Monday, 25 August 2008

The Transcendence of God and Human Historicity

This morning I posted a quote by Childs on the Incarnation as an analogy for the dialectical relation between the Bible as a human creation and the Bible as a witness to God. The following quote by Paul Minear, from his astounding book The Bible and the Historian (go here and here), serves as the perfect compliment. He is interested in the significance of the paradigm of modernity (á la Kuhn) for Biblical exegesis:

At the moment we are especially interested in how this paradigm deals with the dimension of transcendence. The simplest answer is that the method encourages either antagonism or neutrality toward the presence of such a dimension. Altizer, for example, says, “We inherit the historical revolution of the nineteenth centruy, a revolution which stripped all historical events of a transcendent ground” (Thomas J.J., The New Apocalypse, xiv). In the less enthusiastic words of A.E. Loen, the historical process has been “de-divinized,” since the message of the Bible comes to be seen as “determined exclusively by historical factors.” The sequence of historical events is sundered from its metaphysical ground, so that “forgetfulness of the sphere of being robs history of its essence, just as it robs man of his.” (Secularization, 7, 10).

Can exegetes transfer that task to the preacher and the theologian and limit their own work to the business of objective historical description? Should they do this, their decision will reflect their mastery by the paradigm of historical science as well as mastery over it. (pp. 40-41)

Minear concludes his chapter with the following words of wisdom:

The task of contemporary exegetes is to allow Scripture itself to criticize both the assumptions and the methods that are used in its study. They must listen also, of course, to secular historians and to theologians. Success in their task will be possible only through a conviction that the temporal distance between this and earlier centruies is itself bridged by the eternal purpose of God and by the participation of the church in that purpose. But it will also be possible only if there is more effective collaboration between historians and theologians. Even the ideal cooperation among scholars, however, will never lead to reducing God's transcendence to the size of our various conceptual boxes. (49).
Oh how not only the academy but also the church needs to hear this!


Bill said...

Phil, I have to re-read that a few times to make sure I understand it completely, but I think I LOVE it. :)

I take it the blockquote should say "mastery by" instead of "master by". Is that correct?

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Bill, I've updated the block quote.

If you're into NT, then I highly recommend this book. You can find other extracts from it under the Paul Minear tag. The idea of ontology/metaphysics (being) is tough but really interesting and I hope to post some examples of John's "apocalyptic ontology" soon. Perhaps a tangible example would help us understand where Minear is coming from.

Rob said...

Hi Phil,
It seems that the whole issue(s) of dialectic of the transcendence of God and human historicity have their neo-orthodox purveyors of various gradations and non-neo-orthodox purveyors of various gradations. It does seem the lines are somewhat fuzzy at times. Bockmeuhl's book, "The Unreal God of Modern Theology: Bultmann, Barth, and the Theology of Atheism" as well as Van Til represent the evangelical Reformed contra neo-orthodoxy. Childs, Seitz and perhaps Minear are a narrowing of the frame. But prior to the advent of neo-orthodoxy, Bavinck wrote extensively on issues related to this topic. Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck by Jan Veenhof, translated by Al Wolters is a good take to this view. The status of revelation and now divine action seem to the issues at stake.

Phil Sumpter said...


thank you so for your thoughts and the and book references! I feel like I'm trying to straddle various disciplines at once, an expert in none, so input like this is extremely helpful. I'll bare all these books in mind. Could you just clarify what you mean by Childs et al "narrowing the frame"? Do you mean that these scholars are bridging the distinctions?

Anonymous said...

Dear Phil,
Thanks for your rely. I really like your blog and its ferment.

By "narrowing the frame", I guess I am using short hand for biblical exegesis that is more committed to a theological paradigm that is dependent on a biblical categories. Conservative evangelicals don't have a monopoly on this enterprise; they are just more eagerly and overtly committed to them. But commitments to one's view of reality are nonetheless there.

I believe Bockmuehl, who studied under Barth, is perceptive on the status of neo-orthodoxy's view of reality and his book that critiques it, "The Unreal God of Modern Theology: Bultmann, Barth, and the Theology of Atheism" is devastating. Van Til is quite cogent as well.

But one can not be a very good exegete and write about the dialectical nature of history that is seeking to modify that one is coming from [Childs studied under Barth as well].

The historical-critcal enterprise is dicey now with now a range of commitment in large part due to the New Literary Criticism that started in the 70's and took of in the 80's with scholars such as DJA Clines. Scholars such as Rendtorff reflect this new emphasis. But what this means in terms of a theological and view biblical view of reality is also dicey and up for grabs in the mainstream academy. One does good scholarship and only shows one's commitment as one has to or incidentally.

For example, scholars such as NT Wright may appear quite evangelical in relation to the New Perspective on Paul, but he a critical realist not a naive realist.

I only wrote a Th.M. thesis and would like to further work on the OT. So my thoughts are tentative.

To me, I find Childs, Seitz and Clines quite fascinating. I am just beginning to understand figural reading or interpretation. It is quite interesting. I think there is a bridging distinctions between the traditional Reformed confessional view of unity of Scripture and this [these categories are only approximately helpful, because some OT scholars prefer not to be so pegged], post-Barthian, New Literary critical emphasis, but it is not obvious or overt.

Schlatter would be a NT scholar who was self-consciously confessional and committed to a salvation-history perspective in the midst of German liberalism with Harnack.

Kuyper refers to a dialectic of common grace and antithesis. That is, that unbeliever receives common grace benefits of this life yet the antithesis refers to the fact that the unbeliever does not think or accept the worldview of the believer.

Such examples as Schlatter and Kuyper are somewhat dramatic; today scholarship is less grandiose about being overtly negative. But it does point out that scholarship today is nonetheless done very in in tension in love/hate relationship with the church and the academy. Biblical theology and dogmatic theology are two common poles of this commitment.
I hope this makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Let me refine what I said before a little, since it seems a little obtuse. Sorry. I don't believe one can be a very good exegete and not play their hand about the theological nature of reality. I believe Childs discussion concerning the dialectical nature of history is one that potentially could modify the mainstream historical-critical views he was coming from.

But the tendency today in biblical studies is to be non-overt as possible. I believe this is both good and bad.

I am basically a confessional Reformed christian interested in mainstream OT studies, so I'm sure there are those who would think I am naive or too ideological or too conservative. I just believe in biblical studies, one can hide their presuppositions but one can not be completely neutral about them.

I hope this makes more sense now.

Phil Sumpter said...


I'm glad you can benefit from what I post. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with the following: I don't believe one can be a very good exegete and not play their hand about the theological nature of reality. I believe Childs discussion concerning the dialectical nature of history is one that potentially could modify the mainstream historical-critical views he was coming from. I'm not sure, however, that conservative Evangelicals are so heavily "dependent of biblical categories." Childs often rails against their attempts to sift the Bible through an alien, modern net. I'm also not sure to what extent modern literary approaches alter traditional historical criticism. Watt's Isaiah commentary, for example, was criticised by Childs for its subordinating a foreign text to modern literary categories. I do think that these insights are important, however. I'm especially a fan of Sternberg.

Anonymous said...

Dear Phil,
When you say, "I'm not sure, however, that conservative Evangelicals are so heavily "dependent of biblical categories,"" what do you have in mind? I do see what you mean that modern literary theory tends to sift the text and subordinate the text to modern literary categories, in terms of a modern sociological and political ideology. I am not sure you could say this of all OT scholars of the literary bent, such Fogelmann, Alter and Efrat.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Rob,

I think we're in agreement here. But then none of the scholars you name are Evangelical, or even particularly confessional. I just wasn't sure whether you were saying that a commitment to the text in an evangelical manner guaranteed a more Biblical stance vis-a-vis the text ...

Anonymous said...

Dear Phil,
I do think that the whole Enns' debacle has created a whole new dimension as to how confessional evangelicals approach Scripture. Enns taught at WTS-Philadelphia until the end of this summer. He wrote the book, "Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament" in 2005 and was dismissed this year from WTS because of the views expressed therein. Since WTS represents the conservative, confessional reaction to the realignment of Princeton Seminary in 1929, WTS had a tradition to uphold in relation to the confessional and conservative view of Scripture. I am afraid this affair ups the ante in the whole issue of what I have been calling the theological nature of reality in relation to Scripture. One can be a nominalist in ones' historical and metaphysical presuppositions, but the question comes down to, "why is there something rather than nothing?" I believe that von Rad was on to something in his 1936 essay on "The Theological Problem of the Doctrine of Creation." Von Rad asked, "How far is the idea of Yahweh as Creator a relevant and immediate conception, over against his redemptive function?" Have we really gotten a good answer to this question? Perhaps Knierim has gotten closer than any other in OT studies.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for blogging. Your posts and especially your references to the works of Childs, Minear, and Seitz have proven very helpful to me.

I had a very general question. I have gathered from my scant reading in Childs and from your posts that Childs, with Frei, holds somewhat of a nuanced view of the Bible's referentiality: he objects to the evangelical insistence on thorough-going reference to an scientifically recoverable history. But he reasserts the Bible's thorough-going referentiality with regards to its grand subject, GOD. Help me out! Doesn't this sound somewhat docetistic? Break it down for me.

Phil Sumpter said...

Anon., glad to be of service. You question is very important. Childs is often taken to task for having no interest in history, which is wrong.I have just started a thread that ought to begin to answer your question. In fact ,this your comment has inspired me to pull myself together and get on with continuing it! Here it is: In my final comment in the comments list I list a bunch of other posts germane to your question. In regards to Frei, perhaps this one will help:

Just a few thoughts on your comments:

- Do Evangelicals insist that the history is recoverable? I guess it depends on which Evangelicals, but in my experience they tend to argue for the plausibility of the historicity of the Bible and not necessary its provability.

Childs is certainly cautious about the Bible being thorough-goingly historical. I think he'd say that what really matters is whatever it is that the Bible witnesses to. In his opinion, this object is "the divine reality," which includes our history (i.e. he isn't docetic) but which also explodes and reshapes it along eschatological lines. Thus the incredible nuance in his exegesis (by the way, MacDonald in Metaphysics and the God of Israel says that this is one of Childs' most profound contributions to Biblical theology, outdoing the contributions of systematic theologians). It certainly moves me!