Threshing the Text

or OT as Mostly an Accommodation to Ancient Pop-Culture?


The Modern Evangelical Bible Academy, Model 2300X.

In his new book Deep Exegesis, Peter Leithart has a great chapter called “The Text is a Husk: Modern Hermeneutics”. To distill his chapter down to its basic essence, he says that distilling the Scriptures down to their basic essence is not what God intends. The text is not a kernel hidden in a husk that can be discarded. We are not to heave our Bibles down to the threshingfloor. Every word of Scripture has significance.

Leithart presents a fascinating history of this methodology and the philosophies behind its various forms. Then he turns on “the good guys.”

The husk/kernel model appears in more sophisticated forms in some evangelical Protestant biblical work. In his controversial 2005 book, Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns, formerly associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary, offers an “incarnational” model of Scripture, one that affirms both the divinity and humanity of the Bible. Because it is a human as well as a divine book, the Bible “was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures.” The Bible is “encultured.” It uses existing languages with their own histories and meanings. It was written within “a world of temples, priests and sacrifice,” and it reflects that world. Israel had kings, like other nations surrounding it, and its legal system bore a striking resemblance to ancient Near Eastern codes like the Code of Hammurabi…

Much of this is obvious, and obviously true. But the way Enns uses this evidence indicates his proximity to the husk/kernel model we have traced from Meyer and Spinoza through Kant. Enns implies a distinction between worldview and message. What makes Genesis different from ancient myths is not the worldview but the fact that Abraham’s God “is different from the gods” of the nations around Israel. The theological message of the Old Testament comes cloaked in an ancient mythic view of the world, a worldview that long preexisted the writing of the Old Testament and even the events that it records. We can affirm the divinity of the message without necessarily submitting ourselves to the humanity of the worldview. The worldview that the text communicates is a husk, part of the letter and not inherently part of the message.[1]

To coin a phrase, when someone is taking an odd position, he has a bee in his pocket. For Enns to claim that the Bible is “encultured” when it so very obviously records the sources of those cultures, is not good hermeneutics. It assumes modern anthropology is infallible and accommodates the Scriptures to suit our own capricious pop-history and pop-science. [2] The Bible doesn’t whisper suggestions wrapped in pop-culture, even ancient pop-culture. The Bible speaks and culture is violated, slain and resurrected, and ours could do with some of that. This supposed process of “distillation” is—in practice—a way to temper, soft-pedal, tone down, dilute, mitigate and tame the elements of Scripture that are most offensive and therefore transformational to our own culture without losing scholarly face. A modernist hermeneutic sees the Bible not as a history book but a history of certain (arbitrary) “timeless truths” wrapped in environmentally-friendly disposable packaging. [3]

As a result, evangelicalism does not actually have a biblical worldview. The scholars tossed it into the summer wind, swept it up and incinerated it. Oops. These interpreters have the problem by the tail instead of the head. The Bible is supposed to thresh us! 

“A wise king sifts out the wicked, and brings the threshing wheel over them.”
Proverbs 20:26 

Leithart concludes:

The Bible’s message is the power of God to salvation, but that message comes to us in a particular form, using particular categories, introducing a particular language. It is the power of salvation for whole humans—for their languages and institutions, their imaginations and poetry, [4] their art and architecture—as much as for their souls. Its transforming power becomes incarnate in human life through various media (sacraments, other believers), but the incarnation of the message occurs largely through words, preeminently the words of Scripture. When we detach the message from the medium we muzzle the message itself. The message can still get through; the Spirit blows where he listeth. But the message does not get through in its full transfiguring power.

My aim in the remainder of this book is to enrich the reading of individual believers, pastors and theologians by encouraging devoted attention to the husk. But not only that, my aim is also to contribute to the recovery of Scripture as the world-forming book it was intended to be. To that end, this book will insistently, manically present a hermeneutics of the letter. [5]

[1] Deep Exegesis, The Mystery of Reading Scripture, p. 30-31.
[2] See The Only True Foundation for Anthropology.
[3] See Timeless Truths.
[4] You must read Leithart’s comments on the effect, or lack thereof, of modern “accommodated” Bible translations and paraphrases on culture.
[5] Deep Exegesis, The Mystery of Reading Scripture, p. 34. On this, see also Why Johnny Can’t Preach.

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One Response to “Threshing the Text”

  • Chris Griffith Says:

    Deep Exegesis is an incredible book, (maybe the best I’ve read all year)! I am quite certain I’ll find myself reading it again in the near future.

    Now, if I can only find a copy of Totus Christus here in the states!