Monday, 7 January 2008

Intentionality and the Final Form

I've been struggling to understand the relationship of authorial/editorial intentionality and theological interpretation of the final form of the text. Childs distinguishes the 'canonical approach' from Redaction Criticism by pointing out that the focus of interpretation is on the effect created by the editorial work on the final form, which is distinct from the actual intentionality of the editors themselves. Thus, he can say the following:

"Whether or not one can determine the motivation for joining Gen. 1 with Gen. 2, the present juxtaposition within a larger literary context affects the semantic level on which ch. 2 is read." (JSOT 16, 1980: 54).
Yet, at the same time, he does believe that some sort of intentionality is vital for the canonical approach, such that our interpretations should be 'coerced' by it (e.g. in this article) I've just re-read Seitz's intro to Word Without End, and I feel that I'm on the road to understanding what the nature of this 'intentionality' is.

The 'canonical intentionality' of the final form includes the discreet intentionalities of the tradents, yet is at the same time of a different order (or at a different level). It goes beyond them somehow. This, at first, seems an odd idea (Barr called the concept 'magical'). However, a truly theocentric reading (which is how Childs sells his idea) is interested not in the text itself, but in the reality (res) to which the text points. This reality is (arguably) theological and is outside the text (hence allegory over midrash for Christians). In other words, the truth to which the text witnesses is greater, richer and more complex then the individual authors could have perceived. It encompasses the text, author and reading community.

The various tradents of the traditions did their work in reponse to this one reality, such that they participated in it while never comprehending it fully. To the degree that the tradents submitted to this reality, their combined messages were consistent with it while never fully comprehending it. It would then seem logical that even traditions which were accidentally brought together (a reality Childs affirms) would speak of this truth more adequately when heard in concert. To get back to the author's conscious intention is to make an anthropocentric move, one which from the outset assumes revelation is not a case of an external reality evoking a response from a people united by covenant and faith. This qualifies Childs' use of 'reader response' theory. The reader is responding to something that was 'intended', though ultimately it God who is intending and not the individual authors.

This assumes that there is a single reality behind the diversity, thus ensuring that canonical interpretation can only really be done by those who believe it in the first place. A secular approach will struggle to comprehend a move that goes beyond concrete, historical intentionality (including the postmodern variety, which focuses on our concrete, historical intentionality).

Does that make sense? Feel free to tell me I'm missing the point ...

UPDATE: Murray Rae wrote an excellent essay on this topic in the first edition of the Journal of Theological Interpretation. It's entitled "Texts in Context: Scripture and the Divine Economy" and can be read here (after Joel Green's short intro).

6 comments:

Craig said...

Philip

This is a very timely post for me as I've been indirectly thinking on some of these same issues. I'm looking forward to finding some time to read the article you've helpfully pointed out, and I thank you for your post, it has definitely given me some new food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Im John from Melbourne.

Intentionality is a very important topic both individually and collectively, especially in the field of religion, and the putting together of Sacred Texts, and of course their interpretation over the centuries.

The intentions of those who put together the original texts have obviously set the parameters for all future understandings and interpretations. There are other important cultural factors too of course.

That having been said please check out this radically different understanding of the origins of the Bible, and the INTENTIONS of those who put it together----what they left out or excluded was VERY important.

1. www.dabase.org/exochrist.htm
2. www.dabase.org/spiritw.htm

Phil Sumpter said...

Craig,

I'm glad to hear that it was of some help! If you want to discuss the article feel free to comment further.

John,

I appreciate that this time you've made more of an effort to relate your proselytizing to the actual content of my post, but I'm afraid I'm not talking about the discreet intentions of particular authors. I'm talking about the hermeneutical significance of authorial intentionality for the interpretation of the Bible in general. Please try harder next time.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

You write, "To get back to the author's conscious intention is to make an anthropocentric move, one which from the outset assumes revelation is not a case of an external reality evoking a response from a people united by covenant and faith. This qualifies Childs' use of 'reader response' theory. The reader is responding to something that was 'intended', though ultimately it God who is intending and not the individual authors." There are a number of problems here.

First, of course, is it really "anthropocentric" to "get back to the author's conscious intention"? Is that true, even when what the author is saying is theocentric or christocentric? Of course, you are talking only about a mode of hermeneutic, and not the content. My real point, however, is that one could play this game with a lot of things. One could, for example, say that any soteriology that requires a human response to God's grace is anthropocentric, and therefore (according to the criteriology of anti-anthropocentrism) has to be wrong. The logic, in fact, isn't real logic, but rather what Barr calls "preacher's logic". (I see an awfully lot of this "preacher's logic" in Childs's work, and even more in Seitz's. A lot of rhetoric that implies that one view of Scripture is "higher" than another view works just this way.)

Also, why should we assume that "revelation is . . . a case of an external reality evoking a response from a people united by covenant and faith"? The starting point for this line of thought appears to be the Reformation notion of God-activated faith, which appears in either the Calvinist conceit of having God act directly as the depositor of faith, or the Lutheran conceit [based on a misunderstanding of Rom 10:17] of having faith dealt out through some mystical power inherent in the Word. Neither of these views is even remotely scriptural. But even putting it in terms of revelation is to grant too much, as I still don't see what revelation has to do with the Bible's understanding of itself.

And, finally, I would object to the claim that God is "intending" something in or through Scripture, simply on the grounds of its artificiality: that conceit lies completely beyond anything that the Bible claims about itself.

So, you see, Phil, I'm back to my same contention: Childs's understanding of the Bible consists of numerous layers of stray claims and false inferences about Scripture, most of which are based on claims made for the Bible by later traditionalists rather than by the Bible itself. That's why I prefer Barr's view--it's based on a searching analysis of the Bible's self-understanding, and on a proper understanding of how the New Testament relates to the kerygma. It is *not* a liberal view *at all*. It is the *only* view I know that respects the role of the kerygma and its philosophical implications.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

To the degree that the tradents submitted to this reality, their combined messages were consistent with it while never fully comprehending it. It would then seem logical that even traditions which were accidentally brought together (a reality Childs affirms) would speak of this truth more adequately when heard in concert.

I'm somewhat sympathetic to this on merely literary grounds. It seems obvious that authors frequently write better than they know. Subsequent interpreters can pick up all sorts of allusions and symbolism. They may have been only partially intentional on the part of the author, and yet they seem to make good sense of the text.

Childs evidently would extend the principle to editorial activity, which is a little more dubious by me. And yet I acknowledge it isn't inconceivable.

But I would rather see these two intentionalities in tension with one another. The author set out to say a certain thing; the editor has changed what the author said, both by changing the text and setting it in juxtaposition to other texts which were not selected by the original author.

What we have are two "voices": one authorial, the other editorial (even if the editors were many, and were active over many years).

I wouldn't privilege the final product over the original. I would simply acknowledge the tensions between them, and allow them to interact with one another dialectically. In my view, that is much less ideological an approach than the unwarranted claim that the final product is precisely as God willed it to be.

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

is it really "anthropocentric" to "get back to the author's conscious intention"?

Perhaps 'anthropocentric' was the wrong word. I was struggling to find an adequate one (I wrote this a while ago and have only just posted it). I'm thinking here of a special kind of interpretation. We can read a text from different angles and for different reasons. Trying to ascertain authorial intention is one thing we can try and do, and that isn't bad. In fact, it's necessary as it belongs to the nature of a text that it was written for a particular communicative purpose. The kind of interpretation I'm interested in is one which is oriented to understanding God and his Gospel. It assumes that the God of the Gospel has chosen to reveal himself through the totality of the prophetic witness and not just elements of it. While particular authors evidently make extremely theocentric statements, and while it's important to get at what they're wanting to say, theological interpretation must move beyond these discreet intentionalities to get at the bigger picture. This doesn't have to be done in terms of privileging the final redactional layer over all others. It can be done in terms of finished books. Paul alone doesn't represent the Gospel. Neither does the Gospel of John. Regardless of their discrete intentionalities, it is the combined choir of voices that counts.

One could, for example, say that any soteriology that requires a human response to God's grace is anthropocentric

Seeing as I defined revelation as a “human response”, I don't get how this follows.

A lot of rhetoric that implies that one view of Scripture is "higher" than another view works just this way

See my response to your previous comments here: http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2008/01/final-form-of-text.html

The starting point for this line of thought appears to be the Reformation notion of God-activated faith

I'm afraid I don't get the connection with Luther or Calvin.

I still don't see what revelation has to do with the Bible's understanding of itself.

Look up the words 'revelation' or 'reveal' in a concordance. The idea is simply that God is hidden and chooses to reveal himself to elect people. I don't see how one could miss that in the Bible.

And, finally, I would object to the claim that God is "intending" something in or through Scripture

This is partly what my post on Moses, God and Scripture was about (here: http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2007/12/god-moses-and-scripture.html). Here I talk about how God's revelation to Moses was stored in textual form, which then, throughout Israelite history, was regarded as being the medium for the revealing of his will. That's just one example. Isaiah 8 is another.

Stephen,

It seems obvious that authors frequently write better than they know

Nice way of putting it, thanks.

Childs evidently would extend the principle to editorial activity

The editors were not reacting to allusions or symbols they found in the text. They were witnessing to the expansion and fulfilment of the prophetic message in time.

Which is why, if this is true, I don't see Childs' privileging of the final form as 'unwarranted'. He gives a warrant, it's just a matter of agreeing with him or not.

But I would rather see these two intentionalities in tension with one another.

Actual exegesis of the text is the arena to test these hypotheses out. I hope to do some of that in more detail in the near future.