method that he calls narrative-historical (N-H) interpretation. I, on the other, am a student of the grammatico-historical (G-H) hermeneutic. One of the first and most important questions we should ask about any hermeneutic (method for interpreting) concerns its theological and philosophical presuppositions. There is no such thing as a presupposition(less) hermeneutic. The idea that hermeneutics takes place outside the purview of theology is quickly fading into the sunset of really, really bad ideas. What we see now is the demand for a theological justification of the hermeneutic in use. I must be able to offer sound theological justification for why I am a student of the G-H hermeneutic and Andrew must be able to offer a sound theological justification for the N-H hermeneutic he proffers. The purpose of this post and likely the next is to examine Andrew’s method, compare it with the G-H method and measure both by sound rules of human communication, all the while considering that what we are dealing with is not only a human product, but a divine one as well.
Rule #1: The meaning of scripture is controlled by large literary structures
The narrative-historical approach brings into focus the larger narrative structures that hold scripture together and frame the parts. Since the patristic period the church has mainly used theological structures (creeds, doctrines, statements of faith, systematic theologies, the gospel of personal salvation, etc.) to hold together, frame and interpret the parts of scripture.
Before I say much about the clear non-sequitur that exists between Andrew’s Rule and the paragraph that follows, I admit that I completely agree with the rule, sort of. The meaning of Scripture is undeniably, controlled by literary units. This is a fundamental principle of sound hermeneutics. We understand a verse by reading the verses around it. Moreover, we understand sections of Scripture by reading the sections around them. This principle also applies to the Bible as a whole from a macro level. However, as we will see, this principle does little to address certain presuppositions that are brought to those large literary units or structures. And in many cases, these presuppositions serve to undercut the meaning of these structures by imposing the reader’s ideas and philosophies on a text that the writer never had in mind when he wrote to begin with.
As we read the first rule, notice how Andrew places this rule within the narrative-historical paradigm as if to imply other methods violate rule number one. Also, notice how Andrew establishes a dichotomy between narrative structures and theological structures that hold Scripture together. This way of framing the argument creates a logical disjunction where I am convinced one does not exist. Narrative contributes to our theology, and theology helps set the context for narrative. For example, Scripture is not just a book of historical facts or abstract theology. Such an approach leads to the aesthetic theology. However, while Scripture piques interest, and generates curiosity, that is not its primary purpose. Scripture has a purpose that transcends the historical facts it records and the theology it teaches. These help to frame out our theological structures. Failure to take this into account is poor exegesis and not in keeping with sound hermeneutics.
The basic problem with Andrew’s first rule is not the rule itself, but the presuppositions that guide how Andrew applies it. This is not at all surprising. It is how most of us get into trouble when interpreting the text. The problem for Andrew is that it gets in the way of the most basic teachings of the NT authors about the ontological nature of Jesus Christ. Regardless of who you are that kind of problem is a really big problem to have. The literary context of a text is critically important to understanding. But so too is the larger context of that literary unit. And finally, so too is the entire unit of Scripture itself. If we begin our journey on the study of Scripture with a wrong impression of the nature of the text in front of us, we are sure to end far off the course that God has laid out for us.
Perhaps there is a glimpse in Andrew’s presupposition, but perhaps not. I wonder if the logical disjunction between narrative and theology is set in place at the beginning because there is in fact an agenda in place. Time will tell as I move through the remaining rules of Andrew’s narrative-historical hermeneutic.