Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Luke 24:13-35 and the Dogmatics/Exegesis Relation

A while back I made the point that posing a dogmatics/exegesis dichotomy is not only impossible to implement in reality (i.e. we always assume a theology before we read; see also Ben Myers on this here), it is also theologically undesirable. This is because the object of theological interpretation is not ultimately the text but the reality to which it points: Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be found in any one text of the Bible, but rather represents the totality of the witness of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. To turn the Bible itself into the Word of God is biblicism.

A certain Michael has asked me how this relates to the Emmaus road story (Luke 24:13-35). I'm glad for the question as thinking about it has helped confirm for me the truth that theological interpretation is and should always be a dialectic between dogmatics and exegesis, rather than a one-way street in either direction.

"Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures."
Moberly [*] points out that the logic of Jesus' expounding the Scriptures to his puzzled disciples is that these Scriptures provide a context and a content for making sense of Jesus, when all that the disciples know about him already somehow has not "clicked"; Israel's Scriptures help one make sense of Jesus. This represents the move from exegesis to dogmatics. Yet these disciples are Jews who are already thoroughly familiar with these Scriptures, many of which they would know by heart. So, Moberly concludes, "presumably a further part of the logic of Jesus' exposition is that the disciples need to be able to read these Scriptures in a new way, in the light of all that had happened surrounding Jesus, so that they can see in these Scriptures what they had not seen before; Jesus helps one make sense of Israel's Scriptures. Thus a two-way dialectic between Jesus and Israel's Scriptures is envisaged, both being necessary for Christian understanding of the crucified and risen Lord" (80).

The key point here is that it is the risen Jesus himself, an extra-textual reality, who positions us to be able to understand the texts that at the same time point to him. How do we get to know the Jesus who interprets the Bible for us? There are many ways, but central is the community of the church, who has preserved the Gospel for us and communicates it to us in summary forms such as in creeds and theological summa. One can't, on theological grounds, remove dogmatics from the activity of exegesis.

[*] R. W. L. Moberly, "Christ in All the Scriptures? The Challenge of Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture" Journal of Theological Interpretation I.I (2007) 79-100.

8 comments:

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

What you say is the “key point” is in fact something that arises neither from Luke 24 nor from the Moberly passage that you quote.

You write, “The key point here is that it is the risen Jesus himself, an extra-textual reality, who positions us to be able to understand the texts that at the same time point to him. How do we get to know the Jesus who interprets the Bible for us? There are many ways, but central is the community of the church, who has preserved the Gospel for us and communicates it to us in summary forms such as in creeds and theological summa.”

To get from what Jesus and Moberly say to “Jesus . . . interprets the Bible for us” is a considerable jump, as what is meant by interpretation in the light of the Christ event is to match Scripture up with the kerygmatic events, *not* to make Jesus a hermeneutical agent. In fact, Jesus speaks to the two disciples on the Emmaus road as if they should have arrived at the correct interpretation of Scripture *on their own*, quite apart from his guidance. (I have not read Moberly, so I cannot speak for what he says in the rest of his article.)

And how could the ecclesial context of hermeneutics (which you invoke through calling “the community of the church” “central” for interpretation) be relevant for the disciples on the Emmaus road? Jesus expected them to have arrived at the correct understanding of Scripture apart from his own guidance, *and* apart from an ecclesial context.

The apostolic kerygma understands the relation of Scripture to the Christ event in objective terms, separate from any sort of ecclesial hermeneutic or any other type of “insider” scheme.

Anonymous said...

Like John, I too am uneasy with immediately moving from "how do we get to know Jesus" to "through the community of the Church." I think you can articulate this in a way that IS true; but I'm not convinced that it has any significance for the hermeneutical question.

I'd also like to challenge Moberly's assumption that Jesus' disciples are necessarily "thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures." Were they? To be sure, the rhetoric of the NT authors and of Jesus is a rhetoric of textual and intertextual competence; but given what we know about literacy and social dynamics in the 1st c. I don't think we should rush to assume anything about the disciples' "familiarity."

My biggest concern is that we do not project anachronistic notions of "pneumatic exegesis" into places where it is not warranted.

When Moberly says "read the Scriptures in a new way," this is precisely what I want to see elucidated: what exactly is happening? Does Luke think Jesus is showing them purely textual connections that they have not seen? Is he showing them connections between the text and his own actions that they had not seen? Or both? Surely Luke 24:45 does not mean that Jesus is sprinkling magical pixie dust on the disciples which enables them to arbitrarily "see Jesus" in every chapter of the Bible.

But Philip: I think you are correct that extratextual realities DO have an impact on how we construe texts (but is the relationship of dogmatics to exegesis the appropriate lens through which to view this? Do not both point to an external reality?). Keep helping us think with you on this.

(and I tried to come up with a humorous response to the knee-jerk Barthian reflex on "biblicism" but couldn't think of anything clever. Oh well ;)

as always, thanks for your thoughts,

Michael

Phil Sumpter said...

Thank you both for your thoughts and for challenging me to think through this issue. I'll start my response to John, but I think the points are relevant to both comments. Please keep pushing me on this.

I should first point out that by using this text to back up my claim that dogmatics should play a role in theological (though not necessarily historical) exegesis, I am not saying that this argument as a whole is present within the text. I'm pointing out a certain logic which can be extended to our situation, which is different to the one presented in the text. We neither know Jesus in the same way as Cleopas & co. did and we have the benefit of Pentecost and the broader Christian canon (e.g. the writings of Paul).

Thus my “key point” is not a summary of the meaning of the text but its relevance to my broader argument, which is that reading the Bible as Christian scripture involves more than paying close attention to the “literal sense”. This alone will not lead us to Christ, the text's true subject matter.

I am not arguing that Jesus personally interprets the Bible for us in some mystical way. I am arguing that Christianity requires that Jesus is the content of the OT, yet coming to see this is not a matter of doing your historical-grammatical or literary exegesis rigorously enough. Something else needs to enter into the equation, a knowledge of the Christ who we expect to find there. When Christians see so clearly that Is. 53 points to Jesus, it's not because they've read the text hard enough and have come to the logical conclusion that it must be him. It's because they've already learnt something of him and now, with this new vision, turn back to the text and pick up echoes which they previously wouldn't have heard. Struggling to bring the text back into relation with the Jesus leads to a profounder understanding of who he is (e.g. that he isn't just a suffering servant, but God's way of equipping Zion to fulfil the divine plan it had ignored prior to exile). This is my “key point,” which I feel is illustrated by the image of confused disciples meeting an interpreter who already knows what's going on and helps them to see this. We today have a better understanding of Jesus than the disciples (i.e. second person of the trinity). Therefore, when we read the OT, we read it in relation to this element of his identity and not the one which the Jesus on the Emmaus road chose to highlight. Dogmatics represents the fuller knowledge of Christ, gained from exegesis yet feeding back into it.

This obviously doesn't tally with your statement that

what is meant by interpretation in the light of the Christ event is to match Scripture up with the kerygmatic events, *not* to make Jesus a hermeneutical agent.

Are you suggesting that knowledge of the OT alone is enough to cause faith in the kerygmatic events you mention? Why don't Jews or historical critics believe that then? I also don't see any evidence that it is naked events which are the sole subject matter of the OT. Jesus relates the scriptures “to himself”. It is his identity which is at stake. We don't know what he said, but if we consider this to be exemplary for later interpretation then it is the identity of Christ in its fullness which is the subject of the OT, and not the isolated events reported in the gospels. The “Christ event” in my understanding is more than an event, its a person, the incarnate son of God, second person of the trinity, eternal logos, sustainer of the universe. This is what should be brought in relation to the OT, not just Christ “events.”

Jesus speaks to the two disciples on the Emmaus road as if they should have arrived at the correct interpretation of Scripture *on their own*, quite apart from his guidance..

I think this issue is far more complicated than that. When Jesus accuses them of being “slow of heart,” he seems to be assuming an epistemology which doesn't accord with the modern one, which is tied to notions of independent access to reality via logic or empathy. Somehow, and I don't understand how, it's the person's moral state that plays a role in understanding, rather than intellectual capability or exegetical skill. In John the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign that he is who he claims to be. Jesus' answer is frustating: “I testify to myself.” He seems to be following the ancient prophet view that divine truth is self-authenticating (cf. The argument between Jeremiah and Hananiah). Whatever it is that holds the disciples back from understanding is more than exegetical acumen. There's no guarantee that they would have understood or believed even after Jesus had explained to them. I admit that I'm fairly ignorant on these matters, so feel free to contradict me!

And how could the ecclesial context of hermeneutics ... be relevant for the disciples on the Emmaus road?

I don't claim that ecclesial context was relevant for these particular disciples. Jesus was. We don't have Jesus today in the same way, but the church, the body of Christ, has preserved his teaching a “plumbed” it to depths undreamed of by the disciples and probably not taught by Jesus. I'm using the story to help guide us in theological hermeneutics, not as a template to be re-enacted.

The apostolic kerygma understands the relation of Scripture to the Christ event in objective terms, separate from any sort of ecclesial hermeneutic or any other type of “insider” scheme.

Can you provide evidence?

Michael,

I too am uneasy with immediately moving from "how do we get to know Jesus" to "through the community of the Church." I think you can articulate this in a way that IS true; but I'm not convinced that it has any significance for the hermeneutical question.

If it is the case that the content of the Bible is christological, and Christ was and is more than the “historical Jesus” or the resurrected son of God, then why should the later dogmatic formulations of the church be irrelevant for exegeting the text as Scripture?

I'd also like to challenge Moberly's assumption that Jesus' disciples are necessarily "thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures." Were they? To be sure, the rhetoric of the NT authors and of Jesus is a rhetoric of textual and intertextual competence;

Are you saying that at least in the narrative world of the text the disciples are presented as being “thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures”? Although the relationship between the world of realistic-narrative and the world of external history is significant and needs to be grasped, I would have thought that theologically at least the literary presentation of the disciples would be an important factor in interpreting the meaning of the story and its significance for the topic at issue.

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the term "pneumatic exegesis.”

When Moberly says "read the Scriptures in a new way," this is precisely what I want to see elucidated: what exactly is happening?

This is of course of central importance: how do we read the text? I'd like to suggest, however, that this is a logically independent issue. It is one thing to say that the centre of Scripture is Christ and to work out the implications of that, it is another thing to work out an interpretative method. A while back I started a thread in which I wanted to work through Childs' theological approach. The question of the christological centre of scripture is point no. 5, and I still haven't finished the first (the authority of scirpture)! Would it be OK if you bore with me until I reached that point? You can read the others here. A key concept is the the Bible functions as witness. We are not required to repeat the interpretative methods of the NT, which Childs calls biblicism.

By the way, I'd love to know what it is you don't like about the term 'biblicism'. It's quite important to me, so I'd like to have weaknesses pointed out!

But Philip: I think you are correct that extratextual realities DO have an impact on how we construe texts (but is the relationship of dogmatics to exegesis the appropriate lens through which to view this? Do not both point to an external reality?).

It's very important to understand that both dogmatics and exegesis point an external reality. They are both “witnesses,” hence the need for a dialectic movement between them. If one didn't point to a divine reality, then it would presumably become the norm for regulating the other, which wouldn't be good.

Please do tell me if I'm unclear or missing the point.

Anonymous said...

Philip,

> “If it is the case that the content of the Bible is christological, and Christ was and is more than the “historical Jesus” or the resurrected son of God, then why should the later dogmatic formulations of the church be irrelevant for exegeting the text as Scripture?”

I don’t think they are IRRELEVANT for exegesis of the text as Scripture; quite the contrary. But if exegesis was happening before the apostles, before the Church, and—dare I say—before Christ’s incarnation, I don’t think I want to make the possibility of exegesis CONTINGENT on the dogmatic formulations of the Church. You already have exegesis on Scripture occurring within what would be recognized as Scripture, done by the people of God, before the existence of the Church.

> “Are you saying that at least in the narrative world of the text the disciples are presented as being “thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures”?”

No—quite the contrary (esp. in Mark!). On the one hand, I don’t want to imagine that all 1st century Judeans are Rabbinic scholars, skilled exegetes, people who have the time to sit in the Beit Midrash day and night. That is why we can’t assume that the disciples are “thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures”—we simply don’t know they extent of their knowledge. On the other hand, we should also take seriously the depiction in the Gospels that Jesus did expect people to make connections between the text and his actions: he is acting out a script, and expects people to get it.

Just to complicate matters: we have evidence that pre-Christian Jewish communities are reading certain texts as referring to a messianic figure—the very same texts that later Jewish Jesus-followers would also read as messianic. So surely people are already making textual connections pointing to an extra-textual referent apart from (to use John’s term) “an ecclesial hermeneutic.” Just who are “all those looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” in Luke 2:38, and why would they be looking for anything if they weren’t seeing something in the text? This is pre-Easter, pre-Church, pre-kerygma.

>”This is of course of central importance: how do we read the text? I'd like to suggest, however, that this is a logically independent issue. It is one thing to say that the centre of Scripture is Christ and to work out the implications of that, it is another thing to work out an interpretative method.”

I really wonder if you can do this. How can you talk about a “centre” before you define what a text is? What kind of communication model are you using (even though you aren’t articulating it)? Doesn’t talk of a “centre” already presuppose an interpretive method?

> “I am arguing that Christianity requires that Jesus is the content of the OT, yet coming to see this is not a matter of doing your historical-grammatical or literary exegesis rigorously enough. Something else needs to enter into the equation, a knowledge of the Christ who we expect to find there. When Christians see so clearly that Is. 53 points to Jesus, it's not because they've read the text hard enough and have come to the logical conclusion that it must be him. It's because they've already learnt something of him and now, with this new vision, turn back to the text and pick up echoes which they previously wouldn't have heard.”

Three questions: (1) What is the source and content of this “we expect to find” and “they’ve already learnt”? (2) Why isn’t literary exegesis enough—simple ignorance? exegetical incompetence? moral defect (you are on to something here; cf. the use of Isaiah's blindness motif--not only in the NT, but already in DI & TI itself)? The fact that tracing messianic trajectories across books like Isaiah is actually quite difficult? Need there be a single answer? Regarding the relationship between exegesis and an external referent: does Acts 8:34-35 shed any light on how we construe difficult texts, and on how they are linked to an external referent? Does the “learnt something” of which you speak mean “Philip told the Ethiopian that Jesus was acting out Isa 53 as a messianic script”? Does “learnt something” for Christians mean “read the NT along with the OT”? (3) What is the value and function of Scripture (and these texts are being read as Scripture!) before the incarnation?

re: “biblicism”: maybe I just read you wrong. Do you object to labeling the Bible as “the Word of God,” or do you object to “turning the Bible into” the Word of God?

And yes, of course I’ll bear with you. This whole exchange (esp. your comments above!) has been very helpful for me, and I’m learning a great deal from our discussion.

Michael

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for keeping this up, Michael.

An important point on my part needs to be cleared up: by “ecclesial” I don't mean the church in contrast to Israel. I mean the one people of God. As such, the principle of theological interpretation which I'm attempting to outline here applies to the pre-incarnation period. That would mean, for example, that theological interpretation in Israel would have mean reading the individual texts in the light of some broader theological vision of what God was ultimately about (people tend to use the 'metanarrative' concept to explicate this). Thus, theological interpretation in Israel as well as in contemporary Judaism was never an attempt to isolate the meaning of a single text from the rest in order to interpret its one propositional meaning. The texts were read in relation to their theological referent, which provided a context for understanding them. N.T. Wright talks of the “Jewish metanarrative” as one organizing principle. This metanarrative is both biblical in that it faithfully represents what the diverse texts are about, yet it is also an abstraction not to be found in any one text. The formulating of this narrative was left to the interpretive activity of Israel and corresponds to what I mean by “the dogmatics of the church.” (By the way, the reading of the individual traditions in the light of a broader theological vision is built into the canonical structure of the text itself, guranteeing the final form of the text as the most adequate context for perceiving God's will and truth in Scripture; cf. Childs, and my post here. Barth seems to see the “covenant” as the theological referent of the text, see my post here).

As for us today, we claim that that which Israel saw partially, we now see fully, that for which they yearned, we have now received (well, partially at least). Theologically, there is an ontological continuity between that to which Israel witnessed and that to which we witness, only that they couldn't grasp it in its fullness. Hence, we should read the OT in relation to (though not necessarily through the lens of) dogma. I would claim that, theologically at least, it is the attempts to peel back the layers to get at the “original” meaning that produce the truest form of anachronism, and not the theological exegesis of those of a later day (see point three of my most recent post).

This, then, would nuance the issue of the disciples being “thoroughly familiar with the Scriptures”. I'm pretty sure Jesus didn't actually open up any text as they walked to Emmaus. Perhaps Scripture is here metonymous for that more complex mix of text and the interpretation based on the text, text and “Jewish metanarrative”? Perhaps Luke can say “Scripture” because he hasn't made the logical break between the text and the tradition that “bears” its meaning. This would seem to be a particularly Protestant phenomenon.

So, to try and sum up: what ever it was that led certain Jews to read certain texts messianically, I'm sure it was a mixture of both the constraint of the text itself and the theological matrix the Jews were situated in. Reading Psalm 2 messianically, for example, involves more than grammatical exegesis. It involves reading the Psalm within a broader horizon. We are only now beginning to see how the Psalter itself was shaped as a canonical whole with an eschatologizing agenda. The Psalm titles link these songs to the stories of David and link with each other in ways that cast their meaning in a new light. Some one was responsible for this editorial activity. Thought this activity was no doubt a response to the traditions themselves, there was a broader theological awareness guiding the process (so Childs, at least, contra most critical cynics).

If you don't mind, I'd like to get back to your other points tomorrow. I've got to go and read some Bultmann!

John Hobbins said...

As usual, Phil, you are carrying on a great conversation.

I'm not comfortable with a definition of the word of God that reserves that term for the word of God incarnate alone. Does Barth say that? Not that I remember. It is more helpful to work with a more classic taxonomy, to wit: the Word of God incarnate, the Word of God inscripturated, and the Word of God preached, and then elucidate the interrelationships.

The threefold taxonomy works well in the case of the Luke passage being discussed. The people of God and the metanarrative it refers to for its own self-understanding are in the background, to be sure, but not as important.

Phil Sumpter said...

Michael,

to continue where I left off:

Doesn’t talk of a “centre” already presuppose an interpretive method?

Hmm, I'm not sure why it would ... Talk of Scripture having a “centre” is talk of referentiality. Texts refer in different ways and to different things and at different levels. On the one hand, Christian theology claims that Christ is the ultimate referent of all the texts, regardless of the particular ways in which the texts refer to him. This is a challenge for the exegete who wants to be faithful to the text and to Christ. But claiming that all the texts ultimately refer to Christ does not entail one overall theory of how they communicate, such that they all refer to him in the same way. Poetry, history, law, myth etc. are all modes of communication which need to be looked at in their own right. After this work has been done, i.e. after they have been read on their own terms, the question is raised as to how they witness to Christ, beyond the immediate historical or literary or ideal referent. Answering this question entails knowing who Christ is and the nature of eschatology. I'm still trying to figure out how that happens in practice (I'll post on it in time – though, this post is a kind of foretaste). But my point is that if I want to read the Bible as Christian Scripture then I have no choice but to read the texts, ultimately, in relation to Christ. This theological claim sets the exegetical agenda but doesn't, in and of itself, assume a particular hermeneutic.

Tell me if that makes no sense! The act of writing helps me to understand these issues better, which is why I appreciate the dialogue.

Concerning your questions:

I'm afraid I don't understand question 1.

(2) Why isn’t literary exegesis enough? This is a big question which I can't go into right now, could you ask me when I get to my forthcoming thread on Christ as the centre of scripture? Or perhaps when I get to the distinction between the literal and the spiritual sense of the text? The answer probably has something to do with the instability of meaning, the profundity of the referent, the subjectivity of the interpreter, the ethics of knowing and the hiddeness of God. Simple ignorance and exegetical incompetence no doubt play a role, but see my latest post.

I'll think about the Eunuch story. Does “learnt something” for Christians mean “read the NT along with the OT”? Yes!!

(3) What is the value and function of Scripture (and these texts are being read as Scripture!) before the incarnation? I think I dealt with this a bit in my comment yesterday. I like the way a commentator on my blog put it when summarising Barth's understanding: “the history of the covenant can be understood as a process whereby God cultivated the thought-forms necessary for us to understand who and what Christ is.”

Do you object to labeling the Bible as “the Word of God,” or do you object to “turning the Bible into” the Word of God?

I'm not sure. I think I'd say that is is the word of God (inscripturated, following John Hobbins). It's status as such is not something conferred upon it by the decision of later tradents. Instead, they recognised it as already authoritative and binding upon them. This applies to the church councils which delineated the extent of the canon.

John,

Thanks for the helpful taxonomy. I'm not aware that I said that Christ alone is the Word. I don't think Barth says it either. Christ as Word is referent of the written word. Theological exegesis involves reading throught the inscripturated word to get to the Word himself. But this inscripturated word is itself and guide in the present and is illumined in relation to the Word who is its subject matter. All very abstract.

How is the metanarrative in the background of the story? I would have thought it would be the common presupposition that enabled Jesus to show himself as its fulfillment.

John Hobbins said...

Hi Phil,

I think we agree on the substance completely. Keep up the great blogging!