Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Methodological Flaw in Biblical Interpretation

I remember the song, "Be careful, Little Ears, what you hear" a song that is meant to recount what Christ Himself said, "Be careful how you hear." It tells us to not only be conscious of to what we listen, but how we are interpreting that information as well. A lot of times, scholarship has a great body of data to share, and so a lot of good stuff to which we should listen, but bad methodologies employed to sift the proper meaning of that data often serve to distort that data to where it would have been better not to learn it all. So, ironically, scholars may become an obstacle rather than a help toward real knowledge of what we're studying.

It's, of course, important that you trust good scholars, but the dilemma is knowing who actually is a good scholar you can trust. There are so many. Today, I want to just share with you why you shouldn't always trust what a scholar, or even a group of scholars, says just because of that recognized status. Scholars actually are just like anyone else. Yes, they've read more books on their subject. They know biblical languages, to some degree, better than the average pastor; but they're as bound to their presuppositions and traditional biases (note the difference between the two please) as anyone else may be. If they are good scholars, however, they will make themselves exceptional by noting their presuppositions and biases as the determining factor in their conclusions, rather than just giving an empty nod to the idea or not acknowledging them at all. In fact, if you read someone who says he's just giving you the evidence, or just going where the evidence leads, run quickly screaming ecstatically as far as you can from that "scholar," as he is nothing but a culture-bound apologist who knows nothing of why he really believes what he believes to be true.

One of these methodological presuppositions can be found when scholars attempt to interpret biblical language in its ancient Near Eastern context. Now, I of course do this all the time. It should be done. Understanding the biblical languages is incomplete without understanding the cultural contexts to and within which those languages speak. However, my problem is how these things are often applied to the biblical text. It seems as though many people think that other cultural contexts determine the meaning of a shared language or conceptual framework that the Bible may use. But this is linguistically flawed. Let me give you an example.

Some people make the argument that the Hebrew Bible's use of divine exaltation language, where God is exalted above the other gods as unique, is consistent with the claim that some texts teach polytheism. So, for instance, if YHWH is exalted above all gods, this doesn't mean that YHWH is the only real God versus false ones, but simply that He is being exalted as the current deity that this particular text is choosing to exalt at this time for whatever reason.

Now, here's the problem in methodology that I have. It commits a linguistic fallacy known as illegitimate totality transference. Most scholars are aware of this fallacy when it comes to smaller units of language as when one practices lexicography and seeks to determine the meaning of a word. This fallacy tries to transfer the meaning of a term, or in this case an entire phrase and/or genre, that originally meant one thing in one context, to a foreign context that must be established on its own merits. In other words, it seeks to say that whatever X means in context Y, it means in context Z as well. You begin to see the problem with this already. The logic of the methodology is simply this: B in the context of A = C, so B in the context of D also = C. In other words, AB = C // DB = C. Of course, this is completely fallacious. The context of D may in fact change everything there is to know about A. It could also be so similar that the logic is justified by A = D. The problem in this particular case is that A doesn't equal D. When the phrase appears in a polytheistic context, obviously, it does not teach monotheism; but when it appears in a monotheistic context, it does in fact teach monotheism.

Hence, it cannot be legitimately argued that a biblical book or section of books, and especially the canon as a whole, teaches polytheism by the use of language that once functioned consistently in a polytheistic context, but now functions just as consistently in a monotheistic context. So what scholars need to prove is not how the phrase or genre functions in another context, but that the biblical context is also polytheistic and thus its language functions identically to that in other ancient Near Eastern texts that are polytheistic. In other words, they cannot simply say that AB = C // DB = C without proving that the contexts A and D are parallel as well (i.e., that A = D).

Now, I say this because I'm writing a book on inerrancy and read Thom Stark's book in order to see what he was saying. It was highly praised by certain scholars who frankly make this same argument (in fact, Thom likely gets his argument from them). Thom employs this method in order to bolster the claim that the Bible is an argument with itself (something every inerrantist I know believes, but not in the way Thom lays it out). He uses the idea that divine exaltation language indicates (or, at the very least, cannot be used as evidence to argue against) the idea that polytheism is taught in the Bible. I, of course, agree that it cannot be used as evidence against polytheism by itself, apart from its context, but I've presented other evidence to Thom (to which I haven't heard a response, perhaps, because Thom is getting tired of these discussions--he's had them for awhile now with Richard Hess and others--although it has only had a little of this one with me so far) that he accepts as evidence of Israel's later monotheism and that provides context for the Bible's use of divine exaltation language, but I frankly find him to be confused here, as if this is the case, I'm not sure why he would still hold his conclusions.

I've discussed with Thom before that this is an issue of diachronic (i.e., how a phrase, genre, source text) functioned in various contexts throughout its history and cultural applications) and synchronic (i.e., how it functions within the present text one is studying) methodologies of inquiry. This is where I find his methodology confused. One answers, What is the history of X in various contexts, and the other answers the question, What is the meaning of X in this context? As you can see, they're completely different questions that need different methodologies employed to answer them. Unfortunately, what scholars are doing in their abuse of the ancient Near Eastern data is to use the diachronic to force a foreign meaning on a text that begs for a synchronic methodology in order to answer the question accurately. As one will not understand the meaning of the word "butter" in the compound "butterfly" by studying the history of the word "butter" in various contexts, one cannot determine the meaning of divine exaltation passages in Scripture by studying their ancient Near Eastern parallels as determinative. To put the fallacy of doing so in numerical form, 1 added in the context of 2 equals 3. 1 added in the context of 4 equals 5. So the end result is not the same because of the context. It is simply not enough to argue that 1 is used in both contexts and is symbolically identical language. The context, however, changes the meaning of its signification.

Instead, the context can be compared to those contexts in order to discover continuity and discontinuity between the them, and it is only when context A can be said to parallel context D that such meaning can assumed as common between the two groups of texts. So the question becomes, Are the contexts in which these passages or phrases appear polytheistic or monotheistic? And we should only ask that of the larger work (i.e., the book, the series of books, the canon), as these provide its context. Hence, when we ask if the deuteronomistic historians evidence polytheism or monotheism by the context of their larger works, we can conclude that they in fact are teaching monotheism. Hence, the phrase or genre of divine exaltation, where YHWH is exalted above the gods, etc., which once functioned polytheistically in other contexts (both Israelite and ancient Near Eastern in general) now function monotheistically to teach that there is but one God, and whatever is considered to be a god, whether it be a demon or an object, is not His equal because it is not really a God in the way that YHWH is God.

Hence, to say that the Bible teaches polytheism in certain places simply serves to showcase an erroneous methodology that in reality functions as an apologetic of a particular view of the Bible (i.e., that the Bible is an argument with itself in a thesis-antithesis dichotomous manner rather than in a thesis-thesis-synthesis manner) that is fueled by a desire to diversify the Bible in order to pull the rug out from those who would see it as exclusive truth and destroy modern forms of diversity within our pluralistic society (but that's for another day). For now, I urge you to not buy into this bad form of interpretation, as it serves only to get things wrong by virtue of a bad presupposition (i.e., that when B appears in both A and D, whether or not A = D, B means the same thing).

Now, I realize that one can argue against the fact that all scholars believe that the present context of the deuteronomistic history is monotheistic, as the evidence suggests, but this would be silly. They should just rid themselves of a bad argument and move on; but even if they choose to fight this one out, let it be done with the present context fully in view rather than set aside in a dubious enterprise that seeks to make a false claim about the Bible (and it is false even if we conclude that those texts function polytheistically on their own).

Yet, tons of people now, who trust the wrong scholars, believe something that has undermined their faith in the Bible, and it's not even good scholarship in the first place. So be careful what you hear, Little Ears, because it may sound astute and academic, but be something that is really the furthest thing from it.


  1. btw, in this post, where i began to discuss this with Thom, my follow up was never published (likely because Thom has moved on from it as he indicated), so here is the relevant portion of what I wrote:

    “No. They don't see Kemosh as a ‘demon’ at all, and certainly not in the sense you seem to be using the term.”

    Do you mean “they” as the Israelites in the episode or “they” as the Deuteronomistic historians? I would see this a bit differently if the latter, but agree with the former. I see consistency with the statements concerning God’s supremacy (common ANE language used to exalt a god above others), unique position as the giver and taker of life, sovereign over all things to a ridiculous degree, and that foreign gods are demons and not gods throughout DtrH. To say that they do not see Kemosh that way needs some support from the context, but the evidence seems to go the other way.
    I’m using the term “demon” according to Deut 32:17 in the ANE sense of a powerful supernatural being that has the near power to a deity, but according to v. 21 is something that is “not a god.” This is the description of foreign gods, so within this context, Kemosh is a demon, not a god in the same sense that YHWH is God (Deut 32:39 with the idea presented by ydm( as conveying equality in terms of class). Of course, one could take the latter idea as apart of the common ANE rhetoric for which you have argued, but context again seems to indicate something more than this.

  2. (cont.)

    Hence, when foreign gods are lowered to the status of demons and YHWH is exalted to the status of the only God (even granting to you the rhetorical use with which I agree), it is simply doubtful that Kemosh is viewed by Dtr as powerful enough to overthrow YHWH.
    The author of Kings has Elijah mock Baal as a human constructed god that likely does not even exist, and if any god were to be considered as an actual god by early Israelites it would have been Baal. Yet, his prophets are again presented as being fed their information by demons in the Micaiah pericope, not by an actual deity.
    To further complicate matters, the DtrH is highly deterministic in its view of YHWH’s role in all events (and even decisions made by humans), so to then argue that Kemosh became so powerful that he was out of YHWH’s control runs counter to the argument being made throughout the DtrH, but particularly in Samuel-Kings.
    Smith’s suggestion, as you’ve stated, only tells us what theology this text may have conveyed in its history, but not how it serves in its present context (the diachronic versus synchronic distinction again is an important one when we are saying what the author of Kings is intending to convey by including this pericope as part of his larger argument). So simply arguing that it’s source is not original to Dtr doesn’t help any (although you seem to even reject that the text has a prehistory by this statement: “I think it's unnecessary to posit that the proper reading of the episode could only have been written in a period prior to the composition of the DtrH” in which case, the text in context would not even have been originally conceived by its author in polytheistic terms—unless you’re referring to a belief in the original composition that did not convey all of the theology to which I am referring). We need to answer why it’s included in the present text. I see you doing that with your interpretation that it functions as apologetic, but I see your explanation as itself extra-contextual, contextualizing more within the narrative of modern scholarship than within the text itself IMHO.
    So for me, I just have to wonder why this text is even a part of this discussion, except that its possible historical meaning is being confused with its present meaning and purpose within the context of the book and within the larger context of the DtrH. If context is considered, it simply makes no sense to say that YHWH is presented as a mere tribal deity here among many tribal deities, and who in this case was defeated by another tribal deity whose strength was bolstered by child sacrifice. I completely agree with you that child sacrifice is seen as efficacious, but in the author of Kings mind, it is efficacious because there are real demons who gain power from it. Hence, YHWH and Kemosh may both be gods on equal footing in the original pericope separated from its present context (if there was one), but now it functions as language a part of a larger presentation that conveys a different theology altogether. Hence, we really cannot say that the Bible teaches X when it is only using X to teach Y.