05 May 2006

How To Read Like An Apostle.


From a Books & Culture review of Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns:

"Changing the words of Scripture to suit your own purposes? Paul wouldn't get past the first week of New Testament 123 (Hermeneutics) like that. He is breaking every rule of thoughtful evangelical scholarship, which holds that the proper way to approach inerrant Scripture is with careful grammatical-historical exegesis: painstaking analysis of each word of the Scripture and its relationship to other words, the setting of the sentence in the verse, the verse in the chapter, the chapter in the book, and the book in the historical times of its composition.

Of course Paul breaks those rules, Enns says; they are our rules, not Paul's. Inspiration and Incarnation offers us passages from such extrabiblical texts as the Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Biblical Antiquities in order to show that, far from doing something extraordinary and super-apostolic, Paul and Matthew were doing exactly what most of their contemporaries did. Both apostles had been trained by the scholars of their day, the so-called "Second Temple" period, to come to a text looking for the "mystery" beneath the words: the deeper truth that an untrained reader might not see. Both of them came to the Old Testament already convinced that they knew what that mystery was: the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God in Jesus Christ.

Paul knows, by faith, that this truth underlies all of the Old Testament. He knows that it will be in Isaiah; he looks for it in the 59th chapter, and—as we might expect—he finds it. And if he has to change a preposition or two to make this "mystery" clear to the rest of us, he is not violating any sort of interpretive rule. His own principles of exegesis allow him to "read into the prophet's words," as Enns puts it, what he "already knew those words were really about."

Encouraging (to me) to see this work coming out of a conservative, Reformed context like Westminster (where Enns teaches). As a seminarian, and afterwrds, I found myself having to bracket aside the fact that the hermeneutical principles we were learning were not those employed by the New Testament writers themselves. I want to think and write more on this (and buy Enns' book), but for now, I believe this kind of a hermeneutical sea change could be incredibly fruitful, and not least in a new Creed-based ecumenism. Time to wallow in the "moldering scrim of antique prejudice" (more about which here).
 

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