Saturday, 18 November 2017

On Literary Method

About Romans 9-11.
Those controversial 'predestination' type lines.
When a reader approaches any text, there's always some background story to the text - and it matters, towards making sense of the text.
Like, if you overhear someone talking on the phone, and you hear him answer a question, and you didn't hear what the question was - it matters what the question was: otherwise you could completely misconstrue what you hear. If a text is part of a wider conversation, then identifying that wider conversation matters.
One day some relatives were walking along the beach together, and one of them heard the others mention 'aliens'.
"They shouldn't be allowed to come here!" she butted in.
Everyone laughed. They'd really been talking about aliens from space. It was funny, because their relative had a bit of a reputation with them of being outspoken about immigration. She hadn't heard their complete conversation, so she read her own obsession into it - which gave it a completely different (and wrong) meaning.
A statement in any text needs to be considered in light of, not only grammar, and genre, and literary rules, but also in light of the statement's place in the wider passage in which it's found. And the passage in light of its place in the overall flow of the whole document.
And all of that must fit into a certain backstory. Every story has a backstory of sorts.
The author himself has a mindset, which fits into his personal worldview, which is made up of narratives, which include cultural symbols, practices, and questions. He has a basic set of beliefs, as well as consequent beliefs, which give him overall aims and intentions in all he does and says and writes.
Other documents besides the document may also shed relevant light on it. Even other authors may.
In hermeneutics, theology and history both interact inseparably with each other, and with each of the above considerations.
When all of the above actors are viewed as acting together on the same stage, we can grasp the story that's really being played-out in front of us.
Sometimes it therefore helps to read a whole book in a single sitting. When I approach Romans 9-11, doing all that like we should, the impression I get, even though some lines are a bit difficult, is that Paul's meaning has something to do with explaining:
That God's promises which Israel had been the custodians of, hadn't failed, they'd been fulfilled, in the experience of believing-Israelites;
That the rest of Israel were in a blinded-state, like Gentiles who don't know God, and that as a result of their blinded state they handed Messiah over to be crucified, which became the means of salvation for both the nations and Jews themselves;
That it wasn't unjust of God to have called the nation of Israel as custodians, despite their unworthiness, now to offer salvation to all, even though unbelievers were missing out; and
That God wasn't finished with saving any more Jews: He was still willing to save Jews, just as Gentiles are still getting saved.
Paul's aim, I think, was unity of the faith and fellowship, in the congregation in a city where Jews had previously been expelled and where discrimination against Jews was never too far beneath the surface.
Paul's wish, I think, was that the church in the capital city of Caesar's empire, embody for the first time in human history, true and lasting equality between Jew and Gentile - in Messiah Jesus. (The following chapters talk about how to practically express that unity.)
If I'm right, then Romans 9-11 wasn't exactly about the kinds of issues which Calvinists summoned Arminians to the Synod of Dort over. Paul's questions/issues were different.
Like the lady on the beach, or the person overhearing one side of a telephone conversation, we ought to want to make sure we understand what Paul's first-century aim was, rather than mistake it in terms of our own focus and questions.

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