Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Justifying form criticism of the Psalms

Erhard Gerstenberger is possibly one of the most renowned of modern-day practitioners of the form-critical method in Psalms interpretation. In his article: "The Psalms: Genres, Life Situations, and Theologies - Towards A Hermeneutics of Social Stratification" (in Diachronic and Synchronic, pp. 81-92), he outlines his approach. In the process he justifies it using both a linguistic as well as a theological argument.

Here is his linguistic justification:
All those theories of literature, which take into account the social conditioning of texts, in a way corroborate this stance. But why should this be true? Because - thus my basic axiom, debatable as it is - all human discourse is communicative action. There is always a speaker (sender) 0f messages and a recipient. The words pass from one to the other, they are anchored in determined life situations, they make sense in relationships between real people who speak and listen to each other, deities included (81).
Here is his theological justification:

Why do I emphasize so strongly the social origin and conditioning of biblical texts? How can I possibly consider social stratification as a basis for different theological concepts? Am I, as some dear colleagues suggest, walking on the bad path of surrendering unconditionally to social sciences, making theology a slave to empiric research and the precarious knowledge of social structures and processes? On the contrary, I would claim that my efforts to approach the Bible consistently from its human side, to tie texts to their social (and liturgical) roots, to admit social conditionings of biblical authors and modern exegetes, of theological conceptualizations and ethical judgements, does serve a thoroughly theological purpose. The word of God is known to us and communicated to us only by way of contextual events and sayings, narrations and confessions. Thus it is able to really interact with our limited human minds. The small change of God's love and forbearing can be recognized only in detailed studies of life's reality. From the different life situations of old, then, we may make inferences as to our social and personal situations today, and God speaks to us within exactly these rather earthly configurations. The Word which turned flesh really incorporated (and still incorporates) the conditions of our existence and our personal acting therein (92).
What do you think? Does this do justice both to the nature of the Biblical texts as well as to Christian doctrine of revelation?

Jerome Creach, though in general interested in the canonical shape the Psalter, can sympathise with this stance:
This approach to the psalms is important theologically because it reminds us that the psalms were originally wed to rituals that gave concrete expression to the psalms' claims of faith, statements of thanksgiving, words of praise, and pleas for deliverance. Just as ritual without ethics and commitment makes for an empty faith, so too spiritual expression without sacrifice makes for faith within no tangible imprint. The word of God is powerful because it is incarnational. By maintaining the link between the psalms and the cult we can, in some limited way, experience more fully the Word that both became flesh and demands expressions of devotion (in "The Psalms and the Cult," 120).
Update: Heath Thomas' response to these questions in the comments represent so fully my own thoughts on this issue that I'm reposting them here for the edification of all:
I suppose we must ask whether the different forms of communication in the divers (historical) texts that have been consolidated into a whole relate to one another. Indeed one may argue these texts relate to one another beyond a simple notion of a redactor or redactors taking disparate materials from different periods of time and consolidating (or forcing?) them into a 'new' text with a different purpose (I read Gerstenberger's work on the Psalter and OT theology in this way to a degree, but maybe I'm off on that). On this view, the purpose of editorial activity could be understood as scoring a point social, political or otherwise. But I think we must press beyond these to the larger theological question of how and why these divers materials have been consolidated into the final form of, say, the PSalter. Is there a theological relationship between the intentionality of Pss 15-24 and the larger corpus of the Psalter? Books 1-3 relating to the larger Psalter as the corpus grew? Pss 1-2 relating to the whole? Are these later relationships (which have been acheived through editorial arrangement, of course) rough or are they theologically consistent with the substance of the text? Another way of asking it is, Given that the text is divers and grew over time, are later editors (of the Psalter) changing the intent and message of previous versions of the Psalter? How would we know? I think here is where Childs points to 'canonical intentionality' or 'canonical consciousness' as a concept, which it seems Barr and Barton almost equate to a kind of magic. But then again, if it is a theological process, then it cannot be equated to magic on Childs' reckoning, but part of the process of God's revelation (cf. OT Theology in a Canonical Context). So maybe Gerstenberger -- given his assumptions -- does not go far enough.

9 comments:

HeathThomas said...

Phil,

Great post and great question that you raise. I suppose we must ask whether the different forms of communication in the divers (historical) texts that have been consolidated into a whole relate to one another. Indeed one may argue these texts relate to one another beyond a simple notion of a redactor or redactors taking disparate materials from different periods of time and consolidating (or forcing?) them into a 'new' text with a different purpose (I read Gerstenberger's work on the Psalter and OT theology in this way to a degree, but maybe I'm off on that). On this view, the purpose of editorial activity could be understood as scoring a point social, political or otherwise. But I think we must press beyond these to the larger theological question of how and why these divers materials have been consolidated into the final form of, say, the PSalter. Is there a theological relationship between the intentionality of Pss 15-24 and the larger corpus of the Psalter? Books 1-3 relating to the larger Psalter as the corpus grew? Pss 1-2 relating to the whole? Are these later relationships (which have been acheived through editorial arrangement, of course) rough or are they theologically consistent with the substance of the text? Another way of asking it is, Given that the text is divers and grew over time, are later editors (of the Psalter) changing the intent and message of previous versions of the Psalter? How would we know? I think here is where Childs points to 'canonical intentionality' or 'canonical consciousness' as a concept, which it seems Barr and Barton almost equate to a kind of magic. But then again, if it is a theological process, then it cannot be equated to magic on Childs' reckoning, but part of the process of God's revelation (cf. OT Theology in a Canonical Context). So maybe Gerstenberger -- given his assumptions -- does not go far enough.

Great post,
Heath

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Heath!

Great to hear from you. And thanks for these thoughts! In the one and half years that I've had this blog I rarely get extended comments like this where I agree with every word. I've added them to the body of my post. I'm not sure I have anything to add, other than to say that it is precisely my goal to illustrate this on Ps 24, both as a unit and as part of the theologically structured subcollection of Pss 15-24. I especially appreciate your comment that later redactional wholes are theologically consistent with the substance of the text (as long as we allow the eschatological nature of that substance to restrain us from claiming too much in the way of logical consistency, for example). It's not often I hear people use the word "substance," a term I especially associate with Childs (who got it from the German word "Sache," something quite hard to translate adequately). Here's what he says about this issue in relation to the reshaping of the Psalms and Psalter: "... the question arises, did the later refashioning do violence to the original meaning? One's answer depends largely on how one construes 'doing violence'. Certainly the elements of continuity between the earlier and later interpretations are evident. Nevertheless, the original meaning is no longer an adequate norm by which to test the new" (IOTS, 522).

This one way in which Childs differes to Gerstenberger (his doctoral supervisor!): Childs claims the thrust of the canonical process was theocentric, Gerstenberger (along with the majority of OT scholars) seem to think that it was anthropocentric. For Childs the redaction was an attempt to understand God's ways (for a similar stance on this, see this great Jörg Jeremias quote). For others, it was an attempt by the community to (re)construct its identity in the face of existential challenges. Interestingly enough, those who espouse this "anthropocentric" version (as Childs puts it) do so in the name of theology and church. But the kind of theology they are espousing seems to be a form of Protestant liberalism that doesn't do justice to the church's traditional conception of the gospel.

HeathThomas said...

Phil,
Thanks for the response. Yes, the anthropocentric version of canon criticism (a la Sanders) is something Childs disliked as well. That Sanders' view was too anthropocentric as i recall was precisely the critique.

I'm very interested in your work on Pss 15-24 with my own research on Psalm 22 and Christ's cry of forsakenness from the cross. In what way is Mark or Matt. reading Psalm 22? How does Mark present Jesus as the lamenter par excellence with his climactic cry in 15:34? And further, a rather different question is how is the historical jesus reading or understanding lament? I think those that read Pss 15-24 as a unit (Miller, Hossfeld und Zenger) may actually provide a unique way to begin thinking of lament as a theological category beyond just a "quotation" of an OT text.

All best to you and yours!
Heath

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Heath,

I think those are important and interesting questions, but also difficult ones. I'm not sure one can say that the New Testament authors read the Bible "canonically" in the way Childs is suggesting. However, on my own interpretation they would be sharing the same kind of world of concerns ... In short, I'm arguing that Ps 15-24 represent an attempt on the part of the editors to wrestle with a diversity of received tradition and perceive within that diversity the one will of God. I think it's significant that the collection builds a chiasm and that the second psalm in each pair represents an "intensification" of its partner (compare Ps 22 with Ps 17, for example). You may be interested to know that someone called Brown (he wrote a book called Seeing with the Psalms, I believe) offered a "metaphorical" interpretation of the collection at a recent symposium in Leuven. I believe the article will be published by Brill. I didn't find his approach very convincing, however. Metaphor is one thing, but one ought to guard against what Barr called "illegitimate totality transfer."

Thanks for the wishes - Ingrid is in fact pregnant, so we can use as much blessing as possible!

HeathThomas said...

Phil,
Thanks for the response. I am not arguing that the writers of the gospels read the Psalter with a canonical approach in the vein of Childs. Now that said, as I am sure you are aware, the NT writers are reading the Psalter eschatologically and messianically, which is indeed a canonical reading of sorts (cf. T. Mitchell's work on the Eschatological Programme of the Psalter and S. Gillingham's CBQ article a few years back).

What I am querying in the previous post is how we might respect the discreet witness of the OT sections (like specific sections of the Psalter such as Ps. 22 within the context of 15-24) and how that relates to quotations concerning Jesus and the discreet witness of the NT. This is one the most difficult areas I find in Childs' approach, for my part. I would enjoy your thoughts when you get a chance. Congratulations on your wonderful news. We're expecting our fourth child on 16 April.

Kind Regards,
Heath

Phil Sumpter said...

Heath, I really want to get back to you on this, I just need time! Please be patient with me :)

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Heath,

this response has been particularly long in coming, I'm sorry for that. In fact, you may well have had a child since you last wrote, so if so I hope things went well! I've just returned from a two week holiday and hope to be more punctual in my responses in the future.

I totally agree that an eschatological reading of the Psalms in canonical. I would say that the eschatological reading is simply part of the literal sense. I think this goes back to Childs (IOTS), doesn't it?

What I am querying ... is how we might respect the discreet witness of the OT ... and how that relates to quotations concerning Jesus and the discreet witness of the NT. This is one the most difficult areas I find in Childs' approach ... I agree that this is tough. What exactly do you find troubling about this? I think Childs' commitment to the per se witness of each Testament certainly makes the life of the interpreter more difficult, as it prevents us from semantically re-adjusting the OT in order to bring it inline with the NT's plain sense. His commitment to the "ontological unity" of the Testaments forces us to look for that unity at a higher level of abstraction, one in which it is the "substance" that binds the two together and not the plain sense. Actually doing that is not so simple, I suppose, though it is something I'm going to try and do with Ps 24. I think it has something to do with identifying similar structures of thought and digging below that.

On thing I struggle with in Childs is the question of where to locate revelation. When rejecting approaches to the OT that imitate the hermeneutic of the apostles he says: "it is hermeneutically in error by assuming that every time-conditioned feature of the New Testament can be used as a warrant for its continued use without properly understanding the theological relation of its authority to its function as kerygmatic witness" (BTONT, 85). I think this means that the Bible is only authoritative in its capacity as kerygmatic witness, and not in any other functions (e.g. when it gives geographical information or interprets sacred tradition according to various culturally specific conventions). But how do you know when it is witnessing and not doing something else? In other words, I need to have criteria to be able to distinguish between the "historically particular" and the "eternal" in order to begin the task of bringing the two Testaments into relation to each other. For now I'm focussing on typological patterns, structures of thought, and the telos of the narrative, but it's still all rather intuitive. Any thoughts?

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