Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Quote of the Day: The significance of history for the Bible

Today's post is a quote from my favourite Old Testament scholar, Brevard Childs, on the significance of "history" for the Biblical world view. It's purpose is to introduce a new thread looking at the nature of history from a Biblical perspective (Childs' calls it "dialectical," though note the scare-quotes) as well as the hermeneutical implications this view has for Biblical exegesis.

Before I post the quote I'd like to point out that I am aware of how problematic the phrase "Biblical world view" has become, what with the (post-)modern emphasis on particularity and multiplicity (I almost got sick of that word in my anthropological studies, almost ...) . I think this diversity is important, so if you are aware of places in the Bible which contradict Childs' general statement here, then please do point them out to me.

Here's the quote:
It seems to be an incontestable observation that the Hebrew scriptures bear testimony to God's redemption and preservation of historical Israel. The witnesses of Moses and the prophets, of the psalmists and sages, all arose within Israel's history and relate in various ways to it. Moreover, when these witnesses were collected into a scripture, Israel's story of faith was largely preserved in a historical sequence (Genesis through Ezra) along with a variety of 'commentary' (Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom) (Biblical Theology, 97).
The next post in the thread will touch on the nature of this history (i.e. it's "dialecticalness").

[P.S. This thread is the last in my rather large "über-thread" on theological exegesis]


Jim said...

Cheers, Phil.

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. Though I’ve haunted hereabouts. Glad to know you’re still blogging. Thanks too for the many series of outstanding exchanges. I especially enjoyed your Childs/Brueggemann dust-offs. Very informative. And in a winsome style.

I’m not coming from a settled position. I don’t have my mind made up. Without replaying the Childs/Brueggemann exchange, just what kind of textual evidence would you consider as a valid counter-factual against Child’s canonical interpretation? – if you’re serious about your question (question: “if you are aware of places in the Bible which contradict Childs' general statement here, then please do point them out to me”) as a factual question beyond it’s valid rhetorical stimulation for conversation, then just what kind of textual evidence from within the canon itself would possibly qualify for you as a sufficient historical counter-factual to such a canonical reading of history? – can you concoct a mere hypothetical text as an example to illustrate what would count as such textual counter-evidence?



Phil Sumpter said...


thank you so much for your helpful question. Having thought about it, there are places, in particular in the NT, which emphasise an "ontological" over a "temporal" dimension. E.g, "in the beginning I am," or Christ as the eternal Word rather than the one who came in the "fullness of time." Does this contradict what is above? No, because it doesn't exclude it. Both dimensions are required, both the eternal and the temporal (though I'm not sure eternality is a-temporal ... Hmm.) The eternal Word of God was born in 1st Centuary Bethlehem.

What would really contradict it? Perhaps something antipathetical to history, e.g. some kind of statement that history is bad, or insignificant. Somehow I feel that the Gnostics or Bultmann would say something like this, but I'm not too clued up on that. Didn't Bultmann talk about the OT's focus on history as a failure, so that we need to get over this with "eschatology," construed in some kind of existential and a-temporal sense? I'm pretty sure Bultmann would not have agreed with Childs' quote.

Jim said...

Phil, thanks. I appreciate your focus, efforts, and heart for canonical readings. Your voice and other voices like yours provide a valuable counterbalance to my bias in favor of casuistry and my bias (to make a psuedo-scientific analogy) for a Polkinghorne-like sensibility of reading the texts of the canon less like a canon and more like texts collected in a casuistry of experimental labs revealing a history of failed as much as of successful relationships with God - on the overall.

I’m still not sure what would count for you as a counter-factual to Childs’ comment.

Bultmann maybe. But, that feels a bit fanciful.

Fanciful because almost anything can be incorporated back into a dialectics-of-canonicity via sufficient mental gymnastics. Existential theory should be easy. Easy to incorporate for a Hegelian-type dialectician caught like a Schrödinger’s cat hovering between life and death, that is, for a dialectician hovering between theory and fact, and choosing to focus on some fanciful integrative theory rather than focus on a counter-factual fact (i.e., asking factual questions to stage more dialectical rhetoric).

I’m not patient with theoretical inversions.

I don’t pay for gas at the pump with dialectical money.

It seems to me that in order to test Childs’ statement against any valid counter-factual would require a factual/empirical/textual example to the contrary. I’m just guessing. Not positing.

Something like the Sun God Ra showing up inside the text of the canon itself. Like Ra being given a voice inside the canon by saying something like – “Judaism will be annihilated in AD 70 (or pick your own date) and that Egyptian culture and Egyptian national existence will have a continuous existence contrary to Israel’s vaulted idea of itself. Mark my – Ra’s – words and see. Israel will not be preserved by its mental fiction of a sacred canon.”

Good luck finding such a counter-factual inside the canon.

(concluded, next)

Jim said...

(concluded, here)

Beyond such a wild hypothetical, you’d need to test Child’s statement with something like a double blind test for facts in history in order to determine whether the ‘canonicity’ of the text contributed any real life effect to the historical preservation of Israel (or any other group), that is, to test whether the canon or notion of ‘canonicity’ qua canon/canonicity is really the effective agent in history (compared to all other effective agents), or whether the canon is no more than an idling and trivial artifact spun to serve apologetic theories in denial of all other effective agents in history. It’s a factual question. If the question is sincere.

The current trend to minimalist historical/textual studies may be an example of a methodology contrary to a canonical approach. Minimalist data-driven disciplines aim to measure such questions (just how important, how big, how real was “Israel” in the ANE? --and, was the so-called canon really a big deal in fact? – not in some dialectical theory, but in fact?). Which is why some current OT/NT historical studies are minimalist by not assuming favorable prior inferences to an historical status to some “Israel” and its so-called “canon”, while these same studies widely embrace a larger range of complimentary physical sciences (carbon testing on Talipot) and social sciences in tow. To find out what the ANE was all about. See just one e.g., Liverani, “Israel’s History and the History of Israel” – where “Israel” is nearly reduced to a footnote, that is, “Isreal’ is reduced to a remote chapter at the very end of its own history.

But, I’m not arguing here in favor or against minimalist methods. I’m not competent to that task.
Only saying this is just one example of a discipline that could provide the kinds of counter-factuals such as you are asking. Not that the gymnastics of dialectics couldn’t overcome such methods.

Which is why I asked you if you could provide an example of a counter-factual against your own question?

We could compare approaches all day (Bruggeman, James Barr, Bultmann, Childs) – but, your question strikes me as a factual/empirical question if you’re really sincere about it, that is, to test in history whether canon (or canonicity) qua canon (compared to a lab-notebook collection of texts without any added notion of canon) makes any real effective difference in history.

Otherwise the canon is a fiction (see Owen Barfield) which cannot be falsified by any counter-factual.

The canon (idea of a canon) as a Tolkien-esque “one ring to bind them ... a Gollum’s ring, ‘my precious!’ – effective to lure because it seems like a closed-ring to bind us in some power, but not really effective to save: not, in real history.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Jim,

I apologize for the late reply. Thanks for your interaction. Though I find your style hard to follow I do think I get the gist, and what you've said is helpful to me, though I'm not sure you understood my question as I intended it (which I guess I didn't express very well, but having read your comments I think it was a fairly lame question anyway). My question was about the "illocutionary stance" of the text and not about actual historical facts. Are Israel's scripture's interested in giving testimony to historical reality? Whether this testimony corresponds to that reality is another issue. Thus, the minimalists would be ideally suited to providing a counter-factual, as they claim precisely the opposite: Childs says the Bible intends to point to history (that's its speech act, or at least a significant element of it), whereas a minimalist would say that the Bible's illocutionary stance is to deceive and protect various the political interests of various factions within Israel. They read the same text as Childs and yet ascribe it a different intentionality (the question of the happendness of the narrative is not my point, it's about intention or function).

Childs has explicitly stated that if the cynics (minimalists) are right, than the canonical approach is defunct. It's grounded in historical intentionality (though I ought to add that Childs obviously thinks far more is involved that simply pointing to history, the Bible is primarily pointing to God, something the minimalists also reject. This second fact complicates the historical proposal, however, as I hope to say if I ever get round to continuing this thread).

I get the feeling that you thought I was claiming that canon gives an accurate historical portrayal, or something like that ... . But I'm not sure. I'm not sure what you mean about canon making a difference in history ... that certainly isn't what I'm talking about.

(see next comment for continuation)

Phil Sumpter said...

I found this phrase very helpful: almost anything can be incorporated back into a dialectics-of-canonicity via sufficient mental gymnastics .

You're right, which reminds me of the irreducibly confessional nature of Childs' stance. I think he would in principle say that even if the Ra text you invented were to appear in the Bible, we'd have to read it in some kind of dialectic with the other bits we all know so well. Luckily that text isn't in the Bible, so at least there we don't have to bust our brains wrestling with it. I think Childs would also say, however, that it's no accident that such a text is not in the Bible, because the fact that the Bible witnesses to a unified reality (regardless of how eschatological it is and how fragmented our grasp of it) excludes it. There are two sides to a "pincer movement" in his thought (or at least my appropriation of it) which he believes do in fact come together, though how that happens is the task of theology as a discipline per se. On the one hand you have the reality itself, one which has evoked the canonical witness we have before us. On the other hand you have the witness in all its diversity. Childs takes the confessional stance that the canon does in fact witness to one God and so wrestles with the Bible (a favourite metaphor of his) in an attempt to grasp that reality.

So yes, gymnastics is a necessary part of theological exegesis. The question is whether the gymnastics is ultimately good for your health or a waste of energy. The proof is in the pudding. I find the results are often breathtaking, opening up my eyes to the majesty and beauty of God and spurring me on to find more. For me, at least, "dialectic" reading is not a get-out clause I cite in order to preserve some prior stance I wish to protect, it's a mode of interpretation that grips me because of the actual theological results that are produced. It makes me hungry for more. To use the metaphor of "gymnastics" in the sense of "bending over backwards" is to not have grasped what it feels like and does for those who practice it. It's more a matter of somersaulting off a spring-board and landing and landing with a whole new angle on where you started from.

Some recent examples I read are in the volume Seeking the Identity of Jesus, in particular by Jenson and Gary Andersen.

Does that make sense? Have I undertsood you?

Jim (Random Arrow) said...

Phil, good reply. On topic.

Good clarification too: “about the ‘illocutionary stance’ of the text and not about actual historical facts.”

My error in reading took the text as a piece of history. And I neglected “the irreducibly confessional nature of Childs' stance.” Good corrections.

I don’t find you trying to pull any wool over my eyes (metaphor for dishonesty) in your testimonial – “I find the results are often breathtaking, opening up my eyes to the majesty and beauty of God .... ‘dialectic’ reading is not a get-out clause ... it's a mode of interpretation that grips me because of the actual theological results that are produced. ... the metaphor of ‘gymnastics’ in the sense of ‘bending over backwards’ is to not have grasped what it feels like and does for those who practice it. It's more a matter of somersaulting off a spring-board and landing and landing with a whole new angle on where you started from.”

Fair enough. I accept that. And a good testimony.

I think I’m both trapped and convinced in the priority of the Spirit over anything written (an old Barclay-esque Quaker and sometimes current charismatic/Pentecostal bias) so that canon and canonicity as further concepts are third, fourth, or further down the line in priority for me in my community, that is, Spirit first, then the biblical texts.

I know that you see the biblical texts as including canonicity as an intrinsic concept . And evidenced by the histories of textual assimilation. And in current use. I just see texts. Fragments are fine with me. They get me to the Spirit as the Spirit comes to me in them. I say that canon and canonicity are heuristic labels used of current communities. I need to know these concepts if I want to fit into those communities. Or converse with them. I don’t deny the historical process of the assembly of the canon. Intended as a canon. For use canonically. But, it just doesn’t add anything for me. The process and result are not magisterial; but, artifacts.

Perhaps my reading of the scripture is more catholic: with tradition being every instance of the Spirit applying truth to the heart (Augustinian virtues, with a Spirit-bent); or perhaps somewhat Jewish, ala Rabbi Anson Laytner, in “Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition.” Canon is an idling concept. I’m happy with fragments. And exemplary arguments and conversations. The Spirit does the rest.

I don’t mean to argue this here. I’m interested in having my bias checked. And there’s something in the concept of canon that does check my bias. But, I’m not sure what.

Reading along ...



Phil Sumpter said...

Jim, I really appreciate your thoughts, though the tardiness of my response may not give that impression. I still haven't mastered the art of quickly scanning comments for their gist and then writing an equally quick answer. Various things have eaten up my time in the last couple of weeks.

I see two issues here: 1) your grounding of the moment of theological insight primarily in the activity of the Spirit and 2) your conception of the relation between Spirit and text.

Concerning the former issue, we are in agreement (as long as primarily is left in italics, see below). I also think that "canon" is further down the line. A book on the theology of the "J source," written by someone Spirit filled, would no doubt benefit me more spiritually than a book on the final form of Gensis by someone who is not (von Rad is a good example of the former). I cited Childs saying something very similar in my post Spurgeon on this issue. For examples of theological exegesis outside of a canonical framework, see my post on Adam Smith (and my contrast of Gunkel and Bonhoeffer; see also this quote). I posted on the issue of tradition, the Spirit and exegesis here. Finally, there's a great quote of Scripture as a "quasi-sacramental instrument of the Holy Spirit" here. I thoroughly concur with Childs, then, when he says that "canonical exegesis" is simply an auxhilary discipline subervient to what really matters: the work of the Spirit:

"Attention to canon is not the end but only the beginning of exegesis. It prepares the stage for the real performance by clearing away unnecessary distractions and directing the audience's attention to the main show which is about to be experienced." (here)

[Continued in next comment below ... ]

Phil Sumpter said...

But this brings me to the second point: though it's all about the Spirit, within the economy of God's plan the Spirit of Christ works in a particular kind of way. To quote Childs again:

"Just as Jesus Christ was truly and fully human, so the apostolic witness was not rendered by means of a special divine language. Rather, its metaphors were drawn from common experience, and its proclamation shared all the features of an ancient Palestinian milieu. The exegetical challenge for the interpreter lies in receiving the ability to hear the kerygmatc testimony to God's good news offered in, under, and through a human form. " (here).

It's the "in, under, and through" that needs to balance out talk about the Spirit as source. And this is why attention to such specificities in the text is an integral part of the task of hearing God's eternal Word. Child's canonical approach is grounded in a set of observations about the historical nature of the text. He didn't start his career reading the final form and wasn't less theological as a result. He just came to the conclusion - based on his historical critical work and various hermeneutical assumptions - that the final form of the text is an intentional theological product, shaped with a view to functioning as a theological norm for future generations within the community.

In other words, confessing the priority of the Spirit does not cancel out the need to understand and submit to the conditions of his operation. Childs argues that the final form is the arena for such activity, within which (but not outside of which) a fair amount of diversity may be tolerated (i.e. there is such a thing as heresy, as all denominations, including Pentecostals, affirm).

[Cont. in next comment]

Phil Sumpter said...

In light of this, my response to some of your statements:

- The process and result are not magisterial; but, artifacts.
Is this not to deny what I said above, i.e. the means by which God communicates (ie. via human channels) is a significant element in what he has to say? Does this go in the direction of a spiritualized Docetism? And what do you mean by "artifacts"?

I should add that you seem to contradict yourself in this paragraph. On the one hand you say that you don't deny Childs' actual thesis concerning the nature of the Bible (i.e. it's "canonical," which is a quality of the text). On the other hand, you say that "canon" is just a heuristic principle used of current communities. So canonicity is not intrinsic (intrinsic in the sense that it constitutes the Bible as it is)? You seem to be rejecting Childs' historical thesis afterall, which would imply that the nature of the text is significant for hermeneutics (and not just the Spirit divorced from the text).

>Perhaps my reading of the scripture is more catholic. Based on what you've said so far, I would disagree. All denominations I am aware of (including Pentacostals) strain to let their interpretations be constrained by the text, not despite the text. Not that the sensus literalis exhausts the meaning, but it is usually understood to be the vehicle of it.

I should add that I'm also happy with fragments. I doubt that we have as many as is often claimed, but they're there, and ought to be interpreted as such. The canonical approach Childs' espoused was not pure synchronic exegesis. There's different types of "textual cohabitation" and they need to be evaluated accordingly. See my post on the <a href='>hermeneutical significance of juxtaposition</a>.

Finally, what do you mean by <em> Canon is an idling concept</em>?

To sum up my main concern with your comments: You seem have opted for just one side of what in reality ought to be a dialectic, i.e. you opt for "Spirit" (which you'd have to distinguish from "spirit") rather than for "Spirit"/"Scripture (+tradition)".

Does this check your bias, as you put it? Feel free to tell me where I'm going wrong.