Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Criteria of Prophetic Truth

After a break of a few days, I return to my summary of Childs' article, "Retrospective Reading of the Old Testament Prophets" (1996). For previous posts in this thread, read the following: 1, 2, and 3.

Because what Childs has to say here is so concise, succinct and important, I'm simply quoting it in full. Of all that Childs has written, this is one of his most illuminating articles!

"The prophetic understanding of truth is not determined by conceptual consistency. This prophetic message is not transmitted in the form of theological tractates nor of philosophical ruminations about abstract moral ideals. Rather, the prophets bear witness to a divine reality by which they have been constrained. Their response is not always logically structured and often a divine encounter is only indirectly perceived. The prophet communicates the divine will for Israel and for the nations in a great variety of different forms, styles, and images. Often the content is too awe-inspiring for conceptual clarity and its ad hoc articulations appear fragmentary, visceral, and partial. Frequently the subject matter runs roughshod over temporal and logical categories, and the editors link together events of similar qualities of time according to their substance. This move accounts for the consistently theocentric orientation of the prophets. Little attention is paid to the psychological state of the messenger, nor to the modern concern over the nature of the filtering process by human tradents. Rather, prophetic truth is measured by what rightly conforms to its divine subject matter and evokes a faithful response from its recipients (Isa 8:11ff).

The implications from this biblical perspective is that too much weight cannot be assigned to the logical inconsistencies or to conceptual tensions within a given passage as a means by which to reconstruct unified literary redactions. Because the nature of prophetic speech was to reflect an encounter with the reality of God, an analysis of a prophetic oracle as if it were simply a freely composed literary construct does not do justice to the material. Careful attention to the function of metaphors in rendering reality is usually more indicative of the prophetic meaning than the coherence of larger literary structures.

Again to assume that meaning can only be rightly determined when it is firmly located within a conceptually evolving trajectory rests on a questionable semantic foundation. Because the prophetic writings were soon treasured as authoritative Scripture, textual expansion occurred in the process of continual usage not toward the goal of correcting concepts deemed false - a concept quite unthinkable in Judaism - but in order to elucidate and confirm for its hearers the truth of a prophetic message which it was assumed to possess." (1996: 374-375).

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.
Please check out these references on Prophetic Truth.

1. www.kneeoflistening.com
2. www.dabase.org/truthfrl.htm
3. www.dabase.org/proofch6.htm
4. www.dabase.org/rgcbpobk.htm
5. www.realgod.org
6. www.aboutadidam.org
7. www.ispeace723.org

Phil Sumpter said...

Could you relate this to my post?

James Pate said...

That's happened to me a few times!

Here's a question I have. There are a lot of issues that confront believers about prophecy, especially when they encounter the historical-critical approach to it. For example, the prophecies were not always fulfilled in the manner that the prophet predicted (e.g., Babylon didn't decimate Egypt). The prophets also seemed to believe that the eschatological renewal would happen in their day. Many of us as Christians assume that the eschatological renewal will occur when Christ returns, but Isaiah seems to believe that God will purify Israel through the Assyrians and then set up the Messianic age. Jeremiah believes the Messianic Age will occur after 70 years of exile.

So how would Childs' address this? My impression from your posts is that he would say the parts about eschatological restoration are not necessarily connected with history.

I could try to flesh this out more, but I'll see how you respond.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your question James. Here are a few thoughts of mine, though I look forward to hearing how you flesh out yours.

I think the first issue that needs to be dealt with is not whether prophecies have been fulfilled or not, but how biblical prophecy works and what counts as fulfilment. The concept of 'figuration' would seem to be important here. As Seitz said concerning Isaiah, “events are typologically fraught, that is, they mean what they mean for contemporaries but contain within themselves a significance that ramifies into the future” (1998: 288). This is where the 'canonical' nature of textual expansion comes in; as my Childs citation says: “textual expansion occurred in the process of continual usage not toward the goal of correcting concepts deemed false ... but in order to elucidate and confirm for its hearers the truth of the prophetic message which it was assumed to possess.” The key here is “to elucidate and confirm”. Whatever the prophets said concerning the will of God and how that unfolds in history, they had disciples who came after them who testified to the fulfilment of that word within their own day, yet at the same time were open to seeing it pushing forward to a more final resolution in time. As Childs says, “it is the function of prophetic eschatology to remain future-orientated to every successive generation” (374; though I'm still trying to figure out what this means!).

I can't speak for all the examples you gave. Perhaps, in some of them, the historical critics are wrong, or perhaps inadequate. The example of the Assyrians is simply that, whatever the original Isaiah though about this event, the threat of the historical Assyrians to historical Judah was not the ultimate issue at stake. I'm wary about guessing what that issue is without having properly studied Isaiah, but it probably has something to do with God's plan for the world, the people he's called to accomplish it and their failure to do so. The Assyrian crisis is a real and genuine part of this. We need to retain the concrete historical dimension as that dimension belongs to God's plans too: it's this world his working in and its this people he's chosen. However, in the progress of time, the disciples of Isaiah (ch. 8) both understood what was really going on and witnessed to this reality on a broader horizon. This broader reality finds expression in the final form the of the text. Theological exegesis, which is interested in God's plan and not the historical Isaiah, will ultimately be interested in this broader horizon and thus must focus on the final form.

All this means for me that “the parts about eschatological restoration” are indeed connected with history, but in a subtle way. The task of the theological exegete is to look at the interelatedness of this.

Tell me if this isn't clear, and I'll give it another shot. My main problem at the moment is that this is all rather theoretical, with little actual exegetical grounding. I hope, in the near future, to work through Childs' two commentaries with an eye to these issues.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Textual expansion occurred in the process of continual usage not toward the goal of correcting concepts deemed false - a concept quite unthinkable in Judaism - but in order to elucidate and confirm for its hearers the truth of a prophetic message which it was assumed to possess.

I don't think it was unthinkable to Jews that they should correct concepts deemed false. There's a rather obvious example in Amos 9:

"Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground,
except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,"
declares the LORD."

The last third of the verse, which I have italicized, looks to be a rather obvious interpolation. Sometimes Amos did speak of a remnant who would survive. But the first part of chapter 9 says this:

"… those who are left of them I will kill with the sword;
not one of them shall flee away;
not one of them shall escape.

"If they dig into Sheol,
from there shall my hand take them;
if they climb up to heaven,
from there I will bring them down.
If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel,
from there I will search them out and take them;
and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea,
there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them.
And if they go into captivity before their enemies,
there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them;
and I will fix my eyes upon them
for evil and not for good."

The interpolation at the end of verse eight lets all the air out of Amos's message. What is it but a direct contradiction of what Amos had written — a correction of something that a later readactor deemed false?

Moreover, Amos was right: God did destroy the northern kingdom. The ten tribes vanished from history.

I have a question, Phil. Do you believe that God inspired the prophets; that his word came to them?

Because this is where Childs leaves me shaking my head. Amos received a word from the LORD. Later redactors didn't like some of what Amos had written, so they changed it.

Were the later redactors inspired? Was Amos just as uninspired as the later redactors? (Evidently not, since Amos's prophecies came true in remarkable ways.)

If Amos received a message from God, how is it acceptable for later, uninspired redactors to mess with it?

I understand re-interpreting the message in a new historical context, and I'm OK with it. To that extent, I'm OK with what the redactors did.

But I can't accept Childs's bottom line, which seems to give equal weight to Amos's prophecy and the redactor's meddling with it. Indeed, Childs seems to privilege the redactors' work above Amos's original prophecy. That just doesn't sit right with me.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your thoughts Stephen. Sorry that it's taken me so long to get back to you, I've had a lot to do recently (such as trying to figure out my new Logos Bible Software!).

I don't think it was unthinkable to Jews that they should correct concepts deemed false.

Childs' mention of 'Judaism' here is parenthetical, it doesn't contribute to the main argument. It can't do because 'Judaism' is a post-biblical phenomenon. Your Amos quote is not 'Jewish', it's 'Israelite'. Childs is simply assuming that there is a strong likelihood that what held for ancient Israelites would have left it's marks on its later outgrowth, Judaism. Therefore, if Judaism rejects the idea (which it did), then it would seem reasonable to suppose that ancient Israelite literature (e.g. Amos) functioned along similar lines.

There's a rather obvious example in Amos 9: ... The last third of the verse, which I have italicized, looks to be a rather obvious interpolation.

As this article has made clear, Childs also works with a notion of editorial expansion, which you identify here. Childs' point, however, concerns the nature of this expansion.

What is it but a direct contradiction of what Amos had written — a correction of something that a later readactor deemed false?

This is the issue under discussion: what is the nature of the expansion, a correction or what? To be honest, I can't answer you at this point as I've not studied Amos. You may have a point, but I'm inclined to believe that the nature of the relation is more complex than simple contradiction with the effect of deflation. This is a major weakness of mine at the moment: I know the theory but in practise I'm little acquainted with exegesis. That is my next task, to work through Childs' actual commentaries (Exodus and Isaiah) and see how he works his approach out. Please bear with me ...

Do you believe that God inspired the prophets; that his word came to them?

Yes ... but the nature of the process I'm not sure of. At the moment I'd say that God's way of relating to his people was manifold and complex and as such could involve direct speech as well as the providential unfolding of his will through disciples of prophets. Again, this is an area I want to get my head round. Seitz once said that Childs believes in some form of progressive revelation. I'm not sure to be honest ... What I would like to affirm, in line with my current Childsian approach, is that what the later redactors did was not simply changing the text to suit their private agendas. I'd like to go along with Childs' suggestion that their expansion was, somehow, part of the outworking of the Word of God to the historical prophet, making its way to fulfilment through history. The result is that the combined witness of the final form is a faithful - and not private or conflicting – testimony to what God was doing through the historical Amos, now, latterly, understood within the context of the fulfilment, or at least further outworking, of that original, historical message.

If Amos received a message from God, how is it acceptable for later, uninspired redactors to mess with it?

Well, Childs would simply say that they didn't 'mess with it'. To do such a thing would indeed be unacceptable (and labelling later interpretative work as 'messing with the text' implies access to a better norm by which to judge the truth of their interpretations ... a tricky thing to do). They submitted to it and testified to the outworking of the message within history. Of course, that would have to be backed up with evidence, which I don't have on me right now. Seitz, I've heard, is writing a lot on the minor prophets, perhaps we should see what he says about Amos ...

Were the later redactors inspired?

In light of the above, yes. If in the same way as Amos, I don't know.

But I can't accept Childs's bottom line, which seems to give equal weight to Amos's prophecy and the redactor's meddling with it.

Why would you privilege Amos over his disciples? At stake here could be a particular view of inspiration, i.e. God only spoke to concrete historical personages and what ever he said to them there and then is what matters. That would seem to leave most of the Bible uninspired and ignore other ways in which God reveals himself. Or, perhaps a commitment to a particular theological norm is at stake here, i.e. one kind of truth is more acceptable than another and is allowed to judge the others. This would involve the interpreter placing himself above the text as its judge, and not beneath it as its servant.

I think the phrase 'meddling with it' involves an implied value judgement that needs to be brought to light and better analysed. That's not to say that the disciples didn't meddle with Amos' message, it's just to raise the question of what counts as 'meddling', what is being perverted and lost?

I appreciate you probing me like this. I'll keep Amos 9 in mind.