Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The need for ontological categories in Biblical exegesis

In response to my post on the exegesis of Karl Barth, the question has been raised concerning the most adequate controls on interpretation. What is the right context to save our exegesis from turning into dogmatic eisegesis? Or is dogmatic eisegesis so bad after all? The classic answer of the academy has been that the only control is the historical context of the text. Recent literary approaches emphasise the literary - often "narrative" - context as a restraint on interpretative possibilities. The recent influence of N.T. Wright has led to many to emphasise the broader "salvation narrative" that first century Judaism formulated in response to its Scripture. As such, we have a new theological context which privileges the temporal categories of development and direction, climax and resolution, for undestanding the message of individual texts.

I'm not against any of these, and in particular I think the Heilsgeschichtle dimension that Wright has emphasised is a great bonus for the academy (I think the church has always been saying it). But is that enough when reading the Bible? Does "narrative theology" provide us with the ultimate key for unlocking God's word?

I think it would, if the Gospel really did only consist of a narrative with a plot. But it doesn't. As my blog name indicates, that Gospel has not only a narrative, temporal dimension, but also an ontological one. The Trinity, for example, structures the creed and is held by systematic theologians such as Jenson to be the foundation for thought about God. Not only the Trinity, but the eternal nature of Christ as pre-existent Son and the vehicle for creation is a reality that cannot be best described in “narrative categories” lie at the heart of the New Testament's kerygma. This was the problem with narrative which I was trying to get at in my post on the NT being seen as a chapter in a story. At best, Heilsgeschichte is a theological construct which gives us one way for understanding the Gospel, but not the only way.

Applying this larger dogmatic reality now to the text means that we must do more than fit its particularity within an unfolding narrative which enfolds us. It also means that we must think hard about the nature of the reality that the text is talking about, understood from our perspective now in the “latter days.” It means that we can understand the Psalmists' Christology better than he could, or the significance of the creative power of σοφία (Wisdom) better than the sages. Theological exegesis—exegesis which aims to get to the reality to which the Biblical witnesses (μάρτυρες ) are trying to point us at in all their fragmentary form—means thinking about the content of their particular message in the context of the content of all the messages contained in the Bible. Childs tries to put this across with the following example:

The Old Testament witness to creation does not ever sound the name of Jesus. At the same time, it is equally true that the Old Testament does not conceive of the creator God as a monad or monolithic block. In Genesis, in the prophets, and especially in the wisdom books, there is a dynamic activity within the Godhead and an eschatological relation between the old and the new, between creation once-for-all and creatio continua, between divine transcendence and immanent entrance into the world. It is crucial for any serious Christian theology to reflect on how this variety of witness to the God of Israel is to be understood in the light of the New Testament's witness (John, Colossians, Hebrews) to the creative role of Jesus Christ in relation to the Father.” (Biblical Theology, 83)
Childs concludes: “It is my thesis that such reflection demands a continuing wrestling with the central issue of the reality constitutive of these biblical witnesses.” (Ibid.)

I hope to give an example of this in a post on Ps 8 in the context of the canon.

1 comment:

psalterium said...

Hi Phil,

Could I ask your opinion of the basic argument I advance here.

It was somewhat rushed I will admit.