Technicians and Intuitions

“Surf weasel Leithart’s out there getting barreled
and Carson doesn’t find it ‘convincing’?”

Some more on the Bandwidth of the Bible:

Don Carson has written a chapter in “Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives.” It’s called, Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But… (see Carson’s Evaluation of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. There is a link to the chapter in PDF.)

Very briefly, his assessment is that the revival of biblical theology is a good thing, but anything in this revival that is new is bad. Whatever his assumptions, the bottom line is that no new ground of any consequence has been broken.

I’m not familiar with some of the “T.I.S.” writers he mentions, but he does say something about the work of Peter Leithart.

Another writer who does not connect his work with TIS but who is traveling down a parallel path is Peter Leithart, who prefers to speak of entering into the depths of the text. Always evocative and sometimes provocative, Leithart provides another parallel to the TIS tradition: his actual handling of biblical texts, while invariably stimulating, is less frequently convincing. (See especially his Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture). (p. 187)

There a lot of really helpful material in Carson’s chapter. He knows his stuff and his work has often been a great blessing to me. But he obviously doesn’t have what it takes to “get” the way the Bible is actually written, to move beyond practising one’s scales on the piano and shuffling sheet music to actually hearing the music and anticipating what it will do next.

Even with the limited Hebrew I’ve studied, I can feel the progression of ideas like a musical rhythm. Each recapitulation repeats what has gone before but will modify, modulate, invert, subvert and even omit what we expect in order to teach us new things. The prophets can only confound our expectations if we have expectations. The best literature does this to us all the time.

In his concluding reflections, Carson writes:

A colleague and friend, Graham Cole, has written a paper developing a model he has used in the classroom. He speaks of four levels of interpreting biblical texts. At the first level, the Bible itself must be understood exegetically, within its literary and historical contexts, with appropriate attention devoted to literary genre, attempting to unfold authorial intent so far as it is disclosed in the text. At level 2, the text must be understood within the whole of biblical theology, including where it fits into and what it contributes to the unfolding storyline and its theology. At level 3, the theological structures found in the text are brought to bear upon, and understood in concert with, other major theological emphases derived from Scripture. At level 4, all teachings derived (or ostensibly derived) from the biblical text are subjected to and modified by a larger hermeneutical proposal (e.g., Trinitarian action, God’s love and freedom, or something vague such as “what was disclosed in Jesus”). Traditional interpreters of Scripture who hold the Bible as the Word of God tend to operate at levels 1 and 2, with the strongest of them making excursions now and then into level 3.

So far, many if not most supporters of TIS operate at levels 3 and 4. One suspects that one of the reasons why the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible has, in several of its volumes, proved so unsatisfying is that its writers were operating at levels 3 and 4 while trying to give the impression they were operating at levels 1 and 2. Because readers could not forge the actual connections between text and theology ostensibly derived from a commentary on the text, they balked–and rightly so. For what is really needed is work that shows how levels 1, 2, and 3 should be tied together. One should indulge in level 4 only with the greatest caution, and only after the writer has done a lot of work on the first three levels.

I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds like a guide to music appreciation by people who have never actually heard music, even in their heads.

What sort of person needs to have “4 steps” consciously employed to listen to music? Sure, we listen, interpret, evaluate, enjoy, but the process is a natural one. Our understanding of it increases and becomes intuitive, like surfing. You learn to predict the behaviour of the ever-surprising, multi-layered depth of the sea. Actually riding the wave is hardly an indulgence. It’s the whole point. Surf weasel Leithart’s out there getting barreled and Carson doesn’t find it “convincing”?

The whole point of art, music, literature and preaching is to take the norms, smash them up, and construct something never seen or heard before, i.e. to take your audience somewhere new. The Bible itself takes us through these steps. The artist is in charge.

Carson’s criticism of the disunity in the TIS camp is justified, but he has no solution to the problem. Perhaps the real problem is this: On the one hand, we have the conservative thinkers imposing their own one-eyed rules and “assorted grids” on the text to protect it from abuse, and on the other hand we have the imaginative thinkers very often ignoring the Bible’s own innate guidelines.

Like any book, the Bible, once it gets going, is primarily self-referential, self-alluding. Once it sets the scene, it makes its own rules as it goes along, but it constantly stretches them, breaking new ground, interpreting the old in a new, more mature, more beautiful and intuitive (bridal) way. And how do we discern the rules? We do it by letting the text move us first.

In a culture where we now grow up bombarded with sounds, images and yes, even words, that speak to us at gut level, it takes a special kind of stupid to not present the Bible as the brilliant “sensory bombardment” it really is. Academia has its own unique brand of dumb. It’s devoid of instinct. Certainly, there’s a lot teaching to be done to get Christians up to speed, but men with years of biblical study behind them should be able to hear the “four part harmony.” They need to let the Bible speak to them in the way other great books do.

I guess the study of ancient languages attracts people with certain gifts, but being a linguist doesn’t make one a gripping writer. What makes these scholars think they can manufacture hermeneutical rules for something that should come naturally, intuitively? Is this ever the case in art, or music, or… surfing? What sort of person thinks watching a movie through different “lenses” will affect its spiritual and emotional impact on him? It is the artist who is in charge. The lens is the eye of the artist: the art itself, the music itself.

We need less technicians and more intuitions, more instinct. What scholarship has unwittingly done is alienated our culture from the Bible. I’m finding that, in retrospect, what James Jordan has done for us is teach us to read the Bible like any other book.

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Pic: Intuitive surfer, Clay Marzo

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3 Responses to “Technicians and Intuitions”

  • Pastor David Deutsch Says:

    Superb post Mike. I was frustrated greatly by Carson’s essay and am glad you offered a helpful and faithful criticism. Keep up the good work.

  • MarkO Says:

    Carson may not cover every hermeneutical base with equal power, but he does demonstrate the necessity of being anchored to the meaning within the text verse imposing layers over the text. To say it another way – reading the Bible as a Book of Ten Thousand Chaisms seems like playing middle C repeatedly and calling it a song.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Hi Mark – thanks for commenting!

    To illustrate my point more clearly, it’s Carson who thinks keeping to the melody alone is playing it safe. The Bible is actually a book built on an octave. Academia gets concerned when someone like Leithart sees individual notes strung together in chords and can appreciate chords as units rather than just collections of notes.

    The structure isn’t imposed. Sure, we don’t always get it right. But in what I’ve read, evangelical academia gets enormous parts of the Bible totally wrong (the prophets, the Olivet discourse, Revelation) because they don’t recognise repeated themes.

    We do need to be “anchored,” but we don’t need to wear blinkers. Very often, they get the “meaning within the text” completely wrong because they totally ignore basic literary conventions. Here’s a middle C in Deuteronomy, and here’s one in Revelation! Wow! But that’s not music. The Bible writers have a “rhythmic” textual sensibility that is lost on academia.

    Sometimes starting with the text is exactly the wrong place to start. What is the SHAPE of the text is very often the place to start. The early chapters of Ezekiel follow the Creation week as God pulls the Temple to pieces. But it’s not stated in the text. We are supposed to “hear” the resemblance and notice that God is deconstructing instead of constructing. That’s a channel of communication used by both ancients and moderns but for some reason rejected by Bible commentators.

    And the guys going off-road into typological errors are ignoring the same rules. Neither side in this debate seems to know where the guidelines are. The Spirit only whistles one tune, with many variations, and Creation is gathered and arranged into Covenant shapes that find their source in the Trinity. Neither side seems to know the tune.

    Here’s what I wrote to an online friend who had a similar objection:

    “I think you’ve misunderstood me. I’m saying Carson is wrong, and most of the guys he’s berating must often get it wrong. But Carson doesn’t have the instinct to know when they get it right.

    I agree totally with what Carson is saying about much stuff that is new. My point is that the artist is in charge. When we come up with stuff that is new, it is stuff we’ve seen IN THE TEXT. Anything novel or “weird” I say comes from a comparison of two or more texts that follow the same structure. I call it cross-eyed exegesis. It’s no different than comparing a theme in a symphony from a later reprise and noting the both the similarities and differences. What has changed, and why? What is the composer saying to us through the theme initially and then through the differences later on? Carson thinks the New Testament has its “assorted grids,” but he neglects the process, the flow. What has changed, and why? That is what Jim is so good at.

    When we preach, we smash up society’s norms, and our audience, and make something new out of them. We don’t smash up the Bible. We show how the Bible history does that to itself and to us. So I would probably be beating many of the same people on the head as Carson does. I hate “drive-by” typology, such as what the Catholic guys use to justify their heresies. Those are the guys who are smashing up the text and making something unintended of it. We are all prone to this, but we improve as we gain a “biblical intuition.”

    But then Carson is frustrating because he says that these guys are so bad at surfing that surfing is wrong. He has no “death-and-resurrection” instinct, and no sense of symbols.

    What I’m saying is this: if we are going somewhere new, it’s because the text is taking us there. I’ve heard Jim say weird stuff and then seen it play out in other texts, which vindicates him. I say weird stuff because I’ve seen enough of it to know I can justify it as an expression of God’s process, it’s vindicated by repetition and parallels.

    The danger is in going somewhere new outside the innate guidelines of the artist.

    I hope that makes it clear. Guys like Carson shouldn’t still be reading the surfing manual. They teach the surfing manual back to front, then pump out men who can play perfect scales, but they don’t understand the sea; they don’t hear the music. The shape of the Bible hasn’t become second nature to them.”