Subjectivity & Inspiration

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Encountering

Crump, David. Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith. GrandRapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

I am of two minds when it comes to David Crumps’ Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture. On the one hand, I see it as a very useful response to the implications of higher criticism. I even find myself  agreeing with Crump about the importance of subjectivity as the only way to come to terms with these  implications. This is no small accomplishment, as I am generally reluctant to acknowledge the veracity of  anything that grounds itself in the philosophical insights of Sören Kierkegaard. [Yes, I have issues with the great Dane.] On the other hand, I find myself concerned over the implications of Crump’s approach, especially as it relates to our understanding of the nature of Biblical inspiration.

Crump begins his work wrestling with a problem that has been around for centuries, the Crump Picseemingly reckless manner in which the New Testament authors handled Old Testament passages identified as Christological prophecies. To Crump, the  messianic interpretations presented by Matthew are forced and unconvincing. There is no rational justification for Matthew’s approach, no harmonization that works. Here Crump draws upon insights from Kierkegaard to establish the only grounds upon which the believer can accept these as authentic: a leap of faith. We come to accept Matthew’s usage of these verses in the same way we come to Christ – through a subjective encounter with the living Christ. While I cannot agree with everything that Crump is saying, I do agree that these problematic passages are only fully understood through the lens of faith. I also agree with his assertion that while reason is not excluded from faith, embracing articles of faith is not a deduction from logical or historical arguments. But this is where my agreement ends.

At times, it seems that Crump is hesitant to characterize the Gospel writers handling of Old Testament scripture as divinely inspired. Crump describes their approach as one of “intuitive apprehension” when it comes to interpreting Christological prophecies. Of course, Crump would disagree with even characterizing these verses as Christological. He believes that the Gospel writers re-interpreted them, re-purposing them for the proclamation of the Gospel. The New Testament writers did not draw out what was hidden (or prefigured) in the Old Testament, they created an entirely new interpretation. This leads him to ask the very question that was foremost in my own mind: “What force directed the trajectory of this interpretive leap?” What led them to do this? An apropos question given the claims of higher criticism. But Crump’s response is far from resounding. He uses words such as artistic imagination, creative inspiration, and even personal inspiration rather than more traditional formulations. To be sure, he eventually characterizes it as “Gospel-inspired imagination activated by the Holy Spirit.” But this is the closest he comes to saying divinely inspired (and even that is the only reference to God’s role in the process in the entire book). Is Crump simply trying to articulate orthodoxy in phrasings that are more amenable to postmodern readers, or is he saying something more?

The something more comes through as Crump proceeds to demonstrate how this approach to the interpretation of scripture was not limited to the four evangelists. Jesus and Paul also made use of what he calls backward illumination, where modifications (or reinterpretations) are made to the scripture and convention. Crump is setting up a pattern that he maintains applies to all Christians. This is the way we operate in faith. While he places his exhortation primarily within the context of life experiences and our interpretation of them, he also commends this approach when “wrestling with the connections between Exodus and Calvary.” Unfortunately, he overlooks a key distinction between New Testament authors (to include the words of Jesus), and the average Christian alive today. They were divinely inspired. We are not. If we limit our understanding of inspiration to mere creative imagination fueled by our subjective experience of faith, then it is easy to see how Crump makes this connection. But if we view biblical inspiration in
the terms in which it has been traditionally articulated, then we are bound by the very words of scripture. No prophecy of scripture has ever been a matter of one’s own interpretation, or reinterpretation. The Bible is very clear on this point (see 2 Peter 1:20, 21 above). Their creative license comes from God. Yes, something we can only come to accept by faith. But faith alone, and the accompanying encounter we have with Christ, is not a sufficient license for us to creatively reinterpret scripture. I am not certain Crump is actually advocating this, but his ideas certainly lend themselves to this unfounded notion. And for that reason I did not enjoy this book.

For example, let’s apply Crump’s backward illumination to the issue of homosexuality. It is increasingly becoming more common for church leaders to “re-interpret” Old Testament passages in light of contemporary social mores. Yes, the church has traditionally interpreted passages in Leviticus, Genesis, and the writings of Paul to be condemning homosexual behavior. She has held that interpretation for centuries, and it has largely gone unquestioned. However, today’s Christian finds herself in a different context, with different experiences. We encounter homosexuals in our churches, living in monogamous relationships, and identifying as evangelical believers committed to the authority of scripture. This was not the experience that early believers, or even the people of Israel would have had when encountering homosexuals in their communities. They knew of temple-based homosexuality, pedophilia, and prostitution. Not exactly the face of homosexuality in the modern church. In light of the contrast between their experience in faith, and our experience in faith, would it be wrong for today’s Christian to view these scriptures differently? What are we to make of evangelical Christians who are increasingly re-interpreting these scriptures to only refer to the negative manifestations of homosexuality? After all, doesn’t our own personal experience of Christ’s love compel us to encounter these passages differently?

Perhaps, at this point you are ready to castigate me for reading too much into Crump’s little book. Please note that I am not saying that David Crump advocates embracing homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle for Christians. What I am saying, is that Crump’s ambiguity in his treatment of the interpretation of scripture, leaves the door open for others to make such claims. It provides a philosophical justification for such a view. When speaking about the interpretation of scripture, I would not expect a theologian (one who has committed his life to the study and teaching of scripture), to be less than resounding. When it comes to what we think of scripture, how we interpret it, and how we present it to others, we should be clear and emphatic. It’s God’s word. If we are to maintain that it encapsulates truth, that it is authoritative, and that it reflects God’s unchanging character, then we should do so with equal authority and force.

Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw, professor of doctrinal theology at Louisville Seminary, makes the argument that the ideas reflected in scripture do not necessarily correspond to human experience today. The interpreter’s context is important to how one interprets scripture. Since the context of the one interpreting scripture changes over time, Pauw would argue that the interpretation of scripture must also change.

. . . there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage. This is clear as soon as we start reading the Bible. Biological procreation was of supreme importance for ancient Israel because their very survival as a people depended on it—which is why you get biblical teachings about marriage and human sexuality that seem very odd to both contemporary Christians and contemporary Jews—the acceptance of polygamy, the insistence that a man marry his brother’s widow, an extreme worry about “wasting” male seed. Those are biblical ways of thinking about marriage and sexual activity that Jews and Christians don’t regard as normative anymore.

The reason Dr. Pauw can say that there is no single, unchanging biblical view of marriage, is because she has bought into the notion that scripture is open to reinterpretation as individual experiences and social contect change. So it would seem that my reading of Dr. Crump’s book is not entirely out of line with the practice of modern theologians, especially those that share very close connections to Dr. Crump and Calvin College (where Crump teaches). [for the full text delineating Pauw’s views, visit http://covnetpres.org/2013/11/time-amy-plantinga-pauw/]

Unfortunately, such views fail to take into consideration that true inspiration involves the guidance and activity of the Holy Spirit. Not only is God involved with the original composition of scripture (to the point where it does not represent the thought and opinion of man), he is also involved in our own reading of scripture. This is not to say that God somehow ensures that we will always properly interpret scripture. There are simply too many contradictory interpretations of scripture to make that kind of claim. But, it does ensure that we are not left to our own creative devices. We do not have the license to interpret and reinterpret scripture according to our own whims. There is a metaphysical grounding for the interpretation of scripture, and that grounding is the unchanging nature of God.

Having asserted that point, I think it is important to conclude by circling back around to the very thing that moved Crump to make the above assertions about backward illumination: the problem of how the New Testament authors seemingly reinterpreted Old Testament scriptures to have entirely new meanings. After all, my above assertion would leave open the idea that we could re-interpret scripture, so long as we could demonstrate that it is rooted in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to modern experience. There are two reasons that such an idea should never be entertained.

  1. If in fact the New Testament authors reinterpreted scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did so having received direct permission from Christ. As far as everyone else is concerned, there is no such permission given in scripture. That license was only given to the apostles, not every follower of Christ. John 16:13 is often misapplied to all Christians. It is important to note that in this passage Jesus is addressing the apostles and providing a future promise regarding biblical inspiration. This promise is never repeated in relation to the church in general.
  2. The New Testament authors may have divinely re-purposed certain Old Testament passages, making them prophecies about Jesus, but it is simply inaccurate to claim that they reinterpreted these passages. There is a subtle distinction to be made here. The Old Testament passages re-purposed to have Christological meaning, never lost their original meaning. And yet, this is exactly what Pauw, and others who would like to change the Bible’s narrative on homosexuality, are advocating be done with Old Testament verses regarding the biblical view of marriage. Giving a verse added meaning, and giving it a meaning contrary to the old, are two entirely different things. If we are to maintain that the writing of the scripture was guided by our unchanging God to reflect his unchanging will, then a passage of scripture can never come to have a meaning that is contrary to the original. More pointedly, even if we somehow accepted the idea that God divinely inspires today’s Christians to interpret scripture, he could never inspire them to reinterpret it.

Of course, it would be more consistent with the traditional understanding of inspiration to simply maintain that today’s interpretations of passages dealing with the biblical view of marriage and sexuality are not reinterpretations, but rather corrections of previously held misinterpretations. This is a harder argument to make, but nonetheless one that is being made quite popularly by several leaders in the gay Christian movement. Wisely, this is not the path that most theologians have taken. Such a path involves denying the clear facts of history and appearing as nothing more than a blind ideologue. For most, it is simply easier to undermine the nature of inspiration. See my earlier post Should Evangelicals Evolve on Homosexuality? for an evaluation of such attempts.

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