Saturday, 15 March 2008

Hans Frei on Textual Referentiality

It's been said that Frei rejects the idea of textual referentiality, that the meaning of a story is the story itself and that questions of any reality outside of the text are irrelevant to interpretation.

In reality his understanding of the issue was far more subtle. In his essay "Conflicts in Interpretation," he points out the necessity of textual referentiality for Christian faith. His chief concern, however, is an over-easy rush to the referent which overlooks the nature of the text doing the referencing, as well as a proper understanding of the relationship between text and referent. Here's what he has to say:

Christians do have to speak of the referent of the text. They have to speak historically and ontologically, but in each case, it must be the notion of truth, or reference, that is re-shaped extravagantly, not the reading of the literal text. Any notion of truth that disallows the condescension of truth to the depiction in the text, to its own self-identification, with, let us say, the four-fold story of Jesus of Nazareth taken as an ordinary story, has itself to be viewed with profound skepticism by a Christian interpreter. The textual world, as witness, is not identical to the Word of God and, yet, by the Spirit's grace, it is "sufficient" for the witnessing. Perhaps I hammer this theme too vigorously. If I do so, the reason is that in much modern theology the primacy of the subject-matter, the referent or the truth, over the text has usually meant that the text is adequate to the task by virtue of pointing to the subject-matter, that is to say, what is hidden within or implied by the text, and not by virtue of the literal sense. My own understanding of the matter, then, is that those who want to preserve Luther's fine, tense balance between Scripture as witness and as literal sense today may well be giving up one side of it. In modernity or, as they like to say in Chicago, "post-modernity," the temporary condition of the balance is to stress the sufficiency of the literal sense, without, of course, the "fundamentalist" correspondence between the literal and its ostensive reference. (1992: 355).
...
I plead, then, for the primacy of the literal sense and its puzzling but firm relationship to a truth towards which we cannot thrust. The modus significandi will never allow us to say what the res significata is. Nonetheless, we can affirm that, in the Christian confession of divine grace, the truth is such that the text is sufficient. There is a fit due to the mystery of grace between truth and text. But that, of course, is a very delicate and very constant operation to find that fit between textuality and truth. (356)
Tomorrow I'll post Frei's thoughts on this in relation to the "historicity" of the gospels.

21 comments:

John C. Poirier said...

One can speak of a certain "subtlety" in Frei's position, but in the end that amounts only to a "subtlety" in an attempt to have one's cake and eat it too. In spite of his attempt to work the referent back in, the damage is already done: his project remains alethiologically incoherent. Take, for example, Frei's statement, "Any notion of truth that disallows the condescension of truth to the depiction in the text, to its own self-identification, with, let us say, the four-fold story of Jesus of Nazareth taken as an ordinary story, has itself to be viewed with profound skepticism by a Christian interpreter." That statement presents postliberalism's alethiological conundrum in spades: if "truth" is identified with "condescension . . . to the depiction in the text", in a way that involves truth's "self-identification, with . . . the four-fold story of Jesus of Nazareth taken as an ordinary story", then truth has been defined as something outside the realm of the referent. (I'm not saying that one needs to say that the referent is true. It would only be true if it is actual in spacetime.) So what does Frei gain by giving lip service to the referent in this way? He still has *truth* and *referent* in separate containers--he connects "truth" with the text *qua* story, and he connects "referent" with the behind-the-text realm that he thinks is secondary at best. We might ask, therefore, what kind of "Christian interpreter" would see the relation of "truth" to "referent" in the way Frei sees it. Would *Paul* see things as Frei sees them? Not unless he is wanting to retract everything he says in 1 Corinthians 15 about the relation of the spacetime actuality of the Christ event to the validity of our faith.

I should also say a word or two about Frei's avoidance of what he calls the "'fundamentalist' correspondence between the literal and its ostensive reference". Frei rightly recognizes that the gig is up on the premodern belief that the literal sense corresponds totally with the really-out-there, but, for some reason, he identifies the really-out-there, rather than the literal sense, as the dispensable husk. As I have tried to explain several times before, this is backwards of the way Paul orders his alethiological commodities. If it comes down to a question of whether we should side with Frei on the "primacy of the literal sense", or with Paul on the primacy of the spacetime actuality of the Christ event, I choose the latter.

Anonymous said...

Like John, I do see equivocation here.

But I still find Frei invaluable for distinguishing between meaning and referent as a methodological distinction. And this is necessary both for those who confuse interpretation with apologetics, and for those who confuse the meaning of the text with "what really happened" (as critically reconstructed).

Also: Phil, somewhere you made a reference to tackling the difference between meaning and truth. A good jumping-off point might be with the father of historical criticism, Spinoza :) See his Tractatus, 2.7.29 "We are at work not on the truth of passages, but solely on their meaning."

Michael

Phil Sumpter said...

Dear John,

it's great to hear from you again! I'm sorry for the late response—I've just got back from my Easter vacation in England. I appreciate your input. Believe it or not, the criticisms you make stay with me and provide me with a focus as I go on reading a thinking about this subject. Your focus on this significance of the referent for Christian theology, for example, has forced me to look at Frei the way I have done above. The idea of the significance of the referent is also the reason why I've been highlighting the significance of the the “spiritual sense” of the text in my recent thread (though Michael disagrees that “referent” and “spiritual sense” are interchangeable). So please do keep up the dialogue!

In response, I'll start with 1 Cor 15, look at the true nature of the Gospel, show how I think Frei is indeed being sensitive to this and how your analysis of him does not do justice to what he is actually saying. My post after this, What are the Gospels about and how? is highly relevant.

I'm not an expert on the NT in general, but I get the impression that what all the writings are taken together, the historical events of Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection do not constitute the totality of “the Gospel.” The Gospel concerns Jesus' identity and the cosmic dimension of his work. These facts are certainly grounded in history, but they also transcend it. As Paddison put it in a brilliant article I want to look at in more detail: “The Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross is historic, but that this act is the decisive act of a holy God is superhistoric” (JTI, vol I, no. 2). There is a dimension of reality which exceeds our capacity to grasp as it stands outside of our normal experience. We can “touch” it only through metaphor or poetry, as our imaginations are limited by the fact that they can only function analogically. Yet this reality is real and it intersects with our mundane lives. Heaven and earth can come together, if perhaps only momentarily and then in anticipation of the final consummation of all things. This is the full Gospel, and not a reporting of certain events and facts that are cognitively graspable within our limited human frameworks.

You may well agree with all this and still say that this “reality,” the mystery of incarnation as heaven comes to earth, is still extra-textual; it is still in the realm of the referent and not the text. Well, I agree with you, and so does Frei (see here)! No one is saying that the truth is a matter of the meaning of the text qua text. You have been unfair to Frei here and your summary of his position has lost the nuance which I indicated. Saying that truth claims which don't condescend to the text need to be treated with scepticism is not the same as saying that truth is identified with the depiction of the text, as you seem to think. Frei is saying that the text is the criteria for evaluating truth claims, not that the text is the truth itself, independent of its subject matter. The problem is that the extra-textual referent is so complex that not one straightforward depiction can do it justice. The reality of the Gospel, which includes yet also exceeds time/space reality cannot be adequately represented by one literary representation, such that it would make sense to dispense with the four gospels and rewrite them to produce one.

There is a missiological/discipleship dimension to this as well. Language in general, and the Bible in particular is concerned to do more that simply depict certain states and events. It has a rhetorical, existential dimension which is as much part of the Gospel, or at least its unfolding, as the “Christ events” themselves. The Bible wishes to challenge, transform, convict, build up and guide us as well enter into God's unfolding drama. Where we may disagree is whether this counts as being the “Gospel” as well, rather than being just its application. But if the two are intimately connected, then it makes sense that the “truth”which we seek can only be mediated through the literary form of the Bible, rather than through a reconstruction that dispenses with that form. To do otherwise is to attempt grasping something which is ungraspable without revelatory aid, and to believe/live out something (the two can't be separated) independently of the means provided to do so.

So, to summarize: Frei does not keep truth and referent in two separate boxes. His concern is how do we know the truth/referent, and his answer is that it is only through the literary artistry of the text. The question of truth for Frei is only secondary in the hermeneutical sense that first we have to figure out the meaning of the text before we can say what the Gospel is, i.e. what is true. In my spiritual sense thread I've been saying that the move is circular, a dialectic between literal (literary) and spiritual (referential) sense and back again.

All this is to recap in different words what I posted here (http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2008/03/what-are-gospels-about.html). Please do give it a read and let me know if it is more palatable to you!

Michal,

I still find Frei invaluable for distinguishing between meaning and referent as a methodological distinction

I think this is helpful too. I'm going to start posting on the “literal sense,” which I'm tempted to associate with what you call “meaning,” as opposed to referent (which, for now at least, I'd call “spiritual”). Because reality, the Gospel, and therefore texts, have a depth dimension, I see these two realities as influencing each other. Reading the Psalms literally means reading them as the prayers of pious Israelites, reading the spiritually means reading them as the prayers of Christ. The two interpretations are distinction and need to be preserved in their integrity, but they are also intimately related and are incomplete without each other. If you can think of better terminology than “spiritual” and “literal” senses, then please let me know!

And thanks for the Spinoza reference. Frei talks of him as being the first to consciously make this distinction. But here is the interesting thing: neither you or I would totally swallow his interpretation of the Bible, would we? I think the reason lies in our differing understandings of the text's ultimate referent, which in turns shapes our reading of the text. Spinoza's humanism leads him to domesticate the Bible as a matter of “high religion” rather than as a means of God accomplishing his purposes (not that I've actually read him myself! Shame on me).

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

Thank you for your kind remarks. I’m glad that my comments are taken seriously.

Of course, I think that you’re defending the indefensible.

If your understanding of Frei were the correct one, then there would not (*could* not) be a readerly aspect to his hermeneutic, but there clearly is. And Frei would not, then, think of the text’s meaning as subject to the changing circumstances of the Church, but he clearly does. And Frei would not hold that the narrative constitutes the mode of Christ’s presence to us, but he explicitly does.

In fact, if your understanding of Frei were correct, then *The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative* would only be a long, convoluted, roundabout way of saying what everybody at the time already knew anyway, calling attention to an eclipse that had gone away long before. (It reminds me of those readings of Derrida that try to say that he only wanted to point out that our readings are always subjective. What a waste of readers’ nerves if that’s what all the stilted prose was about!)

On your reading of Frei, what are we to do with inconsistencies between the gospels? They can’t all be true in a referential sense of “true”, can they? What would Frei do with them?

All the postliberal hubbub about not being able to refer to God because God is so “other” has always struck me as odd. God is God, and it doesn’t matter how “other” God is for the task of referring to God. This goes whether we refer to God in a narrative, in a doctrinal statement, or what have you. God’s otherness is epistemologically besetting, but it is *not* alethiologically besetting, in that God’s otherness does not challenge the meaning of propositional references to God. (So what if our reference to God is “language-bound”? *All* propositions are language-bound.) I suspect that this is another symptom of the postliberals’ failure to differentiate clearly between epistemology and alethiology.

I do not think, when it comes to references to God, that “it is important, indeed vital, that we understand this referent”, as you say. When the gospel writers refer to God, they are not invoking any of the difficulties of theology proper (*viz.* of a doctrine of God). They are simply referring to God. If the NT says that “God was in Christ”, then it simply means “God was in Christ”. The text *never* invites us to consider the deep mysteries of theology proper. In fact, theology proper is *not* an appropriate domain of biblical theology at all. (This is why I have always thought that Barth and company are typologically closer to the Jewish theologians of mystical ascent [the Zohar, etc.] than to any of the writers of the New Testament.)

You write that “The Gospel concerns Jesus' identity and the cosmic dimension of his work.” I agree with the second part of that statement, but I disagree with the first part. In spite of Frei’s bizarre attempt to link Christ’s presence to his narrativally-constructed identity, Christ’s identity, in *the Freian sense of a narrativally-constructed identity*, is not at all a part of the gospel.

You write, “Frei is saying that the text is the criteria for evaluating truth claims, not that the text is the truth itself, independent of its subject matter”, but if that is the case, then I can’t understand Frei’s whole description of what happened in the Enlightenment. Your reading of Frei simply makes him out to be a radical skeptic of the historical method. In that case, Frei simply should have argued like an ultraconservative fundamentalist, but he doesn’t. He agrees that the separation between narrative and referent *had* to happen—there’s no going back to the pre-Enlightenment way of reading. He contends that, when biblical scholarship noticed the gap between narrative and “behind-the-text” historical reality, they were wrong to throw their lot in with historical reality. He judges this to be a fatal mistake. But he does not argue that the once assumed overlap between the two can be maintained, as a fundamentalist would. He recognizes just as much of a lack of overlap as mainstream biblical scholars do. It’s just that he thinks that the text, rather than historical reality, is where the *truth* of the gospel lies. That’s why he calls it “primary”.

BTW, I deal with Frei in an article appearing in the next *Journal of Pentecostal Theology*, which should appear in about two months.

jprapp said...

Frei - “The textual world, as witness, is not identical to the Word of God and, yet, by the Spirit's grace, it is ‘sufficient’ for the witnessing.”

If the Spirit’s grace agrees with Frei then it’s the Spirit’s job to dislodge identity between text and Word. Which is why Frei cleverly lumps fundamentalists with Chicago post-modernists (God, would I love to see David Tracy roll his eyes at this) who equally insist on singular or plural text-grounded obsessions autonomously (without: independently) of the Spirit (the Referent, for God's sake).

Philip wrote - “There is a fit due to the mystery of grace between truth and text. But that, of course, is a very delicate and very constant operation to find that fit between textuality and truth.”

The fit might find you. Depending how far you’re willing to go in response, the text (okay, oral tropes at that time) says, “go into all the world.” Here the text is too big. The text can’t differentiate Bythinia from Macedonia. The text is “sufficient” to point to the “Spirit’s grace.” You can pound your head all day long on the text, invent universal grammar, seize the brass ring, die in exhaustion forcing your way into Bythinia's closed door as a part of the text's ordered-world, then go to sleep, where the fit finds you in Spirit’s dreaming grace - and, your “truth” is suddenly moving, dynamic, off to Macedonia. Narrative narrates that: or, it’s absence.

Phil Sumpter said...

I will get back to you guys! It's hard to find time at the moment. I'm working on a response, please be patient.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

I don't want to complicate the response that you say you're preparing, but I want to point out the irony in the fact that you're defending Frei's hermeneutic at the same time that a flap is going on at Westminster Theological Seminary regarding Peter Enns. The irony is that both WTS and Frei reason as if the way to be more *biblical* in our understanding of theology is to hold more tenaciously to Reformed habits of thought. (This brings to mind Warfield's assertion that the Reformed tradition represents Christianity in its purest form, an assertion that, for him, serves virtually as a criterion for his view of Scripture.) Frei's almost preconscious commitment (one might call it a *principium*) to associate truth with the text accounts for his inability to let the Bible speak its own mind on the matter. Frei wrote: "I proposed in *Eclipse* that the identification of meaning with (true or false) assertion or proposition, and the resultant equation of meaning with reference is an instance of a category mistake, or a confusion that has had disastrous consequences in the history of modern exegesis and theology--consequences that were all the worse for the fact that those perpetrating the confusion were prevented by the rigidity of their formal instruments from seeing what was happening" ("Historical Reference and the Gospels: A Response to a Critique of *The Identity of Jesus Christ* (YDS 13-199)" p. 69 [available at http://www.library.yale.edu/div/Freitranscripts/Frei04-Reference.pdf]). It is true, of course, that a text tells what it means through its narrative, but Frei's theological commitments (*viz.* *his* "formal instruments") force him to identify this meaning with the *truth* of Christianity, instead of listening to what (e.g.) Paul says about what the truth is. (If William Abraham had included a chapter on Frei in his *Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology*, Frei perhaps would have come out as the ultimate example of what Abraham calls the "epistemizing of Scripture".) That textual meaning *is* truth for Frei is made plain on p. 67 of the same essay: ". . . the meaning . . . of the Gospel narratives . . ., according to the accounts under this exegesis, cannot stand independently of its truth." Therein lies the problem: Frei simply refuses to let go of this problematic (and thoroughly unscriptural) commitment. In his inability (or refusal?) to let Scripture overrule Reformed tradition, Frei reminds me very much of the folks at WTS.

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

here's my attempt at a summary of where we stand:

What we agree on:

We both see the reality of Christian faith as impinging on external reality, as being about what a real God did in real history in 33 AD. Without this historical, physical and otherwise “real” event Christians have no good news to offer the world.

Where we disagree:

The extent of the Gospel. The Gospel, as far as I see it, involves more than that which a historical critic can reconstruct. It touches on a dimension of reality that historical criticism, indeed any human science, has no access to. The events are of such an exceptional nature that they are inaccessible to a “dispassionate” inquirer, apart from the the larger theological matrix that makes sense of them. You could perhaps find evidence that Jesus rose, but this is not the “good news.” When the gospel writers make exgtra-textual references to certain historical events and realities, they are not interested in them apart from the role they played in broader gospel story. This story is to a degree mysterious, and as such requires and equally rich form of communication to broker it, to make “raw history” into good news.

Here's a quote from the dogmatic theologian H. Diem:

“There should further be agreement about that fact that the NT authors, in spite of their lack of interest in the historical issue as we have formulated it, are in the highest degree concerned about the actual happening of the history of Jesus which they proclaim.” This may seem contradictory to us, but not for the NT authors and this for an intrinsic reason: “What they preach is a history which by its very essence does not permit a mere scientific apprehension. Of course it is a history which runs its course in this world and therefore at every stage includes facts which essentially are more or less capable of being historically established also. But such mere historical-scientific appreciation would in any case fail to do justice to the essential import of this history. For this history requires from the hearer of its evangelical presentation, instead of the mere apprehension of facts, not only, as we like to say since Kiergegaard, a personal decision between scandalisation and faith (for this would not get to grips with the essential point), but rather it requires from the hearer faith that in this history a decision has been made affecting himself personally and his whole personal destiny. To believe in the message it announces means to become a disciple of Christ, which means that we live by the faith that we too are crucified and risen again with Christ. To miss the import of the history of JC, means therefore to miss also one's whole personal significance and destiny.We may fail to appreciate this history by not believing in the evangelical message it affords, for the history cannot make its impact on us except through the preaching of this Jesus who discloses and authenticates Himself in the gospel He declares.” (125, 6).

The last sentence reveals that the Gospel is an ongoing process of proclamation and that the real subject is Jesus, not the particular evangelist doing to talking. The dynamic and rich understanding of the Gospel requires a sensitive approach to the witnesses that testifiy concerning it. Which is why I think that Frei has done the church a service in alerting us to how complex this is.

Which brings me to our final disagreement: our interpretation of Frei. I'll start with you most recent quote. You said: That textual meaning *is* truth for Frei is made plain on p. 67 of the same essay: ". . . the meaning . . . of the Gospel narratives . . ., according to the accounts under this exegesis, cannot stand independently of its truth." Frei never says that “meaning *is* truth. Michael, in his comment above, has recognised this by pointing out how helpful it is that Frei distinguishes between meaning and truth! So here, Frei is saying that textual meaning and truth cannot stand independently of each other (for reasons I have just given). There is a subtle inter-connection which Frei spent his career trying to figure out. He never claims that the meaning is truth. He was far too inspired by Barth, with his passion for the Bible as “witness” to say that.

Here is a Frei quote on truth and meaning:

“It holds that the Gospel stories as well as large portions of OT narrative are indeed “realistic,” but that the issue of their making or not making factual or, for that matter, other kinds of truth claims is not part of the scope of hermeneutical inquiry. “Meaning” in this view is logically distinct from “truth,” even where the two bear so strong a family resemblance as the designations “history-like” and “historical” imply. The factuality or nonfactuality of at least some of these narratives, important as it is no doubt in a larger religious or an even more general context, involves a separate argument from that concerning their meaning” (“The Literal Sense,” in Theology and Narrative, 139, 40).

Finally, I disagree with your opening statements concerning Frei. I actually believe the opposite is the case.

And Frei would not, then, think of the text’s meaning as subject to the changing circumstances of the Church, but he clearly does.

I think he quite clearly doesn't. I recommend the edited volume Theology and Narrative. Unfortunately I can't find the quote right now, but he explicitly states that the meaning of the narrative is stable and relatively objective, controlling all construals (I think this is in the essay cited above). I may not agree with him there, but he shows that he does not believe that meaning is a matter of reader's interpretation.Isn't his whole Eclipse supposed to act as a corrective to mis-reading the Bible in favour of religious apologetics?

In fact, if your understanding of Frei were correct, then *The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative* would only be a long, convoluted, roundabout way of saying what everybody at the time already knew anyway, calling attention to an eclipse that had gone away long before.

There is genuine newness in his approach. It is related to the newness of the New Criticism. Regardless of their faults, this move to focus on the text rather than the referent or psychology of the author has been positively accepted. For concrete exegetical examples see the work of, e.g., Robert Alter, especially his valid attacks on the Genesis commentary of Speiser, which hadn't learnt to read narrative as narrative. The acceptance of this approach is pretty much universal in biblical circles, regardless of confession.

On your reading of Frei, what are we to do with inconsistencies between the gospels? They can’t all be true in a referential sense of “true”, can they? What would Frei do with them?

Of course they can be true in the referential sense of true, it's just a matter of what you consider the referent to be. That is the whole point. “Ostensive” reference is only one form of referentiality. Contradictions at the level of chronological history does not mean contradiction at the level of the Gospel, which is more than chronological history. This is where Frei helps, he shows how narrative is a species of literature which can communicate in its own right, independent of questions of factuality or not (see my quote above). The Gospel itself is not reducible to the four gospels. They are witnesses to it, and “realistic narrative” is the form in which they do so. I don't know how Frei deals with concrete examples.

Perhaps this demonstrates the crux of the issue: it is a matter of the nature of the referent. The referent is such that it requires a literary sensitivity, yet one which goes beyond discarding what doesn't properly report what happened. This is the point of my second post (this is also why theology proper is indeed an appropriate domain of biblical theology, contra Frei and most others. I've posted on this profusly, e.g. here.)

This issue has also come up in my spiritual sense thread.

When I talk of Christ's identity as being part of the Gospel I meant ontologically and salvation historically. He is the messiah and the son of God and that's important.

You write, “Frei is saying that the text is the criteria for evaluating truth claims, not that the text is the truth itself, independent of its subject matter”, but if that is the case, then I can’t understand Frei’s whole description of what happened in the Enlightenment. Your reading of Frei simply makes him out to be a radical skeptic of the historical method.

Frei accepts most of historical critical conclusions as far as I'm aware. Perhaps the confusion is that you think that I mean “historical event” when I say “truth claim.” My paragraph on “inconsistencies in the gospels” above should answer that.

He contends that, when biblical scholarship noticed the gap between narrative and “behind-the-text” historical reality, they were wrong to throw their lot in with historical reality.

If you could find a quote that would back this up I'd appreciate it. He explicitly denies this repeatedly, including in my two posts on the matter.

Hello J. Prapp,

thanks for stopping by.

If the Spirit’s grace agrees with Frei then it’s the Spirit’s job to dislodge identity between text and Word

Why “dislodge”? Why not mediate?

The fit might find you.

I'm afraid I'm not sure where you're coming from.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

I might post a fuller response, if I have time, but I wanted to get back to you quickly on what you say about my understanding Frei to equate “meaning” with “truth”. I meant, of course, that for him, meaning and truth entirely overlap in the case of reading the Bible.

The reason I wanted to get back to you quickly on this is that you seem to misunderstand what Frei is saying in the passage that you quote “on truth and meaning”. The passage that you quoted is as follows:

“It holds that the Gospel stories as well as large portions of OT narrative are indeed “realistic,” but that the issue of their making or not making factual or, for that matter, other kinds of truth claims is not part of the scope of hermeneutical inquiry. “Meaning” in this view is logically distinct from “truth,” even where the two bear so strong a family resemblance as the designations “history-like” and “historical” imply. The factuality or nonfactuality of at least some of these narratives, important as it is no doubt in a larger religious or an even more general context, involves a separate argument from that concerning their meaning” (“The Literal Sense,” in Theology and Narrative, 139, 40).

If you’ll read this passage carefully, you’ll see that it actually confirms my reading of Frei. Yes, meaning and truth are “logically distinct”, but for Frei, they are entirely coordinate in the case of the Bible. That’s the whole point of his book *The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative*. His argument in that book is that, once upon a time, the logical distinction between meaning and truth was not recognized, as the universal assumption that the biblical narrative and the referent completely coincided did not permit the distinction to arise. But when the evil Enlightenment came along, and the distinction (which is a valid distinction) *was* recognized, biblical scholars made the fatal mistake of identifying truth with the referent rather than with the narrative.

As that is the sum total of everything Frei tried to say in *The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative*, I’m taken aback by your questioning my statement that “He contends that, when biblical scholarship noticed the gap between narrative and ‘behind-the-text’ historical reality, they were wrong to throw their lot in with historical reality”. You ask me for a quotation to support that (claiming, in fact, that Frei repeatedly denies this), but I could simply quote the entire book to you, as my statement is simply a summary of its whole argument! (I will try, however, to find a good quotation for you.)

If you have a different understanding of what *The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative* is about, I'd like to hear it.

jprapp said...

Phil - a worthwhile exchange between you and John.

I don’t want to cut in too deeply on that dance. A short spin.

I wrote - “If the Spirit’s grace agrees with Frei then it’s the Spirit’s job to dislodge identity between text and Word.”

You replied - “Why dislodge’? Why not mediate?”

Depends on your purpose. More below on purpose. For now, see Frei in the essay linked by John:

Frei on his own purpose (quote from John's linked essay). Frei - "Not that I believed there is no ‘pre-understanding’ (to quote another set of friends), that there are no formal rules for making intelligible statements as well as claims, no rules covering various types of argument. But I believed and still believe that I ought to leave open the possibility that a reading of the texts might actually and in principle influence, modify, change these preconditions, rules, or what have you. Obviously, my desires may have dictated not only that notion but the way in which it affected my actual restatement of the texts. I can only hope that this fault remained within bounds, and also that I did not become incoherent as I went along in this process. I hoped that coherence between the content of the exegesis and the description of the formal rules under which it took place – both, and not only the former, being referred to the text – might actually constitute an argument against those who argue that exegesis is simply governed by the theological design that goes into it. Obversely, it was to de-rigidify those who know a priori and with absolute confidence all the rules under which texts are understood."

Highlight Frei’s purpose for coherency (not cohernecy: his purpose for it) and note him confessing how his desires (for coherency) may have affected his actual restatement of the text. Forget hifalutin reader-response literary criticisms: we’re light-years away from that stuff yet. There’s not space here in a short spin to develop the meaning of Frei’s hope that his version of coherency might constitute an argument against exegesis by “theological design”, that is, not enough space to develop Frei’s hope to develop and establish coherence criteria between content and rules of exegesis (another time) on other than a priori grounds/criteria.

Just pause here on the simple confessional nature of Frei’s purpose for coherency criteria. Please take seriously his confessional humility of wondering whether he succeeds: “I can only hope that ... I did not become incoherent as I went along.”

In this vein of confessional honesty: a confession of bias. My bias: Very short. Undeveloped.

Coherency itself is incoherent (technically: “ill defined”) unless the objectives (here: exegetical) and goals of interpreters are specified. Specifically, coherency criteria of additivity, consistency, and transitivity are merely hypothetical (speculative: fun ideas, but untestable) and are not working criteria (void of practical judgment-capacity: e.g., did an agent accomplish a goal by coherent means?) until an agent’s purposes are adequately specified. If you want more, see the technical analysis of coherency in Sen’s analysis (Nobel prize economist) in, “Internal consistency of choice,” (Econometrica, 61, 495-521, 1993). This is just a confession of bias. I can’t argue it here.

But note: coherency relative to purpose isn’t in binary opposition against correspondence coherency (accuracy, precision, economy), since these two types of coherency can act on complimentary scales of emphasis, but rather, coherency relative to purpose (Sen) is in putative binary (either/or) opposition both to a priori theological presumptions where purpose isn’t relevant to coherency itself (see on Barth, below) and coherency-by-purpose (Sen) is opposed to coherency in ontological formalism, where coherency criteria are the highest criteria for defining “truth,” among those developing formally precise ontologies by modal arguments, since model rationality is thought to be coherent (like mathematics) independently of purpose, and coherency of model truths trumps texts (here, Anselm, who Frei notes; but maybe more-so Frei’s interlocutors at Chicago, namely, Hartshorne and Meland, aiming for process-model coherency).


Example: Langdon Gilkey makes great hay out of Barth’s claim to have spun a “presuppostionless theology” (Barth’s, “Evangelical Theology”), with hippie-Gilkey shuffling his semi-sarcastic rejoinders, “there ain’t no such thing!” Gilkey was right. But, Gilkey lacked Sen’s technical analysis of coherency criteria relative to purpose. All that Gilkey’s truth-sniffing intuition could really tell Gilkey was that Barth had a purpose (purpose-specific coherency) for positing a “presuppostionless theology,” namely, to insulate religious claims in some wholly other jurisdiction of divine fiat where God’s word is immune to coherency evaluations by human reason.

Enter Frie. He’s willing to confess his purpose (see his quote on his purposes for coherency arguments, above). He’s not “presuppostionless.” He’s clean and straightforward how he sees his version of coherency constituting an argument (again, see his quote). He’s not Barth (my opinion). He’s not Hartshorne (modal coherency is truth). He’s owning up to his purpose for coherency (see, Sen).

But, he’s not sure he succeeded.

I’d say Frei steps back in uncertainty over his own coherency criteria (John has a partial truth here), but Frei lets the Spirit have a play at interpretation. Here’s the answer to your question to me (“why not mediate?”) If your (reader) purpose is like Barth’s to insulate divine claims and the biblical text into some wholly other realm intractable to judgment by human reason alone (you can’t test a presupposition unless there is one!), then the “Spirit” (Frei’s word) will correct you by dislodging the identity between text and Word, because the fit between text and Word isn’t that tight (the text is sufficient to witness). If your purpose (reader) is to reduce the text to one in a series of historical fictions (better see, Barfield on legal “fictions’) whose claims are true only if they meet modal coherency criteria (Hartshorne, Meland), then yes, you’re right, the Spirit can “mediate” the text by pointing the reader to the Referent, who is Alive no matter our opinions about fictions. So, it depends on your purpose in reading. And it depends on the response of the Referent (if the Referent is Alive) discerning your purpose as a reader, and the Spirit mediating/affirming or dislodging your bias. That's why this is not plain vanilla reader-response stuff. The Referent must interact if the text has any meaning, no less truth value.

Frei isn’t sure he succeeded in his coherency arguments.

That’s possibly because he didn’t have an adequate definition of coherency to begin with. But then again, maybe he didn’t want one. He's unclear on his cascade of internal criteria for coherency. Maybe Frie didn’t want too much definition to his coherency criteria because while we can use utilitarian criteria to ask whether agents used coherent means to attain proximate ends (jumping off a 10 story building is not a coherent way to heal a broken leg; going to an orthopedic surgeon is a coherent way to heal a broken leg), and while presuppostionless-ness and its Barthian criteria are indefensible claims, and while modal coherency dispenses too much with the truth claims of the text – what then? -- Frei is in a jurisdiction in between all of these, and he wants coherency to enter in, but failing to specify his criteria might be his only out, because he want's the grace of the Spirit to work.

Okay, the Spirit alternatively dislodges (or mediates, in your words - I like it) our presuppositions.

Our lack of understanding of the Spirit’s mechanisms is where Frei rests in mystery. Like Jesus to Nicodemus on our failure to understand the mechanisms of the Wind.

The only thing I’d add about our presuppositions in textual exegesis is that they are purpose-based (see Sen). Frei goes in the right direction. I disagree with Barth. And Hartshorne. And it’s dishonest not to admit our purposes. Here Frei shines.

But, I’m glad he admits that he doesn’t know whether he succeeded at his purposes in establishing a coherency argument. I like that humility. It’s an opening for the grace he invited.

To your last question: what I meant by “the fit” finding you is what you wrote – “the Gospel is an ongoing process of proclamation and that the real subject is Jesus, not the particular evangelist doing to talking.” Add Frei’s note on the Spirit’s interactive role (dislodging or mediating - bunch of other stuff), and you’re off to the races.

Sorry this stuff is so terse.

Cheers,


Jim

Phil Sumpter said...

John,

If you’ll read this passage carefully, you’ll see that it actually confirms my reading of Frei. Yes, meaning and truth are “logically distinct”, but for Frei, they are entirely coordinate in the case of the Bible.

You've simply restated your position without giving an argument. I've read the quote carefully and would like to know why you disagree, not that you disagree.

That’s the whole point of his book *The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative*.

Again, I disagree. The point of the book is the same as the point of this quote: meaning and truth are two distinct areas of research, which, although related in complex ways, need to be held apart in order to give the text "breathing space." I've read Eclipse in detail with precisely this question in mind. If I have time I may post on it. You need to provive citations to back up your claims. I'd be shocked if you found a single one, despite your confidence that it represents "the sum total of everything that Frei has to say" (!).

Jim,

Jim,

thanks for your detailed thoughts. I'd never thought of coherency in that way.

The Referent must interact if the text has any meaning, no less truth value.


Interesting food for thought.

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

Let me, then, ask a quick question, in anticipation of my finding time for a more proper response. This question will help clarify my understanding of what you're saying.

On your understanding of Frei's argument, the "logical distinction" between meaning and truth is meant to say that the truth might lie elsewhere than in the text. (That of course is how I would use the word "truth", but not how I think Frei uses it.) My question is this: Since Frei clearly thinks that the biblical narrative is of overriding significance for theology (right?), does he then think that "meaning" is more important than "truth"? If so, how can that be? If not, how can your reading of Frei be right?

jprapp said...

Phil, John - I’m greatly enjoying the bric-a-brac between you.

Really, a good exchange.

Phil - I think John’s gist is very valid in isolating on the question of Frei’s “logical distinction.” I’m looking forward to your response. Do you think Frei just noted this “logical distinction” in passing, or, would you say that Frei pulled off elaborating this distinction in his own lifetime through his work? - just one e.g., say (play along) that Frei made separate encyclopedias of knowledge to keep meaning distinct from truth? (not a trick-loaded question: really, open).


John (asked about) - "...’logical distinction’ between meaning and truth is meant to say that the truth might lie elsewhere than in the text .. question is ... [if] biblical narrative is of overriding significance for theology .. then ..'meaning’ is more important than ‘truth’ [for Frei]. If so, how?”

John - I think Phil gave about the best answer possible in pointing out the complimentary potential of meaning and truth, while logically isolating on each as distinct areas of inquiry. I’m not sure there is a better answer. But, I'm looking forward to his answer.

If this helps, think math: where “logically” you can isolate on one single variable at a time (say in a linear equation), in order to assign that isolated variable (“a”) a discrete value (“1"), while the rest of the equation maintains both meaning and truth-values, as a whole equation. In exegesis, taken as a whole equation, you don’t need to assign competing priorities of weight (competing: meaning vs. truth) to these single variables (meaning, truth) just because you want to isolate on one or the other, at any given step. In his own words, Frie wants “coherence between the content of the exegesis and the description of the formal rules under which it took place – both, and not only the former.” For Frei, this "coherence" is why meaning and truth can merge into complimentary functions in a unitary equation in exegesis.

But, this “coherence,” cannot be, should not be (Frei won’t accept) a kind of “coherence” ... “governed by the theological design .. a priori .. with absolute confidence all the rules under which texts are understood." In short, "a priori" rules tied to external truth claims outside of the text may be true, or a priori rules tied to truth claims outside the text may be false, but either way, these external a priori rules cannot establish "coherence" between truth and meaning in the text.

It's simple, really. The reason why “coherence” is important to Frei is because, just like Chaitin in mathematics discovered chance by “accident,” so too, biblical exegetes (say: atheists, agnostics, or believers) could do exegesis, and they could get both the truth claims and the meaning claims of the text done accurately (and complimentary, together), but, this result would happen only by “accident,” and not because of any real “coherence” between the formal rules for exegesis and the text itself!

Frie hopes for "formal rules" of exegesis that arise from the text itself (not arising from external a priori claims forced onto the text: even if such are true), and Frei wants these “formal rules” to show “coherence” between the truth and meaning claims of the text! No accidental merger of truth and meaning! Coherence!

The fact that truth and meaning claims discovered by this approach do, or do not line up and agree with other external (a priori, or other) truth and meaning claims from other disciplines (besides exegesis: say, historical criticism, law, natural sciences) is a purely gratuitous correspondence, even an accidental result.

John, please forgive me if I’m off: but, I think (could be wrong) that your questions really concern whether Frei really did, or didn’t, establish “formal rules” (from the text or anywhere else!) showing how meaning-truth can/do function as unitary compliments in the equation of “exegesis.” Did Frei establish “formal rules” for exegesis? If so, what are the “formal rules”?

Finally, only if you can state Frei’s “formal rules” for exegesis (forget whether the rules reallly came from the text for now, even forget narrative versus propositional texts!) -- only then can you then go on to ask whether Frei accomplished his largest purpose, that is, do you personally find his rules to succeed in establishing a sufficient “coherence” between truth and meaning in the texts?

Without this “coherence,” Frei could have gotten everything else right (meaning and truth together), but only by accident - because he lucked out!

Hope this helps.

Cheers,


Jim

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks guys. Unfortunately, I have visitors till Saturday so it's difficult to keep on top of things. I'll try and get a response in a soon as poss. These discussion are relevant to a thread I'm doing now on the nature of the "literal sense" of scripture. Latest post is here.

John C. Poirier said...

jprapp,

Thanks for your response.

I'm not so sure your analogy with the procedure for solving mathematical equations reflects what I'm talking about, as "meaning" and "truth" aren't really a part of the same equation. What a text means is (logically) one thing, and what the truth is (logically) is another thing, even though a "true" text shows that meaning and truth can be propositionally coordinate. (My understanding of Frei's book is that he thinks that, once upon a time, people didn't recognize this distinction (!), and that once they finally distillated truth from meaning, they assigned religious relevance to the wrong distillate.) Once we recognize that meaning and truth are two different things, it becomes an unavoidable and irreducible question as to which of these alethiological commodities represents ultimate reality: Is it *meaning* (in which case ultimate reality is linguistical in nature), or is it truth-as-spacetime-actuality (in which case ultimate reality is prelinguistical in nature)? One cannot have it both ways any more than one can get both heads and tails in a single coin flip. Either linguisticality is primary, or prelinguisticality is primary, but it is impossible to put the two together in some sort of alethiological Moblius strip, so that one can treat one as primary in one instance, and then treat another as primary in another instance within the same intrasystemic conversation.

So when Frei says that the narrative is primary, in such a way that spacetime actuality represents merely the shadow cast by the linguistical realm, then I take it that Frei is identifying himself as a card-carrying follower of the linguistic turn. Once he has thoroughly established this particular philosophical allegiance, we are forced, I believe, to interpret his reactionary confessions of faith in the world of the referent as an instantiation of the sort of philosophical naivete that characterizes the postliberal project as a whole.

So when you ask if I'm really asking whether Frei established "formal rules" for exegesis, I have to say that I'm really talking about an inconcinnity in his thinking that is hermeneutical, but also meta-hermeneutical, in that the real question is about whether Frei can assign "primacy" to the narrative (as the religiously relevant aspect of the text) yet also claim that the spacetime actuality of the Christ event matters for theology. He's trying to have his cake and eat it, too.

jprapp said...

John, great riff on reply.

I do think you’re pressing hard and fast and with accuracy in a direction that I haven’t adequately seen in my own readings in Frei.

And I thank you for it.

I must admit that I’m partly caught in a Rorschach-image (is it a duck? - or a woman with a feather in her hat?) sort of feeling over your analysis, primarily in your first post, when you claim that Frei has truth and referent “in separate containers,” to which you allocate text and referent accordingly. Please know that my response here is not argumentative nor adversarial, but it’s just that I haven’t read Frei as pushing quite that hard, not quite to the degree of "logical distinction" you’ve identified, because I’ve always taken Frei to view these tensions more as contrary polarities sharing a common axis (axis: narrative), rather than as contractions in “logical distinctions.” I think that if Frei suffers real contradictions, it's only because of gratuitious dicta in his thought, not central to his project. But I could be wrong! A “contradiction,” here, means a problem in logical formalities, like a square circle (is a contradiction of the axiomatic logic of Euclidean geometry; not Hilbert space), or like a “married bachelor” (is a contradiction of logical axioms of legal canons), or like saying that two discrete physical entities occupy the same space-time simultaneously (a contradiction of Aristotelian, Newtonian, even Eienstein’s logical axioms in physics; but, not a logical contradiction of the unitary equations in QM). Contraries are not contradictions. Contraries are factual/empirical questions (like polarities of positive/negative in the natural world, or like truth/meaning polarities in narratives), but mere contraries (not logical contradictions) are merely spectral (tensions sharing a coherent spectrum), and all contraries are potentially true. Contradictions normally cannot be true; but only binary true/false, one/other). I've read Frei as presenting contraries; contradictions arise only in his gratutious dicta, if at all.

Applied, I’ve never read Frie as establishing (in your words), the “really-out-there, rather than the literal sense, as the dispensable husk,” while simultaneously arguing for, “truth .. as something outside the realm of the referent.” To me, this would make Frei’s own concept of narrative invoke a true contradiction (illogical “logical distinction”), rather than a tension of polarities sharing a common axis. Really, nice touch. Good observation.

Maybe you’re right.

While my own purposes for reading Frei in the first place concerned questions of how normative claims are embedded in narratives (as is ubiquitous in the history of commercial transactions, in comparative and trans-cultural histories of the uses of narrative legal testimonies, and in the narrative accouterments to biologically fueled rites of mating/dating/marriage), your own comments have driven me to the sadly lost last-notes from the little rejoinder by Frei to his unknown interlocutor, wherein Fred admits to his fall-back plea (“I plead guilty to a kind of fall-back on common sense, to which someone may say I have no right. I am assuming that somebody roughly fitting Jesus of Nazareth as described in the Gospels really did live”), and finally, where Frei pleads referential reserve! I think Frei knows he’s up against a certain wall. Maybe the wall you identified! He falls back to common sense and alternatively to pleading "reservations" about Reference! So, you may be onto something.

When Frei pleads reservations about reference (we don’t know what his reservations are - his notes end!), then your own notes on his potential contradictions in logic (logics of narratives) drove me to consider Frei’s “referential reserve” alongside Quine’s “indeterminacy of frame of reference!” Quine is relevant to narrative in examining atomic narrative bits : rabbits are rabbits because they are “rabbiting” to our perceptual judgments. Ordinarily at low levels of narrative composition, deploying of these simple atomic expressions is enough; because there are no decision rules requiring us to force indeterminacy of reference as a preferred frame. When rabbits are rabbiting, that’s enough. (My personal interest is in further descriptions of rabbits obtaining along multiple axes: from reproductive propagation of rabbits, to populations of rabbits, to ecological considerations, to aesthetic perceptual judgments of happiness at seeing an Easter Bunny whose “meaning” is elaborated by its gifts, or, if we dare go there, in fictional narrative literatures, going with Alice to meet her white rabbit, whose truth/meaning will be elaborated to us by its gifts to our imagination! A multi-axial approach). But if Frie wants to seize on Jesus, and on the resurrection of Jesus, as the central referent, and then dispense with the space-time truth of this referent because narrative claims of meaning require this result, then yes, I see a contradiction (contradiction, not a contrary).

What I think Frei misses in his focus is not Jesus, but rather, he misses the ongoing work of the Spirit (the narrative in John 14-18; the Spirit as an agent of composition in entire book of Acts; the Spirit in all of Paul’s corpus as the effective Agent required to participate in the “narrative” through interpretation and application), and to some extent, Frei misses covenantal/contractual tropes of interactive, even negotiated, responses in the narrative (which Jewish exegetes retain), and finally, Frei misses normative claims expressly derived from narratives, as where the author of Hebrews summarizes tropes of great narratives (narratives of heroes of faith), by reducing to normative claims about how those who come to God “must believe that God exists” (paraphrase).

An “alethiological Moblius strip” can be mediated by the Referent/Spirit. If Frei’s “referential reserve” presses him to a state of contradiction (you may be right), then I’d say the next narrative strategy is to re-frame (like Minsky, with his indeterminate decision-matrices), and if all attempts at re-framing remain “indeterminate” (ala Quine), then the tie-breaker is the Referent, that is, the Agent/Spirit: where the resurrection of Jesus isn’t textually/narratively settled, but only settled because (using Quine’s terms) the Resurrection is “Resurrecting!” (like rabbits, “rabbiting”), as the Living Referent.

What good is any space-time resurrected Jesus who only dies 5 minutes later (dies in space-time), leaving only the narrative intact to interact with our active imaginations, striving to find "meaning" in a "fictional" (Frei's word), but un-true narrative? I'd rather, "go ask Alice," and know I'm playing games. This is your question/point: filtered through my bias into paraphrase (but again, I could be wrong).

Either the resurrection is "Resurrecting" to us or it is not - if not, the project of narrative is dead (Frei’s version is dead), except as an imaginal and liminal game, like the gods of Vajrayna Buddhism, without objective existence, but effective imaginal aids.

I’d suggest that the narrative tropes I touch above (covenant, normative claims embedded in narrative, the Spirit as Agent/Referent resolving indeterminacy of reference) offer potential re-integrations of truth/meaning claims. But, I’m exceedingly more interested in the praxis of this question (praxis: both pragmatic, and quantitative measures) than with the hermeneutics of what you call, “postliberalism's alethiological conundrum in spades.” Very nice phrase.

I’m afraid I’ll have to bow in deference to your scope of research and understanding in that domain (“postliberalism's alethiological conundrum in spades'), while stipulating to you that you’re likely onto something in pressing Frie so hard. And I really hope Phil picks up the thread.


Cheers,

Jim

jprapp said...

... apologies for misspellings above (Fred = Frei, and, Frie = Frei) ... my spell-checker is my best proxy for laziness ... and laziness is what I want, because you guys are making me work too damn hard ... (Hendrix: "there must be some kinda way outa here") ...


Jim

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your dialogue guys. I apologise for my delay in replying.

John,

Since Frei clearly thinks that the biblical narrative is of overriding significance for theology (right?), does he then think that "meaning" is more important than "truth"? If so, how can that be? If not, how can your reading of Frei be right?

Narrative is important, but narrative as an element in theological formulation does not exhaust theology. He's fully aware of the existence of other genres and of the fact that they would require a different hermeneutic (though a narrative reading of the gospels could help us understand Paul better). Narrative is important because the gospels are important, and they are narrative.

Frei does not think that meaning is more important than truth. I can't image how such an opinion could be held by anybody ... He's very concerned about the truth, but recognises that we have no immediate access to it except by the witness of the apostles and prophets. Given that narrative is a central element in the way they do their witnessing, it makes sense that coming to terms with how they construct “meaning” should be a necessary activity of theologians wishing to understand the “truth.” His personal solution is that truth and meaning are distinct (though possibly interelated, I'm not sure and would personally argue that they are interrelated) and spends most of his time dealing with the question of meaning (i.e. working as a hermeneut) rather than dealing with the question of truth (i.e. working as a theologian). In reality the two realms interact, as given his theological commitments to the nature of the gospel (cf. my post) and to the way conversion works, he is enabled to propose that meaning is a logically distinct issue to truth and thus can be discussed by all, regardless of faith.

So, how can my reading of Frei be right? I don't understand the question. I'm right because I've read him carefully and this is what he says.

Jim,

Do you think Frei just noted this “logical distinction” in passing, or, would you say that Frei pulled off elaborating this distinction in his own lifetime through his work?

Frei didn't just note the distinction, he made it programmatic. His whole Eclipse, for example, is predicated on the idea that mixing apologetics with interpretation skews the interpretation. Narrative is irreducible to external ideological structures. These structures need to be transformed in light of the narrative and not the other way round. He repeats this constantly throughout his work, giving it a different nuance when he entered his “cultural-linguistic” phase.

I think Phil gave about the best answer possible in pointing out the complimentary potential of meaning and truth, while logically isolating on each as distinct areas of inquiry.

(As you can see I'm responding as I read!) Thanks, the dialectic is the issue, and working out its nature is the challenge, not opting for either referent without text (i.e. automous access to truth, the dream of the Enlightenment) or text without truth (something Lindbeck is accused of being vague on. I doubt anyone actually would hold to this option).

Childs was fully aware of this issue and developed it in his canonical approach. Here's a quote of his, demonstrating his awareness of both sides of the issue:

“The materials for theological reflection are not the events or experiences behind the text, or apart from the construal in scripture by a community of faith and practice. However, because the biblical text continually bears witness to events and reactions in the life of Israel, the literature cannot be isolated from its ostensive reference.” (Old Testament Theology, 6).

How do the two interrelate is the issue. Childs deals with this in his essay on “Retrospective reading of Old Testament Prophets.” I outlined most of it in a series of threads, as it is so important. Start reading it here and feel free to comment.

I agree with most of what you say, though I have to confess it isn't always easy to understand! Just two small comments:

But if Frie wants to seize on Jesus, and on the resurrection of Jesus, as the central referent, and then dispense with the space-time truth of this referent because narrative claims of meaning require this result, then yes, I see a contradiction

Frei simply doesn't do this. He explicitly states his faith in the historical Jesus and its importance. I recommend reading his “Response to “Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal” in the edited volume Theology and Narrative. I cited from it in my second post on this topic here, where I deal with this issue in more detail.

An “alethiological Moblius strip” can be mediated by the Referent/Spirit

I think that the personalness of the the referent is really important. Jesus is not just the object of the Gospel, he's also the subject of its ongoing proclamation. This “truth” has hermeneutical implications, i.e. it allows us to stop trying to deconstruct the Bible to fit the norms of modern objectivity and treat it as a kerygmatic witness in an ongoing process of establishing the kingdom of God.

Finally, John again,

(My understanding of Frei's book is that he thinks that, once upon a time, people didn't recognize this distinction (!), and that once they finally distillated truth from meaning, they assigned religious relevance to the wrong distillate.)

This simply isn't the case. I don't know how you come to the conclusion that for Frei the meaning is the truth independent of reality outside the text, neither from Eclipse nor from my two posts on this matter. The second, as yet undiscussed, post, deals with this issue in more detail.

jprapp said...

Phil, John - a worthwhile exchange between you. Thanks for letting me glean the edges of your theological fields-of-interest. I’ll sample the links to Childs, and Frei.

Jim

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

Thank you, once again, for your response. We clearly have different understandings of what Frei’s views are.

I wonder, in light of what you say his views are, what you make of the following passage. It depicts Frei’s understanding of Barth’s view of the proper way of reading the Bible “genuinely *religiously*” (Frei’s term). Although it is about Barth, it also clearly represents Frei’s own view, as Frei never speaks of Barth descriptively without also speaking *prescriptively*:

“The truth of [the Bible’s realistic narrative], when we raise that question, and we have raised it for the philosopher at any rate, is a quite distinct question. Though for Barth, it must be added, that distinction does not really arise. Remember that, for Barth, it depicts the one real world in which we all live so that to understand the meaning of it is the same as understanding the truth of it. If you understand it rightly you cannot *not* think of it as real, what is depicted there. That strange, marvelous little book on Anselm's proof for the existence of God is in a peculiar sense also applicable to Barth as an interpreter of the Bible as realistic narrative. He didn't make that application himself but it is clearly consonant with what he does.”[“Scripture as Realistic Narrative: Karl Barth as Critic of Historical Criticism,” p. 37 of PDF version (at http://www.library.yale.edu/div/Freitranscripts/Frei02-Narrative.pdf)]

This passage pretty much says everything I have been trying to say about what Frei believes. Here we see that, for Frei, meaning and truth are a “distinct question” for the philosopher, but they are not distinct within the narrative-theological hermeneutic. The question of the text’s truth, put this way, is not at all relevant to a “genuinely religious” reading of the text. Consider this sentence: “Remember that, for Barth, [the biblical narrative] depicts the one real world in which we all live so that to understand the meaning of it is the same as understanding the truth of it.” For Barth, as for Frei, “truth” was *within* the narrative, or the kerygmatic-experiential dimension of the text. The text is the “one real world in which we all live”. To read the text that way is to read it “genuinely religiously”. On this scheme, the logical distinction between meaning and truth is but a retracing of the narrative meaning, because “truth” has been defined as a narrative commodity.

Now, Phil, what do you take to be the relation of this approach to Scripture to theology? If theology is composed of *truth*, then what sort of “truth” is it? Is it the truth-as-spacetime-actuality that the “philosopher” might ask about, or is it the purely narratival truth of Barth’s “one real world in which we all live” (which, of course, is not the real world at all)?

Wouldn’t you agree that there’s an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to this whole project?

Frei’s *precis* of Barth contains all the elements of what Frei, on my reading, argues in *The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative*.

Phil Sumpter said...

John, I responded to you here, thinking that Jim had replied on the same thread.