The Face of New Testament Studies, part 5

Part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4.

Moving on, we come to Greg Clark’s chapter entitled “General Hermeneutics”. The chapter is essentially a history of hermeneutics. Hence, none of it was particularly enlightening in saying why this method is true or false or the consequences. In fact, I only ended up highlighting the chapter outline. Thus, we will move on.

We come to David A. deSilva’s chapter on social-scientific interpretation. I found this chapter both interesting and balanced. He places social-scientific interpretation among one of the many valid forms for doing exegesis. He says, “It [social-scientific interpretation] represents an attempt to gain a richer and fuller understanding of the historical context of NT texts, informed by awareness that ideas, decisions, commitments, rituals, and group affiliations all take place within, and derive their meaning from, a complex web of cultural information and social interaction.” (p. 119) Framed that way, who could be opposed?

He talks about two basic directions that are taken in social-scientific study. The first  is to look at the social world that surrounded the early church. The second looks at the texts themselves and how the social sciences can assist in understanding the texts. Moving on, he talks about “two major modes in which social-scientific interpretation has proceeded.” (p. 120) The first is in social description, trying to understand the historical facts and state them. The second is by using social-scientific models to understand or explain behavior, cultural patterns, etc.  He concludes, “[t]he two modes are, of course, complementary and are probably best executed when used in conjunction with one another…” (p 121)

The main purpose of social-scientific interpretation, then, is to ask questions from angles not previously explored and hopefully gain new insights into the text in the process. The benefit is that we can come to understand the text better by being less prone towards anachronism, but there are also pitfalls. DeSilva lists five: (i) the possibility of stretching the data available, (ii) anachronism by using social scientific categories of modern groups that may not fit the NT church, (iii) a deterministic use of social scientific models, (iv) the possibility of reductionism by reducing religion to politics or economics or whatever, and (v) the possibility that the roots of sociology are antithetical to Christian belief.

All in all, social-scientific interpretation really can give us new insights into what the original author meant by a text. Moreover, the concerns that deSilva raised were important as it warns us of possible pitfalls so that we can avoid them. With all of that in mind, the important thing is to find the golden mean with regards to social-scientific interpretation. If we do that, we can have our cake and eat it too.


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