Holy Scripture, the ANE, and Biblical Criticism

Arthur Boulet has written an interesting post on the relation between Psalm 74 and Ancient Near Eastern literature and how that relationship impinges upon our interpretation of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He argues that the ANE lit sheds important light on Ps. 74, and that we need to rethink what the WCF means by Scripture being self-interpretive. He concludes:
[P]erhaps we need to rethink how we are interpreting the words of WCF 1.9 in our current discussions. Could it have been the case that when the WCF was penned, the issue was not extra-biblical literature such as ANE creation myths, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and second Temple literature, but, instead, the traditions of the Catholic Church? Could it be that the Westminster Divines were aiming their cross hairs at the Church of Rome and their literature/traditions, which sought to determine the meaning of Scripture, and not ancient texts, such as ANE creation myths, the DSS, and second Temple literature, which can shed great light on determining the meaning of Scripture?

I think it is more than likely the case.
Art’s conclusion is on target, it seems to me. Of course, we have to remember that WCF and the other confessions of the Reformation all precede the rise of historical criticism. We live on the other side of that development in Christian history, just as we live on the other side of modernity. To ignore such developments would be equivalent to ignoring Copernicus and accepting the geocentric worldview of the Bible.

(Unlike Art, however, I am not bound to the WCF, which is a deeply problematic document in my opinion. It is a product of Reformed Orthodoxy, and thus one’s acceptance of its authority requires accepting that Protestant Orthodoxy was a legitimate development of the theology of the Reformers. I also find it interesting that those who are in positions of leadership, say, at Westminster Theological Seminary, are making themselves the authoritative interpreters of the WCF over against Enns. Is this not simply to create a new Magisterium? Is this not precisely what the Reformation was seeking to reject?)

The question all of this raises for us today is the relationship between Scripture and modern biblical criticism. From the perspective of some (such as those who question the orthodoxy of Peter Enns), critical scholarship on the Bible undermines the self-interpretive nature of Scripture. While Art makes a good point about the historical and polemical context for the WCF’s statement, the fact of the matter is that contemporary adherents to this document assert that WCF 1.9 excludes historical criticism and the input of extra-biblical material. Others who are schooled in Reformed Orthodoxy and the WCF are more qualified than I to comment on this confession’s ability to embrace modern scholarship.

I merely wish to note that there should be no conflict between Scripture being self-interpretive and the use of historical criticism. The Bible was not written in an historical vacuum. It has a particular location in time and space. Hence, to be self-interpretive cannot exclude the historical and cultural context of the text. The “self” of Scripture is a self situated in history. Those who wish to exclude historical-cultural concerns from the act of interpretation are actually lifting Scripture out of history altogether. Theirs is a docetic bibliology, corresponding—I would argue—to a docetic christology. Interestingly, the same problem of docetism can be said about Roman Catholicism as well. They only add a docetic ecclesiology to the mix. This allows them to conflate Scripture with their Tradition, which is simply a consequence of conflating Christ with the Church. Whereas Reformed Orthodoxy confuses (a docetic) Christ and Scripture, Catholicism confuses (a docetic) Christ and the Church. Either way, there is a dehistoricization of the central elements of the Christian faith—whether Jesus Christ, Scripture, or the Church.

Finally, I just want to point out that there is a new book by Kenton Sparks, professor at Eastern University, entitled, God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship. After skimming through its pages, I have to say that this book seems very promising. I hope to have more to say about this work later.


Joshua said…
a good post that highlights the ongoing dangers of docetic thinking in various forms of christian theology. i certainly see this as a problem in much of our thinking and speaking about the Jesus Christ, the Church, Scripture, etc.

i wonder, though, if you are being a bit uncharitable toward Roman Catholics or for that matter Reformed Orthodoxy (not sure exactly what you have in mind with that term, do you mean WTS? PCSUA? Church of Scotland?). Are there not forms of R.Catholic thinking that push against this view? I am thinking for instance of N Healy's book, Church, World and the Christian Life that employs von Balthasar's category of theo-dramatic to guard against epic models of the church. Or for that matter aren't their r.c. theologies that highlight the church and its physical function in order to guard against the very docetic leanings you are worried about? This doesn't change your critique, but it does caution against over-reaching in polemics.

That's a good point. But as you know, there are examples within every tradition of a more balanced and thoughtful approach. What I am criticizing is not outright docetism but the tendency toward docetism inherent in certain traditions. Roman Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy as well) tends toward a docetic ecclesiology because it identifies the church as a prolongation of the incarnation, an extension of Christ himself. Reformed Orthodoxy is not the only culprit. I mention that tradition only because I was responding to Art's post, and he was talking about the WCF. I come from a nondenominational evangelical background, but the issue is the same: a docetic bibliology that is afraid of recognizing and affirming Scripture's historical and cultural context.

So I agree: a polemic shouldn't over-reach. But I also think these are tendencies inherent in these forms of Christian faith. Catholicism depends upon its identification of Christ and the church. Protestant Orthodoxy and others depend upon a Bible that is the inerrant Word of God written. There are problems with both positions.