Monday, 12 November 2007

My Response to Kugel's Critique

Yesterday I posted on Kugel's critique of confessional Christian approaches to the Bible. It would appear that Christians respond to the challenge of historical criticism by qualifying its apparently destructive findings with a "yes, BUT ... ", followed by arguments that the Bible really is special after all. Apparently, it seems that in order for the Bible to be preserved as Sacred Scripture, some kind of special property has to be attached to the Bible itself, such that it really is unique in the Ancient Near East, or that it really is great literature.

Whether Christians really do respond in this way or not, I think it misses the point. As always (well, for now at least) ,I use B.S. Childs to orient myself on these issues.

For Childs, the Bible has a special function within the church, namely the 'canonical' one of offering "a critical theological norm for the community of faith on how the tradition functions authoritatively for future generations of the faithful". As "critical theological norm", it would seem to be rather irrelevant whether the Bible is literarily and theologically distinctive from other ancient sources. Even the vague concept of 'superiority' is secondary to this critical function of the Bible. So what if it's literature is poor or sophisticated, profound or shallow, unique or typical? It is the confession of the church that the God of the universe has come to us in Jesus, and that the prophetic witness to this Jesus is the matrix in which he is understood. Aesthetic or moral judgements come second to submitting to whatever form this textual witness to our Saviour makes. What ever makes the Bible 'great' is its ultimate subject matter, not its surface presentation.

Having said that, on a personal note, I have recently been experiencing the Old Testament narratives in a rather profound way (for me at least). It comes in phases; sometimes the Bible really is incomprehensible to me. At other times, I feel that I've been situated in such a way that the narrative world of the text and my own confused horizon seem to fuse, such that I find my own situation inexplicably illuminated by that which I read. I'm not just saying this because that's what some confessional theologians say happens, I really do experience this.

Who knows, maybe I just haven't read enough. Maybe, once I start submerging myself in the world of ancient pagan literature, I'll start having the same illuminating and convicting experience with Marduk as I currently have with the Lord. Who knows. Maybe.

Ancient Hebrew Poetry makes other criticims of Kugel and provides a directory of current blog-debate on the man.

9 comments:

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I have a mixed response to your description of Childs's position.

For Childs, the Bible has a special function within the church, namely the 'canonical' one of offering "a critical theological norm for the community of faith on how the tradition functions authoritatively for future generations of the faithful".

I think historicity has implications for the authority of the biblical text. For example, did YHWH inscribe the ten commandments on tablets of stone with his own "finger"? If he did, then I can't quibble with the word "authoritatively." But if the story is unhistorical; if it's just (certain members of) the community saying, "We regard this text as uniquely authoritative" — I don't think it has quite the same degree of authority.

In all honesty, I haven't thought deeply about this topic. If the events are unhistorical, where does the text's authority come from? Is it authoritative even in its smallest details? (It wouldn't appear so, since we reject the Bible's witness to these events as history.) If certain texts should be interpreted at a metaphorical level, I must ask, can a metaphor be authoritative?

If the events are historical, these sorts of questions don't arise. As often, I think Childs is trying to sneak something in through the back door after critical scholarship has tossed it out the front door.

What ever makes the Bible 'great' is its ultimate subject matter, not its surface presentation.

This statement strikes me as more defensible. The Bible doesn't possess any intrinsic authority, it seems to me. But I choose to order my life around biblical teachings, because the witness of scripture is compellingly powerful to me. In other words, authority is something we believers confer on the text, because its subject matter impresses us so deeply.

You're right, that isn't primarily a function of the text's literary value. Nor does it have a necessary connection to historicity. But nor does it necessarily have a connection to canonicity.

If I find the Wisdom of Solomon just as inspiring as any canonical Old Testament text, then I will confer a degree of authority on it, in terms of my personal response to the text.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Stephen,

you raise questions that are tough to answer. My response is just to point out where I start from in trying to answer them (which, for better or for worse, is taken from Childs).

The authority of the Bible lies exclusively in its author: God (not in events and not in us). Childs put it this way:

“A basic characteristic of Christian exegesis has been its acknowledgement of the authority of scripture, but how this conviction is expressed and interpreted varies greatly. Widespread is the conviction that God is the author of the Bible's Word. It contains the Word of truth calling for the “obedience of faith.” (2004: 300)

This is the primary starting point. Questions of historicity are derivative of the bible's authority as a theological norm, not the other way round. Each case should be assessed in turn. What we can't do is pre-ordain before hand how God authored the Bible, trying to answer such questions as the relation of God's will to the human consciousness of the authors, or the relation of his Word to the historically particular way in which it is expressed etc. These kinds of questions are like asking how is Jesus fully God and fully man. We believe he is, and then try to explain it. As such, your comparison with God using his finger to write the commandments seems to be off the mark. That's just an element of the story. It is the story itself which is authoritative, not its individual elements.

If the events are historical, these sorts of questions don't arise

Good thought. If they literally happened then that would lend weight to their acceptability. I don't actually exclude that possibility. Nevertheless, blessed is he who believes and has not seen. Also, happenedness doesn't tell us how a report of it should function authoritatively. That's why Childs is not avoiding historical criticism, as you claim. Historical criticism, as an objective descriptive discipline, is not capable of making statements about 'authority'. That's a theological statement that lies beyond the task of historical analysis.

authority is something we believers confer on the text, because its subject matter impresses us so deeply

The Bible has often been a source of strength to me in times of crisis. As such, I don't see how locating its authority in my perception of it would have been much help. I've believed even when I couldn't see or comprehend God's promises, not because I find his promises appealing and so confer 'authority' on them, but because God made them so I can't argue. Authority comes from the outside, by definition. As such, simply perceiving the Wisdom of Solomon as authoritative is not enough. If God didn't write it, then it's not authoritative, no matter how much I want it to be. As far as I'm aware, even the Catholic Church claims it was responding to the authority of the text in deciding canonicity, not simply imposing its own authority onto the text.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

Why do you say that God is the "author" of the Bible? I know that's a common sentiment in popular piety, but what support is there for it within the Bible's own self-understanding?

I suspect that this question lies very close to Childs's starting point for thinking about hermeneutics.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

The Bible has often been a source of strength to me in times of crisis. As such, I don't see how locating its authority in my perception of it would have been much help. … Authority comes from the outside, by definition.

This is an interesting discussion.

I couldn't say, as you just did, that God is the author of the Bible. You go on to imply something like a dual authorship, akin to the God/man duality of Christ's nature, which I recognize as a traditional Christian formulation. And I'm more comfortable with that.

However, the dual authorship of scripture doesn't protect the text against errors of fact and history. Such errors in the text inevitably lessens the authority of the Bible. Even if God is a partner to the writing of the book (which is still probably too strong of a statement for me), we can't accept errors as authoritative. Therefore we must sift the text, weighing its teachings against our spiritual discernment, our conscience, and even against modern knowledge.

I am deeply in agreement with Brueggemann's dialectical approach. (Not because it comes from Brueggemann; in fact, I had arrived at it before reading Brueggemann.)

The Bible is a source of insight, but not the only source of insight. It represents a counterweight to our socialization into modernity; it prevents us from being totally captive to that socialization. But truth is not a matter of relying on the Bible alone. It emerges from the dialectic between the Bible and modernity. (And the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the witness of our consciences, and the testimony of fellow believers.)

In other words, I don't mean to say that the authority of the Bible is within me, located entirely in my perception of it. The Bible is indeed an external authority.

Even so, the authority of the text comes from our recognition that this text has proven helpful in the past — just as you yourself testify. And "helpful" is too weak a word for it; I should perhaps say "a life-saver" or use another, similar formulation. But in any event, there's nothing intrinsically special about the text of the Bible.

To some extent, then, I find myself in agreement with Kugel.

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

(this is the second time I'm writing this, the first got lost!)

Thanks for your question. This is a difficult issue and I hope to go into more detail in my next 'proper' post. I'll look into the relevant articles from Childs and say something more coherent. For now I'll just point out that the Bible alone is not the foundation for faith, but the Bible plus tradition. That's a hard conclusion that I'm not beginning to digest (as an evangelical, not that this means I stop being 'evangelical', at least in the broad sense). The Bible can't talk like this, as it's a concept that encompasses the Bible.

Stephen,

I think you are assuming a particular definition of 'authoritative' rather then defining it. My phrase was that it is a 'critical theological norm' for faith and practice. That is a separate issue to scientific or historic accuracy. You seem to have a preconception that authoritative means 'scientifically accurate'. If that is the case then the Bible's authority would be problematic. Thank God it isn't!

I think there is something intrinsically special about the Bible, I just don't identify it with 'surface' issues such as literary style or uniqueness. It's the Bible's subject matter, the theological reality that undergirds it. I understand this as the difference between the literal and the spiritual sense of the text. Genuine theology consists in taking both dimensions of the text into account. Identifying the Bible's specialness with the literal sense only is to be short sighted theologically and would lead to what Childs calls 'biblicism'.

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

I've decided that I would actually like to deal with the issue of 'divine and human authorship' of the Bible to a later date, if that's OK (feel free to tell me it isn't). It actually belongs to point 4 of my overall thread on theological exegesis, so I'd prefer to leave it till then. This issue will no doubt keep poppsing up, so please do keep reminding me of it if you think a link is missing from my chain.

For now I hope to continue with point one: The Authority of Scripture.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I don't mean to assume any definition of authoritative. But I think I'm asking valid questions:

• Can an error be authoritative, in any sense of the word?
• Can two contradictory texts both be authoritative?
• Can a metaphor be authoritative?

Re the last question: I think the answer is, Yes, a metaphor can be authoritative; but not in the same way that a direct proposition is authoritative.

Why do I say that? Because a metaphor never captures the truth perfectly. It is always an approximation, which corresponds to the truth in one or several respects, but does not correspond to the truth in some other respects.

In most cases, some other metaphor could be substituted instead. Indeed, the Bible often gives us several metaphors to enable us to think about an otherwise inaccessible topic. But there's a sense in which each metaphor is qualified by the existence of the others, which necessarily lessens the authority of any one of the metaphors.

Perhaps your definition adequately accounts for the nuances I'm seeking to introduce. But I think you've blown off my objections a bit too easily. Can an error be authoritative? What do you say?

Phil Sumpter said...

Stephen,

Yes, a metaphor can be authoritative; but not in the same way that a direct proposition is authoritative. ... . Perhaps your definition adequately accounts for the nuances I'm seeking to introduce.

Yes, that's what I'm trying to say. That something is a 'critical norm for faith and practice' does not say what shape or form it is. The Bible is diverse, all this diversity is subsumed under its authority. Some concrete examples in response to your points:

• Can an error be authoritative, in any sense of the word?

Yes. For example, the epistle to the Hebrews makes mistakes when it cites the objects found in the Holy of Holies. This isn't a problem, as the point of the letter is not to tell us what was actually in the Holy of Holies, but to compare what we have in Christ with the old system (as nicely presented in that video on your blog).

• Can two contradictory texts both be authoritative?

Yes, because theological truth is not a matter of independent texts, but rather the whole, understood according to their kerygmatic or canonical intentionality. For example, Childs points out the contradiction in the presentation of the tent of meeting in Exodus 33. He recognises a genuine problem and believes that the best explanation is differing sources. He does not try to smooth over the contradiction by suggestion that in reality Moses had two tents, nor does he claim that at the level of 'story' some deeper significance is to be seen in the tension. He asks why an aspect of historical reference which causes friction has been allowed to stand, in the light of some other theological issue which is the true concern of the final form of the text. In this case, that concern is to do with the theological significance of Moses as intercessor (I'll be talking more about this 'other theological concern' shortly, when I review a brilliant article my Murry Rae).

• Can a metaphor be authoritative?

I pretty much agree with what you say, except that I would be more positive about the function of metaphors. Theological truth is not reducible to propositional statements, it explodes them, and as such metaphors can be more adequate as a means of depicting a certain reality (e.g. various things can be combined together, narratives implied and emotions evoked). The authority of the metaphor is not the metaphor itself, but its function as part of a theological proclamation. Therefore, in order to submit to its authority, we need to be asking questions such as, why is it being used? How? What dimensions of the signifier are intended to be relevant and which ones are not? The existence of more then one metaphor does not reduce the 'authority' of the other metaphors, it highlights what it is about them that is authoritative. It also points out the breadth of the divine reality to which the entire Bible witnesses. Perhaps we just need more than one picture.

I hope this helps (writing it certainly helps me).

(By the way, how do you get bullet points in your comments? Can the comment box support that kind of HTML?)

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Phil, for taking the time to respond in detail to my questions. I'm actually quite satisfied by your answers. I'm suspicious that we might disagree in the conclusions we reach in the interpretation of specific passages, but I'm comfortable with the gist of your position.

Re bullets —
Certain characters can be created by using something called "character code" — you can google it. They all follow the same pattern: an ampersand followed by the code for the specific character, followed by a semi-colon. The ampersand and the semi-colon are a cue to the browser to replace what you've typed with a character.

For bullets, you type ampersand bull semi-colon (no spaces). "Bull" obviously is an abbreviation of "bullet".