Wednesday, 31 October 2007
"Ecclesial Context": Brueggemann vs Childs
As Stephen makes his second post on the Childs/Brueggemann debate (clearly taking Brueggemann's side), I make my first. Our common text is Childs' review article of Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament, in which Childs castigates Brueggemann and Brueggemann responds eloquently. My point of entry for evaluating this short dialogue is their common use of the phrase "ecclesial context". Though they both insist that they are taking this context seriously, they understand the phrase very differently. As such, the two talk past each other, and Brueggemann fails to register the full force of Childs' critique.
I should point out that I'm reading this dialogue in light of my broader understanding of Childs' work. He has another shot at Brueggemann in ch. 17 of his The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, as well as pp. 313 - 317, which you can, amazingly, read for free here! Thanks again to Daniel for this.
Both Childs and Brueggemann are concerned about the theological function of the Bible within the church. They agree that the text is confessional, in that it is a testimony to God, and that it is the duty of the church to submit itself to this testimony. As such, the context of their reading is in some sense "ecclesial": interpretation by the church and for the church. But how do they understand the relationship of the Church to its Scriptures?
For Brueggemann, the church represents the contemporary context within which interpreters are situated. It is the reality out of which we do our interpretation. For Brueggemann, this reality becomes the framework that determines how the text should be read theologically. The reality of the church is a broken one, marked by competing interpretations as different elements make their bids for power. Theological interpretation, then, should highlight the 'little', marginalised texts and give them a voice, such that they subvert the dominating texts of the Bible.
Childs, on the other hand, emphasises the church as the addressee of the text. God is the source of the Bible's word, and He wants to communicate with us. The direction of movement is different for Childs. Instead of moving from church to text, he emphasises the move from text to church. Theological interpretation is a response to a prior word which comes from the outside and which constrains our interpretations, pointing us in a certain direction.
In reality, the two scholars recognise both realms: Childs talks of interpretation as a dialectic between tradition and text, Brueggemann talks of the ability of the text to broaden our horizons and help us imagine new possibilities. But I think that ultimately Brueggemann's approach doesn't do justice to the confessional nature of the text before us nor the demands of Christian theology. I think that their differences, and ultimately Brueggemann's weakness, has to do with their starting points.
Let me explain.
Brueggemann's starting point is anthropocentric. He looks at the church, diagnoses its condition, and prescribes a hermeneutic that he believes will enable the Bible to speak to the church. A broken church needs a broken text, one which reflects the reality of our daily experience. His hermeneutic takes this context as its starting point. He constantly refers to this context as "church practice", "the reading among serious believing communities", "the drama of liturgy" and "the pastoral reality of the church". Just as we experience both God's presence and absence, Brueggemann seeks to do justice to these conflicting testimonies in the text. This conflict is his central organising metaphor, as he allocates each position to an unresolvable dialectic between 'core' and 'counter testimony'. Just as our daily experience is contradictory, so the texts are contradictory, and necessarily so, because for Brueggemann it is dangerous to be certain about anything. The irresolvable tension between texts would seem to be God's way of ensuring that we never come to a standstill. Instead, the Bible functions in the church as the place to which we constantly come to be deconstructed and reminded of our particularity.
How does one evaluate Brueggemann? Instead of asking whether the 'lived reality' of the church is really all that bad (I think it is), we should ask whether his proposal theologically lives up to the kerygmatic nature of the texts he is interpreting and the the core beliefs that constitute Christianity.
Childs has provided a challenge to Brueggemann on these points, and offers an alternative which would aim to be 'theocentric' in focus. Rather than the Bible being an inert object, subject to the will of interpreters seeking texts they deems relevant, the Bible has traditionally been understood to be a vehicle of God's communication to the Church from the outside. There is a 'theocentric' force which exerts coercion on its readers, who are quickened by the Holy Spirit. Faithful interpretation involves a response to this theocentric force. The challenge of “wrestling with Scripture” lies in the struggle to acquire the capacity to receive its message. Yet this requires that there is a "semantic" given, something within the text which the reader discovers and submits to. This in fact constitutes the Bible's nature as 'scripture' and is safeguarded by its canonical shape.
Childs backs up his traditional understanding with claims about the nature of the text itself. The texts were formed with the intention "of serving communities of Israel as an authoritative guide of faith and practice". This 'canonical intentionality' involved a shaping of the traditions and texts in a profoundly hermeneutic way. The new literary contexts served to guide future generations into a deeper understanding of their God and his will. Thus, certain traditions were forced into the background and others highlighted; some were placed in contrast, others blended together. However one reconstructs the stages of development, the shaping activity was confessional, such that the structure of the final form of the text provides the boundaries in which the kerygma may be heard. The final form should be submitted to not because it is 'better' or more original or even more profound per se, but because it was designed to function as a critical norm for the community of faith on how the tradition functions authoritatively for future generations of the faithful.
Brueggemann's response to this is revealing for how much he sticks to his anthropocentric starting point. Rather than arguing that these canonical constraints do not exist, he reiterates the fact that 'in the lived reality' of the church mistakes can be made, limitations reached, and suppression practiced. As such, he believes that Childs proposal is, by definition, only one more subjective construal of the facts. By claiming that this is the way the Bible functions, Childs is apparently assuming at the outset that he is right, reinforcing his 'imaginative construal' with the rhetoric of 'canonicity'.
But this response simply serves to reify Brueggemann's own position to a point beyond reproach. It is to take an anthropological description of human fallibility and elevate it into a norm for critiquing theological claims about the way God communicates, despite our infallibility. Childs does not deny the fallible human reality that Brueggmann describes, but he nevertheless claims that there is a voice graciously speaking through that weakness and he proffers his response. The validity of his response should be tested in light of its coherency with the text of the Bible and the kerygma of the early church, before it is rejected as just another 'imaginative construal' among others and not a faithful response to the God of creation. In short, it seems as if Brueggemann makes theology out of social observation rather than out of a first order commitment to scripture.
If Childs' suggestions concerning the nature of the biblical testimony are correct, then it would seem that Brueggemann has done that for which he has accused his historical critical predecessors. That is, he deconstructs the biblical presentation in order to realign it it along another, foreign axis, in this case the axis of core vs counter testimony. This is, of course, to change the message that the Bible communicates. In addition to that, it would seem that the identity of the God of Brueggemann's Bible takes on a very different form. In his system, there can be no move beyond the surface of the text to its true subject matter, which is God in Christ. The God of the Bible is forever unknowable as he is unstable and capricious, something before which the only appropriate response is confusion. It is here, in the identity of the God to which the Bible witnesses, that we see how high are the theological stakes in this discussion.
I'm painfully aware that this summary is overly simplistic. I invite all and sundry to be open to me and tell me I'm missing the point, or that I'm being illogical, or even that I'm on the right track. I'm still learning and appreciate a bit of feedback.
Update: Stephen Cook of Biblische Ausbildung has posted a brilliant review of Brueggemann's Old Testament Theology by Ellen Davis.