Rachel Held Evans Reviews Chapter 4 of “Inspiration and Incarnation”

Rachel Held Evans just posted her thoughts on chapter 4 of my book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old TestamentThe chapter deals with the unexpected–even troubling–way the New Testament writers use the Old Testament in their proclamation of the gospel.

The bottom-line point I make in that chapter is this: the writers of the New Testament did not think of their Bible the way many readers of the Bible do today. Whether trained scholars or everyday lay readers, our default mode is to read the Old Testament “in context,” meaning we want to understand the text the way the author intended it to be understood.

Now that sounds straightforward enough–and you bet I very much want you to understand what I am intending to say as I type this. But that’s the point: we are not talking about us today, but them back there.

Along with other Jewish writers of that time period (often called the Second Temple period), the New Testament writers handled their sacred text creatively, interpreting it in ways that the original authors most certainly did not mean. There’s no getting around that. For example, the prophet Hosea speaks of Israel as a nation coming out of Egypt, and Matthew says this is “fulfilled” in Jesus as an infant going down into Egypt to escape Herod’s edict to kill male babies (Matthew 2:15).

They would reproduce the “interpretive traditions” of Judaism in their own writings. For example, Paul refers to a water supply in the form of a rock following the Israelites through the desert for 40 years, which is how other interpreters before him understood the miraculous supply of water in Moses’ day (I Corinthains 10:4). (I explain both of these examples and others in the book.)

We try to be as objective as we can when we read the Bible. We want to respect it by making as sure as we can not to read into the text what is not there.

The problem we might have to come to terms with is that the New Testament authors did not share this “law” of evangelical interpretation. Rather, they began with what they believed the Bible to be really about–Jesus–and then let that “principle” guide them.

To put it another way, we tend to think first of using the right method to interpret the Bible so we can reach a proper interpretation. The New Testament writers began with the right answer and then set about finding that answer using a variety of methods.

Their goal drove their interpretation, not their method.

This can create soem awkward moments for some evangelical interpeters. I understand that, but that’s also too bad. That’s what the New Testament writers are doing.

Anyway, as always, Rachel does a great job and hits the important issues. I hope you get a chance to read her post.

  • Karen

    Thank you, Dr. Enns, for your work here. Interestingly, in this chapter it sounds like you describe something very close, if not identical, to the traditional Eastern Orthodox Christian hermeneutic of the OT. That is not surprising to me, though, since I have discovered there is a lot more continuity between the world view and hermeneutic of the NT writers with the early Fathers of the Church and with the early Fathers of the Church (particularly the Greek Fathers) and the later “Fathers” in the Eastern Orthodox Church to the present day. Whereas, with the advent of the philosophical changes represented by Medieval Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and then the Reformation in the West, all of western Christendom, particularly during the 2nd millennium A.D. developed in a new direction, with all varieties of Protestants eventually adopting some version of the modern historical-critical method. All that is to say that Eastern Orthodox Christian faith and liturgy still very much sources itself in the early Church Fathers’ pre-modern apostolic framework of biblical interpretation and, if it is truly being itself (and not borrowing from the theology of the West as it has sometimes done in more recent history in order to express itself), is not modern in its approach to faith and biblical interpretation like the Christendom of the West. Have you ever taken the opportunity to explore this connection?

  • Karen

    Btw, I see from reviewing your resume that we both graduated Christian colleges the same year (I’m a Wheaton College grad, class of ’82). Are you familiar with Dr. Robin Collins, philosophy prof. at Messiah? His work here describes a struggle I came to have as an Evangelical and why I eventually became Orthodox in 2007 after decades in various Evangelical traditions:

    As you are connecting Scripture’s inspiration with incarnation, I think it might be fruitful for you to explore the very profound understanding of the implications of the Incarnation of Christ and the nature of our salvation within the Eastern Orthodox interpretive tradition and its connection with the development of the Icon as a vehicle for the communication of biblical truth/spiritual reality. The Orthodox teach that “Icons do with color what the Scripture does with words.” Orthodox also believe that the Scriptures are a verbal “Icon” of Christ. Here are some of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s thoughts on an Orthodox reading of Scripture:

    If you do a search at Fr. Stephen’s on the theme of Scripture and its interpretation, I believe you will find a lot of good food for thought (and a validation, at least in part, of some of your convictions expressed in your book).

  • NW

    For me, the more interesting question is to what extent the writers of the NT actually thought they were engaging in a grammatical-historical interpretation of their scriptures. The fact that they weren’t doing this in at least several cases is obvious enough, but how they understood their own usage of their scriptures in these cases is much less clear.

    For example, when Matthew says that Joseph took his family to live in Nazareth so as to fulfill what was spoken of by “the prophets” concerning the fact that Jesus would be called a Nazarene, I can’t help but feel that Matthew was being a bit tongue-in-cheek at this point. Clearly, he knew that no individual prophecy anticipated such a thing about the coming anointed one, hence his dodgy reference to “the prophets.” In other words, what if Matthew in his own mind was not teasing out for his readers a “deeper meaning” of Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23 or Hosea 11:1 in Matt 2:15 but was merely engaging in a bit of wordplay in both cases.

  • Don Johnson

    I agree that Matt 2:15 is a challenge, but that is not to say that all proposed solutions are false because Matt’s use is simply bogus (as it might appear to us on a first reading).

    Yes, it is true that Hosea is referring to Israel as the primary meaning, but a prophecy does not need to have only 1 fulfillment, in some cases it can have multiple fulfillments. Furthermore, it was known that “thru Abraham all the nations (gentiles) will be blessed.” So Israel was seen as the way in which God would bless the nations, which we know was fulfilled in Christ, but was murkier back in NT times. So it can be seen as true that the nations will be blessed in Jesus thru Israel starting with Abraham. So my take is that Matt did not cheat, he just “stretched” Hosea’s prophecy to include the final fulfillment in Jesus and that the stretching was not invalid. Hosea used the metaphor of “my son” to refer to Israel and Matt picked up on that as being a remez/hint about Jesus.

    So my take away is that evangelicals should add the remez/hint interpretation idea to their arsenal rather than think it is bogus, I do. Yes, it might be totally misused, but so can any other principle.

    • peteenns

      Right. It’s midrash.

      • Don Johnson

        Matthew being the most Hebrew gospel means we should understand it using Hebrew ears.