Saturday, 12 September 2009

The need for "Godly exegetical instincts": George Adam Smith as case study

A major implication of the "canonical approach" as conceived by Childs and then developed by Christopher Seitz is that theologically viable exegesis is not just the preserve of practitioners of one tightly defined hermeneutic.

In their conception, the diverse parts of the Bible witness to a single theological reality, a reality which constitutes the "ontological unity" of Scripture. As such, if an interpreter is connected with and focussed on this theological reality, he or she has the ability to develop what Seitz calls “godly exegetical instincts” (243). Equipped with these instincts, one is protected against making exegetical moves which dramatically distort the text.

One such interpreter whose instincts were honed by his acquaintance with the regula fidei of Christian faith is the historical critic George Adam Smith. Smith's commentary on the Minor Prophets (1896) recasts their canonical ordering into a chronological sequence. Seitz notes how this exegetical move poses a theological problem for him: is God really like Amos says? (131) According to Smith's critically reconstructed Amos: God is a god of almost pure judgement. How does this God relate to the God of the prophet Hosea, with his different message?

Seitz continues:
Smith is not content with a simple law-versus-grace distinction, nor will he say that Hosea brings something forward that Amos simply did not know. Amos is a true prophet and his account of God is true; God is as Amos says he is. What Smith is struggling with is a penetrating account of the theological reality of God, spoken of in one way by one prophet and spoken of in another way by a successor, but both men speaking truly. It is the subject matter of prophecy—the God to which the prophets refer—that concerns Smith. Even though the prophets may be distinctive figures to be ranged on a historical grid, they are affiliated at a level deeper than even their own grasp of the matter. Smith is convicted of this, and it is this specific theological gravity that keeps his reading drawn within the orbit of older concerns for affiliation, now in a new model that would threaten this aspect in other hands.
… The question is … : Why does Hosea form the lens through which our understanding of God—in relationship to Israel, the nations, time, and creation—is focussed? Why does his particular, comprehensive witness serve best in introducing first Joel and the Amos? Smith finds persuasive the arguments of historical criticism for the priority of Amos before Hosea. But in the end, it is the theologically expansive witness of Hosea that serves to illuminate the more partial account of Amos, in Smith's conception. In this manner, though he works with a fresh model of historical sequence, Smith has intuitively retained the insights that the canonical form itself sought to enforce (131-132, third emphasis original).
This brings us to the key ingredient of the canonical approach as understood by Childs (see my article “Childs as Critical and Faithful Exegete,” though be careful with what I wrote in section 2! I'm rethinking that bit) : the witness of Scripture to a single divine reality. Seitz puts it thus:
My basic argument here is that the canonical form, when it is appreciated, even on the other side of historical accounts of priority, anteriority, and posteriority, serves to guard these kinds of crucial theological insights. The prophets are related, not in some easily reconstructed historical or sociological sense, but in the nature of their activity as spokesmen for God. … It is God himself who sees to the affiliation proper to his character, mediated through his servants the prophets (134, emphasis mine).


John Hobbins said...

Very helpful, Phil. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

This author spent 50 years examining the Christian Tradition, beginning at Columbia University, where he discovered in the first month of his philosophy course, that there was no truth at all re the usual Christian "truth" claims.

He was also thoroughly familiar with all of the Classical Christian texts and of all of the modern scholarship re the origins of the Bible and Christianity altogether.

He also experienced ALL of the mystical and visionary phenomena described in the writings of the Illuminated Christian Saints. But what is more he also thoroughly understood what those experiences were all about, and their limitations.

Summed up as an inner "Spiritual" Disneyland.

His favourite Saint was St Seraphim of Sarov.

This set of essays lays out His critique of the Tradition. He has since written more essays and expanded the contents of some of these essays. And updated the language too.

Phil Sumpter said...


if it helped you then it was worth posting :)


thanks for the links but the Avatar's love affair with Light didn't do much for me.