Engaging Non-Evangelical Theology

Evan the Evangelical is working on his PhD dissertation at Typical Evangelical Divinity School. Commenting on Paul’s use of the Old Testament, he writes, “On an intertextual reading of the Pauline epistles, we find that Paul’s application of Old Testament passages to the Church is emphatically not supercessionist. The church, according to his ecclesiocentric hermeneutic, is not a separate spiritual Israel displacing the real one, but is the actual continuation of Israel in history.” He marks this with a footnote referencing Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and indicates his agreement with Hays’ discussion of the topic. Evan’s conclusion, as well as his appeal to Hays, may or may not be correct. More foundational for scholarly work is whether he has thought through what an appeal to Hays at this point entails.

Evan says “on an intertextual reading,” implying that he thinks of his conclusion as the result of the application of a certain method. Has Evan wrestled with the ramifications of Hays’ intertextual method? Intertextual analysis is the explanation of a text as a creative “misreading” of previous texts which are cited, alluded to, echoed, or even vaguely evoked in that text. These echoes, points of correspondence, do not have to be intended by the author to be valid; they may arise out of the experience of the interpretive community. In Paul’s case, Hays believes Paul dialectically transformed Septuagint texts on the basis of his Christian experience, resulting in original ideas that echo but are not identical to the Septuagint texts’ historical-critical meaning. Evan needs to decide whether such a method is compatible with his evangelical doctrine of Scripture and his hermeneutical stance. If there are incompatibilities, has Evan attempted to modify the intertextual method in a direction more compatible with his doctrinal framework, or has he simply ignored the problem?

A similar problem accompanies Evan’s assertion that Paul is not supercessionist. According to Hays, from whom Evan borrows this claim, Paul avoids supercessionism by using an ecclesiocentric hermeneutic that reads the Church as the continuation of Israel’s narrative, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises of the Gentile ingathering. Up to this point, it may seem that Evan can appropriate Hays’ arguments quite easily. The difficulty arises when Hays asserts that Paul is somewhat unique in this regard. The writer to the Hebrews is flagrantly supercessionist, and the Gospel writers save Luke employ a Christocentric/messianic hermeneutic rather than Paul’s ecclesiocentric one. Furthermore, Evan likely differs from Hays as to which books of the New Testament are Pauline and in what order the New Testament documents were written.

Now, assuming Evan is committed to a basic unity regarding the New Testament’s stance toward the old, he has to do some thinking before adopting Hays’ position on Paul wholesale. Even if Evan’s dissertation is primarily about Paul, he has to be aware that his readers will naturally ask whether the hermeneutic Evan asserts as Paul’s works in the rest of the New Testament. If it doesn’t, they may be less inclined to accept his arguments. In any case, Evan has some reconfiguring to do.

Leaving Evan aside for now, students of theology (or other fields, I suppose) differ in their ability to engage with sources. The beginner is concerned about only content and conclusion: “What does the author say?” or “What’s the right answer?” Next, the intermediate student examines the whole argument: “What does the author conclude, and how does he justify his position?” The advanced student comprehends not only the author’s arguments, but also the broad framework of his thought and the tacit assumptions that render those arguments intelligible. At this level, the student realizes that arguments and conclusions cannot be plucked out of one publication and plopped into another like interchangeable Lego pieces.

This advanced level of interpretation is more easily illustrated by a failure than success. A doctor stumbles upon a modern reprint of a medieval medical text that recommends bloodletting as a cure for a certain condition he is treating. Not realizing that it is indeed a medieval text based upon the Galenic theory of the four humours, this doctor tries bloodletting on his patient, with disappointing results. If he had taken the time to understand what he was reading, he would have soon recognized that he and the medieval text shared almost no common ground as to the practice of medicine — how to diagnose, the primary indicators of health, what causes sickness — except for the common goal of restoring health. The solution, bloodletting, is disqualified because it stands within a rejected framework. Even if, by some chance, bloodletting were a useful technique in this situation, it would most certainly not be for the reasons expressed in the medieval text. The technique would undergo a transformation when explained within the contemporary medical framework of understanding. For readers who want a more concise and theological example, try asking an amillennialist whether he interprets a certain passage as pre-, mid-, or post-trib.

Evan, realizing that he has up until now given scant attention to such broader issues, ought to rectify his mistake by picking up a copy of David Kelsey’s The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology. Kelsey examines the various ways in which modern theologians appeal to Scripture to authorize their theological proposals. The sheer diversity of conceptions regarding what theology means and how it is done may be shocking to an evangelical reader. Evangelicals, even those aligned with different denominations or holding different hermeneutical stances, are all fairly similar in how they relate the Bible to theology. Outside of evangelicalism, the disparity is enormous. The point is not that evangelicals cannot read, engage with, or learn from non-evangelical theology. Rather, an evangelical cannot naively copy-paste ideas and conclusions from these non-evangelical sources into his own theology without considering how those concepts might be radically transformed by assimilation into an evangelical framework. If those ideas are not properly assimilated, the framework will be unconsciously distorted into something other than evangelical.

An Outline of Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (but reading it yourself is better)

A Helpful Review of Kelsey’s Work (but reading it yourself is better)