The Implications of Persistent Biblical Pluriformity (4)

Note: Thanks for reading this far. You must be a bit of a nerd regarding “all things biblical,” like me. This is the final instalment for this chapter of my dissertation. I will not be posting instalments of the draft of a second chapter for a few months, as I’m still in the researching stage and not writing yet on the topic of the persistent polyphony of the prebiblical and biblical texts. However, I will be posting thoughts and ideas that strike me as I continue to work on my dissertation.

Persistent Pluriformity and “Biblical Theology”

It seems logical that if the biblical texts have always existed in pluriformity then any theology based on pluriform biblical texts must itself be pluriform in nature.  It is not that every form of the biblical texts necessarily expresses major differences in their portraits of God’s nature, working and/or will, but surely the demonstration of theological pluriformity must be disproved rather than simply assuming uniform expression throughout the varied pluriformity of texts and canons. Canons have always existed in simultaneous pluriformity, expressing not only differences in order of texts (e.g., the Tanak cf. the Christian Old Testament), but also differ in terms of inclusion/exclusion of various books (e.g., comparison of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Bibles). Surely, there were theological reasons for the inclusion or exclusion of certain texts, which demonstrates a pluriformity of theology exists.

I agree with Law when he states that all this pluriformity “raises significant questions” for biblical theologians. As an example, “it is impossible to read the Septuagint alongside the Hebrew Bible and conclude that their theological outlooks are identical.”[1] Given that the Greek translations of the Hebrew texts were authoritative for, and even considered inspired by, the first few centuries of Christianity, it is not surprising that Christian theology is markedly different from that of Judaism. The pluriformity of the biblical texts that were, and are, considered authoritative is one of several reasons why “Jews and Christians read the same stories differently.”[2] Another, even more compelling reason, which is discussed in Chapter 3, is the persistent polyphony of any given collection of biblical texts.

The Need to Declare One’s Presuppositions Clearly

Most works by theologians, both open and classical, utilize what is known as a “canonical approach” to biblical exegesis. In other words, most theologians interpret the biblical witness exclusively from their chosen “final form.”[3] They ignore or consider irrelevant the fact that various and multiple forms of each biblical book have existed at any point in its history and that even when one form of each book is collected into a specific anthology (or Bible), at any point in history since the fourth century CE, various and multiple forms of these anthologies have existed simultaneously. It is only in the last five hundred years that the Protestant Bible has existed as the sixty-six-book format evangelical theologians, some of whom are open theists, regard as the Bible. 

What I have observed when reading numerous theology texts books or books about a particular theology is that very few of theologians clearly state their biblical and theological presuppositions. Yet, their presuppositions “govern their biblical interpretations and the theological concepts they have extracted from their interpretations of the text.”[4] This lack of openness—or lack of awareness—is unfair to their readers, as they must do their best, as they read, to determine the author’s presuppositions and how those are affecting their theological perspective. I join with others—Schmid, Sanders, Baker Put, etc.—in urging biblical scholars and theologians to begin their writings with clear statements regarding their presuppositions.

An example of a recent work in which the author clearly lays out his presuppositions is Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God. His stated presuppositions, with respect to what has been discussed in this chapter, include: (1) only the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible comprise the “God-breathed” canon of Scripture;[5]  (2) belief that all sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are “divinely inspired” for the ultimate purpose of bearing witness to the revelation of God on the cross,”[6] and (3) adoption of Brevard Childs’ “canonical approach” when interpreting Scripture, “where every verse of Scriptures should be interpreted in light of the entire canon of Scripture.”[7] However, I disagree with Boyd’s “Cruciform Model of Inspiration” because he consciously and purposely chooses to ignore “whatever prehistory a text may have” and that means he regards the reality and implications of the persistent pluriformity of prebiblical and biblical texts as irrelevant.[8]

Chapter Summary

In this chapter I have taken up, in part, Manuel Schmid’s challenge to Open theists: to give “more attention to the transmission and redaction history of certain troublesome texts.” I have done that by demonstrating in detail that the prebiblical and biblical texts have always existed in pluriformity. That multiple forms of each book, which would later be included in at least one of the canons of scripture, existed—often simultaneously—is clearly revealed in the most ancient manuscripts as demonstrated in the Dead Sea Scrolls. These discoveries initiated a paradigm shift in the study of textual criticism of the Bible.

In addition, pluriformity of prebiblical and biblical texts is clearly demonstrated by means of:  (1) ancient translations (especially the Greek, Latin, and Aramaic translations); (2) the New Testament texts (particularly with regard to their quotations from, and allusions to, the authoritative texts of the Jewish Scriptures); (3) the results of the slow canonization process resulting in diverse canons of Scripture; and (4) various and constantly updated modern Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek texts as well as various and diverse modern translations and versions of the texts in the various canons of Scripture.

In this chapter the implications of the pluriform nature of prebiblical and biblical texts were discussed with regard to the legitimacy of: (1) searching for, or striving to reconstruct “the originals;” (2) holding to the traditional doctrines of inerrancy and/or inspiration; (3) using the canonical approach, and its Christian offspring—the Christocentric lens—as hermeneutical approaches; and (4) seeking or professing a unified biblical theology.

Finally, the chapter ended with a plea for the authors of all things biblical, and especially biblical scholars and theologians, to express with humility and clarity their biblical and theological presuppositions, so that readers can know the lens through which they are reading and interpreting which biblical texts. In the next chapter, I will continue to respond to Schmid’s challenge by demonstrating in detail the polyphonic or multivocal nature found within all canons of Scripture and, often times, even within individual biblical texts.

[1] Law, When God Spoke Greek, 169-170.

[2] See, Marc Zvi Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (New York: HarperOne, 2020). 171-177.

[3] I would insist that whether we work from the Hebrew/Aramaic text of the Old Testament and/or the Greek text of the New Testament or from translations of each, these are the latest forms, not the final forms, since with every new discovery and with ongoing research, the original language texts are revised.

[4] Manuel Schmid, God in Motion: A Critical Exploration of the Open Theism Debate, trans. Peter Lewis (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2021), 119.

[5] Gregory A. Boyd, Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, Vols. 1 and 2, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 6 n. 8.

[6] Boyd, Warrior God, xxxiii, xxxiv.

[7] Boyd, Warrior God, 6 (emphasis mine): “…we can focus on the final form that texts have assumed within the canon and not concern ourselves with whatever prehistory a text may have had prior to taking this form. … The theological reading of Scripture simply takes the final “God-breathed” form of the canon as its starting point, and it allows the interpretation of every particular passage to be influenced by the canon as a whole.

[8] In Chapter 4 there is a more thorough critique of Boyd’s Cruciform Theory.

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