Monday, June 27, 2011

We Are Not the First Readers

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers (Eph 4:10).

Presuming objectivity appears to be a leading occupational hazard for biblical scholars. For example, consider this recent reflection from a well-known NT commentator and scholar:
As a professional biblical scholar, I always try hard to resist falling into such 'ruts,' though I am much aware of my fallibility in this respect. My goal, at least, is always to let scriptural exegesis more than presuppositions, 'functional nonnegotiables,' or theological traditions determine my conclusions.
I actually laughed out-loud when I read that line, "As a professional biblical scholar..."! There's even a little " :)" in the margin of the book to mark the moment of hilarity.

What tickled my funny-bone is that the guild of "professional biblical scholar" is wedded to more presuppositions and "nonnegotiables" than any other demographic of Bible-readers. Do not misunderstand, holding tenaciously to presuppositions is essential to the scholar's job security, advancement, and plain ol' r-e-s-p-e-c-t from their peers. Just because their presuppositions do not appear in any creed or confessional statement does not mean they are objective (as they strangely often assume).

So, for this reason, I was so refreshed to read the following in the introduction of Thomas Schreiner, Galatians (my copy arrived on Saturday to great fanfare!):
Amazingly, Gordon Fee writes from quite a different perspective, saying that his goal is to help people read Galatians 'as if the Reformation had never happened' [citing Fee, Galatians [2007), p. 1). On the one hand, Fee's goal is laudable. He wants to read the text on its own terms. On the other hand, it is remarkably naive and ahistorical, for he pretends that he can read Galatians as a neutral observer of the text apart from the history of the church. I am not suggesting that we must read Galatians in defense of the Reformation, nor am I denying that the Reformation may be askew in some of its emphases. But it must be acknowledged that none of us can read Galatians as if the Reformation never occurred. Such a reading is five hundred years too late. Nor can we read Galatians as if the twentieth century never happened or apart from the works of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and the like. We can consider whether Reformation emphases were wrong (I will argue that they were not), but what we cannot do is read Galatians as if we were the first readers (p. 21).
Preach it, brother! It takes courage for a "professional biblical scholar" like Schreiner to write that paragraph. Courage he likewise showed in the preface, when he wrote:
I know it is out of fashion in some circles, but it seems to me that Martin Luther and John Calvin were substantially right in their interpretation of the letter and that their pastoral application of the letter still stands today (p. 13).
I can already tell, this commentary is going to be worth every penny.

But more to the point, not only can we never read Galatians as if we were the first readers, but we should not even lament this fact! We are privileged to stand on the shoulders of two millennia of faithful Christian teachers who yet lead and equip us by their writings.

They are gifts to the Church, and gifts not to be implicitly despised under the guise of presumed objectivity.


  1. Good article. I really enjoyed Schreiner on Romans and look forward to his Galatians work.

    Why is it impossible to read Galatians as if we were the first readers? I thought that's what we strive to do as we begin to study a text... leave everything behind other than a grammatical-historical presupposition...

  2. Thank you for the comment and question! I'll try to be as brief as possible.

    First, we cannot read it as the first readers, because we are not actually the first readers. And if we fail to acknowledge the chronological, cultural, and linguistic distance between us and the original readers, we risk some pretty major misinterpretations. None of the Bible was written to us, but all the Bible was written for us. Remembering that distinction is essential.

    Secondly, acknowledging the "distance" between ourselves and the original readers is precisely what is involved in grammatical-historical interpretation. We are striving to understand the passage in its historical context, by its grammtical features, within its near and wide biblical context, as intended by the original author and as understood by the original readers. A sound and necessary query of any text is "How would the Galatians understood this?" It is a doorway into many avenues of reflecting on the culture and the language of the original recipients and arriving a good interpretation. To cite one example, it is this line of inquisition that leads many of us to premillennial convictions. Just read Ezek 36-37 and ask yourself, "How would the Israelites have originally understood this?"

    Fee's comment is "remarkably naive" partly because it misapplies the grammatical-historical method by ignoring the distance to the original readers. (I have personally noted that in Fee before - though he is a helpful NT textual critic, I find his commentaries less than helpful. When I read them I seem to sense his Pentecostal precommitments).

    Thirdly, none of us can completely shed the doctrine we have received in the Church. Just as I sense some of Fee's Pentecostal commitments in his writings, I'm sure that those who hear my speaking / writing sense my Calvinistic precommitments, etc. Nor can any post-Reformation Christians pretend they read their Bibles as though it never happened. Even if you oppose the Reformation (which would be sad), one's perspective on the Reformation (negative, in that case) cannot help but influence you.

    Finally, we should not regret the fact that so many witnesses (some listed by Schreiner, above) precede us. The movement of the Church is linear or historical (e.g., Matt 16:18; 28:20; Eph 2:19-20; 2 Tim 2:2, etc.). To borrow the temple construction metaphor of Eph 2, we are on the 2,000th floor of this temple, the Church. How presumptuous of us to pretend that we are actually the foundation or that the previous 1,999 floors were all wrong or have nothing at all to teach us? While probably unintended by Fee (et al), such tendencies are intolerably arrogant.

    These anti-historical tendencies are really by-products of the Enlightenment and Evolutionary revolutions of the 18th - 19th centuries, assuming that everything modern is superior. In fact, that presupposition seems to be one of the working commitments of "professional biblical scholars," which makes Schreiner's introduction so refreshing and claims of professional "objectivity" just plain silly.

    We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and receive the faith preserved by God's grace. And we do not get off their shoulders - nor should we want to! - as we read our Bibles. For example, I do not abandon the doctrine of the Trinity when I read Scripture because it is a post-NT theological formulation. We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us with gratitude for our God of grace working sovereignly in history to build the Church of His beloved Son!

    I hope this is somewhat helpful. Thanks, again. Blessings!