Canon: Creative Biblicism as a Hermeneutical Principle
CANON: CREATIVE BIBLICISM AS A HERMENEUTICAL PRINCIPLE
Jacob J. Enz§
→165# The complaint about atomistic exegesis has been heard clearly. One of the chief voices raising this concern is that of Jacques Ellul. In his The Meaning of the city he calls for strong attention to the books of the Bible as wholes to say nothing about the compilation of the books into the canon. The composer and the compiler as well as the original author of the parts must be heard. This principle makes room for a phenomenon which Brevard S. Childs has called the Bible’s “own theological criticism.” The ancient Hebrew tradition to use Child’s words, is transformed “to become a far truer testimony to God’s purpose with his world.” Hermeneutically speaking, this points in the direction of a creative Biblicism. The Holy Scriptures manifest within themselves the resources for their own interpretation. This is operative within the Old Testament; it is also operative between the Testaments and within the New Testament. This approach may also permit us to enter directly into a dialogue taking place in the canon. The so-called hermeneutical bridge supposedly connecting us with the canon may not be necessary. There is an inclusive ness in the canon that embraces the totality of time in a way that provides us with an immediacy to the inner hermeneutics in the Scriptures.
This essay presents a selection of the ways by which the canon engages in dialogue on some ever-recurring issues. Among these are: the physical-spiritual issues, tradition and the new, nationalism and the kingdom of God, equality of woman with man, nationalistic and spiritual warfare, secular and kingdom charisma, and the potency of the spirit and of suffering.
1. Consider what happens when one reads the first two parts of the Hebrew canon called the Law and the Prophets. The second part of the Prophets, the prophetic anthologies, consists of four units: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (commonly known as the Minor Prophets). Gunnar Ostborn has this to say about the numerical configuration three →166 and twelve; “...it does not seem unlikely that the prototypes of this limitation might here have been the three patriarchs and the twelve tribes, all of them being the original representatives of Israel.” Ostborn goes on to add, “...in the critical period about the time of the Exile and during it a number of prophets evidently obtained leading positions. As far as I can see, it is plausible that some of their prominent figures were selected by tradition as representatives of a new Israel, and that, due to this, their number was fixed at fifteen, in accordance with the number of the central personalities in the history of primordial Israel.” Following Ostborn, what is to prevent us from speaking of the first Israel as the Israel according to the flesh and the new Israel as the Israel according to the Spirit?
Furthermore if, in the process of time, the record of the new Israel finds its integral place alongside the record of the old Israel, the Prophets alongside the Law of Moses, then appears the phenomenon of the opening of canon and the addition of new material. The Law clearly closes with a real sense of finality in its comments about Moses: “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt...” (Deut. 34:10f.).
But it was not a reckless welding of the new to the old. There was a clear acceptance of the old as the pattern for the structuring of the new. There was clear identification with the old while the new acts of God, as spoken by the Prophets, were set forth. This creatively critical integration of the new with the old is seen again in Jesus’ strategy in gathering twelve disciples around him. It may be that the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, the three, alongside of the twelve is deliberately intended by Jesus to parallel the earlier prophetic community. From this it becomes apparent that the addition of the New Testament to what was apparently a closed canon of the Old Testament may very well have had precedent in the manner in which the Prophets were appended to the Law of Moses.
2. The pattern of adding the new to the old according to the structure of the old may be seen in another way. The fivefold structure of the Torah, the Law of Moses, becomes the basis for the organization of the Psalter into five distinct parts; the →167 Psalter, as it were, becomes the Torah of David. The Book of Proverbs appears also to have a fivefold structure if one divides the material according to certain editorial notes. Nor is this patterning restricted to the Old Testament. The Gospel of Matthew divides the teachings of Jesus into five distinct parts concluding each with the identical formula, “when Jesus finished...” It has been pointed out that the Evangelist “means to surround the promulgation of the New Law - the Covenant of God in Christ - with the same majesty as accompanied the giving of the Law on Sinai...”
3. Genealogies are also typical of both Testaments. They are another means of expressing the deep indebtedness of the New Testament writers to their Hebrew roots in the Old Testament. On the other hand they show the direction toward Christ in which the Old Testament moves. The Gospel of Matthew in its first words, “The book of the genealogy” (of Jesus Christ) uses the very words of Genesis 5:1, “the book of the generations” (of Adam). Integral to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, is genealogy. The backbone of the book gives the rootage of the chosen people of God within the larger human family. The Book of Exodus (chapter 6) carries the genealogy from the sons of Jacob down to Moses and Aaron. The Book of Chronicles begins at the very beginning once more and traces the chosen family through Abraham and David and down to the time of Cyrus and beyond.
There is a sense of completion once the genealogies reach Jesus. The “chosen generation” (1 Pet. 2:9) has been reached. Now there is no longer an extension of the family except a limited spiritual generation as when Paul speaks of Timothy as “my son” (1 Tim. 1:2, 18; 2 Tim. 1:2). It is in this terminal point of the generations that the whole story of the church since Jesus is to be seen.
4.Closely related to genealogies is the testamental form of literature. Jacob (Gen. 49) speaks words of blessing on his sons in his last hours. Similarly Moses (Deut. 33) in his last days pronounces the blessing on the twelve tribes. The pattern is resumed in the non-canonical material, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; each of the sons of Jacob pronounces a blessing on his children. Finally, appearing to build on this literary form, the First Epistle of John bequeaths life on the “little →168 children” who are repeatedly addressed (1 Jn. 2:1,12, 18,28; cf. 3 Jn. 4). Thus in genealogies and testaments a deep dependence on the Old Testament is evident. On the other hand, we witness also an unfolding of a new climactic element in the New Testament.
5. Functioning prominently in the Synoptic Gospels are two divine oracles. This literary type, conspicuously rare in the Gospels, occurs in connection with Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. Both of these events are critical turning points in Jesus’ life. The first of these, the baptism, links Jesus’ work with prophecy rather than with the establishment in Jerusalem. Jesus deliberately joins the austere preacher in the wilderness. At Jesus’ baptism the voice from heaven speaks, “Thou art my beloved Son, with →169 thee I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22; cf. Mt. 3:17). These are divine words of encouragement for Jesus as he sets out on his public ministry. The second of these divine oracles is intended to confirm for the disciples Jesus’ words regarding his coming suffering and death which the disciples found impossible to accept (see Mk. 8:32 and Mt. 16:22). Coming at the transfiguration, these words are, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (14k. 9:7; cf. Mt. 17:5 and Lk. 9:35). The true force of these words in the Gospels cannot be understood apart from their sources in the Old Testament. The chief source for the “my Son” motif is Psalm 2:7 where the psalmist, the king, called “his anointed,” reports:
I will tell of the degree of the Lord
He said to me, “You are my son
today I have begotten you…”
This poem belongs among the royal psalms and may be classified specifically as a coronation hymn. The original setting is then to be seen as a highly nationalistic one. Furthermore, the psalm speaks of intense violence: “break them with a rod of iron” and “dash them in pieces” (vs. 9). The deliberate use of material from such a violently nationalistic poem to announce the coronation of the humble Jesus of Nazareth shows both the continuity and the strong discontinuity between the Testaments. It should be noted however that the discontinuity between the Testaments arises from the discontinuity already in the Old Testament. For the divine declaration at the enthronement of Jesus of Nazareth adds the words “with thee I am well pleased”; this has its origin in Isaiah 42:1 where it is associated with the quiet, patient Servant of the Lord who according to Isaiah 53 accomplishes his mission by suffering and dying rather than by killing others. The expression “listen to him” found in the divine oracle at the transfiguration must also be seen in the light of the Old Testament. This may be related to the promise of a successor for Moses as given in Deuteronomy 18:15:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you from your brethren - him you shall heed….
“Him you shall heed” as applied now to Jesus gives him the stature of a Moses (present at transfiguration), something that is elsewhere affirmed in the New Testament (Acts 3:2 2f.). If this be true then the divine oracle (esp. as given in Matthew 17:5) draws upon the three divisions of the Hebrew canon--Law (Deut. 18:15) prophets (Is. 42:1) and writings (Ps. 2:7). This is quite illustrative of Jesus’ own words as given in Luke 24:44 in connection with the walk to Emmaus:
Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
6. Another psalm belonging in the category of royal-coronation is Psalm 110 with its motif “at my right hand” (vs 1). As in Psalm 2 brutal nationalistic theology characterizes this poem; it speaks of the Lord as shattering kings and filling the nations with corpses (Ps. 110:5, 6). Read by itself the role of a psalm like this in the light of the Scriptures as a whole is difficult to understand. But when one sees it in the light of its New Testament use, then one gains a new clue to the dynamic unity of the Scriptures. “Right hand” turns up at some of the most unexpected places in the New Testament. It appears in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost to describe the fate of Jesus: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear” (Acts 2:32 f.). Here is none of the violence associated with military power, but rather a totally new understanding of power.
→170 Or consider the use of the motif in the context of a number of words for power in Ephesians 1:19-22. Paul is praying that the Christians at Ephesus may know:
….what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church.
Power lies in this humanly weak little group called the church which is the veritable body of him who is seated at the right hand of God.
Hebrews 8:1f. also makes use of this motif. The humble Jesus of Nazareth becomes the high priest of the Christian; Jesus “is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven.” The true power of heaven and earth concerns itself with the mediatorial work of the priestly office. The manner of coming to this position is not via earthly power but by earthly defeat, the cross (Heb. 12:2): “...who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” The martial motifs of the coronation hymns are not expunged from the Christian Bible. In their interaction with the suffering Servant prophecy they are recycled for the coronation of a new kind of King.
7. There are instances where a passage in the Old Testament must be understood in the light of another passage in the Old Testament. An illustration of this type is the way in which the Song of Solomon responds to the report the effects of the Fall as indicated in Genesis 3. Phyllis Trible works with these two passages as she examines “interactions between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Women’s Liberation Movement.”
In many ways the Song of Solomon parallels the emphases of Genesis 2 and 3. As in the Genesis narrative Song of Solomon has the setting of a garden. Fountains of water (Song of Sol. 4:12,15) may be compared with the subterranean stream watering the earth (Gen. 2:6) and the rivers in Eden (Gen. →171 2:10-14). Animals are found in both gardens. Sensuality is to be found in both gardens. Work is a part of both narratives; both documents suggest fluidity in the occupational roles of woman and man. In regard to naming, roles of man and woman reverse as the woman names man in Song of Solomon 1:3. The mutuality of the sexes (Gen. 2) is affirmed in Song of Songs. The word desire occurs only three times in the Old Testament: twice in Genesis (3:16; 4:7) and once in Song of Solomon 7:10. Death is unable to swallow either couple.
To quote Trible,
In many ways, then, Song of Songs is a Midrash on Genesis 2 and 3. By variations and reversals it creatively actualizes major motifs and themes of the primeval myth.... Whatever else it may be, Canticles is a commentary on Genesis 2-3. Paradise Lost is Paradise regained.
A part of the function of this commentary is to mitigate the tone of melancholy that comes as a result of the Fall where perversions of creation have resulted in male and female chauvinism. Here is evidence of a depatriarchalizing principle, an hermeneutic operating within Scripture itself, not imposed on Scripture from without. This is indeed an illustration of how the Scriptures have anticipated the Feminist Movement. No hermeneutical bridge is necessary.
8. In Psalm 2 when the Lord empowers his anointed we encounter harsh words of nationalistic imperalism. In this coronation hymn the new king is invited to ask of the Lord and he will receive the nations as his heritage and “the ends of the earth” as his possession. Standing alone this sounds most incongruent with the New Testament which corrects this materialistic imperialism. This is probably accomplished with the help of the divine oracle of commission spoken to the Servant in Is. 49:6: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” A new kind of imperialism is set forth in the great commission in Acts 1:8. It is the imperialism of an extended witness “to the end of the earth.”
The tensions between a power culture and a persuasion culture are preserved in the larger setting of the Old Testament canon. Each position is given →172 “equal time.” The tensions are further felt in the New Testament as Jesus throws the full weight of his ministry, death on the cross and resurrection, on the side of the gospel of persuasion.
9. Another point of strongest tension even within the Old Testament itself is in the matter of Holy War. G. von Rad has set forth definitively the typical elements in the cult of waging war: (1) the quest to discover the will of God; (2) the words of assurance; (3) the march to war in which the Lord himself does battle; (4) the need for fearlessness on Israel’s part; (5) fear that throws the enemy into panic; and (6) devoting the spoils to God. John W. Miller has shown how spiritualization of Holy War takes place in Isaiah’s words to King Ahaz who was fearfully threatened by the Syro-Ephraimite coalition. “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint” (Is. 7:4) are Isaiah’s words followed by an urgent plea to believe, to have confidence in the Lord. Miller points out that just as Isaiah calls for the termination of material sacrifices so he calls for the end of physical warfare according to the traditional pattern. A further evidence of this process of spiritualization of the tradition of Holy War comes in Isaiah 53, which refers first to the arm of the Lord (53:1) in the context of triumph through suffering. At the end of the chapter (53:12) the Servant is recorded as dividing “the spoil with the strong.” Here the prophecy of the Servant to which Jesus of Nazareth gives his life as fulfillment speaks of a completely transmuted Holy War in the Old Testament itself!
10. One of the baffling elements in the Old Testament when read with reference to certain other parts of both the Old and New Testaments is the expression, “Spirit of the Lord.” The first usage of the expression comes in the Book of Judges; Othniel is reported as being endowed with the Spirit of the Lord (3:10). In addition to judging, his work includes going to war. Strangely, for Samson more than any of the other judges this expression is used (Judg. 13:25; 14:6, 19; especially 15:14). Thus “Spirit of the Lord” is closely associated with brute physical strength and warfare.
In sharp contrast to this, one who appears to be the anointed Servant of the Lord testifies that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him “to bring good tidings to the afflicted...to bind up the broken-hearted, to →173 proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor...” (Is. 61:1f.). When Jesus reads this passage in the Nazareth synagogue he adds a nine word commentary: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). There is no longer any question about the true working of the Spirit of the Lord. Furthermore, the suffering which the Servant Jesus was to undergo was already in evidence when the response of his fellow townspeople almost made a Golgotha of the hill outside Nazareth.
11. In the Old Testament there are two traditions of kingship. One is expressed most clearly in Exodus and Judges. The ancient poem in Exodus 15 expresses the kingship of the Lord who has just gained victory over the Egyptian chariots: “The Lord will reign forever and ever” (15:18). One of the earliest strata of the Pentateuch speaks of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6). In the priestly stratum (Ex. 25:22) of a later period the Lord is portrayed as speaking with Moses from above the mercy seat in the holy of holies; this is indeed the throne room of Israel’s invisible, though ever present king, the Lord. From an earlier source the suggestion by the men of Israel that Gideon be their king is firmly rejected by Gideon with the words: “I will not rule over you and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (Judg. 8:23). Despite this strong anti-monarchical tradition and despite the protestations of Samuel the people insist on a king and their wish is granted. The picture of the kingdom in the books of Samuel and Kings shows nothing but continuous deterioration. The golden age of Solomon itself is the time of planting the seeds of later deterioration.
In captivity the true kingdom re-appears in strange places. Mordecai’s words of challenge to Esther are: “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:14) Of all places the kingdom is still very much alive while God’s chosen people are subservient to their political captors.
Similarly in captivity comes the vision of the Son of Man who receives the kingdom (Dan. 7:14). The interpretation of the vision identifies the saints of the Most High with the Son of Man after which no further reference is made to the Son of Man; the →174 Saints of the Most High are the ones who receive the kingdom (Dan. 7:22,27). This process involves deep suffering on the part of the saints of the Most High, yet the outcome is clear:
As I looked, this horn made war with the saints, and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints received the Kingdom.
This last motif is picked up in Mark 1:15 in a one-sentence summary of Jesus’ earliest preaching: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The setting in Mark is the same as the setting in Daniel. The coming of the kingdom involves suffering. John the Baptist is recorded as having been arrested (Mk. 1:14). The coming of the kingdom with all of its sense of assurance is set within the agonies of faithful responses in the face of the adamant religious and political establishment. That is where the kingdom is and not in the brandishing of physical force. At one further point there is a coincidence of the word “time” and “kingdom.” In Acts 1:6 just prior to the ascension the apostles inquire, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” It almost appears that the disciples have entirely missed the point of the tradition we have noted in Daniel and Mark and have moved in the direction of the Zealots. The true nature of the kingdom is shown by Jesus in the great commission which insists that the enduement with the power of the Holy spirit is for witnessing, not for waging warfare in behalf of the kingdom.
12. Exodus must not be read by itself. The motif of signs and wonders which led to faith clear had its impact on later literature in the Bible.30 The term “sign” is used in Exodus in connection with the preparation of Moses for his mission when he inquires as to whether his people in Egypt will believe him (Ex. 4:1-9). “Signs” is also used to refer to all the wonders performed by Moses and Aaron upon the Egyptians prior to the deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 10:1); the purpose of the signs is that Egypt and Israel may know the Lord. When Israel is delivered at the Sea, a summary statement declared that the people “believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31).
“Signs,” “know,” and “believe” are characteristic terms especially in the Gospel of John. John like →175 Exodus is built substantially around a series of signs intended to engender knowledge and issue in faith. The statement of the purpose brings to a focus this structure: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe...” (Jn. 20:30f.). The negative expression that summarizes this structure may be seen at the end of the first part of the Gospel in John 1 2:3 7: “Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him...”
But we must look beyond the comparison to the contrasts involved if we are to appreciate the Bible’s own internal “theological criticism” (to use B. Childs’ term referred to above). The signs of the second Moses unlike those of the first Moses, involve not making water into blood but into wine; they involve giving healing and raising from the dead, not hurting or killing the firstborn. The old tradition connected with the first Moses needed to be rewritten in the light of the second Moses, Jesus, who modeled his mission on the first re-writing of Exodus to be found in Isaiah. There the return from exile and the portrait of the suffering Servant called for a God who bears suffering rather than inflicts suffering.
Conclusion. We began this essay with the assertion that the whole of the Scriptures is essential to the adequate interpretation of the parts. We have illustrated this with a series of instances:
1. God’s ultimate will for the twelve sons of Jacob is to be seen in the “twelve” prophets and the twelve disciples.
2. The fivefold basic revelation to Moses needs the fivefold Psalter, the fivefold Book of Proverbs and especially the fivefold Gospel of Matthew to be truly complete.
3. The genealogies of Matthew and Luke which focus on Jesus explicate definitively the genealogies of Genesis, Exodus, and Chronicles.
4. The testamental form of 1 John stands in a climactic relation to the testamental literature in Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 33, as it bequeaths “life.”
5. The divine oracle “Thou art my son” in the nationalistic Psalm 2 needs the divine oracles of the Synoptic Gospels spoken by God over Jesus to correct them.→176
6. The motif “at the right hand” in another nationalistic Psalm (110) receives its true interpretation in the enthronement of Jesus.
7. The melancholy situation of the relation between Adam and Eve after the fall is counteracted by the joy of the relation between man and woman in Song of Solomon.
8. The nationalistic imperialism in the expression “ends of the earth” in Psalm 2 is corrected to an imperialism of persuasion found in Isaiah 49 and Acts 1.
9. The old pattern of Holy War is completely transmuted already in the Old Testament in Isaiah 7 and 53 and in the New Testament in Ephesians 6.
10. The association of militarism with “Spirit of the Lord” in Judges and Samuel is a pattern that is rejected in the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 61 and in Jesus in Luke 4.
11. Kingdom as associated with worldly power in much of the Old Testament comes to be associated with suffering (Daniel) and persuasion (Mark and Acts).
12. The signs leading to faith in Exodus portrayed a God who inflicted suffering; this is rewritten in Isaiah and in John to portray the Servant and the Son as performing signs of healing and bearing suffering.
Throughout the above we see in living tension eternal Jahwistic-Christian faith and compromised temporal faith. Abiding faith in Jahweh-Christ which does not change with the centuries is seen in persistent conflict with man’s typical institutions. No long hermeneutical bridge is needed.
§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 106-114. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.
# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.
- Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. XVII. For a statement urgently calling attention to Ellul’s work see Vernard Eller, “How Jacques Ellul Reads the Bible,” Christian Century 89 (November 29, 1972), 1212-1215.
- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), p. 170.
- Gunnar Ostborn, Cult and Canon (Uppsala: Lundequistska bokhandeln, 1950), p. 45.
- Doxologies at the end of Psalms 41, 72, 89, and 106 group the Psalms into five divisions or “books.”
- Three groups of proverbs are ascribed to Solomon (1:1; 10:1; 25:1) and one group each to Agur (30:1) and Lemuel (31:1).
- Matthew 7:28 has “finished these sayings”; in Matthew 11:1 Jesus “finished instructing his twelve disciples: Matthew 13:53 reads, “finished these parables”; and Matthew 19:1 and 26:1 return to the 7:28 phrase.
- F. W. Green, The Gospel According to Matthew (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), p. 5.
- M. Dajood, Psalms, I (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 7.
- C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures (London: Nisbet, 1952), p. 55.
- In the development of the “right hand” motif I draw upon a fuller treatment which may be found in my The Christian and Warfare: the Roots of Pacifism in the Old Testament (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1972), pp. 77ff.
- Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” JAAR 41 (March 1973), 30-48.
- Ibid, 30.
- Ibid, 42.
- Ibid, 43.
- Ibid, 44.
- Ibid, 45.
- Ibid, 46.
- Ibid, 47.
- Ibid, 48.
- Gerhard von Rad, Der heilige Krieg im alten Israel (Zürich, 1951).
- John W. Miller, “‘Holy War’ in the Old Testament,” Gospel Herald 48 (March 15, 1955), pp. 250 ff.
- I am indebted to a former teaching colleague, Chalmer Faw, for this expression.
- C.H. Dodd, p. 69.