Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Scripture as "witness" and the "Rule of Faith"

To clarify the structure of the following posts: I will be exploring the concept of 'Christian exegesis' from a decidedly Childsian perspective in terms of what he calls the six constitutive features of Christian interpretation, outlined in my previous post below. I start with "the Authority of Scripture".

The root of the word 'authority' goes back to the word 'author'. The authority of Scripture resides in its ultimate author: God. The Bible is to be believed and submitted to because it is the word of God.

This statement is, of course, incredibly vague. Although the claim that the Bible contains God's word of truth, calling for the "obedience of faith", is widespread in the church, how this conviction has been expressed and interpreted has varied (for a nice example of Eastern Orthodoxy's view of Scripture, see John Hobbins' post here).

Where does one start in order to get a purchase on the implications of this issue? Childs starts by looking at the nature of the texts that we claim to be authoritative. The texts are more then a record of the religion of Israel to be studied phenomenologically. Rather, they contain a significant confessional element, in which Israel offers a "witness" to its experience with its God. This concept of Scripture as "witness" is foundational to Childs' approach and provides the key to understanding his response to the challenges of modernity within the framework of Christian faith. It shall pop up again and again as we try to understand the hermeneutical and theological problems of the relationship between the literal and spiritual sense, the two-testamental nature of Christian Scripture, and the Christological centre of all Scripture. It is thus necessary to define what this means for Childs:

As “witness” the Bible is not a closed self-referential universe but rather a vehicle pointing beyond itself to 'what it is really all about', i.e. the text's true subject matter. The witnessed-to reality can be variously labelled as Scripture's “substance” (res), “Word”, “God”, “Christ”, “the divine reality which has entered time and space”, “Gods one plan of redemption” or “Gospel”. Whatever nomenclature this ultimate subject of the Bible receives, it is the life and sustenance of the church.

Within the early church this "substance" found its mature expression in Irenaeus, who joined all parts of Scripture into a single vision of both testaments as a unified and authoritative telling of the one story of salvation through Jesus Christ. Within this narrative God lives in ongoing relationship with his people, speaking to them of his one plan of redemption as it unfolds throughout history. This very real, ongoing relationship 'outside' the text of our Bible precedes the text, encompasses its development, and continues after its completion until God's final summing up of all things in himself.

The move from "Bible as witness" to Irenaus' rule-of-faith (regula fidei) is in fact a rather large jump. But where does one start otherwise? (see my 'programmatic statements' below). The key is not try and empty one's head and start from scratch, but to choose a place to stand and go from there, in an attitude of humility before the world and text which constrain and challenge our interpretations.

Irenaeus' world is the world in which Childs lives, and by Christian confession we all live. If this creed stands up to the particularity of the text remains to be seen. The main question for now is, What are the hermeneutical implications of seeing the Bible as testimony to a reality that encompasses both the text and its readers, a divine reality which is deeply connected to the real world of time and space, in which the journey of God with his people for the sake of creation is constitutive?

Additional questions: Is this picture clear? Can it be extended to all Christian denominations? Have I misread Childs? Does such a belief system jeopardize our ability to think rationally and read the texts on their own terms?


James Pate said...

It sounds somewhat like Barth, if I understand him correctly.

Thanks for saying that Scriptural authority rests on it being from God. Often, I get the impression that many people miss that. They may say that Scripture is authoritative because a community deems it as authoritative or useful, or they say that an individual makes Scripture authoritative for himself or herself.

Phil Sumpter said...

Childs is very indebted to Barth. In one place he compares him to a Hebrew prophet (in "Interpreting the Bible Amid Cultural Change" [1997]).

As for this proposal, Childs made the link to Barth explicit in his 1964 article "Interpretation in Faith":

"The majority of commentators understand the descriptive task as belonging largely to an objective discipline. One starts on neutral ground, without being committed to a theological position, and deals with textual, historical, and philological problems of the biblical sources before raising the theological issue. But, in point of fact, by defining the Bible as a “source” for objective research the nature of the content to be described has been already determined. A priori, it has become a part of a larger category of phenomena. The possibility of genuine theological exegesis has been destroyed from the outset” (p. 437)

The last point is one of the basic hermeneutical contributions of K. Barth.

John C. Poirier said...

It sounds far too much like Barth, if you ask me--too much like Barth to be as indebted to Irenaeus as Childs wants us to believe. In this connection, it is instructive, I think, that a theologian like Gustaf Wingren can also start with Irenaeus and come to a very different understanding--one that pointedly shows how very un-Barthian the structure of Christian theology was in the second century. So while Childs chooses a good starting point (Irenaeus is a much better starting point than, say, Augustine), he would appear to be bringing a lot of baggage to that starting point, for there's no other way to wind up with a basically Barth-friendly Irenaeus. (Barth liked to make people think that he was working with the same categories as the early Church. He did this by referring to his own work as taking place within a Chalcedonian framework, but Richard Muller has exploded this myth.)

I would also take issue with what Childs says in the paragraph that Phil quotes from Childs's 1964 article. Without getting too long-winded, I'll just ask: How does making the "content" of Scripture "a part of a larger category of phenomena" destroy "[t]he possibility of genuine theological exegesis"? I have had a problem, for a good while now, with this artificially narrow definition of "theological exegesis". Why shouldn't the term "theological exegesis" be allowed to denote any and all exegesis that is theologically focused? Would C. H. Dodd's exegesis in *The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development* qualify as "theological exegesis"? Not according to Childs's understanding. What about Ben Meyer's exegesis in *Christus Faber*? Perhaps only a little of it. In short, I don't think that term is a fair one, as it implies that those who don't proceed in the same way aren't doing theological exegesis when in fact that is often exactly what they're doing. (It's interesting how much of what Childs says here is [coincidentally?] retreaded by Richard Hays in his article in the inaugural issue of the *Journal of Theological Interpretation*. In fact, it's almost spooky that Childs's article is called "Interpretation in Faith", while Hays's is called "Reading with [or through?] the Eyes of Faith" .)

Phil Sumpter said...


once again, thank you for your vigorous response! I see these issues are important to you and so they should be, as they touch the foundations of our existence as Christians in the world.

I'm also delighted to see that you read JTI! I've just received it too, but I haven't had time to dip in yet. Your comments on Hays have inspired me to do so tonight, after this comment. I'd like to know what you mean by the word “ retreaded by Richard Hays”. Hays has often been criticised by Childs and the abstract's claim that Luke is working with a high Christology and is thus in line with later church dogma is not the kind of argument Childs tends to make. Childs' proposals are not based on trying to prove the theological orthodoxy of individual passages, but rather the correct procedure for a theological reading of the canon per se. There is a distinction between exegesis (the literal sense) and dogma (the spiritual sense ... kind of) which ensures the radical integrity of the discipline of exegesis. This is actually the point he makes in his 1964 article. I let you know if they are similar after I've read it.

As for Childs' 'Irenaeian' (?) starting point, that is my own claim based on five months of reading Childs. If Irenaeus says that the apostolic tradition represents the authentic summary (distillation?) of what the whole of Scripture is all about, and that this summary should in turn function as a context out of which to read the individual parts of the Bible, I can't see how this differs to what I've presented Childs as doing. Childs just works out the implications of this dialectic for Christian exegesis (which we'll come to when looking at Scripture's Christological centre). A condition for this enterprise to function at all, however, is that we believe that the various texts do indeed point to a divine reality, which despite all the diversity at the textual level is ultimately a unity at the theological level. Hence the need for the category of “witness”. From what you've been saying about the inadequacy of narrative approaches, I thought you would agree with this.

This is Barth's hermeneutical (not theological) contribution and I'm afraid you've misread the quote.
Here, Childs isn't talking about categorising or not categorising the content of scripture but about the way in which we categorise scripture itself, as a phenomenon to be studied. He presents us with two choices, to see the text as 'source' (and therefore good only for historical reconstruction or sociological analysis) or as 'witness' (and therefore usable for understanding God and his ways). Depending on how you categorise the text, you'll end up reading it in different ways. Gen. 1 as 'source' will tell us something about Israelite religion, Gen. 1 as 'witness' will tell us something about the creator of heaven and earth, who has made himself known in Jesus.

As such, your 'broader' definition of theological exegesis as anything which is theologically focussed is spot on. But it doesn't tell us how to go about doing it. It's a necessary condition, but given the rather vacant term 'god' when devoid of a context, it isn't enough. Hence the particularly Christian God with his plan of salvation as expressed in the rule-of-faith.

John C. Poirier said...

Given your tracing out of the differences between Hays's abstract and Childs's article, I take back the word "retreaded". I just thought that the surface similarities were remarkable, in that both are seeking to define "theological exegesis" by roping off certain gestures as inappropriate, and there is also a certain similarity in their titles.

I thought, from what you wrote, that Childs was invoking Irenaeus. (I've read the article you're quoting, but it's been a while. It's probably in my stack of Childs material.)

I'm actually pleased that you would start with Irenaeus as a guide to the early Church. I think he speaks for the Church in the second century, and, as you note, he provides the language of "witness". (I have quoted him to that effect in an *Expository Times* article from a couple of years ago, called "The Canonical Approach and the Idea of 'Scripture'". I’m sure you would disagree with most of what I wrote there.) Of course, what he says about the OT witness is pretty much the same as what the writers of the New Testament say. But there, again, I don't think we can just take over that view as our own, as the alethiology of the kerygma spoils that option for us. (And certainly I agree with you about the text being a witness in the sense of pointing to something beyond itself.)

I also accept that being a Christian requires one to accept the biblical text (in a way) as a witness to the divine reality, but I would qualify this by saying that, as Christians, we are called to accept the kerygmatic narrative as that "witness", and the scriptural text that preserves that narrative for us as a witness only in a secondary sense.

About my broader definition of "theological exegesis": yes, there's a place for telling *how* to do it, but that place isn't in the defining of the thing itself. (I don't shy away from telling others how they should read theologically.) This is a problem I have with most postliberal projects: they abuse terminology by appropriating what should be public terms and
refitting them with their own private content.

Phil Sumpter said...


I've responded to you above and Scott responded to you on the alethiology post below.