Avery Archer has responded to my response to his piece entitled The Philosopher vs. the Biblical Fundamentalist. The conversation is worth continuing because it illuminates issues of interpretation which come up again and again.
For example, it is typical in Judaism and in Christianity for a first text to be appropriated in a second text. The first text may be embedded in the Tanakh/Old Testament; the second, in a layer of rabbinic or Christian tradition. Later texts abstract elements of earlier ones and utilize them in the construction of a synthesis. Overall content and emphasis change, sometimes radically. Whoever supposes that the content and emphases of the later text are, by definition, implicit in the earlier, misunderstands the process. Whoever points out that content and emphases are dissimilar, and opines that said fact proves the inauthentic nature of the appropriation, also misunderstands the process. Later texts express a metanarrative whose fixed points lie outside of the earlier texts they appropriate. Later texts attempt to show that these fixed points are capable of coordination with fixed points in earlier texts. Discerned one-to-one correspondence (“this is that”) is not the same thing as identity.
To be sure, it requires a historical frame of mind to make the distinction between correspondence and identity. Interpreters ancient and modern make the distinction when it serves their purposes, which is not often, and otherwise elide it. But the interpreter interested in the sense a text had once upon a time, in its original or in a subsequent historical context, must protect the otherness of the text from premature conflation with an extraneous metanarrative. The philosopher, I assume, is bound by an identical hermeneutical deontology.
As I stated in my previous reply, if a biblical literalist is someone who "interprets the Bible at face value unless otherwise clearly indicated" (Avery's definition), then I am one. Said definition is interesting, though of course the epithet "literalist" is more often applied to the one who construes another’s words in an over-literal or simplistic manner. In my view, that is what Avery continues to do. This time around, he constructs the following syllogism:
(A) The members of the Holy Trinity are infallible
(B) Jesus made a mistake, and therefore is not infallible
(C) Jesus is not a member of the Holy Trinity
Archer understands (A) to be a “simple” restatement of the Christian doctrine of divine omniscience. I beg to differ. (A) is not simple but simplistic. It requires qualification. The first Christians made a distinction between God the Son who, in an act of self-emptying (kenosis), became like us “in everything but sin” between birth and death on a cross; and that same person who, before birth and after God raised him from the dead, fully participates in divine omniscience. As Jesus is reported to have said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
This verse might even be understood to imply that the Son, irrespective of incarnation, does not fully participate in divine omniscience. A discussion of that would be interesting in its own right, but would take us far afield. An examination of early tradition, in particular, the diverse christologies of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria, might prove helpful. My sense is that Archer is unaware of the riches of the formative period of christological thinking. Perhaps he has also failed to read a nuanced account of the christologies of the New Testament. That of Leonhard Goppelt entitled Theology of the New Testament: The Variety and Unity of the Apostolic Witness to Christ might be recommended. Instead of a three-step historical process (christologies of the New Testament; christologies of subsequent centuries; christology as defined in the creeds), he judges the New Testament against the standard of fully developed christology of three centuries later. In the process, he makes the Society for Creative Anachronism look conservative.
[Ed.: The folk Avery refers to as “biblical fundamentalists” interpret a-historically all the time. Why can’t Avery? Archer is smarter than that. I hold him to a higher standard.]
It’s time to return to the subject matter at hand: unfulfilled prophecy. Jesus is reported to have expected the prophecies of Daniel to be fulfilled in the lifetime of his hearers. Said prophecies include the prediction of a definitive victory of Israel over its enemies, as well as, according to Jesus, a judgment day in which individuals will be judged for what they did or did not do. In point of fact, said prophecies went unfulfilled, both then and since.
To say so is not “curious,” as Archer has it, but a statement of the obvious. Matthew 24:36, Acts 1:6-7 (cited in my earlier post), and, at greater length, 2 Peter 3:1-9, handle the issue of postponed fulfillment in a variety of ways. Furthermore, as I pointed out in my previous post, examples of unfulfilled prophecy in the Bible abound. It is not possible for Jewish interpreters to say, “The issue is unimportant in my tradition.” Nor is it possible for Christian interpreters to say, “The issue relates to the Old Testament, not the New.”
In Avery’s response to mine, he ups the ante, and I’m ready to comply. If a biblical fundamentalist is someone who “refus[es] to pick and choose which parts of the Bible [he/she] takes to be authoritative, in the manner that many liberal Christians do” (Avery’s definition), then I am a biblical fundamentalist. Give me that old-time religion. I am just as sick and tired of the “à la carte” approach to scripture as is Avery.
I would go one step further: if the formulation of a systematic theologian stands in contradiction to the plain witness of scripture, I side with the latter. I don’t care how respected said theologian is, or how many theological popes, ancient or modern, attest to the correctness of the systematization. As far as I’m concerned, the primacy of scripture still obtains.
Furthermore, I don’t think we should expect the various writings of the Old and New Testaments to give us a single harmonizable picture of “the end times” or any other point of doctrine. A variety of pictures, talking points, and whatnot are presented. Each conveys a truth which is lost if amalgamated with the others according to a heterological scheme.
Texts as various as Isa 2:2-5; Isa 65:17-66:24; Ezek 38-39; the prophecies of Daniel; Matt 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31; 1 Thes 4:13-5:3; and Rev 19:11-22:7, for example, are not reducible to one another. Modern-day attempts to discern instances in which they illuminate the structure of contemporary events or anticipate the future follow interpretive procedures, it seems to me, that are as old as the texts themselves. Bring it on. On the other hand, to the extent that they rely on a harmonization of disparate elements arbitrarily lifted from some texts and not others, not on the raw witness of the texts themselves, said attempts are bound to mislead.
[Ed.: Hey, you promised that you would write with both Jews and Christians in mind. Are not Jews little more than bemused bystanders in this debate? Does the name Menahem Mendel Schneerson mean nothing to you? Messianic eschatology is alive and well in Judaism today. It draws on pre-existing traditions and interpretive procedures no less than contemporary Christian eschatology.]
I would suggest that a dose of humility is in order. In lieu of a unified theory of everything, it is necessary, this side of the kingdom, to hold to plural, partial, and, strictly speaking, irreconcilable construals of eschatology and other points of theological doctrine. I am happy to cheer wannabe theological Einsteins on, but I don’t expect them to achieve in theology what Einstein did not in physics.
Too often, it has been assumed that the epistemology of theology has little or nothing in common with the epistemology of other sciences. Archer, in my view, falls headlong into this trap. He wants to hold the Bible to standards of conceptual rigor which, if applied to modern physics, with its “complementary” wave and particle theories of matter and energy, its quarks, gluons, and what have you, would reduce even the great lectures of Richard Feynman to a morass of contradictions. The consistency which Archer looks for, and does not find, is the hobgoblin of small minds.
There are no special hermeneutics that apply to scripture alone, and there is no special epistemology that applies to knowledge of God and no other kind of knowledge. If one interprets the writings of the Bible singly, the methods of interpretation to apply are the same as those that apply to individual writings more generally. If one interprets the writings of the Bible as components of the larger corpus of which they are now a part, the methods of interpretation to apply are the same as those that apply in the case of corpora of writings such as constitutions in conjunction with case law. Jaroslav Pelikan recently wrote a book about the hermeneutical commonalities (Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution [Yale University Press, 2004]).
I could be wrong, but Archer comes across as someone who overdosed a while back on apologists like Josh McDowell, and gave up on Christianity in the process. If so, that is a tribute to Archer. The arrogance of apologists like McDowell is appalling. The Bible is full of questions as well as answers. The questions are just as canonical as the answers. McDowell, if memory serves, has only answers. The people Archer should be reading are George Mavrodes, Keith Yandell, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.
Archer is right to apply the rules of logic to theories of all kinds. Those of subatomic physics and those of the “end times” are equally game. He will find grist for his mill in both cases. My thesis is this: if he explored the logic of both religious and scientific theories, he would discover how alike their logics are. It also matters little whether the theory of the end times Archer puts under the microscope is that of a Hal Lindsey or that of an Al Gore. Both, he would discover, throw caution to the wind and engage in wanton and thinly substantiated speculation. Both, it is not difficult to predict, will be shown to have barked up the wrong tree by subsequent facts.
But Archer should not apply the rules of symbolic logic to individual propositions contained in the occasional writings of non-systematic thinkers. Or if he does so, he needs to cut said thinkers a bit more slack than he seems inclined to do.
I’ve said my peace for the moment. Before I hang up my skates, I wish to rectify something I wrote in my previous post. I suggested there that the prophetic test of Deut 18:20 is not very helpful. Archer suggests I impugn Deut 18:20 by so declaring. He has a point. I don’t think the test is meant to be as broadly applied as Archer wants, but I admit the test is useful in some circumstances. A comment on Deut 18:20 by Jeffrey Tigay is apropos:
“The Bible records two cases in which proceedings were initiated, possibly on the basis of this law, against prophets accused of falsely attributing their prophecies to God; in both cases they were exonerated. When Micaiah son of Imlah prophesied that Ahab would fall in battle, Ahab had him taken into custody, assuming – wrongly – that he would return from battle safely and Micaiah’s claim to divine authority would be proven false (1 Kings 22:17-28). Jeremiah was tried for false prophecy when he foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. His accusers called for the death penalty, but he was exonerated on the grounds that he truly spoke in the name of the Lord (Jer. 26).”
More to the point, appeal to the precedent of the prophet Micah made it dubious to treat Jeremiah in a way Micah had not been treated (see my previous post). Later on, we read that Jeremiah was imprisoned but not killed, a holding action, perhaps, until it became clear whether or not his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem came true. It did.
Jeremiah and Jesus are among the prophets because a grave prediction both made came to pass: the destruction of the center of the universe as they and their fellow religionists understood it. That is what Jerusalem is for the faith of Israel: the ordained intersection of the divine and human planes; the heiress of God’s most wonderful promises. It was hardly a minor detail that they predicted her destruction. Even if other predictions they made went unfulfilled, or were fulfilled later in circumstances they did not foretell, or await fulfillment to this day, their title to have spoken the truth in this instance cannot be taken away.
The amount of garbage that has been written about prophecy rivals the bulk of Mt. Everest. I assume that Archer’s mind was poisoned by contact with it. Strong antidotes to pulp apologetic include the following essays by Martin Buber: “Plato and Isaiah,” and “False Prophets,” pp. 103-112 and 113-118, respectively, in idem, Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (2d ed.; New York: Schocken Books, 1963 ).
 The books of both, it also not difficult to predict, will outsell by several orders of magnitude those written by others who patiently poke holes in their lines of argument. Should a reversal occur, I promise to switch from a pre-mil to an in-mil position.
 Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (The JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996) 177.