Friday, 30 May 2008

The Scope of the Canon: The "Protestant" Pole

In this post I pointed out the theological challenge of the scope of the Christian Bible. Within the history of the church, two principles seem to have been operative concerning the scope of the canon which stood in tension.

On the one hand, there was the concern that the truth of the apostolic witness be preserved. The commitment to guard this witness led to efforts to guarantee the proper scope of the sacred writings and to preserve the Biblical text from corruption. Jerome argued for the Hebrew form of the Old Testament on the basis of the fact that the Word of God to Israel had been preserved in the Hebrew Scriptures, which were then translated. Equally important was the view that the Jews were the proper tradents of the tradition (Rom. 1.4) and that Jesus stemmed from the Patriarchs “according to the flesh” (Rom. 9.5). Therefore, to quote Childs,

“to use a different collection of Old Testament writings from those accepted by the Jews appeared as a threat to the theological continuity of the people of God" (Biblical Theology, 65).
This could be called the "Protestant" solution to the problem of the Christian Bible (though it clearly has ancient roots). Tomorrow I will look at the "Catholic" tendency within the history of the church.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Which canon should we use?

As I mentioned here, unlike in Judaism the Church never really settled down on one particular canon of scripture. This poses a challenge for ecumenical dialogue, as different traditions invoke different texts in order to back up their theological positions. Before we can adress the question of which canon the church should read, it is worth rehearsing again just what the church means when it talks of "scripture" in the first place.

As Childs has emphasised and Hägglund demonstrated historically (1958), the church confesses that the Scripture is a “witness” to divine truth, a truth understood to be Christological. For the early church, it was the ability of the Old and New Testaments to point to God’s redemptive intervention for the world in Jesus Christ that enabled them to be authoritative. In other words, what matters is not the texts in themselves qua holy texts, but rather the reality to which they point that makes them valuable. They are means by which the prophetic and apostolic testimony to this reality are preserved, and as such function as a vehicle of this reality for today. This testimony is preserved in scripture and the function of the various summa of church doctrine (e.g. the Roman baptismal confession or the creeds) is the summarize and present the reality to which the scriptures point.

In other words, it's not about the text, it's about the reality. The function of scripture as testimony to this reality and of tradition as summary of this reality has led to two principles which have been operative throughout church history. On the one hand, there was the desire for purity, that the truth of the apostolic witness be preserved. On the other hand there was the desire to emphasise the catholicity of the Christian faith which was expressed in an unbroken chain of sacred tradition from Christ to the church.

In my next post I will look at these two poles in more detail.

For another detailed discussion, with a great comment thread, go here.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Challenge of the Christian Interpreter

The Challenge of the Christian interpreter in our day is to hear the full range of notes within all of Scripture, to wrestle with the theological implication of this biblical witness, and, above all, to come to grips with the agony of our age before a living God who still speaks through the Prophets and Apostles.
B.S. Childs, "Psalm 8 in the Context of the Christian Canon," 20.

A Beautiful Short Film

Stephen from Emerging from Babel has posted this wonderful short film, produced by Alonso Alvarez Barreda in Mexico/U.S.A. It's called Historia de un Letrero (The Story of a Sign) and has won the NFB Online Competition Cannes 2008. It's less than 5 min so give it a watch!

Monday, 26 May 2008

The Problem of a Two-Testamental Canon

I have finally come to point 3 of the humongous thread that I started in September 2007 dealing with the defining features of specifically Christian exegesis. Point 3 concerns the two-testamental nature of Christian scripture. Today, just a few words of introduction:

Despite the universal assent within the Christian church to a two-testamental Bible, there are two issues which have never received a single resolution: the scope of the Christian canon and the nature of the relationship between its two parts. The church has struggled throughout the centuries to understand the theological implications of this reality. From the Enlightenment onwards, however, the issue came to be understood in history-of-religions terms. As such, the theological question has largely been ignored as irrelevant. For the Church, the question of the integrity and scope of the two testaments, along with the nature of their relationship, is too important to be ignored.
Stay tuned for a "canonical" response to the problem ...

Saturday, 24 May 2008

The Goal of Interpretation

I am concerned as a Christian theologian to penetrate these texts of Scripture and grapple with the reality which called ... them forth. Can we use both these sets of testimony [i.e. the Old and New Testaments] to guide us to God himself and to speak of his creation? In my opinion, this is the goal of interpretation as a discipline of the Christian church.
B.S. Childs, "Psalm 8 in the Context of the Christian Canon," in Interpretation 23/1 (1969), 20-31.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Christian Zionism: Some Positive Developments

John Hobbins, via Hirhurim, links to an excellent article on the theological relation between the Church and the modern State of Israel. Interestingly, it's written from a Catholic perspective and is packed with insight. I'm in total agreement with John when he says

I am not a particularly optimistic person, but after reading the article and the post, hope caught hold of me as it hasn’t for some time. In my neck of the woods, it has been hard to claim the name of evangelical Zionist because of the many crackpots out there who self-identify as such. Now, the rules are changing.
This is an issue that won't go away and needs to be addressed. Here are three quotes that stood out for me:

Ultimately, Jews and Christians must remain a mystery to each other. Christians cannot help but ­recognize that Providence has sustained the Jews through their long exile, yet they cannot explain why Jews do not recognize Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of their prophecy. Jews cannot help but recognize that Christians are inspired by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, yet they cannot explain Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, except to dismiss it as a “world-historical fiction” (in Franz Rosenzweig’s words).
For Christians, the Jewish nation stands as a living reproach to Gentile nations: They reject Christian universality by desiring election in their own flesh. For the Jews, Christianity signifies that only as individuals can Gentiles enter the people of God, and that no other ethnicity may covet their election in the flesh. Jews ­cannot affirm salvation through Christ, and Christians cannot affirm salvation without Christ.
Jews have little to fear from Christian universality; the mortal danger to their existence stems rather from the jealousy of Gentile nations who covet election.
This last quote is particularly interesting, as the principle of the particularity of Jewish election has become a cornerstone in Christopher Seitz's take on the canonical approach. See his article "'And without God in the World': A Hermeneutic of Estrangement Overcome," in Word Without End (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 41-50. For Childs, too, the "mystery of Israel" is a foundational concept.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Childs Responds to Protestant Critics

Childs' phenomenal Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture received some heavy criticism, including from some of his more Protestant colleagues. Here is his response to their worries, taken from his "Response to Reviewers" in JSOT 1980:55:

"There is another recurrent criticism, usually expressed by my Protestant colleagues, that the emphasis on tradition and canon threatens the ultimate authority of God whose will is known through his Word. Did not the recipients if the divine revelation often misunderstand and even obscure the message? I do not doubt for a moment that they did. The canon can make no claim to infallibility. However, a crucial hermeneutical issue is at stake when it is assumed that the time-conditionality of the canonical witness can be theologically "corrected" by means of historical critical reconstructions. Rather, the position being defended is that the canon functions truthfully and authoritatively in all its frailty. A different theological dynamic is at work to guide the community of faith in reflecting critically on God and the world through the canonical tradition. The interaction of the various parts of Scripture often serves to balance, check, and subordinate individual elements. Then again, the language of faith constantly adjusted the semantic level on which texts were read and heard. But ultimately, the appeal to the role of the Holy Spirit both confirms the centrality of the tradition as the vehicle of continuing instruction, and also subordinates the written word to God himself as the source of all truth."

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

An Amazing Offer from Logos: Forms of Old Testament Literature

I accidently came accross a pre-pub offer from Logos this afternoon which was so mouth-wateringly tempting that I couldn't resist and took the time to negotiate with my wife the financial feasability of purchase. So, I've gone ahead and spent my 180$ (115 €) on the amazing Forms of the Old Testament commentary series. Here is a description of the aim the series:

The aim of this series, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, is to present a form-critical analysis of every book in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) based on a standard outline and methodology. Fundamentally exegetical, the Forms of the Old Testament Literature volumes examine the structure, genre, setting, and intention of the biblical literature in question. Basic to this series is its attempt to study the history behind the form-critical discussion and to reveal the exegetical process in order to enable students and pastors to engage in their own analysis and interpretation of the Old Testament texts. Each volume includes thorough bibliographies and a glossary of the genres and formulas identified in the commentary.
Not every book is present (there are 17 volumes altogether, go here for an overview), but the list of authors along with their endorsers is really quite impressive. Names that catch my attention: Brueggemann, Childs, Sweeney, Knierim, Coats, Lohfink, Murphy, Miller ... Does anyone have any opinions on the work of Erhard Gerstenberger?

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

What is the Sensus Literalis of Scripture?

Well, here's B.S. Childs' take on the issue:

The literal sense of the text is the plain sense witnessed to by the community of faith. It makes no claim of being the original sense, or even of being the best. Rather, the literal sense of the canonical Scriptures offers a critical theological norm for the community of faith on how the tradition functions authoritatively for future generations of the faithful. [*]
As such, the hermeneutical move which tries to bridge the gap between past and present must take place in terms of the literal sense of the final form of the text. This literal sense is not in tension with the spiritual (or figurative) sense, but rather serves different functions within the community of faith. Indeed,

the literal sense of the text is the indispensable key for the hermeneutical task of actualizing the tradition because in its shaping of the tradition it has critically rendered the material into a form suitable for future accommodation. [**]
See also my posts here and here.

[*] Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture,” 92

[**] Ibid., 93

Sunday, 18 May 2008

My Research Proposal

I thought it's about time I shared what it is I will be doing for the next few years. The following is the thesis proposal I have submitted to the academic board. If there are any major problems, it'll be good to discover them now, so please feel free to criticize!

In Christian Theology it was traditionally held that God is the ultimate author of the Scriptures of Old and New Testament, and that these contain the Word of truth calling for the “obedience of faith” (Childs, 2004: 300). How that has been interpreted and expressed has varied greatly. Nevertheless, as a confession of faith it has consistently hovered on the horizon of those particular scholars who feel drawn to relate their exegetical work to the ongoing life of the Church.

The greatest challenge to this theocentric focus on scripture came from the Enlightenment. Philosophical rationalism and newer critical analyses of the Bible called into question the divine authorship of the Bible and succeeded in alienating the text from contemporary experience. Nevertheless, commitment to the authority of the Bible continued, with the newer historical-critical methods being put to use by confessional scholars determined to hear the Word of God for their generation. Childs documents, for example, how confessional German scholarship in the period 1920-1940 strove to build a biblical theology on the foundations of historical critical methodology (1994). However, the conclusion of his analysis is that approaches which base theological exegesis on such a critically reconstructed foundation lead to a compromise with the ideological assumptions of modernity and thus compromise the capacity of the Bible to testify to God.

Childs has responded to the challenges of both the Enlightenment and the Church with his own approach to biblical exegesis, termed the 'canonical approach'. He attempts to bridge the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the text by looking at the history of Israel's “religious use” of its traditions. This usage involved a variety of moves on the part of the tradents of the traditions, such as the intertwining of sources, the juxtaposing of disparate material, and the setting of boundaries. This long process was completed with the fixing of the final form.

Throughout this diverse process, Childs detects the continuity of a kerygmatic intentionality, the desire to witness to the one reality of God. This kerygmatic intentionality is understood by Childs to mean that what was of significance to the tradents, and thus for us, is the reality to which these traditions point and not the traditions themselves as products of their times. As such, interpretation which seeks to be theocentric should focus on the “effect” which the aforementioned process has had on the reworked text. The reworked text, as an objective given, has an integrity in which meaning at the synchronic level is different to the meaning of the parts when diachronically reconstructed. It is primarily here that the faithful interpreter can perceive most fully the true theological subject matter that undergirds the entirety of the Bible.

Childs insists that the 'canonical approach' is not a research method. Rather it sets up a telos (knowledge of God) and describes the nature and function of the Bible as a means to attaining that. Nevertheless, a canonical approach sets specific boundaries within which the theological dimension of the text should become visible. C. Seitz has adopted to a large extent Childs' approach, developing its theological and theoretical basis and working out its exegetical implications. In particular, he works out the hermeneutical implications of the election of Israel and adoption of the Gentiles, the nature of Old Testament “accordance” with the life of Christ, and the significance of figurative interpretation.

Childs' and Seitz's canonical interpretation may be illustrated by considering their understanding of the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:1-25. A canonical approach to this text begins with the recognition of its diachronic depth dimension. Nevertheless, the hermeneutical question turns on how this dimension relates synchronically to the text's final form. This entails not only identifying the various redactional layers, but looking at the quality of the relationship between them. The canonical tradents faithfully interpreted earlier traditions and then shaped these traditions in such a way that they would broker that message within a broader historical and theological perspective (Seitz, 1993: 4). The original identity of Immanuel, for example, has frustrated historical critics: is he a son of Isaiah, a son of Ahaz, children in Jerusalem, a future messianic king? Despite the obscurity of this figure, even at the level of the final form read as a unity, later tradents, who themselves submitted to the 'coercion' of these traditions, have embedded clues to guide our interpretation of the figure's 'canonical identity'. This identity includes both a historical and an eschatological referent. Thus within the broader literary context, both within this sub-unit (chs. 7-9) as well as across broader swathes (chs. 7-9 contrasted with 36-39), it would seem that Immanuel is initially identified with Hezekiah, the ideal king whose deeds enable the Lord to demonstrate what 'Immanu-el' (God-is-with-us) means. Yet the primary identity of the figure has not been fully eradicated in the final form. Interest in Hezekiah is theological, not nostalgic, in that he is made a type for later kings to follow (a connection made through the addition of ch. 11:1-9). The king has been reinterpreted – but not so severely that the original historical referent is lost. “What kingship shall become in Israel, and for the nations, it becomes with reference to the Immanuel child and the historical rule of Hezekiah” (Seitz 1993: 75).

My project will consist of two phases. First, I will critically evaluate the canonical approach as developed by Childs and Seitz. This will require a thorough knowledge of their theoretical and exegetical work, analysed in conjunction with both the relevant background literature (von Campenhausen, Frei, Barth, von Rad), as well as responses by contemporary scholars (Barton, Barr, Sheppard, Steins). Given the ambitiousness of Childs' approach, it is not surprising that he has been attacked from both the left and the right ends of the theological spectrum. Criticisms include an apparent double referentiality in his work, one for theology and one for history, the denigration of the findings of historical criticism, contrived harmonization, prejudicial 'dogmatic' predisposition, unjustified focus on the final form, and so forth. It would seem that many problems stem from an inadequate understanding of Childs' approach, particularly his understanding of the text as primarily a witness to a reality outside of itself. Both Childs and Seitz have responded to these criticisms. My task will be to evaluate the soundness of such criticisms as well as the soundness of the response, with particular sensitivity to the possibility that the dialogue partners may be talking past each other.

I will then apply these theoretical insights to Psalms 15 and 24 in order to understand their theological significance. While a certain kinship has often been recognised between these Psalms due to their common inquiry into the identity of 'the righteous' (H.-J. Kraus, Craigie), Hossfeld and Zenger have done much to highlight the canonical context of the Psalms within Book One of the Psalter. Within the the literary framework of the edited Psalter, these Psalms now function as the corner pieces of a 'Davidic' sub-collection, itself one of four sub-collections making up the first book of the Psalter. Intertextual connections between the Psalms in this sub-collection function to alter the semantic content of Psalm 15 and 24.

Hossfeld and Zenger's exegesis, though extremely useful for canonical exegesis, is not identifiable with Childs' canonical approach. For Hossfeld and Zenger, the meaning of the text is tied to its possible function among groups of post-exilic redactors. As such, it is arguable that that their exegesis does not live up to the 'theocentric' demands of a canonical approach. P. Miller has attempted to go beyond this historicising approach and reflect on the implications of this arrangement for theological interpretation. Working in terms of the intertextual 'framework' uncovered by Hossfeld and Zenger, he notes the centrality of Torah, kingship, prayer and the rule of Yahweh. In another article, Zenger discusses the significance of the Davidic superscriptions and the hermeneutical implications of reading these Psalms in the context of the narratives found in the book of Samuel.

Both structural groundwork and theological reflection have been provided in the work of these scholars. My intention is to critically analyse and develop this work, following the intertextual threads present in the canonical shape of these Psalms and interpreting their theological significance.


The 'canonical approach' can be seen as a stance vis-à-vis the Bible with hermeneutical implications. Though not in itself a method, its assumptions and goals are more readily displayed and achieved by some methodologies than by others. This being so, the methodologies to be used will vary according to the results of the theoretical section of the thesis. However, it is clear from the research carried out so far that, among the methodologies current in biblical studies, redaction criticism, form criticism, and contemporary literary approaches are likely to be of most relevance. The hermeneutical issues involved in typological, allegorical and Christological readings of texts will also be addressed.

Friday, 16 May 2008

My Research Questions

I'm really not doing a good job of keeping my resolution. Oh well. Here are the title of and guiding research questions for my doctorate:

“O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?”: A Canonical Analysis of Psalms 15 and 24
Research Questions:
What has the canonical approach of B.S. Childs and C. Seitz contributed to the exegesis of the Old Testament?
What aspects of interpretation are involved in a canonical interpretation of Psalms 15 and 24?
In what way does a canonical reading of these Psalms affect their interpretation?
Feel free to criticize, encourage, or whatever occurs to you.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

"Mitzvoth ethics" instead of "biblical theology"?

Walter Brueggemann has reviewed an interesting book for The Review of Biblical Literature: Gershom Ratheiser's Mitzvoth Ethics and the Jewish Bible: The End of Old Testament Theology (2007). As the title indicates, this is a polemic against all Christian attempts at "Old Testament theology," a project Brueggemann himself once embarked on. Instead, a constructive "Jewish" alternative is proposed, one which derives theology from ethics rather than vice versa.

The most interesting part of Brueggemann's review is a citation from the book. In a conclusion to his section on biblical ethics, he claims:
Rather, the ancient Jews should realize that יהוה does participate in the suffering
of his covenant vassals (Hos 11:8–9). This is, according to the Jewish bible’s tenor,
יהוה answer to the ancient Jews. In this identification process with the suffering of
the ancient Jews, יהוה loses perfection for the sake of his chosen people. He
changes. His graciousness is his limitation. (266–67)
Not only does this sound like an example of a Jew doing "biblical theology," does not this statement stand in deepest continuity with the central claim of the Christian faith? Jesus is, after all, עמנו אל, Immanu-el.

Go here for the full review.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

The Crucifixion of Ministry

This is a book review I originally wrote for Chrisendom of Andrew Purves' The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP), 2007

Andrew Purve's little book is a call to return to the heart of what being Christian is all about—discipleship to God, in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It may sound pithy, but there's a concrete reality at work in this world which functions independently of our theologies, strategies and cherished agendas. This reality is what it's all about and so the most significant question you can ask is “what is this reality” and “how do I connect to it”?

This brings us to the interface of praxis and doctrine. The peculiarity of the Church is that it doesn't have a mission statement to fulfil in any strategic sense of the word. It has an identity as adopted son, and everything it does is dependent on its realizing its identity. This is because whatever ministry the Church may have in its various contexts is utterly derivative of the true ministry of the Church's Father. It's His ministry, and so if the Church is to do anything of lasting value, it must do it as a participant in the true ministry of the One who is the creator and perfecter of all things. The consequences of doing it alone, of attempting to be your own “ministerial messiah,” is the burnout that many in the clergy are experiencing today.

For this reason, Purves opens his book with a call on church ministers—though by extension this applies to any Christian—to give up the claim that their ministries are theirs, rather than God's. Rather, we should embrace with joy the “crucifixion” of our ministries in order to make space for God to use us in His unfolding ministry. In other words, true Christian ministry is a profoundly theological act. The primary question we need to be asking is not “What strategies will work best in my ministry?” but rather “What is God doing and how do I join in?” The heart of Purve's book is dedicated to unpacking this doctrinal question.

For Purves, the foundation for our ministry is the Trinitarian claim that God is working in the world through his Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is within this Trinitarian movement that the church is to find its true identity and the substance of its witness. God acts to save us in Jesus, who as a human offers back to God the service and worship he desires. The Holy Spirit is Christ's chosen form of presence among us and his function is to join us to Christ so that we can share in the love that takes place between Father and Son. This redemption results in a life of thankful response, and it is the task of pastoral work to call people to share in this “alien love.” In short, “The centre of Christian faith and life is our sharing in the love or communion within the Holy Trinity and in the ministry that flows from it” (71).

Within this Trinitarian movement Purves highlights two truths that are of especial importance for ministry: the Doctrine of the Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Doctrine of our Unity with Christ. Following Athanasius, Purves holds that “Jesus Christ ministers the things of God to us and the things of humankind to God.” This involves the paradox that Jesus is both the Word of God to us as well as the the one who receives God's Word for us. In other words, our response to the covenant is already fulfilled by one more capable of doing it. This has implications for how we worship, preach and teach, as the primary function of the minister is not to be Christ within the church but to witness to him. Ministry is inherently kerygmatic, pointing beyond itself to what God has done, is doing, and will do in Christ.

This reality is actualized for us by the Spirit's uniting us to Christ. Union with the person of Christ means union with his ministry and thus provides the ground of the Church's ministry. In short, the being of the Church involves sharing the mission of Jesus from the Father for the sake of the world.

But what does all this mean practically? “Our task is to locate the identity and practice of ministry in the pattern and event of Trinitarian activity as the Word/Act of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (125). Purves refers to his “three-fold mantra” to help guide the minister in his or her work amongst parishioners. First, we must look for the “declarative moment” when we can bear witness to a particular aspect of Christ's ministry relevant to the life situation of the parishioner. This involves the hermeneutical move of locating his or her life within the Gospel. This should be accompanied by some liturgical, symbolical action, in order to communicate the depth of what Christ is doing. The book ends with three helpful case studies, illustrating the challenge and potential of deriving one's ministry from Christ's.

This review may give the impression that Purves has written a book of abstract theology. However, the argument summarized above is spread over 149 pages, which gives him ample opportunity to fill in the gaps with case studies, anecdotes and exegesis. The message is unfolded very slowly, perhaps a bit too slowly, so that by the end of the book you are panting for it to come to a resolution. He manages to fit in the practical dimension into the last few pages. Though this was not as much as I would have liked, he does well to include three helpful case studies to fill out the picture.

All in all, the significance of the subject matter and its general readability make this book an important read for those wishing to locate their practical ministry on the horizon of the doctrinal tradition of the Church.

Monday, 12 May 2008

What is Good about Noth's Proposal?

Given the methodological problems with Martin Noth's approach to the laws in the Old Testament (see from the perspective of theology), what is good for theology, or at least for Childs' canonical approach?

I can think of two things:

The theological nature of the traditions. One could construe their nature in a number of ways: they primarily reflect economic, social or political forces, with religion used as a convenient veneer. But for Noth, while fully alive to these dimensions of Israel's life, the primary force at work was a theological understanding of God as the gracious elector of a people, and thus their covenant partner. Regardless of a certain historical minimalism concerning the events at Sinai, the traditions of these events serve to delineate the identity of God and his will for his people. This theological construal grounded the sacral confederacy and in the end could only be broken by the prophetic pronouncement that this relationship was over. Admittedly, Noth thinks that the later development in the post-exilic tradition was a retrograde step, but as I pointed out yesterday, theologically critiquing the elements within the Bible is not intrinsically wrong. The problem is the criteria to be used, and here a recognition of the hermeneutical shape of the canon as theological critique makes up for Noth's more historicist approach.

The theological nature of the canonical process is a foundation stone of the canonical approach. If the traditions-cum-texts were not theological, then the ground for the unity of the canon is lost. Noth's approach needs to be supplemented with an appreciation of the theological nature of the editorial process along with it hermeneutical significance.

The power of the traditions in the life of Israel. Childs' canonical approach is predicated on the idea of an ongoing dialectic between Israel's understanding of God and its traditions. In effect, God works through Israel's traditions in order to guide and shape the nation, while bringing them forward according to his eschatological plans. Noth illustrates not only the theological nature of the covenant/law tradition, but also its ability to constrain history, subordinating even kings to its logic. The struggles of the post-exilic community were done in terms of the ancient institution, though admittedly on Noth's estimate the older situation provides the ground for theologically critiquing what came later. Within a canonical framework, there is not distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” periods of Israel's history. Rather, the whole process is considered to be a genuine theological witness, so that critical judgement of the elements within the tradition must be done in terms of the structure give to the whole of the tradition.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

The Theological Problem With Noth's Approach

In my last post I summarized Martin Noth's thesis concerning the nature of the Israelite law and its place within the Old Testament. I had also suggested (here) that understanding Noth's approach can help us appreciate what kind of history Brevard Childs thought was “allowable” in order for his canonical approach to stand. Today I post my negative evaluation of Noth's approach. Tomorrow comes my positive evaluation.

Leaving aside the self-evident subjectivity involved in all attempts at critical reconstruction, there are theological problems with Noth's method. His construal of the development of Israelite-cum-Jewish attitudes to the Torah involves a clear value judgement. The apparent development of the idea of the Torah as absolute principle, abstracted from any sense of a covenantal relation (a questionable theory in itself), is judged by Noth to be a step in the wrong direction. According to Noth, it is understandable given general human tendencies, but lamentable given the apparently more profound and authentic significance the law had in its original amphictyonic context. In this light, Jesus' attack on the rabbinic Judaism of his day was a valid call to the true meaning of obedience as response to grace rather than requirement for favour.

Making theological judgements like this are not wrong in themselves. Within the Old Testament itself certain traditions are interpreted along certain axes in the later history of Israel. An implicit theological critique is thereby exercised, in which some dimensions of an event are emphasised, reinterpreted or subordinated. The significant theological question is “what are the criteria that are to be used” when making a theological critique? Noth's own criteria are implicit. He talks of “authoritative exegesis” as being the one that interprets the laws in their original context. But by what measure does he judge the later developments to be degenerative? Especially given the fact that this apparent later development is found editorially inserted at all stages throughout the narrative? Childs' contention is that this editing itself was an act of theological critique, shaping the tradition in a particular way so that it may be heard in a new light. The intention of this editorial shaping was to create authoritative Scripture for later generations of the faithful, so that if our theology is to be faithful to the text, it must take into consideration the hermeneutical manoeuvres of these editors, rather than importing criteria from elsewhere and operating with a “canon within the canon.”

Noth couldn't have taken this option, as the canon of rationalism required him separate out what had been put together for the sake of conceptual consistency. But if the editing process is seen to be a hermeneutical manoeuvre with theological intentionality, then a different “theology of the Torah” emerges, one in which law and covenant belong intrinsically together, in which law defines the holiness of the covenant and in which full commitment is demanded in response.

These are some of the conclusions Childs comes to in his canonical reading of Ex. 19 as a whole. The point is that setting the text within its canonical context yields a different reading to the reconstructions of historical criticism. The theological integrity of the final form allows Childs a certain freedom concerning the precise process of the development of the text. Even if Noth's elaborate theory is historically accurate, it doesn't matter. What matters is what it says now.

Except, as I have said, it does matter to some degree what happened in the process of the development of the text. And this something is what Noth preserves, as opposed to the more cynical approaches of recent historical critics. More on that next time.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Jewish Legalism?

As if in response to M. Noth's views about the "degeneracy" of later Jewish attitudes to their own laws, check out this short video clip from Jewish website

Given chabad's chassidic, Lubavitcher inclinations, I wonder of this video represents consensus Jewish opinion?

M. Noth on The Laws in the Pentateuch

In my last post I claimed that B.S. Childs was committed to the “historicality” of the Bible, i.e. its nature as the product of particular people in particular places and times. Not only is it important to come to terms with this dimension of the text, Childs' entire“canonical project” stands or falls depending on how one construes “what actually happened.” To be sure, he allowed for a lot of leeway concerning the historicality of the events portrayed—Childs was no conservative—but the options are not infinite. In order to help us understand what kind of history needs to have taken place, I will illustrate by looking at the critical reconstruction of the history of Israel's laws by Martin Noth.

Childs did not exactly wax lyrical about Noth as he did about von Rad, and “theologian” is not the first job description that comes to mind when one thinks of him. Noth was a historical critic through and through; his passion was uncovering the development of the traditions that eventually led to the final form of the text. Nevertheless, in his actual work we see a sensitivity to the theological dimension of the traditions which Childs held to be critical. Childs respected Noth's work and refers to him positively several times in his Exodus commentary. Though there is certainly plenty in Noth's work that is worth criticising—both historically and theologically—I believe attention to the nature of his historical proposals reveals an attitude common to German critical scholars that formed a positive matrix for the development of Childs' own thinking.

The following is my analysis of his essay “The Laws in the Pentateuch: Their Assumptions and Meaning” in The Laws in the Pentateuch and Other Essays (London: Oliver & Boyd, 1966), 1-107. In my next post I will draw some conclusions concerning the relation between this kind of critical construction and Childs' canonical approach.

I should add that it is not my concern to evaluate the historical validity of Noth's suggestions, but rather to see their relevance to understanding Childs' canonical approach.

In his essay, Noth is concerned to uncover the “true nature” of Old Testament laws, which, despite their diversity, are still “an entity of a particular type.” He starts with the general observation that all human laws require a particular social context in order for them to make sense. In the case of the variegated laws of the Pentateuch, this social context is the “sacral confederacy” of the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, the social matrix in which these particular laws have their being is not primarily political, it is theological. They are, according to the self-understanding of this confederacy (or “amphictyony”), grounded in a covenantal relationship between Yhwh and his elected people, a relationship which is exclusive and to be guarded at all costs. These laws, in other words, only make sense and indeed only have their validity within the context of a theological construal of a divine/human relationship. Yhwh has “graciously” (to use Noth's term) elected his people and out of this election the people respond in obedience.

This concrete, theological entity known as “the twelve tribes of Israel” (in distinction to the purely political entity of the northern “state of Israel”)continued throughout the historical vicissitudes of Israel's history, up to and into the exile. The power of this sacral confederacy is manifested not only in its ability to survive the political developments of the davidic kingdom, the division of the kingdom and the Assyrian invasion, but also in its impact on the development of these political realities. According to Noth, David's election of Jerusalem only worked because he moved the cultic centre of this amphictyony to the city, and the kings themselves were subordinated to the demands of the sacred laws. Even the “Josianic reform” was done in deference to the prior claims of this religious entity. The law book discovered in the temple, according to Noth, was not an expedient invention of the part of Josiah in order to further his own cause, it was a collection of genuine amphictyonic laws which needed to be inaugurated by a covenantal ceremony involving Yhwh and his people. The laws were made operative, “not by an act of state, but by a sacral ceremony” (45). And not only was this event inherently theological, it was theological in deference to and in continuity with prior Israelite tradition. In this sense, Noth can say that “the introduction of the deuteronomic law under Josiah took place under those circumstances to which the law belonged, on its own showing” (45).

As such, the theological reality which undergirded the amphictyonic league had a concrete Wirkungsgeschichte (i.e. it constrained the direction of later tradition). To be sure, according to Noth, the path hence taken was not straightforward. Josiah did turn this sacred law into state-law, thus shifting its emphasis and later kings disobeyed it altogether. Yet despite everything, the sacral confederacy, and thus the basis for the legitimacy of the laws managed to survive until it was totally destroyed by the exile. But even here, Noth is keen to point out that the decisive element in the dissolution of this group was not political but theological. A cult of sorts could still be carried on at the site of the temple, and there was still a remnant that could lay claim to being the “true amphictyony.” The break came with the pronouncement of the pre-exilic prophets, whose prophecies were confirmed by history, that God had decided to end his relationship with his people. If God pulls out, then the ground upon which the law stands is destroyed.

Without the basis of the confederacy, the law should technically have become invalid. Nevertheless, it persisted in fits and starts amongst competing groups out of competing reasons. Some refused to believe that the relationship was over and hung on to the laws, with prophetic backing, which were now understood within a framework of expectancy of restoration. Others promised the inbreaking of something completely new and discontinuous with the past. Whatever people's hopes, they were not realized and so the old laws became fossilized specimens, detached from their original context. The laws remained “by the power of inertia.” Given their detachment from the theological reality that gave birth to them, these laws became absolutized. No longer were the laws dependent on the “community of the redeemed” (my phrase), but rather the community defined itself in terms of its of a now abstract law, understood to be a self-contained entity. “Covenant” lost its true meaning, morphing into something legalistic, whereby the “salvation by grace” of the amphictyonic league is replaced by works righteousness as God is understood to respond to his people on the basis of their fulfilment of “the law.”

Protestantism anybody?

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

[1] Historicity and the Bible: What Kinds of Proposals are Theologically Valid?

In a recent post, I illustrated what Brevard Childs means when he talks about the “integrity” of the final form of the text. The final form of the Bible has a certain kind of unity, but this unity does not lie in the narrative portrayed nor in the perspective it embodies. It lies, rather, in the God who called the texts into being and who is their ultimate referent. Diverse texts are united, not by attempting to reduce them to one perspective, but by seeing them as various witnesses to one God. The unity of the Bible is in its referent and not in the text itself.

What implications does this have for the historicity of the narratives in the Bible? On the one hand, the ideological function of the Bible as “Scripture” for a particular “community” means that various creative devices are used in order to instil a particular world view. Just as ideology/theology cannot be simply read off “raw” historical events, so the Bible-as-Scripture requires plenty of creativity in order to get its point across. On the other hand, the very logic of biblical faith is one in which God intervenes in history and does things in our dimension of reality.

Childs was reserved in pronouncing judgement on this issue (cf. his quote here). Yet it is clear that his particular approach places constraints on the range of possibilities of what actually happened. Certain factors need to have been present in history in order for a reading of the final form to be legitimate. For example, he stated in 1980:
a historical critical theory of Deuteronomy which would construe the book as a pious fraud created for propaganda reasons to support the political aspirations of the Jerusalem priesthood would, if true, raise serious questions about a canonical interpretation which claimed that the book was shaped by primarily religious concerns. Similarly, if the development of a sense of canon was only a late peripheral phenomenon of the Hellenistic period, my approach to the O.T. would be seriously damaged.
(go here for full quote and discussion).

This predilection for a particular construal of Israel's history manifests itself in the kinds of historical critics Childs likes. Tomorrow I will illustrate by looking at Martin Noth.

For the remaining posts in this thread, read the following in order:

M. Noth on the Laws of the Pentateuch
The Theological Problem with Noth's Approach
What is Good about Noth's Proposal?

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

My New Resolution

I've made a new resolution for myself (and if I stick to it for ten days my wife has a "surprise" for me - no idea what but it helps strengthen my resolve). It's quite simple: I'm not allowed to check my e-mail or do anything on the Internet until I have completed fours hours of work directly related to whatever project I happen to be working on for my doctorate. That means learning Greek and German don't count, neither does reviewing fascinating books for Chris Tilling.

The postive result is that I get more work done and can go to bed with a with a good conscience. The bad news is that I post less and cannot respond to comments too quickly. I hope those of you out there who hang on to every fresh piece of wisdom emanating from my keyboard will be able to cope with the reduced output. I know it'll be tough, but think of the big picture: one day I'll get my summa cum laude (or whatever it's called), an amazing post at some influential academic institution from where I'll be payed to flood the world with endless profundity and insight, and then everything will be better. It'll be worth the sacrifice. Trust me. In the meantime, I will still endeavour to get something online at least every second day.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Canon: The History of a Relationship

The shape of the biblical text reflects a history of the encounter between God and Israel. Canon serves to describe this unique relationship and to define the scope of this history by establishing an end to the process. It assigns a special quality to this particular segment of history which is deemed normative for all future generations of this community of faith. The significance of the final form of the biblical literature is that it alone bears witness to the full history of revelation.
B.S. Childs (who else?), The Canonical Shape of the Prophetic Literature, in: Interpretation 32 (1978) 46-55, here 47.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

"Canon" and the "Essence" of Old Testament Prophecy

An utterly fascinating quote from the Abschiedsvorlesung from Jörg Jeremias, a representative of classical historical critical method in Germany:

So sehen wir die Propheten der spätpersischen und hellenistischen Zeit mit der Suche nach einem Gesamtwillen Jahwes beschäftigt. Zu diesem Zweck beziehen sie die mannigfachen überlieferten Einzelworte bzw. -texte der vorausgehenden Propheten aufeinander, um das eine Wort hinter den vielen Wörtern aufzudecken und insbesondere das Verhältnis von göttlichem Gerichts- und Heilswillen zu klären. Sie machen dabei, wie oben an Joel 2 gezeigt, keineswegs an der Grenze der prophetischen Schriften Halt, sondern beziehen die großen Texte des Pentateuchs mit ein. Die kanonische Funktion der Prophetie ist weit älter als der faktische Abschluss des prophetischen Kanonteils.
And again:

[Am Ende der prophetischen Überlieferung im Alten Testament] steht das Bemühen, die vielfältigen schriftlichen Zeugnisse von einem Reden Gottes durch Propheten zusammenzufassen, aufeinander zu beziehen und nach dem einen übergreifenden Willen Gottes zu fragen. Die Disziplin einer 'Theologie der Prophetie' ist keine moderne Erfindung, sondern längst schon in der späten Prophetie selbst angelegt. Die kanonische Funktion der Prophetie ist weit älter als der faktische Übergang der Prophetie in kanonische Dignität.
J. Jeremias, Das Wesen der alttestamentlichen Prophetie, in: ThLZ 131 (2006) 3-14, hier 13f (Hervorhebung im Original).