Not Theological Enough?

Of the many criticisms of the work of biblical scholars the one I have most recently been "attacked" with is that we are not theological enough, so it was with some eagerness that I agreed to review a theological commentary on 1 & 2 Kings. My eagerness was diminished somewhat when I discovered that the commentators for this series were chosen for "their expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition" and not for their "historical or philological expertise." But I was willing to enter into the "world of the text" and see how "doctrine provides structure and cogency to scriptural interpretation." The author’s preferred method of interpretation was to treat the people and events of the books of Kings typologically. Typology was a method of interpretation much in vogue among the early Church Fathers. In typology the events and people of the Old Testament are thought to foreshadow or prefigure what is fulfilled with the coming of the Messiah. The events and people of the Old Testament become "types" of the events and people in the New Testament. The typology of the early Church Fathers was grounded in philosophical and hermeneutical assumptions drawn from the Hellenistic philosophies of the time which were heavily influenced by Platonism. In their worldview typology made sense and over the centuries extreme typologies were forgotten and the Church was left with the more sensible typologies that we continue to find in liturgy and are artistically rendered in stained glass windows. Can we "resurrect" typological interpretation and by means of it find a theologically satisfying understanding of the Bible today? After reading this commentary on Kings I would have to answer with a resounding "no!" The author was able to find the most amazing "types;" they are literally on every page of the commentary. Among the most puzzling is Jehu as a type of Christ. You remember Jehu, don’t you? He was the general of Israel’s army who led a coup in which he butchered the previous dynasty and burned to death the worshippers of Baal whom he had locked in their temple. If you couldn’t find the similarity to Christ here, you are not alone; I couldn’t find it either. My favorite quote from the book is "Moses is Elijah is John; Joshua is Elisha is Jesus. Yet also, Moses is Elijah is Jesus, and Joshua is Elisha is the church." If you can unpack this quote for me, please do so; it just makes me giggle. It was clear after the first few pages of this commentary that every number "3" in the books of Kings was going to be taken as a foreshadowing of the Resurrection; every body of water, a reference to Baptism; and every anointing, messianic. The story of Elisha and the floating ax head is seen as a type of both Resurrection and Baptism! I have many more examples, but I think my point has been made: this "resurrected" form of typological exegesis is just plain silly. 1-2 Kings are a part of the Deuteronomistic History (the name given to Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings taken as a literary unit) which has a distinctive theological perspective. The Deuteronomistic historian has a point which he relentlessly drives home: the destruction of the nation has resulted from its failure to worship YHWH and YHWH alone. It is a very narrow reading of the historical situation, but the concern of the historian is to insist upon fidelity to YHWH and to use history to make his point: the people of Israel must worship YHWH and YHWH alone. We can debate the depth and the limitations of this theology, but can we totally disregard it and create a "theology" foreign to the text? Do we find theological meaning in the biblical text only when we "discover" imagined "hidden meanings" or make artificial connections where none exists. After reading this commentary, I found it refreshing to once again immerse myself in the literal sense of the biblical text. The literal sense is, after all, what God inspired the author to actually write and it contains enough theological depth to keep me occupied in my search for meaning in the Bible. Pauline Viviano
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11 years 6 months ago
I noticed a brief response from Leithart on his blog:
11 years 6 months ago
When Jesus brings the end of idolatry and self-worship at the ends of Matthew and Revelation, isn't he a bit like Jehu? All his enemies will be out of the picture, and Jesus interest in people solely worshiping the true God (YHWH) will be fulfilled 100%. Jehu's typology is to what Jesus *will* do, I'd gather.
11 years 6 months ago
I've not read Leithart's commentary, but with regard to "Moses is Elijah is John; Joshua is Elisha is Jesus. Yet also, Moses is Elijah is Jesus, and Joshua is Elisha is the church," I think it's rather a bit like a Millers Analogy Test. Moses is followed by Joshua who extends and fulfills Moses' vocation. Elijah is followed by Elisha who extends and fulfills Elijah's vocation. The relationship that holds between Moses and Joshua, and between Elijah and Elisha, similarly holds by analogy between John and Jesus and between Jesus and the church. That's to say, Jesus extends and fulfills the vocation of John and, in a similar way, the church extends and fulfills the vocation of Jesus. This kind of reading seems to reflect the Gospel-writers own re-readings the Hebrew scriptures. John the Forerunner is certainly explicitly an Elijah-figure in the Gospels and, leading God's people through water in the wilderness, he's a bit like a Moses-figure as well. As the one following John and fulfilling his proleptic ministry, Jesus is thus taking up the role of Joshua (sharing his name obviously, but also in securing the covenant promises of God) and the role of Elisha (multiplying loaves, healing lepers, etc.). The Gospel-writers seem to play up these resonances at various points. In the Gospels, however, Jesus is likewise presented as a Moses-figure (which Matthew works out in his Gospel to great effect) and an Elijah-figure (which Jesus himself intimates in comparing himself to Elijah's ministry to the widow of Zeraphath). Thus the church plays the role of Joshua (seen both in the book of Acts where the author describes the growth of the church in ways that echo Israel's conquest of Canaan and in the ending of Matthew where Jesus as Moses commissions his disciples to go into the world and claim it for his gospel) and also of Elisha (again, in Acts, the healings performed by the Apostles echo Jesus which echo Elisha). The incident at the Mount of Transfiguration is very suggestive in this respect since it seems to situate Jesus both as a prophet like Moses and Elijah, but also as one who fulfills their respective missions, thus in a role not unlike that of Joshua or Elisha. Add to that the possibility that the Deuteronomist (as noted by some commentators) may be presenting the Elijah-Elisha sequence as a kind of recapitulation of Moses-Joshua, and the possibilities are very suggestive. At any rate, without having Leithart's specific comments in front of me, I can't comment on what he says specifically, but it sounds to me on this point that he is reading the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that very much echoes how the Gospels themselves read that narrative with Jesus Christ and his church as its recapitulation and fulfillment.


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