Monday, December 6, 2010

Who Owns the Bible?: Toward the Recovery of a Christian Hermeneutic by Karl Paul Donfried

I picked up a used copy of Who Owns the Bible? for less than a dollar and it looked promising and it started well but then went South after about 14 pages. The book does a good job of showing the folly of the fundamentalists of the right who do things like try to justify the Iraq war by pointing to Old Testament wars as well as the fundamentalists of the left who create a Jesus that would never have offended anyone. He also shows how mainstream Christianity has neglected the Bible to its own detriment. Then He calls upon us to develop a Trinitarian hermeneutic centered upon the death and resurrection of Christ. At this point I'm standing on my chair and cheering for Karl and then all the goodness comes to a screeching halt with the section on why we still need the historical critical method of interpretation. Up to this point Donfried had been using some of the vocabulary of neo-liberalism but I thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt.

Donfried rightly cries out against the church for abdicating its authority to interpret the Scriptures to the academy but doesn't seem to go nearly far enough in his application of this principle. He seems utterly convinced of academies assertions about all the letters and passages that Paul could not possibly have written and seems to buy into one of the New Perspectives on Paul. I felt like I was back at Calvin College. While at Calvin, one of the worst classes I took was on the letters of Paul. We used two textbooks--one was by Stendahl and the other by E.P. Sanders. While reading Donfried, I kept thinking to myself that this guy sounds like some mixture of Stendahl and E.P. Sanders and then the Stendahl and E.P. Sanders quotes started in abundance. I would have expected as much if I just grabbed a random modern book off the shelf about the letters of Paul, but for a book that claims to be critical of abdicating authority to the academy this books spends a lot of time abdicating authority to the academy.

Despite claims made at the beginning of the book, I think that Donfried just thinks that modern liberal scholarship has gone just a bit too far. He stakes out a position but does not stick to it with any consistency.

The bulk of the book deals with morality. Donfried believes that the Sermon on the Mount is a moral lesson and he seems to regard the purpose of Biblical interpretation to extract moral behaviors from the Bible. I wouldn't be too surprised by this except for the fact that Donfried is a "Lutheran" pastor. I'm not sure if he's still in the ELCA or not. I would expect him to at least engage in some kind of argument about the deficiencies of the historic Law/Gospel paradigm but he doesn't even show that he is aware of it. He never even entertains the possibility that Jesus could be crushing the people with the law in the Sermon on the Mount. Donfried is critical of the Theology of Acceptance promoted by liberalism and contrasts it with what he calls a Theology of Redemption but seems completely unaware of Luther's Theology of the Cross.

Although Donfried claims to promote a Trinitarian hermeneutic centered around the death and resurrection of Christ, he seems to regard Christianity as little more than a system of moralities. Donfried's version of the law is a softened one. It does not seem be a law that convicts all of sin but only those involved in gross sins and Christ becomes little more than a moral teacher.

Recovering a Christian Hermeneutic doesn't even seem to be Donfried's real goal. Donfried's real goal seems to be to argue against homosexual ordination. He spends quite a bit of time on it. But his ability to argue against homosexual ordination seems to be severely weakened by the things he wants to retain. He can't really let go of the academy and liberal scholarship and he doesn't want to give up women's ordination. Donfried does not explain why Paul would point to the creation ordinance in 1 Timothy 2 if Paul simply was arguing against women teaching in a particular situation. He just points to some ambiguous passages about women in the church. The Gentiles had priestesses in their pagan temples so the concept of a female pastor would not have seemed offensive to them. Paul was certainly not afraid to break with Jewish conventions when he believed they were wrong. Despite the author's claims to the contrary I think it might actually be easier to make a case for homosexual ordination than it is for women't ordination. Using Donfried's paradigm it seems almost arbitrary. He even acknowledges than in some situations there can be more than one right answer. Donfried even makes the claim that the concept of ordination is not spoken of in the New Testament. I think he's absolutely wrong but if there is no ordination then it wouldn't seem to matter if you ordained a homosexual or bisexual or even a monkey.

A true recovery of a Christian hermeneutic would REALLY be Trinitarian and focused on the death and resurrection of Christ and not just pretend to be. Christ-crucified would be the central message. The Bible is all about Jesus, not moral code. The Regula Fidei contained in the ecumenical creeds contain the proper interpretive lens through which to read the Scriptures. The church would seriously consider the interpretations of Scripture put forward by the church fathers. The church would stop abdicating its responsibility to transmit the text to the academy and stop abdicating its authority to translate the text to Bible societies. The church would regard the Bible as the Sacred text and not just as a religious text.

No comments: