Thursday, 3 June 2010

Doing exegetical justice to Israel's view of history

Brevard Childs claims that the Biblical view of history is constituted by a dialectical tension between empirical history and God's unique action in history (see my post The dialectical nature of Biblical history for details). Once this is recognized, what are the implications for exegesis? In his Biblical Theology (pp. 100-101), Childs suggests the following four avenues:
  1. Israel's history reflects both an inner and an outer dimension, i.e. there is both confessional witness and common public testimony. The contrast lies in viewing history from Israel's confessional stance, from within a community of faith, rather than from a neutral, phenomenological reconstruction. Nevertheless, the relation between the two is subtle, as neither perspective functions as a hermetically sealed system which functions in absolute independence from the other. The theological challenge is to exegete the passages in such a way as “to avoid rationalistic assumptions of a common reality behind all religious expression or the threat of super-naturalism which would deny in principle any relation between an outer and inner side of historical events.”

  1. Israel's history involves both divine and human agency. The biblical witness to divine intervention in time and space is threatened if a historical methodology interprets such formulations as merely literary conventions which must be made to conform to the general laws of historical causality. However, the Bible reflects a great variety of relationships between the human and divine which spans a spectrum from closest interaction to harshest discontinuity. The exegetical challenge is "to do justice to the different dimensions of textual intensity (Dichtigkeitsgrad) without being trapped into rigid philosophical systems of historical causality."

  1. Israel's history is construed within the Old Testament as oscillating between the past, present and future. The methodological challenge is to avoid a theological move “which would objectify Israel's history into a separate sphere of Heilsgeschichte which functions independently of all common experience. Conversely it is not helpful to flatten Israel's special historical experiences into general chronological patterns which have been reconstituted from extra biblical sources.”

  1. Israel's history is depicted within the Old Testament in terms of foreground and background, i.e. there is conscious selection. One must learn to do justice to to Israel's peculiar assigning of significance to certain events and situations while denigrating others. The challenge is to avoid the arrogance of correcting Israel's judgement on the assumption of modern critical superiority while maintaining a sophisticated historical sensitivity which can "adjudicate the just claims arising from two sides of this genuine dialectical tension."


Carl said...

Thanks for the summary. As a Messianic Jew, its quite natural for me to view history "from Israel's confessional stance, from within a community of faith." The "empirical history" aspect is a bit more difficult, not because I don't see it, but because I don't see as much value in it.

Practically speaking, how does a Christian view Israel's history from Israel's confessional stance? Or have I misunderstood you (or Childs)?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Carl, thanks for stopping by again and sharing your perspective. Your comments generate a number of thoughts and questions for me.

First a clarification: Childs' comments imply two levels: 1) the Bible's self-understanding and 2) it's implications for those who take it as authoritative(whether Christian or Jewish or whatever). On the first level, Childs is claiming that empirical history is important for the Bible, from its own perspective. This isn't the only view in the Bible (i.e. it's subtly connected to "confessional" history), but it's nevertheless a fundamental element of the overall view. As he puts it, one can't separte the two in order to create two independent systems which can then be separated from each other. They interact. God works in our dimension of reality.

The second level is the implication this has for us. Childs' starting point is simply that if you stand within the community of faith that created/was created by the Bible, then the Bible is authoritative for you and functions as a guide to truth. Thus, he would not say that empirical history is not important and he would say this because that is the Bible's own stance on the issue (as he perceives it, of course). For the Bible, so for Childs: it is important theologically that certain empirical things did in fact happen and that empirical reality is in fact an arena for divine activity. The obvious example is the life of Jesus, including his incarnation and physical resurrection (Childs is, after all, a Christian). The dialectic consists in the fact that life is nevertheless portrayed variously, and one cannot make a direct one-to-one correlation between realistic narrative and empirical reality in the Gospels. Both dimensions are there (empirical history and salvation history), but the relation between the two is, as Childs says, interwoven and subtle.

I personally think that grasping that is a key to theological depth. I have a thread called The Bible and the Historian which also goes into this, drawing on Paul Minear.

An ancient theological witness to this is the incorporation of Pontius Pilate's name in the Creed.

I think that you'd agree with this though, wouldn't you? Could you clarify why you don't find "empirical history" important? And do you agree with Childs' portrayal of the Bible's approach?

I'm a bit surprised by your statement that adopting Israel's confessional stance is more natural for a Jewish Christian than for a non-Jewish Christian (excuse the terminology but I want to emphasize the continuity between the two). Apart from the fact that a Messianic Jew (depending on his or her upbringing, personal maturity etc.) may be equipped with Jewish tradition as a hermeneutical lens, I don't understand how it should be more natural for him to adopt the Bible's stance than for a non-Jew in Jesus. I would have thought that this is a matter of decision in the first instance and discipleship and spiritual maturity in the second.

Carl said...

Thanks for your response, Phil. IMO, we're very much on the same page.

You ask,"Could you clarify why you don't find "empirical history" important? And do you agree with Childs' portrayal of the Bible's approach?"

No, no--I just don't find it AS important as the confessional/community approach. I agree completely with your summary of Childs' views.

"I'm a bit surprised by your statement that adopting Israel's confessional stance is more natural for a Jewish Christian than for a non-Jewish Christian."

No,no! It's natural for me because, from my earliest days--and long before faith in Jesus--I viewed the Hebrew Bible as the context of my life. As a Messianic Jew [forgive me for insisting on my community's terminology], I brought that sense with me. Thus, for me there was a sense of continuity. I imagine that someone raised in a Christian home who later came to faith would have a similar sense of continuity. But I imagine that anyone who lacks a Biblical/communal context in their youth would not have as "natural" a transition.

Phil Sumpter said...

But I imagine that anyone who lacks a Biblical/communal context in their youth would not have as "natural" a transition.

That's an interesting question. You're no doubt right. I've heard in the past that Orthodox Jews have a better grasp of the Gospel.

It would be interesting to look at the way early Christians "baptised" Pagan religions to see the dynamics involved in easing the transition. There seems to me to be an interesting mix between the particular and the universal in the OT that makes it capable of both, capable of connecting across boundaries and yet creating its own realm of discourse.

Given that "all truth is God's truth," I'm also open to the possibility that enrichment goes in both directions ... Pagan thought opening up dimensions of the Jewish Scripture.