The Significance of Mimesis to the Theme of Jesus’ Identity

This paper assumes the use of mimesis in building the structure of Mark’s gospel. Mimesis is the imitation of another’s work; a common practice in the ancient literary world. Mark imitates the structure of the Elijah-Elisha narrative (1 Kgs 17:1 – 2 Kgs 13:21).[1] I propose that this imitation has significant consequences to the gospel’s overall themes. The structure impacts climactic moments in Mark’s story, such as Jesus’ miracles, his triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Specifically, Elijah, Elisha and Jehu play roles in a synthesis of God’s covenant story with Israel. Mark builds off this narrative for structure and Jesus’ identity. This paper first, highlights mimesis and its connection to the Elijah-Elisha narrative, second, demonstrates the typological relationship Elijah, Elisha, and Jehu have to Jesus, and third, attempts to pull together these issues in respect to Jesus’ identity.

Mimetic Orientation

Mimesis is the ancient practice of imitating and building upon the great works of history. Rather than a simple copy, it is a dynamic and living imitation that brings material to life for the reader.[2] At least as early as Isocrates, 436-338 BCE, teachers placed a high priority on training students to imitate and build upon great literature of the past. In Panegyricus, Isocrates affirms the value of literary master pieces as shared inheritance. He goes further conveying that it is not novelty that makes an excellent craftsman but rather the wisdom to speak from his inheritance in ways no one else could.[3] This trend is observable through rhetoricians such as Cicero 55 BCE, and Quintilian writing in the first century CE.[4] In rebuttal one might recall the words of Seneca, a near contemporary of Quintilian “…for an imitator never comes up to the level of his model.”[5] However, Seneca’s remark proves the point, as he was arguing in favor of imitating more than one individual to include masters from the past. Modern scholar Dale Allison, Jr. emphasizes the dramatic difference in perspective in his work, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. Important to our presumption of Mimesis throughout Mark’s gospel is understanding the practice of developing skills based on another’s work. Allison points out that modern scholarship has missed this ancient perspective and replaced it with novelty.[6] He points to Dr. Samuel Johnson, a British linguist of the eighteenth century, who once said, “no man ever became great through imitation.”

The unique shape of the gospels has led scholarship to focus on oral tradition rather than extant manuscripts in determining a source for Mark. The expectation is that any sources used in forming the gospels must also resemble gospels. Mark’s position as the earliest extant gospel limited source-criticism to pre-Markan and oral traditions. Marcus is led to see the gospel as a hand-me-down of church tradition and the memories of those who knew Jesus.[7] This is not to imply that scholars don’t recognize influences in the gospel.[8] One such example is the grouping of parables, a common practice in antiquity. Marcus recognizes the same practice in Mark’s gospel, but only as it influences the text, not as an imitation of another’s work.[9] Adela Collins goes a bit further, suggesting that the story of Elijah is a model for Gospels as a literary type.[10]

Despite the majority of scholarship, there are four major studies identifying extant source material for the gospel of Mark.[11] Dennis MacDonald argues that Mark is imitating Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey.[12] Virgil’s Aeneid is a great example in this case since most scholars agree that Virgil imitated the Illiad and Odyssey.[13] MacDonald fails, however, to make his case. The comparisons are not as strong compared to the gospel’s connection to the Elijah-Elisha Narrative. One such example represents this weakness. MacDonald compares Jesus sleeping on the boat in Mk 4:35-41 to Odysseus who sleeps on a boat.[14] Despite the similarity, equally strong is the similarity of Jesus to Jonah sleeping on a boat. Given the significance the OT is granted in the gospels, Jonah’s story appears the stronger one. We also don’t know for certain that Mark had access to this material. Bodie, Roth, and Winn all suggest strong ties from the Elijah-Elisha narrative with differing degrees of success. It is out of their work Mark’s use of mimesis gains clarity.

Establishing source materials is a difficult task, but Winn provides guidelines to assist scholars in identifying imitation. This paper follows Winn’s work in establishing points of imitation.[15] For mimesis to be possible the imitated text must be available to the author. The chances of its use go up considerably if the text is commonly imitated by others. These first two criteria are easily accomplished given the frequent use of OT scriptures in the entire NT.  It is also important for the narratives to share similar structures. The stronger the association between the two narrative structures, the more likely the hypotext is being imitated. This does not mean it will match exactly. The author may omit parts of the original structure. It is also possible we might see reversals in order. The author is free to alter the text to meet the need of the story. Throughout the narrative it is likely that the hypertext and hypotext will share some verbal agreement, though not always. These criteria in combination strengthen the relationship between documents. They legitimate the mimetic use of the Elijah-Elisha narrative.

Mimesis, Mark, and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative

Mark’s gospel is a practice in mimesis; by structuring his material after the Elijah-Elisha narrative, we can learn more than oral tradition is able to share. We can now turn to a few examples of Mark’s imitation of the Elijah-Elisha narrative. These episodes attest to the structural reliance Mark has borrowed. Let’s begin with Jesus’ miracles found early in the gospel. Jesus’ healing of the leper in Mk 1:40-45 bears a strong connection to Elijah in 2 Kgs 5:1-19. The story of Naaman, an official from Syria, is the only other account that narrates the healing of leprosy prior to the gospel of Mark. A close examination of both stories reveals strong parallels. Winn identifies several points of similarity.[16] First, in both cases it is the leper who approaches (2 Kgs 5:5; Mk 1:40). Second, a hand movement is referenced in both stories. In 2 Kgs 5:11, Naaman expected that Elijah would wave his hand over him. In Mk 1:41 Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the leper. Third, the infirmity is cleansed in both stories. Jesus touches the leper in Mark and Elijah commands Naaman to be cleansed in the river in 2 Kings. Fourth, sacrifice is mentioned in both stories. Naaman volunteers to sacrifice exclusively to Yahweh; Jesus commands the cleansed leper to offer a sacrifice to the priests (2 Kgs 5:17, Mk 1:44). Through this parallel a connection is made with the prophet Elijah, a character mentioned nine times in the gospel.

We now turn to Jesus’ miraculous feedings that imitate Elisha. The gospel of Mark records two accounts of miraculous feeding in Mk 6:30-44; 8:1-10. These episodes imitate one feeding miracle in 2 Kings 4:42-44. In Elisha’s story, a man travels from Baal-shalishah bearing twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain. Elisha has the food given to one hundred men, and miraculously there is enough for everyone with some left over. To those familiar with Jesus’ feedings of five thousand and four thousand, it is easy to see the parallels. Hunger marks the beginning of each story. An account is taken of how much food is available to eat and it is astonishingly little for the need. A command is given to distribute the food, and in each case the servants or disciples hesitate and are commanded a second time.  The food is ultimately distributed to the large groups of people and in each case food is left over. A possible reason for the doubling of the miracles is to connect Jesus to both Elijah and Elisha.[17]

We now move on to a significant parable that imitates the life of Jehu. Jesus’ triumphant entry and following temple cleansing are both imitations of Jehu’s divinely appointed enthronement. In 2 Kgs 9, Elisha commands one of the sons of the prophets to go to Jehu and anoint him king. He is chosen to take vengeance on Ahab and his family and abolish the idolatrous Baal worship in Israel. When those with Jehu heard the news of his regnal anointing, they laid their garments on the steps before him. A similar activity is performed for Jesus as people place their garments on the colt he will ride (Mk 11:7). After this Jehu sets out to kill the King of Israel. As Jehu approaches, King Joram sends two separate messengers to meet him. Unfortunately, the messengers never return, choosing to defect to Jehu’s side. In concern, Joram meets Jehu on the property of Naboth, a vineyard. There Jehu reveals his intentions and kills Joram as he rides away. The killing of Joram by Jehu resembles the Parable of the Tenants (Mk 12:1-9). Most scholars recognize that this parable resembles Is 5:1-7.[18] This is due to verbal agreement, such as, “ἐφύτευσεν,” “ᾠκοδόμησεν πύργον,” and “ὤρυξεν.”[19] This does not, however, mean that Is 5:1-7 is the only narrative Mark is drawing on in Jesus’ parable. Winn’s rules of identifying imitation allow for a combination of influences and imitations. Virgil’s does this very thing in the Aeneid. He conflates two episodes from the Odyssey[20]. It seems appropriate to allow Mark to bring together multiple narratives from OT scriptures, as well.

Four parallels exist between the Parable of the Tenants and 2 Kings 9.[21] First, multiple servants are sent in both cases. More than three are sent by the vineyard’s owner. Two are sent by Joram. Second, in both stories the servants never complete their missions, dying in one case and switching sides in the other. Third, the final character sent in each case has authority. In the parable it is the owner’s son. In 2 Kings it is Joram himself. Fourth, in both the parable and 2 Kings 9, the last character dies. These points of contact present a strong case for imitation, despite the difference in how the gospel uses these parallels. In Mark’s parable the metaphor places God in the position of the owner who sends his servants. This is very different in Jehu’s story, where Jehu represents God’s agent and the servants are sent by the wicked Joram.  Such a reversal is not uncommon when authors are imitating other writings.[22] Jehu’s life is retold in the form of a parable, perhaps to draw a connection between Jesus and God’s anointed king. This would explain another point of connection. Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is similar to Jehu’s complete destruction of Baal worship in Israel. Both stories include temples, cleansing, and remain close together in the narrative.

Our final parallel is the death, burial, and resurrection narratives of Jesus and Elisha. Most scholars accept the original ending of Mark to be 16:8.[23] It is a startlingly abrupt epilogue that fails to develop Jesus’ actions prior to his ascension. Marcus presents three theories regarding the ending of the gospel.[24] One, it is possible the original ending was lost and latter an alternate ending was added.[25] This is unlikely because it usually takes a while for a writing to lose pages from age and use.[26] Nevertheless, this is the proposal of N. Croy, author of The Mutilation of Mark’s Gospel.[27] Two, perhaps Mark was somehow impeded and unable to complete his writing. This is difficult to prove. Three, Mark deliberately ended his gospel abruptly with the women who “said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”[28] Marcus looks for similarities, comparing OT book endings to the gospel of Mark. He identifies the Deuteronomic History spanning Deuteronomy to 2 Kings and the book of Jonah as examples of open endings.[29] Marcus favors Jonah’s conclusion, calling it “The most suggestive biblical parallel of all…”[30] The book ends with, “…and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11c). While it is certainly true that both books end rather enigmatically and with a question, it is surely not the strongest parallel. Elisha’s death has five points of parallel to the end of Mark.

2 Kings 13:20-21                                            Mark 15:37-16:8

Elisha dies (v.20)                                           Jesus breathes his last (15:37)

They bury him (v.20)                                     He is laid in a tomb (15:46)

A man was being buried (v.21)                      Mary, Mary, and Salome go to anoint Jesus (16:1)

Marauders are seen (v.21)                              They see a young man and are alarmed (16:5)

The dead man is thrown onto                         The young man tells them Jesus has risen (16:6)

the bones of Elisha and revives (v.21)


If we remove the parallels that are common with death scenes, the death and the burial, we can still see points of imitation. The unexpected resurrection and abrupt close to the narratives are compelling. The fact that Jesus is accused of calling for Elijah just before his death helps the reader to know that Mark is pointing back to this narrative. As Winn suggests, the rest of the comparisons we see in the gospel support Mark’s mimetic use of Elisha’s death narrative.[31]

Pulling together these episodes in the greater structure of the text may suggest that Mark is sharing a dominant theme his readers would understand. Most scholarship relies upon direct quotes and allusions to build intertextual relationships. The practice of mimesis in antiquity suggests there is more we can learn from the text. Roth goes on to point out that the structure of the synoptic gospel is a type similar to the Elijah-Elisha narrative.[32] A dominant theme in the gospel of Mark is the messianic secret. The Elijah-Elisha narrative may underscore a typological picture of Jesus’ identity.

A Typological Connection to Elijah, Elisha, and Jehu

In the introduction to The New Moses, author Dale Allison connects subtext to Matthean typology.[33] According to Allison, the author of Matthew develops a subtext that connects Jesus to Moses. This is not done arbitrarily, but out of a faithful hermeneutical approach to God’s providence in the world as revealed through scripture. Beyond the idea of imitation there existed an expectation that the last things would be like the first.[34] Ecclesiastes 1:9 makes a similar parallel: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Furthermore, the Elijah-Elisha narrative represents what Brodie refers to as “a synthesis of the ancient foundational narrative.”[35] It is a choice framework for building the gospels, because the narrative develops biographic material out of Israel’s history. [36] Scholars sometimes refer to Mark as a biography. Based on this, I argue that Mark’s imitation of the Elijah-Elisha narrative draws typological connections to Elijah, Elisha, and Jehu. Let us take a closer look at these characters and their function in the Elijah-Elisha narrative.

The prophet Elijah enters the scene to fight Ahab and Israel’s idolatrous worship of Baal. It is a time when the nation has turned away from Yahweh. As soon as Elijah is introduced, he pronounces a drought to come upon Israel. This action challenges the power of Baal and authority of King Ahab. Chapter 17 also develops Elijah’s own authority through three episodes in, v.2-24.[37] Following his pronouncement, Elijah performs multiple miracles, defeats the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, and condemns Ahab and Jezebel for their actions against Naboth. Ahab’s repentance results in a brief stay of God’s wrath until his son’s reign.  According to Beale, Elijah’s narrative validates Jehu’s enthronement.[38] He also sets a precedent for the killing of Ahab’s son Joram. Later, Jehu destroys the temple of Baal with its prophets similar to Elijah at Mount Carmel.[39] The whole of Elijah’s activity warns of the covenant failures of the authorities, powers, and all of Israel.[40] His life come to completion with his ascension, just as it did for Jesus.

Elisha’s role was a continuance of Elijah’s prophetic mission. Both prophets fight against Baal worship. Elisha’s prophetic mission begins with the double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kgs 2:9). During Elisha’s life he performs twice the number of miracles, a total of sixteen.  The miracles themselves contain symbols that reflect the miracles of Elijah. During the Moabite war, Elisha performs a miracle that provides water during a drought similar to Elijah’s own experience (2 Kgs 3:14-17). Elijah deals with Ahab and Elisha concludes the matter God postponed by setting in motion the events that lead to Joram’s death. It is Elisha that sends someone to anoint Jehu and set him on his mission (2 Kgs 9:1). The Elijah-Elisha narrative forms a diptych structure.[41]

This pair of characters appears typologically similar to that of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. Like Elijah who passed by Elisha, Jesus passes by his disciples (1 Kgs 19:19-21; Mk 1:16-18). Jesus performs miracles just as Elijah and Elisha did. Mark’s narrative is steeped in prophecy surrounding Jesus, just as the Elijah-Elisha narrative places a high priority on prophecy. [42] As Marcus points out, both narratives point to Jesus as a prophet and a revolutionary rising against the authorities.[43] Though a typological relationship exists between Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus, this is not to say that Jesus is somehow Elijah. Instead, it is the synthesis of these two characters that fit Jesus.[44] It would be much easier to say that Elisha is a type of Jesus if we were to choose a single character.[45] Their narratives are the most similar. We cannot stop with Elisha, however, because Jehu is a part of Elisha’s narrative and significant features in his life are typical of Jesus. In particular, it is Jehu’s mission and kingship that are developed in Mark’s gospel. As explained earlier, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, his cleansing of the temple, and his fight against the powers and authorities all fit Jehu. As we look at the whole Elijah-Elisha narrative, Mark’s narrative structure and his portrayal of Jesus build typological ties to 1 Kgs 17:1 – 2 Kgs 13:21. This has a profound influence on how we see Jesus’ identity.

Mark’s use of mimesis develops Jesus’ identity in two ways. The gospel of Mark presents Jesus as the Son of Man, the Son of God and messiah, and the King of the Jews. Jesus also applies to himself the role of prophet. In Mark 6 Jesus is opposed by those in Nazareth, his home town. This leads him to say, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household” (v.4). Further down in chapter 6, people compare Jesus to Elijah and the old prophets. This is not evidence that Jesus is Elijah, but rather that Elijah and the old prophets were similar enough to Jesus for people to recognize it.[46] The imitation of the Elijah-Elisha narrative highlights this prophetic agency of Jesus. Furthermore, it impresses upon the reader to take seriously the prophetic nature of the gospel of Mark. Yet we can go further than this because of Elijah and Elisha’s story. The primary concern of their prophetic position was covenant life. The opening chapters of Elijah’s story are directly concerned with the covenant between God and Israel. It is telling that in Jesus we find a similar concern, only now through the covenant of Jesus’ blood. Jesus himself says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:24). While the hypotext is concerned about God’s covenant through David, Moses, and Abraham, the hypertext is concerned about a new covenant through Jesus. Jesus’ identity is wrapped up in his work of bringing about a new covenant.

We also see that Jesus battles the spiritual powers and authorities throughout the gospel. Jehu represents a type of Jesus in his battle against the royal family of Ahab and, in particular, Joram. He also clears the way for God’s sovereign rule and his own kingship. In this way we can understand Mark’s use of mimesis to shape Jesus’ identity.  After Jesus enters Jerusalem he combats the powers and authorities that have overrun the temple. In the last chapter Jesus is mockingly referred to as king of the Jews six times. In a more positive tone, the title “messiah” also portrays Jesus as a king.[47] The Elijah-Elisha narrative is a synthesis of all the trouble God had with human kings. No king was able to live as God desired; even God’s agent Jehu was ultimately unable to walk in the law of the Lord. In this way Jesus succeeds where other kings failed. Jesus is God’s chosen king who sits at the right hand of the Father.

Conclusions about Jesus and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative

Throughout this paper we have established several points toward our goal. Major connecting points demonstrate Mark’s mimetic use of the Elijah-Elisha narrative. These connecting points are the miracle of healing leprosy, the miraculous feedings, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple, and his death, burial, and resurrection. They establish a typological relationship between the character and stories of Elijah, Elisha, and Jehu with that of Jesus. Jesus is misidentified as Elijah, he performs miracles similar to those of Elijah and Elisha, and he places a high priority on prophecy and covenant. Like Jehu, Jesus is anointed, enthroned and clears a temple. This relationship illuminates Jesus’ identity as a prophet king who battles the authorities and powers in the world and establishes a covenant through his blood. In terms of source criticism, Mark’s mimetic use of the Elijah-Elisha narrative forces scholars to explore sources beyond the use of allusion and quotation. Mark’s Jesus is the prophet king.



Works Cited

Allison, Dale C. The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2013.

Aune, David E. Library of Early Christianity. Vol. 8, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987.

Brodie, Thomas L. The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah-Elisha Narrative as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis-Kings and a Literary Model for the Gospels. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000.

Brown, Raymond Edward. “Jesus and Elisha.” Perspective (Pittsburgh) 12, no. 1-2 (1971 1971): 85-104. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

Bultmann, Rudolf. The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Rev. ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1963.

Cicero. Cicero On Oratory and Orators. Translated by J. S. Watson. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishing, 1875.

Croy, N Clayton. The Mutilation of Mark’s Gospel. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. “Mark’s interpretation of the death of Jesus.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 128, no. 3 (September 2009): 545-554. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

____________. Mark: A Commentary. Edited by Harold W. Attridge. Hermeneia–a Critical and Historical Commentary On the Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Guillaume, P. “Miracles miraculously repeated : Gospel Miracles as duplication of Elijah-Elisha’s.” Biblische Notizen 98, (1999): 21-23. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

Iersel, Bas van. Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Supplement Series. Vol. 164, Mark: a Reader-Response Commentary. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. Accessed April 2, 2016.

Kevin, Robert Oliver. “The lost ending of the gospel according to Mark: a criticism and a reconstruction.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 45, no. 1-2 (1926 1926): 81-103. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2016).

Leim, Joshua. “In the Glory of His Father: Intertextuality and the Apocalyptic Son of Man in the Gospel of Mark.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 7, no. 2 (2013).

Macdonald, Dennis R. Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Marcus, Joel. The Anchor Bible. Vol. 27, Mark 1-8: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Meye, Robert P. “Mark 16:8: the ending of Mark’s Gospel.” Biblical Research 14, (1969 1969): 33-43. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

Perseus Digital Library.

Roth, Wolfgang. Hebrew Gospel: Cracking the Code of Mark. Oak Park, IL: Meyer-Stone Books, 1988.

Quintilian. Quintilian’s Institute of Oratory. Lee Honeycutt, 2010. Amazon Kindle edition.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Michael Winterbottom. The Loeb Classical Library. Vol. 1, The Elder Seneca Declamations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Wallace, Howard N. “Oracles against the Israelite dynasties in 1 and 2 Kings.” Biblica 67, no. 1 (1986 1986): 21-40. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

White, Marsha C. Brown Judaic Studies. Vol. 311, The Elijah Legends and Jehu’s Coup. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1997.

Winn, Adam. Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2010.

Wray Beal, Lissa M. Apollos Old Testament Commentary. Vol. 9, 1 and 2 Kings. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Zimmermann, M & Zimmermann, R. Mimesis Bible Didactics: An outline in the context of religious education, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 71(1), 2015. (accessed, April 8, 2016).


[1] All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.

[2] M. Zimmermann, & R. Zimmermann, Mimesis Bible Didactics: An outline in the context of religious education, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 71(1), 2015. (accessed, April 8, 2016).

[3] Isocrates, Isocrates, trans. George Norlin, in the Perseus Digital Library, (accessed April 1, 2016).

[4] Cicero, Cicero On Oratory and Orators, trans. J. S. Watson (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishing, 1875), 107; Quintilian, Quintilian’s Institute of Oratory (Lee Honeycutt, 2010), under “11356,” Amazon Kindle edition.

[5] Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Michael Winterbottom, The Loeb Classical Library, vol. 1, The Elder Seneca Declamations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974), 7.

[6] Dale C. Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 272.

[7] Joel Marcus, The Anchor Bible, vol. 27, Mark 1-8: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 59; See also K.L. Schmidt Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (Berlin: Trowizsch, 1919); Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1963).

[8] For additional scholars that connect the Elijah-Elisha narrative to the gospels, see Lindars, Elijah, Elisha and the Gospel Miracles; Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment, 40-41; Brown, Jesus and Elisha.

[9] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 73-75. On the similarities between Paul and Mark.

[10] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia–a Critical and Historical Commentary On the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 156.

[11] See Dennis R. Macdonald, Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); Brodie, Crucial Bridge, p 86-95; Roth, Hebrew Gospel; Winn, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative. This paper dates Mark as the earliest gospel. Major studies following the Griesbach Hypothesis are excluded. For examples see: C.S. Mann C S. Mann, The Anchor Bible, vol. 27, Mark: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986).

[12] Macdonald, 2.

[13] Virgil, Aeneid, trans. H. Fairclough, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956); Homer, The Odyssey, trans. A.T. Murray, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1946).

[14] Adam Winn, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 42.

[15] Ibid, 31. Winn’s rules are version of McDonald’s rules in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

[16] Ibid., 77-78.

[17]P. Guillaume, “Miracles miraculously repeated: Gospel Miracles as duplication of Elijah-Elisha’s.” Biblische Notizen 98, 21-23. New Testament Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

[18] See Aus, University of South Florida International Studies in Formative Christianity and Judaism, vol. 4, The Wicked Tenants and Gethsemane: Isaiah in the Wicked Tenants’ Vineyard, and Moses and the High Priest in Gethsemane : Judaic Traditions in Mark 12:1-9 and 14:32-42; Evans, Craig A. “On the vineyard parables of Isaiah 5 and Mark 12.” Biblische Zeitschrift 28, no. 1: 82-86.

[19] Winn, 101.

[20] Ibid., 16; Virgil, 249-269; Homer, 449-465.

[21] Ibid., 104-105.

[22] Virgil, 269; Homer, 465. Compare Aeneas who lives in the Aeneid and Odysseus who dies in the Odyssey as an example of mimetic reversal.

[23] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 1088.

[24] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 1088.

[25] Kevin, Robert Oliver. 1926. “The lost ending of the gospel according to Mark: a criticism and a reconstruction.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 45, no. 1-2: 81-103. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2016).

[26] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 1091.

[27] N Clayton Croy, The Mutilation of Mark’s Gospel (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003).

[28] Robert P. Meye, “Mark 16:8: the ending of Mark’s Gospel.” Biblical Research 14, (1969 1969): 33. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

[29] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 1094-1096.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Winn, 115.

[32] Wolfgang Roth, Hebrew Gospel: Cracking the Code of Mark (Oak Park, IL: Meyer-Stone Books, 1988), 119.

[33] Allison, 7.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Brodie, 96.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Lissa M. Wray Beal, Apollos Old Testament Commentary, vol. 9, 1 and 2 Kings (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 230-31.

[38] Ibid, 231.

[39] Marsha C. White, Brown Judaic Studies, vol. 311, The Elijah Legends and Jehu’s Coup (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1997), 27.

[40] Beale, 51.

[41] Thomas L. Brodie, The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah-Elisha Narrative as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis-Kings and a Literary Model for the Gospels (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000), 12-27.

[42] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 183. Howard N Wallace, 1986. “Oracles against the Israelite dynasties in 1 and 2 Kings.” Biblica 67, no. 1: 21-40. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

[43] Marcus, Mark 1-8, 183-184.

[44] Joshua Leim, “In the Glory of His Father: Intertextuality and the Apocalyptic Son of Man in the Gospel of Mark,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 7, no. 2 (2013): 215.

[45] Bas van Iersel, Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Supplement Series, vol. 164, Mark: a Reader-Response Commentary (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 130, accessed April 2, 2016,


[46] Raymond Brown, “Jesus and Elisha,” Perspective (Pittsburgh) 12, no. 1-2 (1971 1971): 85-104. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).


[47] Adela Yarbro Collins, “Mark’s interpretation of the death of Jesus.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 128, no. 3, 2009.: 553. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 2, 2016).

A Moral & Positive Failure: Finding Authority


How is Scripture authoritative? This fundamental question, addressed throughout history, resurfaces with us in postmodernity out of the rejection of modern “regulative” hermeneutics. What exactly is rejected, why is it rejected, and what must replace it? We begin with the development of regulative hermeneutics and its formation in the Disciples of Christ. Then we look to the failure of moral and positive law. We conclude with a brief discussion of postmodern hermeneutics from James K.A. Smith.[1]

The sixteenth century reformers Zwingli and Luther sought authority for the church through Scripture. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses that brought about the beginning of the Reformation period. In it he challenged the authority of the pope and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. His opposition to the pope caused a backlash resulting in the destruction of many of his books. Luther saw Scripture as teaching “us to see, to feel, to grasp, and to comprehend faith, hope, and charity, far otherwise than mere human reason can”.[2] He believed that through diligent reading of the scriptures, putting the scriptures into practice, and the power of the Holy Spirit, anyone could come to understand Scripture.[3] Luther also felt it was important for translators and interpreters to work together since “et propria verba do not always occur in one mind”. In saying this, Luther expresses the benefit of cooperation. This offered a practical checking process. Later in the seventeenth century, another phrase, “res et verba”, was used to show disapproval for ornament and extravagant wordings that failed to read faithfully the subject matter.[4] Luther seems to grasp this idea years before through his disdain for commentary authors who write long books that amount to nothing.[5] Luther was in favor of authority from the scriptures alone. He was responding to the touted authority of church tradition. Humans err, so scripture must be the authority that corrects the church. Luther expresses it this way: “But I prefer the text to them all, though, in popedom, the glosses were deemed of higher value than the bright and clear text.”[6] In this, we can see that Luther views Scripture as “bright and clear”. We can understand the text because of its “clarity”, so the text can act authoritatively in our lives. Ironically, Luther frequently mixed languages while speaking, causing difficulty in translating his own work. In addition to viewing scripture as clear, Luther saw the literal sense of scripture as the highest form above, other senses such as allegory. The Disciples of Christ place a high emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture due in part to the work of Luther and Zwingli. The literal sense of Scripture influenced the role of Scripture for the Disciples of Christ during the American Restoration Movement. Luther played an important role in our discussion of the authority of scripture, but it was the Scripture and church centered approach of Zwingli that gained favor.

Zwingli attended the University of Vienna and The University of Basel. Later Zwingli preached in a Protestant church in Switzerland. It was there Zwingli began fighting against Catholic tradition. His desire for reformation drove Christians in Zurich to revolt. Zwingli viewed Scripture as authoritative. To him Scripture was infallible and useful to judge our behaviors and beliefs. This was something the Pope, bishop, or council could not do. An example of Zwingli’s position on the authority of Scripture can be shown from his works.


“Now finally, since reference is made to the judges which my Lord Vicar thinks cannot be found outside the universities, I say that we have here infallible and unprejudiced judges, that is the Holy Writ, which can neither lie nor deceive. These we have present in Hebrew, Greek and Latin tongues; these let us take on both sides as fair and just judges.”[7]


One tradition Zwingli sought to abolish was forced fasting during Lent. Of this he said, “And I showed that it was an unsound contention that the gospel writings nowhere clearly allowed the eating of flesh.”[8] Since, for Zwingli, Scripture clearly allowed the eating of meat, the forced abstinence during Lent was wrong. Again, all of Zwingli’s positions came from the understanding that Scripture is authoritative.

Zwingli was able to affirm the authority of Scripture since he held that to those who had faith and studied Scripture, it was clear and understandable. This clarity was given to us from God in order to have authority in our lives. It was not necessary to rely upon imperfect man to find authority for Christian living since Scripture is perfect, cannot lie, and is clear. His position opposed the idea that Scripture was not clear and needed interpretation by the church for people to understand.

The concept Luther and Zwingli uphold is called Sola Scriptura. The difference between them comes in their application of Sola Scriptura. Luther saw Scripture as authoritative, but did not believe that the silence of Scripture was prohibitive. Zwingli on the other hand, believed that the silence of Scripture meant we did not have the authority to act. Without a command from scripture, we should not act. As a result, many traditions in the church were no longer authoritative and became prohibited. Zwingli’s position on Sola Scriptura had an influence over Scottish and English churchmen.[9] This indirectly affected the teaching of John Knox and, later, the leaders of the American Restoration Movement.[10] Sola Scriptura and prohibitive silence still affects the churches of Christ, however unconsciously, today.

A third reformer who brought Sola Scriptura into broader practice was John Calvin. Like Luther and Zwingli, Calvin sought authority from Scripture alone. John Calvin was a French theologian. His view, like Zwingli’s treated scripture as a book of law. This led Calvin to limit singing practices in the church. Calvin did not allow the use of musical instrument, choirs, polyphony, or newly composed pietistic texts.[11] This can be seen here in Calvin’s commentaries on the Psalms.


“We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to him only in a known tongue.”[12]


Notice that Calvin, references clarity by claiming that instrumental music is banished by “the plain command” from Scripture. Calvin views Scripture as a law book that authorizes or bans methods of worship reinforced by the idea that clarity of Scripture is obtainable.

From Calvin and Zwingli developed what we call the “Regulative Principle”. Calvin’s form of the regulative principle focused on worship.


“For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray.”[13] (The Evil Which Compels Us To Seek Remedies)


Later it was adapted to authorize all kinds of activities. The regulative principle is the combination of two ideas Sola Scriptura and prohibitive silence. Both ideas determine how Christians should live and worship God. The clarity of Scripture thus becomes an essential element to this principle. The opposing concept known as the normative principle suggested that anything not prohibited by scripture was permissible. The normative principle received far less use than its opponent.




Influenced by Scottish Presbyterianism, father Thomas and son Alexander Campbell independently came to view the Bible as singularly authoritative. Thomas, a clergyman from North Ireland, set a foundational belief that affected the American Restoration Movement. His motto was, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”[14] His motto bears a strong resemblance to Calvin’s regulative principle. Alexander came to a similar perspective as he taught a return to the ancient ecclesial example found in Scripture. Scripture became the command and example of how the 19th century Christian should live. Evidence for this comes from his article series, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things”.[15] A portion of this text reads, “A restoration of the ancient order of things is all that is necessary to the happiness and usefulness of Christians.”[16] Alexander did not, however, believe that all of Scripture should be used to form Christian practice. Instead, he focused specifically on the NT and even further on the teachings of the apostles.


“…the thing proposed, is to bring the Christianity and the church of the present day up to the standard of the New Testament.”[17]


“we shall have no other revelation of the Spirit, no other New Testament, no other Saviour, and no other religion than we now have, when we understand, believe and practice the doctrine of Christ delivered to us by his apostles”[18]


From this canonical particularization, Alexander looked to define a precise order of worship. Reformation hermeneutics is not the only influence determining how Alexander interprets Scripture. For a larger perspective, we must turn to his dependence on Baconianism.

Baconianism was devised by Sir Francis Bacon. He believed that bias could be overcome but putting into practice scientific checks or steps to correct the mind.[19] Objectivity would be achieved through mechanistic practices. We can define Baconianism as inferring (deduction) from observation of gathered facts (induction) what is occurring with the whole. It was attractive method for finding order in Scripture.

Campbell believed that Scripture was written in human language and therefore could be analyzed with the same methods used to interpret other literary works.[20] He optimistically believed Scripture to be understandable if only the proper method was applied, a result of “Scottish Common Sense realism.”[21] By discovering the appropriate meaning of the words in Scripture, clarity and uniform understanding could be achieved. For this he turned to the Baconian method.

Campbell, from a Baconian perspective, derived meaning from Scripture through observation and reflection. He believed that correct teaching could be obtained through induction of the full Scripture covering any subject and deducing the truth. Baconian hermeneutics requires looking at Scripture as a collection of facts. By connecting these “facts”, Campbell hoped to create a uniform method of interpretation that would lead to greater unity as opposed to the divisiveness of creeds. Using this method of interpretation the Scriptures produced patterns and order by which Christians should live. As a result Campbell interpreted Scripture to fight denominationalism and practices not authorized by apostolic command, example, or necessary inference. Campbell fought against infant baptism for this very reason. It is important to note here that it was not Alexander Campbell’s intention to create a system that would be cause for division. He desired Christians to be drawn together by a singular constitution, which is the apostolic portion of the NT.[22] Unfortunately, division was the clear result.

CEI, or command, example, or necessary inference is a method that applies the regulative principle to the Scriptures. A strong proponent of CEI is J.D. Thomas.[23] Like Campbell, Thomas found great usefulness in Baconianism. Thomas breaks down scripture into principles and incidentals. Principles are transcultural, permanent and binding. Incidentals are local, temporal and exist culturally or at least situationally. By employing “common sense”, Thomas distinguishes the two.[24] Common sense functions to determine parallels to our current situation, present spiritual principles, and find clues in Scripture to help us. Once specific patterns are identified, they must be followed. Identifying these specific patterns requires commands, examples, or necessary inferences. To determine if an example is binding, we must explore the context and utilize common sense. This also applies to necessary inferences. First we examine the context and then use common sense to determine its usefulness. Commands also function in this way. First, we determine from the context whether the characters had to do it, and then we use common sense to apply it to us. The difficulty here is the failure of common sense to actually determine anything. All commands, examples, and necessary inferences are based upon human inference and common sense.

In the A.R.M., we have many different denominations whose separation was based upon the regulative principle and CEI. The pursuit of a perfect resurrection of the 1st century ecclesial community failed in the likeness of its Spirit and divided us over its practice. It created a framework of laws devoid of Christ and grace. It found its pinnacle in the practice of moral and positive law. The framework pushed the plan instead of the man.




Moral and positive law was developed by Thomas Hobbes in “Leviathan”, written in 1651 CE. In his work Hobbes defines moral law or natural law as, “…those which have been laws from all eternity… consisting in the moral virtues; as justice, equity, and all habits of the mind that conduce to peace and charity”.[25] Natural laws are laws that we can understand from nature and which do not depend on a higher authority to require them. There are two essential components to natural law. They are the ontological and the gnoseological. Ontological implies, “Every kind of being existing in nature, a plant, a dog, a horse, has its own “natural law, that is, the proper way in which, by reason of its specific structure and ends, it “should” achieve fullness of being in its growth or in its behavior”.[26] “Gnoseology deals with the human faculties for learning and understanding. In these ways, gnoseology implies what is known naturally, by inclination, congeniality, or connanturality.[27] In this case reason is preceded by natural understanding. Natural law is determined by natural inclination and then reasoned out. Natural law does not begin with reason and then determine natural inclinations.

Positive laws are “… those which have not been from eternity, but have been made laws by the will of those that have had the sovereign power over others, and are either written or made known to men by some other argument of the will of their legislator.”[28] Positive laws have no natural example imposing authority. Only when a greater authority makes them laws do they mean anything.

A particularization of positive law is divine positive law. Hobbes describes this as “…the commandments of God, not from all eternity, nor universally addressed to all men, but only to a certain people or to certain persons, are declared for such by those whom God hath authorized to declare them.”[29] These laws are commandments of God carried to people through visions, dreams, divine messengers, and His covenant people. The inherent challenge of the divine positive law is, how do we know it comes from God? If it does not come directly to every man by way of direct communication of God how do we know it is a law? This is one of the issues Hobbes tries to address. It appears to be impossible to know certainly when God makes commands. We might say that miracles or righteous living are signs of the command but they fail to give us certainty. We are reliant on our faith in the communicator of the message. Though we may not know with perfect certainty if a law comes from God, the same laws are easy to carry out. To understand this Hobbes walks us through God’s covenant with Abraham.

God made a covenant directly with Abraham. This covenant extended to all the seed of Abraham. Though Abraham’s children did not directly receive their father’s covenant, they were required to obey the commandment handed down to them by their father. This supports necessary inference. Since Abraham was given the covenant and it included his children, anyone who was considered his child understood the necessity of following the command. Hobbes makes the point that the decision to follow the command, so far as it does not disagree with the moral laws, must be followed according to the “commonwealth” or community.

Following in the footsteps of Thomas Hobbes, by way of influence from Scottish Common Sense Realism, Charles Hodge utilized moral and positive law in the 19th century. Hodge elaborated on moral law in his writing, “Systematic Theology”. Under the heading, “Preliminary Principles”, Hodge teaches that moral law is taught from Scripture through the words of Paul.[30] When Paul teaches that gentiles are a law unto themselves, he is teaching moral law.[31] This is due to nature. Hodge interprets nature as the conscience that commands obedience. Every human being has a conscience that accuses them or testifies about them. This appears to be an obvious generalization from Hodge, but he clarifies that even groups who do not uphold moral laws still maintain its authority by their disavowal of it.[32] By turning away from the law, they show the law to be a judge against them. One of the central moral laws is the law of love. Unlike Zwingli, Hodge believed that nothing is sinful that moral law and the Scriptures does not specifically condemn (normative principle). Like Hobbes, Hodge views divine positive laws as laws made authoritative by God. The laws binding on Christians are found in the Scriptures, specifically in the commands found in the New Testament. The 19th century A.R.M. was greatly influenced by moral and positive law; Thomas and Alexander Campbell were among the preachers who used this hermeneutic.

A moral and positive law hermeneutic has created theological difficulties that have lasted into the present. To examine some of these challenges consider the sermon from the preacher Benjamin Franklin in 1877 CE. To Franklin, positive law is of a “higher order” than moral law.[33] He says it this way: “It rises above mere morality, philosophy, or the pleasure of man, into the pure region of faith, confidence in the wisdom of God, and in submission to the supreme authority”.[34] To Franklin, obedience to positive law requires more faith. This is the beginning of our theological difficulties. Franklin places undue favor on positive commands.

It becomes better to do things such as observe the Sabbath (positive law) than to love your neighbor (moral law). In the negative, it is worse to break the Sabbath (positive law) than to kill your neighbor (moral law). Assumed in this is that divine positive laws are issues of faith and obedience. The Hebrew people were commanded to paint the doorframe of their homes with the blood of a lamb. They acted in accordance with this command and therefore survived the death of the first born in Egypt. Franklin reverses the command, saying that if any Hebrew did not cover their doorframe with lamb’s blood, their firstborn would die. Obedience in this case requires absolute precision.

Franklin creates a situation that at first seems simple. Either you painted the doorframe of your house with blood from a lamb and you live, or you don’t and you die. However, the situation quickly complicates. God did not simply ask them to place blood on the doorframe. He told them what day to slaughter the animal, how old the animal must be, the lamb could have been a goat’s or sheep’s young, must be without defect of any kind, that they must be killed at twilight, the meat of the animal must be eaten, and dressed with herbs, roasted and not raw, and eaten with unleavened bread. The animal must be eaten with your cloak tucked into your belt, and sandals on your feet, and staff in hand. According to Franklin’s application of divine positive law, these acts had to be completed to perfection. God does not dispense grace when we fail to perfectly carry out these commands. The one who places his staff down while eating is killed. If the meat is undercooked, death awaits them. If one of the Hebrew people fails to receive word, divine judgment is coming.

Now all this appears as a kind of straw man example, but it illustrates a question. Does God give grace to those who do not follow his commands to perfection? If our ability to follow divine positive law is the measure of our faith, how should we interpret the Scriptures?




Consider another example of this line of thought from James A. Harding. He saw Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as examples of positive law.[35] They must be carried out perfectly to be effectual. Harding uses the example of the walls of Jericho to make his point. He believed that if Joshua had not done exactly as God commanded, the walls would not have fallen. Grace is given for the moral laws but not for positive laws.

What developed from the high order of divine positive law was, for the churches of Christ, a legal hermeneutic. Hicks describes it this way “the hermeneutical task for Churches of Christ has always been to discover what God requires of us, especially what he requires in terms of positive ordinances. Our hermeneutic has been tailored to answer that question.”[36]

Harding believed that “works of righteousness” (moral law) could not save us because even one sin condemns us.[37] Our performance of righteous works is done out of our indebtedness to Jesus, who did what we could not. Grace covers these sins through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God forgives us of our sins. This is consistent with Franklins view of moral laws.

Though Harding does not view works as our way to redemption he does believe that access to our “pardon” comes with conditions. These conditions are God’s acts of righteousness that we submit to. They include faith, repentance, and baptism. Positive law becomes for us a test of faith we must pass before we can receive our redemption. They are easy to obey perfectly, so God is strict in demanding them. The power of these divine positive laws has caused the churches of Christ to seek in Scripture any positive commands that secure our redemption. A legal hermeneutic is thus developed to read all of Scripture as law, as Campbell did, and determine which laws are moral or positive. In making these distinctions, we create an interpretive framework for our salvation. Unfortunately we do not agree on what God meant to be redemptive positive commands. Positive law came to apply Sola Scriptura and prohibitive silence using CEI. The absence of God’s positive command became a direct salvific condemnation. For this reason, we have divided over all manner of things including instrumental music, kitchens, Sunday school, and paid preachers. A kitchen may seem an innocuous thing until it is place within a legal positive framework. Then it becomes the difference between obedience and disobedience, saved and not saved.



At this point it is necessary to take a count of the observations we have made. I have listed them in order of their appearance in this paper.


  • Sola Scriptura replaced and undermined ecclesial tradition
  • Scripture was conceived to be optimistically “clear” and “simple”
  • A literal sense of Scripture was favored above analogous readings
  • Prohibitive silence was favored over the normative principle
  • A legal framework changed how Scripture was applied
  • Authority was developed only from the apostolic portion of the NT
  • The Baconian method treated Scripture as a literary document
  • Determining the application of examples required the use of CEI and common sense
  • Divine positives laws are favored over moral or natural laws.


First allow me to point out the benefits this hermeneutic collaboration has done for us. Sola Scriptura redirected our attention back to the primacy of Scripture. There is a point where Scripture can be understood as clear or simple. It is clear and simple in the sense that a general picture of Scripture as a narrative can be understood. As Christians we find ourselves relating to the historic position of the 1st century church because we both follow the birth, baptism, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Baconianism placed the Bible in its historic and literary context. It also emphasized the importance of induction. However, as John Hicks explains, Baconian induction “tends to override the historical and contextual character of Scripture itself.”[38] Some of these devices are more positive than others. However, using these devices in combination transformed Scripture into a pattern of authority that detracted Christians away from the message of the gospel. It replaced the importance of the Christ event with an ecclesial perfectionism. The grace given to sinners was found only in perfect practice of 19th and 20th century positive law.


In light of the limitations of A.R.M. to establish unity let’s briefly consider the postmodern attempts at a new hermeneutic. The argument for the clarity of Scripture stretched clarity beyond function. The result of this over reaching argument was division. Postmodern interpreter, James K. A. Smith argues for the necessity of interpretation instead an assumption of clarity.[39] Interpretation happens with everything.[40] We are finite creates that interpret the world and people around us.[41] In this way a person cannot fully know any other thing completely. What we can achieve is an interpretation of what we view around us. We interpret the world through our senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. We are limited to these kinds of experiences. When humans relate to one another they cannot fully expresses themselves to make themselves full known. We are limited by our various forms of language. When we receive what is expressed from other human beings we interpret their language by our own experience in the language, by the languages variety of use, and by our capacity of understanding. All of this is not to conclude that we cannot know anything about what is being expressed. Nor does this mean we can interpret what we experience in any way we see fit. We can see the application of these ideas through our interpretation of Scripture.

First it is important to highlight three characters utilized by Smith in his creational hermeneutic. Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, each play a role in Smith’s creational hermeneutic.


Smith uses Derrida to show “(a) the centrality of Scripture for mediating our understanding of the world as a whole and (b) the role of community in the interpretation of Scripture”. Smith uses Lyotard to “recover (a) the narrative character of Christian faith, rather than understanding it as a collection of ideas, and (b) the confessional nature of our narrative and the way in which we find ourselves in a world of competing narratives.” Smith uses Foucault to demonstrate “(a) the cultural power of formation and discipline and hence (b) the necessity of the church to enact counter formation by counter disciplines”.

From these three postmodern theorists Smith forms how the church looks at Scripture.

James Smith demonstrates that readers are coproducers of meaning when examining the text. The authors of, for example 1 Corinthians, are Paul (if you accept that he was the original author) and God by way of the Holy Spirit. Paul interprets his experience of God and the situation with the Corinthian church in the writing of his letter. We engage Scripture through our understanding of the language the Bible is written in, the historical location of the letter, as well as our understanding of the cultural situation. From these things we interpret what God and Paul reveal to us and how, by way of analogy, these things have meaning to us.

From this perspective interpretation is seen as a creational good rather than a consequence of our fallenness. Smith deconstructs Augustine’s position on the goodness of creation against Augustine’s concept of “original sin”.[42] For a long time, interpretation has been viewed as something to be overcome.[43] Instead we have favored perfect, objective understanding. This is impossible however, since we are finite creatures. Neither were we intended to understand the world perfectly. We were created as limited and finite creatures that interpret the world and God. Instead of exactitude, we are forced to engage in community with creation and God in order to understand everything. In this way interpretation becomes a creative good. This view has the added benefit of changing how we view the role of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is no longer relegated to guidance of Scripture through and by Scripture. Instead the Holy Spirit engages us in communal interpretation.

Unity may be achievable through the understanding that interpretation is a creational good. In this way unity is developed through participation in the interpretive community by way of the Holy Spirit. It then becomes unnecessary for us to achieve exactitude in understanding before we can worship God in a community of believers.


[1] James Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2012). See also:
James Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2006).

[2] Martin Luther, The Table Talk (Philadelphia: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] A.C. Howell, “Res Et Verba: Words and Things”, ELH 13, no. 2 (June 1946): 134, accessed November 7, 2013,

[5] Luther, 2.

[6] Ibid, 2.

[7] Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli: The Reformer of German Switzerland (Philadelphia: Evergreen Review Inc., 1901), under “Kindle Locations 812-815,” Amazon Kindle edition.

[8] Ibid, Kindle Locations 300-301.

[9] Thomas Olbricht, “Hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ”, Hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ 37, no. 1 (1995): 3, accessed September 20, 2013,

[10] Ibid, 4.

[11] Joshua Busman, “Different Commandments: Sola Scriptura and Theologies of Worship in the Protestant Reformation” (presented at 2010 SCGMC Meeting at Duke University, Durham, NC), 1, accessed November 6, 2013,

[12] John Calvin, Commentary On the Psalms, under “Kindle Locations 1666” Amazon Kindle edition.

[13] John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543), trans. Henry Beveridge (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), accessed September 5, 2013,

[14] Monroe Hawley, Redigging the Wells: Seeking Undenominational Christianity (Abilene: Quality Publications, 1976), 29.

[15] John Hicks, “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics I,” John Mark Hicks Ministries (blog),, May 28, 2008, accessed August 30, 2013,

[16] Alexander Campbell, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things,” Christian Baptist, 1824, accessed November 13, 2013,

[17] Ibid,.

[18] Ibid,.

[19] Francis Bacon, Novum Organum [The New Organum], trans. James Spedding, under “Kindle Location 15,” Amazon Kindle edition.

[20] Olbricht, 6.

[21] Hicks, “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics I”.

[22] Campbell, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things”.

[23] J.D. Thomas, We Be Brethren: A Study in Biblical Interpretation (Fort Worth: Biblical Research Press, 1958).

[24] Ibid, 43.

[25] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Penquin Classics, 2012), under “Kindle Location 2942,” Amazon Kindle edition.

[26] Jacques Maritain, “Natural Law And Moral Law,” in Moral Principles of Action: Man’s Ethical Imperative, ed. Ruth Ansben, Science of Culture Series (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1952), 6:62.

[27] Ibid, 62-63.

[28] Ibid,.

[29] Ibid, Kindle Location 2954.

[30] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 266-67.

[31] Romans 2:14

[32] Recent discussion of Natural or Moral law has, in view of secularism, been seen as changeable depending on a person’s religious or secular location. The natural is developed from human perspective. For more detailed exploration of Natural Law see: Stephen Pope, “Tradition and Innovation in Natural Law: A Thomistic Interpretation,” in Human Nature and Natural Law, (Long Lane: SCM Press, 2010).

[33] Benjamin Franklin, “Positive Divine Law,” The Gospel Preacher, 1877, accessed September 15, 2013,

[34] Ibid,.

[35] James Harding and J.B. Moody, Debate On Baptism and the Work of the Holy Spirit (Nasville: Brandon Printing Company, 1889), 256, accessed October 20, 2013,

[36] John Hicks, “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics V,” John Mark Hicks Ministries (blog),, May 31, 2008, accessed October 30, 2013.

[37] Harding and Moody, 219-220.

[38] John Hicks, “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics VI,” John Mark Hicks Ministries (blog),, May 31, 2008, accessed October 30, 2013.

[39] James Smith, The Fall of Interpretation.

[40] Ibid, 162.

[41] Ibid, 20.

[42] Ibid, 141.

[43] Ibid, 36.


Works Cited

Luther, Martin. The Table Talk. Philadelphia: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

Howell, A.C. “Res Et Verba: Words and Things.” ELH 13, no. 2 (June 1946): 134. AccessedNovember 7, 2013.

Zwingli, Huldrich. Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli: The Reformer of German Switzerland. Philadelphia: Evergreen Review Inc., 1901. Amazon Kindle edition.

Olbricht, Thomas “Hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ.” Hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ 37, no. 1 (1995): 3. Accessed September 20, 2013.

Calvin, John. Commentary On the Psalms. Amazon Kindle edition.

Busman, Joshua. “Different Commandments: Sola Scriptura and Theologies of Worship in the Protestant Reformation.” Presented at 2010 SCGMC Meeting at Duke University, Durham, NC, Date. Accessed November 6, 2013.

Calvin, John. The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543). Translated by Henry Beveridge. Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995. Accessed September 5, 2013.

Hawley, Monroe. Redigging the Wells: Seeking Undenominational Christianity. Abilene: Quality Publications, 1976.

Hicks, John. “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics Ii.” John Mark Hicks Ministries (blog)., May 28, 2008. Accessed August 30, 2013.

Campbell, Alexander. “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.” Christian Baptist, 1824. Accessed November 13, 2013.

Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum [The New Organum]. Translated by James Spedding. Amazon Kindle edition.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Penquin Classics, 2012. Amazon Kindle edition.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.

Franklin, Benjamin. “Positive Divine Law.” The Gospel Preacher, 1877. Accessed September 15, 2013.

Harding, James, and J.B. Moody. Debate On Baptism and the Work of the Holy Spirit. Nasville: Brandon Printing Company, 1889. Accessed October 20, 2013.

Pope, Stephen, “Tradition and Innovation in Natural Law: A Thomistic Interpretation,” in Human Nature and Natural Law, (Long Lane: SCM Press, 2010).

Thomas, J.D. We Be Brethren: A Study in Biblical Interpretation. Fortworth: Biblical Research Press, 1958.

Maritain, Jacques. “Natural Law And Moral Law.” In Moral Principles of Action: Man’s Ethical Imperative, edited by Ruth Ansben. Vol. 6. Science of Culture Series, 62. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1952.

Smith, James. The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2012.

Smith, James. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2006.


Chais and RachelThis post marks the first of what I hope will be the beginning of many more short articles. This is my way of sharing my many interests and passion. I hope you will find it beneficial for your own studies.

Have you ever received a quizzical look after you’ve said something? Perhaps you have wondered why people don’t “just get” what you are saying. I imagine we can all relate to this experience. The frustration comes from a desire to be known. We hope that, by speaking, others will understand perfectly without a mediating agent like an interpretive framework. In turn we hope for the same perfect knowledge ourselves. We want to understand and be understood as God understands. However, being known or understanding by way of immediacy is simply not a part of our creaturely existence.

As a Christian minister, I talk a lot. My friends can attest this claim. In my ministry context immediacy has significant ramifications. Belief in the immediacy of Scripture implies understanding passed to the reader without a mediating agent. I read it and “I get it” just as God does. Understanding Scripture by immediacy is intuitive. If immediacy was part of the innate human experience there would be no confusion. Since this is not naturally the case, I assume a need for a mediating agent. Christians have sometimes claimed immediate knowledge to fight interpretations, defend truth by correspondence, and preserve objectivity.[1] However, those who claim immediacy and those who don’t, utilize an interpretive framework whether consciously aware of it or not. Immediacy is a way of interpreting.

Let’s consider two examples where the framework of immediacy fails us because of orientation:

(1)    The picture to the right is a box with a blue and yellow panel. Which one is in front?Immediacy image

Looking at it from one perspective yellow appears to be in front. From another perspective it is blue.                        Both layers come together to make green. In reality neither the yellow or blue panel sit in front of the                      other since it’s a two dimensional plane.

(2)    Solve: √25 = x

In this example you probably come up with the positive integer 5 because 5 x 5 equals 25. This is not the only answer however it could also be -5. Remember that negative numbers become positives when multiplied together.

What does this have to do with immediacy? Our orientation to the object in example 1 changes the answer. Our intuition about what we see affects our interpretation of the object. Two people claiming immediacy can come to completely different answers. Of course the box is not a perfect example of this but I hope you can “get” what I am saying.

The mathematical equation produces two answers, a negative and a positive. It is easy to intuit the answer as 5. Even your calculator will provide that answer for you. However -5 is equally appropriate.

In both examples, immediacy produces a conflict as two people can claim to “get it” or “see it” but fail to agree. There is another image floating around the internet that is a good example of this. Nobuyuki Kayahara created the spinning ballerina that changes as your brain tries to place the 2-dimensional object into a 3-dimensional space.

For Christians, a lack of immediacy has been or is viewed as a postlapsarian consequence, assuming that, pre-fall, we experienced knowledge immediacy but afterwards it was lost to us. The hope is that we can restore this way of godlike intuition. Some make a special claim to immediacy through the agency of the Holy Spirit. However, I believe this claim fails to impress even those who also claim the same special agency of the Spirit. They still don’t agree. Others hope for an eschatological event that will mend this creaturely shortcoming. They suppose that in the resurrection there will be no need for interpretation because they will immediately understand everything. There is however, a more optimistic way of looking at interpretation.

Helpful Works

James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012).

Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

John Mark Hicks,

[1] Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 18-21.