Saturday, September 27, 2008

Messy Revelation

In the May/June 2006 issue of Christianity Today, Susan Wise Bauer wrote a review of Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. It is revealingly titled: "Messy Revelation: Why Paul would have flunked hermeneutics." Bauer begins her review by recounting that, while reading Sumerian poetry, she came across this passage from "a 4,000-year-old epic describing the Sumerian paradise, a garden city free of evil and sickness where
the raven utters no cry …
the lion kills not,
the wolf snatches not the lamb,
unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog."
The connection to Isaiah 11 was as obvious to Bauer as it is to most readers familiar with the Old Testament. This, says, Bauer, is emblematic of the "opening dilemma" that Enns presents in his book. As Bauer states the dilemma:
The uniqueness of the Old Testament as a piece of literature has been seriously dented by the discovery of more and more ancient texts that predate (and anticipate) biblical forms. Creation story, flood story, prophecy, proverb: all of these were in use in Mesopotamia long before the first biblical book was penned.

So how can we claim that the Old Testament—and it alone from all the texts of that pre-Christian age—is divine communication from God to man?
How indeed? And moreover, the question is not only can we, but should we claim that the Old Testament writings are "divine communication[s] from God to man?" Is that, after all, the meaning of "revelation"? That the writings so labeled are "divine communication[s] from God to man?" And if so, what exactly does this mean--is it a useful characterization or, perhaps, a misleading characterization of the nature of these writings?

For the Christian there is, in fact, no particular reason to regard the Old Testament writings as "divine communication[s] from God to man"--that is, there would be no reason, but for the obvious relationship of Jesus to the world of the Old Testament. Even so, it is the fact of Jesus' resurrection that causes the Christian to ponder that relationship and to consider it to be part of a scheme that in some way fulfills God's will.

But in what sense is the Old Testament a communication from God to man, and is such a belief--at least one that is framed in such terms--necessary for Christian faith?

If other nations pondered questions similar to those the Israelites pondered (and they did)--such questions as the meaning and purpose of the world as we know it, of national life and of the societal structures that define human life for each nation--and if those reflections led to expressions that were strikingly similar in literary form and imagery, the Christian is left to consider whether those other writings are also divine communications, or whether, perhaps, none of them are.

There is, however, another possibility regarding the relationship between the Church and the history and culture of ancient Israel, the nation from which the Church, humanly speaking, is descended. Let's start with the obvious: Jesus was not born from a book; he was born of a woman into a nation. If, then, we are to consider that the history of Israel is in some sense revelatory and relevant with regard to the Church, we should consider the whole history of Israel to be involved, not merely the writings of the Israelites. That is to say, the findings of archaeology and history, of linguistics and anthropology, of art and sociology as it bears upon the religious life of Israel are all very relevant. What is revelatory is, so to speak, the whole package of Israelite history in so far as, in the hindsight that the resurrection of Jesus provides, we regard this history as a preparation for God's self revelation in Jesus.

How are we to understand this preparation? Of course, the major part of what we know about Israel is known through its writings, but did the preparation that we call "revelation" consist in the embedding of coded messages within the Israelite writings? Passages that, centuries later, could be said to "predict" or "prophesy" Jesus? (We prescind, here, from the issue of the actual nature of Israelite prophecy.) Or, rather, is "revelation" the lived history--including the literature--of a people in search of God, whose religious life was gradually and incompletely--yet nevertheless decisively--shaped in such a way that "in the fullness of time" God deemed that the time was right for his own self revelation to man? In other words, messy as incarnation was bound to be, inevitable as rejection and failing was to be even within the small circle of Jesus' disciples, God shaped Israel over centuries so that the human environment was prepared in such a way as to provide fertile soil for the seed that was sown--Jesus himself, from whom the Church draws life. This view of revelation and of the relationship of Israel to the Church, which is the continuation of Israel under the covenant in the blood of Jesus, should transform our approach to the Old Testament writings, and free us from the straight jacket of past exegesis based on frankly non-Christian understandings of how God deals with man. In this way we can take fully seriously the new way in which God has dealt with man, in Jesus and in his Church.

But there is a second dilemma that Enns presents, and it is one which gets to the heart of the meaning of revelation, as we have been considering it. Again, as stated by Bauer:
It seems as though the Old Testament was also puzzling for Matthew and Luke and Paul. In fact, from where we sit, it looks as though the apostles were lousy at exegesis.
Bauer then presents examples of the New Testament writers, who appeared to think little of bending, folding and mutilating the Old Testament writings to suit their purposes. Now, Enns' response to this is to say, well, that's the way the Jews did exegesis back then--what the New Testament writers were doing was not out of bounds when judged by the then current standards of exegesis. But there's a problem with Enns' response. For the Christian, faith hinges on the facticity of Jesus: of his life, death and resurrection. Proof texting from the Old Testament is no substitute, nor is the bending, folding and mutilation of the Old Testament a substitute for the historical reality of Jesus. The fact is, there is no necessary logical connection between the Old Testament and the New--in the sense that God could have revealed himself without such preparation for his entry into the life and history of men--whereas if men are to come to the new life of faith in and life in Jesus, then the historic reality of Jesus is absolutely necessary. So if someone wishes to convince us that there really is such a connection, they should be required to, say, conform with elementary rules of logic, not gratuitously modify texts for their own apologetic purposes, etc.

At this point, Bauer offers some illuminating comments:
Nevertheless, Enns is willing to plant his feet on the slope and stand there long enough to ask two disturbing questions. The first is this: Are we really saying that the apostles used an interpretive method that was not particularly inspired, and which in the hands of many Second Temple scholars led to enormous distortions of the original texts? And that this "mishandling" of the Old Testament produced, somehow, an inspired and trustworthy New Testament? Enns' answer to this is an unequivocal yes. "This makes revelation somewhat messy," he writes, "but … it would seem that God would not have it any other way. For the apostles to interpret the Old Testament in ways consistent with the hermeneutical expectations of the Second Temple world is analogous to Christ himself becoming a first-century Jew."

In other words, the God who spoke to man through Christ also speaks to man through Scripture, and in much the same way: he enters into our world and uses our own cultural patterns to reveal himself. We cannot insist that there is a separate, ahistorical, all-divine message in any part of the Bible that somehow triumphs over all contemporary thought and custom. This, Enns writes, is a modern version of the ancient Docetic heresy, which held that Christ only seemed human. "What some ancient Christians were saying about Christ," he writes, "… is similar to the mistake that other Christians have made (and continue to make) about Scripture: it comes from God, and the marks of its humanity are only apparent, to be explained away."
This is precisely the case. The old models of exegesis--coded messages that are uncovered and interpreted by exegetes using grammar, allegory, typology, etc.--are attempts to house train God, to make his self revelation in Jesus conform to a pattern that is comfortable for men. We have seen this in Ratzinger's resistance to “treat[ing] the biblical text itself as an entirely worldly reality according to natural-scientific methods.”  But is it reasonable that we should expect this of God--that he should conduct his revelation two millennia ago in a way that conforms to our twenty first century expectations as shaped by nice clear "scientific" standards? Enns' answer, if I may extend his logic somewhat, is or should be, No. We should expect, rather, that revelation should be "somewhat messy." For the reason that reality, and above all human life, is "somewhat messy." Enns, of course, is following his Protestant (Judaizing--h/t Spengler) model of revelation, by which God "speaks to man through Scripture," but he realizes that that is not the whole story. Not by half. For, "in much the same way: he enters into our world and uses our own cultural patterns to reveal himself." Here, unfortunately, Enns is still trapped within the notion of God's self revelation in Jesus having been accomplished through a collection of books that we call the New Testament, rather than in the very personal reality of Jesus of Nazareth. For the Christian, Jesus IS revelation, and all else, including Scripture, can only be "revelation" in a secondary sense. This must be the beginning of exegesis. And as a start we must seek to determine Jesus' own understanding of how to deal with "scripture."

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