Okay. I'll give you a few minutes to sit down. I'm sure that terrified you as much as it terrified me.
I wish I was joking. I really do. In fact, someone I showed this article to actually thought it was from the Babylon Bee at first, but it's not satire. It's entirely real. David Farnell refers to the alarming rise of the hyperbolic hermeneutic.
Gasp! If the Bible contains hyperbole, it could be, you know, literature! It actually might not be written in a way immediately understood by Western 21st century Americans! We might actually have to work to understand the text!
So let's go through Farnell's panic and see how bad it is.
This year, Protestants celebrate the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation (1517-2017). Since the days of the Reformation, except perhaps for their inconsistency in prophetic literature like the book of Revelation, the Reformers fervently championed the plain, normal, literal interpretation of Scripture. Indeed, one can say that the Reformation was at heart a hermeneutical reformation in biblical interpretation. During their day, the prevailing interpretation ideology of Romanism was allegorical, or more importantly, non-literal interpretation that had held sway for 1500 years at least.Sadly, Farnell gives no evidence of this. It is just an assertion. It would be good to have some scholars of the Reformation show up and speak about how Luther and the others saw Scripture. Amusing is the insistence that there was inconsistency with the book of Revelation. Apparently, Farnell really thinks that an apocalypse is to be read the exact same way as any other book. It's a wonder then that we have to spend so much time wondering who the antichrist is. Just look for the guy with the multiple heads coming out of the sea. That's him. Of course, as an orthodox Preterist, I contend that Farnell isn't a literalist with Revelation since it says that these things must happen "soon." I see no way that 2,000 years without is soon, but that's not the main point here.
From here, Farnell goes on to write about the importance of a literal interpretation to the Reformers. I leave that to the scholars of the Reformation to comment on. I mainly want to get at the heart of the argument. Farnell thinks that groups like ETS were founded to defend a literal interpretation and the Fundamentals was written for this.
In 1992, a Dallas Seminary, Old Testament Department graduate, David M. Fouts wrote his dissertation entitled “The Use of Large Numbers in the Old Testament with Particular Emphasis on the Use of ‘elep.” A condensed form of this dissertation appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1997. Fouts found troubling many literal numbers in the Old Testament, arguing that “For some scholars the use of large numbers in the OT is an interpretive issue. For others it involves the theological issues of inerrancy and the historical veracity of Scripture.” He argued that his article’s purpose was “to demonstrate and defend the premise that he issue is hermeneutical rather than theological, involving interpretation rather than inerrancy.” (Fouts, JETS 40 [Sept 1997] 377. He examined issues surrounding five examples of population figures in the text of the OT. I will highlight only three:Of course, for Farnell, interpretation and inerrancy are tied in together. Inerrancy must entail a literal interpretation. What is not told is who decides what a literal interpretation is. What is literal to a 21st century Western American might not be what is literal to the rest of the world. It's quite a bit of cultural bigotry on Farnell's part that he thinks every other culture in the world thinks just like him or even worse, that the Bible should have been written with someone of his culture in mind. Sadly, this the kind of bigotry that one finds in many internet atheists today who would use the exact same hermeneutic of Farnell. It is doubtful that Farnell will ever actually go and engage with some of these people, but it is certain that if he did, he would find himself totally unequipped and it is further certain that he would just cement the unbelief of these people.
So what do we have here? We have a claim by Fouts. Now what I want to know at the start are the answers to some questions. What is the evidence of this? Can it be demonstrated? Does it make better sense of the text? What are the implications of not reading it in a non-hyperbolic way? Did the ancients do this kind of thing regularly?
Farnell apparently has no such questions. All that matters is that the interpretation is not literal. The die has been cast. Judgment has been given. Gather the stones.
1. The population of Israel at the Exodus, i.e., the size of the Israelite nation given in the OT (i.e., Num. 1:45 at 603, 550 total) as well as the size of the Israelite population just before conquest in Numbers 26:51 at 601, 730).I will grant that in isolation this is not convincing to me, but I would like to see what Fouts would say about it. There seems nothing odd about populations remaining stable all things being equal, but perhaps Fouts does have a better case here.
2. The number of the Ephraimites in Judges 12. Judges 12:6 gives a number of slain at 42, 000 for mispronouncing “Shibboleth,” but that such a number “exceeds the census for that tribe in either Numbers 1:32 (40,500) or Numbers 26:35 (32,500). Fouts asserts “Even allowing for an increase of the Ephraimite warrior population after the conquest does not alleviate the problem of the enormity of the number of those slain.” (p. 378).This one I do find more convincing. Fouts has certainly looked at this issue much more and considered even a normal population growth. Fouts has hit on something here I think could be a problem for a more literalistic approach and one that we need to consider.
3. The Davidic census in 2 Samuel 24: at 1.3 million and 1 Chronicles at 1.57 million arguing that “Like the censuses of the book of nUmbers, the totals are entirely too large.” (p. 379).By the way, I am copying this just as Farnell wrote it and he has the capital U in the middle of numbers, and no, the book title is not capitalized. I would like to see the evidence for the numbers being too large, but if I grant it, then this is a problem and it needs to be addressed.
Based on this reasoning concludes, “Those who would challenge an essentially conservative view of Scripture often do so by appealing to such passages that involve large numbers” (p. 379). He continues, “Accepting them at face value often leads to internal disharmony with other Biblical passages. There are also the archeological data to contend with. These facts may no longer be ignored by conservative scholars.” (p. 379). He says that “What is needed is a balanced approach that examines the numbers as they are encountered in the text and suggest a plausible explanation of their use consistent with other Scriptural data and with the demographics demonstrated by regional archeology.” (p. 379).It's hard to think of a way to argue against this, but no doubt Farnell will. Just simply Fouts questioning the traditional interpretation is enough. Do note the irony about starting a post about the importance of the Reformation and in it complaining about young scholars going against the established tradition before them.
Next, based on an examination of (1) a brief review of the history of interpretation of these numbers that asserts a rejection of these numbers as true but rather allegorized them [with the exception of the Reformers who took them literally—PLEASE NOTE: [notice they were grammatico-historical advocates of literal interpretation] (pp. 379-81); (2) textual consideration in the OT that affirm these large numbers as being indicated in the original Masoretic text, especially by the Hebrew term for “thousand” (‘elep) being accurately understood as such a large number so that there is no substantive doubt that large numbers are truly indicated in the MT (pp. 381-82), (3) current archeological and demographics discoveries that suggest at no time did the land contain such a large population as seen in Numbers 1; 26; and (4) Ancient populations around Israel employed “hyperbolic fashion” in their literature regarding in “military contexts expressing the number of troops enaged in battle, number of enemies slain or captured, amount of spoil taken and amount of corvée labor employed” (p. 383-84).These are important matters to be dealt with. We will see if Farnell's approach is what we expect, which is just to put one's head in the sand and cry out "Inerrancy!" An inerrancy that cannot be defended but can only be asserted is not an inerrancy that matters at all.
This is just quoted in the interest of being fully accurate. We will now see what Farnell says in reply.
Of course, dehistoricizing is the favorite one here. We know obviously, the ancient Israelites would not use hyperbole because, well, reasons! Surely God in wanting to get His message out would be clear and write what would be immediately understandable to modern 21st century Western Americans. Again, Farnell with that kind of approach sounds exactly like a lazy atheist you would come across on YouTube, something that should concern him, but it won't.
2. How does Fouts know the mind or “intent” of the OT writers? Is he a mind reader?He knows it by looking at the text and looking at other text. The reality is we try to judge intentions of others all the time. A wife expects her husband to pick up on a lot of the clues that she drops him. Children will hint to their parents many times about what they want on Christmas. Do we have 100% certainty on these matters? No. Can a reasonable case be made? Yes.
We could also just as well ask how is it that Farnell knows that the Old Testament text would be written in a way immediately amenable to people like us today? How does he know that the message was written just like that? How does he know that when God wants to get a message across, He does it in full literalistic mode?
3. All we have are these numbers given in the text literally. Grammatico-historical interpretation accepts these numbers at face value in light of no compelling reason textually to dismiss them. Fouts has now stepped away from plain, normal and subjectively imposed non-literal or allegorical or, what he calls, “hyperbolic” rhetorical devices or “simply figures of speech.” Plain, normal interpretation is directly tied to ICBI InerrancyAgain, plain and normal according to who? Someone in a modern individualistic culture? Is it anathema to Farnell to actually step outside of his culture? Is modern America just so awesome that God wrote the text immediately in a way that we can understand? Note that this does not deal with Fouts's concerns at all thus far. It just touts out inerrancy.
4. Would the original readers have picked up any clues in the context that the writer “intended” hyperbole? Examining the context of these places evidences prose, not poetic, literature, written in a very factual nature.Farnell might be shocked at this, but many times we can use hyperbole and other non-literal forms when we are not speaking in poetry. If you say you are so hungry you could eat a horse, you are not reciting poetry at that point. It is just prose and it is hyperbolic. The sad thing is Farnell asks a good question at the start. The sadder thing about it is that he doesn't even consider the question. Instead, it's assumed that it's an "of course not." How does he know this?
How is God glorified by figures that have no truth correspondence to reality? If the figures are not actual numbers, then how is God glorified through obvious deceit of hyperbole that might not be recognized as the “intent” of the writer or recognized by the reader of these documents as hyperbole. Common sense would suggest that hyperbole on Fout’s supposition assaults the character of God not affirm it.So Farnell thinks that this involves deceit on God's part if it is not literal. This is the same kind of thinking that led to the claim that the Bible must be teaching that the Earth is the center of the universe. When Matthew tells us that Jesus will be in the belly of the Earth three days and three nights, does Farnell take that literally? Does he think Jesus is being deceitful with the numbers?
The thing is, if this is known hyperbole, it is not deceit. I am not deceiving someone if I sit down for a meal and say "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," and I'm not really going to eat a horse. Everyone knows that I'm using hyperbole. Still, my attitude does correspond to reality. It means I am really hungry.
6. Inerrancy accepts that the text of Scripture is without error. Fouts hermeneutic of hyperbole assaults the doctrine of inerrancy rather than affirms it as he contends. The Scripture is made to bow to the fleeting/temporary evidence of archeology and demographics. The Scripture, its integrity, its trueness, is made to bow before the subjective whims of historical criticism evidenced in his analysis. In essence, his approach is a pig with lipstip in that it assaults inerrancy rather than upholds it.We wonder what lipstip is, but oh well. Fouts does point to actual data, but Farnell will have none of it. He would rather that Scripture bow down to fleeting/temporary standards of modern 21st century Western Americans. The Scripture must bow to us! It must be readily understood by our culture! Aren't we awesome?!
7. It is also non-sequitur to say that because others did this during Israel’s day that Israel followed suit.Sure, but it's also a non-sequitur to say that ancient Israel would think like modern 21st century Americans, but apparently, Farnell thinks that they did. They had to. They had to be literalists just like we are. Again, this is just cultural bigotry on Farnell's part.
8. Above all, his “solution” or “remedy” is worse than the “disease” he addresses. By attempting to resolve the difficulty, he creates a bigger difficulty. If the OT exaggerated numbers, why not exaggerate other things? Why stop there. Why not invent other exaggerations regarding the Fall (e.g., a talking snake; rib from the side of Adam), The Flood (e.g., a mere thunderstorm becomes a flood), the Exodus (some small group of Jews who wander out of Egypt becomes an exaggerated deliverance)?And with this, Chicken Little Farnell has entered full panic mode. Note that the objections are still there. Note that the problems are still there. Farnell, who doesn't have to go deal with internet atheists regularly, will give no answers to his readers. He will not equip students who go to college and have to face these questions. Even worse, he shows that he is not open to the possibility of being wrong. When presented with a new interpretation, he is not open to it being accurate. He just throws out "Inerrancy!" and the case is closed.
Another more recent DTS graduate shares a similar type of non-literal interpretation rather than plain, normal interpretation once championed by DTS. At the Evangelical Theological Society on November 15, 2017, at Providence Rhode Island, DTS graduate Craig Olson presented an interesting paper along similar lines to Fouts. Olson is a PhD graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, receiving both his ThM in “Academics and World Ministries” (2007) and PhD in Bible Exposition (2017) from the school. He teaches at DTS as well as a class on hermeneutics at Trinity Southwest University in Fall 2017. In 2013, Olson received the Donald K. Campbell Award in Bible Exposition. He also is associated with Josh McDowell ministries.Enter the second great villain. Well at least Farnell can write an article on inerrancy without mentioning Mike Licona, the arch-heretic.
At this, I just want to say that Olson has presented a real problem and he has also presented a real solution. The Ancient Near Eastern mindset was much more centered on honor and shame than we are in the West. Of course, we can expect that Farnell will handle it the same way.
Keep in mind Olson is wanting to uphold inerrancy then in saying this. Farnell will have none of it. Following in the footsteps of Norman Geisler, Farnell is much like a cardinal who is ready to speak on behalf of his evangelical Pope and say that Olson has violated the dogma.
Olson has brought up several good points here. It's also noteworthy that many evangelicals who hold to inerrancy, including Geisler, don't hold to a 6,000 year Earth either. (In fact, many YECs happily say that Geisler is not interpreting the text literally, but the evangelical pope gets a free pass) It seems foreign to Farnell that new evidence could actually change our minds. One wonders if Farnell thinks the Bible teaches geocentrism or not.
Keep in mind what Olson has done once again. He has pointed out a real objection. I know this because it is one I encounter regularly. In turn, he has offered a real solution. It might not be the right one, but it is at least a solution. Investigators at this point would want to know what the evidence is. Internet atheists and fundamentalist Christians won't. It goes against a literal interpretation!
Therefore, Olson rejects the concordance view that believes such contradictions between science and the Scripture would be debunked through future discovery. He also rejects that God has accommodated himself to fit a pre-scientific world view. His conclusion is that they are symbolic numbers “to memorialize and convey honor to the lives of real ancestors who played significant roles in the founding of the nation of Israel” and “the patriarchal lifespans are in error if the original author intended them to be accurate historical records, and the audience accepted them as such.”Of course, there are any number of problems with a concordance approach to the Bible, but Farnell will have none of it. After all, we are in a scientific culture, so the Bible must be written with a scientific culture in mind. Sadly, Farnell's responses are exactly the same.
3. Once again, why stop the “hyperbolic hermeneutic” to just the area of lifespan in 2017? Fouts has already extended it to population figures in 1992. Where will this stop? Perhaps the entire book of Genesis 1-11 is a hyperbolic, non-literal account. Nothing stops Olson’s approach from explaining away many other “problem” areas in the OT/NT.And our replies to Farnell are again the same. Once again, the tradition has spoken and where will it end? Shields up everyone! We can't dare suggest that something could be non-literal! Farnell is incredibly identical to the internet atheists I encounter. The difference is not in methodology but in loyalty.
Farnell goes on to lament how DTS has apparently fallen from its original standards. Let's look at some of what he says.
3. The refutation of both Fouts and Olson stand, in reality, just by listening to them. They clearly apply rationalistic arguments that violate inspiration and inerrancy all the while contending that their views affirm it. Their affirmation is really a denial!The refutation of Farnell comes just by reading him. He presents no answers to problems in the text, treats them like they must not exist, and then says "Inerrancy!" How would he differ from a Muslim or a Mormon who took the same approach to their sacred text when presented with problems? What would Farnell think of a Mormon who when presented with archaeological difficulties and such in the Book of Mormon just said "Inerrancy!" (More likely, they'd say they have a testimony from the Holy Spirit that Joseph Smith is a prophet and the Book of Mormon is true. Yep. I've heard it enough times.) Farnell could not fault them for ignoring problems in light of believing in the inerrancy of their Scriptures since he does the exact same thing.
4. I was a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1990 from the Department of New Testament with my PhD. I witnessed things advocated in the Department that clearly were in contradiction to I long believed DTS stood for. I was during my 4 years there often shocked by the advocacy of some of those in the NT faculty. I could write many more pages, but I don’t feel this is the place. At least now anyway. My experience was one of being berated with verbal threats and raised voice if I did not accept the “enlightenment” of historical-critical ideologies. I witnessed an incident of someone singled out for removal from the program when they dared object to historical criticism. I only graduated by God’s grace who protected me during those years. The “new DTS” that I experienced was not the “Old DTS” that I heard about from my teachers who graduated from there.Farnell doesn't give any specifics here and it would be good to know what DTS says in response. I have to wonder about being berated with verbal threats since Geisler considers being hit with a snowball in a video to be inciting violence. I wish I was kidding, but no, I'm not.
5. The evidence is now seriously suggesting something may well be wrong both spiritually and doctrinally among evangelicals, and DTS in particular. In the OT, a Hebrew word “ICHABOD” or “no glory” or “the glory has departed” may well be applicable (1 Sam 4:21). The words of Revelation 2:5 to Ephesus may also, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”Whoa! What's this? The church at Ephesus could have brought about the return of Christ! Surely so because Jesus says that if they do not repent, He will come! Oh yeah. He's also going to knock over a lampstand apparently. If that sounds ridiculous to you, well hey, I'm just going by the plain reading and being consistent and doing that with the book of Revelation. How am I supposed to know the intent of the author after all?
6. Finally, the present writer has noticed an inverse proportion of the prestige and influence of a seminary. Simply put, the more Bible-believing a seminary is, the less influence and prestige it has among the world as a whole; the more liberal or unbelieving a seminary becomes, the more prestigious the world considers the institution. I believe THAT MY DTS DEGREE IS BECOMING VASTLY MORE PRESTIGIOUS.The sad thing is that at this rate, Farnell is not having any influence on the world, except for one that will further undermine our witness to a world when we can't accept the results of scholarship. Why does Farnell even need a degree? You need a degree to know that the Bible says what it means and means what it says? Sounds like he wasted a lot of time.
7. ETS clearly has drifted in its definition and understanding of inerrancy in its membership.Could we get a clear statement from Geisler and Farnell on where ETS stands? First, we are told that they are not evangelical. Then we are told that they need to vote on Licona and that will settle the matter. The reality is that if ETS agreed to keep Licona in, Geisler and Farnell would say that this shows ETS is not reliable. If they vote them out, then ETS will be evangelical again. Either way, the vote won't matter.
And keep in mind the prediction was true. Nowhere in this did Farnell deal with any problems. Nowhere did he address the data. Nowhere did he produce contrary scholarship.
Farnell is convinced that the tradition he pays loyalty to is going away. Good. It needs to. A faith that isolates itself from data and the world has no reason to expect to have any impact on the world.