Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Reading the letter or the spirit? A case study.

I've often argued on this blog that genuine exegesis needs to wrestle with more than the linguistic, historical, and authorial-intentional dimensions of text. It needs to get to grips with its subject matter, the reality it is talking about. In traditional Christian exegesis this is referred to as going through the literal sense to get to the spiritual (see my thread on the subject here).

This isn't as odd as it sounds. Getting to the "spirit" of a law, for example, rather than simply fulfilling its "letter," is a foundation for the implementation of justice in society - though extremely difficult to implement in practice. Here's an example from the Bible:

The third commandment forbids using the LORD's name in vain, as it would dishonour him:

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Exod 20:4).
What would it look like to keep the letter of this law but not the spirit, and thus bring disrepute on God's name in a far more subtle manner?

In his last days, King David confirmed a series of oaths by evoking the name of God (1 Kings 1:17; 2:8, 23, 42). It is characteristic of these stories that they are extremely ambiguous. For example, David swore by the LORD that he would not put his enemy Shimei to death by the sword. At his death, however, he commanded his son Solomon to carry out the deed.

Did David break the Third Commandment by bringing disrepute on God? Strictly speaking the oath is not broken. Nevertheless, David resorts to a form of deception in order to execute his vengeance.

I believe that the legal issue represented here represents the crux of genuine theological exegesis. It is not enough to remain at the descriptive level. We need wrestle with the true subject matter of the text, which cannot always be so easily read off the surface. The result of not doing so can have dire consequences.

[These thoughts are taken from Childs' Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 69.]


X-Cathedra said...

Well said, Phil.

Somewhat related question: I will likely be writing a paper soon on Henri de Lubac's understanding of spiritual exegesis, and I think I'd like to use Childs as a point of reference. What work(s) of his would you recommend as his most focused, concise account(s) of the spiritual sense?

Pax Christi,

Phil Sumpter said...

You can get a full bibliography of Childs' works here. I get the impression that Childs' work is very integrated, so it's a good idea to get a view of the whole. His talk of the "spiritual sense," for example, is closely connected with his Barthian understanding of the text as "witness." I've been trying to make this clear in my thread on faithful and critical scholarship, in particular my thread on the literal and spiritual senses of scripture. The most useful places to look are Childs' Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, particular the bit where he talks about "accessing the subject matter" (see contents). His article on "Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?" is the other place I would go. The spiritual is accessed through the literal, so understanding his take on that is also important ("The problem of the Sensus Literarlis of Scripture," where he stands close to Hans Frei).

I hope this is helps for starters ... Childs became more explicit on this later in his career, thought I think the Barth connection means it was always there some how (see my post on Barth's exegesis). Once you learn to see it, you can see it brimming everywhere under his exegesis (e.g. his thematic emphasis in his Exodus commentary).

Phil Sumpter said...

And how could I forget? Childs' Struggle to read Isaiah as Christian Scripture is vital, especially the last chapter.