Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Implementing Barth's Programme Exegetically

The nature of Childs' concept of 'canonical context' as a theological and not just literary context has become clearer to me as I've been reading Karl Barth. It also seems to me that his development of this concept grew out of a concern to impliment Barth's project exegetically.

My logic runs like this:
  1. The appropriate (sachgemäß) focus of theology (whether dogmatic or exegetical) is the Gospel, the “work and word of God in the Immanuel-Story”, which is a narrative.

  2. This story is unitary, it is the single story of God's redemption.

  3. The witnesses to this story, however, are manifold.


  4. Therefore, the task of theology is a matter of gathering and syn-opsis, "seeing together" (Zusammensehen), with the goal of discerning the one story.


  5. Given that the witnesses were elected historical individuals ("the prophets and apostles"), Barth affirms that it is what they said that should form the raw material for this synthesising, i.e. the sources, redactors etc.


  6. Childs agrees with Barth on everything.

  7. There is one problem: how do we relate the parts?

  8. Here the canon steps in: it provides the structure for relating the parts to each other, some being subordinated, some being highlighted, some having their semantic content shifted. The canon was actually designed to do this, as it both creates and maintains the unity of the Bible (1970: 39).


  9. The final form thus becomes valid because it is the form which provides the co-ordinates in which the Gospel in its fullness can be perceived. This rational for focus on the final form is different to contemporary literary approaches, postmodern approaches, and other attempts to find ways to bridge the gap between past and present (symbolic, psychological, existential). It thus provides, I think, a fitting context for Seitz's claims that the real issue at stake in contemporary theological interpretation is not an adequate hermeneutics but an adequate theological appreciation of the nature of the Gospel and its God (which would seem to find its Brennpunkt in the question of the nature of the relation of the two testaments).

Does this follow? Are the assumptions correct? Is not the work of Seitz the way forward for the Church?

11 comments:

R.O. Flyer said...

In Barr's opinion Childs has no historical basis for assuming that the canon was "designed" to present the biblical material in a specifically theological way. Childs argues that the final canonical form of the text should take precedence on the basis of some profound theological decision by the church. But Barr doubts the historical validity of such a claim. Instead, Barr argues that the canonization process was much more fluid than what Childs envisions.

James Pate said...

Does Barth see the Gospel writers as actual eyewitnesses to Jesus, or does he mean something else by "witness"?

Ed said...

Thanks Phil for your continued helpful re-articulation of Childs' programe.

That Barr is skeptical is not news and says very little really.

We must allow Childs to ask what Israel thought they were were doing when they were passing on their tradition. Ok perhaps "designed" is a bit strong and should be nuanced a bit and surely the whole process was rather fluid.

It is difficult to image that the books that we have were simply randomly thrown together. We must ask why these?

Phil Sumpter said...

R.O. Flyer,

the differences between Childs and Barr on the nature of the canonical process need to be evaluated on the basis of particular arguments. The argument went back and forth over many years and scholarship is still divided on the issue. I should point out that Childs does not attribute the value of the final form to "some profound theological decision of the church." "Canonical process" is a broad term reffering to Israels religious use of its traditions, a usage which is multifaceted and which has resulted in the structuring of the material in a particular way. The process extends throughout its history and is not the result of a decision made by an ecclesial body, imposing its will on the text. As Childs said in his Introduction and repeate in his JSOT "Response to Reviewers": "the final fixing of the Hebrew canon was only the final stage in a long process." As such, the fluidity of the process doesn't pose a challenge to Childs approach. Again, to quote from JSOT:

"when one focuses on attempting to understand how Israel struggled throughout its history in understanding its traditions religiously, the variety of solutions and complexity of responses should not be surprising. ... the point to be emphasisized is that there are important elements of continuity extending throughout the entire history of the literature's formation which are connected - at times loosely - with a religious concern" (p.53).

James,

I don't know, I haven't read him on that (I've only read his Introduction!). But I think it's clear that he would see "eye-witness" as a subcategory of "witness". The point is that the reality to which the prophets and apostels were witnessing was not just the historical Jesus, but "the Word and Work of God in Christ", which is intimately intertwined with the covenant with Israel. As such, the theological truth to which the texts witness includes yet also exceeds historical events (tell me if that's not clear. See my Seit quote in my post here: http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2008/01/what-is-centre-of-scripture-jesus-of.html).

Ed,

Barr was more than sceptical. A number of scholars (Brueggemann, Levenson, Seitz) have noted his unprofessional vitriolic tone (B. called him an "academic terrorist"!)

It is difficult to image that the books that we have were simply randomly thrown together. We must ask why these?

Sure. Yet, as I said to Flyer, which must not only "ask why these books", but also "why these elements which now form books"?

Ed said...

An "academic terrorist" yup that's Barr. But that does not mean that we are allowed to ignore him. We must listen to good argumentation even if it comes from a terrorist.

Glad you asked your question "Why these elements which now form books"? I'm reminded of a discussion you and I had on Tilling's blog about Brueggemann and Childs. Brueggemann, as we all know, takes great delight in uncovering and exploiting the tensions in the text. He has this notion of a "counter testimony," which Childs criticizes. Arguing that Israel's authors had already rendered judgment on these voices. Fair enough - I'm rather sympathetic with Childs here. Nevertheless you still have to ask "why are these elements still here"? Isreal's judgment was not very harsh - they chose to preserve them while at the same time forcing these contrary voices to submit to the larger voice.

I don't think it will do to argue that these are the voices that Israel rejected and we should too. Rather I'd like to say that Childs is right the text was preserved and shaped to point beyond itself. But the reality it points to is a complex one. It preserved the tension and the "counter testimony" for exactly this reason.

R.O. Flyer said...

Academic terrorist? Wow, I find that hard to believe coming from Walter Brueggemann. Certainly, James Barr is one of the most well-respected OT scholars of this century. Indeed, Barr abolished every fallacy of the "biblical theology movement" and rightly so!

I agree Childs does emphasize the "canonical process." Of course, the canon was finally established by the church, not Israel.
This was the quote I had in mind.

Childs writes, "A major point which emerged was the insight that the lengthy process of the development of the literature leading up to the final stage of canonization involved a profoundly hermeneutical activity on the part of the tradents (contra Barr, Holy Scripture, 67)" (Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 70).

R.O. Flyer said...

The central question is why should we assume that "the lengthy process of the development of the literature leading up to the final stage of canonization involved a profoundly hermeneutical activity"? Childs never answers this.

James Pate said...

Thanks for your response. So what is being witnessed is the word and work of Christ. Does that mean the effects of Christianity (e.g., conversions). I know that Barth considers the OT to be a witness to Christ. How so, if Christ wasn't born yet (unless the prophets foreseeing Christ counts as a witness)?

Phil Sumpter said...

Ed,

I thought it was you ... welcome to my blog:).

you still have to ask "why are these elements still here"? Isreal's judgment was not very harsh

"Counter testimony" is a strong interpretive judgement, though at the end of the day this is an exegetical question, so we need to be looking at concrete texts. I'll soon be delving into Childs' exegetical works, once I've got Barth and Frei out of the way, so hopefully I'll be able to back up the theory with more evidence.

I agree that the reality the Bible points to is complex! I think it's somehow relational, which negates the need for a static system.

R.O. Flyer,

the reference is Brueggemann, "James Barr on Old Testament Theology." Seitz calls it a careful and sensitive analysis, though I haven't read it.

Barr was certainly a genius and has had a profound impact on biblical studies (in the area of semantics I'd say a positive one, though I'm not a Barr expert). Barr was not alone in demolishing the "biblical theology movement." As far as I am aware, Childs was equally important and it was even he who coined the phrase, identifying it as a particularly American phenomenon (see his Biblical Theology in Crisis, 1970). The difference is that whereas Barr rejected biblical theology per se, Childs set up his own alternative.

Of course, the canon was finally established by the church, not Israel.

Judaism set up its own canon independent of the church. This fact is actually theologically significant for Childs' preferring (though not exclusively) the MT canon.

The central question is why should we assume that "the lengthy process of the development of the literature leading up to the final stage of canonization involved a profoundly hermeneutical activity"? Childs never answers this.

I'm afraid I don't understand how you can say that ... answering this question was the subject of most of Childs' work. I can only say, read almost anything he wrote!

James,

an important clarification: it is not the word and work of Christ that is being witnessed, it is the word and work of God in Christ. This changes the nature of the referent to something exceeding the historical Jesus. Conversion is a response to this reality, not the reality being witnessed to.

I know that Barth considers the OT to be a witness to Christ. How so, if Christ wasn't born yet

Barth doesn't see prophecy in future predicting terms (well, not that I'm aware, anyway). It's a matter of typology, the one reality being presented in various prefigurations. Well, that' my limited answer anyway. The OT didn't witness the historical Jesus, so the question of him not being born yet is irrelevant. It witnesses God in Christ, which for Barth has something to do with the covenant. Jesus was the perfect covenant partner, something Israel failed to be. God's covenantal work in Jesus was prefigured in his covenantal work with Israel. I know this is a lame summary at the momement, but I'm still trying to get my head round it myself. See my two posts here (http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2008/01/what-is-centre-of-scripture-jesus-of.html) and then here (http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2008/01/covenant-as-object-of-theological.html).

I hope that helps somewhat ...

R.O. Flyer said...

"Judaism set up its own canon independent of the church. This fact is actually theologically significant for Childs' preferring (though not exclusively) the MT canon."

This is, of course, historically problematic. Most biblical scholarship argues that there was no Jewish canon in the first century. During the formation of the canon the proto-MT was not authoritative for Christians, but rather Greek versions (LXX). Childs wants to maintain the MT because of some belief that there was a Hebrew canon in the first century and it looked a lot like the MT, but this is simply not supported by the historical evidence (as the majority of biblical scholarship has pointed out).

"The central question is why should we assume that "the lengthy process of the development of the literature leading up to the final stage of canonization involved a profoundly hermeneutical activity"? I'm afraid I don't understand how you can say that ... answering this question was the subject of most of Childs' work. I can only say, read almost anything he wrote!"

Sorry, I meant to say that Childs never adequately answers this or really explains why this ought to be important for us theologically. Even if he could argue that there was a profoundly hermeneutical activity taking place why does this matter. Why should we privilege the "canonical process" (that is by no means uniform or always that reflective per se) theologically. Why do the redactors somehow more theologically inspired?

Actually, I would argue that James Barr almost single handedly dismantled the so-called "biblical theology movement" in his book the Semantics of Biblical Language written in 1961. Although Childs offers some strong critiques of the movement in Crisis, it was by that time a dying movement.

I hope my comments are helpful. I realize I might be coming off a bit strong. I agree that James Barr doesn't offer one with a theological alternative. Actually, I deeply sympathize with Childs' project and other biblical theologians. However, I do think "biblical theology" as a discipline is deeply in trouble and needs some serious rethinking. I think Childs' later work moves in a better direction, especially is book on Isaiah.

Phil Sumpter said...

R.O. Flyer,

don't worry about comming off a bit strong! I always appreciate a challenging dialogue. So thank you for your input, I hope it continues. I'd love to know how you think Childs' later work moves in a better direction. I intend to start comparing his two commentaries at some point.

By the way, Childs never claimed that the MT was canonized or even fixed in the first century. He explicitly states this in his Introduction. The issue is the "ontological continuity of the people of God," who he believes are the Jewish people. The criteria of which text to read in the early Church was not one text over others (e.g. LXX as authoritative), but whatever text the local Jewish community was using, which happened to be the LXX. For a brief overview of text types in the NT, see John Hobbins' comments in the comment section of this post: http://emergingfrombabel.blogspot.com/2007/11/which-text-masoretic-or-septuagint.html.

Why should we privilege the "canonical process" ... theologically. Why do the redactors somehow more theologically inspired?

Childs gives theological arguments for this. It has something to do with progressive revelation, plenary inspiration, the eschatological unfolding of God's will, the fact of the unity of the Gospel as the object of a diverse textual witness, the centrality of normative categories in Christianity, the theological criteria of the regula fidei etc.

Childs doesn't believe that the later redactors were "more inspired." He explicitly rejects this a number of times. It's a matter of the nature of the relation. See my lates thread on his article "Retrospective Reading of OT Prophets", which I concluded here: http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2008/01/final-form-of-text.html