Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Horizontsverschmelzung & Fundamentalist Hermeneutics

(Genesis 1:1; Painting with Light, by Mark Lawrence)

A few minutes ago I opened my front door, walked onto our front porch, and picked up the package that arrived today from Inside was the new book by Wheaton College professor of Old Testament John Walton - The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

I brought the book upstairs to the room I use as my office and began reading. The Introduction alone, to me, is well worth the price of the book. It's clear and brilliant on the nature of interpretation. I'll pull a few quotes and make a few comments, but I suggest that this little 6-page introduction is a primer on biblical hermeneutics. Here we go!

"The Old Testament was written for us, but it was not written to us." Stop here. Absorb that thought, follow it, and the words of Scripture will begin to open up in a new way.

  • The OT is written in a language most of us don't understand; therefore the OT requires translation. But translation is far from enough. Because "language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture." (9)

  • "Translation involves lifting the ideas from their native context and relocating them in our own context." (10)

  • "The minute anyone (professional or amateur) attempts to translate the culture, we run the risk of making the text communicate something it never intended. Rather than translating the culture, then, we need to enter the culture." (11) This seems akin but not necessarily equivalent to Hans-Georg Gadamer's of Horizontsverschmelzung, or the fusing or merging of horizons of meaning. (Found in Gadamer's Truth and Method).

  • "Truly learning the [Hebrew] language requires leaving English behind, entering the world of the text and understanding the language in its Hebrew context without creating English words in [our] minds. [We] must understnad the Hebrew as Hebrew text. This is the same with culture. We must make every attempt to set our English categories aside, to leave our cultural ideas behind, and try our best (as limited as the attempt might be) to understand the material in its cultural context without translating it." (11)

  • We should not think of Israel as being "influenced" by ancient Babylonian and Egyptian culture; rather, they were all part of that culture. "For example, we do not borrow the idea of consumerism, nor are we influenced by it. We are consumers because we live in a capitalist society that is built on consumerism. We don't have to think about it or read about it." (14)

  • On "mythology." We label certain literature "myths" because we do not believe the world works that way. "But for the people to whom that mythology belonged, it was a real description of deep beliefs. Their "mythology" expressed their belief concerning what made the world what it was; it expressed their theories of origins and of how their world worked. By this definition, our modern mythology is represented by science - our own theories of origins and operations." (14-15)
My experience with fundamentalist hermeneutics is that such things are not only not acknowledged but fundamentalist interpreters of Scripture have been largely ignorant of them. A kind of cultural speciesism causes them to favor their own cultural and temporal horizon of meaning, thus abusing the biblical texts by forcing them, anachronistically, into a place where they don't fit in the sense of retaining their meaning.

Of Walton's book Davis Young of Calvin College writes: "Every theologian, every pastor, every Christian in the natural sciences must put aside all other reading material this minute and immediately begin to absorb the contents of John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One. He has blown away all the futile attempts to elicit modern science from the first chapter of the Bible." Well, that's exacty what I have just done!

Finally, Bruce Waltke of Reformed Theological Seminary writes: Walton's "view that the seven days refers to the inauguration of the cosmos as a functioning temple where God takes up residence as his headquarters from which he runs the world merits reflection by all who love the God of Abraham."