Saturday, 20 October 2007

Ancient Typology in Genesis 22?

As is known (in certain quarters at least), B. S. Childs wanted to develop a 'biblical theology' of the entire Bible grounded in a close exegesis of the texts themselves. In other words, he wanted our broader dogmatic claims about God and the world to be justifiable in terms of the Bible texts. Here he is faced with the problem of the particularity and foreignness of the text. How can one move beyond the horizon of the Old Testament to our own day?

In his writings in general one can see that his response to this problem is heavily influenced by Hans Frei's work on figurative reading, i.e. pre-Enlightenment Christianity saw the biblical text as describing the real world, which experience tells us is "single world of one temporal sequence" (Frei, 1974: 2). Therefore, Christianity was driven to assume that there must in principle be one cumulative story in the Bible to depict it. The unity within the diversity was assured by means of typology, "a way of turning the variety of biblical books into a single, unitary canon"by weaving the various biblical stories together into a common narrative "referring to a single history and its patterns of meaning" (2).

My question is whether Childs is arguing that this process was already taking place at the redactional level of the text, such that contemporary figurative reading is in essential continuity with the way the text came to us in the first place. In his OT example of "exegesis in the context of biblical theology" (Genesis 22.1-19) in his 1992 Biblical Theology, he makes what I consider to be a key statement to his whole understanding of the 'canonical process':

It is my contention that this multifaceted text has been shaped through its lengthy development in such a way as to provide important hermeneutical guidelines for its theological use by a community which treasured it as scripture. By carefully observing how the editors dealt with elements which they deemed unrepeatable (einmalig) but which they reckoned to be representative or universal in application, a basic hermeneutical direction is provided by which to broaden theological reflection beyond the Old Testament" (1992: 326; italics mine).
He illustrates this by reference to 'canonical clues' in the text which point to the dual dimension of the final form of the text as incorporating both particularity and universality within itself. The story of Abraham is unique, yet its editorial connection to the repeated trope concerning the promise of seed connects the story to a broader framework which can be seen to encompass us; the editorial addition of the superscription "God tested Abraham" likewise connects a unique occurrence to a more generalisable principle, one that echoes throughout scripture and again can be seen to encompass us; the word play on "the LORD sees" and "the LORD is seen" could refer to a kind of expansion of the unique story to Israel's broader experience of God in that place; finally, resonances with Levitical sacrificial rites, somehow, 'typologically' connect Abraham's experience to Israel's later cultic system.

My question is: is Childs trying to find evidence of Frei's work within the text itself? Is the redaction history of the text an example of typology in process? For me, the key phrase in the quote above is that this move within the text provides a basic hermeneutical direction, which we should imitate in the context of the final form.


Stephen (aka Q) said...

I appreciate you exploring this topic, Phil. Although my blog boldly announced that I was going to explore the possibilities of narrative and rhetorical criticism for hermeneutics, I still don't know much about either! It remains a goal of mine, but I'm not about to realize it any time soon!

I mention narrative criticism because that's how I would classify your highlighting of those elements of the text. I agree that those techniques are conscious and intentional.

I also agree that it is appropriate to read the text on two levels: its unique significance in the life of Abraham and Isaac, and it's relevance to the life of a person of faith at any subsequent point in history.

If I were to set out to challenge your methodology, I would ask two questions. (1) What do we do when historical criticism casts doubt on the historicity of a given event? What are the implications of non-historicity for hermeneutics — are there any?

(2) What do we do when scripture points us in contrary directions, even in its final redaction? Is that also a "canonical clue"? Does it provide a "hermeneutical direction, which we should imitate in the context of the final form"? That is, do tensions within the Bible give us tacit permission for the Church to accept a range of opinions even on core doctrinal matters?

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your questions, Stephen. It's good to get some mental stimulation on these issues. I'm obviously struggling myself, so I hope that my response will make some sense.
also agree that it is appropriate to read the text on two levels
The interesting thing for me is that, at least in this case, the move beyond the horizon of the original 'author' is provided for by the text itself. Thus, to read the Akedah in the context of the broader narrative of Genesis is in a sense to comply with the wishes of the redactors. As these traditions are taken up in later texts, and we read them in concert with each other, we are continuing a process that began in ancient history. I wonder how Brueggemann makes the jump to a second level and how he justifies it?
What do we do when historical criticism casts doubt on the historicity of a given event? What are the implications of non-historicity for hermeneutics — are there any?

When you ask in the first question “what do we do”, I'm not sure if you mean hermeneutically or in general. The theological question is large, and will be touched upon when I get to my section on the 'dialectical' nature of history. I wonder if one could formulate this in terms of Riceour's hermeneutics and say that this is a question of the relationship of the world behind the text to the world in front of the text?
Your hermeneutical question is a tad different. This relates to the first conversations I had with John: does the world behind the text matter for how we understand the world inside the text? H. Frei said no, I follow Sternberg (and Childs) who say yes, but not so much. Historical issues can help us understand genre, expectations, motifs, etc. If a text is intending to report an event or not, knowledge of how the event turned out would help us figure out what the text is saying (is is actually propaganda or not, for example). Our very ability to comprehend what a text is saying in the first place assumes knowledge of a shared reality outside the text: we know what camels are and that people ride them to get around. Thus, when we read that Abraham rode about on a camel (or at least had domesticated ones, I need to check again) we know what that means based on our 'historical' knowledge. However, does the fact that camels weren't domesticated at the time of Abraham affect the meaning of the story? I'm not sure. That is for me an open question which needs to be weighed in each individual case. I'm not sure I can make a general rule. However, given that the text can still mean something, even if the event didn't happen, I'm not sure how that effects my post above. It's about the meaning (or perhaps significance) of the story for later generations, not about its happendness per se.
What do we do when scripture points us in contrary directions, even in its final redaction?
That there are contradictions is no doubt true. Thus, for example, did Moses set up the tent of meeting inside or outside the camp? Childs never tries to resolve this at the literary level, he just lets them sit next to each other. Here Childs and Brueggemann are in agreement ... The question is: what do we do with this?
Is that also a "canonical clue"?

The mere existence of tensions in the Bible doesn't in and of itself tell us what to do with them. Their placement next to each other at least tells us to read them in some kind of relation to each other. That placement could be the canonical clue. I think Brueggemann would just leave it at that and talk of competing voices. Childs understands the nature of the text to be different. It is a 'witness' to a reality outside of itself. It has a confessional, kerygmatic function. As such, the reality that matters to faith is not the text per se but its subject matter. The contradictory accounts of Moses and the tent in Exodus, for example, are not reconciled by Childs by reference to a deeper meaning at the level of the story (a literary way of ironing out the tension), nor does he explain it away by constructing a historical scenario behind the text of what really happened (the conservative Christian move), nor does he provide an account of why that is the case (the historical-critical move), nor does he read the texts in isolation from each other as competing, irreconcilable voices (my understanding of the Brueggemannian move). Instead, he reads them as witness to a single reality, the unity of which is at the level of theology outside the text. The two texts tell us something about the office and function of Moses in God's economy, for example (I don't have his actual interpretation to hand. It's in his Exodus commentary).

The 'hermeneutical direction' is provided at the level of the canonical shape of the text. Some traditions were consciously highlighted, others forced into the background. These redactional moves were conscious and kerygmatic, i.e. they had the function of witness to the divine truth which encompasses us all. To ignore that and to highlight material which has been consciously put into the background is to go against the kerygmatic intentionality of the biblical text, in the name of a close reading which mistakenly confuses text with the reality to which it witnesses. I highly recommend you read Childs' response to Brueggemann on this: “Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testmaent: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy” Sottish Journal of Theology (SJT) 2000 53 no 2 pp. 228 – 33 (along with Brueggemann's response: pp. 234 – 238).

I hope that helps to some degree ...

voxstefani said...

Phil, I wish you hadn't changed the text from "as is known" with the parenthetical explanation to "as is well known"! I meant to comment anecdotally on that but didn't, so I take the chance to do so now.

Back in 2001, shortly after finishing my back-to-back reading of BTO&NT, Exodus, and Isaiah, and therefore with my eyebrows still hovering near my hairline, I was having lunch with an Orthodox priest (now a Bishop) who held graduate degrees in Biblical studies. I asked him for his opinion about Child's project of "canonical interpretation," since I was convinced (then as now) of its enormous relevance and promise for Eastern Orthodox biblical interpretation. He eyed me suspiciously for a second, and then said, "Well, we Orthodox don't place as much stock in studying the limits of the canon as Protestants do, so I don't think there is much to learn from canonical criticism." Clearly, he had no idea of what "canonical interpretation" even meant, let alone an understanding of its possibilities in our hermeneutical context! This was disheartening, particularly coming from one trained in Biblical studies--but as you yourself have noticed, this type of response is not altogether exceptional.


Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your comments Stefan, I was wanting to ask you about Childs' reception in the Orthodox church. You're right, I am regularly astounded by the misunderstandings that abound concerning Childs. I think it has to do with the breadth of his approach, he tries to pack everything into a single vision: biblical criticism, dogmatic theology, church history, hermeneutics etc. You're bound to say things that will rub people up the wrong way. I myself subscribed to many of these misunderstandings, even while a read him. It took a while to get an overview. I've just finished the first draft of my thesis proposal, in which I've decided to dedicate my entire doctorate to the working out of the implications of Childs and Seitz's canonical approach.

I had changed the phrase because I had written it out of frustration with conversations I'd had elsewhere. After I wrote it, I realised that certain contributors to this blog may have interpreted that as a dig against them, so I changed the intro (originally I wrote: "As is known - I wanted to say well-known but I'm beginning to doubt that that is the case - ...". I think I'll change it again now!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Just a heads-up: I read Childs's critique of Brueggemann on the weekend, and I have posted the first installment of my response.

Phil Sumpter said...

That's great, thanks. I'll get to it as soon as I can.

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