Friday, 21 September 2007

A Clarification on Childs

I would like to make a series of propositions about B.S. Childs:

- Childs is NOT a postmodernist
- Childs is NOT into reader response theory

- Childs is NOT a narrative theologian

- Childs does NOT privilege the MT to the exclusion of LXX

- Childs has NO vested interested by virtue of his dogmatics to seek unity in the Bible at the level of the text

- The diachronic dimension is of EXTREME importance in Childs' canonical approach

- The world 'outside' the text is of importance to Childs' approach

- Childs does NOT read the Old through the lens of the New

I find it frustrating how often these misunderstandings are perpetuated. If you read detached extracts from Childs then it may be possible to come to these conclusions, but if you look at the big picture these myths are relatively quickly dispelled. The perpetuation of such misunderstandings are probably due to the misreadings of Barr and Barton, who are used as the lens through which to read Childs. I strongly suggest that anyone interested in criticising this figure should at least read his responses to these constant accusations, many of which he had already clarified before the criticisms were made in the first place. If people don't have the time or inclination to sit through his works, then I would strongly recommend reading the latest and most thorough defence of his position by C. Seitz in his 2006 article “The Canonical Approach and Theological Interpretation”, in which he goes point by point through each of the common critiques brought against Childs. After personally attempting to grapple with Childs on his own terms, I honestly believe that there is no one who has understood what he is actually about as well as Seitz, let alone defend or critique him (a close runner up would be Levenson in his article “Is Brueggemann really a pluralist?”). I'm almost willing to post a photocopy of his article to those who want to read it!


Phil Sumpter said...


once again, thank you for your imput. An important issue to be clarified is that Childs, Frei and Hays are different. I've already made this clear (haven't I?) with my citations of Childs to the effect that extra-textual reality is significant, that the issue of referentiality can not be swept aside (contra Barr), that the NT cannot be a lens for reading the Old etc. Just because Childs endorses one historical and hermeneutical analysis by Frei, doesn't mean that he endorses his whole hermeneutical programme. We seriously need to differentiate. That is something you are not doing when you lump them altogether under the title of “theological exegesis”. There is diversity here and we need to be attentive to that. I don't know what your constructive proposals would be (the only propositional approaches I know are Warfield, R. Raymond, W. Grudem etc.), but it is clear that you too are doing “theological exegesis” and so are part of the dialogue. Hays doesn't define you out of existence, he simply makes a personal proposal, which he points out is subjective and possibly wrong and which he submits to the world for scrutiny. He is not dogmatically excluding those he disagrees with, so the best way forward on his terms is to dialogue with him.

As for your reading of Frei, you'd have to back up your criticism with some kind of evidence. I find his analysis extremely intelligent, preceptive and most of all detailed. Where I am at at the moment in the book, he is going into detail into the hermeneutic of Luther and Calvin. This is hardly the approach of someone who would just paint all pre-critical exegesis with one thick brush.

I can't speak so much for Frei and Hays, but in general authorial intent is not rejected out of hand. Rather, it is the claim that authorial intent exhausts meaning which is rejected. Childs also talks of the significance of the author, although as a hermeneutical construct (Moses, David) rather than as a historical figure in whose head we should try to enter (the P source, poste-exilic redactors).

As for 'narrative hermeneutic', I don't see how the genre of a text is irrelevant to its interpretation. A narrative hermeneutic, which looks at the implications of the shape and function of the text in order to understand its 'meaning' is not the same as a narrative alethiology, which makes a big philosophical jump about all narratives. The two need to be differentiated! The alternative to a storytime alethiology is not to read everything propositionally. Rather, a dialectic needs to be maintained in which each text is taken on its own terms (something Frei also points out). The question is how does a narrative refer to etxtra textual reality. The relationship is not simple, but it certainly isn't a matter of propositional-or-not. A “flight from propositionalism” would of course be the opposite extreme. I'll discuss the exegetical dimension of this under point six: the dialectical understanding of history.

I don't get what you mean by a “theology of the Word”.

Making a biblical theological a post-structuralist project doesn't make it wrong. They could just as easily say that you are making biblical theology a modernist project. Evaluation depends on the strength of individual arguments when tested in light of the subject matter.

As for Childs being reader response, I made a comment about this on another blog here. He quite manifestly isn't (though the dialagogue goes on there too ...)

Phil Sumpter said...

I should probably point out, John, that the frustration expressed in the post is not against you but in general. I've had few of these kinds of conversations. Still, your angle is different in that you are still interested in theological interpretation.

John C. Poirier said...

After posting about Frei and Hays yesterday, I realized that what I wrote sounded harsh--perhaps even unprofessional. But I would invite you, as you work through Frei's book, to seriously weigh the things he says and ask whether they're really as he represents them to be or if perhaps he's stacking the deck in his favor. I've read through Frei's book at least three times (particularly because I was trying to give him the benefit of a doubt regarding the faulty connections he appeared to be making), and each time was a more depressing experience than the last. I'll provide specific examples as my situation allows.

In the meantime, I can give you a quotation by someone who thinks along the lines of Frei: according to Harold H. Oliver: "In pre-rationalistic mythic awareness, the differentiation of 'historical truth versus falsity' was not fundamental; this distinction had not yet become the defining characteristic of belief, as it did with the advent of Rationalism" (*Relatedness: Essays in Metaphysics and Theology* [Macon: Mercer University Press, 1984] 11). This seems to me to come close to one of Frei's fundamental presuppositions. But is it at all true? Not in the least. The very structure of Christian belief, from the very origins of Christianity, has always been quite obviously dependent upon the distinction between historical truth and falsity. In fact, Paul's whole point in 1 Corinthians 15 is an invoking of this distinction. I suppose one might get out of this by insisting that Frei is saying something different, but I don't think that's the case. It really appears to me that Frei is exploiting the over-willingness on the part of so many to assume that the Enlightenment changed literally everything.

When you say that you have made the point before about Childs's insistence on the extra-textual reality of the Christ event (or of God's involvement with history in general), I'm certainly aware of that. But Hays does the same thing: he insists, very urgently, on the necessity of the extratextual reality of the events, but the fact that he invokes a hermeneutic grounded in a storytime alethiology makes it all go for naught. If we are to embrace the hermeneutic that Hays wants us to embrace, we will wind up with a docetic soteriology. (Unbelief in the historical reality of Christ isn't the only sort of modern docetism [contra the impression given by Adam's *SJT* article against Kasemann]: embracing a system that makes the historical reality of Christ a non-factor in alethiological matters is also a form of docetism.)

When you write that the only propositional approaches you know are those of Warfield, R. Raymond, and W. Grudem (and etc.), I get the feeling that you don't understand what I mean by propositional. What about Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Aquinas, Irenaeus, etc.? Or what about Dodd, Jeremias, Lindars, etc.? They believed that Jesus Christ died (a proposition), was buried (a proposition), rose from the dead (a proposition), ascended to the right hand (a proposition) ,and sent the Holy Spirit (a proposition). They also (most of them) believed in the virgin birth (a proposition), etc, etc. When Luther and Calvin read the gospels, they assumed that what the gospels were saying was historically true, and that in fact if something in the gospel didn't happen just as it was told, then that part of the gospel could not be called "true". That is propositionalism. It's does not observe the borders of the narrative genre at all. Do you think, for a moment, that Luther, Calvin, or Wesley would have accepted the idea that the biblical text meant one think at one time but came to mean something else at another time (in terms of its true, religious meaning--not simply how it happened to be read)? Of course not. I'm not saying that I'm happy with everything Luther and Calvin say (I'm a Wesleyan), but I don't think that they would have given Childs a sympathetic hearing.

You write, "A narrative hermeneutic, which looks at the implications of the shape and function of the text in order to understand its 'meaning' is not the same as a narrative alethiology, which makes a big philosophical jump about all narratives." My only problem with this is that, by "narrative hermeneutic", you are assuming that I was talking about a purely descriptive account of how narratives function semiotically, with a built-in delay in their mimetic function. I was in fact referring to a narrative-theological hermeneutic--that is, one that assumes that a text's meaning lies perpetually in its narrative, so that it at no time should be linked to extratextual reality (or what Frei calls the world "behind the text"). Yes, it's true that there's a mode of narrative-*critical* analysis that is alethiologically equivocal, but I wasn't referring to that. I was referring to those who point to the presence of a narrative genre and then make the unwarranted jump to a narrative-theological hermeneutic. Even Evel Knievel wouldn't attempt a jump like that, but Hays in fact tries it in several of his books.

Let me say that I appreciate your posts. I would in fact be happy to learn that Childs is not guilty of all of Barr’s accusations. Please bear with me if I sound catty at times. I don’t have the time I normally have to take to remove the unprofessional flourishes from my posts.

Timothy Goering said...

thanks for those clarifications. I also sometimes wonder about the amazing misunderstandings people can develop when criticizing Childs.

sweeping through your comment, one thing caught my eye - your comment on propositionalism.
There are two points I would like to make: 1)I feel that precisely what you criticize about Childs, I find to be his greatest strength! You are right - Childs does not deal with the biblical text the way that Calvin, for instance, does. I feel that the reason for this is that the field of theology has revolutionized in the 19th and 20th century. Calvin obviously reads and comments on Isaiah or Exodus differently than Childs because both approach the text from two different schools - Calvin is pre-modern and therefore does not have to deal with documenatary hypothesis or redactional criticism! Childs does not deny the value that certain critical tools possess and therefore is careful to apply them correctly. Therefore, for instance, he undersands that the historical Isaiah cannot have been the author of the entire canonical book. However (and this is what I love about Childs), he is at pains to make sense of the text as it is - despite the dynamic development it experienced!
So if you criticize Childs for not being propositional (and I'm not quite sure if this really is the correct word) - then I wonder who at all can be a propositional and equally faithful theologian at the same time? Maybe only pre-modern theologians (=evangelicals?)?
2) It sounded to me as if you were implicitely saying that Childs did not believe that "Jesus Christ died, was buried, rose from the dead", etc. etc. For all I know (and I am sadly aware that I have not read everything Childs has ever written) Childs in fact DID believe all of this.

Sorry for being so brief and maybe vague. Hope to be able to reply again sometime.

John C. Poirier said...

Ah (to quote Inspector Clouseau), now we are getting somewhere.

Your latest response, I think, opens up some avenues that will help me explain things a little more clearly (I hope). You point out the difference between what the text says and what the reality behind the text is (*viz*, the likely realities disclosed by documentary hypotheses, etc.). The important question at this point, I think is this: Given the separation between what the text says happened, and what actually *did* happen, which one is theology supposed to build on? In my view, theology must build on what actually happened, and *not* on the text's claims (except insofar as those claims are historically accurate). My understanding of Childs is that he is saying something very different. Thus, on my view, I would deny that Christianity is really a book religion at all! Frei insists that we must pay attention to the meaning of the text and not to the world behind the text, but it is precisely the world behind the text that matters. Now you say (rightly, I'm sure) that Childs cares more about what really happened than Frei does, but exactly what, in his view, determines what Christians should believe? Is it what the text says, or what really happened? *That* is the question.

You might respond by saying that we cannot know that the apostolic kerygma is true, except on the authority of Scripture. While it is true that every religion needs an *a priori* that must be accepted on faith, my point is that, for Christianity, the *a priori* is not the biblical canon as a whole, but only the propositionalist core that stands at its center: the apostolic kerygma.

Timothy Goering said...

I enjoy the way you express your thoughts perspicuously.

I have two points: 1) As someone who has been brought up on a postmodern diet, I would have to say that it is theoretically highly difficult to attain ANY true venue to the past. As a history student I am constantly reminded that Ranke's "wie es gewesen" is easier said than found. History is so complex and multiplex that it seems impossible to ever truly comprehend it.
Further: even if we COULD be definitely sure about the past - the past we can reconstruct would then have to lead us to discard many parts of the Bible!? This gets messy very quickly. Jesus Seminar seems to pursue what you suggest - find out what actually happened, without letting any dogmatical (and thus biblical) categories impinge on the reconstruction. This would lead us down a tricky road of disregarding MANY passages in the New and Old Testaments because they are not 'historically true'. This seems to prove difficult.
2) Why can we not read the text as an expression of a certain community? I must confess that I am here very influenced by dialectic theology - but I believe Barth or Bultmann, for instance, had important things to say in this concern, even though I definitely AM NOT in agreement with everything they said. But I believe an existential access to the Bible can prove helpful.
What do I mean? The authors of the gospels were not trying to write an exact historical account of Jesus, but rather a theological expression of his life. By trying to read the text in an exact historical mode, without any dogmatic categories is per se not possible: but both are intertwined! We can read the text with the question: what is this text trying to communicate to me existentially? rather than: what actually really happened behind the text? Reading Daniel or Genesis this way can only prove frustrating.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Phil:
Let me express my admiration for the clarity of your thought and writing. Your comment at the top of the thread here is a model of clarity in tackling a complex topic.

• (quoting Oliver) In pre-rationalistic mythic awareness, the differentiation of 'historical truth versus falsity' was not fundamental; this distinction had not yet become the defining characteristic of belief, as it did with the advent of Rationalism."

I haven't read Oliver or Frei. (I'm neither a pastor nor a theology student; just a guy with a regular job and a family who pursues theology on the side as time permits.). But I suspect you misunderstand the statement quoted.

Can something be true without being historically true? Of course it can. That is precisely how I understand most of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The Deluge, for example, can be unhistorical and yet affirm important truths about God, sin, the human race, judgement, mercy, etc.

In my view it is perfectly plausible that the ancient writers and readers understood the distinction I'm making between true and historically true. For example, the creation account borrows language from the world of pagan mythology: not in agreement with the pagans, but as a conscious act of subversion. Even so, we're left with an account of creation that is communicated in mythological language. Didn't the author (and later editors) know that? Of course they did! But the account still conveys fundamental truths — even if the account is not necessarily historically factual at every point.

This is not to affirm that it is 100% unhistorical. Personally, I believe there was a first human being, Adam, whose first sin had catastrophic consequences for humankind and indeed all of creation. (Maybe I'm wrong and that, too, is mythological; I can live with it either way.) Thus this becomes a subject of legitimate investigation: what elements of the biblical texts must be assumed to be historical, and which are we free to regard as unhistorical (but nonetheless true!).

I agree that the resurrection must really have happened, and I am strongly inclined to think that it must be understood as a bodily resurrection. But there are exceedingly few events that are cornerstones of the Christian faith, such that the faith stands or falls on their historicity. If a "propositional" approach to theology means that it all has to be equally historical, that raises the bar exceedingly high. It places Christians constantly on the defensive, trying to prove that this thing and that thing (e.g. Jonah's miraculous bush) "really happened", on the assumption that the survival of the faith is at stake each and every time.

My God, surely we have more urgent tasks to which God has called us to direct our energies!

In my view, theology must build on what actually happened, and *not* on the text's claims.

And how do we know what happened? — by means of the texts' claims.

Theology can't build on what "actually" happened, because we have no access to what "actually" happened. Theology can only build on the texts' claims, because the texts' claims are the only thing we have at our disposal.

James Pate said...

One thing I'd like to say is my experience with Childs on the relationship between the OT and the NT.

Several years ago, I read Childs' Biblical Theology in Crisis. I vaguely recall that he was looking at Psalm 8 and Hebrews' use of the passage. He was actually reading Hebrews in light of the original meaning of Psalm 8 (at least that is how I remember it)--to express Christ taking on the finitude of human nature. That is something I try to do--to read the New Testament in light of the old. This does not work in every case, since the NT authors may not have had the original meaning of certain OT passages in mind. But it may work in other cases. The sacrificial system lasted up to the time of Christianity, for example, so maybe Christians had that concept in mind when they commented on Jesus. Hebrews, for instance, distinguishes between intentional and unintentional sins, as does Leviticus.

Also, Childs used Jewish commentaries in his Exodus commentary. I heard Jon Levenson himself point this out when we were reading Barr's critique of Childs.

There are things about canonical criticism that I do not understand. In Biblical Theology in Crisis, Childs seems to acknowledge the importance of original context in reading the OT. But if he is using Rashi, then he seems to focus more on how the text was used as sacred Scripture, something that doesn't necessarily focus on context. So when is original context important, and when is it not? And how does Rashi fit into Christian canonical criticism?

Ian B said...

Comments from a somewhat confused crusty conservative...

First of all i must confess my ignorance: i am not a theologian or a philosopher, though i have a passing knowledge of both. I'm interjecting here to make a general point which you are all free to ignore completely, and some slightly more specific ones because the discussion has strayed into areas i do have some specialist knowledge in- History and the Theory of History.

First of all to say that again i congratulate Phil on what he's trying to do here. I have found reading this blog fascinating- but, i must also admit, somewhat depressing. This brings me on to my most broadbrush comment, designed mostly simply as a thought-provoker. in the week or two since i've read this blog, i have to admit that the only persons comments i have consistently been sure i understand are John's, who it seems is the most "conservative" amongst you. This fits in with my general experience in History and Theology, and it causes me to ask a very basic question: Can the world, and such a basic function of human existence as communication, really be so complex as to be impossible to truly begin to understand without several years of specialist postgraduate education? Timothy described John's comments as "perspicuous". The postmodern perspective on language and communication seems inherently anti-perspicuous, totally alien to normal human experience and the way human society actually functions. I admit this is an "instinctive" objection rather than an academic one.

I also think that in both Theology and History, i would challenge people to consider what their belief in the necessity of postmodern approaches are based on. It was suggested above that the Evangelical approach is "Pre-Modern". My question is, is your belief in the validity of Post-modern approaches and critical tools based on a belief in their truth (however you define that) or their academic usefullness, or simply because they are Post-Modern? Personally, i see no evidence from everyday life, history, philosophy or scripture to assume that what is believed in the 21st Century must be superior to that believed in the 17th. Or even that Western culture and/or academia in general may not be fundamentally mistaken in the 21st century, and more fundamentally correct in the 17th. I don't necessarily say this is so. Simply that "chronological snobbery", to use C.S. Lewis's phrase, is an inadequate basis for any decision. I also don't deny the existence of "progress" in culture or knowledge. Generally speaking, human cultures have progressively acquired more knowledge and understanding of the world through time. But this has not always been a steady or consistent process. As a historian of the Early Middle Ages in Europe, i have spent a lot of time countering the still popular notion that with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Europe descended into darkness, anarchy and total ignorance. Nonetheless, it IS true that between AD 400 - 700 a vast amount of knowledge was lost from common cultural use, and ways of thinking about the world became far more simplistic - and that European culture probably did not reach a level of technical and cultural sophistication to compare with Late Antiquity until the 16th C, at least. Certain conservatives have already christened the "postmodern" trend of modern academia as "a new dark age". i don't say i fully endorse that, but neither do i reject it as impossible in principle. My rejection of postmodernism in my own field (History), the only area i have done any extensive research, is due to both its effects on the discipline, and to its dissonance from human experience in general.

To move on to History, and explain my last statement further. Timothy wrote

"I would have to say that it is theoretically highly difficult to attain ANY true venue to the past. As a history student I am constantly reminded that Ranke's "wie es gewesen" is easier said than found. History is so complex and multiplex that it seems impossible to ever truly comprehend it."

My issue with this, and with Postmodern Historians in general, is that, to me at least, it seems that it may be "theoretically difficult" - but it is only "theoretically" difficult. John Tosh makes the point well in his "The Pursuit of History": "in theory an impeccable case can be made for the proposition that all human language is self-referential rather than representational. But daily life tells us that language works extremely well in many situations where meaning is clearly communicated and correctly understood. On any other assumption human interaction would break down completely". He then makes the point that if language can function for meaningful communication today there is no logical reason why it did not in the past, or cannot communicate between past and present: "to maintain that no text from the past can be read as an accurate reflection of something outside itself flies in the face of common experience". Logically, there are no absolute grounds for saying that a text written last century (or 2 millennium ago) is in a fundamentally different category from one written last year. This brings me to the fundamental issue i have with "Postmodernist History": if Postmodernist History "is ideology" (K. Jenkins), then it is not History in any way in which the word, or the discipline, has been understood in the last 3000 years or more. Of course, thats an option - Keith Jenkins suggests we "can do without History"- but most historians - and others - don't want to abandon the entire concept of any meaningful knowledge of the past. The radical concept shift is the same as that John mentions in the context of theology and propositional truth. He mentions Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, Irenaus,Wesley, Dodd, Warfield etc. Similarly, while i realise its the kind of statement that may infuriate many of you, i will state my belief that Herodotus, Thucidydes,Bede, Geraldus Cambrensis, Gibbon, Ranke, Acton, A.J.P Taylor and R.J. Evans could all sit down and discuss History, because they all believed that what they were writing about referenced an external reality they all believed existed and could be accessed to some degree. I'm not sure Beverley Southgate, Keith Jenkins or Frank Ankersmit would be intelligible to any of them...

Anyway...I think i've lost my thoughts, my apologies. perhaps some of this will have made sense.Last year i wrote an essay for my Masters on "Can History live with Postmodernism?". If anyones interested in where the discipline of History is going today, i can send or post that or parts of it.

Ian B

Timothy Goering said...

Ian B.,
thanks very much for your thoughts. I have been dealing with Pomo myself for quite some time now. If you're interested you can take a look at my thoughts I blogged down, not too long ago.
Does Postmodernity have anything to offer Christianity? (1)
Does Postmodernity have anything to offer Christianity? (2)
Postmodernity and Christianity in Childs and Wright

I would like to comment on your thoughts about Evangelicalism and the pre-Modern period. I do not believe that we need to accept every theory that comes around the corner, just because it's new! Every theory needs to be tested and reappraised - it needs to prove itself.
However, the development of a field of knowledge (here theology) should not be underestimated. I am not saying that the development necessarily is always progressive, but it is a good thing to keep up with the recent flow of knowledge. In health care, for instance, this goes without saying - but in theology it for some reason does not.
I believe that a theologian should not approach the Bible with the same tools as a pre-Modern theologian because there have been too many advancements and findings in the field of theology over the past few centuries. That is not to say, however, that the 21st century theologian is a BETTER theologian than the pre-Modern theologian!
Let me get specific: Childs is not able to approach Isaiah the same way Calvin once did. With Wellhausen's theses (even with all of his many deficiencies), and Duhm's discoveries, Chlids cannot claim that historical Isaiah is the author of the entire book. Calvin, who is obviously pre-Wellhausen and pre-Duhm never loses a thought about this authorship and its theological implications. However, with that I am not saying that Childs is the better theologian than Calvin (and Childs would be last to say the same).
Now, when I say that Evangelical theologians (and I mean the normal mainstream Evangelical) are pre-Modern in their approach then I do not intend to mean this in a pejorative sense but rather in a more historical/theological sense (but I really need to watch my tone here - I was a strong believing Evangelical for roughly 20 years myself!).

Hope this might have clarified things a little.

John C. Poirier said...


When you write that you “would have to say that it is theoretically highly difficult to attain ANY true venue to the past”, I would respond that it’s all a matter of degree. There’s always room for a hypothetical doubt, but historians deal in reasonable doubts, and the proper controls can many times help us to know certain aspects of the past beyond a reasonable doubt.

But, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it is very difficult to know anything about the past. Would that justify trading in our theorizing along the lines of a subject/object dichotomy for some other way of conceptualizing the real world? Of course not: applicational encumbrances cannot trump logical necessities. We cannot reconceptualize the world in the direction of an intersubjective paradigm just because that paradigm offers us the type of epistemic closure we crave.

And, concerning the number of passages in the Bible that would have to be thrown out, as you suggest: some might, but certainly nothing on the order of what the Jesus Seminar suggests. But even if it were, that wouldn’t affect my understanding of how things should be done, because, as I said above, applicational encumbrances cannot trump logical necessities.


I actually agree with much of what you say. It is of course possible for a biblical text to be true without being literally true-—but to move from literal to figurative is not to defect from one alethiology to another, if, in fact, the figurative meaning is thought to be intended by the author. For a text to be “true” in the sense you say is to be representative of extratextual reality in *some* way—-in a way that precludes an alethiology of storytime actuality. The flood story might speak to a different truth about God than a claim about an actual flood, but, even so, that truth is not subject to readerly revision. It’s true prior to the act of reading, and it cannot change just because the Christian community changes in its understanding of it. Thus the truth that you are describing is also (in alethiological terms, which is what matters for my argument) propositional.

You point out that “there are exceedingly few events that are cornerstones of the Christian faith”, but that is actually my point. I’m not saying that “all has to be equally historical”—-I’m merely saying that that handful of things that must be historical (and it’s really only handful) must be judged “true” on the terms of a spacetime alethiology, and that that fact puts a spacetime alethiology in play, so to speak, for the determination of everything within the purview of Christian theology. Christianity is primarily a creedal religion. It is only secondarily (as in “derviatively”) a scriptural religion.


Thanks for your support. I agree with what you say about postmodernism.

Phil Sumpter said...

Wow, thanks guys! I hope it's OK at this point to respond to each of you and perhaps tie some central themes together. Before I continue, I should just note that I added a new proposition to my list: Childs is NOT a postmodernist. There are certain features of his theology which sit well with postmodern approaches, such as the recognition of human cognitive finitude, knowledge acquisition as a communal process of dialogue and self-critique, the need for epistemological virtues and correct 'positioning' etc. Nevertheless, he rejects moves to make philosophical theories normative for theology and as a result rejects the theological approaches of Brueggemann and G. Steins for being theologically inadequate. In this light, I can agree with John's eloquents phrase from below concerning the postmodern critique of our epistemic abilities: “applicational encumbrances cannot trump logical necessities. We cannot reconceptualize the world in the direction of an intersubjective paradigm just because that paradigm offers us the type of epistemic closure we crave.”. Childs bases his canonical approach on historical argumentation! Though ultimately, issues of history, alethiology and epistemology cannot be separated, which is why Childs can draw productively on postmodern theory when it helps.

On with my responses:


I'll do as you say and read Frei critically. However, I am surprised that you find a similarity between your Oliver quote and anything Frei (or others who are into 'theological exegesis') have said. The Oliver quote looks more like an anachronistic 19th century anthropological theory of primitive mentality, rather then a theory of how to read a narrative. Of course, as you say, Frei goes beyond narrative hermeneutics to a “narrative-theological hermeneutic” which makes claims about the status of theological truth, but that's not the same thing as saying that premoderns couldn't differentiate between historical truth vs. falsity! I don't quite see what they have to do with each other. His fundamental presuppositions are outlined at the beginning of the book, where he says nothing of the sort. What he talks about is the theological need of Christians to relate the totality of a diverse canon to the unity of human existence, and thus the need to develop a system of figurative reading to bridge the divide while still maintaining the particularity of the texts. I haven't got to the part where he makes any 'alethiological' claims concerning what Christians should believe, but that is not the force of the book anyway. It's contribution is the way our hermeneutics helps or inhibits our extraction of meaning from a text, regardless of what value judgement we make of it.

I also don't see Hays doing this in my post. Point 3 (historical study is internal to the practice of theological exegesis) should protect against such a hermetically sealed hermeneutic. In the article he goes on to say that “History therefore cannot be either inimical or irrelevant to theology's affirmations of truth. The more accurately we understand the historical setting of 1st-century Palestine, the more precise and faithful will be our understanding o what the incarnate Word taught, did and suffered” (p. 12). Where does he say that whatever happened 'outside' the text is irrelevant for our faith? Childs would agree with this, though in a more nuanced, complex and satisfactory way.

You say, by the way, that the distinction between historical truth and falsity is pointed out in 1 Corinthians 15: but what do you do with the repeated reference to “according to the Scripture” (vv. 3 - 11). This events are significant, not just because they happened, not just because a random figure died, rose again and now sits at the right hand of God. That would all be very shocking indeed, to be sure, but that wouldn't necessarily mean much to anybody unless he had a framework in which to make sense of it. That is, for Paul, the story of the Old Testament. This is absolutely central for Paul, as well as for us in our understanding of the gospel. The nature of the accordance between Jesus and the Old Testament is understood in the New Testament not in terms of individual 'proof texts' or the discrete intentions of historical prophets but rather in terms of “the larger Scriptural depiction of God's plan with the world”. This larger depiction consists of law and narrative, which in their present inner-arrangement, unlocked by the principles of intertextual reference and typology, had the power to reveal God in Jesus to the authors of the New Testament. That insight is the major contribution of scholars such as Frei, NT Wright, Hays, Watson etc. Chris Tilling's blog is full of this kind of stuff.

In short, of course the resurrection had to happen for our faith to stand. I (and Childs, Seitz and Hays agree with you!!). But this proposition is naked and fairly useless without the extremely significant OT metanarrative to make sense of it. And more then make sense of it! The complex web of intertextual reference and the practice of figurative interpretation within the boundaries of the canon enable the ancient stories to function for us today as a fresh word of God, no longer tied to the past as mere historical documents. The narrative dimension functions to enable the texts to be actualized in the present. As such, the issue cannot be reduced to an 'either or' of theology based on history or theology based on narrative: we need both; without one or the other we'd either be left with some interesting documents to human ingenuity or be left blinking at some bizarre occurrences, waiting for us to fit them into whatever interpretive framework we feel like to make sense of them (something the Gnostics did, who necessarily abandoned the OT to do so). Childs expresses the 'tension' by saying that history is significant for Christian faith, but history itself is not revelation per se.

This is why I like Irenaeus' rule-of-faith: it's so comprehensive. It's not just a bare description of a few events, but a story of God's plan of salvation from Creation to New-Creation and how Christ fits into it.

The question at the exegetical level is how do we hold in tension this relation between history and 'myth', or poetry, or whatever? I'll get to that when I discuss point 6 (dialectical understanding of history), but I think Stephen's comments are spot on. Whether you agree with his exegesis or not, he's operating within the realm of the tension between history and narrative. What we need is sensitivity to the broader theological picture (the rule of faith, which is more then Jesus' death and resurrection) as well as atttentiveness to the particularity of each text.

In this light, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Aquinas, Irenaeus, etc were also not 'propositionalist' readers. The propositionalism which you are talking about is a matter of “what happened” and its significance. We all agree on that (at least as far as the basics are concerned). But all the writers you mentioned make great use of the sensus plenior, allegory, an existential dimension that transends the literal sense of the text. If you are a Christian and believe that the text is the living word of God then I don't know how you couldn't.
Finally, what biblical theologian can you recommend that reads the Bible entirely propositionally? I can't imagine how it would be done. What about poetry, apocalyptic? Why is there narrative in the first place? Why didn't God give us a Bible consisting of a string of propositions to be believed? If cognitive content is the be all and end all of Christian faith then surely the Christian Bible is oddly designed?

By the way, I don't find you chatty at all. You are articulate and get your point across well!


thank you for contributing!You are right to point out that Childs is wrestling with the legacy of historical criticism. The very fact that he is doing this shows that he is not postmodernist, as many postmodernists would just ignore the results of historical critical inquiry and say that their work is of a different order all together. In fact, the historical grounding of Childs' canonical approach is a testimony to his belief in the significance of the world outside of the text and the impingements that historical reality make on our interpretations. I wouldn't, however, call modern Evangelicals “pre-modern”. Evangelicalism has had a lot of bad press, but it is a diverse phenomenon. The negative versions which appear in the press (see the video clip on my 'religious archaeology' post) actually make the mistake of being modernist!

Concerning your statements about not being able to have ANY access to the past, I think I would have to say it depends on what past you are reconstructing and what material you have. As far as I understand postmodernism, it doesn't say we can know anything with certainty, just that we can't know exhaustively. For some this means certainty, but there are different types of certainty and postmodernism doesn't reject them all. In sum, I think it's about 'quality' of knowledge rather than 'quantity' of knowledge, which is decisive in a religion which has discipleship and mission at its core.

You wrote: ”We can read the text with the question: what is this text trying to communicate to me existentially?” This is very important to all theological appropriation of the a text which is not to remain locked up in the past. Of course, how we do that is another matter. This is dealt with by Childs in his section on the move from text to subject matter in his Biblical Theology. The canonical approach is a practical alternative to Bultmann's legitimate concerns.


hello again! One more point: you said: “exactly what ... determines what Christians should believe? Is it what the text says, or what really happened? *That* is the question.” It should be clear, based on what I said above, that you are proposing a false dichotomy here (as is the dichotomy between Christianity as creedal/scriptural: it's 'both and'!). Meaning in general, the meaning of the Bible in particular, and Christian theology, cannot be reduced to external events which somehow intrinsicly bear meaning. Once this is grasped, separating a propositionalist core from the rest of the canon, while possible, becomes problematic when it comes to figuring out the significance of the reconstructed events. This is exactly what Liberalism did, fitting the reconstructed events into its own cut-to-fit metanarrative that told its own story of Western Europe's ascent to enlightenment. NT Wright's intro to his The New Testament and the People of God does a great job outlining the significance of 'story' from a historian's perspective, and a critical realist one at that (he too critiques Frei in the same way Childs and Sternberg do)!


thanks for the compliment and don't worry about your professional status. I wouldn't have guessed that from what you've said, and I'm just a beginner too. I've commented on your contribution above as well as the quote.

I would just point out that John's approach does not necessarily demand that the entire Bible be propositional, because he defines Christianity as a 'creedal' rather than a 'scriptural' religion. Truth is at the level of the “witness” rather then the text, so he is able to let parts of the text which don't fit the creedal basis 'fall away' (in whatever sense, probably by assigning it to the historical rubbish dump as mere 'annal', i.e. no longer of significance to our faith other then as an interesting document of what people thought then). I think this is a concept of having a canon within the canon, a basic principle which allows him to remove bits which don't fit. Käsemann used a similar method to historically remove bits of the Bible that didn't fit his definition of what was the 'authentic' gospel. I for my part follow Childs and believe we need to think harder about the complex, dialectic relation between the two, rather then opt for an 'either or' (see above).

Finally, you wrote: ”Theology can only build on the texts' claims, because the texts' claims are the only thing we have at our disposal.” This is theoretically not true. With the use of comparative religion, archaeology etc. you and work about a balance of probabilities about what happened. Literary analysis can reveal tensions in the text which imply multiple authorship as well as the presence of various conflicting ideologies within one narrative (i.e. the J and P source in the Pentateuch). On John's model, one would have to work all this out, figure out who wrote what, when and for whom etc., then use the results as a lens to reconstruct what actually happened (i.e. what really happened with Moses and the dead sea, from a historical and not from a Scriptural perspective). Theology would then be based on what happened, rather then what the text says. That this enterprise is highly subjective and ideological is true, but in principle one could possibly try and do it, and indeed many have tried. A classic example would be the American 'Biblical Theology Movement' (you can read Childs book about this online here:; he invented the phrase). I think Brueggemann's statements that “there is no Yhwh outside of the text” is more theological one about how God has chosen to reveal himself, rather then a general epistemological one about whether we can reconstruct history or not. He actually agrees with a lot of the standard historical critical conclusions concerning the text, he just wouldn't base his theology on them.


thank you for your comments. I've just posted a link to the book to refer to, so you can double check on Childs' readinf of Ps 8. He doesn't read Hebrews 'in the light' of Ps. 8 and thus make that reading normative. He reads Hebrews as it stands, with its own independent voice (and reads it's own, idiosyncratic interpretation of Ps 8 as part of that voice). He does the same for Ps 8. He then makes the theological move of seeing what happens when the two independent witness are juxtaposed, i.e. as two different voices witnessing to one extra-textual reality. Therefore, he ultimately reads Hebrews in conjunction with Ps 8, not in light of it. To do otherwise would be to make the mistake of Hays who turns the NT into a lens for reading the Old, as if the interpretation of the apostles of their own Scripture is greater then the voice of the scripture itself. In this model, then, it is theoretically possible for Hebrews to have a platonic twist, which is then held in theological tension with the Psalms strong creational emphasis. Hays would try and iron out this tension by arguing that Hebrews is not Platonic (not that I actually believe that Hebrews is Platonic myself, it's an illustration of differences in approach).

As for the role of 'original context', I ask that you follow my posts, as I don't want to pre-empt what I will say there here. Please feel free to bring up the criticism again! In the meantime, I recommend C. Seitz's article in my post.


great to hear from you! I think some clarification of postmodernism is in order (though others will be far better then I at this. Check out Timothy's links and my comments above). My understanding is that it does not negate the possibility of meaningful communication. That would be ridiculous, as how could Derrida et al write their books in the first place (they would not be so inconsistent to miss that point out)! Derrida would not say that the statement “please sit here” is so complex as to have no real use. Postmodernism is more about that status of our truth claims, rather then our ability to use language to achieve things in the world. We cannot know an object exhaustively because our interpretation of the world takes place within broader frameworks that already organize the information for us. The problem is at the level of discourse, rather then direct propositions. The proposition “Jesus rose from the dead” is practically meaningless without a context in which to situate it, and as the various contexts shift so does it's meaning. When Paul says “Jesus is Lord”, we can't understand what that means without understanding the politial metanarrative of the Roman empire at the time, or the general story of yearning expressed in multiple ways in the OT. Of course, Postmodernism also includes us readers in the process, so we to read these propositions in our own contexts. The framework of many evangelicals today is such that the resurrection is actually rendered meaningless, because they believe in a body/soul duality. All that matters is that Jesus died for my sins so that my soul can go to heaven. What does one do with bodily resurrection in this interpretive framework? It becomes nothing more than 'proof' that Christianity is true, because at the level of our discourse there's no more space for it. Nevertheless, all Christian would certainly cognitively consent to the proposition that “Jesus rose from the dead”. That is hardly doing theology however.
The same applies to history. I doubt that Jenkins would say that we can't be relatively sure of whether German lost world war two, or whether Charlemagne built a church in Aachen. What matters is what we do with these propositons at the level of discourse, into what kind of interpretive framework do we put them. Or more to the point, what kind of framework do we already have before we open our eyes to read, such that we assume it really represents the way things actually are in the real world.

Childs' scepticism about historical reconstruction of the OT is less about postmodern deconstruction and more weariness with its actual impossibility. Most would agree today that such historical work is practically impossible today. But that is a problem of sources, not of the ability to talk about historical probability per se. I'm sure Childs would be a lot more confident about reconstructing medieval history, and even more so about the French Revolution. I should also point out that Childs' canonical approach was NOT developed as a replacement of historical criticism, as if he thought “well, we can't do it anyway so let's try something else”. His historical analysis led him to see that the function of the text as scripture for a particular community in time was a significant dimension of the text, which should have implications for its interpretation, especially by those who claim to belong to the same community.

Postmodernism is also not the latest fad which is true because it's new. It is often presented a return to an older view of the world before the Enlightenment interjected, while still taking into account what the Enlightenment claims. As such, it enables modern interpreters to appreciate the work of Jerome, Cocceius, Luther, Rashi etc. in way that modernism couldn't. Timothy nicely points out in his post on modernism's obsession with rationality and 'smoothness', and the exegetical effects this Aristotelian heritage has had on our reading. The return to something older is nicely expressed in his statement that ”'Text' regains its original meaning: textus (woven cloth, web).. However, I do not think that modern Evangelicals are pre-modern. Those who use Warfield as a starting point are automatically making a modernist conception of truth the organizing framework for how they read the Bible. As such, Postmodernism enables us to reconnect to a more traditional form of Christianity, to which Luther and Calvin belonged more then Warfield.

By the way, I'm not sure John is the most conservative among us. His hermeneutic would lead to the excision of large chunks of the Bible which a narrative hermeneutic could work with, as well as the rejection as meaningless of the ways the New Testament reads the Old, which was manifestly not author-centred or historical. The focus on history as the location of 'real' meaning was a basic factor that drove liberal protestants to tear apart books like Isaiah in order to find out what the real prophet actually said.

Final comment: John, reader response and storytime alethiology are not the same thing (I know you invented the term, but I think I understand what you're getting at). Narrative theology would still hold to the contours of the text as a constraint on interpretation, whereas reader response focuses on the the reader's context as a lens for reading the text. Of course, there is diverstiy amongst 'narrative approaches' (e.g. Frie vs. Sternberg), but they connot be simply equated.

John C. Poirier said...


Thanks for your response. I’ll comment a bit on some of your points.

You write that Frei “talks about . . . the theological need of Christians to relate the totality of a diverse canon to the unity of human existence”. I’m not sure if you’re alluding to the anthropological “half” of narrative theology, which says that human identity does not lie in reside in a spirit or soul, but rather in the narratives that we all live. This is another worrisome aspect of narrative theology. In Frei’s case, in particular, it is based on Gilbert Ryle’s ghostless anthropology. How any Christian could read Ryle’s book (*The Concept of Mind*) and think that what he says there could be fitted into a Christian scheme of things is beyond me, but, then again, how Frei can say most of what he says is beyond me! As I see it, Ryle’s ghostless anthropology (which provides the shape of Frei’s anthropology) leaves no room for most aspects of the New Testament’s soteriology. (But perhaps I misunderstand what you are talking about.)

You say that you haven’t gotten to the point in the book where Frei makes his alethiological claims. If you mean *openly*, you never will get to that point, as it isn’t there. In fact, Frei probably was never aware of what his alethiology was. My point is that he, and other narrative theologians, implicitly trace out a particular alethiology when they affirm aspects of a readerly hermeneutic (whether it’s an individual-readerly or ecclesial-readerly hermeneutic). As soon as Frei says that readers should not look behind the text for its meaning, you, as the reader of Frei, should pick up that an alethiology has indeed been put into play, even if Frei doesn’t notice the fact.

When you write that Hays’s third point “should protect against such a hermetically-sealed hermeneutic”, you’re making the same mistake again. Hays doesn’t explain *how* to combine his openness to history with an invoking of an ecclesial hermeneutic (particularly one that is elastic across changing sensibilities and understandings). I find it instructive that his short section on history names a concern to connect with the first *readers*, rather than with the writers.

You also ask me what I do with the “repeated reference to ‘according to the Scripture’” in 1 Corinthians 15. “Making sense” of something is an epistemic task. It’s the events themselves, together with their metaphysical effects, that matters for the ontic questions at hand. From the *provision* side of the soteriological formula, it’s the events and *not their interpretation* that matters.

You write that the “proposition [of the resurrection] is naked and fairly useless without the extremely significant OT metanarrative to make sense of it”. It might be “useless” for the task of understanding, but not for the infinitely more important matter of God’s being in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self.

You write “If you are a Christian and believe that the text is the living word of God . . .”, but I would balk at this formula. For me, the text is not the “living word of God” but rather the “word of the living God”. (I realize that the “Word” is said to be “living” in Hebrews, but I don’t think that a reasonable exegesis of that verse would support your meaning.) By the same token, I reject the idea that the Bible presents a “fresh word of God” to us. In spite of how appealing that idea might be, it is unsupported by the text and is little better, in my opinion, than bibliomancy.

Finally, you ask “what biblical theologian” I might “recommend that read the Bible entirely propositionally”, as you “can’t imagine how it would be done”: “What about poetry apocalyptic, . . narrative?” For this, I would refer you to my remarks to Stephen (above) regarding my use of “propositional” as an alethiological category. Poetry, apocalyptic, narrative, etc. can all be read propositionally in the sense I use the word, so long as we read them to get at the author’s meaning.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• John:
Thanks for the clarification. I've been following the dialogue between you and Phil with interest. It's obvious that there are parts of your exchange that I simply wasn't "getting" initially, but I'm beginning to understand your position more accurately now.

• Phil:
First, a quick comment on my background. I earned a Bachelor of Theology degree from an unaccredited evangelical Bible college back in the 1980s. Since then, my education has been self-directed, but it has taken me far beyond the humble Bible education I got there.

I was an evangelical church pastor for four years, and involved in parachurch work for another six years. Now I am established in a "secular" occupation, but theology remains a compelling personal interest.

I have put in a lot of hours investigating New Testament questions — in particular, the synoptic problem and the quest of the historical Jesus — and then applying that information to the task of interpretating of the New Testament documents. The conclusions I've reached aren't entirely orthodox, although they're not so far out by comparison to your typical liberal theologian (as if there's any such thing!).

I've just begun to shift my attention to the Old Testament documents. I quickly recognized that Brueggemann has reached conclusions similar to those that I arrived at as a consequence of my NT studies. Hence his immediate appeal for me, although I've barely dipped a toe into Brueggemann's writing.

Second — returning to the dialogue on this post. I'd like to bring together two comments you made, one to John and one to me.

To John, you argued that the events of salvation history must always be interpreted. (I completely agree!) To me, you argued that we aren't entirely thrown back on the biblical texts, because we can use the tools of historical investigation to try to suss out what "actually happened".

I am completely onside with respect to the tools of historical criticism, familiar to me through the NT studies I've done. And, as you point out, Brueggemann likewise takes the results of historical criticism into account.

As I understand Brueggemann, he concludes that historical criticism only takes us so far — not nearly far enough to constitute an adequate base for Christian faith. At that point we are thrown back on the texts.

Historical criticism may begin to tell us what "actually happened" — John's compelling interest — although even then, it cannot finally answer a lot of significant questions. (E.g., what do we really know about Moses with any confidence?) But historical criticism can tell us little or nothing about the meaning of those events. (I appreciate your remarks on this topic — well said.)

At that point, we are thrown back almost entirely on the texts; or at least, the texts in dialogue with our personal experience of walking with the living God.

Are you in agreement with that analysis? I get the impression that you and I are not so far apart, but clearly you have a more nuanced view of these matters than I do.

John C. Poirier said...

The question has been raised as to whether my views are the most conservative within this discussion. I don’t care whether I win that distinction or not, but the question, I think, is instructive in that it matters how we define “conservative”. If “conservative” means “most congruent with accepted views within popular Western piety”, or “most evangelical”, then I would say that, no, my views are not particularly conservative. But if “conservative” means “most congruent with the implications of the apostles’ teaching”, or “most guarded against all forms of docetism”, then I would say that, yes, my views are the most conservative. It’s all a question of whether one starts with the apostles or with the Reformers.

Phil Sumpter said...


don't worry about having attended a non-accredited seminary. As Timothy said above, being the most 'critical' or most 'academic' doesn't automatically make you the best theologian. As for your comments, I don't see anything to disagree with. Keep up the reading, it's clear you have a good grasp of the issues (I feel so pretentious saying that – I myself am struggling to stay above water! But hey, from my perspective that's what it looks like). I'm trying to understand the differences between Childs and Brueggemann myself, which would at some point mean going back to his work again. Three years ago I read his Old Testament Theology, a book on prophetic imagination and another (very intereting) book by the name of The Bible and Postmodern Imagination. Since then, I've come to appreciate Childs' angle more, though I think that they are to a degree doing different things. Childs' approach is more appropriate if one wants a normative reading of the text, Brueggemann helps sensitize one to the nuances of the text and the reading process itself. But I can't see that his 'descriptive' approach can go beyond description. Childs brings in the concept of authority in a more theological way then does Brueggemann.


a brief response as I will indirectly answer what I think is the issue here in my next post. It seems that the problem lies in differing doctrines of Scripture, which are connected with our understandings of the nature of truth.

You say that Hays does not “explain *how* to combine ... history with an ecclesial hermeneutic”. But neither do you. You insist that 'meaning' is somehow intrinsic and present in the events themselves, something I cannot grasp. How do you interpret the events themselves, detached from the texts which witness and interpret them? How can “God reconciling himself to the world” have any meaning apart from human comprehension of it? What does it look like? Would I recognise it if it happened in a test tube? You say concerning Hays that you “find it instructive that his short section on history names a concern to connect with the first *readers*, rather than with the writers”. But according to your 'spacetime alethiology' it is irrelevant whose perspective is involved, either the original authors or the people he was writing for, as the primary function of Scripture is reportage, where that which is reported is where the real meaning is located. The perspective of Paul, Isaiah or whoever is irrelevant as meaning is located in 'raw' history. This is why I find it hard to understand your emphasis on authorial intent. Surely it is irrelevant if Jesus' actual dying and rising is what matters and not what the apostles saw and understood.

A question: If Jesus died and rose again in a forest, and nobody saw it, would it matter? Would it be salvific? This seems to be what you mean when you talk of spacetime alethiology. If we dug up a more reliable report of events from a third party source, perhaps a Roman scholar who was more aware of the necessity for dispassionate, objective reportage, would his account be more authoritative then Luke's? Could we incorporate it into the canon, because it describes in more scientific detail the actual events themselves? I honestly cannot imagine how one can separate event from interpretation, or the meaning of an event from its reception by humans. In this sense, the Wikipedia definition of 'alethiology' as the study of the nature of truth which I posted below far more comprehensible. Can you provide an alternative quote which defines alethiology in the way you use it?

You wrote: “As soon as Frei says that readers should not look behind the text for its meaning, you, as the reader of Frei, should pick up that an alethiology has indeed been put into play”. I have a problem with Frei on this point, as do Childs, Seitz, Frei and Hays etc.(as I've said). But this is hermeneutics, isn't it, not alethiology? Alethiology would go one step further and say that the truth of the text is the real truth. You could agree with Frei here and say that genuine truth is still behind the text, and thus have a low view of the ability of that text to broker that truth.

Additionally, the function of the Old Testament for the apostels is more then making sense of the events (though that in itself is central), it validates their interpretation of the events. The question of the early church was not “can we hold on to the OT in the light of Jesus” (i.e. event determines the validity of the text), but “can we believe in Jesus in the light of the OT” (i.e. the text validates our acceptance of the event, namely Jesus is the King of Israel). Once again, event and interpretation are inextricably linked (I'm also not sure if they were asking 'ontic questions'. God's plan of salvation involves more then revealing metaphyscial realities!).

I should add that your definition of Christianity as a 'creedal' rather than 'scriptural' religion is also an epistemic statement, as you assume an epistemological theory of how we are to access the truth of the events, i.e. despite scripture rather than via it. Without some kind of bridge between the reality and our personal lives their can be no faith at all.

You said: “the text is not the “living word of God” but rather the “word of the living God”. I wasn't thinking of Hebrews when I said this, but of Isaiah and the prophets. I get back to that in my next post.

I'm afraid I haven't heard too much about a 'ghostless anthropology', apart from certain NT scholars pointing out the non-Jewishness of the concept of a body/soul dichotomy. In any case, my comment on Frei was hermeneutical, not anthropological. It was about how Christians, by necessity, are forced to read the Bible figuratively, an interpretive move which preserves the literal sense as well as enabling it to speak to new situations beyond the original. This has nothing to do with identity.

Final point, you say that you start with the apostles (which, in the light of what I've said above I find hard to understand – you seem to want to start with uninterpreted events which contain intrinsic meaning, so that even the Apostle's perspective is irrelevant). But why not start where they started, i.e. with the Old Testament?

Please keep on hammering away if you feel I've misunderstood you. This all helps me to analyse the situation more closely and understand things better. It's hard work but it's worth it!

John C. Poirier said...


Thanks again for your response. I'll keep hammering away.

You write that I do what I accuse Hays of doing: failing to "combine . . . history with an ecclesial hermeneutic". But I *don't have* an ecclesial hermeneutic! Nothing in Scripture suggests to me that the Church has any sort of hermeneutic privilege.

I think I need to back up and explain the relationship (as I see it) between *truth* and *meaning*. They are not (contra Frei) one and the same. Truth is a correspondence between a proposition and the reality it describes. Although a proposition can only be clothed in language, that does not imply that *truth* is a linguistic commodity, in the sense of being epistemic in some way. Truth is *not* epistemic, as the correspondence of a proposition and the reality it describes is not dependent on there being a knowing subject. (In fact, I can be telling the truth when I think I'm not!)

It's kind of difficult, on the terms of the intentionalist semiology I accept, to determine whether *meaning* is epistemic or ontic. I have decided, after some consideration, that it is *ontic*: there *is* a definite (determinate) meaning that stems from the intending communicator, irrespective of how well or how poorly that meaning is communicated. Of course, meaning is not always *true*--someone can say and mean something that is a lie.

Years ago, Wimsatt and Beardsley raised the interesting question of whether a purely coincidental pattern of sand digs (on a deserted beach) that happen to spell out a "message" conveys a meaning. They say "yes", but I say "no": *meaning* implies *intention*. The proposition that is coincidentally spelled out on the beach, however, *is* susceptible to being judged as to its truth value, in spite of the lack of an intending subject. So "meaning" inheres in the relationship between the intending subject (e.g., writer) and his/her message (e.g., Scripture), while truth inheres in the relationship between the propositional aspect of that message (e.g., a scriptural claim) and the reality it describes (e.g., the Christ event, Paul's shipwreck, the Temple cult, etc.).

So why do I tie a spacetime alethiology to an intentionalist hermeneutic, if, in fact, meaning and truth are two different things? If we consider three hypothetically possible loci for meaning--viz. the author (i.e. an intentionalist hermeneutic), the text (i.e. a formalist hermeneutic), and the reader (i.e., a readerly hermeneutic)--it should be readily apparent that only the first two provide a purchase for the correlation of meaning and a spacetime alethiology, as the third locus makes meaning indeterminate (or nonexistent) at the level of the pre-interpreted proposition. I'm assuming, of course, that religious meaning can only be intended to be *true* meaning. On the terms of a spacetime alethiology, therefore, meaning can be either intentional or formal, but it *cannot* be something *that changes*. If truth is spacetime actuality, then a meaning that changes cannot be true across the range of its varying shapes, but at best can only phase in and out of truth. I take this to be a severe problem for any bibliology that allows the meaning of Scripture to evolve.

Anonymous said...

Everybody, thankyou with your patience with a theological and philosophical novice. I have some thoughts on postmodernism as it relates to language and to religious faith-choices that i would like to share, but once again it has got too late for me. Perhaps tommorow. For now, a couple of comments.

Timothy, your blog posts on Postmodernism and Christianity are fascinating, and i have been mulling them over for the last 2 days. Hopefully will be able to respond very soon.

Phil, I realise more and more that part of my problem is that my major encounter with PoMo in action (particularly in my own field, History) has been not with the creators and masters of the field (Foucault, Derrida, Saussure, Lyotard) etc, but rather with their devoted but considerably cruder followers. I have read Lyotards "The Postmodern Condition" and bits of Derrida, but my major exposure to Postmodernism in action in an academic field has been such writers on History as Jenkins, B. Southgate, etc.

"I doubt that Jenkins would say that we can't be relatively sure of whether German lost world war two, or whether Charlemagne built a church in Aachen."

I regret to say that, basically, he would and does. He would probably reluctantly admit that in practice we can can be sure that Germany lost WWII, but i suspect would be happy to cast doubt on Charlemagne's responsibility for Aachen. For Jenkins, historical facts are a dubious idea, and ANY recording of the events of the past(whether a modern historians works or the contemporary sources) is simply an ideological powerplay. " History is theory, and theory is ideological, and ideology is just material interests". Or when faced with the question if any interpretation can be ruled illegitimate (in the particular example under discussion in the source of this quote, Holocaust Denial), he responds :
"if there is no way of saying an account of what took place is factually true, then what is to stop any account, if it has the power to get away with it, to say that its facts represent/constitute the truth? In other Might Right?... it seems difficult to claim this is not the case... Philosophy may have to come to terms with this situation".

Perhaps those of you who have been steeped in and perhaps truly understand Postmodernism can also understand that when us novices find people like this at work in our particular specialities, telling us that everything we try to do is no more than a naked power-grab with no relation to any external reality, let alone any truth-search, we become wary of Postmodernism!

Similarly, you write

"Nevertheless, all Christian would certainly cognitively consent to the proposition that “Jesus rose from the dead”.

But there are prominent leaders in certain Christian Churches who would not consent to that proposition - at least not in any way that most people would recognise as meaningful. And that, i suspect, is one of the major reasons why conservatives have a tendency to react emotionally to anything that appears to weaken the authority and perspicuity (in the broadest sense) of scripture. (btw, apologies John, if you were offended by my suggesting you were a conservative. I meant simply that your approach seemed most comprehensible to me, someone whose very limited theological training has been from a conservative Reformed Evangelical standpoint).

Anyway. Some observations. Hopefully a more coherent response will follow.

Phil Sumpter said...


Once again, thanks for your well thought out and clearly formulated ideas. We’re entering into a philosophical realm now in which I am weaker then you. I would love to hear the views of other experts on the issue of the linguistic (or not) nature of propositions and their relation to ‘truth’ (Timothy, Scott?). I think I get where you are coming from when you want to emphasis the basis of Christianity in an historical event. Your theory that truth consists in events and that propositions have the power to broker those events would preserve that. However, as I’ve written in my latest post, Christian ‘truth’, or ‘theological truth’ involve more then pointing out facts. That is, at least, what I’m trying to get at in my thread on the authority of Scripture. There is a disciple-making dimension that is more then just pointing out facts. The kind of truth you are emphasising belongs, perhaps, in a scientific project, but I find it hard to see how it belongs in a theology class or church. The Hebrew word for truth (emet) includes ideas of covenant faithfulness, rather than just factual description. The English word even had this meaning, with its etymological connection to ‘troth’ and ‘to betrothe’ (which is connected to the German word treu and Trauung, meaning ‘faithful’ and ‘wedding’). Jesus said “I am the truth, no one comes to the Father except by me”. Whether your theory that language has the power to broker pure, unadulterated facts is right or not, it is not the same as the biblical understanding. The philosophical discussion is surely interesting, but what I’m talking about is truth that matters for Christian faith and the implications that has for our understanding of Scripture. I can’t believe that the great theologians of the church ever worked with such a stringent definition of truth.

I should add that Childs and Seitz do not believe that the meaning of the texts were simply changed to meet a new situation. That is a misreading of their position and is more appropriate for the ‘canonical criticism’ of J. Sanders. As I say in my post above, it’s about adding depth, range and scope, not contradicting the original ‘proposition’. The idea of sensus plenior is well established in Christian circles, as is the practice of figurative reading to get the text’s real meaning. Does Jesus’ statement that he is the true manna contradict the original meaning of the Exodus narrative? How does it relate to it? What should Christians do with the OT text, after reading Jesus’ account?

I didn’t mean to say that you don’t combine history with an ecclesial hermeneutic, I meant to say that you don’t provide a bridge between the past a present, which is necessary for Christian faith to exist at all. Your comments on the nature of propositions serves to bridge this gap, though I think inadequately given the nature of Christian truth.

Some final thoughts on your use of authorial intention to guarantee the prepositional referentiality of Scripture. Propositions have no meaning independent of a context. Discourse is determinative for understanding the meaning of its constituent parts. As such, it is impossible for the meaning of any text to be solely reducible to a string of independent propositions. Rather, they are dependent on discourse meaning. Discourse is, of course, tied up with authorial intent. The author drew upon his linguistic resources to do something, to achieve a communicative goal vis-à-vis a listener/reader (cf. speech-act theory). This is not, however, the same as providing a correlation between “meaning” and a “spacetime aetiology”. Your attachment to authorial intention doesn’t guarantee you the epistemic closure you seek.

I think a lot of this discussion boils down to looking at specific exegetical examples, which I hope to come to in due course. Please correct me if I’ve misunderstood you!


Thanks again for your thoughts. I too, unfortunately, have mainly accessed postmodernism through other people’s presentations of it. At first I was seriously disconcerted by it. In cultural anthropology (my first love) I wasn’t quite sure what to with statements like “there is no such thing as objective truth” and “reality is culturally constructed”. I think, though, that these statements are not quite as radical as they seem when put into context. I was helped by the following Evangelical books which put things into perspective: Beyond Foundationalism by Grenz and Franke, Graven Ideologies by Bruce Ellis Benson and The Fall of Interpretation by James K.A. Smith. You should give them a peek. Grenz is a Baptist theologian, and he’s also written a book called Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?. I was also helped by hanging out with a Christian philosopher who was very much into postmodernism.

The Christian’s who reject the resurrection don’t do it because of postmodernism. The theory may help them to construct an alternative theology, but it doesn’t have anything in it that would make one decide either way. The Conservative assertion of biblical authority doesn’t do anything to guarantee the resurrection, because the concept of ‘authority’ is also open to interpretation. The simple assertion that everything is literally true is one way to counter it, but it soon runs into problems. The question is, what is the nature of biblical authority? There can be an authority that takes into account postmodernisms deconstruction of the autonomous self, which emphasises the Holy Spirit and the value of tradition.

I look forward to your further comments!

Final note, I’m back in England with the parents for a week. This means I may not be able to write too much or too regularly. I’ll be back home on October 3rd, where I should be more reliable. But I’ll do my best!

John C. Poirier said...


Thanks again for your response. When you suggest moving “truth”, as far as the Bible is concerned, in the direction of a disciple-making function, I wonder whether, in fact, you are talking about what Stanley Hauerwas calls “truthfulness”. It is good and proper to talk about that sort of thing, and I would agree that it’s a central element in the Bible, but we must be careful not to assume that it is really something alethiological. “Truthfulness” is not “truth”. (Hauerwas himself purposely elides the difference: he uses the centrality of “truthfulness” as a way of doing in the sort of *truth* that historical criticism seeks to establish. I realize, of course, that if you are not doing that sort of thing, as Hauerwas clearly is.)

In some ways, I feel like we’re back at the beginning of this whole discussion. When you suggest that biblical “truth” is not all that much concerned with spacetime actuality, you’re back at the point where I jumped in and tried to explain that it is the kerygma, and *not* any aspect of intratextual reference within the Bible (or changing dimensions of the Church’s reading of the Bible), that determines the operative alethiology for Christian theology. I also pointed out earlier that competing definitions of the *word* “truth” (such as that gleaned from *emet*, or from what Jesus says about *aletheia* in the Fourth Gospel) are irrelevant for our understanding of truth, as the alethiological implications of the kerygma would remain in place even if we used some other word (other than “truth”, that is) as a handle for what are talking about. You write, “what I’m talking about is truth that matters for Christian faith and the implications that has for our understanding of Scripture”, but that has been my point the whole time. The truth that matters for the Christian faith is the spacetime actuality of the Christ event, and that fact renders, for our understanding of Scripture, a hermeneutic based on spacetime actuality as the criterion of truth.

I disagree with your rejection of a necessary link between “meaning” and a “spacetime alethiology”. While it is possible for meanings to range very wide of spacetime correspondences, that is *not* possible when an emic approach to *religious* meaning is assumed, as such meaning must be assumed, at the outset, to be true on the terms of whatever alethiology governs that belief system.

Also, I’m not seeking epistemic closure at all. I’m very aware that knowledge is always partial and imperfect. You say that “Propositions have no meaning independent of a context”, but that is only in the sense of “meaning” as a readerly commodity, as there is always some amount of slippage in what words mean. That slippage impacts how one *understands* a proposition, but *not* the content of the proposition itself. When authors write, they put determinate propositions into the public realm. The difficulty that sometimes gets in the way of understanding what the author meant is an epistemic encumbrance, but the meaning of the proposition is “delivered”, so to speak, prior to that moment. Authors refer, and if they are poor communicators, or if their readers are poor readers, then the act of communication will not be as successful as we might hope, but the meaning of the words is not in the least affected. The goal of reading is to recover that meaning.

Phil Sumpter said...


As mentioned above, I don’t have too much time to write today. I’ve also just lost everything I’ve just written, so I’m even less motivated then I was a minute ago (my parent’s computer is archaic!)!

I feel that this discussion could be more fruitfully carried in the context of Childs’ concrete proposals. A lot of the issues here, such as your beliefs that authors put prepositional truths out into the public realm, belong to more broader areas, such as general hermeneutics (discussed in books such as Vanhoozer’s Is there a meaning in this text? and Cotteral’s Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation). I would rather discuss these as they come up in concrete situations, rather then remain in the abstract, as here.

Concerning your claims that “alethiological implications of the kerugma”, and that “The truth that matters for the Christian faith is the spacetime actuality of the Christ event, and that fact renders, for our understanding of Scripture, a hermeneutic based on spacetime actuality as the criterion of truth.”. I have already responded to that in my latest post on “The Function of Scripture”. Could you respond to my concrete proposals there as well as justify your particular interpretation of the centrality of an uninterrupted kerygma for Christian faith in the light of them? I would be fascinated to see what you have to say, as I find it hard to imagine a faith based on uninterrupted facts, especially given the fact that even the creedal summaries of the “substance” of Christian faith are narrative in form (in the sense of the cumulative presentation of a theme).

I look forward to hearing more from you.