Hermeneutical Polytheism

“For thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land…”
(Haggai 2:6)

Many modern commentators hamstring various parts of the Bible so they don’t run against the grain of modern scientism and historical revisionism. They do this by “classifying” the bits of Scripture that offend modern theory into neat literary genres. “If Genesis is poetry, it can’t be historical,” and other stupidities. Nice try. Another one is “apocalyptic,” a genre which, to the eye of unbelief, might appear to actually exist.

James Jordan writes:

A couple of decades ago, when I was a young Reconstructionist (instead of a middle-aged post-Reconstructionist), I coined the phrase “political polytheism” to describe how modern evangelical Christians approach matters of social law and politics. Christians want the Bible for Church and family life, but turn to other gods for society. Their social theory is syncretistic, a blend of the notions of Roman, Greek, and Enlightenment ideas like “natural law” and “social contract,” not to mention the blurry and nebulous (and contentless) notion of “common grace.” Gary North wrote an excellent first exploration of this whole question in his aptly named book, Political Polytheism, available from the Institute for Christian Economics, Box 8000, Tyler, TX 75711.

Sadly, the evangelical and Reformed world is also too much afflicted with hermeneutical polytheism as well. In this brief essay I want to encourage the reader not to be swept away by this tendency.

Hermeneutical polytheism occurs when the Bible is broken up into various “genres” or types of literature. The result of hermeneutical polytheism is that the various parts of the Bible are not properly interpreted because walls have been built between one part of the Bible and other parts.

What I am concerned with will be clearer if I give illustrations. In one recent book we find that there is one way to interpret the “historical” parts of the Bible, another way to interpret “poetry,” another way to interpret the “gospel genre,” and another way to interpret the “epistle genre.” Another illustration would be the attention given to so-called “apocalyptic” literature in the Bible. Yet another would be the desire of the strict theonomists to divide the “moral law” from the “restorative law.”

If these distinctions are only rules of thumb, then well and good: They can help us come to grips with the Bible. But when they are elevated into types of literature and rules are provided for each type, I believe there are real dangers.

Consider “apocalyptic.” First of all, there is no apocalyptic literature in the Bible. Apocalypticism, originally a form of Jewish gnosticism, taught that the world is coming to an end and therefore we should retreat and wait for deliverance. (Apocalypticism is one of the major heresies of American evangelicalism, of course.) The prophetic passages of the Bible teach the opposite. They always teach that the world is coming to a new beginning, and therefore we must get to work.

What fools too many scholars is that the later prophetic books of the Bible (those of the Restoration and New Covenant eras; that is, the two phases of the Latter Days) are written in symbolic language, and so is apocalyptic literature. The large majority of commentators on these books misinterpret them seriously for two reasons.

First, they do not recognize that the symbolism in these books comes from the structures established in Genesis 1, the Tabernacle and sacrificial system, the Temple of Solomon, and especially the visionary and symbolic Temple in Ezekiel. In other words, by separating the “ceremonial law” from “apocalyptic” as two different genres, they cannot interpret these prophetic books.

Second, by and large the interpreters do not take into account the historical background of these books, and thus do not see the immediate relevance of them. For instance, several aspects of Zechariah 1-6, as well as Ezekiel 38-39, are fulfilled in Esther. But these scholars have Esther pegged as a “historical novella,” and don’t link it with these prophetic books. Also, they don’t see the connection between the palace of Ahasuerus in Esther and the Temple of Yahweh. Similarly, they do not link the book of Revelation with the book of Acts, which they should do.

To take another illustration: the Law. The Law is a seamless garment, and is seamless with the rest of the Bible. To pigeonhole some parts of it as “ceremonial” and others as “moral” does violence to the text. You cannot understand the penalties in the “moral” law unless you connect them with the killing of the animals in the “ceremonial” law. Our tradition betrays us here, because it is common in evangelical and Reformed thought to say that the “ceremonial” law was fulfilled in Christ and thus is done away with. Rather, we should say that because Christ fulfilled it, it is now applied in a new and greater way in the life and worship of the Church. One of the greatest failures of “theonomy” lies just at this point, as I mentioned above.

One of the worst forms of hermeneutical polytheism comes from Meredith G. Kline and his notion that the so-called Old Testament is one “canon” and the so-called New Testament is another. Thus we have two canons, two rules of life. Not so. The Bible never hints that it is to be divided into two “testaments.” There is only one Bible, a through-composed book, seamless and inseparable. And thus there is only one canon, one rule of life.

To be sure, Paul has one style, Ezra another, and Samuel another. And to be sure, each book is a unit with particular concerns. And to be sure, the books that were produced for one period or another have different themes and concerns appropriate to each stage of covenant history. It is legitimate to take account of these, but only if we always remember that God is the Final Author and that the Bible is one unified book.

There are no true “genres” in the Bible, because the Bible breaks all merely human molds. It is the written word of the Word of God Himself, and sui generis. So-called “genre criticism,” whether practised by liberals or conservatives, is a red herring that diverts attention from the true structures in the Biblical text.

Ultimately, such approaches treat God as speaking with many different voices, and approach a kind of polytheism. At its extreme, hermeneutical polytheism actually pits parts of the Bible against one another. One evangelical commentator on Chronicles says that when the Chronicler tells that a king had many wives, he intends that as a sign of God’s blessing! Thus, the Chronicler contradicts Genesis 2:24, Leviticus 18:18, and especially Deuteronomy 17:17, all of which prohibit second wives, especially for kings.

Objection: God is Three and One, so we should be sensitive to various “genres.” Yes, but it is also true that “all of God does all that God does.” However pointedly different various parts of the Bible appear from one another, they are all part of one unified story.

Hermeneutical polytheism, like political polytheism, is a tendency, not a formal heresy. All the same, it is a serious error, and one we must be aware of, and beware.

Some further thoughts on “apocalyptic” literature.

The term is presumably taken from the Revelation and applied to highly symbolic texts. The problem is that, beneath the symbolism, the content of the biblical symbolic texts is very different to the uninspired texts, which seem to have taken the style of the prophets and used it for a very different purpose. Once we identify this difference in content, the biblical texts outshine the bandwagon “Jewish fables,” and their difference in purpose is more easily seen.

The Olivet discourse, the Old Testament prophets and Revelation, are not describing the end of the world but only the end of the old order and the beginning of the new. Revelation, like Ezekiel for instance, is a covenant lawsuit against the covenant people, and describes their “death and resurrection” as a new Israel. The last days are only ever the last days of the old order.

The other issue is that John’s “apocalypse” is in fact a “revealing.” Paul speaks of his Gospel as a new “revealing,” a cutting away of the old, replacing the circumcision, tearing down the veil and the wall of the Law (the Jew-Gentile divide) forever. This can only happen once (AD70), so maintaining “apocalypticism” as a genre is misleading. The biblical texts are all outcomes of previous Covenantal events. They are trumpets announcing the coming of God’s combine harvester over the horizon, to “shake the Land” once again and plant a new crop.

So, biblical symbolism, being Covenantal, is systematic. Every Covenant cycle in the Bible has the same shape, and predictions of the next cycle, or Covenantal event, invariably make allusions to the previous ones (such as the allusions to the Great Flood and the Exodus in Isaiah 11, and Jesus’ references to Isaiah 13 in Matthew 24 concerning the end of the Herodian “Babylon.”) The uninspired texts lack this kind of purpose. They take on the stylistic appearance of the prophetic much as the book of Mormon sounds like the King James Bible. The similarity is only skin deep.

But this similarity gets moderns doing silly things like searching other ancient texts for the source material for biblical revelation. It is assumed that John draws upon Jewish “apocalyptic” in his writings, when in fact the inspired texts are fundamentally self-referential. The first place we must look is the Old Testament. This is because these texts are revelations from God, not products of the culture of the day, not the demented sputterings of a man shattered by a visit from Jesus (as Rowan Williams believes), and not simply the thoughts of men about God.

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See also Spot the Fake and Sweeping Genrelisations.

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