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Multivalence, Redemption, and Biblical Texts

April 20, 2010

Nearly every form of Christian interpretation adheres to some form of multivalence in interpreting the biblical text. Some more than others. An example of this would be Jer 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Many would agree that the original context for this verse is to be understood corporately as speaking to the exiles of Judah in Babylon. However, it is still considered proper in Christian circles to understand this verse individually and as also saying something to its modern listeners, so God can still “speak” through this verse.

Not only does nearly every form of Christianity include some form of multivalence in its interpretation but the variability in the multivalence is flexible. So, for instance, in some interpretive cases the multivalence is basically a “that” is “this” situation. For example, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…”; as then, so now. In others, the original “meaning” has very little to do with the later or modern “meaning”; for example, Hebrew prophecy.

To complicate matters further, every form of Christian interpretation elevates certain books and sections of Scriptures while suppressing others. Leviticus 19 is a famous example of this: “You shall not steal…” OK, “You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great,” yep, got it, good stuff God, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Amen, Jesus said that too! And then all of a sudden, “nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.”

Um, yeah… have you seen this shirt God? Just. Too. Sweet. Well, I guess that was just for the ancients; it doesn’t apply anymore. Of course, there are many more examples: when’s the last time you greeted someone with a holy kiss? Drank a little wine for your tummy ache… and on and on.

For the Christian there is theological justification for this interpretive trend. Heb 4:12 states, “the word of God is living and active.” Therefore, in a pneumatic understanding of Scripture the Word of God can speak into new and contemporary situations in fresh ways. However…

There’s always a “however”!

It would seem to me that many Christians, or conservative exegetical approaches, would favor or assume much less multivalence, so the exegetical approach or pastoral assumption is that one can find the original “meaning” and then apply that meaning to the modern audience. This would mean very often then assuming some sort of neutral history reporting on the part of some OT authors, prediction for the prophets, and worship songs (in the modern sense) messianic hymns (about Jesus) for the Psalmist.

But what about texts that scholars would posit, especially using the process of deconstruction, were much more polemical in their original “meaning.” What if some of the early Davidic stories were told in such a fashion that they tried to clean David’s image up? What if Jonah was a didactic story? What if the prophets were not predicting? What if the Zadokites were using writing to secure power?

I’m assuming that many Christians would cognitively need OT texts that were as close in meaning to their own understanding and reading values as much as possible. But theologically is that necessary?

The core of the Christian faith is not the OT. The core of the Christian faith is not the interpretation of the OT. The core of the Christian faith is not the genres of the OT.

The core of the Christian faith is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

This core entails a great reversal. Sinful, powerful elites use their position and authority to murder Jesus; however, in a great reversal what they intend for evil God instead used for good. The Christian position is that God redeemed the worst possible event into salvation for all mankind.

In a similar manner, biblical texts could have been written by men with their own sinful interests at heart; however, what they intended for their purposes and to secure their own good, God instead used for his.

Multivalent redemption of biblical texts.

Once again, like yesterday’s post, there is an irony here. While the above suggestion may of course upset many Christians, what you would have is a consistency between the books of the OT and the redemptive plan of God in the NT. If one is to assert that Jesus is God in the flesh, and he enacts a redemptive plan that turns man’s plans on their own head, should we then be surprised when this is how God acts as author?

With yesterday’s and today’s posts I have begun a conversation between biblical studies and theology. Good, bad, indifferent? Can this be done? Thoughts?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2010 8:04 am

    “In a similar manner, biblical texts could have been written by men with their own sinful interests at heart.”

    And what would prevent us from assuming the same for the New Testament? Isn’t that the core belief of the Jesus Seminar in their attempt to eruate the “true” historical Jesus?

    I’m not saying these questions shouldn’t be asked but who is to make the decision ultimately where sinful intent is at work and where God has truly spoken – even if it was just meant for a particular time and context? What would be the criteria to establish where sinful intent is at work? Is attributing divinity for Jesus the sinful attempt of people to elevate him above other religions?

    • April 20, 2010 10:13 am

      I assume that you would at least acknowledge that the authors were sinful and in need of redemption just as any other human?

      As to intent and the line. I don’t know. I am merely toying with some of the conclusions of liberal scholarship and seeing if I can make any theological sense of them in a way that is at all palatable.

      • April 20, 2010 2:06 pm

        “I assume that you would at least acknowledge that the authors were sinful and in need of redemption just as any other human?”

        Of course. And as far as liberal scholarship is concerned, I don’t have any beef with that. As a matter of fact, I’ve really enjoyed your series on higher criticism so far.

        All I’m saying is: historical research and theological bias in evaluating the sources and possible intent cannot so easy be neatly separated in many cases. An ahistorical devotional reading of the Bible that won’t even consider author and context is here just as bad as as an attempt to “cleanse” the sources from everything that looks even remotely supernatural. At that point, all kind of core beliefs of the creed usually go out the window: virgin birth, miracles, resurrection etc.

  2. WenatcheeTheHatchet permalink
    April 20, 2010 8:28 am

    One of the more egregious examples of trying to find out what the text meant “then” and applying it now that I heard was transforming the book of Ruth into a “how to get married” manual. Another one was using Nehemiah as the springboard for promoting a church renovation/restructuring project. This homiletic approach can backfire because if a preacher tries to make the case that the setting of Nehemiah is like his church that begs the question of why there was no Babylonian exile.🙂

    That different preachers in different eras have had different levels of multivalence in their approach has stuck with me in the last couple of years. To pick non-random examples, being able to find different levels of content from a passage varies if we’re looking at Mark Driscoll, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, or Johne Donne (Donne, of course is a super old example from a time when multi-tiered explanations of a passage were common and way before modern biblical studies, though apparently Donne actually knew some Hebrew). Could it be that the lack of multivalent interpretation in evangelicalism is a kind of response to a feared rationalism in textual studies? Clearly BEFORE the advent of such scholarship nobody batted too many eyes about multivalent interpretation.

    Something that would be interesting to explore is how contemporary Christians may find a biblical figure severely wanting in areas where the scriptures themselves are not particularly damning. David comes off as a spectacularly absentee father and a poor disciplinarian who played favorites with boys. Not taking action when one of his daughters gets raped isn’t just baffling, it’s baffling how many preachers never touch these narratives. On the other hand, there can be some Christians who are sure that Samson’s parents dropped the ball and were failures as parents because Samson was a stupid horndog while ignoring that the narrator of Judges makes it pretty plain that Samson being a stupid horndog with superpowers is part of God’s design (unless, of course, we factor in the potential bias of the author(s)).

    Years ago I read a comment by Frank Cruseman to the effect that Jeremiah 8:8 makes a compelling case that the Torah was undergoing a process of editing because for this claim to have been made there had to be an earlier document from which to make the claim that the law was being altered by scribes. The shifting prohibitions about the nature and extent of the ban on lending at interest does seem like a compelling internal argument for diachronic authorship by itself. But I had best stop before I ramble too much.

  3. Fr Craig permalink
    April 20, 2010 9:01 am

    sure it’s possible. Indeed, without meaning to be snarky, why do biblical studies if it doesn’t lead to theology?

    • April 20, 2010 10:19 am

      I believe that biblical studies is a discipline that can stand on its own. In fact, in the academy biblical studies should be done without leading to theology. Very often that is why its conclusions are so worrisome. Biblical studies in not the “life application” branch of the humanities.

      In one sense the question is almost like asking, “Why do nursing if it doesn’t lead to theology” or “Why golf if it doesn’t lead to theology.” In biblical studies we also consider Persian history, Greek history, Roman history, etc. The goals of these studies–Jewish history, culture, and scripture–are historical which I would submit is OK. Sometimes it’s OK for a text to be treated like a text within its historical context without then trying to figure out “what does it mean for us.”

      • April 21, 2010 1:59 pm

        If I may opine, it seems that your position is all good and well if one is not approaching the bible as an historical text from a judeo-christian point of view. But unlike nursing or golf, one’s understanding of the bible directly informs one’s theological metanarrative, does it not? I mean, whether or not the academician chose to share his new, deeper understanding of the historical text with the theologian or the broader body, would not his personal theological outlook be altered?

        Contra Fr Craig’s question and your description of proper academic study, I can’t see how it’s possible not to have some theological impact, whether in a practical, “life application” (as you have it), or in some other way.

        Forgive me, but I’m a hard sciences kind of guy; Heisenberg seems to have addressed this — tho, sort of turned on his ear. (sort of apropos to this post, since he was a quantum physicist)

        • Jake permalink
          April 21, 2010 2:11 pm

          Why is it that it’s the quantum physicists who always have an answer for everything? Why isn’t it the botanist who comes up with some unrelated theory about something else outside their scope? Or the plumber? It’s always those damn quantum physicists thinkin’ they know everything…

        • April 22, 2010 9:50 am

          Brian, I would agree that we all have presuppositions, which is why I am doing the series on whether higher criticism attempts to destroy the Bible. However, I am not sure that they have to be “theological” or judeo-Christian. That said, I have seen scholarship that is severely affected with religious baggage or canonical assumptions, and in effect attempts to “save” the text.

          The best I could say, I guess, is that biblical studies mostly concerns itself with what happened then and theology mostly concerns itself with what does that mean for us now.

      • April 21, 2010 7:15 pm

        Scott, here’s a different question. I think we can all agree that biblical studies in a purely academic sense CAN stand on its own.

        But what about relevance? Does the Old Testament in its entirety have really relevance for us as Christians apart from the metanarrative of grace, salvation, and the Lordship of Christ (and in a wider sense of God’s character and nature and our need for grace and salvation) whether it’s prepatory, predictive or descriptive (Lk.24:27)?

        Most of Paul’s exegetical ventures into the OT would never pass our academic criteria of exegeting the text “properly”.

        • April 22, 2010 9:45 am

          Good question Josh. First, I know from experience that many Christians have a hard time separating history and context from relevance. Once I had the unfortunate pleasure of taking a cross-listed course on Mark with the cemetarians at my school. Whenever contextual issues were explored eventually one of them would stop the class and say, “Yeah, but what does it mean?’

          Very likely most/all Christians subscribe to some sort of confessional stance on the OT as God’s Word and normative; however, at the same time there is much from the OT that is not relevant for them. How often do you hear sermons on Leviticus or Obadiah? Micah? I would suggest that a book like Judges is the opposite of relevant!

          Much of the Psalms are left alone… same with Proverbs. Even the major prophets are picked and chosen from. A verse here, a verse there that supports “the metanarrative of grace, salvation, and the Lordship of Christ.”

          As to your last point: yep. Nor lots of other usages in the NT. heck some of the exegeting in the NT is only possible because they are using the Greek version of the OT.

          What I have done above is mostly just set out the problem without the theological answers because many of those answers are long-winded, ad ultimately realizations that people need to come to on their own terms. Really, many of these questions and problems are mostly recognizing the extent of the humanness in authorship and location in antiquity of the texts and how that effected them… but the million dollar question is: so what? or Now what?

          As I have said elsewhere on this site before: some theologians have offered answers to these problems that they believe are intellectually satisfying and spiritually healthy. It is not a false dichotomy situation here; a one or the other for them.

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