Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A response to M. Welker on the relation between Scripture and theology

In an essay published in a Festschrift for Patrick Miller, Michael Welker, professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg, has shared his thoughts on the relationship between Biblical exegesis and theology. The title of the essay is “Sola Scripture? The Authority of the Bible in Pluralistic Environments.” Here is my response, shaped as it is by Childs’ “canonical approach.”


Welker shares a basic starting point with Brevard Childs. In a very pregnant paragraph on p. 383 he claims that behind the diversity within the canon (if “behind” is the right metaphor for his approach) there is a single subject matter: God, and not just any god but a particular God. This God is a living reality and not just a theological postulate and as such he has left his imprint, in some undefined sense, on the traditions contained within the Bible (they “reflect his weight”). There is thus at work within the tradition-history behind the text a divine agency, something secular scholarship, by virtue of its own “confessional” stance, has no access to. Not only is there a “divine reality” at work in the actual composition of the textual witnesses, he also confesses that it is the same reality that is revealed in Jesus Christ. This seems to me to be an ontological statement, one that makes a very significant statement about the actual nature of the now textualized religious traditions of ancient Israel. In this he is still on common ground with Childs.

He adds one further claim, however, to this construal of the nature of the texts which both marks his common ground with Childs and yet also the point of divergence: the texts are to be understood as “witnesses.” As I have often stated on this blog, this category is central to Childs' own approach, yet he interprets in a different manner to Welker (his citation of Brueggemann at this point, fn. 21, confirms this, as this is the biggest sticking point in their two approaches). I hope that I am not misinterpreting Welker, but his claim about the texts' status as “witnesses” seems to be materially distinct from his claim about the texts' nature as a “reflection” of God. Although God exerts his a certain force upon the traditions (“weight”), even leaving an impact upon their formation (“mirror”), Welker understands their character as witnesses to be primarily a matter of a individual/communal “search for truth” (p. 392). It is a human “contribution.” In this he stands with the majority of contemporary Old Testament scholarship.

For Childs, however, the very force of the divine referent upon the witness is part of the definition of “witness” in the first place. The function of the Biblical witness, according to Childs, is not to search for truth but to point to a truth that has already impacted the witnesses. In other words, his affirmation of the divine impact on tradition has hermeneutical implications, as what the text is trying to do—even in its very historical particularity—is not wrestle with the theological question of God but to point to a divine reality that has broken into the witnesses' reality and perhaps even left him rather confused as a result. Von Rad spoke of a “lebendigen Wort Jahwes, das an Israel ergangen ist.” For Childs, of course, this “divine impact” was part of the literary shaping process of the traditions themselves, such that the final form sets the agenda for relating the parts. In relation to the issue of diversity within the canon, the canonical-shape functions either to guide our own interpretation of the meaning of the tradition, either by subordinating one view to another or allowing them to relate dialectically. The significant point here, however, is that the canon as witness calls us to resolve this dialectic at the level of the divine referent. The diversity in the canon is a consequence of the nature of the referent and not an accident of history or a function of human particularity.

This leads Childs (as I understand him) to a different answer to the question of how to relate the “canonical traditions” to “contemporary life” (p. 391). Rather than correlating canonical diversity with contemporary diversity, the canon compels us to seek unity within that diversity—a unity at the level of the divine reality itself—and then to reinterpret our current situation in light of that divine reality. As part of the hermeneutical spiral however, we not only interpret the unity of the present in light of the unity of the canonical referent, we also seek to comprehend the unity of the canon in light of the unity of its divine referent. Hence Childs’ dialectical approach. Whereas Welker seems to argue for a relatively unilinear mode of theological exegesis—the task of systematic theology in Biblical exegesis is to test the “Tragbarkeit” of exegetical, theological claims in the present (p. 388)— Childs argues that dogmatics ought, at a certain point in the hermeneutical circle, to contribute to exegetical claims about the actual meaning of the text itself. In my own work, this leads me to the strong (and unusual, given the current climate) claim that Robert Jenson's interpretation the “metaphysics of Heaven” (which is a Trinitarian concept) not only seems to supply Psalm 24 with its ultimate referent (when read historically, cult-critically, poetically and canonically), but it also helps us to understand the actual logic of the Psalm itself better. 

4 comments:

Adam Morton said...

It has struck me, on occasion, how well some of your thinking on these matters helps with my own. But then, we have Childs in common.

The distinction between Childs and Welker here also reminds me of Heschel's remark about prophecy as "exegesis of existence from a divine perspective," though I do not think Heschel took that insight quite far enough. What it means for me is this: those from whom we receive the Word have first to be turned inside-out by it, to have been interpreted and imprinted by it, so that their contribution, by bearing its imprint, still bears the divine reality itself.

However polyphonic the canon ends up, this is its unity--so that, e.g., we can see in the Gospel of John that the evangelist speaks of himself as witness in this way, but also as impacted by John the Baptist, as well a witness, who himself was also impacted by (in fact, understands his own role in terms of) the book of Isaiah--the prophet who is also invoked directly as witness to Jesus. Their voices are not the same, even within that Gospel, yet their testimony is a unity because of the one who at all points is heard within it.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Adam,

thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like you idea of being "imprinted by the Word." I recently read von Rad saying something similar about the relation between Form and Faith (in his final chapter "Israel before Yahweh" in vol. 1 of his theology) and I reckon that would into this scheme. He also talked of the primary force at work in Israel's tradition history as being God's word "wie es an Israel je und je eragangen ist" ("as has ever been 'sent' to Israel"). I often wonder what has happened in the interim period. Mowinckel, too, could make almost ontological statements about a divine reality being actively involved in Israels history, but these days talk of tradition history - even from the more confessionally minded! - seems to be subsumed in sociological categories (one example, in my opinion, is Creach's treatment of the function of the temple in The Destiny of the Righteous, an otherwise helpful book). Or again, read H.-J. Kraus' intro to his theology of the Psalms - very Barthian. Do confessional scholars talk like that any more?

Adam Morton said...

I'd say they don't talk like that very frequently. Something of the ghost of Heidegger seems to me to lurk in much of what's out there--scholarship splintered into a vast array of methods, most of those founded on the person of the exegete. Just looked at Creach again, and I think you're right about that section--much talk about "what the righteous experienced in worship on Zion," meaning the liturgy itself. As if God were another name for a communal act of worship.

I do know one New Testament scholar who will speak like you say--but he's 88 now, though the book I'm thinking about came out maybe 5 years ago. Fracture, by Roy Harrisville. Oddly, Roy is a very old friend of Jenson's and of Childs' (they were together at Princeton). The only younger folks who talk that way that I'm aware of are a handful of systematicians.

Phil Sumpter said...

Yep, that statement on liturgy is spot on. It provides the springboard in my thesis for my own alternative, which draws on Jenson.

My favourite NT scholar who also talks in this manner is Paul Minear; I'm thinking of his awesome book The Bible and the Historian. I've not read Harrisville so thanks for the tip.