Peter has reached the point of sheer exasperation in our discussion of the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins, so it is time to stop, apologize, and perhaps try to understand why it can be so difficult to reach agreement over matters of biblical interpretation.
Part of the explanation, I’m sure, has to do with the psychology of debate. It doesn’t take much to trigger a defensive or aggressive or facetious or disparaging reaction (I cite this damp squib of a discussion about doubt from the Pyromaniacs site as an example), and as soon as we get into that state of mind, it becomes very difficult to give the other side a fair hearing. I speak from experience, though I would say in my defence that I spent a lot of time working through Peter’s responses to my commentary on Matthew 25:1-13 and I thought I was addressing his critique in some detail.
I also suspect that people rarely change their minds in the course of intense debate. Again, I know that this is true for me – a change of perspective, the correction of details, adjustments to the controlling story-line usually come a little later, when the dust of battle has settled.
But what about the actual substance of the disagreement? My intention here is not to revisit the presented arguments; it is rather to understand what drives the disagreement.
Interpretation of the parable appears, on the face of it, to be a matter of attention to exegetical detail: the meaning of the terms, the cultural background, the scope and nature of the story being told, its context in Matthew, the relationship of its imagery and language to other passages in Matthew, elsewhere in scripture, or even outside scripture. There may also be redactional questions to take account of, though evangelical exegesis tends to work with the text as it is.
So we may consider, for example, how the parable is integrated into the logical and temporal structure of Jesus’ argument in these chapters. I have argued that Matthew takes the trouble to tie this all into a single, coherent narrative regarding events which Jesus expected to take place within the lifetime of his disciples, and I argue that this should weigh quite heavily in our interpretation. Peter disagrees.
There has also been some secondary discussion about the interpretation of what may or may not be intertextually relevant passages in Exodus, the prophets, Ephesians and Revelation. There are some differences of approach here that I struggle to make sense of. The interpretation of the obscure story of Zipporah’s circumcision of her son in Exodus 4:24-25 is an example. Peter is able to find in it the idea that Zipporah ‘has been betrothed (or has confirmed her betrothal) to God’. I can’t see it – or for that matter why it is relevant to the reading of Jesus’ parable – but it ought in principle to be a straightforward exegetical question: either there is evidence in the passage for such an interpretation, or there is not. I don’t think this can be explained simply as an obstinate refusal on my part to admit that there are flaws in my argument.
Respect for boundaries
But how we perceive and make sense of these details is still heavily dependent on some much broader hermeneutical assumptions, which is where it gets more interesting.
In this case, there appears to be a crucial difference in the way we deal with contextual boundaries. Roughly speaking, Peter is inclined to make less of the contextual boundaries of a text than I am. For example, he feels that a much wider body of biblical material is relevant intertextually than I do. His argument, if I have understood him correctly, is that when Jesus tells a story about a wedding feast, we may assume that the whole theme of the ‘marital’ relationship between God and his people is exegetically relevant. My view is that Jesus’ teaching is more focused and particular, and that it draws on a narrower theme in which the wedding feast is a celebration of the restoration of Israel following judgment.
Peter thinks (at least, this is how I have interpreted his comments – he may want to correct me) that Paul’s teaching about marriage and the relationship between Christ and the church in Ephesians 5:25-27 is as relevant for understanding the parable as the story of the guests who refuse to come to a wedding feast in honour of the king’s sin (Matt. 22:1-14). I think it is a mistake to attempt to read the parable in the light of a later argument from a different context and with a different literary background.
Similarly, Peter emphasizes the continuity between the marriage imagery in Revelation 19:7-8 and the marriage imagery in Revelation 21:2. I prefer to highlight the differences (actually, I only said ‘a little differently’), drawing the frustrated retort: ‘You can’t just say that the imagery means something different because you want it to!’
Underlying this difference of emphasis are probably divergent ideas about how literary differentiation at levels of text and genre is affected by canon. In general terms, a high regard for canon as a theologically significant category is likely to override the distinctives and discrepancies that might otherwise be detected in the texts. It seems to me important to safeguard those distinctives and discrepancies, the boundaries and horizons; Peter gives priority to the integrity of themes at a canonical level, arguing in effect for a sensus plenior, a meaning that is more than the sum of the differentiated parts.
Theology and history
Another key hermeneutical and theological factor in the discussion has to do with how we relate or balance out theology and history in our reading of the New Testament. Again at risk of over-simplification, and quite possibly of misrepresentation, it seems to me that Peter tends to take the mainstream evangelical approach of prioritizing theology over history, whereas in books and posts I have consistently pursued the thesis that New Testament theology (including eschatology and soteriology) interacts closely with history and is in important ways contingent upon history. In other words, I am inclined to prioritize the particularities of history over the generalities of theological discourse.
So in the case of Jesus’ parable about ten virgins and the marriage feast, my argument is that Jesus is here focused on the outworking of the wrath of God against Israel, which will culminate in the destructive war of AD 66-70, and on the implications of this historical process for the embattled but faithful community of his disciples. I think that he is speaking about real historical events (albeit prophetically and symbolically conceived events) in the foreseeable future of his immediate audience. Peter does not entirely disagree with this, but he argues that there is something in the theological content of the parable that overreaches the immediate context and leads us to think that Jesus is speaking both about the circumstances of AD 70 and about a remote and ultimate consummation.
Behind this distinction are some more fundamental disagreements about how we should understand the place and nature of fulfilment in the biblical narrative. It seems to me, for example, that ‘kingdom’ language in the New Testament refers to critical but proximate historical conflicts and transitions, pretty much as it does in the Old Testament; Peter believes that a parable that begins ‘the kingdom of heaven will be like…’ may properly have reference to a final restoration of the relationship between God and his people.
Can we trust our instincts?
It’s difficult to know in the end what this all comes down to – or what to do about it. In some ways these seem little more than different habits of reading, different hermeneutical instincts.
My instinct is to delimit the scope of a text’s meaning; Peter’s instinct is to extend it. My instinct has been to recover the particularity of the text; Peter’s is to assert its universality. I am much more disposed to read texts under the constraints of the narrative-historical conditions that they appear to presuppose; Peter reads the texts as expressions or instances of general theological truths, so that if Jesus speaks of a marriage feast it must somehow have reference to the final marriage alluded to in Revelation 21:2. I think that evangelical theology currently overwhelms and seriously misdirects our reading of scripture, and that there is a pressing need to respect the differentiation that is produced by literary and historical contexts; Peter believes that evangelicalism holds to its central convictions for good reasons and that we can trust its unifying, consolidating and homogenizing function. I think that he is too beholden to dogmatic tradition; he thinks that I simply don’t want to listen to any other view than my own.
But of course these ‘instincts’ reflect deeper commitments, and may prove in the long run to lead to radically different outcomes. What interests me at the moment is whether a consistent narrative-historical reading of scripture can be shown to be genuinely and powerfully evangelical, which is why I write this stuff and engage in these conversations.
We should bear in mind, too, that this is a disagreement broadly within the New Perspective approach to the New Testament. Peter is certainly at the more cautious and conservative end of the spectrum; I find myself compelled to explore its implications in a more radical fashion. It would be an interesting exercise to do a similar analysis of the theoretical and instinctive differences that divide the New Perspective hermeneutic from classical Reformed and Fundamentalist approaches to the construction of theological meaning from the biblical texts. Perhaps someone has already tried it.