Any casual reader of the New Testament immediately notices a major phenomenon out of character with Christian (including conservative evangelical) thought. Simply stated, the writers of the New Testament do not exegete various Old Testament passages they quote with the accepted rules of western grammatical-historical method and construction.
A classical example commonly cited is found in Matthew’s Nativity Narrative in Matthew 2:14, where we see Matthew handling the text of Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my Son”) in a manner that by western rules of biblical interpretation is not simply out of context, but moreover, almost assegetical. In our modern hermeneutic model, the text of Hosea 11:1 plainly refers back to the Exodus event, but Matthew records its fulfilment as the infant Jesus returning from Egypt following the death of Herod The Great.
In Galatians 4:24-31, Paul goes into an interpretative exposition of the text of Genesis 21 with a methodology that is allegorical and midrashic. The entirety of Jude’s epistle similarly applies midrashic allegorical technique to illustrate the nature and behavioural patterns of false brethren in the Church.
In Matthew 24, in the First Gospel’s account of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus, speaking at Passover time, echoes the prophecies of Daniel 9 concerning the destruction of the Second Temple. Yet, in verse 15 he makes reference to an event that already had transpired during the much earlier Maccabean revolt. He warns of the Shikutz Ha Meshomem (Abomination of Desolations) which already had a literal fulfilment in the episode of Antiochus Epiphanus.
Much of liberal scholarship already postulates that this portion of Danel’s text is an ex-vaticinia interpolation, added post facto following the Maccabean victory over Antiochus Epiphanus, but written as a prediction. More problematic, however, is that the his-tory of the Maccabean revolt was well known and well documented in the Second Temple Period. It became paradigmatic in formulating messianic and eschatological thought: Israel anticipated a messiah who would deliver the kind of liberation from Imperial Rome that the Maccabees had won from the Seleucid Greeks. Jesus himself commemorated Chanukka in John chapter 10. But now Jesus himself, according to Matthew’s text, speaks of well known historical events as being prophetic for the future.
As a disciple of Gamaliel in the Pharasaic school of Hillel, Rabbi Saul of Tarsus displays a continual usage of at lest two of the seven midoth of Rabbi Hillel (Bin’yan M’Shna Ketubim and Qol Veh Homer) throughout the Pauline epistles. All of these instances, and many, many more, portray a basic handling of scripture by scripture, in a style altogether out of character with the accepted manner of modern scholarship. The basic dilemma the Church has always recognised, but still has never accommodated is this: The New Testament does not handle the Old Testament the way western, supposedly scientific, exegesis does; Jesus and the apostles clearly did not handle scripture in the manner that the Gentile Church holds sacrosanct.
Liberal and higher critical scholarly approaches often maintain the atomistic, allegorical and typological orientation in New Testament forms demonstrate prima face that the New Testament literature is a contrived composite of material engineered by the early church to propagate a ‘Jesus of faith’ with little reliance upon the actuality of Jesus as an historical figure. Popular rabbinic writings, such as Rabbi Samuel Levine’s ‘You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God’, similarly use the New Testament’s handling of the Old Testament as grounds for an automatic dismissal of Christian claims that Jesus fulfils the various messianic prophecies of Tenach (The Old Testament).
In his ‘Escaping Fundamentalism’, James Barr argues that the New Testament’s handling of the Old Testament itself shows that the writers of the New Testament never intended that Scripture should be understood or applied literally, hence conservative and evangelical expressions of the Christian faith predicating themselves upon a dogmatic view of scripture is contrary to the loose interpretations of Tenach which the New Testament itself demonstrates repeatedly.
Roman Catholic scholarship, most notably R E Brown; points to a sunsus plenior in the New Testament’s handling of the Old, which (in this view) is perpetuated in Catholic lumines gentes beliefs in the magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church under the papacy. This argument claims that just as the New Testament appears to handle the Old Testament out of its context, there is a higher rule of context determining not only canon, but interpretation. That higher rule is preserved today by the pope and bishops as the heirs to the apostles.
The conclusion to this, of course, being that although the New Testament appears to be contradicting the plain meaning of the Old Testament, it actually is not doing so, but rather the apostles possessed an illumination (in essence a derivative gnosos) to understand the true, but not easily visible meaning that was in the Old Testament all along. Hence, standard Protestant rejections of much of Roman Catholic doctrine as ‘unscriptural’, can be negotiated along the same lines; in order for one’s hermeneutics to be correct, one’s ecclesiology must be first of all correct (inclusive of ex cathedra papal infallibility).
Against these classical, liberal higher critical, popular rabbinic and Roman Catholic views, much of conservative and evangelical scholarship has either avoided the issue or, at best, as in the case of R N Longenecker’s Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Church, recognised that the New Testament does employ an exegetical disposition akin to the, midrashic hermeneutics of Second Temple Period and early Post-Second Temple rabbinics, justifying its interpretation of the Old Testament in a manner consistent with its own Hebraic roots, but that such a course is not a viable option as an exegetical approach for the Church today. While not circumventing the issue, Walter Kaiser relegates the problem to something of a diminutive status by perhaps correctly arguing that the theme of messianic promise is the common thread of all Old Testament Scripture, and all hermeneutic approaches must therefore be subordinated to the recognition of that fact.
Contrary to the popular rabbinic thinking, normally following Levine, academic Jewish theological and rabbinic scholarship which has considered the New Testament in the Sitz Im Leben of First Century C E Judaism (particularly Pinchas Lapide, David Flusser, Gezer Vermes and Jacob Neusner) conclude that a qualified congruity with the Jewish biblical thought of the period does exist in the New Testament. Their views (deriving from both contrasting New Testament hermeneutic approaches with pre-4th century Talmudic models and by observing a further degree of compatibility in motif and approach with much of the Qumran literature) not surprisingly, dove tail with Longenecker.
Building on this latest tide of Jewish New Testament study and the conservative evangelical views harmonising with it, I still attempt the question which asks: “If indeed the leaders of the early Jewish church who produced the New Testament handled Scripture according to midrashic formulae (and not the western, hellenistic formulae based on linear grammatical-historical exegesis, borrowed from 16th century humanism by the reformers and handed down to us by them) on what biblical basis can we justify not employing these methods also?” Furthermore – is the current time opportune for such a course?
Key Phases in Historical Development of Christian Hermeneutics
The All-Enduring Influences of Alexandrian Theology
The scholarly community divides into multiple categories in assessing this phenomenon and always has done. The primordial epicentre of post-apostolic theology was by the third century Alexandria. Here the heirs of Clement of Alexandria, most notably Origen, first combined hellenistic allegorical methodologies with Christian exegesis. Much of this was of course influenced by the assorted writings of Philo. It was also here at Alexandria that gnosticism made its first inroads into Christian thought, later amplified by Valentenus and Basilides, contra whose ideas Ireneus wrote. Gnostic claims of access to secret interpretative methods of apostolic origin were in some measure fostered by apostolic handling of the Hebrew Scripture; gnostics could and did attribute their license for handling Scripture as they did by pointing to the way the apostles applied the Old Testament.
It is here in Second and Third century Alexandria that Christian theology was first taken on a wide scale from its almost purely Hebraic parameters and began to be reinterpreted in Greco-Roman philosophical terms. It is true that even the internal evidence of the New Testament itself lends credibility to the claim that for missiological purposes Christian dogma had been trans-culturally contextualised as early as the First Century, but at Alexandria it experiences its first merges with Platonic and gnostic thought. Clement initially managed an intellectually credible orthodoxy against Christian Gnosticism, while some historians would argue that his disciple Origen helped to engender it. As gnosticism grew, it left at least two attributes which survive in diverse forms until the present day.
These two of course are low christologies, most notably Arianism and subjective revelatory hermeneutics.
True to the adage of Koheleth “There is nothing new under the sun”. In reflecting on what happened at Alexandria with Arianism in which the divinity of Christ was denied, a latter day replay is readily apparent with our contemporary Jehovah’s Witnesses whose christology is identically Arian and whose hermeneutic is identically gnostic.
Charles T Russell maintained: ”’the divine plan’ cannot be comprehended from Scripture by itself, but only through my six volumes of Scripture Studies”.
In all gnostic hermeneutics, a subjective mystical insight is claimed by a person or persons usually claiming some order of succession or dynastic inheritance through which an illumination not commonly available is operative and the person with this illumination becomes a channel for others to arrive at some spiritual truth. In the forms of Gnosticism which have entered christendom, this normally takes the form of some subjective revelation into type or allegory as a basis for doctrinal belief.
In Chassidic Judaism an equivalent is found through the rebbe or tsadik whose unique metaphysical knowledge of kaballa and zohar (which are transmitted to him through a pedigree traceable back to Bal Shem Tov in the 18th century) enable him to approach Ha Shem directly, while his adherents must go to Ha Shem through him. Similar gnostic hierarchical structures are found in Zoroastnanism, Brahmann Hinduism, Tibetan Bhuddism, Sufi Islam and Shamanism.
A related form of gnostic hermeneutic approach is in de facto terms central to Roman Catholicism by virtue of its papal doctrines of infallibility and its constitutional principle of lumines gentes. In this concept, only the Church, that is the magisterium headed by the pontiff, can establish doctrinal truth, and when a pope speaks to a doctrinal issue ex cathedra, he is considered infallible as the heir of Peter. While the formal proclamation of this belief took place in 1870, Roman Catholicism holds its origins to be have been incipient in Apostolic Christianity.
Alarmingly, much of the ‘Kingdom now’/’Manifest Sons of God’ eschatologies currently prevalent in Restorationist circles and Triumphalism derive from a hermeneutical model which is essentially neo-gnostic. A subjective revelation is claimed by a prophetic figure or an allegorical revelation is claimed into a biblical text and straightforward biblical writings are reinterpreted in light of the revelation. Some of these groups maintain that those not seeing or agreeing with conclusions arrived at by such methods are under some spiritual deception. This too was a classic feature of Alexandrian gnosticism.
Indeed, the restorationist and ‘kingdom now’ trends currently in vogue among so many evangelical circles have their obvious parallels in non-Christian manifestations of gnostic influence. One needs only examine recent ideas concerning Joel’s Army (of a super charismatic prophetic elite conquering first the church, then the world – in a replay of the gnostic beliefs of Joachim of Fore in the 12th century) and see that the exegetical model employed to arrive at such a position, which goes on to become an interpretative framework for all eschatology, is plainly rooted in subjective revelation. Through reading all other biblical eschatology through the prism of this secret revelation, texts plainly describing the apostasia, the advent of the Anti-Christ, and. certain prophetic events concerning physical Israel and the Jews, are redefined to make way for a triumphalist parousia. The same manner of eschatologies incongruous with plain textual meaning are found in chassidic and kabbalistic Judaism, through similar neo-gnostic means.
If all major expressions of hermeneutic gnosticism in Christian belief and practice, both ancient and modern, do not derive from Alexandria, they certainly have their prototypes there. Moreover, the fashion in which the New Testament interprets the Old Testament is represented as an apostolic endorsement of such models by the practitioners, however erroneous that may or may not be.
Hermeneutic Development in the Medieval West
Influenced ecclesiologically by Cyprian in the west, but hermeneutically by Alexandria in the east, the allegorical hermeneutics of Augustine were plainly not midrashic, but greco-Roman. It was with Augustine that allegory became not simply the illustration of doctrine in the west (as in the Jewish Christian model, exemplified for instance in the typology of the passover in I Corinthians 5 used to demonstrate kaporah – the doctrine of atonement) but the basis for determining doctrine in itself. His Confessions reveal a startling stream of doctrinal conclusions based upon allegorical interpretation, much of which proved instrumental in paving the way for much of what transpired throughout the Dark Ages, including a doctrinal basis for the use of violence by the church.
With the advent of neo-aristotelianism eclipsing platonism in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas redefined Roman Catholicism in Aristotelian terms just as Moses Maimonides (Rambam) redefined Rabbinic Judaism in Aristotelian terms. Indeed, the Suma Theologia of Aquinas can be quite accurately described as the Roman Catholic equivalent of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed. It was again Alexandria that radiated its influences, now Aristotelian rather than Platonic, throughout the Jewish, Christian and Islamic worlds.
With this trend, Scholasticism became dominant. Hellenistic allegorical interpretation became so primary that most remaining semblances of biblical Christianity became utterly obscured. It was against this scholasticism that 16th century Humanism, and the hermeneutical methods of Protestantism which grew out of humanism, reacted.
Humanism and the Hermeneutics of the Reformation
In an effort to recover biblical orthodoxy, 16th century humanism sought to put down the Vulgate and return to the original Hebrew and Greek biblical texts, with a view to restate its plain meaning as a means of getting on the back of medieval allegory, and the accretions of scholasticism and the Aristotelianism of Thomist presupposition. The names pf Erasmus of Rotterdam, John Colet of Britain and Lefevure in France rang prominent in this quest for a simple, Christocentric hermeneutic, yet one that would maintain scholarly credibility. What humanist scholarship did was to study the Scriptures and patristic writings as history and literature, resulting in a hermeneutic based on historical background, etymology and grammar.
This facilitated the rediscovery of justification by faith (which previously had only been held by Waldensean sects and the Bohemian followers of Jan Huss) and became the harbinger heralding the Reformation. Luther acquired practical humanist influences from his educators the Common Life brethren, and later a humanistic approach to biblical scholarship from Erasmus and others directly. Zwingli, Calvin and Cranmer were themselves humanist scholars. It is here, and not with the apostolic church, that our western grammatical-historical methods of exegeting and interpreting Scripture, held as bonafide by conservative Christianity, have their actual origin.
Like the systemic theologies that accompanied its advent, grammatical-historical method essentially tried to produce a model defining Christian dogma in a manner conducive to the advent of western rationalism. Discoveries of the New World and new trade routes to the Far East facilitated by the invention of the astrolobe, the replacement of Ptolomean astronomy with Galileo and Copernicus, and the invention of the printing press with a subsequent increase in literacy combined to produce a new world view. The demise of feudalism and the rise of the market economy, together with the demise of the old Holy Roman Empire and the rise of the nation state resulted in a new world order. These things all combined to demand a scientific world view into which linear, rationalistic formulae to recontextualise Christian belief needed to be found. This was much the same as the changes brought by the rediscovery of Greco-Roman culture in the renaissance has earlier prompted an Aristotelian exposition of Judeo-Christian belief, as furnished by Rambam and Aquinas. In no way does the recognition of the demand endorse the hermeneutics of Scholasticism, but neither does the recognition of the demand constitute an automatic endorsement of the hermeneutics of 16th century humanism and the subsequent Protestantism it helped to produce; it is all Hellenistic, not Jewish.
To pin point a precise origin of Protestant hermeneutics as the grammatical-historical methods of 16th century humanism applied to interpreting the Scripture, one only has to look to Calvin’s major secular work as humanist scholar; his commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia. Calvin the reformer handled Scripture with the same rules of grammatical-historical construction with which Calvin the humanist scholar handled Latin classics.
Protestand Hermeneutics and the Rise of Higher Criticism
While humanism began as a decidedly Christian movement, in time it became secular. As science progressed with Newtonian physics bringing a Newtonian world view, Darwinism gave birth to German rationalism through the seminal influences of Kant in philosophy and Fuerbach in theology. As the pivotal role of Hegalian dialectics opened the way for 19th century rationalism, theology characteristically followed. Wellhausen transmutated Hegal’s ideas of thesis-anttithesis-synthesis and Darwin’s of evolved order into grammatical-historical exegesis. As Marx, under this same impression, maintained that communism would evolve from capitalism as capitalism had evolved from feudalism, so too higher criticism maintained the canon of the Bible evolved according to the same kinds of Hegalian dialectic patterns.
This began with the theory of Penteteuchal sources, which held four sources to The Book of Genesis: Jehovistic, Elohistic, Deuteronomistic and Priestly, deriving initially from the reference names of God. Grammatical-historical method quickly degenerated from being theistic in orientation, to antisupernaturalist rationalism and existentialism. Arguably, the de-emphasis of the miraculous by the reformers in reaction against medieval superstition, helped plant the seeds for this trend. The University of Tubingen in Germany became the powerhouse for most of this critical scholarship, but soon Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and Princeton followed. As Protestantism became dominated by non-evangelicals, so also did its hermeneutics.
Continuing the grammatical-historical approach to Scripture a literature and history, Rudolph Bultmann began to theorise that since it is no longer possible ‘to believe in the miraculous in the age of the incandescent light’, a distinction must be drawn between the Jesus of faith (whose legend is an embellishment by the early Church) and the real Jesus of history. To discover the differences is to work out how the Bible texts evolved from oral tradition to written documents. Instead of studying this subject within the Sitz Im Leben of Second Temple period Judaism however, Bultmann and his followers preferred to analyse the Gospel traditions in the manner in which one would dissect Medieval folk legends and even Eskimo myths.
In short, liberal Protestantism emerged from a degeneration in conservative Protestantism, secular humanism overtook Christian humanism, and the grammatical-historical hermeneutics which the reformers forged out of humanism to reassert such truths as justification based soteriology and Scriptural authority, now engendered higher criticism. The status of conservative evangelical theology for the last century has been dominated by a quest to defend orthodoxy against the assertions of non-evangelical criticism on the grounds of historicity, attribution, dating of texts and authorship. In all of these centuries of evolution in Christian hermeneutics, two facts remain
First – the Jewish hermeneutics of the apostolic Church as is in evidence in the New Testament, with its parallels in the earliest midrashic literature in Judaism, has largely disappeared from most of both Christian and Jewish biblical interpretation.
Second – the New Testament interprets the Old Testament in a manner that cannot be justified by the grammatical-historical models of Protestantism procured from humanism, but as Qumran and Talmud both reveal, can be validated when hermeneutically considered in a First century Jewish frame.
The Coming Transition in Hermeneutics
That liberal theology in its classic sense is a corpse being kept alive by artificial life support is beyond question. Even its arch-proponents concede its demise. Bishop J A T Robinson, the key proponent for a late date for the Fourth Gospel, acknowledged prior to his death that he was convinced he had been wrong and that the text of John demonstrates far too much acquaintances with First century Jewish life in Palestine to have been the product of a later gentile Church. Don Cupit, the best known theological spokesman for contemporary British liberal scholarship now avidly admits that liberal Protestantism is no longer tenable and that the only remaining choices are now between what he calls ‘fundamentalism’ (in a tone of derogatory cynicism), and post modernism. Voices of the sort which once identified with higher criticism, realising it is no longer defensible, have instead gone in the direction of relativism and conscienceisization, to devise a hermeneutic to sustain a liberation theology instead of a liberal one.
While it is of some consternation that certain scholars who at one time were regarded as conservative, such as Richard Baukham and J D G Dunn, have begun taking on board the kind of baggage liberal scholars have begun to jettison, higher criticism is dead for the following reasons:
First – non-evangelical Churches are seen as spiritually lifeless from a sociological perspective, having no statistical capacity for growth, but a certain one for numerical decline. A market for the traditional liberal theological product no longer exists. It is partially for this reason; those of such persuasions have gone into liberationist political activism, with a non-hermeneutic conscienceisization as a new fangled model for doing hermeneutics. They have no other course but to try and remain relevant to the contemporary world.
Second – a credible quality of conservative scholarship, pioneered in Britain by F Bruce, Donald Guthrie, R T France and I Howard Marshal have mounted an academically viable apologetic rebuttal against the second generation Bultmarian ideas of figures such as Conzelmann and Perrins.
Third – the archaeological record, particularly the Qumran literature, mitigates against the cardinal higher critical pre-supposition that manuscript texts as we have them today, of necessity mutated and evolved. The Dead Sea Scrolls show an essentially unmutated record dating back to the Second Temple period which does not differ significantly from later codexes. Anthropological research into Bedoum, Druise and other ancient Semitic cultures proximal to early rabbinic Judaism revealing a determined accuracy in oral transmission to preserve religious traditions, unaltered furnishes a further re-enforcement of the case for Scripture texts to have been preserved unevolved.
Fourth – the bulk of academic research carried out by Jewish scholarship, most notably the works of Pinchas Lapide, David Flusser and Jacob Neusner, and more lately of Gezer Vermes, supports the view that the processes of New Testament literary construction are in style and structure adopted from First century Judaism, where the accuracy of oral transmission in the ktav communities was a discipline where precision was paramount.
Fifth – the Newtonian/Darwinian scientific basis for Hegalian dialects, upon which liberal approaches to source criticism rest, are obsolete. Relativity and particle physics have displaced much of Newton, and a Newtonian world view is no longer scientifically sustainable. Darwinian evolution faded from vogue with Lemarc’s theory of ontogenic development recapitulating philogeny, and Lemarc has been disregarded with the discoveries in genetic recombinance of Hershey, Crick and Watson. The current state of science disallows the old liberal source critical theories to sustain credibility. Modern science has long abandoned categorical imperative in favour of propositional truth.
The failed models of Marxism owe their collapse to this erosion of Hegal’s dialectics due to the disintegration of its scientific basis (eg Communism never evolved from capitalism as Marx said: the first communist country was Russia – the last of the feudal countries, where according to Marx, communist revolution could never work, and not in Britain, the first capitalist country, where Marx predicted, marxist revolution would begin).
So too, liberal theology, being predicated on the same Hegalian model, is likewise a model that demands to be recognised as failed. It can no longer be demanded that the Bible be accepted as evolved along the lines of the hegalian models that liberal theologians insisted for a century it did. Changes in science and technology have always engineered changes in philosophy, creating the demand for a fundamental re-working of theology. Just as the deaths of platonism and aristotelianism as pre-eminent world views resulted in revolutions in theology, so also must the current death of 19th century German rationalism with its Kantian a priori and Hegalian dialectics result in a theological revolution. If Marx could not survive, neither can the old higher critical liberal theologies still being hideously peddled.
Since the Third century, two features have always characterised Christian Hermeneutics: It has negated the Hebraic origins of Christian hermeneutics, adopting various hellenistic approaches and it has always been reactionary in focus and emphasis.
First – while the internal evidence of the New Testament confirms that its apostolic writers had a convinced midrashic tone to their hermeneutical systems, as with much else of First century Christianity this began to disappear soon after the death of the apostles. Such Jewish concepts as premillenialism, held by the Nazarenes and the earliest PreNicean patristic writers closest to the apostles gradually faded from prominent acceptance: as the church gentilised demographically and culturally, so too its hermeneutics hellenised.
The reformers re-established on a broad plane such doctrines as justification and the authority over tradition, which had previously mainly been held only by dissident evangelical sects during the middle ages. Non-conformists, (whose tenets herald more in tune with the Anabaptists whom the Protestants persecuted, rather than with Luther, Calvin or Zwingli) to this day believe that the Reformation failed to abolish erastianism and break the unscriptural marriage between Church and state, failed to reverse Augustine’s ecclesiology of the ‘visible and invisible Church’ and to abandon the practice of pedea-baptism, thus only partly restoring Apostolic Christianity.
The same process of thought, however, also proves true of the hermeneutics of the reformers. Following the return of the crusades from the east where the Islamic and Byzantine Empires were enjoying their golden age at a time when Europe was in the dark ages, the germ of the Renaissance arrived – the Renaissance being but a mere rediscovery of Greco-Roman culture, including Latin and Greek literary classics. This became pivotal, as it was from this that the humanistic study of Scripture as literature and history surfaced in reaction against Neo-Aristotelian Aquinian scholasticism. From this humanism came Protestantism, and with it our present day idea of hermeneutics, handling Scripture in the grammatical-historical style of humanism, stressing the plainest possible meaning in reaction against medieval Catholicism. Yet both the scholasticism of Rome, and the humanism/Protestantism which reacted against it, have their hermeneutic origins in hellenism, not hebraicism.
Second – even in the Epistles we see that from its inception Christian theology was reactive. In the apostolic Church the first doctrinal departure from apostolic Christianity was without doubt the judaisers. Yet, while Paul wrote concerning the law reactively against the judaisers in the Epistle to the Galatians, in his Epistle to the Romans, he dealt with the subject of a Christian perspective of the law in a purely proactive sense, similar to the treatment of the mosaic cultus legislation by the author of Hebrews.
In the patristic period, the issue had become Christology with the fathers writing mainly only reactively. By the time of the reformation similarly, the issue of justification versus a Catholic soteriology which had evolved from Cyprianic sacrementalism over a period of centuries, became the issue contra which the reformers reacted; Calvin’s Des Institutes being a systematised humanist response to Aquinas’ Suma Theologia. Since the last century, conservative scholarship has struggled to provide an apologetic in reaction to liberal claims concerning various critical issues.
In virtually all of this, conservative scholarship in being reactionary, has forgotten to be pro-active in its quests, and has with little exception pursued and applied hellenistic models of interpretation, instead of the Jewish models of the New Testament.
We are by mere virtue of the transition in world view incumbent by the advances of modern science, on the threshold of a revolution in theological thinking.
The dead issues of critical scholarship are yesterday’s battles. While we can argue for the need for a comprehensive evangelical theology of the poor to refute liberation theology, and resurrect the ‘Contra All Heresies’ of Ireneus to refute the neo-gnosticism of New Age theologies, the theological battles of tomorrow will not be those of yesterday. Liberal criticism is finished and we are already flogging a dead horse. There is an ecclesiological battle to counter those with a vested theocratic or career interest in continuing to animate the cadaver of liberal criticism, but the theological battle is already won. Evangelical theology does not need another book in defense of orthodoxy dealing with the synoptic problem. It is over.
No matter what the battles of the future may be, in imitation of the New Testament, we should in any wise become as proactive in our theology as well as reactive. We should concentrate as much on expositional theology as we do on combatting heterodoxy.
Grammatical-historical exegesis is, not to be rejected, but only seen as a first step in Biblical exegesis. Here we need to confront the genre problem. The Epistles are letters which should be read as such, and therefore grammatical-historical methods alone are prudent. This is so, however, because and only because Epistles themselves are commentary on other Scripture, and themselves can and do interpret other Scripture, such as narrative, apocalyptic and Hebrew poetry midrashically (eg Galatians 4:24-34).
As an ever increasing number of Jews enters the body of Christ, it is regaining its Jewish character. It is inevitable that it will also regain its Jewish hermeneutics.
If we are to remain with the traditional Protestant argument which says that: “the apostles and Jesus handled Scripture midrashically but we dare not”, what we are in effect saying is that “we should not handle God’s word in the way that God’s word handles God’s word, but instead we should handle it according to the devices of man. Instead of interpreting Scripture as a Jewish book of the 1st century, we should interpret it as a Gentile book of the 16th century. Instead of using the hermeneutics that Jesus and the apostles did, we should rather prefer a hermeneutic model of our own to suit ourselves”.
It is ironic that while the chief defense of conservative scholarship against Bultmarian criticism has been that higher critical scholarship has taken the New Testament out of its Sitz Im Leben, and interpreted Scripture extraneous to its cultural context, by neglecting the midrashic methods employed in the New Testament itself, (in favour of Hellenistic methods) conservative scholars are doing the same thing.
As Scripture predicts they one day would, Jews are coming to Christ in numbers unseen since the early Church. God gave His word to the Church as a Jewish book. Is it not time the Church again begins to interpret a Jewish book as a Jewish book, and stops treating Scripture in a way that is alien to the way in which Scripture treats itself?
(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 1 No 4, Summer 1993, The Messiah)