Friday, 11 September 2009

Propotional exegesis in the Minor Prophets

In my last post, I claimed that a canonical approach to Biblical exegesis, at least in the sense in which Brevard Childs and Christopher Seitz understand it, does not lead to flat, synchronic reading. Rather, it requires what Seitz called proportional interpretation, "a balancing act."

In relation to the Book of the Twelve (the Twelve Minor Prophets), the example given in my last post was the necessity of distinguishing the different types of juxtaposition found within the Twelve and between the Three (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). "Proportionality" also needs to be maintained when correlating the general with the particular. Thus, regarding Jonah, Seitz says:

[b]oth the specificity and historicity of Jonah's world of reference, and the larger design within which one is to comprehend that, are guarded in a canonical reading, allowing Jonah to speak from within the witness of the Twelve (148, emphasis mine).
Here is a more detailed quote on Obadiah:
Working simply on the basis of Obadiah as in independent work, Childs and others point to the careful way in which Edom retains a distinctive historical specificity, but at the same time has been brought into explicit association with a larger theme—the day of YHWH—in respect of all national powers.1 Neither side of this association has been blurred in the final form of the book. The Day of YHWH theme, whatever else it may be in Obadiah, and in association with Edom, in prominent in the book of the Twelve as a whole. Indeed, for many it is the chief theme under which any number of different editorial moves have been organized in the final form of the collection. Without endorsing this view, it remains a valuable if partial insight. What may be said about the profile of Edom and the nations within Obadiah as a single witness holds true as well for the theme of the Day of YHWH in Obadiah, on the one hand, and in the surrounding witnesses of the Twelve, and the other. That is, the integrity of both realities must be guarded and not merged. (137, emphasis mine; Seitz references Collins, Mantle of Elijah, 70.).
To play on a term from Karl Barth, we need a Zusammensehen and not a Zusammenklappen (Barth, Einführung).


John Lyons said...

I am afraid, Phil, that it is the sheer complexity of what is on offer from Seitz, Childs, and yourself, that makes this approach to the texts both (a) a peculiarly limited modernist exercise (and hence something that is hardly Christian at all) and (b) something that re-inscribes the priestly function of the canonical interpreter while asserting that the deity/text speaks only thus. Just exactly who are the 'buyers' for what you (and they) are doing, do you think? No Christian I know of, that is for sure.

PS I don't expect you to agree, of course.



Phil Sumpter said...

Dear John,

I really appreciate this kind of feedback, so thanks for taking the time. I'm glad that you see that a "Childsian" canonical approach is complex. This is an improvement over other interpretations, such as Barr and Barton's, which accuse the canonical approach of being too simplistic!

You say you don't expect me to agree, but before I can really disagree I need to clarify what you are saying. I have a few questions and would appreciate it if you could pick a few to answer:

1) How does the "complexity" of an approach make it "modernist"? Aren't ancient approaches just as complex?
2) How is "modernism" "not Christian"? As far as I am aware, Christians (and Jews) confess that God speaks to them within their cultural matrices (whether "modernist," Platonic, ancient Israelite, Pagan, or whatever) rather than replace these matrices with something "more Christian."
3) How is what I've written "modernist" anyway? Perhaps my latest post on the dogmatic presuppositions required for healthy exegesis will clarify things.
4) You wrote: "something that re-inscribes the priestly function of the canonical interpreter while asserting that the deity/text speaks only thus." I'm not sure I understand this. It sounds like you are saying that such an approach encourages a view that the interpreter is as authoritative as the text, that what he or she does is nothing other than to mediate the true meaning for faithful listeners to lap up. If so, I have no idea how you got that idea. Seitz is just making an argument about the nature of the text, the implications it has for interpretation, and asking us to evaluate his proposal based on the text itself. Just like everyone else does in the business (or are you different here?). Could you clarify?

You wrote: Just exactly who are the 'buyers' for what you (and they) are doing, do you think? No Christian I know of, that is for sure.

Again, I'm rather confused by this statement. For a start, the canonical approach is quite popular in some quarters of Christians (though not all clearly; as far as I am aware hermeneutics is still a debated issue). See the Princeton Theological Review edition dedicate to it, for example. As for the "buyers," I have no idea. People who find our arguments convincing I suppose. What kind of answer do you expect?

Please do respond. You are informed on such matters and I appreciate your feedback.