Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Perriman on reading NT eschatology

What do you think of Perriman’s four hermeneutical points, listed at the start of his fascinating book, The Coming of the Son of Man, for dealing with NT eschatological language?:

1) ‘We will try to read forwards from the first century rather than backwards from the twenty-first century … We must also make an attempt at a much harder task, which is to imagine that we share their ignorance about what lies in the future’ (3).

2) ‘New Testament apocalyptic relates meaningfully to the world as it was seen from the first century’ (4).

3) NT ‘apocalyptic is thoroughly allusive … [and] borrowing language and imagery is not inconsequential but must be taken into account in at least three important respects’ (6).

  • ‘First, it brings into view a surrounding argument or narrative that is likely to have a significant bearing on how the New Testament argument or narrative is to be interpreted’ (7).
  • ‘The borrowing is virtually an admission on the part of the author that the future is not seen clearly … If we find, for example, that Jesus describes what is going to happen in terms of what has already taken place, this is surely because he is less concerned to give a literal account of events than to draw attention to certain underlying theological continuities’ (7).
  • OT prophecy is often better understood not as fulfilment but as reapplication.

4) He ‘will endeavor to construct an integrated and consistent apocalyptic narrative for the New Testament’ (8).

This last point is reflective, of course, of the wider problem concerning how one constructs an argument. What comes first, context or context, and how do they relate? For Perriman, important is ‘narrative coherence’ as ‘not every interpretation can be properly defended on intrinsic grounds, either because we lack space or because texts out of context are often irreducibly ambiguous. It is important that we do not lose sight of the wood because we have our noses up against the bark of the trees’ (9).

This last point hits on a massively controversial area. To no doubt over generalise, I suggest that German speaking scholarship is happier to leave inconsistencies in Paul, and to build either developmental hypotheses around this perception (cf. Schnelle. I.e. Paul changed his mind about this, that and the other, and this is perhaps why), or simply posit blatant contradiction. Anglo-American scholarship, on the other hand, tends to prefer to at least attempt a reading that bears in mind the intrinsic weight of the bigger picture as in a greater measure significant for understanding individual elements.

But who is right?


At 11/29/2006 8:08 PM, Anonymous Stephen said...

Re Paul:
Yes, there are contradictions in the pauline writings. Part of the explanation, presumably, is some development in Paul's thought. Perhaps maturation is a better word: but here I am thinking specifically about the vehemently negative view of the law in Galatians versus the more statesmanlike presentation of Romans.

But I also have my own take on the subject. I think Paul was very pragmatic in the way he carried out his ministry. This is most obvious in 1Co. 9, where he says that he acts like a Jew sometimes and like a Gentile other times — whatever is most advantageous to his mission.

Similarly, I think Paul argued very pragmatically when he was confronting problems in his churches. He shamelessly adopted the point of view of his interlocutors in order to turn it to his own advantage. So, for example, he quotes the Corinthians back at them — "all things are lawful" — only to deconstruct it: "but not all things are beneficial".

Another example is found in 1Co. 15, where Paul refers to the practice of being baptized on behalf of the dead. This is a famous problem text, with no context to help us interpret it. But I think we can say this much:
(1) that (some of) the Corinthians were engaging in the practice; and
(2) that Paul would have repudiated the theology justifying such a practice, if you asked him a direct question about it; but
(3) he was prepared to refer to the practice in this context, without condemning it, for the more important goal of establishing that Jesus has indeed been risen from the dead.

I think that provides a paradigm for pauline rhetoric. He was prepared to mouth people's own practices and theology back at them as if he approved of it in order to support some other point of greater ultimate significance.

That may shed light on some of the apparent contradictions in Paul: i.e., in some instances he is merely parroting views that he does not actually hold to. This calls for careful discernment on the part of the reader — for example, in those places where Paul puts women in a narrow box, in contradiction to the emancipatory principle enunciated in Gal. 3:28.

At 11/29/2006 9:32 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thank you, Steven, for the fascinating take on the 'baptism for the dead' in 1 Cor 15. It certainly sounds plausible. I would suggest that the Pauline usage of law is more complicated than implied in a maturation model, and certainly more so than implied by a 'contradiction' model. And talk of development in Paul's theology can sometimes be highly problematic. For example, Schnelle would have us believe that Paul's eschatology in 1 Cor was one thing. Then it became more Platonic in 2 Cor, then it switched back to being what it was by Romans! Depending on one's undersatnding of Pauline chonology, we are talking significant changes within a matter of months. A theory that attempts to seek an explanation of the evidence with an eye on it probably being most accurately understood when such jumps are accounted for, is more in line with the Anglo-American tradition, and with them my sympathy lies normally.

At 12/01/2006 8:13 PM, Anonymous ConradGempf said...

I'm grateful to you for singling out and isolating these 4 points with their sub-points. They perfectly explain why this approach ends up where it does, both by what they say and what they leave unsaid.

I am so itching to write about this. But fall all over myself because there's so much to write and so many other things that are higher priority.

Some day...

At 12/02/2006 5:51 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Conrad, nice to hear from you. The more I've thought about Perriman's work, the more convinced I am that it is essentially the outworking of these hermeneutical decisions. Hence, the following debate should focus on these foundations. I for one would very much appreciate it if you publish on this!


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