Monday, October 22, 2007

Macro-Narrative and Text... Hermeneutics

I have been reflecting for a while on one issue in regards to hermeneutics, biblical interpretation. It stems from an observation; namely, that one of the the greatest danger to accurate biblical interpretation is what I call 'Macro-Narrative Imposition'. It works like this. People study the bible with a fine tooth comb (some finer than others). I call this 'micro-text investigation'. That is, they study the text without forcing it into a 'macro-narrative structure', exegeting, thinking through its meaning.

Over time they develop a 'macro-narrative' perspective on the text. Once established in their minds, they at some point they cease working from a 'micro-text investigation' approach and rather settle on their 'macro-narrative' and impose it on the text. The macro-narrative' view begins to be the dominant factor in interpretation. I suggest that when we get to this stage we are in danger.

To get what I am trying to say, it is better to think of examples. One example from outside the mainstream of orthodox Christianity in most evangelical's minds are the Jehovah Witnesses. They have settled on a macro-narrative that sees Jesus as less than divine, a restored earth, 144,000 going to heaven, Jesus' return etc etc. They become totally resistant to anything that threatens their macro-narrative. In the case of the divinity of Christ for example they miss the overwhelming evidence in the NT that the writers present Jesus as divine (e.g. Jn 1:1, 18; 5:18; Mt 1:23; Rom 9:5; Phil 2:5-11; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-3 etc). Why? Because they have imposed their 'macro-narrative' on the text and this warps their 'micro-text investigation'; they are forced to make texts that stand outside their 'macro-narrative' fit with creative exegesis and eisogesis.

Now we evangelicals can sit back and see this as a 'cult' problem. However, I think this is seen in a number of accepted positions. In Hyper Calvinism for example, proponents must use ingenous exegesis to remove any notion of human freedom from the text even though the whole biblical narrative screams out that there is a volitional dynamic in salvation i.e. however we understand predestination that I am convinced cannot be removed from Scripture, humans say yes or no and it is upon this basis that they are saved or not saved. Their macro-narrative obscures this. They have settled on a macro-narrative that simply will not allow them to see what is clearly there. Often it is church tradition (Catholicism) or belief in the glorious invulnerability of a particular scholar (e.g. Calvin) that contributes to this. They need to read 1 Cor 1:10-4:16!

Similarly Open Theists apply a macro-narrative that obscures the clear testimony of Scripture that God knows the future, he is omniscient. For example, the problem of Jesus' and Scriptures foreknowledge of of Judas and Simon Peter (cf. Agabus) which cannot be domesticated by this viewpoint.

'Once-saved-always-saved' proponents have settled on this macro-narrative so are forced to reach for amazing means to remove any possibility in the NT that a believer can fall away, resorting to strange ideas that they never really believed in the first place. A 'plain reading' of Hebrews, the parable of the sower and 1 Cor 15:1-2 among many others make this remarkably tenuous. Yet, they stick to their guns because their macro-narrative tells them that they have to. In fact some of them go as far as believing that belief in 'their' macro-structure is essential for salvation! Woe to them!

Universalists too are guilty of being blind to the clear micro-text certainty that some people will not be saved. Dispensationalists and cessationists are blind to the total lack of evidence in the NT that the spiritual gifts ceased at the end of the apostolic era (whatever that is?). Even great biblical scholars such as N.T. Wright have settled on a 'restored earth' continuity eschatology despite a number of texts that appear to refer to 'Christians going to heaven' (e.g. Jn 14:1-5) and refer to a cataclysmic dissolution in which the old will pass away in some way (e.g. 2 Pet 3); this leads to him having to reach for interpretations to suit his macro-narrative. Then there are the pre-mill, post-mill, realised eschatology (Dodd, Wright) etc people, who all do the same. I could go on to speak of complementarians who refuse to see the notes of egalitarianism in Paul and Jesus on women, and conversely, egalitarians that resort to the opposite to obscure texts that appear limiting to women. Then there is the place of Israel in the purposes of God, a hugely difficult and tenuous theological issue. What about baptism? What about those who impose the speaking of tongues as absolute? Or those who have a macro-narrative that includes prosperity teaching or hyper-faith, despite copious biblical data rejecting these ideas. I too have my views on these things but have found myself holding the details of my view a much more lightly than previously.

So what is the issue? The issue is that all such views are guilty of 'macro-narrative imposition' over 'micro-text investigation'. They have settled on a macro-narrative with over-certitude and are now not reading the scriptures through the eyes of the text but the narrative. Perhaps they began with 'micro-text investigation', often in reaction to another view. But at some point they turned the 'macro-narrative imposition' corner and are now to lesser or greater extent, closed off to new insights that would threaten their 'macro-narrative'.

Now I think we need to be very very careful here. Authentic biblical interpretation requires epistemological humility, whereby we admit we don't know all things and that our 'macro-narrative' is at best, partial (cf. 1 Cor 13:8-13). We must allow the text to continually readjust our macro-narrative. There is a continual interaction between text and macro-narrative. All these views are overly confident of their position and have in fact closed God out of their system. The truth is that none of us can hold all the text in our heads simultaneously, make the connections that are needed and implied by the Spirit through the authors, and put it together in totality. It is absolutely impossible for one mind other than the mind of Christ! No mind can come close. So why are we so arrogant of our 'macro-narratives'?

I suggest we all take a step back and settle on a broader 'macro-narrative' approach that accepts the 'big story' in its obvious component parts e.g. God created the heavens and the earth; God chose Abraham and Israel and worked his purposes out on earth through this nation leading to the Messiah: Jesus died on the cross to save us from sin, death and destruction; Jesus arose bodily from the dead; the church is to continue his mission of healing, feeding, saving and community restoration to the world; the Spirit dwells in us to lead us in the mission; God is one expressed in three; the Scriptures are our authority; faith in Christ saves; the church is the people of God on the earth; Jesus will return; resurrection, judgement and eternal destiny will come to pass at this point.

We will all want to add more to the macro-narrative and we should in dialogue with each other and more importantly with text. But in the detail we should acknowledge the grey, be open to the text speaking into our macro-narrative and adapting it at any point of time, be open to other ideas to adapt our macro-narrative or at least apply to parts of it less certitude and with less arrogance. We should stop judging each other for this or that position (unless the essentials are threatened), dividing over detail; and get on with it.

For me this is essential in an age in which we are struggling to work things out and where the western church is still in decline and needing unity to retain strength. We need to work hard to continually work to understand the 'macro-narrative', reading the text from a perspective like this is wonderfully helpful as we are in the midst of a glorious big story. But, we need also to never cease to work at the art of detailed exegesis as we interact between macro-narrative and micro-text analysis. It is a spiral in fact. Indeed there are other voices within the art of interpretation including experience, science and reason, tradition etc. But at the end of the day it is interplay of macro-narrative and micro-text analysis that is essential.

Micro-text analysis actually must always be allowed to dominate in the final analysis because this means that the text and God himself will never be domesticated by some external grid whether it be hyper-Calvinism, Arminianism, egalitarianism, universalism, open theism, pre-millenialism, cessationism etc; rather, the text will be allowed to continue to surprise us as the Spirit who penned it through the hearts and minds of its writers (in some mysterious way for sure) can speak through it to us in our own situations.

I myself am repenting of my own 'macro-text imposition' as I overly trusted my 'great learning' and arrogantly began to twist scripture, domesticating it to the 'system' I have created. Now I do retain a 'macro-narrative' but admit that it is tenuous at many points, a work in progress, open to others critique and adjustment, epistemologically uncertain at many points. I hope that I retain that openess and challenge you to do the same.


Sean said...

Respectfully, I wonder if this is wishful thinking Mark. All of us, will always have a macro picture. The question is, are we always and consistently open to the micro challenging and shaping the macro. I am persuaded that Paul operates within the broad sweep of 2nd Temple Judaism. But my micro analysis also suggests some counter-imperial elements, which aren't strictly within this framework. The point is to always be reforming our big ideas, by the necessary and insightful details of Scripture.

On a more polemical note, I think John Sanders and Greg Boyd have answered the objections of Jesus' foreknoweldge with regards to Open Theism, so that this is a Macro view that makes more sense of the micro details, then any other view - even though there are still loads of exegetical details to discuss and contemplate!

Love your work, will be seeing you next year! ciao, sean D.

Dr Mark K said...

Mmmm. Interesting statement, 'wishful thinking'. It is in fact, imperative. If you read my comments carefully I do agree we have and must have a 'macro-narrative'. The issue you raise is exactly my point, we must remain open to 'micro-text' investigation. Too many of us close up, we think we have it sussed, and we then allow the macro-narrative to become determinative at the expense of the text.

With all due respect, the problems of apparent omniscience are not resolved adequately by open theists e.g. events surrounding Judas, Simon Peter etc. Can't agree. I have yet to find a 'system' dealing with God's sovereignty and human responsibility/freedom that satisfies the data. My 'macro-narrative' includes both, dimensions of both Open Theism and Calvinism. But, not sure I am right and am open... that is the point.

It is also too simple to say that 'Paul operates within the broad sweep of 2nd Temple Judaism'. The problem with this is that 2nd Temple Judaism is incredibly diverse, so we are left asking 'which part', 'which of the competing voices in 2nd temple Judaism'. When we consider Paul against a Greco-Roman background it is further complicated. It is all too simple. 2nd temple Judaism becomes a grid.

Dickson does this in his analysis of Paul's mission. He imposes his interpretation of mission in 2nd temple Judaism on Paul and concludes Paul had a 'passive view' of the churches role in evangelisation.

I think more formative on Paul's understanding is Jesus' mission which is centrifugal (cf. 1 Cor 11:1) and the mission understanding of the early church (e.g. the Great Commission). Gal 2:7-10 indicates that they and Paul understood the need to proactive evangelisation.

We do the 'macro-narrative' as biblical students, imposing one dimension of the 'background' upon the text. So we end up with Jesus the Cynic, Jesus the Wise Teacher, Paul the Stoic, etc etc.

Beware the macro-narrative. Can't wait to have you around again bro!


Sean said...

Excellent response. And yes, being around will afford much opportunity for us to discuss these exegetical details. But for now, I'm quite happy to hold my Open "macro-narrative" as it explains the data better than the Calvinist/Arminian options...

But that's the whole debate, so I'll save it! Love your nuggetts on JUDE. Will be reading Davids commentary, with Bauckham over the holidays... Good times...

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