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.

5 comments:

Stephen (aka Q) said...

That's a very well written post, Phil, with an evident desire both to be faithful to scripture and to build up the Church. I don't have a strong reaction against your argument, but I would like to "spin" the same data a little differently.

For Brueggemann, the church represents the contemporary context within which interpreters are situated. It is the reality out of which we do our interpretation. … 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.

I am by no means a Brueggemann expert. But I would simply say that Brueggemann (who is very pragmatic, ever mindful of pastoral realities) is responding to the extraordinary challenge of postmodernity (or late modernity, or whatever one wishes to call this current epoch of history).

I would say that Brueggemann and Childs take the two obvious options that one might take in response to postmodern fragmentation and relativization.

One might simply oppose it, which is Childs's approach (or so it seems to me). One might say, The Church is committed to a stable norm, even if the secular society around us has no such norm. It seems to me that that is Childs's response: a re-assertion of orthodoxy in defiance of the postmodern relativization of all values and norms.

Brueggemann takes a different approach. He recognizes that the biblical text has been exposed, by critical scholarship, as incoherent. He recognizes the results of historical-critical scholarship, which have called into question the historicity of many of the events recounted in the Bible, and also the integrity of the biblical texts. He insists that we cannot go back to a period of innocence, when we could take the texts at face value.

But he sets out to make a virtue of that apparent demerit. He does this by saying that biblical faith has sufficient breadth to accommodate a variety of theological positions and experiences. Experiences include seasons when God's promises appear to be contradicted, seasons when God appears to be absent, etc., which are amply attested in the biblical texts.

Therefore a postmodern person who feels that God is absent, yet who struggles to be faithful to the covenant anyway, can take comfort in knowing that he is not experiencing something unique. The experience of God's absence is not a new, postmodern development. People of faith have faced such challenges and survived them in generations past.

I suspect that each of these approaches has its place, as each will appeal to a certain temperament. You and I appear to testify to that reality. I myself have passed through a protracted crisis of faith, and I find Brueggemann's acknowledgement of the absence of God comforting and reassuring (however paradoxical that response may appear).

Simply to reassert that scripture has a canonical shape, and God is not capricious but ever-present and reliable — that approach leaves me cold. It isn't true to my experience. And I would affirm, with Brueggemann, that it isn't true to the testimony of the biblical texts.

Yes, one must critically deconstruct the biblical texts to see the full weight of the countertestimony to Israel's orthodox confession. But that critical work has been done, and it seems to me that Brueggemann's interpretation of scripture is appropriately alert to the findings of critical scholarship and utilizes them to good advantage.

In one of my posts, I said that the difference between the two exegetes comes down to a value judgement. I don't think Childs's approach can be objectively demonstrated to be superior to Brueggemann's approach. I think Brueggemann is absolutely right to characterize the canonical approach as an imaginative construal, certainly a legitimate approach but not the only legitimate one.

You obviously prefer Childs's canonical approach to Brueggemann's self-consciously postmodern approach. OK. But "preference" and even "tradition" does not constitute objective evidence that Childs's approach is right while Brueggemann's is out of bounds.

[Brueggemann] believes that Childs proposal is, by definition, only one more subjective construal of the facts.

Here you once again seem to assert something like scientific positivism. Childs's approach is, of course, subjective. Do you deny it?

Brueggemann's approach is subjective, too; he would not deny it. As I said before, the difference between them boils down to a value judgement. You might wish it to be more objective and falsifiable than that, but I don't believe it is.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Stephen,

the fact that in other places you will catch me saying very similar sounding things is testimony that we're are, perhaps talking past each other. I appreciate a lot of what you say, but here's my attempt to clarify my position somewhat.

For a start, I seriously doubt that the difference between the exegetical approaches of Childs and Brueggemann or between you and I, are a matter of personality. I too have been through protracted periods of crisis, where my favourite Psalm was the blackest in the Bible (Ps. 88), and where any biblical image of the cold absence of God was a comfort to me. I appreciate indeterminacy and uncertainty, imperfection as far as theological systems are concerned, and I embrace the subjectivity of our existence (see my first posts on this here and here).

I can understand that you think I am taking a 'postivist' position, especially when I use the term 'norm'. But that doesn't have to be the case. Epistemological statements about our finitude (which we all agree on) and theological statements about what God is actually doing, are simply two different types of statement that should not be confused. When Derrida says everything is subjective, he's not saying that, therefore, there is no external reality that constrains our interpretations of it. The raw concrete reality of fire, for example, is something that exceeds my ability to grasp or fully conprehend its 'being', but that doesn't stop it from burning me. The same goes for the Brueggemann/Childs dispute (at least as I have presented it). It is one thing to say that humans are subjective and can't arrive at an objective interpretation, it is another to say that God himself doesn't communicate to us by means of a text that functions as a concrete guide in our daily experience, which is all Childs is saying. Childs doesn't take an 'innocent' approach to exegesis. His claim that we are able to submit to the 'coercion' of the text upon us is a theological statement, something about the way God works. God has chosen this text as a context to reveal himself, and it would seem, when one looks at both it and classic Christian formulations of faith (kerygma), that this text has a concrete 'something' it wants to say. How we discover that, and all the partiality that involves is another matter.

Thus, Childs is making a theological statement, justifying it by reference to the Text and Tradition. Brueggemann is making an epistemological statement, and the turning it into a theological statement without reference to either the text or tradition. Of course you will contradit me here, and list all the conflicting verses in the Bible. But Childs makes concrete arguments about the way the text looks, and indeed should function. These suggestions of Childs do not claim to be 'objective' and therefore automatically better then whatever Brueggemann says, as if he is just being 'subjective'. They are 'theories' in the normal sense of the term, attempts to explain the material as best as possible in light of the variables. I haven't seem Brueggemann actually respond on this level,either theologically (his understanding of the kerygma leads him to his conclusions) or exegetically (actually no, there is no such thing as canonical shaping). He seems, at least, to just restate his epistemological insight, i.e. humans are particular and subjective, and use that to dethrone Childs' suggestions. As long as he remains at the anthropocentric level, is is talking past Childs. He seems to be making postmodern theory do more than it is designed to do. I'm not sure you can take Derrida et al and make them normative for how one does exegesis and theology (as Brueggemann seems to do, yes he to has norms). At best, postmodernism should be used to help us understand the Bible and ourselves, but not be placed over the Bible and ourselves. It's a tool like any other.

"preference" and even "tradition" does not constitute objective evidence that Childs's approach is right while Brueggemann's is out of bounds.

Can you see now why that statement misses the point?

Therefore a postmodern person who feels that God is absent, yet who struggles to be faithful to the covenant anyway, can take comfort in knowing that he is not experiencing something unique. The experience of God's absence is not a new, postmodern development. People of faith have faced such challenges and survived them in generations

The question is why you would want to hang on to God when he disappears? If he is capricious, what's worth waiting for? Saying that you have no evidence of him is not the same as saying he is not there, surely ... And why would you believe he is there, despite your experience, if not for the promises and claims that is is, even when it's unbelievable? At rock bottom, someone in that situation has to believe that God will arise, or his strength will fail and he'll look for help elsewhere. Believing in God's presence despite the circumstances is what the Bible calls 'faith'. If this is right, then the fact that the epilogue in Ecclesiastes regulates the cynicism of the rest of the book is a mirror of our genuine struggles: without faith in the core promises we wouldn't be able to continue at all.

In short, there's a difference between talk of the absence of God as an epistemological reality and as an ontological reality. Unless one is willing to believe his ontological absence, the structure of your faith in times of crisis seems to parallel that of the present, canonical shape of Ecclesiastes, doesn't it?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

In short, there's a difference between talk of the absence of God as an epistemological reality and as an ontological reality. Unless one is willing to believe his ontological absence, the structure of your faith in times of crisis seems to parallel that of the present, canonical shape of Ecclesiastes, doesn't it?

Agreed. I understand why the text always swings back to a position of faith. However, that doesn't mean that the orthodox appendix to the book is not a distortion of what the author of Ecclesiastes set out to say.

In fact, I'm not convinced that Brueggemann means literally that God is capricious. I think he is saying exactly what you just said: that in our experience God seems to be absent and silent sometimes. I resist the attempt to smooth that over too quickly. I think we need to leave that tension hanging there: the tension between Israel's core testimony and Israel's countertestimony, of occasions when God seemed not to live up to his promises.

And there are many more critical issues than this one that arises in Ecclesiastes. What do we do about the patriarchal norms of the text, for example? The canonical shape of the text relegates women to a second-tier status. Shall we just say, Well, that's the canonical shape of the text? Or shall we stand in judgement on that canonical shape and say, We repudiate that self-serving power structure?

Phil Sumpter said...

Great,

I hope we're coming to some kind of rapprochement.

I think we need to leave that tension hanging there

I think we're agreed (including Childs and Brueggemann), that where tension is intended, there it should remain. It would be as wrong to iron over it as it is to create it where it is unnecessary – perhaps a danger both scholars should beware of.

Shall we just say, Well, that's the canonical shape of the text? Or shall we stand in judgement on that canonical shape and say, We repudiate that self-serving power structure?

Great question. My concern is where does one draw the criteria to make that value judgement. My recent comments above are that postmodern theory alone isn't enough. One needs a theological awareness of the nature of Christian faith, the nature of the text, and the relation between the two.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

One needs a theological awareness of the nature of Christian faith, the nature of the text, and the relation between the two.

(1) The nature of the text —
Here I would affirm Brueggemann's conviction that the text is multivocal. Let me work with a significant example that I feel I have some grasp of: the purity thread vs. the justice thread. Both threads run throughout the Hebrew scriptures.

(2) The nature of Christian faith —
With many liberals, I tend to take my stand with the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels. The sermon on the mount; his embrace of social outcasts; his prioritizing of the law of love over concerns about defilement.

In other words, Jesus represents the justice thread over against the Pharisees, who represent the purity thread. Even when Jesus appears to be concerned about purity (e.g. with respect to divorce) he may, in fact, be concerned about justice for cast-off women.

(3) The relation between the two —
I have no doubt that faith must be grounded in scripture. Indeed, I work very diligently at exegesis and, as I like to put it, letting the text speak.

However, letting the text speak means acknowledging the barely-concealed disagreements which lie close to the surface of the canonical texts.

The relevant principle here, in my view, is the developmental model of revelation. We don't view scripture as static: we see that Israel's faith is developing along a certain trajectory, which presumably reflects lessons they are actually learning from God.

Concerns about defilement are ancient. They are virtually universal in ancient religions. Presumably they predate the Hebrew scriptures.

Concern for justice, on the other hand, represented an innovation. It's clear that already with the Pentateuch we have a concern for the poor that goes beyond what we see in other ancient religions. In other words, a breakthrough in Israel's understanding of what matters to God.

As we arrive at the prophets, we see a denunciation of Temple worship insofar as it provides cover for social injustice. Certain people kid themselves that they are "right" before God because they are scrupulous in their Temple observances. At least some of the prophets used very strong language to repudiate worship rites and focus attention on social inequities instead.

Clearly, I have by no means abandoned a critical approach to scripture. And I do not think the canonical approach will help us here, because both threads are clearly canonical! But when push came to shove, Jesus sided with the prophets: in support of social justice, against Temple rites. (Remember that he was accused of saying that he would tear the Temple down!)

Because our faith takes a Christian shape, we ultimately declare that believers are the new Temple of the Holy Spirit. Caring for the physical and spiritual needs of fellow believers thus becomes paramount, as we see throughout Acts.

Perhaps my analysis is simplistic. I'm neither a theologian nor a philosopher, just a semi-educated individual who has devoted a lot of thought to these issues. But perhaps you can explain how the canonical approach would approach those three points (faith, text, and the relation between the two) and how it would differ from my summary of my convictions.