A week ago I posted about possible lessons from Aesop for weather forecasters. This time I’d like to broach the subject again in a very different context.
In my university’s chapel program today, my colleague Eric Newton briefly referred (about 15-16 minutes in) to my experience of having my faith rescued through the study of OT genealogies. Since others may find the story helpful, I share it here.
In seminary I had to study a lot of theology, including aberrant theologies. Those included the first major theological innovation of the 20th century, neo-orthodoxy, tied to the thinking of Karl Barth. Barth’s system and writings are complex, but the feature that got my attention was his “two-story” hermeneutic. There are two kinds of history, he said. There’s the stuff that really happened, which he called by the German term Historie. That’s the first story of the house, where we live. But there’s an upstairs too, with another kind of history, Geschichte. That’s the stuff that we believe. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that our belief helps us make sense of a confusing world and, more importantly, it energizes an existential experience with God, which is the whole point of being. There’s no staircase in the house; we can reach the second story only by an existential leap of faith.
Neo-orthodox thinkers make this kind of thinking clearer to the average guy by calling the Scripture’s early history “fable.” They don’t intend the term to be an insult; in their minds, it’s a great compliment. Fables are delightful and artful literary works, and they play an important role in our education and broader culture. For example, Aesop told a story about a boy who cried “Wolf!” It teaches us that we shouldn’t lie. That’s important.
Now. In what country did this boy live? In what century?
Ah, my friend, by asking these questions, you’re indicating that you completely miss the point. It doesn’t matter where or when he lived—in fact, it doesn’t matter if he lived at all. The point is the lesson, and historicity is irrelevant. Just learn from the story. Recognize the literary technique, and don’t be such a knuckle-dragging literalist.
Well. That concept hit me pretty hard. What if Barth’s right? What if we’re completely missing the author’s intent? (Authorial intent is a really big deal in biblical interpretation, right?) What if none of it’s true? And then, what’s the point of Jesus being the Second Adam to solve the problem of human sin (Rom 5), if there was no First Adam to originate the sin in the first place?
Maybe it’s all just stories.
At that point in my thinking I made a really foolish mistake. Being too proud to ask any of my teachers—or fellow students—for help, I determined to push through this on my own. That was foolish for a couple of reasons—first, because human beings aren’t designed to suffer alone, and second, because, as I later realized, I was surrounded by people who could have given me the answer without my having to spend weeks in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
But, foolishly, I spent some time as a doctoral student at BJU wondering whether there’s even a God, and whether there’s light at the end of this dark valley.
Well, there is light. God is gracious; he knows and loves and cares for his children, and as he always has, he overlooked my foolishness and treated me with grace instead of giving me what I deserved.
I was seeking the answer to the question of authorial intent: did the narrators of early biblical history intend for me to read their accounts as fable, or as Historie? Is there evidence in their literature that would answer that question?
Yes, there is. One day it hit me like a brick. It’s the genealogies.
You see, when you tell the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!” you don’t tell how he grew up and had a son, and then a grandson, and then a great-grandson, and how his 200-greats grandson is the mayor of Cleveland. It’s fable; you leave it in the world of fiction.
That’s not what the authors did. They tied those very early people to the people of their generation. And later authors recognized that and extended the genealogical record through 4000 (or so) years of history to the central figure of history, Jesus Christ himself.
Barth was creative, but he failed to analyze the literature carefully. He missed clear evidence of the obvious answer to the most basic question—what did the author intend to say?
Paul tells Timothy that all Scripture is profitable (2Tim 3.16). All of it. Even the boring parts. Even the parts you tell new believers to skip.
Don’t do that. It’s all profitable. It’s there for a purpose. Recognize, embrace, and live in the light of that purpose. My 200-greats grandfather, Adam, would tell you the same thing.