Monday, 5 November 2007

"In Accordance with the Scriptures" #5: The Problem with the Jesus Seminar


Here I finally continue my thread focusing on Seitz's essay, "In Accordance with the Scriptures" (1998). My purpose is to demonstrate that the Old Testament is an indispensable witness to Jesus Christ, and thus forms the matrix within which he is to be comprehended. In order, the previous posts can be found here, here, here and here.

The problem with the "Jesus Seminar" is that is resists the force of the scriptures, as Paul and the creed mean that, on our understanding of Jesus, and consequently, it does not take seriously Jesus' relationship to God as imprinted by scripture's prior word and guided by that word's according potential. In order to understand the one who came to do the Father's will, we should assume that he took significant bearings from the scriptures of Israel, in exactly the public form we can now read them.
Historical investigation into Jesus is in itself not 'wrong'.One has every right to observe the root system of a tree. To do so, however, involves uprooting the tree itself. If, furthermore, one begins to insist that the tree is not as it should be, given the underground investigation, that the mature growth is a misunderstanding in need of correction by experts, or, more enticingly, that the underground tree is the tree itself, is the "historical tree", is that which should occupy our attention, that we have had things upside-down - then, Seitz claims, we are beginning to approach the logic of the Jesus Seminar.

The element of Jesus as requiring unveiling and discovery is not wrong, but has been translated and domesticated by the Jesus seminar and much historical-critical endeavour. It is not that Jesus is hidden behind the words about him, which must then be sifted to get at the "historical Jesus." It is, rather, that the words that tell about him simultaneously convey their inadequacy, in formal terms, because of the subject matter they are trying to reach. The very fourfoldness of the gospel record is a witness to the majestic difficulty of the endeavor of presenting Jesus as a character of time and space, fully man, fully God. But this is not an inadequacy that can be remedied through historical-critical heavy lifting, because it inheres with the subject matter itself, which is God in Christ - who exposes our inadequacy in trying to speak of him, and yet simultaneously remedies this through the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, allowing the frail testimony of human minds to be the lens on the glory of God, a touching of the ark of the covenant.

8 comments:

Deane said...

Phil wrote:
The very fourfoldness of the gospel record is a witness to the majestic difficulty of the endeavor of presenting Jesus as a character of time and space, fully man, fully God.

You might be right.

On the other hand, the four different gospels may be a witness to the fact that:
- both Matthew and Luke thought Mark's account was a substandard attempt at writing an account of Jesus' teachings and life, and wanted to replace it with their own - while neither Matthew or Luke knew the other, and would probably have disagreed with parts of each other's attempts; and
- John wanted to write in a slightly different genre - apocryphal gospel - because he didn't like Mark's genre or finished product either.

... or, it could be that their are four winds, four directions on the compass, four faces to the cherubim, etc, etc ...

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your comments Deane,

I'm not sure what you said contradicts what I said.

The developmental theory you present is one possible way of illustrating "the majestic difficulty". The fact that they disagree with eachother simply shows in what way that happened. Seitz's point is that the church has decided to keep these four disparate testimonies to the one reality, despite the contradictions and regardless of how they came about.

I'm sure John would have taken issue with Mark's presentation. But that's not the point. The church has claimed that it is all four together that are gospel witnesses to the one gospel, regardless of how difficult that is to work with (or perhaps because). The sum is greater then the parts.

Deane said...

I'll explain the problem I see with your/Seitz's argument a bit further, Phil.

Is really necessarily the case that the church preserved four separate accounts - rather than one, or a synthesis of the four, or whatever - due to the majesty of the subject matter? Or is this just, rather, a nice after-the-fact rationalisation of the fourfoldness of the Gospels - little better than Irenaeus' recourse to the four winds, etc?

You are right that there is nothing which necessarily contradicts Seitz's argument, if the Gospels originally developed out of rivalry or polemics. But if you also accept that the main reason given for the catholic church recognising the four Gospels was because of their apostolic authority, then the fourfoldness of the Gospels is explained adequately as follows:

1. Many rival Jesus followers wrote many accounts of his teachings/life/being.
2. Of these many accounts, the catholic church recognised four as authoritative, based on their judgment (rightly or wrongly) of genuine apostolic authority.

So: the fourfoldness of the authoritative catholic Gospels is explained adequately as a result both of human rivalry and unity (whether or not also viewed as a part of the divine economy).

What of the argument that the 'fourfoldness' was necessary to present the apophatic, unpresentable nature of the person of Jesus as man and God? It is revealed as a later, tendentious theologising. It is little better than justifying the fourfoldness in terms of the (imagined) number of winds.

Phil Sumpter said...

Deane,

I appreciate you pushing me on this. It help me to clarify in my own mind what I think, and what I think Seitz thinks.

Again, I don't think that the fact that 'apostolicity' was a criteria for the church's acceptance of these four gospels undermines what Seitz is saying. The recognition of the texts' apostolicity is a recognition of their authority, not a predetermination of what they are allowed to say or how they are allowed to say it. This is important, as Seitz is making a theological statement based on the fourfoldness of the witness, rather than a historical statement as to why just these four were chosen. Whether the church was confused or not, whether there was a theological rationale behind their decision or whether it was just plain ecumenism, the church felt constrained to claim that these four, in their irreducible diversity, witness to the one Gospel. How they do that is another question, that they do is a theological given for the church.

Seitz claims that the doctrinal claim of the God in Christ is true, that it is a faithful representation of the substance of the whole Bible (not just the 'gospels'), and that it is a difficult concept. Given this fact, it is not surprising that we have a diversity of gospel witnesses (regardless of the actual number). The complexity of the witness accords with the complexity of its subject matter. Whether God really was in Christ, or whether this is tendentious theologising or not, is another question altogether.

This is an illustration, by the way, of what Seitz and Childs mean by 'canonical intentionality'. The intentionality is simply that the texts in their final canon are to witness to the truth, so that the truth must be sought in terms of the canon, within its boundaries. It is not necessarily dependent on the concrete thoughts, motivations or reasoning of the individual canonizers.

Tell me if this makes no sense.

Oh, and what does Irenaus say about "the four winds"?

Deane said...

Phil wrote:
The recognition of the texts' apostolicity is a recognition of their authority

This is essentially Childs' view against J Sanders, too.

But even if the intrinsic 'vertical' authority of the four Gospels is admitted, Seitz's argument for the fourfoldness of the Gospels makes the additional and questionable assumption that the complexity of the person of Jesus should 'correspond' to a multiple Gospel tradition. But this claim does not necessarily flow from the facticity of the fourfoldness of the Gospels. The only theological/dogmatic 'given' is that there are four Gospels. The imagined 'correspondence' of the theological/dogmatic idea of the person of Christ with the theological/dogmatic claim that there are only four authoritative Gospels is always a subsequent theologising. This claim itself is only one of many possible ways of lending after-the-fact justification to these two claims. And the claim of 'correspondence' is itself not itself a dogma, but a piece of recent theologising by Seitz that possibly is as influenced by modern literary ideas of polyvalency as anything else.

Which brings me back to Irenaeus's own after-the-fact rationalisation:

"It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh."
- Irenaeus, AH 3.11.8

If the person of Christ is in the whole Bible, I wonder why God didn't also inspire four Genesises, four Exoduses, four Leviticuses, etc? Or, perhaps, the reasoning given by Seitz is merely an after-the-fact rationalisation?

Phil Sumpter said...

Deane,

I think we need to clarify what it is Seitz is actually saying. He's not arguing the either the nature of Christ or the number of gospels are derivatives of each other, neither is he arguing that there 'is a correspondence' between Christ and the fourfoldness of the gospel witness. Let me quote the relevant passage again with the key words italicised:

“It is not that Jesus is hidden behind the words about him, which must then be sifted to get at the "historical Jesus." It is, rather, that the words that tell about him simultaneously convey their inadequacy, in formal terms, because of the subject matter they are trying to reach. The very fourfoldness of the gospel record is a witness to the majestic difficulty of the endeavor of presenting Jesus as a character of time and space, fully man, fully God. But this is not an inadequacy that can be remedied through historical-critical heavy lifting, because it inheres with the subject matter itself, which is God in Christ”

Seitz's beliefs about the nature of Christ are based on his broader understandings of biblical theology. Whether they are defensible or not is another matter. He's arguing ad hominem: if this is the reality of Christian faith, if this is a correct summary of the work of God as presented in the entire canon of scripture, then it makes sense that one gospel alone would struggle to do justice to this reality. Seitz's claims about “God-in-Christ” do not “flow from” the raw fact of a fourfold witness (as you claim), but it certainly 'sits with' this diversity. That this is after-the-fact (of canonization) is fairly obvious. Seitz's canonical approach requires a completed canon in order to do theology, because according to Seitz theological truth is witnessed to by this completed canon. But that is beside the point, he isn't telling us how the church came to its dogmatic conclusions concerning Christ or how the canon came to us, he's just pointing out the nature of theological endeavour given the nature of our faith and the nature of the text.

As such, your analogy with Irenaeus fails, as Irenaeus is doing something completely different. He really is trying to draw a theological conclusion for the fourfoldness of the witness.

This claim itself is only one of many possible ways of lending after-the-fact justification to these two claims.

Can you see now that Seitz doesn't dispute that. He's not making a claim based on the fourfoldness of the witness, he's making a claim about the nature of the theological task.

If the person of Christ is in the whole Bible, I wonder why God didn't also inspire four Genesises, four Exoduses, four Leviticuses, etc?

Do you see why this misses the point?

Deane said...

Phil before:
The very fourfoldness of the gospel record is a witness to the majestic difficulty of the endeavor of presenting Jesus as a character of time and space, fully man, fully God.

Phil now:
Seitz's claims about “God-in-Christ” do not “flow from” the raw fact of a fourfold witness (as you claim), but it certainly 'sits with' this diversity.

... neither is he arguing that there 'is a correspondence' between Christ and the fourfoldness of the gospel witness

Hmmmmmm... so it's right to say that the fourfoldness of the Gospel testifies to ("is a witness to") the difficulty of presenting the person of Christ. And it's right to say that the person of Christ "certainly sits with this diversity". But it's wrong to say that there's any "correspondence" between the two?

I'm starting to find this position a little inconsistent.

Phil Sumpter said...

I'm afraid I don't see the problem. There must be a miscommunication: can you tell me what you mean by 'correspond'? The number '4' really is insignificant, as far as Seitz is concerned.