Posted by: Dan | October 27, 2007

Piper & Co. on Hermeneutics (a rant)

My experience [with the New Perspective on Paul] is that people who talk this way do not generally see the meaning of the New Testament as clearly as those who focus their attention not in the extra-biblical literature but in the New Testament texts themselves. For the ordinary layman who wonders what to do when scholars seem to see what you cannot see, I suggest that you stay with what you can see for yourself.
~ John Piper

On this blog, I have, for the most part, deliberately avoided engaging with certain voices from within American Evangelicalism — in particular, I have tried to refrain from commenting on the likes of John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and James MacDonald.

To be honest, I’m at a bit of a loss as to why these fellows are even considered credible, or scholarly, or whatever. Any first year bible college student who has taken ‘Hermeneutics 101’ could easily rip apart most of what they have to say (or, perhaps better stated, that student could easily rip apart most of what is distinct or definitive about their position). Consequently, the thought of actually commenting on what they have to say, leaves me feeling sort of like a schoolyard bully — sure, one could rip apart their arguments… but isn’t that sort of like beating up a person with disabilities? (Indeed, lest this analogy be misunderstood, let me be clear that I think that we would be far, far better off if we invited persons with disabilities into our theological discussions — such people have greater insights than people like Piper & Co., and I’m not afraid to confess that they often have greater insights than I do).

So, when I find people within Evangelicalism deferring to these voices, I end up being rather lost for words and usually end up saying something like: “John Piper? Man, that guy’s a douchebag.” Granted, hardly a contribution to dialogue (and hardly a move away from being a schoolyard bully!), but if somebody is willing to treat such voices as authoritative then I suspect that we’re living on different planets and genuine dialogue is likely next to impossible.

However, I thought I would comment on the quotation from Piper that I included at the opening of this post because I think that the position that he takes towards hermeneutics is a position that extends beyond his inner circle and is quite common in Conservative Christianity more broadly. This is the type of hermeneutics that favours the “plain” reading of Scripture over and against any sort of “scholarly” (or, dare I say, informed) reading.

Of course, Conservatives, and people like Piper and Co., are committed to hermeneutics, but only to a certain extent. All of us, even Conservative Evangelicals, are aware of the importance of “context” for understanding scripture (hence Gordon Fee, and others, argue that the three things necessary for good interpretation are “context, context, and context!”). However, the problem for Conservatives is that the more hermeneutics has developed and grown (and incorporated various historical, literary, and socio-rhetorical criticisms), the more we learn about the context of the biblical texts, the more the Conservative position ends up being ‘boxed out’. That is to say: the more informed our hermeneutics, the more untenable their position.

This is well illustrated in recent developments in New Testament studies. Scholarly consensus is now that the life, ministry, and commitments of Jesus, as displayed within the Gospels, exhibit of sort of socio-political radicality that undermines contemporary Conservative approaches to socio-political realities. The same case is made convincingly for the other major New Testament “narrative” pieces — the book of Acts and the book of Revelation. Consequently, the Conservative has two options. The first option is to impose a new ‘canon within the canon.’ Many flee to Paul and, in particular, the deutero-Pauline epistles (the Pastorals) which then become the interpretive grid for reading what is more commonly recognised as the genuine (and more significant — at least as far as size is concerned) Pauline letters. Paul has become the last bastion for Conservatives who seek to root their position in serious engagement with the New Testament, and the Pastorals become the most authoritative books within the canon. Unfortunately, this Pauline (if one can even call it that) stronghold has faced a vigourous assault in recent years and, IMHO, has now been fundamentally compromised and revealed as false. Paul is not nearly the Conservative that many have assumed him to be, and I suspect that scholarly consensus will, in the next few years, embrace a Paul who is understood to be just as socio-politically radical as Jesus.

This, then, leads us to the second option. Having been effectively ‘boxed out’ of all areas of the New Testament, they can no longer flee to another voice within the New Testament canon. Thus, they simply flee from scholarship. Consequently, you get the utterly moronic advice of Piper: when you disagree with the experts, trust yourself not the scholars! Of course, the beauty of this position is that it is unassailable:

Have you encountered a position that refutes your own? Have you heard arguments that make you uncomfortable? Don’t worry about it. Trust yourself! If they insist on talking to you, just plug your ears and say, “Lalalalala, I can’t hear you!”

If one were to take this advice with other experts, like one’s doctor for example, the results could well be tragic. Indeed, the result of taking Piper’s advice is just as tragic as refusing to listen to one’s doctor when she tells you that you must stop engaging in a certain activity if you want to go on living.

I find the position of Piper & Co. to by mystifying, not only because it chooses to remain ignorant about the context of the biblical texts, but because it reveals a shocking ignorance about the way in which one’s own context impacts the way in which one reads the bible (of course, this criticism is one that extends beyond the position held by Conservatives, and could be applied to representatives of all camps). An accurate reading of the bible requires us to be continually learning about the context of the biblical texts, and the context in which we find ourselves. To pursue one, without pursuing the other, is dangerous and irresponsible. To refuse to pursue either, while simultaneously refusing to listen to those who do engage in those pursuits (à la Piper), is so stupid that I’m amazed that anybody would listen to people who propose such things.

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