Thursday, 23 October 2008

Prophetic redaction as a "rule of faith"

Today I return to my interrupted thread on the various ways in which the prophetic material in the Bible was rendered to function as canonical Scripture for future generations of the community of faith. My last post was on the subordination of chronology to typology.

6) The original prophetic message was placed within a rule-of-faith which provided the material with an interpretative guideline. It is generally recognized by critical scholarship that two appendices have been fixed to the conclusion of the Book of Malachi. To dismiss these verses as a "legalistic corrective" stemming from some disgruntled priestly editor is to misunderstand the canonical process utterly. Rather, the first appendix reminds the whole nation that it still stands under the tradition of Moses. The imperative to "remember the law of my servant Moses" does not weaken Malachi's attack on the nation's sins, but it sets a check against any misuse of the prophet's words which would call into question national solidarity in the name of additional requirements for the pious. The canonical effect of the first appendix to Malachi testifies that the law and the prophets are not to be heard as rivals but as an essential unity within the one divine purpose. The effect of the second appendix (Mal 4:5-6) is to balance the memory of the past with the anticipation of the future.

In a similar way, the ending on the Book of Ecclesiastes is another example of a rule-of-faith which would also order a wisdom book from a perspective informed by God's commandments (Eccl 12:13) and the coming judgment (v. 14).


Bob MacDonald said...

I am glad to see the disgruntled priestly editor's existence questioned. In some recent reading on the history of Hebrew prayer, I see the documentary hypothesis being used to support a shift from the power of the king to the post-exilic powers of the priesthood. I don't find the reasoning satisfactory. In good scientific manner, a thesis should support both observation and prediction, not just the bias of the interpreter.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

Interesting approach!

I think you have provided a very plausible explanation of the compositional strategy in both of the examples you provide.

I am curious, though: what precisely is the "rule of faith" that is in operation in these examples?

And are they the same in each example?

How is this "rule of faith" created?

Is the label "rule of faith" appropriate for what you see going on?

Is what is going on (whatever label you use for it) occurring consistently in other texts as well, with the same function?

P.S.--Gaaak! Why did you pick Johann Philipp G. as the word verification option for comment submission?? Surely von Rad or Childs . . . ? :)

all the best,

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Bob, some historical critical reconstructions are so complex and hypothetical that I wonder what it is that motivates people to do them. It's still all the rage here in Bonn. It's fascinating to see doctoral students getting worked up over whether a half-sentence can be allocated to J or not.


I always appreciate your input. I'll try and write a more detailed response as soon as I can.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Michael,

sorry for the late reply. I'm prioritizing my doctorate over my blog at the moment, which is painful but necessary. Your questions are worth answering in detail, as they challenge me to think about this issue. I've struggled with it for a while, so please do give me feedback on the coherency of my response.

First, however, this is not my explanation, it is Childs' (sorry, I made that clear in the first post of the series. I hope to tie them all together this afternoon). I find it helpful for the insight it gives me into Childs' canonical approach.

what precisely is the "rule of faith" that is in operation in these examples?.

Childs' use of this important category stems from his interaction with patristic hermeneutics. I've outlined its interpretation by to an important scholar here. Kathryn Greene-McCreight is another important name here. In “He Spoke Through the Prophets” she defines it as “the pre-creedal, creedlike material outlining the basic points or narrative moments of the Christian faith” (172). Again, “The rule of faith functions as an outer limit that places constraints on what can be argued as a legitimate reading ... The rule of faith is 'the real content of revelation, the fundamental tenor of the one message of Scripture'” (173). In short, the rule of faith is the substance of the whole of Scripture, God's ordo salutis, which provides the norm for correctly interpreting it in a kind of hermeneutical circle. If one reads Scripture according to this rule, one is letting Scripture interpret itself (scriptura sui interpres est).

Applied to the editorial history of the Bible, it implies both the source of the editors' inspiration and the function of the result. The final form of the book of Amos, for example, wants to retain the particularity of its various oracles within the broader theological horizon of God's ways with Israel. The editor is committed to a theological vision, a “rule of faith,” and this informs his editing activity. As such, to quote Childs, “The imperative to "remember the law of my servant Moses" ... sets a check against any misuse of the prophet's words which would call into question national solidarity.” The phrase “rule of faith” also describes the function of that which the editor has created: the new literary work provides the material “with an interpretative guidline.” Only in following the final form's shape can we access the theological substance to which the editor is witnessing (in continuity with, though expanding upon, the historical Amos, of course).

And are they the same in each example?

Given the description above, I don't see why not. “Rule of faith” describes the form and function of the text, not its substance. For theological reasons we are committed to believing that on some level the substances create a theological unity (Childs calls it “ontological”).

How is this "rule of faith" created?

Divine revelation, comprehended in an ongoing dialectic between history/experience and tradition.

Is the label "rule of faith" appropriate for what you see going on?

Yes. “Rule” references the establishing of an authoritative guideline, a κανών, eschatologically orientated to future generations of the faithful. “Faith” describes the nature of the substance witnessed to by the rule: it is a faith reality.

Is what is going on (whatever label you use for it) occurring consistently in other texts as well, with the same function?

Childs has consistently argued in numerous publications on both testaments that this is the case. In my opinion, as long as “rule of faith” is primarily understood in terms of form and function, this shouldn't be too problematic. The “content,” the “object of the witness,” is the complex bit. Can you think of examples to the contrary?