Thursday, February 3, 2011

Inerrancy and Interpretation, Part 4

We now continue our series on inerrancy with a look at an exchange between Norman Geisler and Robert Gundry in a 1983 issue of JETS. As it turns out, each man wrote two articles, effecting what was essentially a two round debate, with Geisler taking the lead. We’ll now evaluate the debate here, starting with Round 1 today and Round 2 tomorrow.

Geisler opened with a proper question: Are there unorthodox methods of interpreting Scripture? Yes, no doubt there are, and Geisler gives several examples, such as Origen’s use of the allegorical method. That’s an expected first step. But the question is, would Gundry’s midrash thesis be such an “unorthodox” method?

Let us remember the steps here:

1) Gundry argues that from a genre perspective, Matthew fits the model of midrash.

2) Given that midrash was Matthew’s intention, whether he erred must be judged according to that intention.

Douglas Moo’s answer to Gundry was that Matthew did not intend for his whole gospel to be midrash, and with that I agree. Geisler, unfortunately, jumps right over this step and simply goes right to an evaluation that Gundry is wrong for no other reason than that he rejects the reports of Matthew as literal truth. In short, Geisler does nothing but start with the assumption that Matthew was intending to report literal history, which is the very question at issue.

Unlike Moo, Geisler offers little in the way of serious attempts to show that Matthew was not producing midrash. His one serious argument is this:
“…why would one consider the report of the bodily resurrection of the saints after Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 27) allegorical and yet insists that Jesus’ resurrection, which was the basis for it (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23), was literal?”

The answer to this (as Gundry would put it, though not me) is rather simple. For one, Jesus’ resurrection was also reported in documents Gundry classifies as non-midrashic. But more importantly, Geisler here assumes implicitly that the genre of midrash excludes all reportage of history as factual. This is shown further in that Geisler classifies midrash as “purely imaginary.” That is effectively an insulting evaluation of the midrashic genre. It is not “purely imaginary” – rather, it reports truth in an effectively coded way.

As it is, Geisler spends far more time making observations about how dangerous he perceives all this to be, and why Gundry does not belong in ETS, than in actually analyzing why Gundry is actually wrong. He says we need a legitimate methodology, but does nothing to show that Gundry’s methodology is illegitimate.

In his first response, Gundry correctly notes that “Geisler scarcely sticks a toe on the hermeneutical turf, where the real debate is taking place” and does not at all interact with any elements of his arguments for Matthew as midrashic. His admonitions would mirror my own, in terms of matters of authorial intent being a critical consideration, and in terms of Geisler (and others) taking genre into consideration when it comes to other texts like proverbs.

Regarding the resurrection of the saints specifically, Gundry’s response is more or less as I indicated: Both the genre of other documents, and the specific practices of Matthew in comparison to midrash, form the basis for his argument. This statement sums it up as I have:

“Beneath the opposition to midrashic style seems to lie a suspicion that it is deceitful. But once we get inside it by understanding its nature and purpose…it is no more deceitful than a metaphor, a hyperbole, or any one of a number of Biblical figures – right up to a parable.”

This is indeed the critical issue at hand – and we’ll see whether Geisler engages it in tomorrow’s closing entry for this series.

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