(Posted by Paige Britton)
In case you want to catch up, here’s where we’ve been so far with this ongoing review:
An introduction to John Sailhamer is here
Notes about Sailhamer’s Introduction are here
A sketch of Chapter One (“The Nature & Goal of OT Theology”) is here
Chapter Two: Finding the Author’s Verbal Meaning
In order to prepare us for his intensely “text-immanent” approach to determining the meaning of the Pentateuch, Sailhamer spends considerable time in this chapter tracing the history of biblical interpretation from Augustine to the present. His point is that, thanks to Augustine’s distinction between the words (verba) of Scripture and the things (res) to which those words point, the church has ended up (in several different ways) going astray from the words and concentrating on the “things” – especially, in the case of evangelicalism, historical events. More on this below.
Again in this chapter, Sailhamer is quite clear that he believes the Scriptures were verbally inspired by God – hence his desire to pay close attention to the very words of the biblical texts. He would like to invite other believers to do this, too, but first he needs to convince them that they are generally working with an interpretive model that values the inspired words only as a means to get beyond the text to the historical events the words refer to. Sailhamer writes,
Simply put, if the words of the Bible are inspired, their meaning is of central importance. This puts the emphasis in the right place: on the meaning of the words as a part of the language of the Bible. To ask why the author wrote the Pentateuch is a valid historical question, but that question should not be construed as an answer to the question of the meaning of the Pentateuch. One finds the meaning and message of the Pentateuch not in asking why it was written or how, but in asking what was written as the book itself. (73f., my emphasis)
Here’s a quick summary (the speed-set version) of how Augustine’s view of words and things “played itself out fully in medieval biblical interpretation and provided the foundation of most modern ‘historical’ approaches to the Bible”(77):
Beginning with Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, many Christian thinkers began to prize what they called the “spiritual sense,” rather than the “literal sense,” of the biblical texts. That is to say, in order to understand the words, they appealed more and more to what the words stood for (i.e., the theological realities beyond the text). This was especially true when reading OT passages:
Reading the Bible (OT) came to be a process of watching for the things that words pointed to. This meant, if need be, that the meaning of Scripture could, as easily as not, be investigated apart from the meaning of the words of Scripture. (80)
Having loosened their interpretive moorings from the words of the Bible itself, “Augustine, and those who followed in his steps, turned increasingly to the authority of the church” as the final arbiter of the spiritual meaning of the biblical texts (80). Enter the Tradition! …And that about covers the Middle Ages.
Although the Reformation brought renewed attention to the original languages and a rejection of extrabiblical Tradition, a second wave of post-textual thinking was waiting just around the corner, this time in the area of biblical history. With the Enlightenment came biblical realism and historicism, often without any entailments of spiritual meaning at all: “biblical words pointed to real events in history (biblical realism), not to spiritual truth as such” (81).
In reaction, evangelicals in the 18th and 19th centuries, who naturally wanted to preserve the doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration and inerrancy, began increasingly to look beyond the text to affirm the biblical realities that had played out in history, paying less attention to the way those realities were recorded by the biblical authors. In other words, the Bible came (by Charles Hodge’s time) to be regarded as
a brute fact containing many smaller facts, all in need of brilliant explanation…The validity of one’s explanation rests not on how well it explains the text, but on how well it explains the facts that come incrementally out of the text as bits and pieces of unassembled history. (98)
Thus evangelicals have come to know about historical realities through a text, but the text is really only valued as a witness to those historical events (and as a historical event itself!) rather than as a made thing, crafted in a certain way to convey an author’s mind.
John Sailhamer hopes to call believing readers’ attention back to the text as text. “My purpose,” he writes,
is to argue that if evangelicalism is to remain true to its rich biblical heritage, the goal of an evangelical biblical theology must be refocused on the meaning of the Scriptures themselves (sola Scriptura). What do the words of Scripture tell us about the “things” to which they point? I am not suggesting that the Scriptures are not about real things. I believe that they are. What I am suggesting is that the theological meaning of the Scriptures lies in the meaning of its words as parts of sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts. (87)
…So, you who have read this far, what do you think of Sailhamer’s evaluation of evangelical biblical interpretation as having moved beyond the text of Scripture, in that it is more concerned with historical realities described by the inspired text than with the words and literary structure of the text itself? Is this a valid insight? Is it a significant one?