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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Eschatology Hermeneutics: Literal or Genre-Sensitive?

Last night in the eschatology class, we considered two important hermeneutical questions that we must ask prior to studying eschatological passages.  We spent the vast majority of our time on one of those questions: Are there two peoples of God or one?  (Check the website in the next couple of days for the audio and video.)  The other question, which I’d like to address here, is this: will we employ a literal hermeneutic or a genre-sensitive hermeneutic?
Some folks would advocate approaching all Scripture with the same principles of interpretation regardless of the genre.  Whether the text is narrative, law, poetry, or prophecy, they would interpret the text literally, unless the context requires a figurative interpretation. 
I won’t rehash all that I said regarding genres of biblical literature in the first part of the hermeneutics section, but I will say that approaching the text literally unless the context requires a figurative interpretation is exactly backward when we are studying prophetic/apocalyptic literature.  Literal-unless-the-context-requires-otherwise is a great approach for narrative and epistles, but for genres that are characterized by highly figurative language, like poetry and prophecy/apocalyptic, the better approach is figurative-unless-the-context-requires-otherwise. 
Remember that this is how the apostles interpreted Old Testament prophecy.  Peter in Acts 2 interpreted Joel 2 figuratively.  That is, he understood Joel to be referring not to the sun literally turning dark and the moon literally turning to blood, but that these images spoke metaphorically of God powerfully working among men.  In our sermon series on Matthew 24 we noted that the OT frequently uses cosmic and cataclysmic language to speak of God bringing about changes in nations, governments, social structures, etc.
Similary, in Luke 3 the Gospel writer interpreted Isaiah 40 figuratively.  Isaiah wrote, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  Luke did not record these events (valleys being lifted, mountains being lowered, etc) taking place in a literal sense.  If they had happened literally, that would certainly warrant inclusion in his Gospel!  Rather he recorded John the Baptist preaching the gospel and notes that this preaching fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy.  Luke understood Isaiah to be speaking metaphorically of the preaching of the gospel humbling the proud and exalting the lowly.
When a modern interpreter interprets other prophetic passages in the same way, those who pride themselves on always interpreting the Scriptures literally will characterize this kind of genre-sensitive interpretation as “spiritualizing” the text, or removing it of its significance.  This is an unfair characterization.  Understanding figurative language in a figurative sense does not “spiritualize” the text or empty it of meaning.  Rather it understands that language in the sense in which the biblical authors intended and in the sense in which the apostles themselves understood it.  If the apostles interpreted prophecy this way, certain we can and should do the same!
Why is this an important issue?  It’s going to greatly impact how we interpret eschatological texts, like those in Daniel, Revelation, and elsewhere.  If we insist on a literal-unless-the-context-demands-otherwise interpretation, we’ll end up with a very different picture than if we interpret these texts in accordance with their respective genres. 
As with the question of two peoples of God or one, we may disagree and that is fine.  These are not questions that should divide us.  We simply need to understand that our answers to these preliminary questions will largely determine our answers to the big questions of eschatology.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Harmonizing the Birth Narratives of the Gospels

Last night in our eschatology study, we briefly considered the existence of supposed contradictions in the Bible.  This morning I found two very good articles explaining how to understand and deal with these “contradictions” – you can find them here and here.
After class, a particular difficulty was brought to my attention and I offered to look into it before next Wednesday.  Having taken a look at it today, I decided to share it with all of you. 
The issue is what seems to be not necessarily a contradiction but a difficulty harmonizing elements of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  Matthew 2 depicts the wise men searching for Jesus by coming to Jerusalem and inquiring, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  Herod learned from the chief priests that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, so Herod sent the wise men there and instructed them to report to him after they found the child (Matt 2:3-8).  The wise men found the child, offered him gifts, and departed.  Then in 2:13 we read,
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod.
Vv19-23 tell us that when Herod died, an angel instructed Joseph in a dream to take the child back to Israel, and so Joseph, Mary, and Jesus went home to Nazareth. 
However, Luke’s (2:22-40) account depicts Mary and Joseph taking the baby to Jerusalem to be presented at the temple, where Jesus was seen by Simeon and Anna.  Then v39 reads, And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 
The fairly obvious question is, how does the trip to Egypt fit into the narrative timeline of Luke?  Luke makes it sound like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to Nazareth fairly shortly after His birth, but Matthew describes a lengthy time in Egypt prior to going back to Nazareth.  How do we deal with this?
First, we must remember that the Gospel writers used different episodes in the life of Christ to make a certain theological point to their respective audiences. None of them set out to write an exhaustive account of every major event in the life of Christ.  Consider last night’s Republican Presidential debate.  If I wanted to make a summary video to convince people that the candidates hate each other, I would choose very specific clips to make that point.  I might even put those clips in a non-chronological order that shows an escalation in the intensity of their interactions, so that by the end of the video viewers would say, “Wow.  They really hate each other.”  Someone else could make a summary video to persuade people that Planned Parenthood should be completely defunded.  That person would likely selectively choose clips that highlight the candidates who spoke out stridently against Planned Parenthood while leaving out clips of candidates who did not.  These two videos would be very different but both accurate depictions of aspects of the debate.  Neither one would show everything that happened.  Neither one would necessarily show things in the exact chronological order in which they happened. 
The Gospel writers did the same thing.  So it should not surprise us to find one writer including a detail or story not mentioned by another writer.  It should also not surprise us to find them presenting stories in different orders.  They each had a certain theological point to make and they chose and arranged material to make those points.  We must keep this in mind and not read the Gospels as if they are items from a newspaper or history book, as if they were merely conveying raw facts.  The Gospels are theological books.  They do present events that are historical, that is, they really happened, but the Gospels are not merely history books.  Each was designed to make a point.  So all of the events presented in Matthew and Luke actually took place.  They all fit together in some way. 
Second, in these narratives from early in Jesus’ life, there are clues to help us determine the timeline.  First, in Luke 2:22 we read, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…”  This would have taken place 40 days after Jesus’ birth, since Lev 12:3-4 required circumcision on the eighth day (cf Luke 2:21) after which the mother was to continue in her impurity for 33 days.  So these events took place in Jesus’ early infancy.
Matthew on the other hand contains evidence that the events of Matt 2 took place a bit later.  In 2:16, he writes: Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  According to the wise men, based upon the timing of the appearance of the star (2:2), Jesus could have been born up to two years prior to Herod’s killing all the boys in Bethlehem and Joseph’s fleeing with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.  Also, if the star appeared when Christ was born and the wise men began traveling as soon as possible, it would have taken weeks to arrive at the earliest.  (For example, if coming from Babylon and traveling at a normal pace, it would have taken at least 40 days.)  All of this means that the events of Matthew 2 most likely took place later than the events of Luke 2. 
Third, we must note that when Matthew writes, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem…”, we should not understand him to necessarily mean “immediately after Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”  Likewise when Luke writes, “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord…”, we should not read into it, “immediately after performing everything according to the Law of the Lord…”  Rather, we should take both to mean some time after or at some point after.   This is absolutely necessary because both Gospel writers are leaving out certain stories and including others.  This means that there will necessarily be gaps of time, sometimes large ones, between recorded events.  In the vast majority of cases, they do not explicitly reference or mention these gaps, or give us a time frame between events, such as “now four months and 3 days later, this happened…”  If they did explicitly point out all the gaps of time, the Gospels would be terribly cumbersome to read and their respective theological points would be obscured. 
With these things in mind, there could be any number of ways to harmonize these two accounts.  I’m going to present just one:
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-3).  While they were there, Jesus was born (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:6-7).  An angel declared His birth to the shepherds who then went to visit Him (Luke 2:8-20).  On the eighth day, Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21).  They remained in Bethlehem for 40 days, after which they traveled to Jerusalem in accordance with the Law (Luke 2:22-38, cf Lev 12:3-4).  At some point after this they returned to Bethlehem. (Neither Gospel mentions this because it does not serve their respective points.)  While they were in Bethlehem, the wise men who were following the star arrived in Jerusalem, inquired about the child, and then followed the star to where Jesus was (Matt 2:1-12).   Some time after the wise men left, Joseph was told in a dream to take Jesus to Egypt to avoid the danger from Herod (Matt 2:13-15).  Herod had all boys two years and under killed in Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18).  After Herod’s death, Joseph was told by an angel to return Jesus and Mary to Israel (Matt 2:19-22), where they settled in Nazareth (Matt 2:23; Luke 2:39).  
All other difficulties in the Gospels can be harmonized in a similar fashion.  We simply need to pay close attention to their contexts and time references, and remember that they are not intended to be read like exhaustive accounts, but theological books written to make a particular point.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Theistic Assumptions That Atheists Make, Part 2

Last week we began to consider some of the theisticassumptions that atheists make, using a particular article as a platform.  In the article, the author poses a series of questions that he considers unanswerable from a Christian worldview.  While the questions are indeed answerable, we are taking some time to consider the theistic assumptions behind the questions posed.
The first thing we considered was that the author assumes an objective standard of morality, which cannot be sustained by an atheistic worldview. Today we’re going to drill even a bit deeper and look at the twin assumptions of scientific truth and logic.  Atheists tend to argue against theism by challenging theists to provide scientific evidence for God.  They also frequently appeal to laws of logic.  We should contend that the atheist has no right to appeal to science or logic because his worldview cannot account for them.
At the heart of this issue is a field of philosophy called epistemology.  Epistemology essentially deals with the question of how humans gain knowledge.  How do we know the things we know?  The Bible teaches that the Triune God is the source of all wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3; Rom 11:33-36; Prov 2:1-6).  He is the objective source of knowledge.  Further, the Bible teaches that the unregenerate man knows that God exists, yet he seeks to suppress that truth (Rom 1:18-23).  When he denies God, he denies the only objective source of knowledge.  Therefore, when he uses knowledge about the world around him he cannot account for that knowledge.
Anytime we attempt to verify knowledge we must appeal to something else.  I know A because of B.  How do I know B?  I know B because of C.  This line of questioning can go on and on until we reach an objective Knower who knows all things.  The only way to know anything is to know everything OR to know the One who knows everything.  The Bible presents God as this ultimate Knower, the source of all knowledge.
Atheists have no true ultimate Knower.  They are forced to justify knowledge without an objective standard.  “How do you know that your desk is real?”  “Because I can see it and feel it.”  “But how do you know that your eyes and hands are giving you reliable information?”  “Because my brain tells me so.”  “But how do you know that your brain is giving your reliable information?”  “Uh, because my brain tells me so.”  They have no ultimate Knower to ground their knowledge so they can only appeal to the knowledge itself.
This is why it makes no sense for an atheist to use science and logic.  An appeal to science is an appeal to the senses.  I know the law of gravity because I can see it at work.  I observe it.  Logic is an appeal to reason.  I know the law of non-contradiction because I reason that something cannot be both “A” and “non-A” at the same time and in the same sense.  The atheist assumes the validity of science and logic without justification.  If you ask the atheist, “how do you know that your senses are valid?,” the only thing he can do is respond with some form of “it’s obvious” or ‘it’s self-evident,” which is just another way of saying, “I sense that my senses are valid.”  He is in the same position when it comes to logic: “I reason that my reason is valid.”  They appeal to science to validate science and to reason to validate reason.  This is called a circular argument, and ironically, they are very sensitive to perceived circular argumentation when Christians use it.  They are typically blind to their own use of it. 
Just as an atheist cannot account for objective morality, neither can he account for science and logic.  Yet, because he lives in a theistic world, he cannot live without using his senses and reason.  In other words, he lives as if God, the ultimate Knower, exists while claiming that He doesn’t. 
So when the author of the above-mentioned article asks Christians to think logically about a number of questions or to consider how “unscientific” the Bible is, he assumes the validity of science and logic, which can only exist in a theistic world.  And we might wonder, why would he appeal to science and logic if he believes God doesn’t exist?  He can’t help it.  He lives in the real world, the world where God does exist, and according to the Bible, deep down inside he knows that God exists, and he cannot live otherwise.
“Professing to be wise, they became fools…” (Rom 1:22)