Monday, 27 September 2010

Critical thoughts on the Oxford Psalms Conference

I've just returned from the Oxford Psalms conference, of which Bob MacDonald has provided an overview in a series of posts (along with some photos and a youtube video of the reconstructed Temple Psalmody we heard in the chapel). The experience was enriching, eye-opening, and in particular motivating as far as my own particular strand of work is concerned (Childs' approach to the Bible). Despite a technical hiccup with the publication of my abstract, I had two amazing conversations with two of the Psalms' greatest contemporary students: Erhard Gerstenberger and Frank-Lothar Hossfeld. The beauty of these two separate dialogues is that Hossfeld and Gerstenberger are in fact Gegenspieler as far as methodology is concerned: Gerstenberger representing the "older" form critical approach (an approach whose presuppositions are rightly still foundational for much contemporary interpretation) and Hossfeld representing the "newer" synchronic approach (Sitz im Buch rather than Sitz im Leben). Part of my thesis is that there is, in fact, a bridge over the apparent chasm that separates these two approaches (one that allows for two-way traffic), and that Childs, properly understood, is the man who has brought that reality most clearly to view.

And therein lies the problem I have with an otherwise excellent conference: the complete silence  (beyond a few minor footnotes) concerning Childs' own contribution to the field that, I would claim, he helped shape into its present form. I find this problematic for a minor and for a major reason. Of minor significance is simply the irony that it is ultimately the work of Brevard Childs that has made the peculiar scope of this particular conference possible in the first place. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps - I'm not an expert on the history of scholarship. But before Childs' ground-breaking work, did not "Wirkungsgeschichte" belong in the church/Jewish history department? And wasn't "Jewish/Christian" dialogue a concern of systematic theology? And why should the Psalm's liturgical actualization within a community of faith now migrate from the department of liturgy to that of Biblical exegesis? Aside from the obvious (though seemingly forgotten) fact that it was Childs who put both the Psalm superscriptions and the shape of the Psalter on the interpretive agenda, was he not also the first to insist that the full scope of research questions displayed at this conference was in fact an integral and necessary part of the exegesis of the text itself?

My primary concern here is not, however, about apportioning recognition where it is due. My major concern is with the coherence of the conference itself and, along with that, the discipline of Biblical studies. One impression that accompanied me throughout the conference was the disjointed manner by which the various fields of research were brought into relation. A historical critical reading of a Psalm was simply one possibility alongside an analysis of the history of its interpretation. The musical renditions of the Psalms in the chapel were aesthetic (perhaps spiritual), but not connected in any academically accountable way with the actual meaning of the texts themselves. Even talk of the "convergence" of Jewish and Christian interpretation in the modern period seemed disconnected from actual faith claims made by these communities (can Christian exegesis be non-Christological?) as well the constructive interpretive proposals made by Biblical exegetes, whose primary task is to look at the meaning of the text itself.

It is one thing to present an "array" of approaches to the Psalms, but the very act of arraying presupposes that there is some unity which the diversity of approaches ought, in some sense, to illuminate. Even in a so-called "postmodern" context, a conference such as this one must at least, at rock bottom, assume the presence of a single subject matter: the Psalms themselves. Are they not the ultimate object of research? Ought not the various subject areas thus arrayed function to enlighten our reading of the Psalms themselves rather than something else connected to the psalms? I fear that the very telos of such a conference is threatened when there is no attempt to bring diachronic, synchronic, reception history (etc.) perspectives into dialogue with each other, a dialogue that is about the Psalms themselves.

If the conference was not about the Psalms, what was it about? What was its unifying object of inquiry? If one is to argue - as seems implied - that illustrating the tension between peshat and midrash is interesting in its own right, that questions of the ordering of the Qumran Psalms or Rastafarian reinterpretation or medieval religious usage are all interesting in their own right, then it seems that the only thing uniting these approaches is the phenomenon of human cultural endeavour, as it is engaged in referring to or preserving or creating or inspiring or involving in some manner Israel's psalms. It seems that our Psalms conference was ultimately an exercise in cultural anthropology. If what matters is what humans have done and do then it is perfectly understandable that Rashi is simply juxtaposed with Akhenaten, the Temple archives with Anglo-Saxon Psalters, Qumranic textual variants with postmodern paraphrase. On this view, the proper object of inquiry is not the text itself as a vehicle of some concept or reality but us, humanity in its aspect as cultural being. The consequence is that the intertextual web is expanded indefinitely and Biblical studies migrates to the cultural anthropology department, where it threatens to dissolve upon arrival.

The irony in this is that the conference's explicit agenda was theological, not anthropological. It's title, "Conflict and Convergence," points to a desire to overcome readings by the Jewish and Christian faith communities which are mutually exclusive. The assumption is that the modern university can now, finally, after centuries of conflicting exegesis, provide a context whereby the exegeses of these two religious entities can finally "converge." Yet, can an approach to the Bible which is ultimately anthropological fulfil that task? Though both Jews and Christians confess that God's Word comes in humans words, those human words are also understood to be vehicles of God's Word. This is why Scripture is "holy," it has something to do with God, and not just in phenomenologically sense that they claim this to be so, but in the ontological sense that it really is. Christians and Jews are ultimately not interested in what humans have done or do with the Psalms, they are interested in what they should do because of the Psalms.

I would summarize my issue with the Oxford conference as a question: what constitutes the coherence under-girding the broad (and ever expanding) scope of interests arrayed for our attention? If, as the conference has implied, that coherence is human existence per se, the conference's own theological agenda will be undermined. But is there another way of conceiving the unity of the approaches? Could it be that Old Testament studies' typical Sitz im Leben in the theology rather than anthropology department is not an accidental misjudgement but rather an indication of the true coherence under-girding both the text and community? And if so, what does this kind of coherence mean for Jewish and Christian dialogue? Which is another way of asking, "how do we grasp the meaning of the Psalms?"

It is here that Childs can, once again, provide a pointer for the future (providing he is divested of the distortion that constitutes much of his own reception history). Childs was not only the originator of attempts to appropriate the full breadth of Jewish and Christian exegesis, seen as being intimately connected to the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the text, he did so for the sake of a single object of inquiry: the Biblical text itself. Which is the same thing as saying: he did it for the sake of the subject matter of the Biblical text. Already in the preface to his ground-breaking 1974 Exodus commentary (although admittedly it took a while for the ground to break) we gain hints at his grasp of the potential organic connection between the history "to" the text and the history "from" the text, a history that, despite its temporal extension in our time, turns to rotate on that central hub that is the Bible's own time, which is God's time.

Childs' own proposals for the coherency of the discipline are bound to remain contentious (even when correctly understood), and this is necessarily so because of their unapologetically confessional rootage. But the challenge he poses still remains open to those who would unknowingly walk in his footsteps without taking a glance at the interconnected coordinates he set to map the way: What is the Bible ultimately about? What is the most adequate context for its study? Wherein lies the coherence under-girding the diversity of fields of research displayed and awkwardly correlated  at the Oxford Psalms conference? In other words, and I think this is the decisive question: what constitutes their unity? Can the answer to this question - regardless of where it falls on the ideological spectrum - be anything other than confessional?

My hope is that one day Childs will indeed get the credit he deserves. I do not hope this for his sake, however, but for the sake of Biblical interpretation, which is for the sake of the interpretive community, whether Jewish, Christian, or secular.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

McGlasson on Hughes Oliphant Old's The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church

I noticed that Logos have Hughes Oliphant Old's 7 volumne tome on pre-pub and thought I'd most comments that Paul McGlasson made on the volume:
The horizontal and vertical dimensions of Christian proclamation are held together best in the expository sermon. In his comprehensive history of preaching, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Hughes Oliphant Old has sought to recover the brilliance and excitement of the grand tradition of Christian proclamation. His multivolume survey clearly lays before the contemporary reader the vast range of powerful and exciting voices from the Christian past, with the corresponding challenge that those voices present for the future. Old has done the universal church an enormous service. Above all, his endeavor to show the magnificent reach of proclamation in every time and place across the face of the globe sets a hight standard for the work of the coming generations. In this introduction, Old charts what he sees as the primary forms of proclamation that ebb and flow across the years: the expository sermon, evangelistic preaching, catechetical preaching, festal preaching, and prophetic preaching. There is no doubt that Old has accurately captured the wide range of preaching in this classification. Throughout the volumes, he is able to show the various forms shaped and reshaped  according to the changing resources of the church. Furthermore, every working minister knows that the form and function of sermons occasionally differ according to changing circumstance. Surely any real progress in contemporary proclamation will depend upon a fresh recovery of the grand tradition that Old describes.
P. McGlasson, Invitation to Dogmatic Theology: A Canonical Approach, 168-169.

Monday, 13 September 2010

An Abstract of my doctoral thesis on Ps 24

The following is an abstract of my doctoral thesis on Ps 24 which Susan Gillingham has kindly offered to publish at the forthcoming Oxford Conference on the Psalms. It focusses on the exegetical dimension, leaving aside the hermeneutical and dogmatic parts of my doctorate. I'd appreciate feedback and questions (and bear in mind that the content of this blog is copyright):

My thesis is an attempt to read Ps 24 in the context of B.S. Childs' “canonical approach,” rightly understood. The first half outlines the coherence of his approach, which is not a method but a comprehensive construal of the particular nature of Israel's religious traditions that factors in the ontological reality its God. 

Turning to Ps 24, I argue that it is a poetically structured reworking of prior authoritative traditions with the goal of constraining future reception of those traditions, accomplished dialectically in the context of Israel's broader theological heritage, with the goal of witnessing to the true theological substance of that heritage. In particular, I argue that Ps 24 attempts to penetrate to the heart of God's ways in the world by drawing on Israel's core traditions of creation, Sinai/Zion, holy war, and the Davidic king and by subtly structuring their interrelations. 

The interpretive crux is the poetic juxtaposition of two portrayals of character: the obedient character of those who may access the fullness of creational life within the temple on Zion, accrued upon completion of the journey of pilgrimage, and the character of the author and guarantor of this life, the Lord, presented as a mighty warrior, about to enter into that very same location. The juxtaposition entails a subtle poetic movement of “actualization,” enacted within the protological/eschatological horizon of creation, whereby the Lord appears to accomplish what is only a possibility for Jacob. The significance of this juxtaposition, however, remains vague at the level of the Psalm alone. An account of Israel's cult along with a “theology of the Psalter” proves the paradigmatic centrality of Ps 24's themes to Biblical faith and strengthens the sense of their interconnectedness, yet it does not resolve the significance of their poetic presentation. 

A significant hermeneutical key is provided by the “canonical marker” לדוד, which asks us to read the Psalm in relation to the theological persona of David, a hermeneutical construct within the Psalter that takes its cue from the Book of Samuel. In Samuel we find that the context that constitutes David's identity mirrors the structure and content of Ps 24. On the one hand, David is an historically particular free agent who, out of love for God and Israel, acts on Israel's and his own behalf in obedience to torah in order to bring it and himself, through battle, to full creational blessing on Zion (2 Sam 6-8). On the other hand, David's story is embedded in a broader eschatological narrative in which David is a vehicle of the true agent of history, the Lord, who similarly acts in order to bring about his own purpose of divine communion with his righteous people in full creational blessing on Zion. As Ps 24 implies, God, through David, is the true subject of Israel's redemption in Zion, though not without its obedience. Given the persistent presence of disobedience, this fulfilment in time remains proleptic and the ancient cycle of Israel's struggle for life and divine judgement/redemption is perpetuated. This same dialectical pattern applies to the “David of the Psalter” whereby, on the one hand, “David” struggles for his own and Israel's life and witnesses to the Lord's intervention in judgement/salvation and, on the other hand, this cycle is situated within the ultimate context of divine reality. 

Ps 24's paradigmatic nature and hermeneutical function for Biblical faith becomes clearer when it is read as the frame and climax of the chiastically structured sub-collection of Pss 15-24. As part of the frame (Pss 15 and 19), it functions to set the remaining Psalms within the context of base realities: obedience to torah for the sake of creation. As the climax of the collection, understood as a series of intensifying parallelisms, it depicts the fulfilment of that reality with an arrival in Zion/new creation itself, albeit an arrival by the Lord with Jacob apparently in his train. 

A final clarification is provided by the Book of Isaiah, itself related to the Psalter, which deals with the persistent problem of Israel's disobedience by reconstituting it by means of the “Servant,” the “father” of 3rd Isaiah's redeemed “servants.” Thus, similar to 2 Sam 7 and in line with the dialectic of Ps 24, the Lord's creation intentions come to fruition in Zion upon the entry of a newly constituted Jacob, created and led by the Lord. Like Ps 24, however, Isaiah closes with the Lord still poised before the gates, leaving the consummation of Israel's pilgrimage open to the future. 

Finally, in an attempt to clarify the Psalm's theological subject matter in its “economic” and “ontological” dimensions, this reading of Ps 24 is brought into dialogue with patristic and rabbinic exegesis, Jenson's Trinitarian metaphysic of heaven and Farrow's treatment of the Ascension

Friday, 10 September 2010

The substance of Psalm 24

This is a provisional attempt to briefly summarize my understanding of the reality to which Psalm 24 testifies. I'd appreciate critical feedback or suggestions:
The reality attested to by the final form of Psalm 24 is a protological/eschatological narrative in which God's own destiny consists in communion with a righteous people in the context of new creation, a reality proleptically experienced in the temple yet consistently interrupted by the presence of cosmic and human evil and thus the need for divine militant intervention. Despite the requirement of wilful human participation in this reality, it is ultimately God himself who not only creates the space of new creation but also the people to inhabit it.
Even this is not the "rock bottom" reality to which Psalm 24 witnesses, as it is only the economic unfolding of the eternal ontological being of God himself. Thus, the reality to which Psalm 24 witnesses is not the "narrative" of God's activity but the eternal substance of his being himself. But I'm writing this for an Oxford Psalms conference so I have to watch my language.

Friday, 3 September 2010

My daughter, Jasmine

This bundle of cuteness is one reason for my lack of posting of late. She arrived a tad early, but the birth was without complications and all in all she's as fit as a fiddle. I do hope to get back to posting, but getting used to my transformed Sitz im Leben will take a while. In addition this, the doctorate is drawing to a close and I have a number of translation jobs (German-English) in the pipeline, which will leave me with less time than usual. However, this blog has been such a blessing that I don't intend to let it die off altogether. For those who are interested, my current thread consists in a treck through Childs' Exodus and Isaiah commentaries with an eye to examples of exegesis which illustrate what I consider to be the building blocks of his canonical approach. For an overview of posts to date, go here.

Oh, and being a father rocks. Though I'm still struggling with its ontological implications, I can say with certainty that it constitutes the next big boundary crossing moment after these two.