Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - The New Hermeneutics

"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - Introduction 
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - The Canonization of Scripture
"Collected Writings on Scripture": Blogging Through Carson - The New Hermeneutics 

In his first chapter, on the subject of "Approaching the Bible," DA Carson raises the issue of hermeneutics - an intimidating term that simply means interpretation. Most sitting in conservative pews each week might be surprised to discover there is an entire industry on this issue.

In his discussion, Carson divides the "evolution" of hermeneutics in three stages. The first stage considered hermeneutics as both a science and an art. "[S]cience, because there were some important rules and principles that could be applied to the task." (37) This is the role of exegesis, original language studies, lexicons, etc. The exegete, then, was considered to be engaged in science. On the other hand, however, it was believed that hermeneutics is an art "because there were many calls for mature judgment borne of experience and competence." (37) All of this assumes, of course, is the belief that the author meant something and we can discover it - we ought to discover it.

The second stage focused on "an array of literary-critical 'tools'" (37). He has in mind here the various "criticisms": source, form, tradition, redaction, higher, lower, narrative, textual, etc. Carson briefly notes:
Although some gains were made by such approaches, there were also losses: much of the purpose of these techniques was to reconstruct the history and belief-structure of particular believing communities behind the text rather than to listen to the message of the text. (37-38)
Carson's words here remind me of Richard Bauckham who took form criticism to task in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. He writes:
The dominant scholarly picture of the transmission of Jesus traditions i the early church has its origins, some eighty-five years ago, in the methodology for Gospels studies that in generally  known in English as form criticism . . . It is a curious fact that nearly all the contentions of the early form critics have by now been convincingly refuted, but the general picture of the process of oral transmission that the form critics pioneered still governs the way most New Testament scholars think. (242)
Bauckham then goes into a lengthy defense of this thesis concluding with the following:
Even a few of these criticisms would be sufficient to undermine the whole form-critical enterprise. There is no reason to believe that he oral transmission of Jesus traditions in the early church was at all as Bultmann envisaged it. It is remarkable that this is not more widely acknowledged explicitly, though, once one is aware of it, it is not difficult to see that many contemporary Gospels scholars acknowledge it implicitly by ignoring form criticism in its classical form. But what form criticism has bequeathed as a long enduring legacy is the largely unexamined impression that many scholars - ad probably even more students - still entertain: the impression of a long period of creative development of the traditions before they attained written form in the Gospels. The retention of such an impression is not defensible unless it is justified afresh, for the arguments of the form critics no longer hold water. (249)
All of this is to say that the second stage Carson presents has largely been refuted at the academic level even though it remains popular at the popular level.

There is, then, a third stage which Carson defines as the New Hermeneutics. Rooted in postmodern philosophy, the new hermeneutic denies meaning is an impossible science. They argue that our own biases and limitations are too strong and thus the true meaning remains out of reach. Carson readily admits that there is some truth here. We all bring certain baggage to our interpretations. Yet Carson warns against the extremes the New Hermeneutics goes.

The best part of his discussion is the following:
If no single interpretation s right, then either all interpretations are equally meaningless (which leads to the hermeneutical nihilism known as 'deconstructionism') or all are equally 'right' - i.e., all are good or bad insofar as they are satisfying, or meet the needs of a particular person or community or culture,or meet certain arbitrary criteria. In this vein, these proponents of the new hermeneutic foster different "readings" of Scripture: a sub-Saharan Black African reading, a liberation theology reading, a feminist reading, a white Anglo-Saxon male protestant reading, a "gay" reading, and so forth. Aligned with the powerful respect contemporary Western culture assigns to pluralism, this new hermeneutic rules no interpretation invalid except that one which claims it is right and that others are invalid.

The issues surrounding the new hermeneutic are so complex that they cannot satisfactorily be handled here. It is important to recognize that this approach to understanding governs much of the agenda not only in contemporary biblical interpretation but also in the disciplines of history, literature, politics, and much else besides. Despite its many valuable insights, the new hermeneutic must be challenged on many fronts. Intuitively, there is something weak about a theory that propounds the relativity of all knowledge gleaned from reading, while producing countless books that insist on the rightness of this view. To insist that all meaning lies with the knower and not with the text, and then to write text to prove the point, is almost unimaginably self-contradictory. Worse, the theory in this form assumes that the author's intent is not reliably expressed in the text. It erects an impenetrable barrier between the author and the reader and calls it "text." The irony is that these ideas are written by authors who expect their readers to understand what they say, authors who write what they mean and hope that their readers will be persuaded by their reasoning. It is devoutly to be wished that such authors would extend the same courtesy to Moses, Isaiah, and Paul. (38-39)
I'm in agreement with Carson here. Ultimately, the best approach is to accept the good of the second and third stage while embracing the first. The New Hermeneutics philosophically questions the perspicuity of Scripture and that is a doctrinal assumption we stand on. God has condescended himself into human language so that we might hear and understand.

For more:
The Real Divide: Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 1
The Real Divide: Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 2
The Real Divide: Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 3
The Real Divide: Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 4
The Real Divide: Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 5
The Real Divide: Luther, the Reformation, and the Fight Over Perspicuity - Part 6
"The Clarity of Scripture": A Sermon Preached by Kevin DeYoung
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