The Historical-Grammatical Nanny State
Typological interpretation is either abused or frowned upon, a domain relegated to mystics and charlatans, where the angels of modern academia fear to tread. But what if the Bible itself contained safeguards against irresponsible flights of fancy? And if it did, what would they look like?
Years ago, a friend well-versed in theology noticed that three thousand Israelites were slain at the first Pentecost and three thousand believed at the last. He questioned if such an observation was valid, yet this is precisely the kind of response that the texts were intended to elicit.
It is tragic that someone so educated and so familiar with the Scriptures would be afraid of venturing beyond an imaginary — and entirely arbitrary — hermeneutical safeguard. What is most distressing is that the benefits of his familiarity with the Scriptures were hamstrung by his theological education. Not only does my friend miss out on much of what the Bible has to offer, but so do all those under his ministry.
Modern biblical scholarship has become an industry which alienates the common man from the Bible every bit as much as the “veil of expertise” which robbed Christians of the Word under Rome. When direct contact with the texts is not permitted, people’s minds are not shaped by them, and they resort to foolish superstitions or fall prey to the world’s philosophies. The Bible is “protected” but the culture is left to the ravens.
The origins of this historical-grammatical “protectionism” were as well-meaning as those which locked the Word away in the early centuries of the Church, but this time the satanic strategy is different. This time, the Word itself is not illegal. It is readily available, and found in the ears and mouths and hands and hearts of many people. But to shield Christians from the irresponsible claims of Bible teachers who consult their own imaginations for hidden meanings in the text, teachers and hearers are bound by rules that render obvious associations, such as the one mentioned above, beyond the bounds of hermeneutical propriety. We are not allowed to read the Bible in the way it was intended to be read.
To make symbolic or structural connections between Bible books, let alone between Old and New Testaments, that are not explicitly made by the authors, is considered to be outside the bounds of responsible theology, rather than its beating heart. Skills that all of us develop intuitively as we read books, watch TV and movies, or listen to music, we are taught to put aside as irrelevant or even dangerous to biblical interpretation. When it comes to images and symbols, anything that cannot be verified is considered “private interpretation.”
The problem with this approach to the Bible is that it is quite obviously a literary ocean of images and symbols begging to be traveled and experienced, contemplated and assimilated, by the reader. And, like all good literature, its true depths are not immediately apparent, and only become so as the contours of the text itself shape the reader. Instead, Bible teaching has become a beach trip where nobody is allowed to swim, or if he is, he must remain in the shallows, safe between the narrow flags of Practical Christianity.
Even those Christians brave enough to study the Old Testament are trained to view it through very small binoculars from the vantage point of a designated “Safe Space” roped off by Nice People. Hermeneutical Incorrectness will not be tolerated. Moreover, it will be publicly shamed. Thanks to decades of faithful training by nervous academics, the hive mind shared by most Christians prefers that the mysterious and perplexing parts of the Bible remain so. Any desire or attempt to makes sense of these is frowned upon by Nanny, ignored, or even ridiculed. This appalling failure is disguised with platitudes such as “Christ in all the Scriptures” or “Surely there are better, more practical things to do.” These are a cover for being too cowardly to deal with the Scriptures openly or genuinely much at all.
However, theological maturity, like all the other good stuff about adulthood — money, driving, marriage, sex, parenting, alcohol — requires a level of responsible freedom and therefore involves some amount of risk. Hermeneutical cotton wool has created a generation of sheltered children who know the parental boundaries by rote but are lacking when it comes to true Scriptural discernment. They have knowledge without understanding, and take offence when their factoids or feelings are threatened in any way. Richard Feynman expressed a similar frustration with many in his field of theoretical physics: “I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way — by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!” Instead of becoming true teachers, evangelicals are “dull of hearing,” still stuck on the basic principles (Hebrews 5:12), squabbling over “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2).
Since the safeguards of too-conservative theologians never permit us to truly enter the world of the authors, we will never truly understand those authors. You know the feeling. You listen to the Bible on the way to work, and like the Ethiopian eunuch in his chariot, you pore over a text crammed with the irresistible and inexplicable, desperate for somebody to explain it to you. But when the teacher turns up from the academy, he is even more of a eunuch than you are when it comes to the Bible. Despite word studies or even classes in Hebrew and Greek, nobody seems able to “speak its language.” Some isolated truths are pointed out in the text, but there is a nagging feeling that, like Moses, we are stuck in the darkness of a cave on the mountain of God and all we are permitted to see is the “back parts” — the afterglow — of the textual parade. Deep down, we desire both comprehension and apprehension of its true glory, which we sense has passed us by. Modern preaching is an empty street strewn with ticker tape, or wet confetti in a desolate church yard. The real event always seems to be elsewhere, somewhere at the end of a parsimonious trail of theological crumbs.
There is no understanding without risk, but there is no risk without fear. Machen’s warrior children are all grown up and have been promoted to the status of warrior-Nanny. Fear of heresy has become fear of the text. Consequently, so much theology skirts around it like children playing the party game of Poison Chair. Hermeneutics has become like sex or capitalism. Everyone talks about it but nobody is actually doing it, and if they are doing it, they must be doing it badly, and it should be strictly regulated. Woe betide anyone who gets beyond the generalities and speaks of the particulars in polite discussion! The preacher or teacher who is bound by his love for the text rather than rules, ravished by its shape, understands its ways and is transported by its unseen winds will never be understood by academic prudes. Yet he is the one who is truly free.
With all the delicate swooning and vicious recriminations, is it any wonder that so much preaching never manages to get even one finger on the Bible’s pulse? You know what I mean: the pastor who, despite consulting four-and-twenty commentaries in his sermon preparation, clearly has no more idea of what is going on in the text, or why it is arranged the way it is, or uses the symbols and analogies it does, than you do. And that is the responsible Bible teacher. To make the text “relevant,” if he cannot actually see Jesus in the text, he will violate it and shoehorn Him in there somehow.
Now, on the other foot, there are Bible commentators who do understand biblical symbolism, and they are wonderful to read. But in their brave adventures, they sometimes see connections that stretch credibility. I call this “drive by” typology, because it is a lot like a drive by shooting: there is no warning, little evidence at the scene, and sometimes an unfortunate victim — the intent of the author. This sort of theological claim becomes an actual crime when the method is used to justify some unbiblical doctrine or tradition. Once again, the text is forced to submit to our agenda rather than the other way around.
So, even among those who make good intertextual links in the Bible, there remains a distinct lack of understanding of the full purpose of the authors and how it governs the details of the way in which they have communicated. They have taken systematic theology one step further, applying it to the classification of images, but most often this leads to little more than the equivalent of identifying the ten B flats in a musical score. And that brings me to my point.
The Bible is not merely a text. It is a score composed of images in the way music is composed of notes. Similar notes can be identified, but each note is given its meaning as it appears either in chords or in musical sequences. A word study is thus not much more helpful than a “note study.” The full meaning of a particular B flat in a musical composition is not going to be found in analyzing the usage of B flats in musical history. Like words, Bible symbols possess meaning not only in what they are, and how they have been used in the past, but in their careful placement among other symbols in situ, in the text under consideration. Bible images always come in “visual sentences,” which comprise “visual paragraphs.” Comparing similar “waves” or repeated “tunes” in its structure not only reveals the internal logic of the biblical authors, it provides a means of verifying the interpretation of biblical types. The reason why reading the Bible is sometimes like watching a foreign movie without subtitles is that this visual/musical tongue is the language that nobody speaks.
So, I hinted that there exists a method of biblical typology, one that you can practice at home without some neutered academic censoring out all the good bits. I call it systematic typology, a word combination which appears at first to be a contradiction in terms, but one which describes the Bible’s built-in “guidance system.” It not only identifies similar symbols and images, but interprets them based upon their placement in relation to each other. It is not a book of rules like those established by conservative theologians. Like driving a car, navigating the Bible is more an art than a skill. To reprise the analogy of the Bible as an ocean, this is not tales from afar to be read in bed, but a deep understanding of the paths of the stars and the wiles of the sea. It is not an imposition upon the text, but an identification of the principles governing its composition. This sphere of study is thus not optional but crucial — unless of course we are satisfied with spoon fed traditions and content in our ignorance of the ways of God.
Systematic typology is an intuitive criterion formed from the actual text. It allows anyone to explore the Bible’s imaginarium with Safety Standards that should satisfy the most suspicious, yet open-minded, academic. Most importantly, it puts a finger firmly on the Bible’s pulse.