The Library Basement
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The Old in the New: Modes of Rhetoric

Having made a distinction between rhetoric and exposition in the New Testament's use of the Old Testament, I thought it fitting to outline some more specific examples of each. In this post I examine the rhetorical use of scripture and provide several rough classifications.

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.

Here in Galatians 4 we find a passage which has given fits to those who have attempted to construct a normative hermeneutic from the New Testament. Paul is apparently using a figurative interpretation - an allegory (αλληγορουμενα) nonetheless - to explain his point. This is particularly scandalous for those of us trained in the literal-grammatical-historical school of hermeneutics. Many explanations have been offered: Paul, through the Holy Spirit, had special authority to use such interpretive methods; the Sarah-Hagar story is a living allegory written by God (which is not without its charms); Paul must mean something other than what we understand as "allegory;" etc. I would suggest that Paul is not making a claim about the original meaning of the passage at all. Allegory can be both a valid interpretive strategy (employed to understand those stories which were written by their authors as allegory) and a rhetorical device (a cousin to the analogy). Paul is using the latter. He is re-appropriating the story of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate his point about the two covenants, not trying to tell us what that passage means. He even expands the allegory with two addition scripture references. The wording here cannot be definitively called down on either side:

ἅτινά ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα· αὗται γάρ εἰσιν δύο διαθῆκαι

The question is whether Paul is saying they were composed as allegory or are presently being employed allegorically. I don't think ἐστιν can tell us either way. However, given Paul's interpretive activities in his other letters, I believe that the rhetorical mode is the best explanation for his usage here. Allegory is perhaps the most extreme example since it was connected with medieval catholic interpretive methods which were repudiated by the reformers. So, having introduced allegory as a valid rhetorical use of scripture, the rest should come quite easily. I've already reference allusion (as in "out of Egypt have I called my son"). There is also an interesting case in Ephesians 4 where Paul perhaps deliberately changes the quoted text for rhetorical effect. I'm not sure what to call that, but I have seen the same tactic employed by modern preachers. Perhaps in the future I will endeavor to more exhaustively catalog all the rhetorical uses of scripture in scripture. As I have said previously, the study of these modes of rhetorical use of scripture in the New Testament cannot inform a normative hermeneutic. What can be gleaned are ways in which our own preaching and teaching can be enriched by following the models of the biblical authors. The question of a normative hermeneutic can be answered in two ways: 1) by examining the exposition of the Old Testament in the New; 2) by determining if there can truly be more than one hermeneutic (not just scripturally, but in general).