Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Peter Lampe, George Eldon Ladd, History, and New Testament Interpretation

J. Gresham Machen said, “The student of the New Testament should be primarily an historian. The center and core of all the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework and leads up to an historical climax. The Bible is primarily a record of events.”*

Down below, there’s some sniping about what constitutes liberal biblical interpretation, and what constitutes conservative biblical interpretation.

Maybe in the 1960’s, there was a clear delineation, but, and I’ve written about this in the past (see here and here for example), but not only is there a confluence of method—the historical analysis is largely the same; the difference is now whether one accepts the supernatural in-breaking by God into history or not—but the evangelical conservatives are winning.

In 1974, a New Testament Theologian named George Eldon Ladd wrote a work, “A Theology of the New Testament”, which has become not only a standard textbook for conservative New Testament studies, but it showed the way for a whole generation of evangelical New Testament scholars, who are producing marvelous work these days. (Just look at all of the exceptional commentaries that are available today; I don’t know their genesis, but I wouldn’t be surprised if much of this work was done in the shadow of Ladd’s ground-breaking study.)

Of course, during the first half of the 20th century, there was a mushrooming of “higher critical” study, the hallmark of which involved a denial of the supernatural elements in the Scriptures – names like F.C. Baur (who introduced Hegelian dialectical method into the study of the NT), Albert Schweitzer (“Quest of the Historical Jesus”, 1906) and Rudolf Bultmann, who separated “the historical Jesus” and “the Christ of faith” almost into two different subjects. Methods such as “form criticism” and “redactional criticism” came to the fore.

Conservative “Fundamentalist” scholars rightly recoiled from this anti-supernaturalist type of thinking, and they moved in the direction of Geerhardus Vos’s “Biblical Theology.” But in the process, they also noticed something else. There were some valuable elements in the methods that the “higher-critical” scholars—the Liberals—were using.

Oscar Cullmann used the term Heilsgeschicte (“history of salvation”) and the Dutch theologian Herman Ridderbos became known for a similar approach, “Redemptive History”.

In 1993, Ladd’s work was updated and re-issued with some new material, including a long introductory essay by Donald Hagner (who wrote the two-volume commentary on Matthew for the Word Biblical Commentary series). Hagner describes Ladd’s approach in the context of an Old Testament theologian who had basically adopted the same approach:
Gerhard Hasel’s 1972 work OT Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, insisted that “there is ‘a transcendent or divine dimension in Biblical history which the historical-critical method is unable to deal with.’ Biblical theology must be done from a starting point that is biblical-historical in orientation. Only this approach can deal adequately with the reality of God and his inbreaking into history.
I’ll pick up from that essay here:
Large-scale New Testament theologies continue to come from German scholars. That of L. Goppelt appeared posthumously in 1974 and became available in a two-volume English translation in 1981 and 1982. Ladd’s and Goppelt’s theologies, though completely independent of each other, share basically the same perspective, namely that of salvation history, and the similarity of approach shows that Ladd’s theology still has reason to be considered viable….

Thus it does not seem that Ladd’s theology, although approaching twenty years old, should at all be thought of as outmoded or passé. Indeed, in its basic orientation, Ladd continues to remain appealing. The reason for this is very simply Ladd’s commitment to the historical study of the New Testament, but with an openness to its theological truth. He sees his task as fundamentally a descriptive one, focusing on what the text “meant.” But since he accepts the Bible as the record of the acts of God for the redemption of the world, he therefore accepts the normative character of the New Testament witness and its ongoing relevance for humanity today, i.e., the importance of what it “means.” Ladd thus refuses to regard New Testament theology as merely the history of early Christian experience. Ladd employs the historical-critical method, but in a modified form that allows him to remain open to the possibility of the transcendent and thus enables him to do justice to the content of the materials being studied (18-19).
I have bookshelves full of works of individuals who have adopted this method, including names like D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, Thomas Schreiner, Darrell Bock, Andreas Kostenberger, Peter T. O’Brien, but there are many, many more such names, writers who are coming out of the conservative Protestant seminaries who are showing the world once more what Tertullian claimed back in the third century:
In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations (of mankind) the doctrine which they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even “an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel” (than theirs), he would be called accursed by us.
It is the heretics who “when, for the sake of deceiving us, they pretend that they are still seeking, in order that they may palm their essays upon us … when men, therefore, are not Christians even on their own admission, how much more (do they fail to appear such) to us! What sort of truth is that which they patronize, when they commend it to us with a lie? Well, but they actually treat of the Scriptures and recommend (their opinions) out of the Scriptures! To be sure they do. From what other source could they derive arguments concerning the things of the faith, except from the records of the faith?”
We therefore come to (the gist of) our position; for at this point we were aiming, and for this we were preparing in the preamble of our address (which we have just completed),--so that we may now join issue on the contention to which our adversaries challenge us. They put forward the Scriptures, and by this insolence of theirs they at once influence some. In the encounter itself, however, they weary the strong, they catch the weak, and dismiss the waverers with a doubt. Accordingly, we oppose to them this step above , all others, of not admitting them to any discussion of the Scriptures.

If in these lie their resources, before they can use them, it ought to be clearly seen to whom belongs the possession of the Scriptures, that none may be admitted to the use thereof who has no title at all to the privilege ….

Now this heresy of yours does not receive certain Scriptures; and whichever of them it does receive, it perverts by means of additions and diminutions, for the accomplishment of its own purpose; and such as it does receive, it receives not in their entirety; but even when it does receive any up to a certain point as entire, it nevertheless perverts even these by the contrivance of diverse interpretations. Truth is just as much opposed by an adulteration of its meaning as it is by a corruption of its text. Their vain presumptions must needs refuse to acknowledge the (writings) whereby they are refuted. They rely on those which they have falsely put together, and which they have selected, because [of] their ambiguity (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics).
Hagner summarizes Ladd’s influence and this confluence that Ladd has posited:
Without question Ladd’s theology reflects the orientation of a specific interpretive community, that known widely as “Evangelicalism.” It was Ladd who was especially instrumental in helping many fundamentalists to see for the first time not merely the acceptability, but the indispensability, of historical criticicsm. Evangelicals – at least many of them – have become more open to many of the conclusions of critical scholarship (in regard to, for example, the authorship and dating of New Testament writings and the implications for the development of the New Testament) in the twenty years since Ladd wrote (in 1974). They continue, however, to share the basic convictions embodied in Ladd’s approach to biblical theology. For all the actual diversity in the New Testament writings there remains an unforced and genuine unity among them at the same time. For all the historical particularity of these writings they continue to possess a normative authority for the church. And if, as J. Reumann has recently written, “the ultimate test for any biblical theology will be whether it enables faith and obedience to God’s word,” that practical concern was close to the heart of Ladd. Ladd’s interpretive community continues to cherish the goals of faith and obedience. At their best, evangelicals will cultivate openness to all that increases faith and leads to a more effective obedience (pgs 19-20).

As for Lampe’s work, one of the things these scoffers fail to recognize is that the New Testament is mentioned or referenced only in about three or four of his 41 chapters and four appendicies. As I’ve said before, Lampe seemingly scavenges every single piece of paper, every inscription, every cemetery, every scrap of archaeological evidence that’s available in that city, from that time period.

Nick bloviated: “This is one reason why I don't rush to endorse or appeal to that many scholars, and why I almost always subordinate the opinions of scholars to that of Scripture and primary historical sources.”

Nick, you couldn’t even read “primary historical sources” if it weren’t for scholars like Lampe. They’d be inaccessible to you.

* From the essay, “History and Faith,” Machen’s inaugural address as assistant professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, delivered on May 3, 1915. The essay was first published in the “Princeton Theological Review 13 (1915), pgs 337-351, and cited here in D.G. Hart, “J. Gresham Machen, Selected Shorter Writings”, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, ©2004).


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"Down below, there’s some sniping about what constitutes liberal biblical interpretation, and what constitutes conservative biblical interpretation."

These things are worth pondering.

John Bugay said...

Which specific things are those?

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

The things that constitutes liberal biblical interpretation and the things that constitute conservative biblical interpretation.

John Bugay said...

Truth, maybe I should have been more specific in my original comment about the "sniping down there" --

To clarify, it's not the "historical-critical" methodology itself that is "liberal" -- the methodology itself is used by both conservative and liberal interpreters.

This is the effort to understand the context of a particular passage; the writer, the audience, the situation that's being addressed, etc.

What makes a particular "biblical interpretation" conservative or liberal is its presupposition to disbelieve what Hasel described as the ‘transcendent or divine dimension in Biblical history...’

Ladd recognized this; the approach he adopted, then, was to "accept the supernatural in-breaking by God into history."

Under this criterion, Raymond Brown is not a "liberal" biblical interpreter. I know from a professional associate of Brown's that he specifically worked within the constraints of both historical-critical methodology and Roman Catholic dogma as he wrote, and as he came to conclusions in his writings.

Lampe's comments to the effect that Paul didn't write the Pastoral epistles, or that the recording of some travel details may have been in error, does not make Lampe a liberal, either.

And the converse of that is what I was getting at.

These guys are saying, "Brown's a liberal, so therefore, nothing he says is worth reading."

That's an entirely wrong-headed way to look at it.

And too, they say "Lampe's a liberal, so therefore, nothing he says is worth reading."

The point I tried to make here is that these labels -- "conservative" and "liberal" -- as applied to biblical criticism today, are not very precise ways of speaking of things at all, they are not indicative of the quality of the work that is done, and so they are not very helpful at all in this type of discussion.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Hi John,

There seems to be a substantive difference between the:

Historical-Criticism (aka Higher Criticism) methods

and the Grammatical-Historical (GH) methods.

Both use history or historiography, but the presuppositions they use to approach historical understanding and research are different.


Anyways, in the case of Nick, I think his biased presupposition is that theologian-scholars must begin their historical research with the presupposition that the Church is infallibly correct. And if a theologian-scholar does not adhere to that, then Nick dismisses this theologian-scholar's arguments and conclusions as being too "liberal."

On the flip side, and what he's arguing, is that conservative Protestants adhere to the inerrancy of Scripture as a presupposition. And therefore, conservative Protestants should be wary of theologian-scholars who don't hold to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.

John Bugay said...

Truth -- presuppositions are important in many respects, but there are some ways in which they are not important.

Consider a completely different discipline. If the Jet Propulsion Laboratory sends back photos and scientific data from Saturn, their presuppositions don't matter a whit about the factual information captured in the data.

Similarly with Lampe: the information that he sends to us from ancient Rome are not dependent on presuppositions for the factual content of the data.

Let me give you some idea of how he uses that.

He takes Paul's personal greetings in Acts 16 -- "the church that meets in your house" and "the household of Aristobulus" and things like that -- then he compares them with actual lists of tituli churches that we have from the fourth century -- and combines that information with archaeological information about cemetaries, and he is able to give a substantial amount of detail about the locations of these churches.

Then he talks about the social conditions -- trade routes, different parts of the city where these churches are located, and the social classes that may be living in these different regions. (I provided some selections from first-hand accounts taken from the Trastevere section of the city, and the working conditions of tanners who worked there, for example).

He also has a chapter that discusses the education level of Justin Martyr - he works through Justin's writings, and traces quotes and citations from classical literature, and cross-references that with other things we know about Justin.

His presuppositions really don't enter into any of that at all. The accounting he gives is extremely factual, and extremely detail-oriented.

He leaves room open for "theological interpretation." He says, for example, "I've illuminated a bridge; that bridge must be crossed."

I personally don't hesitate to cross that bridge, based on the thorough historical foundation he's provided.

Nick and David Waltz and the others will whine all day long that he's not an inerrantist.

But what they won't do is to provide specific examples of how the handful of items they've cited affect his overall work.

John Bugay said...

For example, look at this from Nick:

Texts like 2 Tim 4:19 say Aquila & Pricila were in Ephesus while Paul was in Rome, yet Lampe says this is historically false.

Does Nick even know why Lampe puts this particular item on the table? Much less, how it affects argument?

Or: 3) On page 159, Lampe says:
"In no way did Trophimus 'remain ill at Miletus' ([as stated explicitly in] 2 Tim 4:24); rather, he accompanied Paul heartily to Jerusalem" Which is another charge of blatant historical error in the text itself.

A good commentary on 2 Timothy will address these items on their own merit.

Both of these items are used as supporting details for Lampe's textual analysis of why Romans 16 is a part of the original letter (contra some "liberal" interpretations that hold that Acts 16 was appended at some later date).

The actual locations of Aquila and Priscilla and Trophimus, at any given time, are beyond the scope of our knowledge now, because we do not have the precise dates of some of Paul's travels. We can provide some very good outlines, but we don't know where he was, or who was with him, on January 4, 57 ad.

Nor should it matter to us.

I don't know, specifically, where Lampe is getting this particular information from. I do know that much ado has been made about apparent discrepancies between some accounts in Acts and in Paul's letters. But Paul Barnett, for example, has worked through these and has largely harmonized these accounts.

Nick, given his emphasis on "inerrancy," is not going to argue with Lampe's conclusion that Romans 16 is integral to the original letter.

Whether Aquila & Pricilla were in Ephesus while Paul was in Rome, really has no bearing on Lampe's overall analysis at that point, except that if Lampe is incorrect about this being an error, his argument that Romans 16 was integral to the original handwritten letter is just an itsy-bitsy bit weaker.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Hi John,

Nice argument. Thanks.

John Bugay said...

Thanks Truth. Some of this detail is extremely arcane, and it really is amusing to watch them beat their chests over this.

Because if that's the best they've got, they're sunk. And to some degree, they've got to begin to realize it.

Lampe is able to "revise" old historical accounts, because he is correcting them with incredible amounts of new historical detail.