Straining at Hermeneutical Gnats and Swallowing Exegetical Camels

Kathy Keller has reviewed the new book by Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Held Evans is frustrated with evangelical “complementarianism” so she set out to live as if there were no New Testament and as if Jesus’ hadn’t fulfilled the types and shadows. This is a sort of practical reductio ad absurdum. Instead of logically demonstrating the folly of an argument by taking it to it’s logical extreme, she has sought to discredit complementarianism by demonstrating it practically except that she cheated. She created a straw man, by living according to standards that no orthodox Christian actually holds or confesses, e.g., that the ceremonial laws are still in effect.

Kathy Keller has helpfully pointed out this problem in her review.

Perhaps the most basic rule—agreed upon by all branches of Christianity—is that Jesus’ coming made the Old Testament sacrificial system and ceremonial laws obsolete. Because Jesus taught that “all foods are clean” (Mark 7:19), and God told Peter not to call impure the things God has made pure (Acts 11:9), and because the entire books of Galatians and Hebrews explain this change at length, all Christians have known that observing the “clean laws” of the Old Testament is no longer incumbent on them.

Jesus called himself the final temple (John 2:21) and offered himself as the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This is why no Christian anywhere has offered sacrifices since the crucifixion, nor observed the rules of temple worship (cf. Galatians and Hebrews). This most fundamental rule of interpretation is based on the fact that the Bible is the story of God’s salvation coming into the world, climaxing in Jesus, and therefore we can’t read the first part of the Bible as if Jesus never came in the last part.

Yet you, who surely know this as well as anyone, proclaimed at the start of your book: “From the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Levitical code to the letters of Paul, there [will be] no picking and choosing” (xvii, emphasis mine). To insist that it would be “picking and choosing” to preclude the Levitical code from your practice of biblical womanhood is disingenuous, if not outright deceptive.

By ignoring the way the NT interprets the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures, Held Evans has quite misunderstood how to interpret Scripture. To echo Keller,

The Scriptures are organized around God the Son who was “manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16; esv). (From, “What the Bible is All About“).

Nevertheless, one can understand how Held Evans might be confused by the way evangelicals all too often read the Bible. I’ve had a fair number of discussions with Dispensationalists and ex-Dispensationalists of various sorts to see that the hermeneutical principle that “the Bible points to Christ” is considered “allegorizing” (e.g., J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, 4ff) or “spiritualizing” (ibid, 15) or just plain crazy by a number of people.

J. Dwight Pentecost wrote,

Although [the rabbis] arrived at false conclusions, it was not the fault of the literal method, but the misapplication of the method by the exclusion of any more than the bare letter of what was written (ibid, 17).

The great difficulty of this theory, however, is that Jesus directly contradicted the rabbinical conclusions and their methods. Tragically, Pentecost and others of his school ended up reaching conclusions that were all too similar to those of the rabbis and thus they missed Jesus as the intended focus of the history of redemption and revelation. Any system that has it that the temple must be re-built and memorial sacrifices re-instituted (whether that system comes from Rome or Dallas) must be criticized as fundamentally misunderstanding the New Testament.

Thus it is plausible to wonder whether Held Evans is even familiar with Augustine’s principle that the “new is in the old concealed and the old is in the new revealed,” that there is a divinely-intended unity to the history of redemption and revelation and thus she may be shocked by the criticism that she has completely misunderstood how the old and new testaments relate to one another.

There is a second aspect to this phenomenon. It’s been done before. A. J. Jacobs did the very same thing and published a book about it in 2008, A Year of Living Biblically. In that case, Held Evans’ book is just another evangelical knock-off of the culture. What used to take 10-15 years has been speeded-up by the internet to 4 years but it’s still monkey see, monkey do. This monkey won’t.

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  1. Pentecost’s book, “Things to Come,” is, as you know, a volume that is very popular among dispensational fundamentalist types. First published in 1958, it has, as far as I know, never been out of print. Pentecost turned 95 this year, I believe. It’s too bad views such as his are so tenacious in the Christian world.

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