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Robert Gundry

Thinking Outside the Box

Pandora’s, that is.

The hackneyed expression "thinking outside the box" derives from the nine-dot puzzle in which you are supposed to connect all the dots by drawing a continuous set of no more than four straight lines. Underlying the puzzle is a natural tendency to imagine that the corner-dots represent the corners of a square, so that connecting the dots requires a continuous set of at least five lines. The solution lies in thinking outside those corner-dots so as to imagine only four lines of a bisected triangle.

But a box is three-dimensional. A square is only two-dimensional. So why do we speak of thinking outside the box instead of thinking outside the square? Maybe, just maybe, the Greek myth of Pandora's box comes into play.

Whether or not it does, that myth likewise starts with a puzzle. For a wedding present, Pandora, the first human female, is given a box with contents unknown to her.[1] She is not supposed to open it, but she puzzles over its contents. Then curiosity gets the better of her. She opens the box, and out fly all the evils that afflict human beings: hard toil, noisome diseases, the miseries of old age, early death, and countless other plagues.

In Pandora's Box Opened, New Testament scholar Roy A. Harrisville likens to Pandora's still unopened box the traditional treatment of biblical books as a breed apart from other literature, as closed off from historical-critical questions of authorship, dates of writing, textual fidelity, factual accuracy, theological consistency, moral probity, and so forth. In modern times, though, historical critics have opened the box by asking those questions about biblical books (compare the statement of Benjamin Jowett in his famous essay, "On the Interpretation of Scripture" [1860], that an interpreter "is to read Scripture like any other book").

The relatively recent asking of historical-critical questions has engendered a host of answers pestilential in their effect on many people's faith in the Bible as God's Word, or even as containing or becoming the Word of God. If Moses did not write the Pentateuch, as many historical critics of the Old Testament aver, for example, what is to be made of Jesus' saying that Moses wrote about him (John 5:46), even if it be accepted that Jesus made such a statement? If Old Testament saints did not rise bodily from the dead and appear to many in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' death and resurrection in accord with Matthew 27:51b-53, as many historical critics of the New Testament claim, how can we be sure that Jesus himself rose bodily from the dead in accord with Matthew 28:1-20? Since late copyists inserted the story of the woman taken in adultery at several different locations in the New Testament (most often in John 7:53-8:11), what is to keep us from doubting the textual integrity of other passages too? You get the idea.

Since the Enlightenment, and along with more recent developments in literary criticism, the effect of these and similar questions has caused a backlash against historical criticism of the Bible. The backlash threatens to displace historical-critical interpretation of biblical texts not only with contemporary nonhistorical-critical interpretations but also with the allegorical, anagogical, and tropological interpretations offered by the early church fathers and medieval scholastics. Sometimes these pre-modern interpretations are touted as superior to modern interpretations arising out of historical criticism.

Publishers are riding the pre-modern wave with series such as the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (IVP), emphasizing the early church fathers, and the Church's Bible (Eerdmans), emphasizing medieval commentators. Even in traditionally historical-critical series, attention to pre-modern interpretations has become both common and celebrated, as for example in Ulrich Luz's three-volume commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew (Fortress; Hermeneia Series). Moreover, theological interpretation of the Bible in the form of commentaries written by contemporary theologians rather than by biblical scholars is increasingly in vogue, as in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Baker) and Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Westminster John Knox).

Harrisville describes these developments as "the ['ten thousand times ten thousand'] voices that challenge or dismiss the historical-critical method" and complains, "The synchronic is thrown against the diachronic, orality against textuality, the text against authorial intent, the intra-textual against the referential, reader-response against text autonomy, feminist against patriarchal interpretation, and so on and on." To this list can be added postcolonial criticism, LGBTQ-criticism, other advocacy criticisms, and even lectio divina.

Against those developments, Harrisville defends the historical-critical method on the ground that biblical religion arises out of God's dealing historically with humankind. As others have put it, the biblical God is not a god of myth-makers or the God of philosophers—rather, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses and Joshua, of Jesus and the apostles. So if we are to make sense of the Bible, whether or not we believe in its divine inspiration, it behooves us to ask of it historical questions, and to answer those questions. Thus the subtitle, in part, of Harrisville's book: An Examination and Defense of Historical-Critical Method.

Why the need for a defense right now? Answer: because of what Harrisville identifies as a current malaise in that there is no longer any agreement on method among biblical interpreters. No longer do they speak the same hermeneutical language with one another, as they used to do when aiming to determine the historically, authorially intended meaning of biblical texts. Harrisville's complaint leads him to discuss an extraordinarily broad range of interpretive issues, most of them related to the Bible in particular, but some of them having wider relevance.

With apologies for its length, here is a catalogue of those issues that gives some notion of the breadth of discussion:

A closed biblical canon versus openness to further revelation;

The Old Testament as contributory to the New Testament versus the Old Testament as opposed, or at least inferior, to the New Testament;

Accommodation versus nonaccommodation to cultural limitations in human understanding;

Naturalism (as in demythologization) versus supernaturalism (as in accepting the possibility of miracles);

Biblical errancy versus biblical inerrancy;

Verbal versus conceptual infallibility;

Harmonizing of biblical texts versus acceptance of disharmony;

Biblical perspicuity versus opacity;

The letter versus the (so-called) spirit of biblical texts;

Literal versus figurative interpretation;

Preunderstanding versus neutrality in the process of interpretation;

The hermeneutics of suspicion versus the hermeneutics of charity;

Reason versus faith and revelation;

Truth as correspondence to reality versus truth as subjective;

The advantage versus nonadvantage of faith and obedience for biblical interpretation;

Biblical texts as interpreted by human beings versus human beings as interpreted by biblical texts;

Interest in what lies behind a biblical text (its author's psychology, for example) versus interest in a biblical text for its own sake;

Interest in an author's intention versus interest in interpreters' often different intentions;

The Spirit's interior witness to Scripture versus external authority;

Individual interpretation (as in Pietism, for example) versus ecclesiastical interpretation (as in Roman Catholicism, for example);

Exegesis according to historical analysis versus exegesis according to a theological system;

Historicism versus allegory and typology.

Lying between these opposing poles, of course, are mediating positions, which Harrisville also discusses.

The subtitle's remainder, and Its Master Practitioners, telltales the main structure of Pandora's Box Opened. After comparatively brief treatments of interpretive methods in ancient history, the Reformation era, and the period of Protestant orthodoxy and Pietism, Harrisville pays most attention to the Enlightenment, the Modern Period, as he calls it (up through the 19th century), and the 20th century.

Slotted into the chronological periods are accounts of the interpretive positions taken by well-known influential figures such as Luther, Calvin, Bengel, Reimarus (often over-rated), Spinoza, Locke, Semler, Schleiermacher, Strauss, Baur, Edwards, Hodge, Barth, Bultmann, Cadbury, and Gadamer. Other figures, some of them perhaps lesser known (especially in English-speaking circles), also come into view: Müntzer, Flacius, Wolff, Haman, Baumgarten, Edelmann, Ewald, and Schlatter (finally getting his due), plus Stuart, Harper, Burton, Mathews, Case, and Lake in the US. There are many others as well. Thus Harrisville's treatment of historical-critical method is itself historical-critical in regard to biblical interpretation.

Harrisville has provided such a feast of information and argument, much more than can be detailed in a mere review, that it would be churlish to fault him for omissions. So I shall compliment him with complements. Fitting splendidly into the discussion would be some attention to Martin Kahler's The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (1892). The historical-critical contributions of Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Theodor Zahn, Heinrich Julius Holtzmann, and Burnett Hillman Streeter may also deserve attention. Since form-criticism, represented most outstandingly by Rudolf Bultmann, did gain attention, perhaps Charles Harold Dodd's kerygmatic alternative needs some too. Likewise in regard to Oscar Cullmann's emphasis on salvation-history and Raymond E. Brown's advocating a biblical sensus plenoir in addition to hypothesizing, historically-critically, five stages (later, three stages) in the production of John's Gospel.

Since text-criticism is admittedly a subset of historical criticism, one might welcome at least a mention of Westcott and Hort (for the New Testament) and workers on the Dead Sea Scrolls (for the Old Testament). Notably, the early historical-critical publications of Richard Simon caused stirs in the Roman Catholic Church, as did the later controversy over Alfred Loisy at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Also worthy of mention may be the work of M.-J. Lagrange and others at the École Biblique in Jersualem, plus the historical-critical effects of Cardinal Bea's work on the papal encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu and at the Second Vatican Council. The effect on historical-critical method of biblical archaeology, with standout names such as that of William Foxwell Albright, would further enrich an already rich discussion.

But does Karl Barth really count as one of the historical-critical method's Master Practioners? Whether true or not, the word at Basel University was that Cullmann, who also taught there, considered him a great theologian but a lousy exegete, whereas Barth considered Cullmann a great exegete but a lousy theologian.

As generally agreed, the main blame (if you will) for opening Pandora's Box of historical-critical questions rests at the feet of Baruch Spinoza. According to the ancient Greek myth, however, hope remained in the box. It did not escape. At the outset of his book, Harrisville notes this remainder, but he does not return to it explicitly at the end. Nonetheless, he does find hope for the future of historical-critical method, especially in the views of his former teacher Otto Piper. He admits with Piper that readers' presuppositions and purposes inevitably cloud authorially intended meanings and generate other meanings, as often in New Testament usage of the Old Testament. Yet despite the consequent cutting down to size of historical-critical method, argues Harrisville, we need the method for a focus on the historical reality, however much or little it may be blurred around the edges, out of which emerged the gospel as God's Word.

Here a qualification is in order: for Harrisville, Otto Piper, and many others, the Bible is not to be equated with God's Word. It only, but importantly, "attests" to that Word, which consists in the gospel (so the very last statement in Pandora's Box Opened). Welcome, then, to a canon within the canon, the interior canon of the gospel being the truly decisive one.

How to distinguish the gospel as God's Word in the Bible from the rest of the Bible? This question throws us back onto questions of private versus communitarian versus creedal versus ecclesiastical judgments. And back onto the question whether to interpret the gospel expansively in terms of the whole Bible, or to separate out a gospel for use as a tool to critique the rest of the Bible (as in Martin Luther's treatment of the Epistle of James, for instance). If to separate out a gospel, will this gospel be paedobaptistic and covenantal? Or fidebaptistic and conversionist? Or pneumatic and charismatic? Will it be individualistic or socialistic?[2]

Whose version of the gospel gets to be the scalpel that cuts away whatever is deemed extraneous or inimical to that version? Will it be a Roman Catholic version? An Orthodox version? A Lutheran version? A Calvinistic version? An Arminian version? A Pentecostal version? A Marxist version? Some other version? Presumably a Christian gospel arises out of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But out of him as a teacher? As a reformer? As a prophet? As an example? As a substitutionary sacrifice? As a victor? As some of the above but not all, or as all the above and perhaps more?

In other words, to distinguish the gospel within the Bible from the rest of the Bible is to pose the question of plenary inspiration versus partial inspiration—and, if partial, the further question of how to identify the inspired parts (or inspiring parts if you think the Bible becomes God's Word for you in a crisis). As for me, I'm pinning my Pandoran hope on the Bible as a whole. Despite my disagreement with the Lutheran Harrisville at this point, I have to say that his dense and learned discussion deserves a close reading by every serious biblical scholar, church historian, and theologian.

Robert Gundry is scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College.

1. Actually the box was a jar, but the mistranslation has become traditional.

2. An English clergyman once told me that to be a Christian I have to be a Socialist, a statement that reminds me of another of Benjamin Jowett's famous sayings: "My dear child, you must believe in God despite what the clergy tells you." Not that Jowett's brand of theology is to be adopted, however. He himself was a clergyman!

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