Essay / Theology

Layers and Layers of Biblical Witness

layers of textsI recently ran across a helpful list of layered biblical passages; passages that are themselves summaries, or theologically-informed overviews, of previous sections of Scripture. Some of them you can recognize from a glance at the chapter and verse; others you’ll need to look up. Here’s the list w/links and memory-jogging snippets:

Deuteronomy 6:20-25  What to tell your kids about the Exodus events. “‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out…”

Deuteronomy 11:1-17  “You shall therefore love the LORD your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always,” with consequences for obedience and disobedience.

Deuteronomy 26:5-9  Say, “A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt…”

Joshua 24:1-15  “Thus says the LORD, I did these things for you, now choose this day.”

Judges 2:1-5 The Angel of the LORD says “I will never break my covenant with you; break down their altars.”

Judges 6:7-10  “I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites.”

Judges 10:11-16 “You have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen.”

1 Samuel 12:6-17 Samuel says “The LORD is my witness… the LORD has set a king over you.”

Jeremiah 2:1-13 “Be appalled, O heavens… my people have committed two evils.”

Ezekiel 20 “I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations. 42 fAnd you shall know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel.”

Amos 2:6-3:2 “You only have I known among all the nations; therefore will I punish you.”

Micah 6:1-8 “Plead your case before the mountains,” and “He has told thee, O man, what is good.”

Psalm 78 72 verses of Israel’s story culminating in “He has chosen David.”

Psalms 105-106 Almost 100 verses rehearsing the story of God & his people.

Psalms 135-136 “I know that the LORD is great…His steadfast love endures forever.”

Nehemiah 9 ““Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.”

Acts 7 Stephen’s speech.

Acts 13:13-41  Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch.

Hebrews 11 The faithful in all generations.

This is a significant amount of material, and just reading through it is very informative. Nor is this list of 19 passages exhaustive; there must be a vast number of verse-sized and book-sized summaries that could be picked out that share the characteristics of these passages. Here are a few observations on the fact that such passages exist:

*”Scripture Interprets Scripture” is a great motto, but it usually signals a kind of transcendental appeal to holism, a view from 30,000 feet. The theologian who calls Scripture self-interpreting generally means that any particular part of it ought to be read with the full counsel of the entire canon in mind. Quite right! But passages like these give a much tighter-textured, more particular notion of what the motto might mean. It seems that one noteworthy feature of the Bible is that its later portions are punctuated by moments of summary, interpretation, and application of its earlier portions. It can be caught in the act of self-interpreting.

*”Scripture Interprets Scripture” may also be the motto for the kind of Bible study that lights upon one passage and then engages in a hunt-and-collate process to bring together all known related passages. That method has its place. But these passages are more organic, not requiring the same kind of analysis-then-synthesis maneuver. Their interpretation is therefore less immediately prone to distortion (though not immune).

*These moments of retrospective self-interpreting are uniquely important within the canon; just how important may be a matter of some dispute. But if you are prone to thinking of exegesis as one thing and systematic theology as a completely other thing with few and dubious roads to connect them, passages like this may tend to collapse your categories into each other. What we have in some of these passages are instances where the exegetical material itself is systematically theologizing. Depending on what you think “biblical theology” is, these may be the points where the structure of biblical thought manifests itself to us. Gerhardus Vos said that Scripture is not only organically united, but it is actually “conscious of its own organism.” These are some of the key moments where that organic self-consciousness is voiced.

*Revelation, according to Christian doctrine, is a combination of event plus interpretation, not glued together extrinsically, but “having an inner unity” between them (Vatican II, Dei Verbum). God carries out mighty acts of salvation and then gives the verbally-inspired meaning of those acts; the two together make revelation. J.I. Packer summarizes this view thus:

According to Scripture, God reveals Himself to men both by exercising power for them and by teaching truth to them. Indeed, the biblical position is that the mighty acts of God are not revelation to man at all, except in so far as they are accompanied by words of God to explain them. Leave man to guess God’s mind and purpose, and he will guess wrong; he can know it only by being told it.

If this is the inner structure of biblical revelation (show plus tell), then the passages above stand out as dramatic instances of revelation taking place. In them, God speaks again the inner meaning of what he has previously done.

*Staying within the historical-critical paradigm, much could be said about the Überlieferungsgeschichte that these passages reveal. That’s well and good; they are instances of the handing on of tradition in such a way that layers of meaning are formed over time. But while recognizing the hypothetically traceable, human cultural aspects of this process, we should push further for the theological meaning.

*If Christian theology is fundamentally the exercise of interpreting Scripture correctly, these passages give us a head start by showing us how interpretation happens within the word of God itself.

*If you are inclined to drift into the feeling that Scripture is the simple (perhaps somewhat naive) stuff and that theology makes it more nuanced, or that Scripture is rather dull until theologians say interesting things about it (be honest now, did you skip the Bible stuff at the top of this post and rush down here to see if I would do something interesting?), or that Scripture is a monophonic announcement of a thesis and that theologians get to be dialectical and intriguing about it, these passages show you Scripture already being rather layered, multiple, dynamic, complex, dialectical, and even tricky. That is what is already going on in the Bible: an endlessly rich conversation. About this, clever and interesting theologian Kevin Vanhoozer has much to say: “Biblical reasoners do well to appreciate the subtlety and depth of the divine rhetoric.” (Remythologizing, p. 193)

*So far I’ve offered observations about the fact that these passages exist. But in reading through them, I was also struck by the fact that so many of them (especially in the OT, where the list is stronger and more representative) have the character of argument. Specifically, several of them seem to be speeches in God’s ongoing, legally-mediated lover’s quarrel with Israel. God calls witnesses to take the stand in a covenantal lawsuit with his people. Heaven and earth are thrown into the mix: “Be appalled, O heavens,” cries God. “Call on the mountains as witnesses,” he warns Israel. I’m actually not sure how much to make of this aspect of the passages, but it’s worth noting that a particular kind of argumentative rhetoric is what brings many of these passages to articulation.

*Much more could be done by considering entire books of the Old Testament as interpretive responses to what has gone before. God has several new things to say in Isaiah, but strikingly, he is largely about the business of interpreting the entirety of what has gone before. It’s the comprehensiveness of that interpretation, and the fact that it is stated by God in the first person (“I, the LORD, say this”) that gives Isaiah its unique character among the books of the OT.

*Even greater vistas open up if we attend to how much the New Testament privileges the kind of OT passages that are already engaged in later, interpretive summaries and overviews of what has gone before. Each of the apostolic authors does this in his own way: John rather symbolically, Paul by tight verbal argumentation, Matthew with fulfilment formulas, and Hebrews by consistently tending to quote later, summative judgements rather than earlier, narrative accounts of key points. But it is characteristic of the New Testament as a whole to be interested in the self-summarizing of the Old Testament.

(The list of passages, by the way, is from Chad Spellman’s interesting review of Michael B. Shepherd’s The Textual World of the Bible (NY: Peter Lang, 2013) published in the March 2014 JETS.  But I’m only responding to the list, not the review or the book. I do appreciate Shepherd’s & Spellman’s work in listing these passages.)

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