Saturday, 10 October 2009

A multiple level reading of Scripture

I've been posting on the issue of "figural reading" of the Old Testament recently, in particular on the way in which Jesus relates to the OT both "narratively" and "ontologically." I gave an example of the kind of challenge this type of reading can pose here (with an interesting response by Luke). Today I look at a proposal made by Brevard Childs.

Childs defends a multiple level reading of Scripture according to different contexts, but one where the integral contact between text and subject matter is not blurred. What he proposes is
a single method of interpretation which takes seriously both the different dimensions constituting the text as well as distinct contexts in which the text functions (1997:61).
As I mentioned in a thread dealing with the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture, there is no fixed temporal order in the exegesis: we already come to the text with a dogmatic framework, which is then altered in the light of the text. However, for pedagogical reasons Childs illustrates this move by taking us from the more familiar exegetical activity to the more complex reflective enterprise (taken from his essay, "Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?" pp. 61-63):

1.The Old Testament's witness must be heard in its own voice (as I pointed out in this thread), which means it must be interpreted within its historical, literary, and canonical context. The genre of story, for example, excludes the possibility of having Jesus Christ read back into it, as in this context promise and fulfilment cannot be fused.

2.This literal/historical reading can be extended by placing it within the context of the two part canon. Structural similarities and dissimilarities between both testaments are analysed in which the aim is to pursue a relationship of content. For example, in terms of an understanding of God, it inquires as to which features the two testaments hold in common respecting the mode, intention, and goal of God's manifestations. This theological relationship is pursued both on the level of the textual witness and on that of the discrete matter (res) of the two collections.

3.The pursuit of the theological relationships between the two testaments provides an avenue towards comprehending the greater theological unity of the Christian Bible. The reality which undergirds the two testaments should not be held apart and left fragmented, but be critically reunited. When this reality is confronted, however, the reverse move takes place, as the interpreter is compelled to understand the biblical text from the context of this fuller horizon. In reference to the Old Testament's witness to Christ, this means moving beyond the unique voice of the prophets' testimony to a coming royal figure. Rather,
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the history of Israel, the texts of both testaments in their fragmentary testimony to God's utterly mysterious purpose of new creation and redemption take on fresh life. Thus, when the interpreter moves from the reality of God manifest in action back to the Scriptures themselves for further illumination, he or she is constrained to listen for a new song break forth from the same ancient, sacred texts. As a result, in spite of generations of scholarly denial, few Christians can read Isaiah 53 without sensing the amazing morphological fit with the passion of Jesus Christ.”
In sum, Childs is proposing
“a text-oriented hearing of Scripture by a Christian community of faith which allows biblical texts to resonate from the force of divine reality gained through an encounter with the entire Christian Bible.”


John Hobbins said...

Hi Phil,

Your post is an excellent summary of Childs' program.

What Childs seeks to do is to keep together what others drive asunder. The traditional exegesis of the church, whenever it has proposed a meta-sense of the text as a replacement of one of its more foundational senses, has ultimately done a disservice to the church's witness to the Gospel.

Modern, historical-critical exegesis, whenever it has proposed a foundational sense in replacement of the meta-sense a text has within Judaism and/or Christianity, has severed the text from its own "Nachleben," a self-defeating operation.

Phil Sumpter said...

Amen, amen, amen.

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