Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Enslaved to Slavery: An Application of a Sociological Method to the Complaint Motif

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Enslaved to Slavery: An Application of a Sociological Method to the Complaint Motif

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The question of which interpretative methods are appropriate for use by evangelicals and which are not has long been a debate of some substance within scholarly societies. Whether the discussion involves approaches usually identified as higher criticism or simply the use of allegory (however defined), the evangelical, perhaps more than most, struggles to maintain a sense of balance between supernaturalism and humanism.1 Unlike the radical critic, the evangelical cannot simply relegate the Bible to being merely an ancient text that is subject to our perusal and scientific examination of its content. On the other hand, neither can we allow the text to belong solely to the realm of the mystic who claims that understanding is only available to the "initiated"-a path chosen by cults, sects, and to some degree groups that deny the priesthood of believers. Despite the difficulty, if we accept the biblical precepts that Scripture is both inspired by God and a communication to man, this is the road we must walk.

The narrow path between recognizing that the Scriptures are God's word and acknowledging that reason and observation play a role in how a person understands his word is one that has been debated for centuries. Each community of faith, whether it is as small as a local church or as broad as a category such as evangelicals has a lens through which the process of hermeneutics is viewed. Indeed, this issue in particular is what separates one group from another. Because of the breadth of areas that grow out of the topic of biblical interpretation and its dependency on both worldview and reason, evaluation and testing of various methodologies are issues that must continually be revisited if a group is going to maintain both its relevance and its identity. Sometimes this process of evaluation takes place in a formal setting, but more often than not a method is accepted or rejected solely on the basis of one's comfort level with it.

1. Evangelicals and sociological methodologies. One of the methods that has not received any formal censure but that has nonetheless been understood to be taboo is the sociological method of interpretation. Excepting the broadest definitions of the method that look at the society of Israel from a historical, almost forensic, viewpoint, this technique has had few proponents in the evangelical world.2 This stigma exists for several valid reasons. First, with few exceptions, the sociological method has been reflective of an overemphasis on human causation and direction to the detriment of God's role in a biblical event. Some of the most notable instances include Norman Gottwald's use of the method to explain the origins of ancient Israel through a Marxist lens and Philip Davies's assessment of religion merely as the outgrowth of human ingenuity. Davies concludes that the sociological method could be used to explain the biblical material as a human product and would be an instrument by which "scholarship is finally able to liberate itself from the theological house of bondage to which it has been enslaved."3 Second, the method has consistently been utilized to compare biblical materials to ancient folklore for the purpose of discovering its origins and hence departed from the text as a revelation from God.4 Third, it is difficult to find a proponent of the sociological method today who does not begin with an a priori supposition of a postexilic origin of most of the OT books. Ultimately such a group of representative scholars leads evangelicals to hold this methodological approach at a distance.

2. Sociological methodology has a place. Sociological methodology itself, however, is not inherently wrong. While it must be admitted that the approach is human centered (since as a science it is built upon the observable), if one is of the conviction that God is interested in redeeming humans, it would seem beneficial to examine and draw some conclusions about how humans work and relate to each other and their environment. …

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