Hermeneutical Method, Part 2

A corollary problem to the tension between the old and the new was the tension between the absolute and the relative. No one would have dared relativize the words of the Highest, but some heretical sects thought parts of scripture (notably the Old Testament) were products of a lesser god. This position allowed them safely to relativize portions of scripture. Although the rabbis had relativized scripture, to some extent, in halakah, they had limited the operational extent of that halakah by the oral law. In competition with these other positions, the orthodox, Christian position received slightly different articulations based on which factors pressed heaviest on a given author’s context. For example, the Epistle of Barnabas applied whatever method necessary to arrive at a distinctively Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. In contrast to the general, orthodox emphasis on the use of the Old Testament, Ignatius used the New Testament more frequently than he used the Old Testament. Where he did use the Old Testament, however, he took Jesus as the starting point for his interpretation of the Old Testament.

A final constraint prevalent during this period in the area of hermeneutical method was the tension between clarity and obscurity. Because Marcion was certain that the Old Testament did not originate with the God and father of Jesus Christ; thus, he omitted it from his canon and argued for a literal interpretation of (his edited version of) the New Testament. The Valentinians, by contrast, argued for an allegorical approach to the New Testament. The orthodox position attempted to maintain, rather than prematurely resolve, the tension between these two poles by affirming both scripture’s clarity and its obscurity (e.g., clarity: Epistle of Barnabas 1:7, 2:4, 3:6; obscurity: Epistle of Barnabas 5:2–3, 8:7, 10:2).

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Michael Holmes
Michael Holmes

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