Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Assessing Biblical Law: A division of labour

I posted yesterday on the need for a multiple level interpretation of Scripture. Such an interpretation, however, is an arduous task, as it requires knowledge from all theological fields (Church History, Dogmatics, History of Interpretation, Exegesis, Biblical Theology ... ). How many scholars today can live up to such a challenge? One of the first scholars to pose the challenge was Brevard Childs, in his 1979 Exodus commentary. He divided his commentary up into various stages: diachronic analysis, synchronic analysis, the history of interpretation, and theology. Yet even here, he felt that the dialogue needed to go on, and so he proposes a kind of division of labour. Here's what he has to say on Christian appropriation of Biblical law:
Although the need to provide a far more adequate theological interpretation of biblical law remains primarily the task of the theologian and ethicist, the modern Old Testament scholar can aid in making available pertinent information from his discipline. [*]
According to Childs, then, the theologian needs the exegete, yet given the importance of "correct context," the exegete also needs the theologian. In the context of a discussion of the Christian appropriation of Biblical law, here is an example of what Childs thinks the exegete has to offer the theologian as part of the broader dialogue (he calls them "points that must be taken into consideration"):
  1. The historically conditioned nature of the Old Testament law, which includes the Decalogue, has emerged with an even greater clarity on the basis of close study of Ancient Near Eastern material.

  2. The Old Testament laws give evidence of having arisen in different historical periods and often performed different functions; there is, however, no clear patter of 'ethical progress' which can be established on the basis of Old Testament texts.

  3. Most modern New Testament scholars would seriously question whether Jesus ever intended to present 'a higher ethic'. Certainly his relation to the Old Testament was a different one entirely from that represented by the evolutionist.

  4. Jewish interpretation of the Mosaic law cannot be dismissed by Christians as 'rigid' or 'legalistic' but it must be understood, first of all, on its own terms before engaging in a theological debate with Christian theology.

Again, several points should be made which affect the constructive task of developing an adequate theology of biblical law:

  1. The idealistic categories which admit divine inspiration only to what is regarded as 'eternally valid' or 'perfect' for all contexts must be firmly rejected in handling the Bible.The theological data of Old Testament law cannot be restricted by an a priori schema of values, symbols, ontology or the like.

  2. A theology of biblical law must relate specifically to the structuring of the concrete historical life of the people of God, who in ancient Israel, in the first-century church, and today continue to participate both in the kingdom of God and in the world.

  3. All forms of law, Old and New Testament alike, must be ultimately judged in the light of the living God himself who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ through a life of complete faithfulness under the law.

I look forward to reading the recently published I am the Lord your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, to see in what sense these theologians have responded to Childs' proposals.

[*] Childs, Exodus, 496.


Helena said...

I wonder how you would respond to the general line of argument frequently advanced by the atheist community about OT law?

First of all, most atheist objections could be nullified by citing Paul's comments on the Christian's freedom from the law--although to be fair, their fundamentalist opponents seem equally blind to this fact (consider the on-going case in Texas where a juror persuaded his fellows to vote the death penalty by citing an OT text prescribing death for the offense involved.

However, OT law still presents problems. Things like the encouragement of slavery (Paul actually supports this also), and the granting to parents the right to discipline their children by killing them. Are morally repugnant. If these laws grew out of historical circumstances and are comparable to laws that developed in other societies then they present no special difficulty. If, whoever they are the inspired word of god, they are morally difficult. Even he later repealed them, so to speak, through Jesus, how could even their historical and temporary imposition possibly be reconciled with a sophisticated theological understanding of god?

Another matter is the orders God gives the Israelites to commit genocide against the Canaanites (and related issues such as the frequent massacres of Ball priests). Certainly they don't bother me since I view them as historical fictions reflecting the fantasies of the individuals writing or editing the texts in questions at the time of the Ezra or a little later. But they seem to me to present a horrible problem for a theologian who has to accept on any level the association of these texts with god. If they are the product of human imagination, it is a psychopathic one. But how can you treat these morally offensive passages if you have to justify them as the product of divine inspiration?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Helena,

thank you for your thoughts. I should point out that my main interest was in the way in which Childs goes about relating the task of exegesis to dogmatic theology, rather than constructing any concrete view of the issue of a Christian theology of Old Testament law itself. Nevertheless, despite my inexpertise, here is a brief response to your thoughts (in several instalments, given Blogger's annoying word limit on comments):

1) I'm don't know enough about Paul, but I would have thought that he was interested in nullifying the law. The Moses still delivered "the oracles of God," so that the theological issues you raise still pertain to us. I'm thinking, in particular, of the ethical/theological issue of God commanding a holocaust.

2) As for issues about slavery and the death penalty, I find it helpful to make (a modern and ancient) distinction between form and substance. Implementing justice involves going beyond the letter (e.g. death penalty, slavery was never explicitly sanctioned, just tolerated under certain conditions) to the "spirit." The question is, just what constitutes the "spirit" of the law? To me, answering that question involves asking all kinds of other questions, mostly of a hermeneutical and theological nature, such as the function of the laws in general in both Israel and within God's broader economy of salvation. The laws as given in Israel are presented as part of a broader narrative, including the thwarting of God's plans and their reestablishment, albeit on altered foundations. That is the context for getting at the "spirit" of the law. When one treads that journey, all kinds of things can come out. Sometimes, contradicting the letter is the best way to preserve its spirit. I know that this answer contains no concrete proposal for how Christians should interpret such laws, but there's plenty of literature out there which reads such laws within this kind of theological and canonical context. Chris Wright is one guy, in particular. Another kind of approach is a book called Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, though I'm not sure how adequate its hermeneutic is (it's a good start at least).

Phil Sumpter said...

3) This would also apply to the issue of holocaust (I prefer the term "holocaust" to "genocide" as it involved the destruction of everything, including animals and property, and not just a people). For the time being, I guess I see the issue on two levesl: 1) on the one hand, God commanded it and so I must accept it as from him. He presents it as an issue of justice, recompense for evils committed (sacrifice of children being a cypher). I may not feel comfortable, but then maybe the issue lies with me. I think that faith and obedience to a moral law are ultimately matters of life and death, and having the issue presented in such a stark manner reminds me that religion is no small thing. What I do today carries incredible consequences, and I need to reckon with a God who will hold me to account. On the other hand, 2), as I said above, we need to see that act of divinely instigated holocaust with the horizon of the whole canonical narrative, stretching from creation to new creation. Not to do so would be odd, as the authors and editors who handed on this story to us certainly read event within something like this broader theological context. Thought I'm still not far enough to give an adquate answer, it seems to me that it is important that, for example, the people who carried out God's judgement were ultimately subjected to similar treatment themselves (Exile), again, divinely ordained, on the basis of Israel's sin. Things happen both before and after the invasion of Canaan to try and bring out the needed righteousness (covenant, new covenant, kingship, etc.). We also need to bear in mind that this invasion was a one off commandment, one never repeated, no doubt because it soon transpired that Israel was itself no better than the Canaanites its tried to destroy (cf. the prophets, for this judgement, including Moses himself). All this needs to be factored into an answer as to the theological meaning of the Old Testament commandments. In my book at least.

Let me know if this makes no sense and I'll try again.

Anebo said...

First let me apologize for the lack of proofreading above--it was becoming increasingly apparent that morning that I had to take my daughter to the doctor for an ear-infection so I had to let that post go before I ought to have done.

It seems in your response that you either want to make a response along the lines of allegory (which is what I would do in your position, being a friend to Neoplatonism), or to look for justification for a text to a larger meaning created by reading other unrelated texts (to interpret the OT by the NT, for instance, and I am sure you will agree that the NT can only provide a context for the OT as a matter of faith, not reason). I suppose as a theologian you have the power to that. I'm a philologist myself and so look for meaning much more narrowly. In regard to the holocaust OT texts, for instance (which I've often seen Christian clergy simply deny if they know their audience isn't likely to be aware of them and if they think their opponent can't easily produce the texts in the context of a debate--something that really puts one off--I guess really I asked because I wanted to see what someone who was honest could say), it would probably seem easier to many people (such as myself) just to reject scripture as anything but a historical document rather than try to tease out some morally palatable way to hold onto them. You certainly ought to be very careful about a justification defense such as you seem to outline above. I don't think its a morally defensible position to claim that anything could justify what the OT says about the Canaanites, and by arguing such a thing I think you would loose from your audience anyone except the most committed believers. Its also becoming increasingly clear that Child Sacrifice is more a construct of the biblical authors than a historical reality. As you know, the best evidence comes from Carthage and the new work being done by Punic archaeologists suggests that the burials of dead sacrificed babies they've found were still-borns and infant deaths rather than sacrifices. Aside from the physical evidence, its clear that the special treatment of these children went on well into Roman times, and the Romans did not tolerate human sacrifice. I wish I had the references to hand, but I just wrote an article on Carthage and, while infant sacrifice had nothing to do with my topic, I kept seeing information throwing the practice into question in the more recent book reviews I went through.

Anebo said...

Oh, that was under my husband's ID, sorry,


Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Helena,

sorry about my late response (I hope Blogger e-mails them to you when you are logged on ...). Some brief comments:

1)Re: the unrelatedness of the texts, my response to you above illustrates why I don't hold this to be the case.
2)I also think my response to you above illustrates why reading the invasion of canaan withint the context of the whole is not irrational.
3)You haven't given a reason as to why what I said above was wrong.
4)Thanks for the archaeological details on ancient child sacrifice, I wasn't aware of that. I'm not sure how that effects the ethics of the OT though ...