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Genre and Interpretation 3: Original Intent

July 25, 2013

I just finished reading Gregory Alan Thornbury’s wonderful book Recovering Classic Evangelicalism recently, and in it he made several points that are relevant to the ongoing discussion of the interpretation of Genesis. The first quote is rather long, but it is worth reading.

To be certain, the concerns about abandoning historic doctrines as a result of modifying one’s view of the reliability of Scripture are certainly warranted from those whose charge is to hold their institutions in trust with classic evangelical priorities. The [Peter] Enns scenario is perhaps most instructive in this regard, since it involves abandoning the notion of adam and eve as historical persons–a conclusion that has massive ramifications for soteriology and the entire system of theology. Enns should be commended for his candor regarding the situation, because he clearly advocates for what Steven Jay Gould once referred to as “non-overlapping magisteria”–the realm of faith and the realm of science. For as Enns writes in The Evolution of Adam: What The Bibles Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins: 

“Searching for ways to align modern scientific and ancient-biblical models of creation–no matter how minimal–runs the risk of obscuring the biblical texts in question. The creation stories are ancient and should be understood on that level. Rather than merge the two creation stories–the scientific and the biblical–we should respect that they each speak a different language. The fact that Paul considered Adam to be the progenitor of the human race does not mean that we need to find some way to maintain his view within an evolutionary scheme. Rather, we should gladly acknowledge his ancient view of cosmic and human origins and see in that very scenario the face of a God who seems far less reluctant to accommodate to ancient points of view that we are sometimes comfortable with.”

Responding to Enns, James K. A. Smith–in the spirit of Continental philosophy–argues that it is a mistake to assume that only the view of the original authors of the text should be the governing assumption of hermeneutics. He helpfully raises the question as to whether God himself has anything to say through the ancient text of the Bible…[Smith’s] thoughtful response to Enns is, however, a good call to step back and ask the question of what might be lost in a program designed to keep evangelicalism alive through a series of rescue attempts via the governing Zeitgeist. (122-124)

Only one more quote to go. It’s short.

Positively, inerrancy does imply the following: First, biblical teaching extends not only to the theological and moral teaching of the text, but also to the historical and scientifical matters implied by the text. (139).

Take a moment to think about these two quotes.

Thornbury’ insights force us to change our entire approach to the issue. We cannot settle the interpretation of Genesis merely by standing on a chair, yelling loudly, and waving around a copy of John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One (Though that sounds entertaining.) We have to step back and look at the entire project as a whole. When we say that authorial intent determines our interpretation of a specific Bible passage, are we just “copping out” and doing violence to the text? Can contextual information significantly influence our exigesis?

I believe that it can. For that, we need to take a short trip from the beginning of the Bible to the end.

The preterist view of the Book of Revelation holds that the book describes God’s covenant lawsuit against the nation of Israel, climaxing in the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. I don’t have time enough to go into a full explanation for readers who are unfamiliar with it, but I will hit on a few key points. The main idea I want to get across is that original intent is important for correctly understanding this book, along with Jesus’ prophecies in Matthew 24.

First, let us look at Jesus’ prophecy of in Matthew 24, specifically verse 28: “For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” (KJV) The eagles may not seem significant (indeed, some versions translate it as “vultures”) until we remember that one of the symbols of the Roman empire was the eagle, and the Roman battle standards had golden eagles affixed to their tops.

Second, let us turn now to Revelation 17:17

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

Here it is helpful to know that Rome was the city founded on seven hills (“heads”). The historical Babylon at that time was little more than a ruin, so the preterist interpretation is that Babylon refers to the corrupt city of Jerusalem, “drunk with the blood of the saints,” and sitting on the beast (Rome). I’m obviously skipping a lot of steps for time and clarity’s sake, but the point is that the author’s context and intent govern the hermeneutic.

A final example of this would be the cyclical structure of the book of Revelation. As a child, before I understood Postmillenialism, I was confused as to why there were so many judgments in the book–seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls of wrath. The answer lies in the cyclical structure. Jewish works would often have a cyclical structure instead of a linear structure. This means that the seals, trumpets, and bowls aren’t three separate judgments, but three ways of describing the same thing for emphasis. The genre of the book helps us understand what John is getting at here.

Obviously I haven’t done my view of Revelation justice, but I think that I have shown that authorial intent, contextual information, and genre can rightly influence our hermeneutic.

Current listening: “Africa” by Toto, “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places” by Garth Brooks

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2013 5:47 am

    I am liking this blog post for its content, yes, but mostly for what you’re currently listening to.

    • July 27, 2013 5:43 pm

      “I’ve Got Friends In Low Places” becomes my favorite song in the world on a weekly basis.

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