What your college and seminary professors, and probably your church, will never tell you about studying the Bible


Professor Amy-Jill Levine, Reverend. James Jordan

To make sense of the Bible’s historical narratives and the Book of Revelation (to say the least), you must be familiar with Biblical symbolism. To understand Biblical symbolism, you must go all the way back to Genesis, Chapter 1, when the symbolism was revealed in its most simple form. From there, it is developed steadily, chapter by chapter, line by line, into much more complex forms.

By the time you get to the Book of Revelation, the symbols are packed so full of meaning and pregnant with Scriptural associations that if you aren’t familiar with them then you can barely understand even the rudiments of what God’s saying in the text of the book.

God is the author of history, and he tells us in specific detail just how redemptive history has unfolded. As I’ve written before, God intended us to respond to symbols and symbolism.

Through these things, grand ideas and sweeping images can be conveyed in ways that mere words cannot do justice. Invoking symbolism calls forth the most powerful faculties of our minds to convey many complex ideas in even a single image.

I wrote a previous essay that discussed the Biblical connection between women, men, and marriage covenants. This is a story that occurs more than once in the Bible but which varies a little each time.

DISCOVERING THE LINK

I first got wind of this link between women, wells, and marriages through the “Great Courses” lectures on the Old Testament taught by Professor Amy-Jill Levine. She is an orthodox Jew and Old Testament scholar. Through the lens of form criticism she makes this connection between future husband and wife meeting by a well.

This “form,” as she calls it, is but one of many in the Bible. She explains her general approach by illustrating with a specific application.

She does a great thing by admitting to the listeners of her lectures that this approach is the counter to the foolish “documentary hypothesis” that snares unwitting Christians who stumble into it in their college courses. She tells us that these “literary conventions” show up over and over throughout the Bible like variations on a theme.

It is truly an eye-opening experience to a Christian when their mind is turned on to the Bible’s own language of symbolism. However, in her lectures Levine does seem to miss the overall point of such careful examination: who put these forms there, what important points are being revealed in them, and why ?

Whose literary conventions? What basic theme? Levine can provide only vague answers.

“Now the problem with the Bible,” she begins, “is that we don’t know all the conventions that people had back then, and it may well be that a lot of the stories we find in the Pentateuch or even later are actually plays on conventions that would’ve had people roaring in the aisles in the early Iron Age. We simply can’t see them. But every once in a while we can find them, the same story, the same form, the same split-level, but furnished very, very differently.” [From Lecture 7]

This is where the problems start. They are subtle. To the unprepared Christian who plugs in her lectures, her problems can become their problems.

The form critic looks for common forms across different stories and identifies how the details change. As she says in her lectures, the form is like a house, and the variations in the storyline are like different sets of furniture.

By this method, one approaches the text as if it is folklore, ignoring the question about whether or not it is historical. The form critic, as Wikipedia explains, “attempts to rediscover the original kernel of meaning” and ask the question “What, ultimately, does the writer mean by it?” In fact, while feigning the “neutrality” of the method and stating that the question of history is not in consideration, it’s actually used to dismiss the historical validity of the Biblical text.

As Levine states in her study guide, “Folktales and type scenes are told less (if at all) for the sake of historicity,” [p.34] intending instead (she says) to reveal something about the culture where the tale originated.

There is a major problem with this method, however, and it is this: it will make sure you miss the answer to the primary question it asks. But don’t be fooled; this is intentional.

The problem is presuppositional. The problem is ethical.

The goal of this “higher” form of criticism is to escape the final judgment of God Almighty. The higher critic thinks he can do this by blurring the lines of distinction and shaking one’s confidence in the universal and binding quality of God’s law-word.

It’s much like how misery loves company. The more they can sway to their way of thinking, the better they feel. But they’re still going to hell if they don’t repent, and they’ll drag whomever they can down with them. Their words, unlike God’s, can’t change reality.

TWO METHODS, BOTH A HOAX

The critic who wields the documentary hypothesis presupposes that the books in the Bible (and even different paragraphs and sentences within the same book, at times) were written by many different people and edited together by multitudes more.

The form critic, on the other hand, in offering an “antidote” to the documentary hypothesis only serves to swap a rather harsh loaf of arsenic for a more palatable cup of cyanide. The form critic denounces the ridiculous notion that several authors wrote small portions of the entire Bible and swaps it with the more monistic idea of the “oral tradition,” presupposing that such a thing existed before (or in primacy to) the written text.

Form criticism still manages to cobble together a Bible compiled by a multitude of authors, but it does so by swapping thousands of sheets of discordant papyrus (that have yet to be discovered) for a choir of historical voices locked forever in the organic fluid of the “cultural memory.” Carl Jung would be proud.

These skilled charlatans construct labyrinthine arguments that are no fancier than the skills of a parlor magician performing birthday-party miracles. For example, the authors of the Gospels, they say, drew from this deep cultural memory that consisted of “a plurality of oral and written traditions” when compiling their manuscripts.

They went about “orchestrating the chorus of polyphonic voices into a narrative addressed to followers of Jesus after 70 [AD]” by “plugging into a copious reservoir of memories, retrieving and reshuffling what was accessible” to them memorially.  [Werner Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel, p. xxiii]

So goes Werner Kelber’s position. Kelber is a rather prominent figure in such circles. He is a featured author for the Center of Progressive Christianity, an organization which explicitly denies the Gospel when they state that Jesus Christ is not the way to God, but a way [see their second point]; this isn’t Christianity, this is Monism. They promote Kelber’s book on their website and admit that it is “now widely recognized as a milestone.”

Such snakes cloak their hearts carefully with the same words that Christians use, but as covenant breakers in rebellion to God their singular goal is to undermine true religion.

That’s the real goal in play by “scholars” who practice form criticism and other such methods on Biblical texts. What they do is defile the holy. They import a false presupposition into their analysis — assuming the Bible is false and that man’s reason, not Holy Scriptures, is infallible. This is antithetical to the Christian presupposition that every word in Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit himself; every word is important because the Holy Spirit does not waste His breath.

One cannot hold both positions at the same time and remain coherent in their thinking. But many Christians these days try. And this is owed much to seminary education as well as liberal college education. Because the Church waters down the Gospel and withdraws from hardcore apologetics and study, fools like Kelber are able to slip through the gates like a snake. His mission: to convince anyone who will listen that the Holy Spirit cannot speak and does not know how to use a pen or pencil.

In his own words, the written Gospels were written to “silence sounded words and voices in order to assert its own textual identity.” [Kelber, p.xxiii]

He plants a kernel of doubt in the uncertain mind by suggesting that there is a truer Gospel out there somewhere, one which is obscured by the written document. Perhaps, then, it is up to man and his reason to search it out?

It sounds feasible. That is, until it’s compared to the only yardstick that actually matters, Scripture, which clearly states that “All Scripture is breathed out by God” [2 Tim. 3:16]. Furthermore, it warns us of men corrupted in mind who will have “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” [vs. 5]

Scripture says that Scripture is written by God. Werner Kelber and his ilk say that’s not true, that it’s a lie. Both positions cannot be correct. Who will you trust: God, or fallen man whose mind has been corrupted by the effects of sin?

The theme that all of these humanist critics miss is the story of Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on the cross to restore man to his original purpose of dominion. This is revealed by “the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible,” in Vos’s words. This wasn’t completed in one single act but rather “unfolded itself in a long series of successive acts.”  [Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, p.5]

A TRUE ANTIDOTE

For a more comprehensive and orthodox Christian study of these themes and theology, I want to point you to the works of James B. Jordan. You can download all 1500+ of his lectures here, and you can find his books on Amazon. He wrote a book called “Through New Eyes” that provides an introduction to Biblical symbolism. You can buy a used copy on Amazon or download a free PDF by clicking here.

The underlying presupposition that Jordan brings to his lectures is the same one Christ did: the infallibility of the Holy Bible. Your life will be enriched by his insight.

So, tossing aside the humanist baggage, let’s move forward with Jordan’s more fruitful approach.

THE FUNDAMENTAL “FORM”

The first act of redemptive history (which reveals the “form,” as Levine calls is) is the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. Christ is revealed to us by the third chapter of Genesis. As an Old Testament Hebrew or Israelite, you would have recognized in that story the promise of salvation to come in a Messiah, but you wouldn’t have known exactly how the story would play out. As Paul put it, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” [Col.2:17]

If you pay attention to the details, you’ll see that Adam and Eve try to atone for their own sins by covering their shame with a covering made of fig leaves. Man, being defiled by his sin and spotted with filth after transgressing God’s law-word, is unable to atone for his own sin and reconcile himself to God.

What do we have, at that point, that he would want?

God, however, had mercy, and he gave them a covering of his own making: garments of skin.

Where did those garments come from? From some animal. A sacrifice had to be made to cover Adam and Eve and reconcile them to God; only God could provide that sacrifice. The vegetable matter, the fig leaves, wouldn’t do. Blood had to be shed in order for man to be redeemed from damnation, and only God could provide that blood.

Over time, the substance of redemption became clearer as history progressed and more books of Scripture were compiled.

Consider the story of Jacob and Esau: When Isaac was trying to defy God’s will by giving Jacob’s inheritance to Esau, Jacob deceived Isaac by wearing a hairy animal skin that was similar to his brother, Esau. Isaac’s vision was bad, and he “felt” Jacob, and “he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands.” [Gen. 27:23]

So Jacob got the blessing. Isaac, in a sense, imputed the right of the first born son (a double portion of the inheritance) to the second born son because he could not distinguish between the two.

So God does with us, for as Paul said “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” and in Jesus Christ we are all sons of God, heirs according to the promise, by faith. [Gal. 3:27-29] We are saved because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.

God looks at us and sees Christ.

SPECIAL REDEMPTIVE HISTORY

This special revelation that God built up in his Scripture for us little by little, line by line, over a long span of history is “inseparably attached” to one of the greatest aspects of God’s character, Redemption. As Vos stated, “Revelation is the interpretation of redemption” and “it must, therefore, unfold itself in installments as revelation does.” [Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 5-6]

How else would man learn about God other than God’s special revelation of himself to us? “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” [1 Cor. 2:11]

The point is this: as Christians, why would we want to examine the Bible using “type scene analysis” to learn about the “narrative art” and “information about community heroes and values” of some fanciful speculation of how things used to be, a concept grounded in the vanities of a fallen imagination looking for escape from God’s justice? [Levine, The Old Testament Course Guidebook, p. 31]

As Christians, we ought to want to search Scripture to learn what God himself is trying to tell us. That’s what Scripture is, and that’s what it can (with prayer) do. The fruitful presupposition is that all of Scripture is God-breathed; the presupposition which bears bitter fruit is the one that assumes the Holy Spirit had little to nothing to do with the words we read in our Bibles today.

As I’ve already explained, such techniques are fundamentally nefarious in their design to subvert your faith. Their entire aim is to miss the point and keep you stumbling in the dark.

It’s one thing to figure out that men and women commonly strike up marriage covenants by a well, but it’s another to understand that this carries a specific message that is part of a larger narrative that is gradually unfolded for your benefit from front cover to back.

Such events were ultimately pointing forward to something more glorious yet to come. The Holy Spirit slowly revealed the entire splendor of God’s redemptive, atoning work for man in Jesus Christ as does the sun when, rising over the horizon, its rays dissolve the shadows and reveals in brightness the full beauty of the landscape it shines upon.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, to see a link between:

  1. Jacob rolling away the large stone covering the mouth of the well to reveal the water locked away beneath it [Gen. 29:10];
  2. Jesus offering the Samaritan woman by the well a drink from him, “the LORD, the fountain of living water” [Jer. 17:13] that will become in the person who drinks of it “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” [John 4]; and
  3. When the angel, on the third day, descended from heaven in a mighty earthquake and “rolled back the stone” [Matt. 28:2] from the mouth of the tomb where Jesus, he who gives living water, he who is the very manifestation of living water, was buried.

Do you see the story being told? Returning to Genesis and the story of Jacob by the well, we read that “The stone on the well’s mouth was large, and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place over the mouth of the well.” [Gen. 29:2-3]

Similarly, the women who go to the tomb to find Jesus ask “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” [Mark 16:3]

Biblical revelation is complex, because God is complex: three persons, one substance. Jacob rolled the stone away and watered the flocks of his shepherdess bride. God rolled the stone away to fulfill his redemptive work in Jesus Christ, our good shepherd, so that he could water his flocks, his Church.

Christ is the culmination of progressive Biblical revelation, and our redemption, as a result, continues forth into eternity.

Studying the Bible’s own revelation structure “imparts new life and freshness of truth” that strengthens our faith. [Vos, p.17] It reveals to us God’s own character imprinted into all of creation around us, and it reveals the divine symbolism underlying all aspects of reality. God didn’t create anything randomly; everything he created reflects his character in some way.

The study of Biblical Theology also leads to a theologically sound understanding of the Book of Revelation, which is the culmination of the Bible’s use of the system of symbolism it builds beginning with the very first verse. Modern “prophets” are illiterate in this language and, as a result, distort the message revealed there. They come up with looming tribulations and raptures; what they miss is that the last days are behind us.

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4 responses to “What your college and seminary professors, and probably your church, will never tell you about studying the Bible

  1. Excellent post! Thank you so much. I learned a lot, such a blessing! Just FYI, Amy Jill-Levine is a fellow on the Society for Secular Humanism. I am assuming you are aware of that. I discovered this after a fellow church member recommended an article about here from a Christianity Today magazine. I was taken back by the interview and decided to find out more about Ms. Jill-Levine which follows, along with a poem I wrote.

    Vanderbilt University, new testament professor, Amy-Jill Levine is creating an annotated revision of the new testament which seeks to present the text of the new testament within a historically corrected, first century Judaic context. She is a fellow of the Society of Secular Humanism, which advertises itself as being beyond atheism, and beyond agnosticism. I recently learned that Gerd Ludemann, another, internationally recognized, new testament scholar, dedicated his controversial book The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did to, guess who, Amy-Jill Levine. Professor Ludemann had been relieved of his position at the University of Gottingen in Germany due to his militant anti-resurrection rhetoric which often includes graphic descriptions of Christ’s un-resurrected body, that admittedly seems designed to attract attention. Ludemann started his teaching career in Nashville, home of Vanderbilt University, and maintains a home there, but has of late, secured another teaching position in Germany. He relegates much of scripture to examples of fairy tales, fables, and hallucinations. In 2012, Levine and her project were featured in Christianity Today within a neutral light.

    Amy-Jill Levine

    Amy-Jill Levine, what do you mean?

    You’re noble agenda, seems rather obscene.

    The Gospel your target, you seek to display

    God’s word enhanced, by context you say.

    Distinguished professors, Nashville elite,

    Vanderbuilt vanguard we sit at your feet.

    Viewing the Lord from your secular perch,

    What churchmen could challenge your sainted research?

    You’ll give us a neutralized, tolerant read,

    Truth deemed offensive removed as a weed.

    A sensitive gospel inviting and sweet,

    Relieved of the hate, mission complete.

    Your hate for the truth you do well to hide,

    By preaching acceptance you smugly misguide.

    A humanist fellow, Ludemann, Gerd?

    Your guiding the faithful, seems rather absurd.

    • Clever poem.

      I appreciate Levine’s insights, but one must certainly be warned before listening to her. She brings an agenda to her analysis, as is stated on her Vanderbuilt profile page. As we know, there is no neutrality. I was not aware of her work on an annotated revision of the New Testament, so thanks for sharing that.

  2. I really liked the explanation of the symbols. Something I had never connected before. Very Informative thank you.

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