Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Ancient-Future Interpretation 3

posted by Scot McKnight

Bible.jpgJ. Todd Billings, in The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture ,  is seeking to explain how to read the Bible according to a theological method.

This approach is against what can be called primitivism, and I’m persuaded that most Bible scholars are primitivists and I’m also convinced many in the church like primitivist readings. So what is it?
Here Billings quotes from Jamie Smith: “Primitivism retains the most minimal commitment to God’s action in history (in the life of Christ and usually in the first century of apostolic activity) and then seeks to make only this first-century ‘New Testament church’ normative for contemporary practice” (50).
Does the primitivist approach deny and annul the theological interpretation of Scripture? What do you see as the problem with this approach? Now the big one: Do you think the primitivist approach is the only way to get at the author’s intention? Do you think the author’s intention is all that is needed for theological interpretation?

Billings big problem here is that the primitive denies the work of the Spirit in the Church. And here’s a big one for us: Does acceptance of the “I believe in the Church” entail a commitment to the Church’s interpretation? Or, put the other way around, Does a primitivist approach deny the work of the Spirit in the Church?
Quite the questions, so I think. Primitivism, in both its conservative form (he picks, rather oddly I think, on dispensationalism) and the Jesus Seminar (a good example), is an assault on preunderstanding’s value and against tradition as of value. Billings sees this as Enlightenment understandings.
Billings argues strenuously for historical work on the text; but the historical must be “recontextualized within a theological framework” (59). Reading the Bible is more than just historical work.

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Mick Porter

posted February 19, 2010 at 4:15 am

I’m not sure that saying “the primitive denies the work of the Spirit in the Church” is particularly helpful (it feels a little grandiose), but I suspect that primitivism places artificial constraints upon the Church’s use of Scripture. I’ve been wondering whether the NT authors could ever have conceived of their writings being used in typical expository-style sermon series and their application of theology to issues of their culture being refactored into modern application?
Much less constraining might be to draw upon both the theology of those authors and their approach to applying it, and then attempt to apply said theology to issues of our day. I really believe that if more pastors spent longer considering theology and how it applies to big-ticket issues in churches and in the big wide world – as opposed to trying to find re-application of this week’s text – the outcomes could be liberating and we may well see more of “the work of the Spirit in the church”.
One thing that really interests me – I believe that part of Billings’ approach includes consideration of theological understanding from diverse cultural locations? That sounds really important – do you think that the American church could, in particular, benefit from such consideration?

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Andrew Potter

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:07 am

@Mick, I too have wondered about how the biblical writers would view today’s usage of their writings. But after reading your comment it occurred to me that the situation we have today would not have been completely foreign to them, at least to the NT writers. The scriptures that they used were not contemporary to their society. The OT had to be contextualized for them as well. This was one of the difficulties that motivated Talmud and Midrash. And much of the NT is an application of the OT to a new situation. Just a thought …
In general the issue of primitivism is associated with many other issues and the whole milieu of postmodern theological hermeneutics. Although I have not yet read Billings he seems to echo James K. A. Smith and others I have read, by opening up other avenues of interpretation that go beyond propositionalism. In many of these discussions traditional interpretational paradigms are being challenged and I wonder how the church will look in 10 or 20 years down the road.
To keep a long story short, I sense that sooner or later one of the hallmarks of protestantism is going to be put into question, namely “sola scriptura”. It seems to reason that this plays a fundamental role in primitivism. I don’t yet have an opinion pro or con but I can questions like this coming.
In my understanding “sola scriptura” places a premium on the scripture and lessens the role of the (catholic-) church’s interpretation, thus lending itself to interpretational paradigms like primitivism. This topic always brings up a logical conundrum that I have yet to solve. “Sola scriptura” states that the scripture has precedence over and above pronouncements of the church. But is not “sola scriptura” itself a pronouncement of the church?

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Scot McKnight

posted February 19, 2010 at 9:28 am

Vaughn, you seem to be pushing for an answer rather than asking the question. The fact is, if you read the Reformers, they were hardly primitivists. Read them; you will see all kinds of theological interpretation and lots and lots of appeal to the creedal formulations of the Church. So, yes, the Church was not really primitivist until specific groups of Anabaptists (and they are often misread) and esp until the post Enlightenment take off of historicism.

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Randy G.

posted February 19, 2010 at 10:09 am

I will stand by what I said yesterday, and suggest that good, thorough historical work followed by a reading that is theological, and yet doesn’t overly pre-judge the text is important. This is what I think that Wright does so well.
Mick (#1),
I’d like to see more contemporary cross-cultural work as well. In reading John A. Dally, “Chossing the Kingdom:Missional Preaching for the Household of God,” — which is an interesting Anglican take on Missional Church — I saw Dally suggest that reading commentaries for sermon preparation is problematic because almost all commentaries are written from a very Western perspective, and so reproduce a very Western view of scripture.
Randy G.

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posted February 19, 2010 at 10:41 am

I don’t think it’s that odd that Billings chose Dispensationalists as the conservative representative for primitivism, since they are the largest expression of the restorationist period. Darby and his followers were quite explicit in their rejection of the vast majority of church history as having any normative value. Most of modern evangelicalism is a child of the dispensational framework, so that accounts, at least in part, for the a-historical tendency among American evangelicals. What eventually got me out of that mindset was scripture itself. As I read the texts that spoke of God’s faithfulness to his church till Christ’s return, and especially of how the gates of hell would not prevail/withstand, I have to believe that God has kept a witness throughout all of church history. Thus, as a Protestant, I MUST also listen to the overall witness of the universal church. The greatest weakness of the primitivist/restorationist mindset is that it presumes both too much and not enough. It presumes that whatever group I happen to belong to has the right understanding of the scriptures and by extension of how to do church. It also presumes too little with regard to all of the traditions that have preceded me and my little flock. The church is always an admixiture of truth and error. It was true of ancient Israel, it was true of the NT church, it was true of the church throughout history, and it’s true of my particular church (and of every church in existence) today. I think besides having a faulty understanding of key passages that show us God’s promise to his people till Christ’s return, this attitude also betrays a faulty anthropology. It betrays an overly pessimistic anthropology for those I don’t like, and an overly optimistic anthropology for my particular group. But that’s the human condition I guess. So I shouldn’t be surprised. Ultimately, it’s God who is faithful to us that gives us any ability to be faithful to him.

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posted February 19, 2010 at 11:13 am

Not sure I’ve heard it phrased as “primitivism” before, but I’ve been schooled in the “historical-grammatical” hermeneutical method that springs from verbal plenary inspiration — which of course purports to privilege the “author’s intention” above all else. And this focus on the “author’s intention” is the cornerstone of conservative evangelical theology, because this alone can locate theology and doctrine in a neutral, objective, authoritative source.
The problem is that it just doesn’t work, on multiple levels.
First, for most of the Biblical texts, speaking of an “original author” seems to me to be just nonsense. Nearly all the Old Testament texts were redacted over significant periods of time before obtaining their canonical form — and even then the translation (LXX) widely used by the NT writers wasn’t always true to the sense of the Hebrew. The synoptic Gospels, though associated more closely with individual authors, also are the product of communal redaction in their canonical form. Even some of the epistolary literature in the NT is probably a communal product, notably the (possibly) eponymous pastoral epistles of “Paul” and the letters attributed to Peter.
In short, most of the Biblical literature was produced in community, not by individual “romantic authors.”
Second, the notion of a univocal, stable “authorial intent,” even with an identifiable individual author, has rightly been criticized as an invention of the Enlightenment filtered through Romanticism. One doesn’t need to be a radical postmodernist to understand that texts very often take on “lives of their own,” with layers of meaning that the “author” perhaps didn’t consciously intend.
Third, as the post notes, the appeal to “original authorship” doesn’t do justice to the Bible’s own inner hermeneutic. Brave efforts to the contrary by some recent exegetes notwithstanding, it seems obvious that the NT authors frequently interpreted OT texts in ways that diverge from the original “intent” / purpose / use of the texts. (Here I will confess that I must rely on others who have facility with the original languages and such; all I can say is that from what I’ve read of the Bible in English and of the secondary literature on this dispute, the “Second Temple Hermeuentic” crowd seems to have a much stronger case).
All that said, I’m not a radical postmodernist. That is, I don’t think the question of the “original intent” can just be dismissed. Rather, I think “original intent” has to be seen with respect to any text as a sort of matrix that involves the “author’s” sources and readers as well as the “author.” So, it’s possible to have some “objectivity” and “stability” in a text, but not in the sort of univocal, absolutist sense that some modernist views assume.
And here is where I’d want to suggest something with respect to scripture specifically: it seems to me that the focus on the “author’s intent” too closely conflates God’s intent with the human author’s intent. The ultimate “author” of scripture is God. B.B. Warfield’s idea of “concursus” — that in God’s providence, the human author’s intent is fully consistent with God’s intent — is only one way of looking at how the human and divine authorship relate.
Isn’t it possible that God in His providence built meanings into the text — and through the Spirit working in the Church draws meanings out of the text — that were not “originally intended” by the human authors / redactors? Of course it is — there are numerous Biblical examples of God doing things like this (e.g., the actions of Joseph’s brothers in selling him into slavery). Now, this circles back to the problems of objectivity and stability of revelation, but this is where, it seems to me, theological readings can be very helpful: the rule of faith provides an objective plumb line that signals the Spirit’s activity over time in the Church’s understanding of the text.
Well, that’s my 2 cents anyway.

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John Mark Harris

posted February 19, 2010 at 12:24 pm

I think we need Inductive study to get to that primitive meaning, the original intent of the author. How the first writer of scripture crafted his words to be understood by the people to whom he was writing or at least his understanding of them. It’s not really how the original reader would have understood it, but how the author believed the original hearer would understand it. This gets us to the meaning, but we can’t stop there, we then need to Deductively apply that scripture to our specific situation(s). Inductive (from specifics to the general) Bible study leading to general “objective” principle that is then deductively (from general to the specific) applying that meaning to our lives – but the meaning doesn’t change.

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Bob Cornwall

posted February 19, 2010 at 1:42 pm

As part of the Stone-Campbell movement, I can say that our tradition had historically looked to the New Testament as the sufficient guide to faith. Many have seen themselves restoring the New Testament Church, looking specifically at the book of Acts. This perspective did have strong enlightenment roots — as they looked to John Locke’s idea of a simple Christianity that could unite the church. Get rid of the creeds and traditions, and we’ll be able to agree on a common faith. I must say that by and large, Disciples have abandoned that premise. We’ve begun to recognize that you can’t jump back 2000 years without being influenced by what came in between.
I must say, though, that in some ways Harvey Cox’s book reflects similar restorationist ideals. So the ideal lives on — perhaps in missional and emergent senses as well.

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R Hampton

posted February 19, 2010 at 2:03 pm

I don’t see how you can put early Christians into the theological box as defined by Martin Luther. How do Protestants reconcile Apostle Peter and the succession of church leaders (the first Popes) with Primitivism? Certainly (some) early Christians followed a Catholic ontology, so Primitivism must be prone to, and reflective of, the same kinds of factions that existed in the early church prior to the Council of Carthage in 397 AD.

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Alan K

posted February 19, 2010 at 2:27 pm

My NT professor in school, Gordon Fee, was very fond of saying “It can never mean what it never meant.” This, I think, was both a warning against eisegesis as well as a protest against systematic theology running roughshod over the text.
That said, I’m convinced that the context for reading begins with the church. The “primitivist” approach seems to assume that we can locate a satisfactory place where honest, unadulterated “history” can be done–that we can actually “get back there”. I am increasingly having doubts about this as this approach assumes what I would consider non-biblical concepts of time and space. It struggles to permit the Word of God to shape reality. Just try using the primitivist approach and then preaching through John’s gospel and see what happens.
Why is it that Tom Wright in his great book “Jesus and the Victory of God” fails to discuss the transfiguration of Jesus? He says the following: “It is, to say the least, not the sort of story that one can make the basis of a historical reconstruction, even of a small part of a case like the present one.” This strikes me as a major, major, major fault of the primitivist approach in that by not allowing theology to have the driver’s seat, it makes the Bible into a different kind of book. One wonders how different Wright’s book on the gospels will be from his book on the Historical Jesus.
I was once at an InterVarsity conference where Richard Hays spoke and then was followed by Stanley Hauerwas. Hays spoke eloquently about Christian identity from the book of Philippians, about how the proud Roman citizens of Philippi were told that their citizenship was actually located somewhere else–in heaven. After Hays finish Hawerwas got up and said, “That was all very nice but I don’t believe in history.” I believe that the primitivists need Hauerwas more than Hauerwas needs the primitivists. Why? Because theology precedes history.

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Scot McKnight

posted February 19, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Alan K, thanks.
That’s quite the story about Hauerwas and Hays. If reported accurately, I’d take issue with Hauerwas on denying the communion of the saints, the importance of listening to the other (even the historical other), and for jumping up saying he’s an anabaptist! Good grief, the anabaptists live on the primitive side of the spectrum.

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Alan K

posted February 19, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Hauerwas, as we know, can be just a tad bit tongue-in-cheek and he is fond of throwing in a little profanity for good measure. His comment about history was followed by statements about Christian identity as shaped by the believing community, that as a theologian he studied trinity because the church tells him study trinity. I think he would approve of the statement of Billings, that history needs to be “recontextualized within a theological framework.” Although anabaptist, it seems quite clear he has affections for the very far side of the spectrum (RC).
Another anecdote–Hauerwas once was in a dialog with Paige Patterson when Patterson was head of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary over whether individuals should read the Bible. Patterson celebrated individual Bible Study whereas Hauerwas thought that individual study made a mockery of God’s authority exercised through the church. That night the anabaptist sure did talk like a Roman Catholic.

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John W Frye

posted February 19, 2010 at 3:26 pm

David (#6),
I like your comments and I see the entrenched “authorial intent” crowd arrogantly telling us all what the text means–it means and only means the way they’ve interpreted it. They seem to have the direct connection not only to the human author’s intent, let’s say the Apostle Paul, but to *The Author* and the rest of the church be damned for disagreeing with them. So, that’s the downside of primitivism, I guess. But I get jumpy at your question: “Isn’t it possible that God in His providence built meanings into the text — and through the Spirit working in the Church draws meanings out of the text — that were not “originally intended” by the human authors / redactors?” Is it possible? Yes, I guess; but what will be the control to get from get wacko? If you say the believing consensus of the Church, look out! here come the Crusades, etc.
I just wonder if this new interest in “theological interpretation” is a reaction to “narrative theology” which seems to be a real threat to the systematic theologians?

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John W Frye

posted February 19, 2010 at 3:28 pm

#13 should read “what will be the control of getting wacko interpretations”?

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posted February 19, 2010 at 5:00 pm

AlanK (#10) — “My NT professor in school, Gordon Fee, was very fond of saying “It can never mean what it never meant.”
Neat saying, and yes we need something like this sensibility, but — apparently this wasn’t true of the way the NT writers used the OT! See, even this begs the question of “meaning.” When is “meaning” made? Only when a human author inscribes the text? What about texts that were compiled by multiple editors over time? Only at the time of final canonical redaction, if such a time could even be imagined? Is no “meaning” made when the Holy Spirit teaches the Church (“illuminates”) what the text means?
I just don’t think a “hard” concept of a single, stable, univocal “meaning” arising at one moment in time realistically considers how “texts” are made. With respect to scripture I’m looking for something between evangelical and Barthian views of when the event of “revelation” happens.

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posted February 19, 2010 at 6:26 pm

This conversation has been confusing to me and today I finally realized that it is because my approach to scripture tends to start with the idea that we must try to understand what the text would have meant to the people for whom it was originally intended. Which, I suppose would put me into the primitive camp (although in truth, for me this is just a starting point and I then take into consideration orthodox beliefs, the history of the church’s beliefs and prayerful meditation, etc). However, my complaint about most evangelical churches has generally been that they start with theology and read scripture through that lens without acknowledging that their theology and what scripture says are not the same thing. Historical context may be added as validation when it fits with what is already believed, but not if it challenges accepted belief. So from where I’m sitting, associating evangelical bible reading with primitivism doesn’t seem particularly valid. But I think I’ve been looking at it from the church level while this tendency to read scripture through one’s own theology is much less prevalent at the scholarly level, of course. It was that gap between on-the-ground bible reading and scholarly approaches to bible reading which was confusing me.
At any rate, I think that as most people here already know, no one approach to the bible, theology or our faith life is going to be adequate. Anyone who depends entirely on historical context or systemic theology or church history or even this theological interpretation is going to have/cause problems. The truth is that even if we could get back to “what the author really said/meant” with 100% accuracy, we’d still disagree with each other and we’d still be off base. All by itself it’s actually a foolish quest. But if we don’t include some attempt to get back to “what the author really said/meant” as part of how we read scripture, then we’ll get even more off track.
As for how the ancient church read scriptures, even a fairly shallow reading of the church fathers seems to show that they did indeed use scriptures quite differently than we do today. Often, it seems like they were using scripture not as a starting point from which they tried to figure out what correct belief was. Instead, they seem to be starting with an idea, a possibility or an accepted belief and using scripture to defend, add insight to or work out the details of their ideas, possibilities and accepted beliefs. Using philosophy as a way of constructing theology seems to be pretty prevalent and well accepted. The part of me that wants to look as far back in the history of the church for the “right” way of doing things is predisposed to hold the way the church fathers did things as superior to our modern day methods. However, one only needs to read some of the anti-semitism and obvious use of scripture to support wildly contradictory things that are common place in ancient church writings to see how problematic this way of reading scripture can be. Perhaps one of the ways that the Holy Spirit has continued to work in the church is by leading us to better and more profitable ways of reading scripture.
I agree that an obsession with getting at the original intent of the author to the exclusion of other factors isn’t going to get us where we ought to be. But neither did the ancient method of bringing theology to the text and reading it that way. I think that using many methods and tools is needed. And probably even more important is being humble enough to know that no understanding of scripture – no matter how perfect – will give us a perfect understanding of God and His ways. That’s not ours to have, it seems. In the end, it’s just one more way we must have a child-like dependence on God.

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