Monday, February 27, 2006

From the Exegesis of Simpletons to the Exegesis of the Spiritual

Peter Leithart expresses something I've often thought but never written. It's what Paul is driving at, I think, with 1 Cor. 1:18ff. Leithart:

Elisha's anger toward Jehoash seems unfair (2 Kings 13). He tells him to shoot arrows, and then pound them on the ground. How was Jehoash to know that pounding on the ground symbolized victory over Aram? Well, for one thing, Elisha told him that the arrow is the arrow of victory over Aram. And for another, Elisha expects the king to be able to unravel the sign that he gives him.

This incident reminds us of the anger of Jesus at His disciples and others when they failed to recognize the significance of what was happening around them. Jesus rebuked the two disciples on the road to Emmaeus as "foolish men and slow of heart to believe" what the Scriptures had taught. We read that and think Jesus was being unfair. How were they supposed to know? How could they have interpreted the Bible the way that Jesus says?

But Jesus expected them to know. He rebuked them for a hermeneutical failure, which he said was a result of folly and unbelief. Their hermeneutical failure was not an intellectual failure, but a failure of faith, a slowness of heart.

In both of these incidents, faithful and wise hermeneutics, believing and wise interpretation of God's words and God's signs, means being able to unravel and understand the knotty symbols that God gives us, being able to untie the riddling knots that we encounter in His word and in His world. This is what wisdom is all about, as Solomon tells us: "The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel . . . to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles" (Proverbs 1:1, 6).

Many are simpletons in their reading of Scripture, and in their reading of the various signs that the Lord places in life. For Solomon, a simpleton is someone who fails to see the point of the signs, and interpreters who fail to see that the signs are signs are perhaps the most simple of all. Wise interpretation acknowledges the plain sense, but wise interpreters see that the plain sense is a riddle to be loosed.

To put it provocatively: Grammatical-historical exegesis is the exegesis of simpletons.

By wisdom, it seems that what Leithart is driving at (consciously or not) is the Spirit. And so, whether scholars like it or not, the Spirit is the key to Biblical hermeneutics. With Him, we know the reality; without Him, we're condemned to the bleakest sort of exegetical Flatland. Paul again:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, came not according to excellence of speech or of wisdom, announcing to you the mystery of God. For I did not determine to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and this One crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling; and my speech and my proclamation were not in persuasive words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, in order that your faith would not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. But we do speak wisdom among those who are full-grown, yet a wisdom not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are being brought to nought; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the wisdom which has been hidden, which God predestined before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age have known; for if they had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but as it is written, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard and which have not come up in man’s heart; things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” But to us God has revealed them through the Spirit, for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.

Here Paul is clearly speaking of the revelatory function of the Spirit. And in so doing, he indicts the lexical-historical endeavor so popular today. But Paul does not stop with the Holy Spirit:
For who among men knows the things of man, except the spirit of man which is in him? In the same way, the things of God also no one has known except the Spirit of God. But we have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit which is from God, that we may know the things which have been graciously given to us by God; Which things also we speak, not in words taught by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things with spiritual words. But a soulish man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he is not able to know them because they are discerned spiritually. But the spiritual man discerns all things, but he himself is discerned by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord and will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
What is it that enables us to know the Spirit's speaking in the Scriptures? It is our own spirit. It is by being one spirit with the Lord (1 Cor. 6:17; 2 Tim. 4:22) that allows us, as Paul so boldly said, to have the very mind of Christ. By the Spirit with our spirit, we know things that angels--and most Biblical scholars--long to look into.