The limitations of grammatical-historical method for Christians (McCartney vs. Beale)

A friend just pointed out this gem by Dan McCartney, Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers? (ETS 2003).

Favorite quotes: “Method, even a strict grammatical-historical method, does not guarantee correct results. What matters more is the questions one is expecting a text to answer, and the assumptions made about the text in question…The idea of a singular, methodologically isolatable and static historical meaning that we humans can precisely define is an illusory modernist pipe-dream. Meaning is always dynamic and personal.”

[Later] Biblical study cannot be impersonal and strictly controlled. I’m afraid we are going to have to relinquish the illusion of impersonal scientific control of biblical study by strict method, for three reasons:

  1. It is unsuited to the nature of the Bible as divine book (noted already).
  2. Knowledge, meaning, and interpretation is tied up with the person who knows and interprets (Polanyi).
  3. Method alone cannot force all rational people into agreeing on what a text says (quite apart from the question of its truthfulness).

Following are some longer excerpts to help you get the flavor of his argument and whet your appetite. The further you go, the more interesting the article gets [all bolding and italics were added by me].

Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament writers? The answer to this question is usually framed in one of two ways. The approach of Longenecker is to acknowledge that the apostles, in accordance with their age, did things quite differently than our grammatical-historical approach would allow, and concludes, “Our commitment as Christians is to the reproduction of the apostolic faith and doctrine, and not necessarily to the specific apostolic exegetical practices.” 1

The other approach is that presented by Greg Beale in his article in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? (hereafter RDWT), 2 who argues that “In fact, of all the many Old Testament citations and allusions found in the New Testament, only a few plausible examples of non-contextual usage have been noted by critics … [and] it is by no means certain that even these examples are non-contextual….”, 3 and concludes that the New Testament did (at least most of the time) follow what is effectively the grammatical-historical meaning, and we should follow their exegetical practice.

I want to suggest a third answer: The New Testament writers were not doing grammatical-historical exegesis nor did they consistently interpret according to original historical contextual meanings, but we should follow their exegetical lead anyway

All would agree, I think, that the New Testament writers do sometimes follow “natural” or contextual meanings, and I think most would also agree that at times they find meanings in the Old Testament which are hard to justify by strict grammatical-historical interpretation. The question before us is whether and to what degree we can legitimately find meanings by means that do not conform to grammatical-historically derivable meanings…

…If we do not adopt the viewpoint of Jesus and the apostles that Christ’s death and resurrection is the key focus of the Old Testament, that Christ is himself the centerpiece of all God’s promises, that Christ is the true Israel, true Son of God, that the meaning of the biblical texts for the present-day people of God has to do with our relation to God in Christ, then how can our interpretation be deemed in any sense Christian?

But Beale also concedes too much to modernism. Beale, and many others dealing with this issue, also feel the pressure of conforming to modern expectations regarding grammatical-historical meaning. In order for an interpretation to be true, it is assumed that it must be, on some level, grammatical-historical in nature. 6 Thus the approach of Beale and other recent interpreters is to make a valiant attempt to exonerate the New Testament writers of any “non-contextual” interpretation. 7 They argue that (a) the New Testament writers found their christological meanings either in direct predictive prophecy, or more commonly by doing “typology,” rather than force-fitting allegories, (b) typology is not the same as allegory, because it builds on historical correspondence, and (c) the unity of God’s purpose in scripture means that typology is a derivative of grammatical-historical interpretation.

Typology is not grammatical-historical. I very much accept the validity of typological interpretation. But

Continue reading

Latest WTS Board Statement on Peter Enns

May 23, 2008

Statement of the Board of Trustees (quoted in full here)
Westminster Theological Seminary
May 21, 2008

Certain matters raised at a March 26, 2008 meeting of the Board of Trustees concerning Professor. Peter Enns have been addressed procedurally by the Board’s Institutional Personnel Committee (IPC), which sought and received input from Professor Enns.

In response the Board has, without dissent, established a Hearing Committee with equitable representation from Board and Faculty, chaired by the Chairman of the IPC. A process has been approved that seeks to follow the Faculty Manual and respect the rights of Professor Enns. The process will be completed with a recommendation to the Board no later than the December 2008 Board meeting at which a final determination will be made.

The IPC Chair has asked that any further communication concerning this matter go through the Chairman of the Board, Dr. John H. White.

Not a whole lot of new information here. The committee has been formed; Enns’s fate will be decided in December.

The other main unofficial news that I’m aware of is that Dr. Bruce McCormack, the Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written an essay focused on the Christology of the HTFC report. Art Boulet posted the essay in its entirety – a critique of the Historical and Theological (HTFC) report, which R. Scott Clark criticized to which McCormack in turn replied. You can follow the back and forth at any of these sites (and a whole bunch of other places).

To keep up with the latest check in with Art Boulet, Conn-versation. FWIW, I posted earlier on the topic in Westminster trajectories).

The latest word from Peter Enns himself is on his trip to South Korea, where he makes some important observations about global Biblical theology.

WTS Biblical Studies Statement on Scripture

As most of you know by now, Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) posted a precis for each of the two sides (HTFC Precis; HFC Precis) in the debate along with all the other formal documents they had released earlier (see my earlier blog post). I liked the tone and emphasis of the “Statement on Scripture” (Appendix 2) so much that I thought it was worth quoting in full here.

The Westminster Theological Seminary biblical studies department believes the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be God’s inerrant written word to human beings, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. In the light of this affirmation, we understand ourselves to be:

  • Pre-committed to receive as truth all that Scripture is found, upon careful study and reflection, actually to teach.
  • Awed by the wisdom and condescension of God in giving a word that is both a product of and a witness to his redemptive activity in human history—an activity in history that culminates in the “summing up of all things in the Messiah.”
  • Bound to a study of scripture that is diligent, humble, receptive, and honestly descriptive, recognizing that God has providentially given us information about the environment in which the books of the Bible originated, information that at times enables us to deepen our understanding of the scriptures.
  • Convinced that the central message of the Bible is clear without knowledge of the historical and cultural background of the biblical books. In this we find ourselves in full accord with WCF I.7: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
  • Aware that we, like all other fallen human beings, are quite capable of erroneous interpretation, of drawing invalid inferences, of imposing on Scripture constructs of our own making, or in other ways falling short of a full discovery of God’s truth.
  • Grateful to God for the aid of his Spirit and the interpretive wisdom of his church though the ages.
  • Confident that it is only in the light of Christ and the Gospel that the majestic coherence of the Old and New Testaments will be fully displayed.

In all this we view ourselves as upholding, for our own time and place, the affirmations outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: The Historical and Theology (HT) precis is written after their main document, and the Biblical Studies before their 70+ page response (Hermeutics Field Committee – HFC response). While these two short documents (six and eleven pages) don’t shed much more light on the content of the debate, the HFC Precis says a lot about the process and tone – notably the the shock and disappointment at the initial turn of events in the production of the initial HTFC document. (Read it in full.) The rest of my comments died along with my old hard drive.

Lillback’s attack on Enns (WTS) – a brief outline ;-/.

As I related in my previous post (postures and orientations of the WTS debate), I’ve had trouble getting away from the recently released Westminster documents.

For those of you who are having trouble following the essay in which Peter Lillback’s attacks Peter Enns, Hermeneutical Crisis and the Westminster Standards, I thought I could provide a brief outline that follows the headings in the articles and the essay’s “line of argument.” 😉

[N.B. Reference to “God Bless America” and “apple pie” under point V and the “stake” in the conclusion are fictitious.]

OUTLINE (sort of)

I. (pages 2-9/104-111) Harvie Conn would have supported Enns. Wait . . . the entire faculty of Westminster wrote a whole book on Inerrancy in 1988 and only cited the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) eight times – only the first chapter and never I.9 (p. 6n29 [108]); Bultmann gets eight citations too.

II. Enns might be okay as far as WCF is concerned, but if we consider the catechisms and the Westminster/OPC/PCA statements of subscription, then we’ve got him (p. 10 [112]).

II.B Given criticisms of primacy afforded to Westminster Standards (including by Conn n.45), the real question is what do the Standards say (p. 11 [113])

III. A string of enough quotes from [the new divines? “magisterium”] Continue reading

Postures and trajectories of the Westminster Seminary debate

As much as I tried, I could not get away from reading and thinking about the documents that Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) posted on it’s website at the end of last week.

Here is my attempt to organize some of the fundamental raisons d’être and orientations that lie behind those disagreements.

As I see it, the disagreements at Westminster Seminary reflect a fundamental difference in way of being – an overall life orientation. At the core, one side fundamentally focuses on, “How did God speak through the Bible in its original contexts?” The other’s first question is, “Does what you say agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) as interpreted by a select group of reformed interpreters?” These two foundational differences play out in their stances to Scripture, tradition, and discussion.

General Orientation and Focus (time, attention, energy, etc.):

  1. the Scripture in its original languages and cultural environment
  2. the Westminster Confession of Faith and historical interpretations of it

Both sides say they are committed to and respect both Scripture and the confession, but . . . the priorities and emphases (time, attention, energy, etc.) put them in radically different environements.

Orientation towards doctrines of the Bible

  1. Our ways of thinking about the Bible should arise out of the phenomena of how God revealed himself in the Scriptures.
  2. Our doctrines of the Bible should keep very closely to the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith and select traditional interpretations of this.

Orientation towards Bible study:

  1. Study of the Bible deepens, Continue reading

A sad day for Westminster (Peter Enns)

Peter Enns will be suspended: Conn-versation; Shibboleth; Christianity Today blog [unfortunately, the Conn-versation link had to be taken down – collateral damage.]

For Background: Shibboleth – A Tale of Two Westminsters, Power or Theology, and statements by Westminster church history professors: D. Clair Davis (retired): The Significance of Westminster Theological Seminary Today (long PDF) and Darryl Hart (current): Can Westminster Seminary Put the Genie Back in the Bottle? (A candid account of the competing visions)

Petition in support of Enns (123 comments to date).

**Collected Links, reviews of Inspiration and Incarnation, interviews and both sides of the controversy (Brandon Withrow). This is probably the best “one-stop-shop” for both background and recent updates.

UPDATE (Tues. 1 April 2008): I’m surprised at how many hits this particular posting is still getting, especially since others are far more “in the know.” However, since people are still stopping by, I thought I would add a couple more interesting links that I’ve come across in the last few days.

Westminster’s Board of Trustees comments on situation at their website (here)

B. B. Warfield on the divine and human elements of scripture (reposted by Michael Pahl – Mon 31 March).

Michael Bird on the challenge for Biblical Scholars among Reformed Theologians

there are some theologians who have a system that simply cannot cope with the historical and cultural contingency of the origin and development of the Christian Bible. For them, to use ancient near eastern writings, Greco-Roman texts, or second temple literature to assist in biblical interpretation is supremely offensive. The two issues here are: (1) Do theologians take the historical content and context of the Bible seriously? And (2) what are the boundaries of Reformed confessionalism?

See also: Biblical Criticism and Confessionalism

The Chairman of the Board’s letter (Originally posted by Daniel Kirk, I think).:

March 27, 2008

Thank you very much for your prayers for the special meeting of the Board of Trustees that was held on March 26 to address the disunity of the faculty regarding the theological issues related to Dr. Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. After a full day of deliberation, the Board of Trustees took the following action by decisive vote:

“That for the good of the Seminary (Faculty Manual II.4.C.4) Professor Peter Enns be suspended at the close of this school year, that is May 23, 2008 (Constitution Article III, Section 15), and that Continue reading

Links of the Morning – Mon 17 March

Msfara tour of hope tour winds up with a bang in Kisumu (pictures and details). Pastor M writes,

I didn’t learn enough superlatives in school to describe our time in Kisumu. For me, it will probably rank as the most memorable time of the town the Msafara visited. . . There were few dry eyes in the house. Many leaders on their knees bawling their eyes out . . . I saw visibly something I’ve always believed – that the church is the hope of the world.

A Testimony:

Up until yesterday, John was not a believer. He was one of those Kenyan young men who were involved in the post election violence and looting. He confessed that he barricaded roads, organized looting and violence and led the hate groupthink against certain communities. How he got onto the Msafara is a mystery in itself but today John is a new creation in Christ as he received Christ yesterday.

Serious controversy at my old seminary. I’ve been a little out of the loop, but the roots of this problem frustrated me when I was a student there 8-10 years ago. I’m clearly biased. The Old Testament department at Westminster (all of them) had a deep, life-changing impact on me. One commentator suggests that this is all about donor money. Isn’t that always the case?

Jennifer Myhre watches lives emerge from the face of death; resurrection in a slow time-lapse of day to day glimpses and commenting on the strength of some African women.

Jim West reviews and recommends two books:

  1. Ancient Texts For the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature, by Kenton L. Sparks, Hendrickson, 2005.
  2. Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies: A Guide to the Background Literature, by Craig A. Evans, Hendrickson, 2005.

A good resource for background.

Chris Tilling makes some too short comments on a too short article. Bruce Longenecker’s, “On Israel’s God and God’s Israel: Assessing Supersessionism in Paul”, JTS 58, no. 1 (2007): 26–44.

From the abstract: ‘Does the church replace ethnic Israel in Paul’s thinking (as so many have imagined throughout the history of the Christian church)? Or is ethnic Israel on a separate salvific path by way of her covenant election (as many are now currently advocating)? Or are there other dimensions to be considered?’

I remember looking at this article and wishing it had said more.