Whatever Happened to Literal Hermeneutics (Part 5)

From Theologically Driven. Read the entire series.

Having laid out in the previous several posts what I believe may be commended as “received laws of language,” I would like to close this series with a practical look at a pair of difficult passages that stretch the limits of the discussion: Matthew’s use of fulfillment language in 2:15 and 16–18 in citing Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15, respectively. Note the following:

Hosea 11:1—When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (cf. Exod 4:22–23). Matthew 2:15—[Joseph stayed in Egypt] until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Jeremiah 31:15—This is what the LORD says [of the exiled Israelite community]: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” Matthew 2:16–18—Herod…gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under…. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

The tension in both instances is that Matthew appeals to descriptive, historical texts (which ordinarily cannot be “fulfilled”) and appears to assign them a predictive function that does not manifest clearly in the original rendering. Below are four approaches that exegetes have used in their analysis of Matthew’s Gospel. Note that I am not offering a comprehensive list of all possible solutions to the tension here raised, but rather four approaches to the tension:

Modernist Approach

The first approach is to read both texts literally and conclude that Matthew is a careless researcher guilty of making egregious citation errors. This is what I’ll call the modernist approach.

Post-Modernist Approach

A second approach reads both texts charitably but concludes that the two OT texts in view are not to be seen as literal genres. That is, they are not instances of historie but geschichte, and for this reason are legitimate subjects of etiological manipulation/resignification as the ecclesiastical community develops over time. This is what I will call, for simplicity’s sake, the postmodern approach (though it technically predates postmodernism as a system).

Typological Approach

A third approach avoids the specter of biblical errancy in the preceding options by proposing a new hermeneutical approach: it reads the OT text according to a unique model that is not and cannot be used with any other piece of literature. Specifically, while adherents admit that the two OT passages are instances of accurate, normal, rearward-looking history, they propose that God is using Matthew to progressively divulge a metanarrative imbedded into the OT, known originally and completely only to the divine author, that connects two OT events (exodus and exile) organically with the Bible’s grand Christological or redemptive plot. In this way the reader is now able to fully appreciate these OT texts, thus “fulfilling” or exhausting their divinely-intended meaning. Later revelation is always the definitive court of appeal for interpreting earlier texts, and “literal” OT readings held prior to the arrival of the NT are sometimes flat, incomplete, or even wrong, and can therefore “fall away.” This is my attempt to faithfully represent the typological approach.

Disclaimer: The range of typological approaches circulating today makes it impossible for me to offer a description that satisfies all who self-identify with the model, but I make the attempt anyway, with entirely charitable intent. I apologize to all who take umbrage with my description and welcome correctives.

Literal Approach

A fourth approach attempts to salvage inerrancy not by proposing a new hermeneutical approach, but by suggesting one or more exegetical solutions. For instance, I would argue (with Dyer, Toussaint, and others) that the Greek term πληρόω (to fulfill) has a semantic range broader than that carried by the modern English term “fulfill,” and can reference not only completed prophecy, but also something as mundane as an analogy made after the fact. While this approach denies us the tingle of intrigue and inscrutability that the previous approach offers, its strength is the tacit priority it places on the ordinary laws of language. It assumes that OT meaning is plain-in-itself and (as is the case with every “normal” use of language) that its own local context is the definitive court of appeal for interpretation. It does not deny that a grand biblical metanarrative exists, but affirms instead that this unifying center is to be discovered by ordinary rather than mysterious means. This is what I would call the “literal” approach.

Obviously much more could be said (and has been said) about these texts, but it is hoped that the previous is adequate to identify the basic approaches to the problem that are in circulation today. I also hope that it commends the last approach (often associated with dispensationalism) as a more hermeneutically credible one (i.e., more faithful to the received laws of language) than the typological approach that in the ascendancy today.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Much appreciate the series... and I'm mostly persuaded. Where I'm holding out is that I'm not yet convinced there isn't a teeny bit of room for a view under the typology heading that is really "literal, but with a few carefully defined exceptions."

But so far all of the non-literal views all seem to lead--if internally coherent--to places that are not at all acceptable.

Heartily agree that exegetical solutions should be where real work of interpretation focuses.

alex o.'s picture

The typological approach seems the most reasonable to me. This is based in part in a fallen humanity only deserving of God's righteous judgment due to the fall of all of us in Adam. How can anyone deny this consistent voice in all of scripture?

How else are we to account for intercalation in the text, i.e. in places like Isa. 61.1-2 cf. Jesus' quotation of this passage in the synagogue saying it was fulfilled but stopping short of the "judgment of God" so that what may have appeared as one ministration of the Messiah was in fact two as Heb.9.27 says.

Also, the promise of the New Covenant in context speaks of Israel's final restoration, yet Christ said His sacrifice was the blood of the New Covenant. Also, Paul said he was a minister of it. So an intercalation with Jewish restoration yet to come.

I maintain that God doesn't owe humanity anything and there are no true seekers of Him apart from God's action. All serious theologians maintain this point. I reject any given "laws of language",which sounds like an accommodation to sinful humanity without any biblical basis. My position is much more consistent with the whole of scripture than what seems to be the "fairness argument" of a universal offer.

This series smacks of a denial of definitive atonement which is the biblical position I would contend but am not going to harangue about on this blog. When 1John says Jesus sacrifice was for the whole world John was saying salvation was not exclusive to the Jews, not that the propitiation was potential to everyone on earth now that Christ had died. To take that position opens up the same "unfairness" to pre-Jesus folks who were not Jews. I really don't think you can fully satisfy the "fairness" issue (if indeed you labor under it). No, God's redemption is in love and completely effectual to those he chooses. After all, He came and died for them. Any lesser position elevates humans to an undeserved status that the bible speaks against. That position continues the idea of divinity of mankind ("you shall be like god") with The Almighty just a vending machine for them.

 

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Larry's picture

Moderator

How else are we to account for intercalation in the text, i.e. in places like Isa. 61.1-2 cf. Jesus' quotation of this passage in the synagogue saying it was fulfilled but stopping short of the "judgment of God" so that what may have appeared as one ministration of the Messiah was in fact two as Heb.9.27 says.

What's typological about this passage?

G. N. Barkman's picture

If Christ and the Apostles shouldn't be given more weight in interpreting the OT, the doctrine of inspiration takes a hit.  It seems audacious to insist that my interpretation is better than theirs because I'm using a literal hermeneutic.  Can a presumed "law of language" trump inspired interpretation?

Some say that the OT must be understood literally or else it could not be understood by OT saints.  If God's people had to await the NT to be able to understand the OT, the OT had little value to those to whom it was written, or so it is claimed.  Christ's chiding the apostles for failing to understand the OT Scriptures is offered as proof that it should have been understood by the men of His day, but only if they took everything as literally as possible.

But, I Peter 1:10-12 says that OT prophets searched their prophecies to try to understand what they had written, and that some things could not be understood until the coming of Christ.  So much for the "everything must be understandable to the men to whom it was originally written" theory.  Christ's chiding His apostles does not prove that they were being faulted for failing to understand the literal meaning.  Christ could just as well have been chiding them for failing to understanding the typology.

The OT is filled with typology.  Some of it could have been understood by OT saints, but some was more difficult.  NT revelation helps by imparting additional light.  The NT does not answer every question.  We are still left with puzzling aspects, but the NT make much clear.  Because we possess a fallen mind, we do not easily nor automatically understand Scripture.  It must be revealed by the Spirit to spiritual men.  Even spiritual men do not understand everything immediately.  Some things take time and meditation.  OT saints might have understood more if they had given due diligence and sought the help of God's Spirit.  NT Scripture adds much more light, and gives understanding unavailable to OT saints.  That doesn't mean they couldn't have understood much without the NT, only that the NT gives additional valuable insight,  Once NT light was given, it must be given supreme weight in properly interpreting the OT.

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

A couple of questions for you, brother Barkman:

Can a presumed "law of language" trump inspired interpretation?

Where did Mark suggest an interpretation that contradicts Jesus or the apostles? And On what basis can you claim your interpretation (or indeed any non-apostolic interpretation) is inspired? 

But, I Peter 1:10-12 says that OT prophets searched their prophecies to try to understand what they had written,

What was it that Peter says they didn't understand or know?

The OT is filled with typology.

How do we know this? 

 

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks for the questions, Larry.  I have time to address one just now.  How do we know the OT is filled with typology?  Because the NT indicates this.  Too many example to list, so I'll cite just one.  Malachi 4:5 says that Elijah will come to prepare for Christ.  Christ tells us in several of the Gospels that this speaks of John the Baptist.  OT saints could hardly have figured that out, but it turns out to be the inspired interpretation.

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

Thanks, brother.

How do we know the OT is filled with typology?  Because the NT indicates this.

Where does the NT indicate that it is "filled" with typology? There is clearly typology, but "filled"? What does that mean and how do we know it? It seems, based on the text of Scripture, that there is very little typology, comparatively speaking. Types seem fairly rarely appealed to in the NT.

Malachi 4:5says that Elijah will come to prepare for Christ.  Christ tells us in several of the Gospels that this speaks of John the Baptist.  OT saints could hardly have figured that out, but it turns out to be the inspired interpretation.

How do we know this is typology? Why isn't it something else? It really doesn't fit the standard definitions of a type.

There's actually a few interpretations of this passage. First, Jesus didn't say John the Baptist was Elijah. He said, "If you accept it ..." and they didn't. Furthermore, the angel prophesied that John the Baptist would be "in the spirit and power of Elijah," which is much more likely the reference Jesus was making. That John was an "Elijah" of his age. Similar to us in America saying something like, "We need another George Washington." Elijah was a proto-typical prophet in Israel's history. And it is possible (even probable) that one of the two witnesses of Rev 11 is Elijah which takes place just before the great and terrible DOL which is what Malachi is actually referring to. We cannot be sure, but we can be fairly sure that it isn't typology. 

So I don't think that's a good argument for your case. But even if you are right about it being typological, that doesn't indicate that the OT is "filled" with typology. 

I suppose my position is not all that veiled. I think the OT has types, but I think there are a lot of "types" being identified that aren't actually divinely inspired and thus don't have divine authority. Which leads me to wonder why something without divine authority should be preached? I would encourage the reading of John Walton's article in the Master's Seminary Journal on "Inspired Subjectivity and Hermeneutical Objectivity." Whether one agrees or not, he makes some excellent points on this topic. Richard Longenecker's article on this is also worth reading.

The issue really comes down to authority. By what authority can I as a preacher declare something to be the word of God? I think Walton is correct that it is either by inspiration (as the apostles claimed; they never claimed a hermeneutical process) or it is by historical-grammatical exegesis ... that is, it can be shown from the inspired text without resorting to some sort of imagination or creativity. 

I am mostly on board with Zuck who says types need to be identified in the NT. I wouldn't necessarily rule out others, but others certainly do not possess divine authority. The preacher should tread carefully when leaning on his imagination instead of the text of Scripture. It might ruin a few messages, but it's a better way to handle the text, IMO. There is plenty to say without searching for all kinds of types.

alex o.'s picture

Larry wrote:

How else are we to account for intercalation in the text, i.e. in places like Isa. 61.1-2 cf. Jesus' quotation of this passage in the synagogue saying it was fulfilled but stopping short of the "judgment of God" so that what may have appeared as one ministration of the Messiah was in fact two as Heb.9.27 says.

What's typological about this passage?

I am not claiming typology in these instances of intercalation, rather, opposing the pinning down towards a literal connection of clauses because of a "law of language" and insisting that God must fulfill scripture in a certain way. God doesn't owe fallen humanity or the devil anything except judgment. He discloses how and what He wants for His purposes. Its His creation and He sustains everything. Who has ever given to God that He should repay him?

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

G. N. Barkman's picture

So John was Elijah if people accepted that notion.  If they didn't, he wasn't.  Hmmm.

G. N. Barkman

Larry's picture

Moderator

Isn't that what Jesus says? "And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come." (Matt 11:41). 

G. N. Barkman's picture

So whether or not John was Elijah hinges upon the willingness of Christ's listeners to accept His word?  Hardly.  John is Elijah who was to come.  Jesus said so.  Christ's statements never depend upon the reception of men to determine their truth.  "If you are willing to accept it...you will understand what I am saying to you.  If will not accept it, you will not understand this truth."  But the statement stands alone.  It doesn't depend upon human endorsement to make it truth.

G. N. Barkman

J. Baillet's picture

Dr. Snoeberger wrote: "(to fulfill) has a semantic range broader than that carried by the modern English term 'fulfill,' and can reference not only completed prophecy, but also something as mundane as an analogy made after the fact."  (Boldface added).

John Calvin wrote in his commentary on the synoptic Gospels:  "The words of the prophet import, that the nation was rescued from Egypt as from a deep whirlpool of death. Now, what was the redemption brought by Christ, but a resurrection from the dead, and the commencement of a new life? The light of salvation had been almost extinguished, when God begat the Church anew in the person of Christ. Then did the Church come out of Egypt in its head, as the whole body had been formerly brought out.

"This analogy prevents us from thinking it strange, that any part of Christ's childhood was passed in Egypt. ... Matthew therefore reminds us, that it is no strange or unwonted occurrence for God to call his Son out of that country; and that it serves rather to confirm our faith, that, as on a former occasion, so now again, the Church of God comes out of Egypt.  There is this difference, however, between the two cases.  The whole nation was formerly shut up in the prison of Egypt; while, in the second redemption, it was Christ, the head of the Church alone, who was concealed there, but who carried the salvation and life of all shut up in his own person."  John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke - Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Christian Classics Ethereal Library), at 146 (boldface added).

Dr. Snoeberger and John Calvin, who was not a dispensationalist, appear to be consistent in their hermeneutical approach to Matthew 2:15.

JSB

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