Friday, 28 September 2007

The Dynamic of Scripture


I have mentioned that the Bible is a “witness” to divine truth here, and that this revelation is connected with a concrete, historical people on a journey through time here. This journey is presented as a movement into the fullness of truth for the sake of Creation, often understood in terms of prophecy and fulfilment, shadow and substance, redemptive history or the one people of God.


This peculiar relationship between God and his people has left a mark on Scripture, a product of this relationship, such that the text has acquired its own theological dynamic. The process of collecting, interpreting and shaping the sacred traditions was primarily a theological one, in which the sacred heritage was shaped in such a way that it would be able to function as authoritative scripture for those who had not participated in the original events of revelation. It was a profoundly hermeneutic activity. An interpretive structure was given, contouring relationships between texts and setting the boundaries for later generations within which God's voice was to be heard. A “redactioned” or “ruled” reading of the texts, often characterised as “kerygmatic”, “confessional” or “canonical”, was thus required by later generations in order to hear God's word for a new day.


The closing of the canon fixed the shape of the text, focussing attention on the final form. After this point commentary became the accepted means of interpreting Scripture for changing needs.

6 comments:

Ed said...

Many people choke on Childs (Barr and Barton for example) partially, I'm convinced, because they haven't taken the time to really understand what he is on about.

Phil, thanks for a bit sided piece of his wisdom.

Timothy Goering said...

Although I fully agree with everything you wrote - I catch myself wondering at times if I'm not simplifying the whole situation a bit. I wonder at times if this way of viewing scripture may not actually even be a little idealistic.

"The process of collecting, interpreting and shaping the sacred traditions was primarily a theological one, in which the sacred heritage was shaped in such a way that it would be able to function as authoritative scripture for those who had not participated in the original events of revelation."
I fully agree and believe every word. But then...I honestly ask myself sometimes: what if people shaped the text due to political or even morally corrupt reasons? Is that not a very realistic possibility? Is there no case in which me might better question a redactional reworking?

Just some thoughts from a great Childs fan.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I may be the cynic in the group, which is perhaps why I lean toward Brueggemann rather than Childs. I was struck by the very statement that Timothy quotes. I think it is rather naive, or perhaps a conscious act of faith on Childs's part. (Brueggemann would perhaps describe Child's view as "innocent".)

For example, consider how John's Gospel portrays the Jews — probably a relatively late development in the Johannine tradition. And tell me that the motivation was to shape the sacred heritage "in such a way that it would be able to function as authoritative scripture." No, the motivation was clearly polemical: Don't listen to those guys: they are enemies of the faith, children of the devil.

Likewise, Paul's letters are overtly polemical, as he fought off now the Judaizers, and now the Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, or whatever other opponents he faced. The Gospel and the Christian identity were highly contested turf even in the first century, and the New Testament canon reflects it. James and Matthew lean toward law-keeping; Paul and Mark toward emancipation from the law; John presents a palpably higher christology than that of the synoptic Gospels.

I'm not nearly as well informed about the Hebrew canon, but critical scholars certainly describe a similar dynamic. Brueggemann commends the final editors on the grounds that they allowed diverse points of view to be retained in the final text. But that was probably a pragmatic decision: no group had the last word; no group was able to veto the other groups.

The process of settling on a canon was equally contested. Childs seems to depict a harmonious, happy committee somewhere — but no such body ever existed.

Phil Sumpter said...

Brief responses for now, if I may. I hope to be able to respond in more detail in future.

Tim, great point. I used to think that too. I think key is understanding the complexity of the concept of 'canonical process', which I've indicated in my recent post above. 'Theological redaction' does not mean just one method. However, politica and economic reasons are also possiblities. Childs addresses this and says that although such forces were present, they were ultimately subordinated to a religious function. This is contested by others and needs to be verified on the basis of exegesis of individual passages. I'll post a bit more on this tomorrow.

Stephen,

I also refer you to my recent post. I'm not sure how your Jews-in-John example is evidence against theological shaping. It would actually seem to be evidence for it, ie. a literary schematizing of characters so that later readers could understand the message of the Gospel as a whole.

The same applies to Paul's letters. Canonical shaping doesn't mean flattening the witness to one voice. It creates a boundary within which legitimate theological enquiry may proceed. Brueggemann's canonizers were not liberal enough to include the gnostic gospels, so openness in and of itself cannot become a critical interpretive principle when reading the Bible. Boundaries have post positive and negative functions (ie. what can and cannot be read, possiblities are both opened and closed). Brueggemann's fears of a flattening by Childs are misplaced, though more on that later (please keep 'bugging' me on this till I explain it more adequately!). The same goes for Childs' supposed 'innocence'. They both have different starting points and that determines how they evaluate the contributions of the other.

Ed,

thanks for your comments. I believe we've met before, n'est pas? On Chrisendom? We actually had a long chat on this issue of Brueggemann and Childs. Please feel free to comment further!

anthony said...

following on timothy's question: what if people shaped the text due to political or even morally corrupt reasons? Is that not a very realistic possibility? Is there no case in which we might better question a redactional reworking?

child's assumption that the final voice that shaped the sacred traditions and canon was theological has some truth in it.

but as timothy has pointed out, what if it wasn't that simple? what if 'political' considerations held the upper hand in the final decisions what should go into the canon and what should not?

i'm an isaianic enthusiast, spending the last 30 years trying to udnerstand the book of isaiah (which i tell my students 'it is the blackhole of ot studies). isa 56-66 is highly polemical. i take the view of elizabeth achetemeier and others to see a disenfranchized and oppressed group responsible for the text. if their 'opponents' were the zadokites and their followers (including the national leaders), 3rd isaiah and his community obviously crossed swords over who constituted the community of 'servants'.

yet, the amazing thing is that in the end, this polemical piece (isa. 56-66) is still part of the jewish canon. the canon was probably the result of those in power. yet, the latter group did not discard this piece of polemical discourse against them but saw it fit to include into the canon. hence the diversity as noted by stephen even within the NT canon. was the inclusion of this polemical piece a 'political' decision in the end? just to please everyone in the post-exilic period,so we include as many differing views as possible?

Phil Sumpter said...

Great to hear from you Anthony. I was in Cheltenham recently and spoke to Tim Davey about you!

I'm answering your comments (which are an extension of Timothy's) in my comment on my newest post on politics and the religious role of canon.