Sunday, May 26, 2013

Andrew Perriman's Second Rule: The main controlling structure is the story of Israel and the nations

The main narrative structure, from Genesis 12 to Revelation 20 is the story of Israel as a people struggling to make sense of and maintain its relationship with God under circumstances of conflict with other more powerful nations and empires. I have suggested that we might condense the “message” of the Bible into a single sentence as follows:
The long conflict between the one true creator God and the pagan nations, culminating in the victory of Christlike communities over Rome, has fundamentally transformed the nature and status of his “new creation” people in the world.
This narrative contains countless individual stories but cannot be reduced to them or rewritten as merely incidental background to the personal narrative of sin and redemption. People find salvation or condemnation, life or death, insofar as they engage with this story.
I agree with Andrew on the point that all of Scripture is one continuous story with a central theme, a central subject, and a central truth that it expresses. However, by dislodging theology from his hermeneutical method, he risks arbitrariness in identifying that theme. Andrew’s contention in his second rule is the result of a prior methodological decision that does in fact require theological influence. In other words, it was not narrative-historical criticism that led Andrew to rule # 2; it was his theological prejudice. In fact, when pressed on the subject for rules of interpretation that form our theology, history itself cannot provide conditions necessary to form normative structures for theological understanding. Historical narrative gives us an account or record of a past event. It is unable, on its own, to provide the components necessary for theological framework. On the other hand, it is invaluable to our understanding those components that are necessary for a theological framework.

To be sure, Israel plays a large part in how God’s unfolding plan of redemption. God called Abraham from among all the other men He could have called. He made of one man a great nation. He interacted with the one nation while passing over all others. It was indeed an act of profound grace. However, it would be a mistake of cataclysmic proportion to think that God’s redemptive plan for humanity was focused on or centered around Israel. In every drama, there is always more to the story than the main characters. The main character is used to illustrate a deeper more profound meaning. The danger of focusing too much attention on the main character of the drama is that in so doing, we may miss the plot. For example, in the contemporary movie, “Warrior,” the main characters were two brothers who were MMA fighters and their father, a reformed alcoholic. If one pays too much attention to any one of those characters, they could miss the point of the movie. The movie is not about MMA per se. It is about forgiveness. Without a theological grid of some sort, all one would could do is piece together one historical fact after another without being able to assign significance to any of them.

I am not at all suggesting that Israel is the main character of the story of redemption. I am stating the obvious: Israel was one of the main characters in God's story of redemption. You see, it is impossible to understand Israel and her movements in history apart from the involvement of the actual main character of that story: YHWH. The LORD Himself is actually the main character of Scripture. He makes promises, He calls, He elects, He provides, and He protects. He created man, He called Abraham, He promises to redeem, He came to us through the virgin, He walked among us, He died for us, He resides in us, and He is coming for us. Perriman, by focusing on the wrong character, misses the wonder of the glory of the grace found in the story of a God who redeems and delivers, not just one nation from among men, men from among all the nations. What a wondrous story that is!

Notice also that Andrew leaves out the entire first eleven chapters of Genesis. Why would he not mention them? Based on what rule can he cut those chapters out, along with Revelation 21-22? I am going to suggest that the reason Andrew leaves these chapter out is because they do not fit within his program. They are irrelevant to his interpretive paradigm and may introduce problems rather than support his cause. Additionally, one has to recognize that Andrew’s second rule is in fact an exaggeration of the facts. Israel plays a significant role in God’s story of redemption up to the passion of the Christ. In fact, the significance of the nation is diminished beginning at Matt. 23:37-39. The nation fades into the background with the temporary rejection of their Messiah. By the time we move into Acts, we see God’s plot working out perfectly as His redemption explodes and salvation expands to all nations of the earth. While Israel remains an extremely important character in God’s program, she no longer occupies the position she once did. Moreover, we now discover that God’s main purpose in selecting Israel was to display His own glory in the plan of redemption in that one, small, tiny, unimpressive nation. This being the case, we can say that Andrew’s rule should be trimmed to perhaps Genesis 12 to the gospels or the first few chapters of Acts. Secondly, we recognize that focusing too much on the characters of the drama can encumber our goal of understanding its larger purpose. Finally, we must confess that we must do some theology if we are to make since of historical events. We recognize that athological historical investigation is just as impossible as aphilosophical historical investigation.

“What is the correct criterion, method, or standard for picking out good beliefs or bad ones? It seems as if we need such a criterion or method for sorting out our beliefs. But how will we know whether or not we have the correct criterion, unless we already know some actual instances of good beliefs or bad ones so that we can check our proposed criterion against these known cases?” [Robert P. Amico, The Problem of the Criterion]

Everything in Scripture centers on the incarnation of God Himself. The story of Scripture begins with the promise of redemption, pointing us to Immanuel, and ends with the culmination of that redemption, with all things owing their existence and being subjected to Immanuel. This redemption points to a higher, doxological purpose in Scripture. Man is redeemed for the glory of God! Hence, the main thrust of Scripture is not historical but rather, doxological. Andrew’s inordinate emphasis on narrative-historical interpretation leads him to emphasize the character of the drama rather than the Play Writer, and as a result, he fails to notice the real meaning of the drama behind its characters.

I want to make one final comment about the phrase “merely incidental background.” It is as if all historical details carry the same degree of significance. However, we know intuitively that they do not. This fact is not a small challenge for Andrew’s hermeneutic. What makes historical phenomena significant in the first place? Andrew is left with the dilemma of eliminating any distinction in degree between historical phenomena, or, of arbitrarily determining the significance between one historical event and another. Andrew, on the one had destroys any distinction between historical phenomena, or he arbitrarily assigns more significance to one event over another. If theology has no bearing on our understanding of history, it is impossible for us to distinguish more meaningful events from those that may be more or less incidental to the story. 

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