Friday, 23 November 2007

Paul Might Have Said that, but He Meant Something Different

Because of our view of inspiration—since we value the Book so highly, we sometimes over-exegete a passage and ascribe to it too much meaning. Sometimes, an inspired word gets phrased by the author in such a way not because the author meant to convey a point of theology, but merely to be poetic.

Here is one such example, using Young's Literal Translation, barbaric though it be….

For His blessed ones do possess the land,
And His reviled ones are cut off
(Ps 37:22)

The oddity is that the ones who are reviled are written in the divine possessive: God's reviled ones. We're certainly familiar with the first line's phrase "his blessed ones," but the second line makes us scratch our heads and ask, Why would the psalmist refer to cursed people as being of God's own? (The standard English translations smooth out the oddity of the Hebrew, but there is nonetheless identical parallelism between the two possessive forms, and Young's accurately reflects this.)

If we over-exegete this passage, if we try to cull from the text a point of theology—as we normally do since we value the Bible so highly, then we end up creating some theological point about reprobates and non-Covenant participants (=unsaved people) being a class of "God's people." I can see it now—some Fundamentalist book titled The Cursed People of God, or some such; it smacks of a new chapter in Calvinistic supralapsarian electionism.

However, if we back off a bit, we will see that what determined the odd phrasing was not a point of theology, but literary considerations. The psalmist determined the form of the second line when he used the standard phrase, "his blessed ones." In Hebrew parallelism, the second half of the couplet (to use an English term) is supposed to correspond in some way to the first half of the couplet. So, in good literary fashion, the psalmist created the oddity found in the second half out of literary considerations, and not theological considerations. We don't need to write a new chapter in our systematic theology books to cope with this odd phrase.

This sort of thing happens from time to time elsewhere in the Bible, including the Pauline epistles. For example, it has been argued that Jesus is the same as the Spirit (non-Trinitarianism). This claim is made on the basis of 2 Cor 3:17 which reads,

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

The passage does indeed literally say that Jesus is the Spirit. But the question is not so much a matter of what Paul said, but what he meant by it. In this case, I think literary considerations were the motive for this odd phrase, and not theological considerations.

This issue may seem threatening to us who have such a high view of Scripture. Indeed, it ought to make us raise our defense mechanisms. I understand this a little bit better now as opposed to 10 years ago when I argued this issue with a significant Free Will Baptist scholar, with the two of us retorting back and forth, "But what did Paul mean?" and "But what did Paul say." Nonetheless, "grammatico-historical" interpretation requires us to take into consideration literary features to help us determine the meaning of words and phrases so that in some cases, the sensitive exegete may not be bound by the mere lexical meaning of words in order to get to the author's intended meaning.

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