Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Why exegesis needs dogmatics

Jim Getz has briefly responded to my claim that the issue of diversity in the OT requires the work of dogmatic theology, and not just Biblical theology. This is what I percieve to be a shortcoming in Chris Tilling's list of three scholars who have dealt with the issue. In short, Jim believes that dogmatic theologians don't take the text seriously; they don't listen to what the text is saying "in and of itself." How then, can they help us deal with diversity in the Bible?

Here's the response I posted on his blog:

I can understand why bringing dogmatics into this can be confusing. For most OT scholars, dogmaticians are perceived as intruders whose broader construals of theological reality compromise the objectivity of their analysis of the parts. And in one sense this can be true. I wasn't suggesting that we only have dogmaticians in the list, only that the answer to the question of how to handle the diversity requires interaction with their craft. OT scholars help sketch out the diversity and explain it. But the issue is how the relate the parts. Can an OT scholar, working in a secular paradigm, really explain to me the relation between Wisdom literature, prophecy and law, other than in purely chronological terms? He can talk of cultural influences, relate the parts diachronically etc., but when it comes to wrestling with the theological substance of the message, I think we run into difficulties. Especially if you are a confessing Christian. The Christian claim is that the OT is a direct witness to Christ, not historical background information for the NT or a primitive stage in an unfolding religious evolution. This means that for the Christian questions of the nature of referentiality and the nature of the “substance” of the text cannot be ignored. This is made even more complicated by the fact that we're caught in a dialectial tension between the dogmatic claims of the NT and church tradition concerning Christ and the fact that these claims are made in terms of an OT witness that has remained untouched by the church. It has been accepted in all its Jewishness, without being redacted or changed to fit a more Christological agenda (by redactionally inserting “Jesus” into Isaiah 53, for example).

In short, given this larger construal of reality, reading the letter only and not getting to the spirit is not an option for Christian exegesis, and arguably not an option for any interpretation of a text. Dilthey argued long ago, and I think it still stands in one form or another, that erklären (explanation) only deals with the surface of a text, whereas verstehen digs deeper.

As my response shows, I've already moved out of the bounds of the OT in order to try and explain the nature of the issue. Childs' approach, as opposed to Sanders or Brueggemann, is that the Christian confession of the OT witness to Christ is not only true, it cannot be for ever bracketed out for the sake of an illusiory objectivity. This bracketing is important at one stage, but only temporarily, and then only as part of a dialectic, the goal of which is not to point at various parts, but to wrestle with the true substance of the parts.

Another dimension of this complex issue is “the economy of God.” What is the true context of Scripture? What are the hermeneutical implications? If a later tradent reconfigures an earlier layer according to a “different” referent (a more profound understanding of its substance) than is it right to follow Brueggemann et al and just leave the “contradition” standing, or do we following the kerygmatic intentionality of the editor and see how his work functions as a guide to the texts' substance (á la Childs, Seitz, Sheppard, Karl Barth, etc.)? Surely a concept of “progressive revelation” helps here.

Dogmatics is the construal of the whole, and so it is necessary for fitting the parts together. When Brueggemann says

[T]he biblical material itself ... refuses to be reduced or domesticated into a settled coherence. This refusal may not be simply a literary one but a theological one, pertaining to its central Subject (quoted here),
he's making a dogmatic statement and not just a historical, literary, analytical one. But if he had a different dogmatic presupposition, perhaps he would handle the differences differently (see the debate between him and Childs in SJT, which I commented on in the first three posts here).

Finally, to return to the three options Chris gives us:

the first fails because it go against the kerygmatic thrust of the text by focussing, not on that which the text is talking about, but on the epistemological conditions of the receiving community. It's like reading a news report, not so that you can find out what happened (i.e. the purpose of the thing) but so that you can understand the rhetorical strategy of the news reader and the ways that message is refracted through cultural context of those watching the show. Of course these things are important to understand, but an exclusive focus on this means that God-- the subject of the “news report”--gets lost in the background. Brueggemann reads a theocentric text anthropocentrically.

Second, Goldingay is facing in the right direction. He just needs a bit more theoretical ballast to explain why this is the direction to be going in. This quote taken on its own makes the whole project look rather lame, like someone embarrassedly piecing together bits of someone else's broken pottery and trying to make the best of it.

Third, Tomlin is doing I what suggested above: reading the parts in light of the whole. As long as by “Jesus Christ” he doesn't mean the New Testament construal over against the Old, but rather both equally and dialectically in relation to the one Christ who transcends them both. A trinitarian hermeneutic may be more appropriate here (see J. Barr's comments).

I've argued for this recently in my post on the need for ontological categories in biblical exegesis.

I also think my post on the theological crisis of biblical criticism is relevant here.

Update: Calvin, of the newly established The Floppy Hat, has had a few thoughts on N.T. Wright's call for the necessity of the relation between theology and biblical studies. Wright's approach is diffrerent to that of Childs. Given the significance of Wright, if I find time I may follow Calvin's lead and see where it takes me.


James Pate said...

Hi Philip. You may have touched on what I'm about to ask in past posts, so feel free to refer me to them.

When I was in an evangelical Bible study years ago, people tried to tie all sorts of things in the Old Testament to Jesus. We see a sacrifice, and BINGO, that applied to Jesus' substitutionary atonement. I thought such an approach not only prevented us from hearing what the Old Testament texts themselves were trying to say. I thought it was downright BORING, since I felt like it made the Bible say the same thing over and over. Acknowledging Scriptural diversity is at least more interesting!

And then there's another approach I'm encountering in a Catholic Bible: one that treats the Old Testament as a foil for the New Testament. In the OT, there was exclusivism. In the NT, there's not. But my problem with this approach is that it's basically "Thank heavens we're not under the Old Testament anymore!" It doesn't really respect the Old Testament on its own terms. And it seems to ignore passages that treat exclusivism as something permanent: Ezekiel's eschatological temple has a lot of exclusivism.

So is there a way to read the Old Testament as a Christian, while respecting it on its own terms?

P.S. Did you delete me from your Biblioblogroll? I'm just curious. I know I haven't blogged much about the Bible. It's been like 5 political posts, for every one Bible post!

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi James, I had noticed that you focus on politics, so I added you to my politics blog role. I hope that's OK ...

Your concerns are legitimate. The key is dialectic, which I tried to get accross in the post. On the one hand the Church confesses that the OT is a witness to Christ. On the other hand, the church claimed it did this in its Jewish form, i.e. they didn't attempt to Christianize the OT in any material sense by editing or re-writing it, for example. I will answer your question by way of an example when I post this afternoon. I hope it helps (I'm still struggling to understand it myself).

bobby grow said...

Nice blog, Phil! What do you think of John Sailhamer's appropriation of Child's canonical approach?

Sorry this is a little general relative to the specifics of your post.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Bobby,

I haven't read any Sailhammer but I've heard of him. He gets a bit of treatment, for example, in Steph Chapmann's article. "Reclaiming the Bible for Inspiritation." I think, as an evangelical he's moving in the right direction when he focusses on the text as the locus of authority and the idea as history as interpreted. On the other hand, I think that moves which overemphasise the formal, structural features of the text, run the danger of artificially flattening the text. There is the additional issue of the nature of inspiritation, revelation and truth. Calls to just read the narrative without references to diachrony smack, for me, of an attempt to preserve held assumptions on these issues rather than a genuine wrestling with them. I'm currently a fan of Barth's doctrine of the "three forms of the Word," for example, which I think provides a more theologically adequate means of dealing with diachrony and synchrony.

Here's a quote from my hero, Brevard Childs, on the issue:

“I shall argue that both a diachronic and a synchronic dimension are necessary for biblical exegesis. In word, I deem inadequate the usual diachronic approach of traditional historical criticism that offers a literary and historical reconstruction of the text's allegedly original background as the necessary context for critical interpretation. Likewise, I reject a synchronic or structuralist rendering—a position increasingly defended both in liberal and conservative circles—which focuses solely on the text as a self-sufficient literary entity apart from any consideration of the reality behind its written form. Rather, the crucial issue remains in determining how the diachronic and synchronic relate.” (Isaiah, 440).

What are your thoughts?

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