There are real dangers in subsuming the Bible to contemporary ideologies
Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
The sixteenth century’s rift between the holy Scriptures and the Church has tended to widen, to the serious disadvantage of exegesis and theology. Nowadays it is really amazing what passes for biblical interpretation. For example, bereft of the ecclesiological context, presumed by the biblical writers and editors as essential to its understanding, study of the Bible has lately been directed by ideologies quite alien to its content and purpose.
Thus, annual biblical conferences in recent years seem always to include some section or other devoted to Feminist Hermeneutics, Liberation Theology, World Religions Perspectives, and/or, in these latter days, Homoerotic Exegesis. All these approaches, moreover, have been aided by the presuppositions of post-modernism, according to which the inherited texts of antiquity are infinitely supple, to accommodate whatever happen to be the ‘narratives’ of the contemporary reader.
The Word is in the present
In the case of the Bible, let me hasten to remark that these suppositions include a distortion of two valid principles, the one theological, and the other hermeneutical. First, the Bible is not just an ancient text; it is God’s living Word proclaimed in the here and now. Second, the interpretation of a given biblical book or author is in many respects guided by selected individual passages.
On both these principles post-modernism lays violent hands. First, the reader comes to the text principally guided by the existential concerns of the contemporary world, not by dogma, nor even by grammar and history. Second, the reader’s selection of guiding texts is determined by those same contemporary concerns.
To illustrate this ‘method’, I pick a representative example in
which both distortions are brought overtly into play: A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity [Berkeley 1994], by Daniel Boyarin. The author of this work, a Talmudic scholar of note, presents a truly original reading of St Paul; I am forced to say, nonetheless, it is more imaginative than compelling.
Post-modernist vision of Paul
Correctly recognizing in Paul an important Jewish thinker, and properly attempting to interpret him through that perspective, Boyarin nonetheless brings too many unchallenged cultural presuppositions to the effort. Far from hiding his post-modernist ideology, the author admits, for example, that ‘post-structuralist inquiries into the significance of the ‘phallus” largely determine his interpretation of what Paul says about circumcision.
Paul’s extension of salvation to all the nations, Boyarin believes, ‘was motivated by a Hellenistic desire for the One, which among other things produced an ideal of a universal human essence, beyond difference and hierarchy.’ Indeed, this universalist goal, says Boyarin, is what determined Paul’s distinction between the Letter and Spirit in the work of exegesis.
Boyarin is naturally attracted by Galatians 3.28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ In this last phrase, ‘in Christ Jesus,’ Boyarin sees the metaphor motivating Paul’s dramatic readjustment of what it meant to be a Jew. Boyarin does not stop there, however; he goes on to subject Paul’s teaching, thus understood, to the same social criticism to which he imagines Paul was subjecting the culture of his day.
One can hardly avoid the suspicion that this author is simply projecting a contemporary Jewish social problem onto Paul, whom he regards as ’emblematic of Jewish selfhood.’