Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Scholarship and Scripture

In responding to Catholic spooftexting, Protestants like me emphasize the grammatico-historical method. But this raises a question: what about Protestants who lived and died before biblical archaeology shed so much new light on Biblical languages, customs, and historical allusions?

To begin with, Scripture has a macro meaning as well as a micro meaning. The micro meaning consists of individual words and sentences. But over and above that are larger units of meaning, viz., the flow of argument or narrative arc. You can often get the gist of a story even if certain culturally coded references elude you.

Likewise, much of Scripture was written to be heard, and the spoken word is more redundant than the written word. So even if you miss certain things, repetition often compensates for the loss.

But there’s another point to be made. In commenting on a book like Daniel, Calvin or Matthew Henry lack the specific knowledge that someone like Terence Mitchell would bring to bear. In some respects their interpretation will be less precise, less detailed, than a scholar with a better knowledge of the period.

Yet that can be offset by another consideration. Daniel deals with themes like tyrannical government, official idolatry, and religious persecution. And these are things which men like Calvin and Matthew Henry experienced firsthand. In certain respects, their historical situation was analogous to the situation of Daniel. They understood what it was like to be a persecuted religious minority. Calvin understood what it was like to be an exile. They personally knew what it felt like to remain faithful in the face of a hostile regime. To some degree, their experience recapitulates the experience of a man like Daniel.

In that regard they can identify with aspects of Daniel better than a scholar who has a more accurate knowledge of the period. Up to a point, they are living out the message of the book. Their situation is comparable. So their situation automatically contextualizes the interpretation. These are tradeoffs.

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