Friday, July 25, 2014

Hyperinterpretation

From the June 2011 E-Block.
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This time around we have a potpourri of oddities that came of an email exchange with two hyperpreterists. I won’t be framing these in terms of orthodoxy/heresy if they do not fit into that template.

Death at the Fall
 
Our next look at hyperpreterist error has a mirror image in a certain atheist objection I dealt with some time ago. It had been said by the atheist that God “lied” to Adam and Eve because they did not literally keel over the moment they ate of the tree. Hyperpreterists use the same argument for their own purposes, as I noted in a reply to one some time ago:

The article begins by noting that in Gen. 2:15-17, Adam and Eve, after God's promise, did not physically die, but did so spiritually. That much is true, but the jump from "death is spiritual in Genesis" to "therefore it is spiritual in Corinthians" is quite a leap. It is exegetically problematic; as a reader noted, the Hebrew says, "dying you will die," which is an idiom for, "You will begin to die. The process will continue until you are dead." 
 
The purpose in this obfuscation is to define “life” and “death” according to required conveniences which will in turn allow a redefinition of the term “resurrection” to include some otherwise unknown, unattested spiritual event c. 70 AD.

I have approached such attempts at redefinition from the other direction as well, as in this replying to Skeptic Edmund Cohen:

Other than that, where does Cohen suppose he has found examples of "logocide"?

A chief and featured example relates to the use of the words "life" and "death" in the NT. In addition to the "normal" (physical) meanings of these words, Cohen accuses the NT writers of creating "new, alternate meanings" [198] related to the spiritual (which Cohen signifies in his text by adding a hash mark ['] after the "original word"). So, it is supposed, the missionaries preached about "life" and "death", and people converted on that basis; but: "Little did the believer know when he was first recruited that the Christians were talking about eternal life', not eternal life."

Of course the word here for life, zoe, authentically carries both a figurative and literal sense; but even so, I find this claim of conspiratorial term-switching rather puzzling. Cohen is apparently suggesting that Christian missionaries went around preaching "eternal life" without telling anyone that they did not mean physical, earthly immortality, and only later, after a convert had been "caught", was it explained that "eternal life" was spiritual in nature and involved immortality only in the sense that there was a hereafter.

All right -- so where is the proof that the converts were not aware of the supposed difference in the term from the very beginning? Doesn't "life" today also have a dual meaning -- that both of physical "life" and of a more ethereal, perhaps spiritual "life"? If I walk up to you today and say, "Try Hare Krishna and learn how to live life," does that imply that you were walking around physically dead like some sort of zombie prior to now?

Cohen apparently fails to perceive that this dual meaning of "life" was in fact nothing new at all. It appears in Genesis 3 in regards to the way Adam and Eve "died." Later [262], he cites this very passage, but explains it by saying that "God already had [the alternate meaning] in mind." Why is this not rather a sign that the "alternate meaning" was a known and accepted usage, one that could be determined by context and explanation?

There is no indication anywhere in the NT or in recorded history that the church purposely confused these terms to win converts. If they did, why is there no indication that some dropped out when they found out that "life" did not mean physical immortality, as some surely would have? This is an argument from silence, but it is a significant one, because such easily falsified claims would have been incredible fodder for the likes of Celsus. Perhaps Cohen was confused by these terms, but there is no evidence that any of the early converts were -- and neither was I, or any other Christian I have ever met.

What Cohen supposes happened in history, hyperpreterists enact today – though in the opposite direction.

Death as Ongoing
 
In the recent discussion, one hyperpreterist saw fit to argue in service of the above these points:

Physical death is a one-time event and nothing more. But this is not quite true. Life is essentially (as we now have it) a constant battle against decay that we all eventually lose. Aging is understood as the road to death in religious contexts worldwide. Relating back to the earlier objection, the argument that God lied in Genesis because Adam and Eve didn't drop dead on the spot the moment they ate the fruit, the proper reply is that this a naive, literalist hermeneutic which fails to recognize the semantic range of "death" in social and religious terms to refer to separation from that which offers life (both physical and spiritual) and not merely some instant.

Reply: But if Adam and Eve’s physical death was progressive as you say, then what’s to say their spiritual death was not progressive as well?

It is as well to ask why one would think it should be, other than to contrive a problem. The body is a physical entity with specific properties; spiritual death – having to do with covenant relations with God – is not associated with any such entity. This is like suggesting that if a building “explodes” and one’s temper also “explodes,” there’s something amiss if both don’t produce literal flames.
In the end, nothing of this prevents the spiritual separation from being instantaneous.

Reply: If Adam was immortal, how was he already dying and subject to death by virtue of the penalty? Jesus says those who are immortal “cannot die anymore.”

Two points. The first is that whether indeed Adam was “immortal” is a debated question. Some would argue (as I would, per C. S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet) that the physical body of the earliest period was not immortal; but that physical death when it came was a more dignified affair, shepherded by God as a step into the next realm of life. In that regard, the penalty of “death” is not merely physical death, but – in accord with the agonistic principles of that social world – are to be associated as well with the conglomerate of spiritual death, as well as the shame and disgrace associated with aging as we now know it.

Even so, the referenced words of Jesus are to persons resurrected at the last day by the power of God. Adam was not a resurrected being. If he was immortal, it was not in the context of a prior final judgment in which evil was once and for all defeated, and we cannot say that whatever “immortality” he may (or may not) have had was subject to Jesus’ description. (If anything, it is arguable that the presence of the tree of life accords with any immortality of that age as acquired, rather than inherent.)

Reply: Why are those of us who are delivered from sin, via Christ’s death and resurrection, dying so quickly compared to Adam, with a lifespan typically only 70 years, while Adam lived into his 900s?

This question has been theoretically answered by my scientist friends in creationist ministry for years, though it is not an answer that would require a creationist worldview to accept in logical terms. Their answer is simply that it took time for the natural world to decay into the unhealthier place it now is. God created it perfect, and perfection does not rot overnight into complete degeneracy.

At the same time, it is absurd to suppose that even a 900 year lifespan is in some way significant when the previous lifespan was "eternity" (if we grant the premise of immortality, as noted).

At this, the hyperpreterist made two rather strained arguments:

If you take a young earth view that the world was created about 4004 BC, then it only took about 2000 years for a 800 year decline in lifespan, or about .4 years per century. However, the lifespan since Abraham almost 4,000 years has only declined about 100 years, or about 0.025 years per century.

What the point is of this argument, in context, is hard to discern. The trend does not need to be precipitous or uniform over time for it to be downward and signifying, which is sufficient for the point.

Lifespans are on the rise worldwide!

This is true, due to better health care and other factors, but is manifestly beside the point. The very fact that we are required to use “props” to achieve these longer spans (such as medications, or sanitized surroundings) merely emphasizes the depth of the struggle of life against death and if anything affirms, rather than contradicts, the essential nature of our world as one in which deterioration reigns supreme.


Orthodoxy: Texts about resurrection reflect a physical process.

Heresy: Certain texts about resurrection in the OT are not about biological restoration but about restoration from spiritual death.

There’s a significance in the response I got from this hyperpreterist when I noted the reams of informing contexts in between the OT and the understanding of resurrection as a concept in the first century, which clearly informs the words of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the NT:

Maybe this is a good time to inform you that we are having a “Bible” discussion here, not a discussion of “opinions” held during the inter-testamental period. While they may offer some educational value, they are not the final authority. The word of God must prevail in all cases. God always reserves the right to choose and define his own terms. So, without equivocation, I will readily ignore reams of contexts which are outside of the Bible when they contradict what is “inside” the Bible.

Readers are well familiar with how head-in-sand this approach is, so I need say little more other than to note that it speaks for itself that this must be the resort in order to preserve a desired interpretation.

If spiritual death is a reality, then does that not demand a spiritual resurrection?

Not at all -- it demands a spiritual regeneration, not resurrection. Here the hyperpreterist is simply abusing and misusing the term "resurrection," expanding its semantic range into the meaning he needs for it to have. But the word in the NT, anistemi, meant a standing up, and disembodied spirits don't have anything to "stand up" in.

In response to this, the hyperpreterist offered the argument that what was described was “metaphorical” resurrection. But this is little more than the contrived resort of the fundamentalist (and fundamentalist atheist!) who waves off as “metaphorical” anything that does not admit to a suitable literal interpretation. Of course, the designation of metaphor is not illicit in itself, but one must offer suitable reasons for the designation, such as prior use of such metaphors, or some literal impossibility or contradiction; e.g., the darkness and fire of hell must be metaphors because they are contradictions in their literal sense, and their close juxtaposition argues for the contradiction as intentional and signifying of metaphor.

In this regard, the hyperpreterist offered a sparse exegetical attempt:

The resurrection body (soma) and death of Romans 8:10-11, is equal to that of Romans 8:23. Likewise as the Spirit was operative in the body of death per Romans 8:10-11, it is operative in that body of Rom. 8:23. Thus, same Spirit, same body, therefore same death.

This is true, but misses the obvious point in v. 11: “But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” Since even hyperpreterists agree Jesus was physically raised, this can only refer to some future promise for the believer and not a present reality.

From here, it was declared, the “body” of Rom. 8 is the same as that of 1 Cor. 15 and Dan. 12. This again may be true but is beside the point. 1 Cor. 15 is still future for us in terms of resurrection. Daniel we shall speak more of below.

But the word soma (body) is used by Paul to refer to something other than a physical body.

In such cases, however, Paul uses the word “body” (or “dead/death”) as a metaphor for some spiritual or other reality (e.g., the body of Christ). This does not therefore mean that what he describes should also be literally referred to as a “body” (in the human sense) in other contexts. The hyperpreterist position clumsily switches at will between metaphorical and literal, and tries to collapse them down into having the same meaning.

Orthodoxy: The resurrection of all men is yet future.

Heresy: The resurrection of all men occurred in 70 AD.

The following syllogism was offered by the hyperpreterist:
  • Christ taught that all things written would be fulfilled before the first century generation passed, in connection with the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. (Matt. 24:34, Lk. 21:22, 34)
  • The resurrection was written in the Old Covenant. i.e. (Dan. 12; Isa. 25:8; Hos. 13:14)
  • Therefore, the resurrection/all things written were fulfilled before the first century generation passed away.
The hidden premise, unproven, is, “ ‘all things’ means ‘everything listed in the Old Covenant’”. But such a reading is entirely unjustified. In context, “all things” in Matt and Luke has its best referent in the contents of the Olivet Discourse, which of course does not include a prediction of the resurrection of all men. Expanding “all things” to the OT as a whole is unwarranted.

A Reading of Daniel

Daniel 12 refers to bodies raised from the “dust of the earth.” It is my view that Matthew saw this fulfilled in the raising of the saints (and also of some shamed persons, appropriately, not mentioned) at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

The hyperpreterist appealed to a reputed difference of view held by Ken Gentry, who is said to think the passage “refers to the deliverance of Israel during the great tribulation preceding the 70AD destruction,” and it is also noted that he holds a similar view of Ezekiel 37. I don’t find this view very persuasive, but for the purpose of the hyperpreterist, Gentry’s difference of view is not helpful, since it amounts to saying that Daniel uses physical resurrection as a metaphor for some spiritual event, that was not itself a resurrection. Similarly, that is what I would say Ezekiel is doing, though he uses the metaphor to represent Israel’s restoration as a nation after the Babylonian captivity.

This was a repeated error of the hyperpreterists: They assumed that because resurrection was used as a metaphor of some spiritual event, the event itself was properly described in terms of a “resurrection” as well. Such is merely semantic sleight of hand.

Paul quotes Daniel 12:1-2 in Rom. 13:11-12 and Acts 24:14-15. This shows that he does not think it is yet fulfilled, as you claim with an application to Matthew’s saints.

Paul does no more than allude to Daniel in these passages, at most; and I have doubts that he does even that. Even so, such a claim reflects a poor understanding of the use of Scripture in first century Jewish exegesis. In reality, a virtuous and honorable exegete was practiced at using texts in creative and allusive ways that would apply to new situations. Paul’s allusions to Dan. 12:1-2, if they are genuine, therefore would in no way signify that he thinks the passage is (or is not) already fulfilled in some way. Indeed, in the case of Acts, “a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust” is still expected even if Dan. 12 was fulfilled by Matthew’s saints.

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