Wrestling the Word (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  February 9, 2011

Wrestling the Word: The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Believer
By Carolyn Sharp
4 Stars (out of 5)

Like Engaging the Word (recently reviewed) Wrestling the Word seeks to introduce to the Christian believer a few of the many difficulties and debates swirling around Old Testament studies.

The idea of “wrestling” having been borrowed from the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angle of the Lord, it is a fitting metaphor for this book.

In it Carolyn Sharp focuses mostly on diverse approaches and ways to “read” the scriptures among scholarship when it comes to the Old Testament. There are “responsible” ways to read the scriptures which suggests that there are also “irresponsible” ways to read the text. Of course Sharp would encourage us to become “responsible readers”. What makes for a responsible reader?

An important part of being responsible readers is to become aware of and acknowledge the priorities and norms that shape the interpretative decisions we make. This is a chief insight of what are sometimes called “situated” readings of Scripture: readings proposed by interpreters who are alert to (at least some of) their biases and convictions and who choose, as a matter of ethics and good hermeneutics, to identify those biases and convictions as a part of the interpretive process… to acknowledge what is motivating our readings serves the interests of transparency. – p.112 (italics mine)

The direction Sharp takes is significantly different from other books of a similar sort. I’m thinking here of Peter’s Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation“. Sharp also takes an “incarnational” approach to the scriptures by asserting the relevance of the human authors. But what she does not talk about is worth noting. She does not dabble (much) in Ancient Near Eastern beliefs, cultures and literature in relation to Israel’s developing theology and writings.This is significant because if you have read Enns’ book, you’ll want Sharps’ as a compliment.

Instead she begins her discussion here with what has been term the “Document Theory” of the Pentateuch. The basic theory is summarized by the acronym JEPD which stands for Yahweh, Elohim, Priest and Deuteronimist. By this theory it is believed that the “Books of Moses” were written over time and come from the four different traditions just mentioned. The author herself does not accept the Document Theory wholesale, but she does acknowledge it and explain why such a theory – if true – is not threatening to a high view of scripture.

In fact, the second chapter follows naturally from the Document Theory by challenging us to learn to honor the “many voices” which in the texts all share one truth. This is the part of the book where she introduces and explains what “Source Criticism” is: essentially it is a “method” which scholars uses to determine what the “sources” are which the various Old Testament books had come from. She explores “Source Criticism’s” work in regards to the “Document Theory” in order to present the strengths and weaknesses of the various hypothetical sources of JEPD.

At this point Sharp is intimately aware that presenting the idea that the Pentateuch was the compiled work of various sources may be threatening to some, she writes:

This in no way compromises the theological authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps the worst it an do is to throw a monkey wrench into a reader’s uncritical acceptance of the teaching of her denomination. – p.59

From here we are encouraged by Sharp to embrace the fruitful tensions which are apparent in the Old Testament (if you have any doubt about tension in the Old Testament just read a few of my through the bible in 90 Days posts). For this she reaches to Walter Breuggemann who, according to Sharp,

Honors tensions and moments of friction that he discerns in the biblical text, rather than working to resolve in an artificial synthesis. -p.64

And in a similar vein Sharp writes,

To blur all of these testimonies together into a flat, monolithic single speech would be costly indeed. – p.63

It becomes apparent that to ignore the diverse testimony of the Old Testament, the unsettling portrayal of God and the “fruitful tension” throughout the text would be counter productive to the Christian faith. It flattens out the text and systematizes God. We Christians – from what I gathered from Sharp – need to learn to live in a bit of tension and mystery. And we should not be afraid that doing so will somehow undermine God:

The Holy is not definable, nor can it be commodified by any one complex of metaphors, one set of apodictic commands, or one kind of storytelling. The more often we are reminded of this, the better! – p.62

She moves on from here to discuss historical questions about the “Exodus” event and the “Conquest”, did they actually happen? Again the answer to that question is far more complex then it first seems and people usually take two extreme positions, the “minimalist” (no they are emphatically not historical realities, period.) and the “maximalist” (of course they happened, period.). Sharp would encourage us to accept the complexities of historical re-tellings and of historical reality and the consequences of accepting either a “minimalist” or a “maximalist” position. But for her own part, she writes:

If real people were not liberated from actual slavery, then at least some of us – me included – will not be so interested in the alternative: a claim that God is only “metaphorically” the One who led Israel out of Egypt. [p.91] I hope that the preceding discussion will have convinced you that “the exodus didn’t happen” is not a satisfactory statement. The biblical narratives are far more complex than they are often given credit for, and the archaeological evidence, too, needs to be respected in all of its own complexity. – p.97

Now brace yourself because if you are like me you’ll need to prepare for this. In her chapter called Inside and Outside Sharp introduces us to various “alternative” interpretative readings of the Old Testament by feminists, queers, African’s and post-colonialists. Why are such “alternative” readings necessary? Sharp puts it bluntly:

Here’s the bad news, and there is no way to sugarcoat it: the Hebrew Scriptures contain rhetoric’s and stories that harm, distort, and silence. – p.115

She takes time from here to explore the various interpretative approaches by these sub-groups and how they wrestle with the Old Testament. She introduces the reader to “Liberation Theology” which is simply “a practice of reading Scripture and doing theology from a starting place of advocacy for the poor and the oppressed” [p.113]. Queers have been suppressed, so lets begin our theology by the starting place of advocacy for queers (or feminists or whoever). This chapter certainly took me out of my comfort zone.

Conclusion

Overall I enjoyed Sharp’s book more then I thought I might. Contrary to Clark-Soles, Sharp is passionately interested in upholding and maintaining and even encouraging the readers faith. She writes with a great deal of sensitivity and is keenly aware how Old Testament studies may undermine someones faith. She encourages the reader to share her governing convictions:

  • Memory is powerful.
  • Creativity and bias are intrinsic to cultural production.
  • God is real.

Along the way she offers many fruitful advice. Take these as examples:

  • Honoring authorial intention as witness is an ethical imperative. p.5
  • Does this approach to reading the Bible sound too scholarly or technical? It really isn’t. p.25
  • The more Scripture you know well, the more… p.25
  • Does this mean that “any interpretation goes”? Not to me… I consider myself to be a faithful Christian reader because I read in conversation with the whole canon of Scripture. p.33
  • The ultimate purpose of my study is to help me to understand God better and praise God more fully. p.33
  • Exploring different approaches to reading Scripture can only illumine the path of faithfulness, if we engage those approaches with integrity and openness to the action of the Holy Spirit. p.43
  • In all this, wrestle with your theological traditions as well as the Scriptures, and trust that your lifelong learning process is superintended by the Holy Spirit. p.89
  • If we are grafted into Israel, then we too are redeemed for obedience. p.100

It is mostly because of Sharp’s high view of Scripture, sensitivity towards the faith of her readers, and her uncompromising conviction that “God is real” with her reliance upon the “Holy Spirit” that this book stands out uniquely among others of its kind.

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    “Does this mean that “any interpretation goes”? Not to me… I consider myself to be a faithful Christian reader because I read in conversation with the whole canon of Scripture. p.33”

    Frustration time again… ;-( First, unless one is reading in conversation with the WHOLE CANON of Scripture, including the Deutero-canonical materials, one is NOT reading in conversation with the whole canon of Scripture.

    Second: I’m sorry, but unless one is reading, not only in conversation with the whole canon of Scripture, but with the entirety of the original Apostolic Christian Tradition (including, but not limited to, the canon of faith, the so-called Nicene Creed; the canon of prayer, which is manifested in the historic liturgies of the various rites of the universal Church such as the Western Rite, the Byzantine Rite, the Coptic Rite, and the West Syriac Rite; the promulgations of the Councils, certainly the three that the Oriental Orthodox consider full ecumenical: Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus; the witness of the Church Fathers and other Saints; and yes, ikonography which, according to one council, does “with paint and colors what is done in Scripture with ink and words”.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek

      … and that is what separates an Evangelical Christian from an Eastern Orthodox. It is unfortunate that we cannot have an “Evangelical Eastern Orthodox Christian”. THAT would be a tradition worth pursuing!

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    There is an “Evangelical Orthodox Church” which was founded by Peter Gillquist, Jack Sparks, Gordon Walker, et. al. Most of it joined the canonical Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. However, a remnant still remains as an independent entity.

    http://www.evangelicalorthodox.org/

    While I am not opposed to such a concept per se, unfortunately, they decided they really didn’t need to obtain valid Holy Orders (which is not at all hard to do, given all the validly ordained, but vagante, bishops out there), so all of their sacraments, except for baptism, are at least questionable.

    But let’s explore this idea. What would Evangelicalism bring to the table that is of value, that is not already in some way found in one form or another of Orthodoxy?

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      For starters it would raise up the Scriptures to a place of primacy which is the watershed of Evangelicalism…

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    “For starters it would raise up the Scriptures to a place of primacy which is the watershed of Evangelicalism…”

    Is it? How, for example, does Evangelicalism handle the following passages?

    Matthew 10:40

    Matthew 16:18-19

    Matthew 18:18

    Mathew 28:18-20

    Luke 10:16

    John 3:5

    John 6:35-58

    John 13:20

    John 20:22-23

    Acts 2:37-38

    Romans 6:1-6

    I Connthians 10:1-22 (especially I Corinthians 10:16-21)

    I Corinthians 12:13

    Galatians 3:27

    Ephesians 1:22-23

    Ephesian 5:26

    I Timothy 3:15

    Titus 3:5

    As Fr. Peter Gillquist says, “All of Orthodoxy is found in the Bible, but much of it in passages we did not underline when we were Evangelicals.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    I muffed up I Corinthians 10:1-22

    and

    Ephesians 5:26

    and I forgot

    I Peter 3:21

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Well Fr. Gregory, I don’t understand why you think any of those passages present a problem to my proposal? Nor do I understand why you went on attack against my proposal? I thought we were going to “explore the idea and see what Evangelicalism could bring to the table”.

      You have not taken the proposal seriously. Try again :)

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  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Derek, you say that Evangelicalism is all about the primacy of Scripture. I understand that this is true in theory. However, I deny that this is true in practice and, as evidence of this, I submit the way in which it deals with the above-listed passages.

    To wit:

    – Evangelicalism redefines “Church” so as to deny that the NT is speaking of a visible, historical, continuous organized community when it says that the Church is the “pillar and ground of the truth”, “the body of Christ,” or “the fullness of [Christ] who fills all in all.”

    – Evangelicalism denies that the Apostles are succeeded by the bishops so that the authority that Jesus gives the Apostles (together with the Church as a whole) stops with the Apostles.

    – Evangelicalism at best sidesteps, and usually denies, baptismal regeneration even though it is clearly taught in the New Testament.

    – Evangelicalism denies that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper become the Body and Blood of Christ which is again clearly taught in the New Testament.

    Thus, I deny that in all practicality, the Bible, even that of the truncated Protestant canon, is given primacy by Evangelicalism.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Greg I said that the watershed of Evangelicalism is the primacy of Scripture. I am being very careful with the precision of my words. In other words, what unites Evangelical’s is there view that the primary (note: not “only” but “primary”) authority is Scripture.

      The evidence you submit is not well reasoned because your premise is that the Scriptures cannot be primary for Evangelicals because we may not interpret those passages as you would like us to. In other words, your premise is that your interpretation is correct and it works out into circular reasoning.

      In other words (again) you’ve invoked what has been termed “the venerable dogmatic approach” or “proof-texting” which is (with all due respect) a naive approach which assumes that simply by listing passages (without interpretation) the position has been won.

      Since I don’t share your premise (that premise being that you are right) your reasoning is incorrect.

      In any case… all of that was to address your evidence. But I still feel that you have let me down by not doing as was proposed which is this: “What would Evangelicalism bring to the table that is of value, that is not already in some way found in one form or another of Orthodoxy?”

      I propose that Evangelicalism would bring to the table a high view of Scripture which holds it as primary (but not sole) authority.

      The question we should be exploring then is what would Orthodoxy look like if THIS were added to it?

      If we stick to this proposal (and not turn this into a “scripture verse Tradition” debate) I think we can benefit from this discussion whether we find in the end that it would be bad for Orthodoxy or good.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      So Greg (my friend) here is what I would simply want to explore if you are will to do this with me:

      What would Orthoxoy look like if Scripture was primary?

      That would be an interesting thesis. 😛

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    My brother Derek writes:

    “The evidence you submit is not well reasoned because your premise is that the Scriptures cannot be primary for Evangelicals because we may not interpret those passages as you would like us to. In other words, your premise is that your interpretation is correct and it works out into circular reasoning.”

    Interpretation? Sure, but on what basis? I would imagine that any interpretation of the New Testament would have to be done in terms of authorial intention and historical context, no? Well, that REQUIRES that we turn to the rest of the Tradition. The Apostolic Tradition is what seals the canon of the Old Testament and which gives us both the documents of the New Testament themselves AND the canon of the New Testament.

    This – or what? What other option is there? (Again, from the New Testament itself: “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter,” writes St. Paul in II Thessalonians)

    In the context of history, in the light of the rest of the Tradition, these passages in fact require very little interpretation. We are not discussing the Apocalypse, or even, “baptism for the dead,” after all.

    We are talking about things mentioned in Scripture to which there are clear, historically verifiable referents outside of Scripture in the rest of the Tradition.

    Derek also asks:

    “The question we should be exploring then is what would Orthodoxy look like if THIS were added to it?”

    “What would Orthodoxy look like if Scripture was primary?”

    I’m not sure these questions are meaningful, Derek. But help me understand: what makes you think that Scripture is NOT primary in Orthodoxy? And, conversely, what evidence would you adduce to support your claim that Scipture is, in fact, primary in Evangelicalism?

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    “In the context of history, in the light of the rest of the Tradition, these passages in fact require very little interpretation…

    *sigh* Greg… my readers are generally far too intellectually engaging to be taken in by comments like these. In my mind you have only done damage to your Orthodox Church by making such anti-intellectual comments. :( If joining the Orthodox means I need to accept uncritically whatever is said in that tradition (a “chuck your brain at the door” theology) which naivly assumes that the scriptures do not require interpretation. Well I am sorry my friend, I will follow a better way. A Berean way as set before us:

    “Now the Bereans were more noble-minded than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” – Acts 17:11

    Could you imagine whereby it read “they examined tradition every day to see if what Paul said was true”. Fortunately the Scriptures have provided a better example to follow.

    Here is the proposal I was hoping to get too:

    1. I see Scripture (i.e. the divinely inspired Word of God or we could word it another way: The authority of God exercised through the Scriptures – which is all saying the same thing) as primary in that Tradition must always be weighted against it and if ever found wanting, must be open to correction.

    2. Second to Scripture I see the Creeds which have been agreed upon by ALL CHRISTENDOM, not just one wing. Those Creeds reflect the core convictions of Christianity and for that reason I take it for granted that they are in union with the Scriptures.

    3. What does not make up the core identity of the faith (the Creeds) may be open to diversity of biblical interpretation since they are not dogma (representative by ALL CHRISTENDOM). But the Church Father’s opinions (as diverse as they themselves were) are of great value and carry much weight. But again, because there was much disagreed often amongest themselves, their views must be weighted carefully against the authority of Scripture.

    I tire of the arrogance and haughty spirit found in the Roman Catholic Church, in Protestant Churches and – as I’ve recently discovered to my great disappointment – within the Orthodox East. Each branch claims to be “the True Church” and will argue in vain and remained divided until Christ returns for heaven’s sake! (*sigh* a thousand times over…)

    Such haughtiness is contrary to the nature of Christ which we are all called to embody (Philippians 2) and the Church which claims to be the body of Christ ought to be ashamed of itself, and those of us who make up that body and are aware of our higher calling that “As He IS, so are WE in this world“, ought to make every efford to reflect THAT contrary to the arrogances found within our Traditions.

    Everything I just said could be summarized by St. Augustine:

    “In the essentials, unity. In the nonessentials, liberty. In all things, love”.