A number of years ago I was in a church where the pastor constantly spoke of the need to “Put the cookies on the bottom shelf.” What this meant was that preachers and teachers should make truth accessible to everyone in the church; to follow the metaphor, the baby Christians in the church should be able to reach the cookies. This is commendable—no pastor should preach in a way that opaque, technical terms are so loaded into a sermon that only specialists can understand. Implicit in the statement, though, is that the church should all remain eating cookies taken from the bottom shelf. It was definitely the case that this pastor did not want his congregation to grow beyond his sloganeering of theology; he came across as intelligent and profound, but I believe that there was an element of fear on his part that to have congregants surpass him in knowledge put him on the defensive.
While this scenario doesn’t work itself out in every church, there is a sense where Christians are kept from progressing in their knowledge of the faith. Whether from fear, or the lack of desire to do the grunt work of theological learning and teaching, churches leave their members gurgling on the milk of theology, when they could all be dining on grade A steak.
William B. Evans makes a similar observation in his essay hosted at the Reformation21 site called, “Perspicuity, Exegetical Populism, and Tolerance: A Reply to G. I. Williamson.” Evans, who is Younts Professor of Bible and Religion at Erskine College, discusses the common misappropriation of the perspicuity of scripture among Reformed Christians. Continue reading
Dischronologization–that’s a word you probably can’t say ten times fast. But it’s an important word, or at least concept, to understand when we read our bibles. I’m not sure if he coined the term or not, but O. T. Allis, founding professor of Old Testament (hence his interesting initials!) at Westminster Seminary, gives us a good explanation of the way scripture will at times take an historical narrative and shape it for another purpose. In his very important The Old Testament: Its Claims and Its Critics, he says, speaking generally about scripture, that “The sequence in which events are recorded may not be strictly chronological.” Why is this the case? Because the author has “the tendency to complete a topic or subject, carrying it forward to conclusion or a logical stopping-place and then to return to the point of departure and resume the main thread of the narrative” (p. 97). An example of his pattern of dischronology is Ezra 4:1-24, where the temple is being built but suffers from opposition. In vv. 1-5 there is opposition to the rebuilding during the reign of Cyrus (late 6th century), in vv. 6-23 the author stops, and moves back in time to the opposition to the building of the temple in the fifth century, and in v. 24, returns again to the sixth century.
This pattern of dischronology is helpful to understand the New Testament text as well, especially when we are confronted with “contradictions” between gospel narratives (the so-called “Synoptic Problem”). If one were to compare two accounts of our Lord’s temptation in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, it becomes readily apparent that there are differences in the chronological rendering. As New Testament scholar Darrel Bock puts it in the first volume of his commentary on Luke: “It is…clear that one of the Gospel writers has rearranged the order for literary reasons. The event shows that the Gospel writers are not averse to arranging materials for the sake of topical or theological concerns” (p. 365).
Ronald Youngblood, an Old Testament scholar who has taught at TEDS, Wheaton, and Bethel, applies this to Genesis 1 in his JETS article “Moses and the King of Siam“: “Chronology was not always important when relating historical events. Other concerns were sometimes in the forefront. Let us assume, then, for the sake of argument, that the events recorded in the first chapter of Gnesis are not set down in chronological order. This would explain, for example, how light could appear on the first ‘day’ although the light-bearing bodies were not made until the fourth ‘day.'”
Thus dischronologization is a helpful category for us when we are confronted with those who want to disparage the integrity of Scripture and point out so-called “errors.” Sometimes the author is making a theological point when he structures a passage rather than a chronological one. While this might sound odd to twenty-first century ears, who are used to reading rugged historical accounts by experts with PhD’s and lots of footnotes, this was quite a common practice in the ancient Near East and Graeco-Roman times.
Should the matter of diverse interpretation concern evangelicals when they think through the issue of biblical authority? Is it naïve to hold to sola scriptura when evangelicals can’t agree on interpretive decisions on even the most generally agreed upon texts? These are questions that Christians have struggled with since the early days of the church; recently Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has asked them in The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not A Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos, 2011). For Smith, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, the “biblicism” of evangelicalism is challenged by what he calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (PIP). I have not read the book and this post is not intended as a comment on Smith per se. Rather, in response to reviews of it by Robert Gundry, Peter Leithart and Kevin DeYoung, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has lamented that they have missed the point of Smith’s argument. McKnight questions whether evangelicals believe PIP is a serious enough challenge or if it has been adequately met. He asks: “does not our claim that the Bible is revelation and clear get a massive shock when we examine who (sic) pluralistic our interpretations are? Shouldn’t a clear Bible yield clearer interpretations? Or have we fallen so much for diversity that we don’t even see this as a problem.”