The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative

Frei investigates the breakdown between story and reality, realistic and figural interpretation.  His Yale post-liberal presuppositions aid his analysing German liberalism.  They do not help him construct a coherent alternative.

A realistic interpretation is a strict correspondence between word and reality.  There can only be one meaning:  that of the author.  This is problematic when one approaches biblical prophecy: were the prophets’ intended meanings the same as that of the New Testament readers?  At this point the realistic paradigm breaks down.

A figural reading is close to Reformed typology:  the narrated sequence contains its own meaning (Frei 28).  While Frei doesn’t draw the explicit conclusion, if typology is true, then one must have a narratival epistemology.  One will note this is standard Protestant–especially Reformed covenantal–hermeneutics.  So what happened in history, especially in Germany?  The blossoming liberal schools quite correctly saw that if typology is true, then the bible has a coherent unity.  If the bible has a coherent unity, then it forces a narratival epistemology.  If that is true, then dualisms of a Platonic or Kantian sort are ruled out.

“What if Plato were a German Liberal?”

The development of hermeneutics didn’t take place in a vacuum.  Scholars were interacting with contemporary philosophical shfits.  The liberal schools would not accept a realistic hermeneutics because it was obvious (for them) that miracles and resurrection were not part of “reality.”  They could not accept a typological reading because typology is at war with internalized, spiritual pious gush.

Schleiermacher’s comments are appropriate at this point.  His denial of the Resurrection and the miraculous is well-known, but perhaps not his reasons why.  They are several:  if the truth of the story is in the event, then it stands or falls apart from my internalized spiritualization of the text.  Further, if the goal of Jesus (on the liberal gloss) is his coming-to-realization of God-conciousness, then the Resurrection makes such reading pointless.  Indeed, the cross is an anti-climax.

Lessons to be learned:  A Conclusion of sorts

It’s not clear if Frei himself avoids all of the criticisms of liberal theology.   His distinction between factuality and factuality-like probably won’t hold up under scrutiny (which is why few liberals adopted it).  His understanding of narrative theology is brilliant, but narrative theology only works if the narrative is…well..real. Did it actually happen?

If we do not have eschatology as the corresponding pole to history, as none of the liberals did, then it is hard to avoid Strauss’s criticisms.   If the goal of hermeneutics is eternal, timeless truths (ironically shared by both modern Evangelicals and Schleiermacher), then Lessing’s ditch is insurmountable.  If truth is Platonic and necessary and eternal, necessary because it is eternal, then why bother with historical contingencies like narratives?  If this is the case, Lessing is absolutely correct.


Good thing St Paul wasn’t in my seminary class

Someone pointed out a Peter Enns’ essay recently to me.  Enns is dealing with “apostolic hermeneutics,” and granted that phrase is somewhat question-begging (who doesn’t believe he is not reading the Bible the same way as the apostles?), he touches on an of which many Evangelicals are aware, but few really develop:  The New Testament uses the Old Testament in a bizarre way.

Many are aware of that problem, but few draw the next conclusion (as Enns correctly does):   the main tenet of Historical Grammatical hermeneutics is the text has one primary meaning, and it means for you what it meant to the original audience.

So far, so good.   What do we do when we come to a passage like Hosea 11:1?

  • Despite all the nuances and “forward-looking of the prophets,” Hosea says nothing about the Messiah.
  • Without knowing the story of Jesus, you would not see Jesus in this text (see Philip and the Ethiopian).
  • If one claims that there is a fully worked-out eschatology in the Old Testament, then why was (is) it so hard for many Christian and Jewish readers to see?  Further, does this not simply flatten redemptive history?
  • As Enns notes, “Strict grammatical historical exegesis forces one to conclude that Matthew is not using strict grammatical exegesis.”
Enns’ proposal:
  1. Paying attention to the language of 2nd Temple Judaism can avoid many of the above problems.
  2. We must avoid the Enlightenment reduction that “words” must always and only conform to this particular reality.

Irreconcilable Differences

Continuing the review of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent.   In this chapter the Gerrards give a detailed, yet succinct enough summary of Russian Church history, particularly in its opposition to “The West.”  Other scholarly reviewers criticized the Gerrards for adopting a “Huntingdonian” view of East-West differences.  Perhaps Huntingdon’s thesis is overdrawn, but I don’t see how anyone who reads any random issue of The Wall Street Journal or watches Fox News can avoid the conclusion that the West is opposed to Russia.  The Gerrards are simply stating the obvious.

That’s not to say the Gerrards do a good job on summarizing Russian ecclesial and political history in this chapter.  They do not.   In fact, many of their summaries and conclusions are painful.  Like the rest of the book when it errs, they get the general idea correct, but botch the details.  A few examples:

  • They say that Orthodoxy opposes papal infallibility because Orthodoxy traces their lineage through St Andrew “the first called apostle,” and not through Peter.   Now, any decent church history textbook can explain the difference between papal primacy and papal infallibility.  Orthodox affirm the former (at least until 1054) as a way of honoring the Roman bishop because of his good leadership and the number of martyrs at Rome.   Affirming the former, however, is not the same thing as justifying the latter (a basic logical distinction that Roman Catholics fail to see).   As to the argument of “Andrew the First-Called,” I suppose some out of the way Russian clerics hold that view, but I’ve never seen a serious Orthodox scholar advance such a view.
  • The Gerrards downplay the role of the Filioque in order to bolster their own (unique) thesis that it was the issue of Apostolic Succession, and not the Filioque, that determines the difference between Orthodoxy and Rome.  The Gerrards are to be commended, however, for noting the connections between papal supremacy and the desire to convert Russia by the sword.

Interestingly, Alexey II, the star of the book so far, is not prominent in this chapter.  They do mention the fact Aleksy used his political skill to thwart many of John Paul II’s aims against Russia.   Surprisingly for academics, the Gerrards do not criticize the Russian Church for thwarting the goals of Protestants to proselytize Russia.  This is a hard point for Westerners to understand.  Even the most backwoods conservative right-wing American, who loves Jesus and hates secularism, is a pure secularist when it comes to proselytizing Russia.  And by pure secularist, I mean someone who has thoroughly absorbed the values of the Enlightenment.     Americans simply cannot understand why Russia opposes “Christian” missionaries to her country.

Russians, and Orthodox, affirm that their view is “the truth.”  While maybe a mean statement, most conservative religious communities do the same thing as well.   If you say you are the truth, you are likewise making a value-judgment against those who are not the truth.   This is not bigotry.  This is logic.  Everyone does it. This is a rejection of the Enlightenment view that says to some religious communities, “No, you are not welcome here.”

From the perspective of Russia’s 1,000 year history and memory, precisely what do they owe the Protestants, especially the more chaotic baptist elements who themselves are splinters from splinter groups?  Also, and this usually isn’t mentioned in low-church circles, many of these proselytizers are “NGOs” whose tracts may contain bible verses on one side, but democratic propaganda on the other side.