Exegesis # 6 More Exegetical Fallacies

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In my last post I mentioned several exegetical fallacies. I wanted to add another big one to the list:

Too much of a good thing
This is a fallacy that is frequently made by professionals who have expertise in a certain field. Say for example a biologist who sees e v e r y t h i n g solely in biological terms. Or the psychologist who over psychologizes everything and everyone. If you have a big fancy hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Let me give some examples of how this applies to biblical criticism:

The search for the "historical Jesus" involves what is called "redaction criticism" meaning it tries to seperate the message a gospel writer is trying to convey, from what they imagine the original point of Jesus may have been, hidden somewhere in there between the lines. The problem is, as Albert Schweitzer famously said, historians in search of the historical Jesus have looked down that deep well and in the end only seen their own reflection staring back at them.

I ran across an example of this recently in a book by William Loader called Jesus and the Fundamentalism of his Day. I was intrigued because the book was supposed to be about how to read the Bible like Jesus did. Sounds awesome right? Except that Loader's method is redaction criticism, so he ends up taking his own perspective and finding it in the words of Jesus that he decides are historical, while declaring the parts that disagree with him to be the additions of the gospel writer which he can then ignore. That means that he practically admits that Mark and Paul give a real critique of the OT, but instead of wresting with that, because he does not like the Old Testament being criticized, he calls this a "betrayal of Scripture" and says to the Gospel of Mark (and I quote) "Shame!" (p 41). So Loader says shame on Scripture for criticizing older Scripture. Hmmm. He can critique the NT, even disregard it, but a writer of the NT cannot criticize the OT without that being a "betrayal." What's wrong with this picture?

Here's the thing: knowing about history and understanding the culture of Jesus and the NT is certainly a very valuable thing to do. I really like the work of several scholars who use the historical-critical method (some favorites are Albert Nolan and Joachim Jeremias). The problems is when you have too much of a good thing and end up chucking most of the NT (usually the parts you don't like).

Or take the example of Greek word studies. They can be really valuable and sometimes uncover things that get lost in translation. For example in Acts, Peter is on trial for healing a crippled man (Acts 4:9–12). Peter declares that the man has been healed in the name of Jesus, and then says, "there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." The translation is right, but you'll miss that in Greek the word Peter uses for "healed" is the same one he uses for "saved". The Greek word sozo (σῴζω) can mean both healed and saved. Similarly, when Jesus say "your faith has healed you" to the woman with the issue of bleeding, and "your faith has saved you" to the woman who washed his feet with her tears the Greek here is word for word the same. Neat huh? That can lead to some important insights that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle.

The problem again with word studies is when you get too much a good thing. When folks for example base an entire doctrine on just one word, phrase, or sentence. That is just plain loony, and it happens all the time. People quote a single verse to back up a whole system of thought. And this is not just your average pew-warmer. Big time theologians do this all the time. When you consider that the NT is compiled from a bunch of manuscripts that are not all the same, this seems even crazier. If we are reading the whole point of someone then the variations are trivial, but if they hang on one word, what if that word is wrong? Even if it is not, think about if someone did that with something you wrote - taking some half sentence out of context and building a whole dogma around it in your name.

Want an example? Karl Barth goes on and on (as only Barth can) in his Church Dogmatics about the difference between agape and phileo love. Phileo love he says is bad because it expects something in return and is based on liking someone. Agape is totally unselfish. The thing is, in Greek there really is no clear distinction like that. Agape and phileo can be used as synonyms, and often are. John tells us that God phileos the Son. So either there is not that sharp of a distinction, or God likes Jesus (I sure like Jesus, so I can see why God would). Barth's argument is over the top and many have criticized it on those grounds, saying that it is healthy to like people and not to be only unselfish. Joy is a good thing, and heck even eros is a good thing. I don't just agape my wife, I eros her too, and one hopes Barth felt the same about his wife. It's an argument that makes no sense really and only stands because it claims to be based on a Scriptural word - a word that Barth in all likelihood understood incorrectly anyway. The thing is, you don't need to know Greek to recognize when someone is making a ridiculous argument, you just need to think a little. Knowing Greek is not a substitute for using your noggin.

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At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Jesus said...

Stop being dumb.

At 8:40 PM, Blogger あじ said...

On the agape/phileo thing, this article by Robert I. Bradshaw cites diachronic change as the reason for Barth's (and others') distinction, which turns out to be anachronistic. So you are correct, in biblical usage the words are pretty interchangeable. Only much later did the meanings diverge.


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