Peter J Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009
Chapter 1: The Text is a Husk
The first chapter of Leithart’s book presents the thesis that Western Christians have “emasculate[d] our own scriptures” (3). He presents as the epitome of this process Eugene Peterson’s “translation” (3-4) of Psalm 23. This is a disappointing cheap shot. The Message is explicitly not intended as a translation, but a paraphrase, and Eugene Peterson hardly seems like the enemy for a book about taking the text of the Bible seriously. After this Leithart gets onto firmer ground beginning with Dutch Lutheran Humanist Lodewijk Meyer whose 1666 Philosophy as the Interpreter of Holy Scripture begins Leithart’s account of the “Battle for the Bible” (7). Leithart’s narrative takes us through Meyer, Spinoza (10), Kant (20), and all the way to Peter Enns (31), who may be surprised to find himself described as a “Kantian Evangelical” (!?!), and finally Richard Longnecker (32). Leithart’s account is lively, informative and effective in demonstrating the lineage of the modern impulse to privilege the “content” of the Bible over its “form”, the text.
The most damming of all his examples is his quotation of Richard Longnecker’s 1999 Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (33). Leithart succinctly sums up Longnecker’s position: “when the apostles do what we do, we can follow their example. When they do not, we cannot . . . He wants us to draw the same conclusions Paul drew from the gospel . . . [but] does not always want us to follow the reasoning that Paul used to draw those conclusions” (33-34). Thus the message (content) of the text is truth, but the text (form) itself is untrustworthy and is discarded. Can this really be called a high view of scripture?
Here, Leithart finds the real enemy: The nonsense of Evangelical hermeneutics that claims the authority of the Bible but will not allow the Bible’s own interpretive methods to be used. This is the Bridge Paradigm of hermeneutics. This is a personal bugbear for me, so I am excited to see where Leithart goes next. I recently led a session on hermeneutics with a group of pastors and almost to a man (sorry, they were all men in this instance) they agreed that they would not use Biblical methods of scripture interpretation in their sermons, but only the grammatical-historical method which they had been taught at Bible college. I’m grateful that my undergrad hermeneutics teacher, Myk Habets, while he did teach the Bridge Paradigm, also acknowledged the validity of Biblical modes of interpretation and encouraged their exploration. If I remember Habets correctly, “What the NT does with the OT, we are permitted to do with the whole Bible.” I’m still working that one out. My current PhD research is all about the way Mark interprets scripture in his gospel. Let me tell you, there is not a grammatical-historical bridge paradigm in sight!
Overall, this first chapter shows off Leithart’s considerable erudition but takes a long time (longer than necessary) to make the point. I’m also surprised he doesn’t include the enormously influential Schleiermacher in his narrative (or judging by the author index, in the book at all), as he is generally considered the father of modern hermeneutics. I’m eager to see what he does with the rest of the book, and hopeful for some exciting constructive work.