The Problem with All Critical Theories of the Bible

hans-peter-gauster-3y1zF4hIPCg-unsplash.jpg5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
— 1 Timothy 1:5–7 —

In his excellent commentary on the book of Joshua, pastor and Old Testament scholar, Dale Ralph Davis, addresses the problem of critical theories used to interpret the Bible. Taking aim at the documentary hypothesis, a view which conjures up multiple sources behind the Old Testament, Davis singles out the real problem of this approach—it eviscerates the reliability of God’s Word and mutes God’s message. By adding undo complexity, it obscures the clarity of Scripture.

In response to this cumbersome and faith-eroding approach, he gives wise counsel: Continue reading

Inerrancy and Interpretation: Kevin Vanhoozer on Map-Making and the Meaning of God’s Word

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What is inerrancy? And what does it mean for a picture to be true? And what does it mean for the Bible, which is filled with pictures (similes, metaphors, parables, etc.) to be inerrant?

For those who affirm biblical inerrancy, as I do, questions like these enter into a wide-ranging debate about Scripture and hermeneutics. This is especially true when we appreciate how the truth of the Bible is not grounded in logical abstractions or mathematical proofs; it is grounded in the triune God who has spoken of himself in a book that comes together as a progressively revealed story. In other words, truth in the Bible is unlike any other book. It is not only God’s truth, but in a book composed of various genres, its truth is also conveyed through forms of speech whose truth is not easily ascertained or readily appreciated.

Again, what does it mean for a picture to be true? (For an interesting look at this problem from a wholly different angle, see Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Picture Problem“).

In Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and WisdomKevin Vanhoozer has an illuminating chapter on the nature and function of Scripture with special attention to the doctrine of inerrancy. Moving the conversation about inerrancy beyond claims of veracity, he rightly documents what Scripture is (its ontology) and what Scripture does (its function).

In what follows, I want to share his nine qualifications about inerrancy and give a short summary of each point. For clarity sake, all the enumerated points below are his; the expansions are mine with multiple quotations from his chapter. Continue reading

A Text Filled with Types: 10 Things About Joshua 5–6

michel-porro-vfaFxFltAvA-unsplashAs we continue to work our way through the book of Joshua, here are ten things about Joshua 5–6.

1. The structure sets the action.

In every passage, the structure of the narrative sets the direction for the action. So far in Joshua, we have observed multiple chiastic structures (“narrative arcs”) that have organized the events of the Joshua 1–5. In Joshua 5:13–6:27, however, there doesn’t seem to be a chiasm, but we can make a handful of observations to help us see the story.

First, Joshua 5:13–15 should be read with Joshua 6, especially verses 1–5. Verses 2–5 present the words of Yahweh that come from the Angel of the Lord in Joshua 5:13–15. In this reading, Joshua 6:1 serves as a parenthesis  highlighting the condition of Jericho.

Second, there are three literary patterns that add to the drama. Ken Mathews lists these in his commentary:

(1) First is the prediction/fulfillment pattern. The Lord predicts “the wall. . . will collapse” (6:5), and the prediction is fulfilled when “the wall collapsed” (6:20). (2) Second is the familiar command/obedience pattern. The Lord instructs Joshua (6:2-5), and Joshua relates the instructions to the people, who obey (6:6—14), resulting in the destruction of the city (6:15—27). (3) Last is the six-plus-one pattern. The number “seven” occurs eleven times. The pattern recalls creation’s seventh day—the day of consecration. (Mathews, Joshua, 48–49)

Third, the LORD’s words in verses 2–5 can be divided into directions for days 1–6 (vv. 2–4a) and day 7 (vv. 4b–5). This division is followed by a division in chapter, where verses 6–11 tell us the events of the first day and verses 12–14 tell us the events of days 2–6. All told, these verses should be read together. Next, verses 15–24 recount the climactic events of day 7, with verse 15 highlighting the seven circles, verses 16–19 giving explicit instructions about the city, and verses 20–24 following those directions, step by step. Continue reading

Let Scripture Interpret Scripture

bibleIn our recent podcast on Genesis and Matthew, we considered how various aspects of the ancient Near East inform our understanding of Genesis. Indeed, there are many reasons to compare the Old Testament to the ancient Near East (and the New Testament to Second Temple Judaism). In both testaments, the historical background give us insight into the Scriptures.

That said, there is more insight that comes from comparing Scripture to Scripture, by reading the Old Testament with the light of the new, by reading the New Testament with the background of the Old Testament, and reading both testaments as mutually-interpreting books of God’s inspired word.

In fact, on that very point New Testament scholar Grant Macaskill makes this wise observation:

New Testament scholars are usually very good at examining the context and backgrounds provided by Graeco-Roman and Jewish literature, but we are generally less successful at examining that provided by other New Testament writings and bringing these to bear on our exegesis. There is a vast amount of literature that reads Paul in the light of Qumran; there is rather less that reads Paul in the light of Peter.

The objection, of course, is that we run the risk of conflating the distinctive theology of each and doing so without sensitivity to the timelines on which they are located. But these texts are the products of a movement with a certain cohesion, generated within a compact period of time. It is, then, necessary to the historical task for us to consider how they may relate to one another and to reflect upon the ways in which even their diversity may emerge from a basic unity of thought. (Grant Macaskill, Union with Christ in the New Testament2)

I am not a New Testament scholar, but I believe his point applies to us all. The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture, and so we should give equal—even greater!—attention to the rest of the Bible when interpreting Scripture. Sure, let’s read extra-biblical texts that inform Scripture, but even more lets immerse ourselves in the Bible, so that our interpretations are saturated with the Bible and not just the latest academic fad or archaeological discovery.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

‘Sin Crouching at the Door’ or ‘A Sin Offering at the Gate’: Michael Morales on Genesis 4:7

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If you do well, will you not be accepted?
And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.
Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
— Genesis 4:7 —

In one of the best books I read last year—a biblical theology of Leviticus—Michael Morales (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?offers an alternative reading to Genesis 4:7. Actually, he recalls a traditional reading found in commentators like Adam Clarke (1762–1832), Adoniram Judson (1788–1850), Young’s Literal Translation (1862), Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown (1877), and Matthew Henry (1662–1714) (p. 57n51).

Commenting on the way sin crouches at the door, he argues that the language could also be render “sin offering,” and that there is good reason for seeing the door, or gate, is the place where the sons of Adam brought their sin offerings—or, should have brought their sin offerings.

I appreciate this interpretation as it pays careful attention to the cultic themes of Genesis (i.e., temple, sacrifice, priesthood) and the way it explains in more objective terms why Cain’s offering is rejected and Abel’s is accepted. The reason? The former rejected God’s Word and Gods’ way; he brought a sacrifice of his own choosing, rather than the sin offering which God prescribed. Meanwhile, Abel brought a offering which responded to God’s Word in faith and sought atonement for his sin.

Read in the context of Moses’s five books, this seems like a superior interpretation, as Morales explains further. Continue reading

Of Spaceships and City Streets: G.K. Beale on Two Kinds of “Literal” Reading

In his massive and massively helpful A New Testament Biblical TheologyG. K. Beale spends the opening chapters outlining the storyline of the Bible and the eschatological nature of the Old Testament. Rather than defining eschatology as merely that category of doctrine that describes future events, he rightly explains how the original creation came with “eschatological potential” (89). Still, what is most helpful in his approach to reading the Bible eschatologically is his approach to reading the Bible “literally.”

Much debate continues on this point today, and to quote the “theologian” Mandy Patinkin (of Princess Bride fame), I do not believe most people who demand a literal reading know what that word means. Or at least, their definition and use only consider one aspect of a literal reading—namely, a narrow reading of individual texts, without considering how a literal reading can also be applied to whole books, including the whole canon itself. Continue reading

Read the Whole Bible as a Whole Bible: Rejecting Critical Source Theory and Reconciling Genesis 1 and 2

alexander-michl-724529-unsplashOne of the great questions about the opening chapters of Genesis is the relationship of the two creation accounts. Are Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 two different accounts? From two different sources? Or is there a rhyme and reason for the repetition and ostensible differences between the six days of creation in Genesis 1 and the formation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2?

Since Julius Wellhausen—a pioneering German scholar in the 19th C who advocated a source theory to the Pentateuch and who fabricated a competition between priests and Levites behind the Bible—there has grown a small cottage industry arguing that the books of Moses and the opening chapters of Genesis have multiple authors. While various “documentary hypotheses” have been put forward, four sources have often been posited. Labeled by the letters E, J, P, D, these four sources are various traditions in Israel—respectively, Elohim, Jehovah, Priestly, and Deuteronomist.

I first encountered this higher-critical approach to the Bible in my liberal arts college—stress on the word liberal. Though I had no way of knowing how to counteract this teaching at the time, I have since seen how reductionistic and unfaithful this approach is to the Bible. In particular, it short-circuits any theological intentions of the original author. In other words, whenever a tension or apparent contradiction is observed, the solution is to attribute contrasts to various sources behind the Bible. Consequently, it denies the need to wrestle with the text and understand the author’s original text.

In this way, it actually diminishes scholarship and the theological glory of the biblical text. That is, it reduces the weight of the full revelation of God. And thus, I happily and unswervingly repudiate the source theory of the Bible. Likewise, I give praise to God for Old Testament scholars who stand against the critical consensus and write for the upbuilding of the church. Continue reading

The Good and the Bad of Brevard Childs’s Canonical Criticism

chilsdIn his book Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, Brevard Child’s explains his approach to canonical criticism, a term he does not like (82), but one that generally describes his approach to interpreting Scripture in its final form. Among critical scholars, i.e., those who employed historical-critical methods of interpretation, Childs championed a new (and better) approach to the Bible.

Instead of looking for the sources behind the text (e.g., Julius Wellhausen) or certain forms in the text (e.g., Herman Gunkel), or traditions running through the text (e.g., Gerhard Von Rad), Childs advocated an approach to the Bible which studied the final form of the text. In the academy, this approach turned the corner towards studying the unity of the Bible and not just its diversity. His work spurred on others to read the Bible canonically, and his labors helped turn the corner towards what is known today as TIS, the theological interpretation of Scripture.

Therefore, its worth considering what he said on the subject of reading the Bible in its canonical form. From his chapter on “Canonical Criticism,” here are a few insightful quotations, listed under five summary statements.

(Spoiler Alert: At the end, I’ll outline a few reasons why Childs approach may not be helpful as some think.) Continue reading

12 Quotes from Peter Gentry’s Book on the Biblical Prophets

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Peter Gentry, Donald L. Williams Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written an incredibly helpful and accessible book in How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. In this 140-page book, there is much general wisdom about reading Scripture and many specific applications for reading the Prophets, especially Isaiah.

In his plain-spoken and even humorous way, Gentry helps deepen our understanding how different the prophetic literature is. But even more, he gives tools to read these ancient words better.

In preaching Isaiah this month, I’ve found much help in How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets. I share a dozen of the best quotes from his book below. These give a taste of what you’ll find in this book. But let me encouragement you, if you take seriously the study of Scripture, pick up this book and spend time thinking about how to read the Prophets.  Continue reading

Reading the Bible in Context(s): Why Faithful Interpretation Means Considering ‘Various Strata of Biblical Discourse’

aman-bhargava-272763When reading the Bible (especially the Old Testament) we must always endeavor to read it “in context.” However, because Scripture is book composed of many books, written by many authors, and recorded over many centuries, reading the Bible in context means paying attention to “various strata of biblical discourse.”

On this point, Andrew Abernathy, in his book The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdomoffers a balanced approach to reading in context that both holds fast to the grammatical- historical of the Old Testament context and the biblical-theological context of the whole canon. His words are worth considering, as we seek to understand any passage of Scripture and apply it through Christ to ourselves.

In the opening pages of his book, Abernathy writes, Continue reading