Historical Interpretation of the OT: Three Requirements (Long)

 V. Philips Long wrote a helpful article for the NIDOTTE called “Old Testament History: A Hermeneutical Perspective.”  It’s a very level-headed discussion about interpreting the history recorded in the OT.  One section of the article gives three requirements for the interpreter of OT history.  Here’s a summary of those three requirements:

  1. Literary competence.  It may seem surprising to begin this section on requirements for historical interpretation with an emphasis on literary competence, but any who wish to include the OT among their sources for the history of ancient Israel or, for that matter, those who may wish to dismiss it, must at least recognize that competent literary reading of the OT with a view to discovering its truth claims (historical or otherwise) is a necessary first step….  By ‘literary competence’ I mean a developed awareness of the conventions and workings of a given literary corpus and a consequent ability to discern what kinds of claims a given text within that corpus may be making (cf. Barton, esp. 8–19; Baron, 93). When one is learning a foreign language, one studies the grammar of that language (i.e., the linguistic principles by which it communicates) so as to increase linguistic competence and the ability rightly to interpret individual utterances. By the same token, when one’s aim is to understand individual passages of a “foreign” literary corpus such as the OT (which originated at a time and place far removed from our own), it is immensely useful to learn what one can of the “grammar” of that literature (i.e., the literary principles by which it operates).  …One of the best ways to improve one’s literary competence is to read as much of the literature under consideration as possible….
  2. Theological comprehension.  A second requirement for those who would interpret the OT historically is theological comprehension. Again, just as it may have seemed odd in the preceding section to highlight literary competence as a requirement for historical interpretation, so it may seem odd to stress theological comprehension as a requirement for those who would use the OT responsibly in historical reconstruction. But the fact is that in the narratives of the OT God is a central character, not only present behind the scenes but occasionally intervening directly in the action of the story—e.g., sending plagues, parting seas and rivers, destroying city walls, appearing in visions, throwing enemies into panic, protecting his people, speaking through his prophets, fulfilling their words, and so forth. In short, the God depicted in the OT is not only transcendent but is also immanent in human (historical) affairs. As G. B. Caird succinctly puts it, “the most important item in the framework within which the people of biblical times interpreted their history was the conviction that God was the Lord of history” (217–18; cf. Westermann, 210; Wolff).

  3. Historical criticismThe core story of the OT presents itself as a true story, and not just in the sense that it is “true to life.” The central events of the sweep of redemptive history are presented as real events that happened in the lives of real people (cf. Arnold, 99; Halpern, 1988; Licht, 212–16). Whatever artistic traits may be present in the narratives of the OT (and they are many), it remains the case that most of these narratives present themselves as more than just art for art’s sake. They present themselves not merely as realistic narratives but as referential narratives, as the verbal equivalent of portraits, not just generic paintings. Therefore, unless it can be demonstrated that this assessment of the character of the narratives is incorrect—and there are some who think so (e.g., Smelik, Thompson)—then any legitimate literary reading must take their historical truth claims seriously, whatever one may believe about the truth value of the claims.

    It is necessary to acknowledge the Bible’s historical truth claims not only for literary reasons, but for theological reasons as well. For “in point of fact, the Bible consistently presents theological truth as intrinsically bound to historical events” (Arnold, 99). The religious faith propagated in the OT is dependent not simply on some “story world” but on the real world about which the stories are told. As noted earlier, the God of the OT is the Lord of history, and his self-disclosure and salvific actions are accomplished in both event and word (see Long, 1994, 88–119).

 Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), chapter 4.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Critical Calvinists and Pride (Hughes, Bridges)

Preaching the Word: Sermon on the Mount—The Message of the Kingdom  One thing I’ve noticed over the years is the fact that some Calvinists are also very critical of others.  I know that some people in general are critical by nature, but to me it seems worse when someone who holds to the doctrines of grace is always super critical about others.  Maybe you’ve seen it: these people are always pointing out the flaws in someone’s theology, they’re quick to find fault in someone’s beliefs, they generally don’t give others the benefit of the doubt, and you won’t hear this type of person speak loving or kind words to those with whom they disagree.  To be honest, I sometimes struggle with a critical spirit, so I’m not claiming the higher moral ground here!  My point is that a critical spirit is not a Christian attitude or mentality.  And further, the more we understand the truths of the doctrines of grace, the more our critical spirit should decrease and decline.  Why?  Because the doctrines of grace kill pride and produce humility.

I appreciate how Kent Hughes describes this as he comments on Matthew 7:1-5:

A critical spirit, a judgmental, condemning spirit, is endemic to the human situation. The media, our social relationships, our schooling, and our work situations are immersed in it. And though we often joke about it, experiencing it is most unpleasant. Few things are more exhausting and debilitating than harsh, unloving criticism.

Even sadder, the church of Jesus Christ is itself full of those who make a habit of criticism and condemnation. Some seem to think their critical spirit is a spiritual gift. But the Lord does not agree. In the opening verses of Matthew 7 (the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount), our Lord sets the record straight in no uncertain terms. He tells us how we should relate to our brothers and sisters in this matter of judgmentalism, especially in respect to the fact that we will all undergo a final judgment.

…When a critic discovers faults in another, he feels a malignant satisfaction and always sees the worst possible motives in the other’s actions. The critical spirit is like the carrion fly that buzzes with a sickening hum of satisfaction over sores, preferring corruption to health.

…We see critical spirits all around us—in our media, in our schools, in our social relationships. But it should not be a part of the church. May God purge it from our lives and from our churches. We would each do well to ask ourselves, who have I been critical of this week? Has my focus on their faults blinded me to my own? Then we need to ask God to help us see ourselves as we are. (R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 227–228.)

Jerry Bridges also wrote well on this when he discussed sins like pride, bitterness, envy, and an unforgiving spirit:

One of the most difficult defilements of spirit to deal with is the critical spirit. A critical spirit has its root in pride. Because of the “plank” of pride in our own eye we are not capable of dealing with the “speck” of need in someone else. We are often like the Pharisee who, completely unconscious of his own need, prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). We are quick to see—and to speak of—the faults of others, but slow to see our own needs. How sweetly we relish the opportunity to speak critically of someone else—even when we are unsure of our facts. We forget that “a man who stirs up dissension among brothers” by criticizing one to another is one of the “six things which the Lord hates” (Proverbs 6:16–19).

All of these attitudes—envy, jealousy, bitterness, an unforgiving and retaliatory spirit, and a critical and gossiping spirit—defile us and keep us from being holy before God. They are just as evil as immorality, drunkenness, and debauchery. Therefore, we must work diligently at rooting out these sinful attitudes from our minds. Often we are not even aware our attitudes are sinful. We cloak these defiling thoughts under the guise of justice and righteous indignation. But we need to pray daily for humility and honesty to see these sinful attitudes for what they really are, and then for grace and discipline to root them out of our minds and replace them with thoughts pleasing to God.  Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1978), 122.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Critical and Opinionated Christians (Manton)

Sadly, some Christians are super critical and overly opinionated.  They constantly criticize others and go around boldly stating their opinion (as if they’re always right).  This is a sign of pride.  Of course, no Christian is perfect – we all struggle with various sins, passions, and evil pleasures.  But it is important for those who follow Christ to be humble, loving, patient, kind, gentle, peaceful, and so forth (cf. Gal. 5:22).  We should fight against being critical and overly opinionated.  Thomas Manton does a nice job explaining moderation and Christian wisdom in his commentary on James 3:17.  He said, “A truly wise Christian is moderate:”

1) In his criticism.  He is not always making the worst of matters but judges charitably and favorably where things are capable of being interpreted without censure.  People who examine everything by very strict rules and use harder terms than the nature of human actions requires may seem to be more wise and perceptive than others, but they show lack of this true wisdom that the apostle commends. Austerity [a severe manner] is the sign of folly.  Wise Christians, in weighing actions, always allow for human frailty.

2) In his opinions.  He does not urge his own opinions too much or wrest those of his adversaries beyond what they intended to odious consequences that they disclaim – a fault that has much disturbed the peace of Christendom.  Charity should consider not what follows of itself from any other opinion, but what follows in the conscience of those who hold it.  A person may err in logic without erring in faith; and though you may show him the consequences of his opinion, you must not make him responsible for them.  To make anyone worse than he is, is the way to disgrace an adversary not reclaim him.

These are good reminders!  Rather than always criticising and voicing our opinion, we should seek the wisdom from above, Christ-like wisdom, wisdom that is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere (James 3:17, NIV).

The above quotes are found in Thomas Manton’s (abridged) commentary on James, p. 215-216.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015



The Psalter as Living and Dynamic

I’ve posted a few times on the Psalter in the last week or so, noting how the psalms were written and slowly collected somewhere between the period 1400 and 400 BCE, give or take.  This might be sort of a new concept for many Christians, but rather than detract from our view of Scripture it adds to it, in my opinion.  Here’s one good point by Tremper Longman along these lines.

“The key is to see the Psalter as a living, open book during the whole Old Testament period.  The Psalter was in constant use individually and corporately from its very beginning.  In addition, new psalms were constantly added” (How to Read the Psalms, p. 43).

Though I think “constantly added” is an overstatement (150 psalms collected over 1000 years is not constant addition!), Longman’s point is well noted.  Bernard Anderson, in Out of the Depths (another great study of the psalms), said it this way.

“A closer look at the fivefold structure of the Hebrew Psalter reveals that this symmetrical organization was superimposed upon previously circulating collections of psalms, just as modern hymn books are based upon previous editions” (he cites and explains the “editorial notice” at the end of Psalm 72 here; it is found on page 11).

I’ll continue this thought later…

shane lems

sunnyside wa

More Machen

The church today is facing something similar to what Machen faced less than 100 years ago: Jesus divorced from Scripture, history, and the church.  We saw it a few days back in Deepak Chopra’s “third Jesus.”  Deepak’s jesus used scented lotions and came so we could realize our inner potential, so we might find self-actualization and inner tranquility.  The Christ of Scripture, history, and the church is God in the flesh who came to save people from sinful self-actualization by becoming a bloody curse on the cross, by destroying death in his resurrection, and by ascending into glory where he now lives to protect his church.  This is the gospel truth that Machen so ably defended.

“I do not think that what the New Testament says about the cross of Christ is particularly intricate.  It is, indeed, profound, but it can be put in simple language.  We deserved eternal death; the Lord Jesus, because he loved us, died in our stead upon the cross.  It is a mystery, but it is not intricate.  What is really intricate and subtle is the manifold modern attempt to get rid of the simple doctrine of the cross of Christ in the interests of human pride.  Of course there are objections to the cross of Christ, and men in the pulpits of the present day pour out upon that blessed doctrine the vials of their scorn; but when a man has come under the consciousness of sin, then as he comes into the presence of the cross, he says with tears of gratitude and joy, ‘He loved me and gave himself for me.”

From “What the Bible Teaches ABout Jesus” in J. Gresham Machen, Selected Shorter Writings, edited by D. G. Hart (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004), 30.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Frei on Precritical Biblical Interpretation

I’ve been reading Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New York: Yale, 1974) for the past few weeks.  This book is quite deep and thick and rich – I know for sure I’m only tracking with the main points that Frei is making.  I enjoy it, but it’s going to take one or two more readings for me to fill in all the blanks.  The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative is not for sissies!

In this book, among other things, Frei notes the huge change/morph in biblical interpretation from the pre-critical to the critical period (roughly speaking, before and during the enlightenment).  Here are two elements of biblical interpretation that changed radically.

First: In pre-critical hermeneutics “if it seemed clear that a biblical story was to be read literally, it followed automatically that it referred to and described actual historical occurrences.   The true historical reference of a story was a direct and natural concomitant of its making literal sense.  This is a far cry from taking the fact that a passage or text makes best sense at a literal level as evidence that it is a reliable historical report.  When commentators turned from the former to the latter interpretive use of literal meaning or used the two confusedly, it marked a new stage in the history of interpretation – a stage for which deistic convictions, empirical philosophy, and historical criticism form part of the technical intellectual background” (p. 2).  If I can reword this or comment on it, I think the difference Frei is pointing out is that in the pre-critical era, the text made sense because it described history accurately.  In the critical era, the shift is huge: the text made sense in so far as it described history accurately.  Hence historical criticism grew like a weed.

Second: In the pre-critical era, “if the real historical world described by several biblical stories is a single world of one temporal sequence, there must in principle be one cumulative story to depict it” (Ibid.).  Frei goes on to say that this means the many smaller narratives fit into the bigger or main one.  Hence, interpretation in the pre-critical era consisted of figures/types (which were the smaller narratives and stories) which pointed to the bigger or main story.  “Without loss to its own literal meaning or specific temporal reference, an earlier story was a figure of a later one” (Ibid.).    The OT types and figures were promises that were fulfilled in the NT, which was one huge thing that held the Scriptures together.  What happened in the critical era of interpretation was that the literal and figurative (typological) reading of the narratives ceased to be allies and instead became almost foes.  “Historical criticism and biblical theology were different enterprises and made for decidedly strained company” (p 8.).

To summarize, Frei makes a strong case for the huge and paradigmatic shift from precritical to critical biblical interpretation.  The former (precritical, which includes the Reformers and their scholastic successors) viewed Scripture as historically reliable with types/figures as arrows that pointed to the overarching story of redemption.  When the enlightenment-critical period came, the figural and historical were divorced and almost at odds.  The BT guys focused on the figural, and the critical guys focused on the historical, which resulted in much hermeneutical hay.

More on this later.  For a great study in this, don’t forget to read Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, especially volume two on Scripture.  Muller doesn’t fully chart the above shift, but charts the waters up to and a little into the shift.  It is fascinating to see how rationalism and deism hurt biblical interpretation.  It is also fascinating from our point of view to see how criticism can be done at a “faith seeking understanding” level; we can learn from the critics, even if we don’t adopt their methods.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Prose and Poetry or Narrative Prologues and Poetic Epilogues

Some OT scholars make hay with the seeming discrepancies between Exodus 14 (the exodus narrative proper) and Exodus 15 (the poetic or hymnic reflection on the exodus).  For example, they discuss the history, authorship, and date of the two chapters.  It is true: on close reading of the two texts, one can see some differences such as how the Egyptians drowned, how the Lord did his work, and how the people passed through on dry land.  These “oddities” are what caused the older critics to snip the text up into different pieces.  Some older critics say that Ex 15 is a late poem which has features of both “J” and “P;” this accounts for some of the oddities.

An alternative way to answer these “oddities” is by utilizing the basic point that Richard D. Patterson made in his article, “Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15” (Bibliotheca Sacra 161, Jan-Mar 2004).  Patterson first shows several older Egyptian texts that are very similar to Ex 14-15 in this way: there is prose about a battle by a great Pharaoh, then there is a poem about the Pharaoh’s prowess on the battle field.  Patterson then notes several places in the Pentateuch that follow this pattern.  His main emphasis is relationship between the narrative in Ex 14 and the poetic response (a sort of victory psalm) in Ex 15.  There are similarities (theme and vocab) and differences (cf. above) between the two, but this type of relationship between prose and poetry in ANE/OT texts is not abnormal.

How then do we deal with those differences?  “One must deal with the final form of the full story…including the use of poetry set within the flow of the narrative” (p. 50).  Furthermore, “the literary constraints attendant to the genres of prose and poetry inevitably require that each should be evaluated on its own terms.  The victory song of 15:1-18 should not be pressed with a literalistic hermeneutic and the prose narrative should not be expected to contain all the sensational features of the poem” (p. 52).  Though Patterson says more, notice these two. 1) We have to deal with the text as is, despite what one may think about history and author (cf. Childs in Exodus, p. 248).  2) Since they are different genres,  they need to be interpreted (evaluated) on their own terms.  In other words, of course poetry is going to be different than narrative!

Let me use Enns’ similar comments in his Exodus commentary to bolster what Patterson said.

“If we go through this song, as many have done, with a fine-toothed comb, looking for possible discrepancies with the narrative of chapter 14, we will find them; but in doing so we will have misread the song.  It is a modern Western penchant to require complete ‘consistency’ between accounts, but the biblical authors are not so concerned.  We must resist the temptation to impose our modern expectations on a text, which ancient texts are not always prepared [or meant to – spl] to shoulder” (p. 297).

The “oddities” are not insuperable or contradictory, but Ex 14 and Ex 15 give us different perspectives on the same event.  Ex 15 is “a poetic expression of what we have seen in narrative form in 14:14: ‘the LORD will fight for you.’  The battle is God’s; hence, from his vantage point, there is no struggle” (Enns, 305).  In other words, Ex 15 is different in genre (it is a poem with poetic features) and perspective (it is from heaven’s point of view) than Ex 14.  This accounts for the differences, not an amalgamation of textual snippets.

shane lems

sunnyside wa