Friday, 29 August 2008

Inner-referentiality in the New Testament and the Scriptures as "divine vehicle"

In response to my claim that the canon of Scripture is not just a useful source for historical reconstruction but a vehicle of ongoing divine revelation, a commentator has pointed out that such a view is not found within the Bible itself.

Granted this point, how does one respond to it?

The answer is the one does not draw a doctrine of Scripture form propositional statements made within the individual texts themselves, but rather from an overall understanding of the function of these texts within the life of the community of faith that treasures them and that claims to have been formed in response to them. When one pays attention to the functional dimension of the texts, one sees that they were not only treated as a lens for perceiving the divine reality that had broken into their lives, but as an ongoing source for deeper understanding. This can be seen in the intense intertextuality that characterises the entire Bible. At both earlier and later diachronic levels of the text, one sees a constant dialectic at work in which, on the one hand, the divine reality is understood in terms of sacred tradition and yet, on the other hand, that tradition is "critically shaped" in terms of a deeper understanding the God who had thus revealed himself. Traditions are collected, juxtaposed, subordinated, streamlined etc. to form a coherent whole. At a later stage we have the literary shaping of entire blocks (e.g. torah, prophets, writings), in which the parts are constantly related to each other in order to gain a deeper impression of the whole. The theological implication is that God makes himself known in history, yet this revelation is interpreted within a larger theological framework brokered by tradition (later canonical Scripture).

One example of this intertextual activity is David Trobisch's interesting analysis of the nature of the church's search for a holistic and unified grasp of its scriptures in his The Final Redaction of the New Testament: An Investigation of the Formation of the Christian Bible (probably translated as this one). I take my summary from Childs in his article "Jesus Christ the Lord and the Scriptures of the Church" (1998):

Trobisch argues that there is evidence to show that there already was a definitive edition of hte entire New Testament by the end of the second century. One piece of evidence is the presence of a conscious inner-referentiality within the entire New Testament canon, in which the titles of authorship assigned to each of the writings - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude - are consciously intertwined, thus forming a unified authoritative whole. For example, Mark is linked in Acts with both Paul and Peter and he also is greeted in the letter of 1 Peter. Luke likewise is referred to in the Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline collection, and is linked with Mark. John is named in the Fourth Gospel, the synoptics, Acts, and Revelation. Similarly, the Genereal Epistles are consciously linked through cross-referencing to James, Peter, and John. Childs concludes:

The effect is that a knowledge of the whole New Testament corpus emerges as an actual literary force in shaping once independent writings into a unified composition.
In addition to this, the conflict between Peter and Paul, referred to in the letter to the Galations, is brought to a conscious harmonious end in Acts 15. Likewise, Paul and James are joined in a shared plan in Acts 21 to unite Jewish and Gentile Christians in a common collection for Jerusalem. In fact, the major function of the book of Acts is to provide an introduction to the Catholic Epistles and the historical background for the Pauline letters. It also is not accidental that in the last letters of both Paul and Peter the public reading of Scripture within the community of faith is highly recommended.

Though at the time of writing Childs was still not sure of the full implications this work, it illustrates a fresh turn in New Testament studies of seeking to understand the nature of the Church's search for a holistic and unified grasp of its Scriptures.

No doubt Childs discusses this in his posthumous How to Read Paul.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

I've been following the John/Phil exchange, and I think a few things are slipping through the cracks :)

re: your statement:
> "The answer is the one does not draw a doctrine of Scripture form propositional statements made within the individual texts themselves, but rather from an overall understanding of the function of these texts within the life of the community of faith that treasures them and that claims to have been formed in response to them."

I don't think these are always mutually exclusive alternatives.

If you (and John, in the 8/27 comments) are only saying that individual texts do not overtly refer to themselves as Scripture--well, of course! Frankly, I didn't hear you (or Childs) arguing for this.

But surely you would admit that individual texts both use and refer to OTHER texts (which they have been composed in relation to) as Scripture.

In that case, why couldn't the "function of these texts within the life of the community of faith" take the form of "propositional statements"?

Perhaps you should explain what you mean by "propositional statements"--obviously we can't expect ancient authors to use modern terms to describe their understanding of certain texts. But taken on their own terms . . . ?

all the best,
Michael

Anonymous said...

I like the following :)

> "This can be seen in the intense intertextuality that characterises the entire Bible. At both earlier and later diachronic levels of the text, one sees a constant dialectic at work in which, on the one hand, the divine reality is understood in terms of sacred tradition and yet, on the other hand, that tradition is "critically shaped" in terms of a deeper understanding the God who had thus revealed himself. Traditions are collected, juxtaposed, subordinated, streamlined etc. to form a coherent whole. At a later stage we have the literary shaping of entire blocks (e.g. torah, prophets, writings), in which the parts are constantly related to each other in order to gain a deeper impression of the whole. The theological implication is that God makes himself known in history, yet this revelation is interpreted within a larger theological framework brokered by tradition (later canonical Scripture)."

best,
Michael

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Michael,

I think you've just confirmed what I was saying. I'm just not sure that the intertextual use of other traditions amounts to a propositional statement concerning a doctrine of Scripture. It's a function, a use, from which a conclusion can be drawn and a tentative proposition can be formulated.

I'm glad you like the quote. I'm always insecure when I write these things. One of the reason I post them is to get criticism or affirmation.

Phil Sumpter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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