Thursday, October 1, 2009

Divine Meaning pt. 2

Chapter 1 of Thomas F. Torrance's Divine Meaning is called "The Complex Background of Biblical Interpretation" and it is an appropriate title. It traces pre-Christian and early Christian developments in hermeneutics (interpretation). His chief aim is to expose the nasty effects of Hellenistic modes of thought on Biblical interpretation as these modes of thought found expression in Hellenistic hermeneutics, particularly those of Zeno and the Stoics, Jewish hermeneutics, particularly those of Philo, and finally Gnostic hermeneutics, particularly those of Marcion. Once again, the big bad guy he wants to slay is dualism, the split between mind (spirit, God) and matter (time, space) cemented by Plato into Western thought.

(If you'd prefer to avoid my attempt to squeese Torrance's reading of this history into one paragraph, go ahead and skip this paragraph and go straight to Torrance's conclusions about how the Gnostic Marcion's interpretations of scripture have had a lasting effect on Christian hermeneutics.) The narrative he traces looks (briefly) like this: early mythology presents the gods, the ultimate beings, existing under the limitations of time and space -> Plato rejects myth by seperating the timeless world of the mind and spirit from the temporal world of matter -> Stoicism tries to bring these worlds back together by seeing the rationality of the material world as a window into the eternal so that timeless truths of cosmology and ethics can be discerned even in the older myths through the use of a new hermeneutic, allegory, in which a literal reading of the myths is set aside in favor of a moral or philosophical one -> allegorical interpretation finds its way into Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament through Philo who sees certain texts depicting God acting within human history as needing to be interpreted in a non-literal (ie. allegorical) way in order to preserve God's transcendence over the creaturely realm -> early Gnosticism widens the gap between God and humanity even further by cutting God off even from the rational activities of humanity, seeing the only path to God as transcending this world altogether through some kind of non-rational intuitive grasp of eternal truth -> this leaves Gnostic hermeneutics of scripture in utter ruins, seeing the final referent of all statements of truth as being totally cut off from the statement itself, limited as it is by its context in time and space, and therefore any text can be interpreted in almost any way -> the Gnostic Marcion, though denounced as a heretic, leaves a lasting negative impact on Christian interpretation of the Bible in the following two ways (and here we need to slow down a bit):

1. Marcion draws a sharp antithesis between creation and redemption, removing redemption totally from time and space to some other world. The effects of this are a Jesus seen as alien to our humanity and an interpretation of biblical texts that speak of salvation and redemption in terms of human history as actually pointing to some otherworldly paradise. Is this perversion still exerting influence on our Christian thinking and spirituality? I think so. Whenever a Christian defines salvation as going to Heaven when you die, this perversion and reduction of the gospel, whether owing to Marcion or not, seems to be at play. They are cutting what God can do, has done and is doing off from the life He has actually given to us and in which He speak to us.

2. Marcion draws a sharp antithesis between the Old Testament and New Testament, Law and Gospel, Israel and Church. This is certainly still crippling our understanding of scripture. This not only taints our ability to see God's justice and mercy as essentially unified, but also, Torrance stresses, it taints our ability to see Jesus as he truly is. Us Gentile Christians have an enormous difficulty seeing Jesus in his Jewishness. We tend to see it as incidental, like Jesus might just as likely (maybe more likely) have been born to a Saxon virgin as a Jewish one. Do we see the same God at work in the Old and New Testaments? Do we see the work begun by God with Abraham and completed in Christ as the same work? If so, can we legitimately think of Christ in a completely Gentile (dualistic) way? Comments are welcome.


  1. Interesting stuff here, Adam. The "law and gospel" dualism in Marcion makes the "Lutheran" bell in my head go off. I'm curious if you or T.F. have anything to say about the law-gospel contrast in Lutheranism, and the idea of Marcion influencing that theological point of view.

    Obviously Luther himself came upon it from a very different direction. But the compatibility is interesting.

  2. Yeah, I see your point. There has been some talk about Luther's problematic beginning point in seeing the Gospel as overcoming Law in Paul that has been addressed by the New Perspective guys. In the prefaces to his German Bible and other places, he differentiates the OT and NT in some interesting ways, some appropriate some maybe not so appropriate. But it also seems that he feels the obligation to acknowledge the unity of God's work across the two, Christ being the fulfillment of, not the antidote to or opposite of, the Law along the lines of Paul's legal guardian analogy in Galatians 4. I know Torrance address that tension in Lutheran theology but I forget where and what he says...I'll know by the time I'm done.