Monday, October 12, 2015

The Fall Of The Old Ways Of Thinking

Bruce Chilton and Dierdre Good have quite an interesting paragraph in the opening pages of their book Studying the New Testament: A Fortress Introduction (Fortress, 2011). It's well worth reproducing that paragraph for you here:
"All interpretations of the New Testament, past or present, contribute to an explanation of what it means. Because there are so many interpretations and will be even more in the future, any interpretation, whether past or present, will have to be understood as provisional or contingent. Academic scholars have, until recently, privileged post-Enlightenment twentieth-century and subsequent readings and interpretations of the New Testament, on the grounds that serious critical study is a recent phenomenon. In fact, published scholarship until quite recently has been, and in some places continues to be, supercessationist: it presumes that the most recent interpretation, the one it is currently creating, is correct. Older interpretations from earliest times to the Middle Ages and up until the Enlightenment were though quaint and mostly irrelevant. But most scholars now recognize different historical and cultural specificities of the various books of the New Testament and the influence of historical and cultural situations on every reader of biblical texts. It seems obvious that all people are products of their environment and the time and communities in which they live. So if all readings of the New Testament are culturally specific, and no single particular reading privileged over another, then attending to readings of other individuals and communities is essential. Thus more recent scholarship acknowledges all patristic, medieval and pre-Enlightenment interpretations as essential contributions to New Testament interpretation by finding and engaging with them, asking questions like, 'How do they interpret the New Testament?' rather than 'Are they right?'" (12)
There's lots there to think about, folks. Lots and lots. "Academic scholars have, until recently, privileged post-Enlightenment . . . readings and interpretations." Until recently? I'm not so sure we have gotten past the privileged post-Englightenment world in biblical studies. The status quo is the status quo. Those who even attempt to call into question certain post-Englightenement tenets in the field of biblical studies are often met with calls to chop off their heads. Well, maybe not quite that intense. But, still, they are mocked and ridiculed.

Which Gospel was written first? If you say Matthew, you are most certainly considered a "quaint" fellow and "mostly irrelevant" in terms of scholarship. That's just the way it is, for now at least. Tides change in the world of biblical studies. There's no doubt. There's always a push for who can write the essay or book that has never been written. But the goal in exegesis isn't to stay relevant; the goal is to stay faithful, carefully weighing all the evidence for yourself and landing your plane based on that evidence. That might just mean that some of us need to rethink the whole Markan priority position. Could we really explain the absence of the Sermon on the Mount in Mark from patristic evidence? I think so.

When we are studying the Bible, we need to start with the question "How do they interpret the New Testament?" Start there. But we can't stop there. Let the evidence take you where it takes you. At the end of the day, you can get to that second question, "Are they right?" And flip that around a little too. When it comes to our own theological convictions, let's make sure that we don't start from a position of "I'm right." If you start there, you'll never get to the evidence. Start with the evidence. The evidence is the footer upon which you lay your theological posts. You need good footers. The man who is only "right" with no evidence is nothing more than a man like the one Jesus described in Luke 6:49.

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