Monday, 19 November 2007

Historical Criticism and the Reading of Scripture


In my post The Writing of Scripture I outlined the diachronic dimension the text as consisting of a 'canonical process', a theological process in which the various traditions and texts were shaped to provide a normative criticism for the ongoing life of the people of God. It's now time to look at a concrete example: the Pentateuch.

Writing in 1972*, Childs is more or less in agreement with the main insights of historical criticism regarding the makeup of the Pentateuch. Both Mosaic authorship and the simple historicity of its account are rejected in favour of the view that the Pentateuch reflected a long history of development through an oral and literary stage, parts of which history can be recovered through critical research.

Childs does not reject the conclusions of historical criticism. His distinctive claim, however, is that this historical approach to the literature is a distinct and different enterprise from studying the Pentateuch as the Scriptures of the church. Such a move is to read the text outside the perspective of the tradition, which is the perspective of faith. To replace the study of the canonical shape of the Pentateuch with a reconstruction of the literature's historical development is to confuse the historical with the theological task. Rather, as he says, "the present shape of the Pentateuch offers a particular interpretation - indeed confession - as to how the tradition was to be understood by the community of faith." (1972: 715). Therefore, as far as theology is concerned, it is important to describe the actual characteristics of the canonical shape and secondly to determine the theological significance of this shape.

My next post will look at Childs' description of the canonical shaping of the Pentateuch.

* "The Old Testament as Scripture of the Church" Concordia Theological Monthly 43 D (1972) 709-22

5 comments:

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

Personally, I don't understand how it is even possible to "confuse the historical with the theological task". If it is the reality of what God has done (both in Christ and in the history of Israel) that matters, then the degree to which the biblical record of what happened is in error is the degree to which theology needs a historical reconstruction to get at what's really relevant. The Childsian approach, to my mind, is plagued by a confusion of its own: it confuses what tradition has regarded to be the theologically relevant aspect of Scripture with what really *is* the theologically relevant aspect of Scripture.

What is the justification for putting Church tradition ahead of reality? You’ve denied that the canonical approach is an ecclesial hermeneutic, but I don’t see how that denial holds up against the foregoing.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks John,

If it is the reality of what God has done (both in Christ and in the history of Israel) that matters, then the degree to which the biblical record of what happened is in error is the degree to which theology needs a historical reconstruction to get at what's really relevant

It's your equation of 'reality' with 'what happened' that's the problem. Unless you can show that the reality of what God is doing is reducible to pointing out 'what happened' within observable history, then the scriptural perspective is vital. 'What happened' is part of something greater, something which encompasses the events and gives them their real meaning. 'Eschatology' is the key concept here. I hope that'll come out when I start describing the canonical shape of the Pentateuch.

it confuses what tradition has regarded to be the theologically relevant aspect of Scripture with what really *is* the theologically relevant aspect of Scripture.

Again, what is the theologically relevant aspect of Scripture? I don't think you can answer that by trying to step outside of the tradition in order to gain a more 'objective' perspective on events which can then be used to sift what is of value and what is not. By fixing a canon of scripture, the church testified that its faith is to be understood in continuity with the witness of the prophets and apostles. What is of value can only be gauged from within that witness (emic viewpoint?), not from without, and that witness is far more then listing historical events.

It should be pointed out that it is exactly this attempt to step outside of the scriptures confessional stance which is problematic about historical criticism. It assumes that the norms of Enlightenment objectivity are a surer way to the truth then the prophetic and apostolic norms. Childs isn't rejecting the significance of history (as I said before, history is the arena in which he unfolds his plans), he is rejecting attempts to understanding what God is ultimately, really doing by attempting to sidestep the prophetic/apostolic witness to that.

What is the justification for putting Church tradition ahead of reality?

Childs isn't putting the church ahead of reality. He insists that the church today is to respond to the 'coercion' of the text, a reality outside of the church to which it must submit. As for the canonical process itself, he would say that the source is in God, who inspires both the proclamation and its reception. In this process the tradents were likewise submitting to a 'coercion' from a prior word, seeing it work itself out in history. Seitz is good at this. Check out his commentaries and articles on Isaiah.

John C. Poirier said...

But "what happened" and "what happened in observable history" are two different things. When I say "what happened", I include God's activity in that. My point is that the historical task is one of respecting the referents of the text as constituting the text's meaning, and it should be that way with the theological task as well.

And by "referents", I mean the referents as found within the author's intention. A text is simply an author's way of preserving his/her own propositional claims, which are made by referring to things. (There are other sorts of texts, as well, but when the biblical texts says that God did this or that, it is a record of the author's intended references.) To do justice to the task of reading the Bible as a record of God's interaction with Israel (written, of course, from Israel's perspective), we *must* free ourselves from the Church's perspective.

Phil Sumpter said...

From my understanding, what God is doing includes and yet transcends the viewpoint of the individual authors of the Bible. Each view point is just that, an angle on what is going on. Though authors have intentions and they express this in their work, and though it may be possible to reconstruct something of the intention to a degree, a reading of the text as scripture does not require that we focus solely on authorial intent. That is because, as you have claimed yourself, truth is not in the scripture but in the referent (though I don't believe they are actually separable, but that's another debate). The referent is the ultimate context from which to gauge the meaning of the text, not its authorial or historical meaning, but its theological meaning. This broader context should not drown out the independent voice of each text, but it is not reducable to them. Both the kerygma and the Bible itself talk of God speaking through his prophets. The ultimate object of interest is then not what was in the prophets mind, but what God was saying through him. I really can't see how Christian hermeneutics can privilege authorial intent. Rather, as Seitz says, the intentionality that should interest us is the combined intentionality of the canonical witness, itself driven and guided by the providence of God. When one looks at the combined voice, one is looking at the 'history' that really matters, the one that encompasses the partial events and perspectives that make up the whole. I'll be looking at this in more detail when I review Murray Rae's article in the first JTI edition.

There are other sorts of texts, as well, but when the biblical texts says that God did this or that, it is a record of the author's intended references.

The biblical text doesn't just say God did this or that, it also says God did this 'because ... ' or 'so that ...'. The author often sees evaluation as part of the presentation, and that is not something a historian has access to apart from the perspective of the canonical text (the author, or the editors). Even more often, the reason why God does something is purposely left hidden, forcing us to scan the surrounding texts to get a gist what is really going on (cf. M. Stenrberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative). Interpretation on our part is a necessary part of the process, something the authors want us to do and something which they don't want to forclose themselves. The interpretive process requires grids and criteria which must be got from somewhere else. As objective historiography is by definition unable to provide us with an interpretive grid (it is pure description), we need to look at the perspective the canon gives us on these issues.

Could you tell me how a historian, committed to objective description, can access what God is really doing 'within' the events of history outside of the interpretive stance of the prophets and apostles? Unless you can somehow see it, you need an interpretive grid. That is provided by the perspective of the authors of the texts, and the later redactors who received and developed that perspective. I have given an example of this in my post above, on the canonical shape of the Pentateuch. The separation of Deuteronomy from Joshua is theologically significant and cannot be ignored because in chronological reality it wasn't like that, or because one particular redactional/authorial layer didn't intend it. It's the combined choir of voices that provides the church with its perspective, and that choir has given us an independent Torah.

Phil Sumpter said...

I should add that in the post on the Pentateuch, the last quote relates to questions of 'ecclesial context' and in my latest post on Gensesis I mention intentionality. This intentionality functions as a control on interpretation for Childs and necessitates a diachronic approach, though a nuanced one.