Friday, 9 November 2007

What Childs is Trying to Do

I've done a fair bit of blogging today! I'm currently having two nice conversations with a new contributor by the name of Deane. Here, we are discussing the theological significance of the fourfoldedness of the gospel witness. Here, we are discussing whether Seitz's approach is fideistic (the issue is framed in terms of 'christological' readings, and I notice that inhabitatio dei has a post on a christological reading of the Psalms. This blog rates as one of my favourites, though I rarely have time to keep up with what is written :( ). Check 'em out and tell us what we're doing wrong!

Given this ongoing dialogue, I haven't time to post anything new. Instead, I've decided to post part of one of my responses in a dialogue concerning Childs and Brueggemann (from yesterday). They are not necessarily the most eloquent prose in the world, as they were rattled out in the process of thinking, but I think they have enough coherency and integrity to validate a separate posting.

Once again, a bit thanks to all contributors!

When talking of Childs, I'm primarily concerned with theological method: if one were to read the text as a Christian, how would one go about doing that? One way of seeing it would be to take the position of 'progressive revelation'. As one commentator has put it: "Israel's faith is developing along a certain trajectory, which reflects lessons they are actually learned from God.” Childs is working out what he sees as the implications of this process. This process has left a material mark on the text itself, such that we can see this progressive insight unfolding. Older traditions were seen in new ways, their implications were being worked out and comprehended within broader contexts. However the process happened, it was consciously 'theological'. As such, given the temporal, developmental nature of this process, it would make sense that later redactors, who belong to this process, would have better insight into what God is doing. The traditions and texts they edited were done according to this theological intentionality. This editing process was not “innocent” (no one claims or believes that), it was “ideological”. But it was ideological in the good sense of straining to hear God's word as it is being worked out in the history of his people. You and I stand at this point in time, at a point temporally later than what was taking place within the text. As members of the one people of God, travelling with him on the journey, it makes sense that we should submit to the fullest version of God's word: the final form of the text, which is an intentional theological project. The final canonical shape does not hide its diachronic dimension, and thus its 'brokenness', but by virtue of the theological intentionality used to shape it, a theological judgement has been rendered concerning the meaning of the earlier traditions. This judgement was far from “innocent”, it was “ideological”, but ideology is not intrinsically bad. It can be good. Childs' claim is that if the Bible is authoritative (a word Brueggemann understandably avoids), something to which we should submit despite our personal mores, we have no choice but to bow to the voice of the final form. This voice is not coherent in the sense that there are no contradictions. Coherency exists, not at the level of the text, but at the level of the theological reality to which it points. This is an important point which Childs' critics consistently fail to grasp. It is the combined voice of conflicting traditions that point in different and difficult ways to the one God. Childs doesn't avoid this tension by projection the contradiction into the Godhead himself. He maintains it and 'struggles' with it (a favourite word of his). The methodological point is that the final form must be the arena in which we negotiate the Bibles meaning, and this is the case by virtue of the nature of the text as in intentional theological project, and by virtue of the function of scripture in the church as authoritative norm, and by virtue of the eschatological nature of history in which we stand 'here' and not 'there', somewhere behind the text in a now lost ancient Israel

Brueggemann rejects this 'must' on the basis that we are all subjective, so who can prove it 'objectively' anyway? He makes a theological judgement on the basis of a secular philosophical theory. It's a category error and simply doesn't follow. Childs nowhere claims objectivity to ground his position. He simply presents arguments about the nature of the text and Christian faith, arguments which Brueggemann consistently avoids. The only response Brueggemann has recourse to is to blindly insist that Childs is indeed trying to base his arguments on a naïve claim to objectivity. It order to back up this misunderstanding of what Childs is actually trying to do, he goes on to caricature Childs as a “canonical commentator.” This is just a weak way to have an argument.


In sum, normativity can be gained on grounds other than epistemological objectivity. I would have thought Tradition and the Spirit would play a role.

1 comment:

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Phil:
Given the temporal, developmental nature of this process, it would make sense that later redactors, who belong to this process, would have better insight into what God is doing. The traditions and texts they edited were done according to this theological intentionality. This editing process was not "innocent" (no one claims or believes that), it was "ideological". But it was ideological in the good sense of straining to hear God's word as it is being worked out in the history of his people.

Thanks for this, Phil. I think this is the clearest you've articulated your understanding of Childs's method. Either you've honed your presentation, or I'm just gradually figuring it out through repeated exposures.

I'm still unpersuaded; and indeed, I still think we're in the realm of a judgement call rather than anything more objective than that.

For your argument to be valid, we would have to assume that the editors also progressed in their views, and progressed consistently, as Israel's history passed. I don't think that's correct.

Whenever an innovation occurs, there is a double response to it: those who see the value of it, and those who lash out against it. I think both responses are represented in scripture. For example, I think the whole system of defilement was passing away, beginning not later than Amos. But there were conservative editors who didn't take that process lying down.

You look at the same data and come to a different conclusion. That's OK with me.

As members of the one people of God, travelling with him on the journey, it makes sense that we should submit to the fullest version of God's word: the final form of the text, which is an intentional theological project.

And Brueggemann would disagree with this? Of course you're right! Brueggemann sometimes refers to his own approach as canonical.

The question is, does the text speak with a coherent voice?

This voice is not coherent in the sense that there are no contradictions. Coherency exists, not at the level of the text, but at the level of the theological reality to which it points.

Submitting to the text means that we make room for conflicting points of view — because so does the text.

As for the last statement … that really doesn't work for me. Two contradictory propositions cannot both be true. If the tension cannot be resolved here and now, it can't be resolved in the godhead either.

This to me is a form of suspended disbelief. We can't see a way for it to all be true, but we set our misgivings aside and trust that somehow it is all true.

Even if that is correct, it doesn't help us much. As you know, Brueggemann says that every judgement we make is provisional; we'll have to go back and do it again. And of course he's right. If there are tensions in the text that cannot be resolved, we can only reach a determination for now. Maybe they can be resolved in the eschaton, or in the godhead, or somewhere outside of this cosmos; but how does that help now, as we go about the work of the Church?

In the end, I think Brueggemann and Childs are actually saying parallel things. It's strange that they were so deeply critical of one another; they agree on much more than they disagree on. They agree in accepting the conclusions of critical scholarship. They agree that the final form of the text is less than perfectly coherent. They agree that any individual text must be interpreted with an eye to the canon as a whole.

They disagree at the level of emphasis. Childs wants to come down on the side of the normative, "canonical" judgement, even though he recognizes that inconsistencies remain. Brueggemann says the judgement of the final editors is just as divided as the judgement of the original authors. Therefore he emphasizes the unresolvable tensions. And yet Brueggemann acknowledges that there is a "Great Tradition" which must be considered over against the "little texts".

So how far apart are they, really? I regret that our dialogue has magnified their differences out of proportion.