Wednesday 12 September 2007

Faithful and Critical Scholarship : Interpretation Within Boundaries

A Christian's relation to the world of time and space is not particularly straight forward. On the one had, the logic of his faith demands that he believe in a God who acts, and who acts in such a way that it impinges upon our reality. On the other hand, Christian faith affirms the existence of the empirical world of laws and causality which need to be respected. These two dimensions cannot be fused, yet they cannot be separated either.

The result of this tension impinges upon me as an (aspiring) academic scholar, committed to the truth of the real world and thus open to criticism from evidence and logic. Yet my faith can, by definition, not be left at the door of my office, to be picked up again when I go home. How do I relate the demands of my tradition to the rigours of scientific research and the challenges of contemporary thought to the validity of my beliefs?

I'm going to be exploring this question in relation to biblical exegesis over the next few weeks. The framework for my approach will be what B.S. Childs has called the six constitutive features of traditional exegesis over the past 2000 years (yes, he draws parallels between Justin Martyr and von Rad!). These “family resemblances” have been a consistent theological witness of the church through years of radical historical and cultural discontinuity, and have functioned as theological parameters preserving the church in its understanding of its scriptures toward a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. They are as follows:
  1. The authority of Scripture

  2. The literal and spiritual senses of Scripture

  3. Scripture's two testaments

  4. The divine and human authorship of Scripture

  5. The Christological content of the Christian Bible

  6. The dialectical nature of history

(taken from Childs, 2004). Is this a fair summary? Are there more that have been missed out? Is it possible to affirm and operate in terms of these beliefs in the modern, critical world?
I'd love to know your thoughts. The answers are tough so I'll need help along the way!

Update: The most of the contents of this thread were published in an online edition of the Princeton Theological Review dedicated to Brevard Childs. You can read it here. Many of these posts have generated valuable threads of dialogue and thus could be read as a kind of commentary on the article. I should add that my views have matured somewhat since the publishing of the article. I hope to publish another, more mature version, soon.

(One last note, John Hobbins has some great stuff to say here concerning Eastern Orthodox attitudes to the Bible, along with some comments by Edgecomb which are extremely relevant to our concerns!)


D. Timothy Goering said...

Hey! I'm greatly excited to find a post that actually deals with Childs.
As you can probably tell from my blog - Childs has had a profound impact on me!
Your entire blog looks very promising...looking forward to more!

Phil Sumpter said...

My friend, I have done nothing but soak my brain in Childs for the past four months. I can think of nothing more intellectually and spiritually nourishing then a good hard wrestle with the man (pbuh). The thread will take its nourishment from an essay I've almost finish in which I try to synthesise his thought.

Anonymous said...

I think Leibniz ontology could open up interesting new ways for Christians to look at revelation and the space time universe. I posted a little on this at my blog last night.

You can just call me Blake (in response to the question you asked me in another comment box)


Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Blake, I look forward to hearing Leibnitz's take on things as the discussion unfolds.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to encourage you to take a more critical attitude toward Childs, as the problems with his approach, in my opinion, are rather severe. If you're really interested in Childs, you need to try to come to terms with James Barr's criticisms of Childs. And, whatever you do, *don't* read Barr through the eyes of Childs, as he completely misunderstood Barr's point (as did Paul Noble and Christopher Seitz). Barr's most incisive criticism of Childs is simply this: a canonical hermeneutic is grounded in an alethiology (= "understanding of truth") of storytime actuality, while the kerygma of the New Testament is grounded in an alethiology of spacetime actuality. These two alethiologies are mutually exclusive, so guess which one a proper Christian should uphold? (This point is so simple, but Childs's confessional commitments, especially aspects of his bibliology, apparently created a huge blind spot in his reasoning.)

Phil Sumpter said...

John, comments like that are deeply appreciated and indeed needed by this blogger. Thank you. You are right, I am extremely dependent on Childs at this stage, so refreshing criticisms like this are what I need to keep me on my toes. I've debated a fair bit with opponents of Childs, especially fans of Barr, but I've never come across what you've said – not even the word 'alethiology'! What you said sounds intriguing and extremely provocative. However, I'm having trouble grasping what you mean by “ an alethiology of storytime actuality” and “ an alethiology of spacetime actuality”. Could you clarify?

I ask for clarification because if the phrases mean what I think they mean then the total opposite would be the case! The concept of God entering space and time, and the central function of Scripture as variegated witness to this extra-textual reality is absolutely central to Childs' canonical approach. Indeed it undergirds his focus on the text's final form and was formulated as a concept before the 'canonical approach' was ever developed. In fact, he criticises H. Frei, to whom he was originally so indebted, for talking of the Bible as a “text-creating reality”, an approach which sounds suspiciously like “an alethiology of storytime actuality” (he also criticises G. Steins' post-modern approach on these grounds too [2003]) This focus on the Bible as literature, to the exclusion of concerns about extra-textual reality, is something for which Childs actually criticises Barr, rather then the other way round (in Barr's “The Bible as Literature”; Childs' critique of both him and Frei are in 1992: 20, where he draws on the literary theorist M. Sternberg to back up his claim).

So I'm sure I don't get what you mean. I would be very grateful if you could clarify this point for me as it sounds significant. I also hope to hear from you again. Criticism is what builds us up in the long run!

Peter Kirk said...

Christian faith affirms the existence of the empirical world of laws and causality which need to be respected.

Where? What variety of Christian faith? Certainly some varieties of it, I would say including the original New Testament variety, fail to respect and indeed overturn this world, in that they affirm that physical laws and causality can be overturned by miracles and answers to prayer. Indeed prayer becomes pointless if causality is respected; compare my recent comment that "Intercessory prayer is hard to reconcile with any systematic theology."

The paradigmatic example of this overturning of physical laws is of course the resurrection of Jesus. Properly respecting physical laws and causality implies denying the resurrection. And in so far as this is at the centre of the Christian faith I might claim that the opposite of your original statement is true, that Christian faith denies the absolute existence of an empirical world of laws and causality.

Phil Sumpter said...

Dear Peter, I think it's great that I can sound as if I'm rejecting reason in one place and then be accused of being over rational here. I think that means I'm doing something right! I've commented on your blog concerning the role of reason in theology (for which I'm indebted to Scott Roberts). See also my programmatic statements.

I would like to affirm your belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as well as the ability of God to answer prayer in various ways, including, sometimes, breaking the laws of nature. But I don't see how that belief means that the Bible doesn't believe in the laws of nature at all. If there were no laws, nothing would be broken, nothing would be miraculous (if we wish to define 'miraculous' solely in terms of 'scientific laws'). The very concept of God's intervention would be jeopardized as we'd be living in supernatural playground where anything goes. The sheer sense of shock expressed throughout the Bible narratives is only possible because the characters knew for a fact that these kinds of things just don't normally happen. There's plenty of evidence that the biblical authors knew the difference. They were capable of distinguishing between natural laws and principles to which they were subject (see the meteorological descriptions in Job or the inevitable laws of nature in Ecclesiastes) and miraculous moments resulting from external intervention (i.e. the sun standing still in Joshua), they made distinctions between publicly verifiable annals (“is it not written in the book of ...”) and unique events (the crossing of the Dead Sea).

Far from the resurrection undermining the consistency of God's creation, it actually serves as a theological judgement on the inability of this creation to save itself in terms of its own natural processes. It needs help from the outside. As such, Christians need to avoid the extremes of supernaturalism on the one hand and the closed-system of materialism on the other.

I would also like to clarify the way God answers prayer. There is no one method. Sometimes there is a miraculous answer (e.g. in the Elijah/Elisha narratives) and sometime God works through historical causality (e.g. book of Esther, the Joseph narrative).

Finally, your comment on “what variety of Christian faith”. You're right: talking of 'Christian Faith' is to paint with a very broad brush. However, as I pointed out in the post, there are certain claims that are constants in the church's proclamation throughout the ages. Our considerations here about the miraculous and the natural come under point six: a dialectical understanding of history.

Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Phil. Yes, with these qualifications our positions are really quite close. I suppose I was seeing your "respect" as suggesting that somehow Christians understand God as subject to natural laws and causality. That is a position I reject, just as I reject him being subject to external moral laws (cf also Mark 2:28).

Yes, God chooses to work and to order the universe according to consistent principles, ones which we can describe and understand, and we notice when they are not followed. I'm not sure that I recognise a clear distinction in principle between miraculous and historical causality answers to prayer, but clearly some answers look more one than the other.

I plan to write more about reason and prayer on my own blog, in response to your comments there.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your sentiments for critical engagement with those with whom we disagree. I have quipped to friends of mine that, when groups get together on the basis of shared views rather than shared interests, what you tend to get is not iron sharpening iron, but rather cheese sticking to cheese.

I'll clarify the word "alethiology" (sometimes spelled "aletheiology"): it means, as I said, an "understanding of truth", but what is important to grasp is why it is such a rare word, especially given the importance of "truth" for theology and hermeneutics. The reason for its rarity is disconcerting: when most theologians and philosophers discuss theories of truth, they wrongly use the term "epistemology", which of course makes a category confusion by treating "truth" and "knowledge" as if they're the same thing. This category error has unfortunately led many to the unwarranted conclusion that "truth" is subjective. In fact, this category confusion lies at the very heart of most postmodernist rhetoric. When I say "alethiology of spacetime actuality", what I mean is a theory of truth in which being "true" is a matter of being the case in spacetime (*viz.* in extratextual reality). Conversely, an "alethiology of storytime actuality" is a theory of truth in which being "true" is a matter of being congruent with a texted narrative, irrespective of its referential integrity or anything respecting its extratextual referents. These two alethiologies, of course, are mutually exclusive, as truth must be either linguistical or prelinguistical, but it cannot be both.

Now the task before us is to determine which alethiology is correct, as far as the Christian faith is concerned. If we take the kerygmatic narrative (of Christ's death, burial, resurrection, ascension to the right hand, and sending of the Spirit) as the centerpiece of New Testament theology, indeed as the very touchstone of apostolic orthodoxy, then the answer to our quest for the official alethiology of the Christian faith should lie in the sense in which the events of this narrative are understood to be true. When Paul says that, if Christ is not raised from the dead, then the Corinthians's faith is in vain, in what sense is he implying that Christ's resurrection must be true? In spacetime, or in storytime? Quite obviously, the resurrection must be true in the sense of obtaining spacetime actuality. (From your reply, it appears that you realize all this.)

As to Childs: I realize, of course, that Childs rightly affirms, and indeed emphasizes, the historical reality of God's entry into space and time. The problems appear when trying to hold on to that faith affirmation simultaneously with the alethiology invoked by a canonical hermeneutic. Here's where I have problems with Childs: by emphasizing the final form of the text, what Childs effectively displaces the authorial-intentionalist basis of Scripture's meaning. Yes, it's true that the final canonizer or redactor of a given book probably intended the narrative in that book to be representative of what really happened in space and time, and in that respect a canonical reading of Scripture (as long as it keeps its distance from becoming a readerly hermeneutic) is grounded in an alethiology of spacetime actuality. But Childs begins with a bibliology that places the authority of Scripture in its reception by the Christian community, and in how it has historically been read by that community, rather than in Scripture's function as a preserve of the apostles' testimony. This is a fatal flaw.

I'll approach it a different way: let us agree that Christianity is based on an alethiology of spacetime actuality. What does this imply about hermeneutics? It implies that the referents are what matters for meaning. (It is true that, in the narrative genre, the referential function can be allayed somewhat, but not forever.) But how do we know what the true references of Scripture are? That is a question of *meaning*. Are these references determined by the authors' intention, or are they something that arises subsequent to the author, as an aspect of Scripture's textual aspect, or of the reading moment? Here it must be said that moving from the author's intention to any other locus of meaning can only be characterized as an unseating of an original meaning (and therefore of an original reference), which of course trespasses against the alethiology of spacetime actuality that we have already accepted.

I have noticed that in circles of so-called "theological exegesis", there is a tendency to float a history-of-religions definition of "Scripture" and use it as hermeneutical criterion. But our hermeneutic should not be determined by *etic* history-of-religions definitions, but rather by *emic* Christian definitions. For the original canonizers (and as an implication of the New Testament's own understanding of apostolic authority), the authority of Christian Scripture is a function of Scripture's inscribing the apostolic witness. It is functionally prior to the community's reception of Scripture. (It may be helpful to differentiate between "authority" in the sense of that which is imbued upon a text through its moment of origination, and "authority" in the sense of something accredited to it by a receptive community.) The etic history -of-religions notion of "Scripture", when wrongly turned into a theologem by the "theological exegesis" crowd, leads to an understanding of scriptural authority as fluid substance that flows with equal pressure into all the pieces and aspects of the canon. Conversely, the emic understanding of “Scripture" implied by NT theology regards Scripture's authority as something possessing a center, which happens to be the apostolic kerygma—understood propositionally (of course), and according to the apostles’ intended references.

I hope this helps.

Phil Sumpter said...

John, I love the cheese metaphor! Thank you for your intelligent and clearly formulated comment.

I find your comment highly intriguing, as on the one hand you affirm (more or less, see qualifications below) where Childs and I are coming from, yet on other the other hand your interpretations of what Childs thinks are diametrically opposed to what he actually claims! This is even more intriguing as you have done the same with Barr (as I wrote in my comment above). I'm not sure why this is the case, but I hope I can clarify here. In the course of the thread this should all become clearer. If you still feel that Childs is in error then I look forward to your contributions!

First the qualification: the claim that truth is subjective is a claim about the way we know, not the status of the object of our knowing. There is an external reality out there which constrains our knowing, but we always know as cultured beings with our own cultural narratives. The narratives and the world views of which they are a part help us interpret 'the facts'. If, for example, a random person, publicly executed, rose from the dead, we'd all be very shocked and bemused. That doesn't however mean that we'd call him our saviour. The apostles had to fit this shocking event into a broader framework, and bit by bit it all made sense. As such, it is wrong to separate event and interpretation and even more so to locate meaning in the naked event alone. Event is important, but it is distinguishable from the witness, and it is the witness's perspective on the event which is authoritative. You yourself imply this when you emphasise 'authorial intention'. You even claim that we need to see the issue “emicly”, which automatically implies one possible perspective on a particular issue! But the witness is not the event itself, it is the presentation of the one, and one from a specific angle. That is why we have four gospels witnessing to the one Gospel. Narrative and 'subjective' interpretation are thus central categories for Christian theology.

Childs himself by no means rejects intentionality. As I mentioned in my comment above, he criticises, for example, G. Steins' postmodern “intertextual-canonical” method for ignoring intentionality (2003). For Childs it is paramount that the text has concrete 'semantic content' which 'coerces' our interpretations. The difference to your suggestion is that it is not authorial intention alone, but rather an 'expanded' intentionality which includes all the editors in between. This is not, however, to trespass against an “alethiology of space-time reality” once one recognises that fact and interpretation are not separable. It is especially relevant for the Jewish and Christian faith, which is founded on the concept of a community and the need to pass on the “witness” to future generations. The means of passing on this witness has varied, but during during Biblical times (not ours, we are post-canonization) the concept of 'God's word' was not limited to the author himself. That is seen, for example, in a quote from Zechariah 1:5, 6: “Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers?”. The reception of this word by later tradents of the tradition was not an arbitrary process, but, as Seitz puts it, an effort to “effort to release an ancient and particular word to a natural readership anticipated by the final shapers of biblical books, who themselves stand under the legacy they strain to hear, interpret, and had on” (1997: 214).

Childs also does not ignore the fact that the canon intended to preserve the apostolic witness. In fact, his embracal of this fact is central to his arguments for the priority of the MT and Hebrew canon! However, the canonical process was more than just preserving the the original witness. I quote:

“The ... struggle to define the scope of [the church's] scriptures during the next centuries was driven by several concerns. First, the function of establishing a canon was to preserve the truth of the apostolic witness upon which the faith was grounded. Second, the canon served to preserve the catholicity of the faith by establishing a parameter inside of which the church's theological diversity was acknowledged (John, Paul, Peter), yet outside of which heresy threatened. The implication of the privileged status of scripture was that its witness was not primarily formulated in terms of a single doctrinal formula, but rather as a prescribed circle designating the accepted range of confessions transmitted in the worship of historic Christian congregations (Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, etc.)” (p. 314).

Childs also explicitly rejects a history-of-religions approach to theology. It's so pervasive I don't know where to start. As the thread continues this will all become clearer.

I should add that 'canonical approach' and 'theological interpretation' are not fixed concepts, but contain a wide variety of opinions.

Please keep up your comments!

James Pate said...

Hi Phil! Welcome to the blogosphere.

It has been six years since I read Barr's Biblical Theology. The discussion above reminded me of him mocking Childs for implying that Jesus canonically was risen from the dead. I wondered about the same issues that are being discussed here: Does Childs believe that Jesus rose from the dead in literal space and time? My impression from your last post is that he believed it did happen--am I right?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response. I'm enjoying this little debate. Let me try to clarify a bit, going in order of your response.

You state that my "interpretations of what Childs thinks are diametrically opposed to what he actually claims." Yes, absolutely. That's my point. Let me explain: What Childs "actually claims" is that the Christ event matters for faith, and that it matters in terms of its relation to spacetime actuality. But then he turns around and spells out a canonical hermeneutic that implicitly invokes an alethiology that is at loggerheads with this confession of faith. In other words, Childs invokes two mutually exclusive alethiologies, one in his acceptance of the kerygma, and one in his hermeneutic, yet he doesn't realize it at all. This is what Barr means when he writes of Childs being "stuck with two theories." And this sort of conundrum is what Barr has in mind when says that biblical theologians need to be more philosophically aware.

You also write, "the claim that truth is subjective is a claim about the way we know", but therein lies the problem: truth is not about knowing, it's about being. Truth denotes the way something is, regardless of whether anyone knows it to be that way or not. I am of course aware that that truth is epistemically inaccessible in its purity, as we can only know the truth imperfectly, but that imperfection is an aspect of our knowing the truth, and not truth itself. It makes a big difference, and the fact that we cannot *know* perfectly does not mitigate the necessity of understanding that truth is *not* a subjective moment. (See my articles "The Epistemology/Alethiology Double Switch in Antifoundationalist Hermeneutics" in the *Stone-Campbell Journal* [last year, if I recall], and "Theology as a Pyramid on a Raft", forthcoming in the *Freiburger Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Philosophie*.) It is *not* "wrong to separate event and interpretation and even more so to locate meaning in the naked event alone". No—we *must* separate them. To fail to do so is philosophically (and theologically) disastrous.

Now to Childs: the fact remains, no matter how we understand him, that Childs embraces a hermeneutic in which it is possible for the meaning of a text to change. He believes that what the book of Isaiah meant when it was written is different from what it meant to the early Church, and perhaps different still from what it meant to the Church in a later age. This notion (that the meaning of a text can change) shows that Childs's hermeneutic is *not* grounded in a spacetime alethiology. Its spacetime referent did not change, so the only way its meaning could change would be for its meaning to be indexed to something other than spacetime actuality (which, of course, is what is happening with Childs: the meaning is indexed to the community’s interpretation).

You correctly note that "Childs . . . explicitly rejects a history-of-religions approach to theology". I know that. My point is that his theological understanding of the role of Scripture is based on a history-of-religions definition of what scripture is, but that he doesn't even realize it. To define the role of Scripture in terms of the community's changing testimony is to invoke the very dynamic that the original canonizers sought to insulate against, for the sake of the *emic* function of Scripture (on the terms of the Church's original bibliology of the New Testament), which was to preserve the apostles' witness. (By the way, I use *emic* to refer to a movement’s self-definition, *not* subjectivity *per se*.)

I hope this helps.

Phil Sumpter said...

John – we're really getting into the details here! I'm delighted to have you as a conversation partner as your point are well thought out and consistent. I'm especially glad to have such a thorough critique of Childs from the other end of the spectrum, namely the theological!

Unfortunately, answering each of your comments in detail would mean pre-empting my thread, which has hardly got off the ground yet. As things develop each of these issues will reappear, so perhaps there would be the best place to discuss the details of whether, for example, Childs' definition is 'history of religions' or not (honestly, I'm so glad to have someone say that, as it's quite significant that Childs doesn't do it) or whether his approach contradicts the intentions of the 'canonizers'. We seem to agree on the content of orthodox Christianity (which is a good place to start) we just have different philosophical/theological interpretations of the nature of truth and the implications that has for interpretation (I presume your 'alethiology' leads you to read the text historical-critically ... ?). However, just some brief comments and a few bibliographical references for now:

When using philosophical categories such as 'alethiology' it is important not to give them a priori definitions drawn from somewhere other then the Bible and then make the Bible fit to them. Such a move would be 'foundationalist' and thus open to various philosophical critiques.

The same goes with 'truth'. I think one valid starting point for a Christian trying to figure out the nature of truth itself (alethiology) rather than how we know truth (epistemology) is to look to Jesus, who actually quite explicitly answers the question. Pilate asks: “what is the truth?”, Jesus answers “I am the truth”. What he means by this is of course open to debate, but it's clear that 'truth' – at least the kind of truth that matters – is bound up with the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus' person encompasses more then what he said, it encompasses what he did and, more significantly for a canonical approach, what he does and what he has done throughout time. The Jesus that is the measure and guarantor of truth is the resurrected Lord of the universe who sits now at the right hand of the Father and through whom all things were made. Truth from a Christian perspective is not a detached proposition waiting to be discovered by those sufficiently shorn of their tradition, it is the ongoing process of being led by the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ – something God has been doing with his people, progressively, since the calling of Abraham. The Word of God is the mediator of this truth. This word is more significant then the prophets and apostles who witnessed to it, it 'overtook' them to speak to a new generation. It is the Word that is generative if the interpretations which received it. Christian (and scriptural) truth partakes in this kind of truth, and not just a form of historical referentiality in which the meaning of an event is exhausted by the interpretations of those who first witnessed to it (I fail to grasp, by the way, how an event can have any meaning apart from those who witness to it. Meaning is not intrinsic to events, and if it is – I'd like to know how that works in practice. NT Wright's introduction in 'The New Testament and the People of God' is good for this).

Such an approach would also have problems coming to terms with a modern appropriation of allegory, which is constitutive for Christian exegesis.

In sum, I think you're working with a far too rigorous definition of truth. Although it may be found in certain parts of the NT, I find it hard to imagine that such a diverse body of writings can be reduced to one alethiology. Not only that, and this is foundational to Childs' thought, authoritative Christian Scripture which is binding for our faith does not consist in the NT alone (see point 3 in my post). Scripture consists of two testaments, the Old and the New, both of which are of equal value in their witness to the 'truth' (whether statically, propositionally, dynamically, or relationally conceived – that's a subsidiary consideration). We thus are obliged to ask about an Old Testament alethiology and integrate that into our overall system. It isn't the case that the entire Old Testament can be reduced to a 'testimony about concrete events' (e.g. wisdom literature). This is something that even von Rad began to realize at the end of his career.

The Bible (and tradition) confesses to a 'dialectical' understanding of history, where a tension is expressed between ordinary and divine events, between and inner and outer dimension, or between a confessional and secular perception. Christian theology must learn to hold these two in tension, rather the go to the extreme of saying that all there is is event and meaning coheres in it, regardless of how that event was interpreted, either by the prophets or their spiritual offspring.

Please keep up your comments. I deeply appreciate what you have to say. You could be my spiritual 'gadfly', constantly reminding me to stay true to the authentic apostolic witness!

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks James,

I think 'mocking' would be a good way to describe Barr's approach to Childs. He's been taken up a number of times for his ad hominem attacks. Seitz claims that his criticism is often nothing more then the claim that Childs has a personality disorder (e.g. in his The Concept of Biblical Theology, p. 401) and calls it one of the more embarrassing chapters in modern biblical studies. Brueggemann, in his essay “James Barr on Old Testament Theology”, describes Barr as an academic terrorist and even tries to find a psychological explanation!

That is, however, to go into a form of ad hominem myself. Barr needs to be evaluated on the basis of his own proposals.

As for Childs' belief in a literal (NT Wrightian, Apostolic Creedal) resurrection: most emphatically yes! It is what hold him back from more postmodern approaches which claim that “there is no Yhwh outside of the text” (to quote Brueggemann alluding to Derrida – though I think Brueggemann has an interesting take on this). He's more into hermeneutics and theology, so he doesn't spend time trying to argue for it (though I haven't read his book on the New Testament as Canon yet, maybe he says more on it there ). That it is central, however, for his approach, can be seen in this quote (in reference to Barr's The Bible as Literature):

"It is one thing to suggest that biblical scholars have not adequately resolved the problem of biblical referentiality; it is quite another to suggest that it is a non-issue. Moreover, I would argue that the attempt of many literary critics to by-pass the problem of biblical reality and refuse to distinguish between the text and the reality of its subject matter severely cripples the enterprise of Biblical Theology. It is basic to Christian theology to reckon with an extra-biblical reality, namely with the resurrected Christ who evoked the New Testament witness.” (1992: 20)

John Poirier's point is that Childs is inconsistent in his methodology. I hope that we will soon find this out in the course of our thread.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the need to move on, so I'll make this short. Two points: first, even if we decide, up front, that the word "truth" should denote something other than propositional accuracy, that would not make the alethiological conundrum that I have outlined go away. The problem would still be there--we would just have to find a different word to describe it. Concepts cannot be made to evaporate just by tumbling them from their terminological containers. Second, I don't agree that every alethiology that can be found in one or another section of Scripture belongs in a sort of package of competing alethiologies to be simultaneously affirmed by the Church. As I see it, the Church is based upon the apostolic kerygma--Scripture, whose primary function is simply to preserve the apostles' testimony, is second to that. Anything in Scripture that does not invoke the same alethiology as the kerygma must be read annalistically at best. This is why Barr insists that Christianity is not a scriptural religion in the same sense in which Judaism is. (That means, of course, that I don't accept your insistence that the Church must embrace allegory. That it historically *has* embraced allegory is really beside the point.)

Phil Sumpter said...

Fascinating! I won't respond on the condition that you promise to contribute further.

stc said...

• John:
When I say "alethiology of spacetime actuality", what I mean is a theory of truth in which being "true" is a matter of being the case in spacetime (*viz.* in extratextual reality). Conversely, an "alethiology of storytime actuality" is a theory of truth in which being "true" is a matter of being congruent with a texted narrative.

I realize that you didn't invent these terms, but allow me to point out that they are prejudicial. Spacetime actuality is a phrase designed to elicit an "Amen!" Storytime actuality implies that Childs is just telling stories of the sort we tell to small children at storytime. Surely the counterpart to Spacetime actuality should be canonical actuality or narrative actuality or some such.

Personally, I'm attracted to Walter Brueggemann's view of scripture (though I'm only just getting acquainted with it). Brueggemann would begin by observing that the only access we have to God is via the text. It may be true that the referents of scripture are what matter. But the referents are not directly available to us.

As a result, we are thrown back on the text. To a limited extent, critical scholarship can tell us how the text has been altered in transmission. But ultimately we are left with Israel's testimony, which itself is an interpretation of the spacetime realities.

I would also argue that St. Paul, for example, goes well beyond merely describing spacetime events. That Jesus died and was raised — those are spacetime events. (Though some would declare that the resurrection is outside of history.) That Jesus "was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification" — there Paul goes beyond a description of spacetime events into an interpretation of those events.

We never access the events themselves, but only the biblical interpretation of the events. Hence the importance of emphasizing the primacy of the canon or the text, rather than the spacetime events themselves.

Whatever "alethiology" we adopt, it must take respond to the fact of the inaccessibility of the spacetime events.

• Phil:
I have to tell you that I find white text on a black screen very hard on the eyes. It's probably OK if you're young, but by the time you reach your forties — I wasn't able to follow the thread through to the end because it was downright painful for me.

Brueggemann often refers to Childs's canonical approach, sometimes in solidarity with Childs and sometimes sharply criticizing him. I'll be keeping an eye on your blog to see what I can learn from you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, Stephen. (I won't call you "Q", since I don't believe in Q.)

You write, "I realize that you didn't invent these terms", but actually I did. (I'm not proud of them. I realize they sound high-fallutin', but I use them because they cut to the chase.) I don't think they're prejudicial. If "spacetime actuality" elicits an "Amen", it's really an echo of the same "Amen" that Paul elicited in 1 Corinthians 15. "Storytime actuality" is aimed at those already familiar with the ways in which "story" and "narrative" are used in modern theology. I apologize for any confusion the terms might cause.

So, you're more into Brueggemann. I personally have problems with his views, which I find too trendy for my taste. Does Brueggemann really say that "the only access we have to God is via the text?" (I would think we have access to God more directly, through the Spirit.) Or does he mean access in an epistemic sense, as in accessing accounts of how God has interacted with history?

As for "the referents . . . not [being] directly available to us": that's certainly true, but only in a hermeneutically trivial sense. In other words, it's true of every text, so if we're going to problematize our access to biblical referents, why not also problematize our access to telephone numbers in the phone book, or real estate listings in the news paper? In short, I think that Brueggemann makes too much of this.

But I also think that at the bottom of Brueggemann's proposal might be the idea that the text somehow mediates God's presence. This is an idea that appears in some streams of Christianity (and was defended by Telford Work in his book), but I don't think it is supported by anything in the Bible itself.

stc said...

Hi, John:
"Storytime actuality" is aimed at those already familiar with the ways in which "story" and "narrative" are used in modern theology.

My apologies, I thought that was Barr's language.

"Story" is used as a theological category; but "storytime" is not. "Storytime" is used in kindergarten classes as an activity for toddlers. I think the term is dismissive, and you would do better to let your partners in dialogue choose terminology that they consider apt, instead of imposing a label on them.

Does Brueggemann really say that "the only access we have to God is via the text?" (I would think we have access to God more directly, through the Spirit.)

That's what he says. In the sidebar of my blog, I have a fairly lengthy quote to that effect from Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament.

I don't know what Brueggemann's view is with respect to the role of the Holy Spirit. But I think we would all agree that any revelation from the Spirit must be checked against the biblical text, or at least explored over against the biblical text in a dialectic process. So ultimately we are still thrown back upon the text.

As for "the referents … not [being] directly available to us": that's certainly true, but only in a hermeneutically trivial sense. In other words, it's true of every text.

Brueggemann might agree with you there, though I'm not sure; postmodernists certainly problematize all texts.

But I can readily verify the referent of a phone number by dialing it and seeing who answers. It's much harder to verify historical referents; for example, what do we reliably know about Socrates? Invisible spirit beings are another step removed from us!

It's odd that you say the problem is hermeneutically trivial, because scholars have been grappling with it for a couple hundred years now. The whole question of the historical Jesus, for example, and what we are to believe about him if the texts are inaccurate, in whole or in part. The problem arises precisely because Jesus is immediately present to us, but always unmediated via the New Testament (and apocryphal?) texts.

You haven't responded to my point that the Bible doesn't merely describe, but always interprets the spacetime events for us. Scholars initially thought they could strip away the legendary accretions about Jesus (or Jeremiah, or whomever) and reconstruct an "objective" history; alas, it turns out not to be possible.

I also think that at the bottom of Brueggemann's proposal might be the idea that the text somehow mediates God's presence. This is an idea that appears in some streams of Christianity … but I don't think it is supported by anything in the Bible itself.

Again, I am reluctant to speak for Brueggemann because I'm not certain what he would say.

But how about the prologue to John's Gospel? I realize that logos there refers to Jesus, but it is of course a sort of double entendre. God has made himself known through the Law, through the "word" that came to the Hebrew prophets, and ultimately through the Word incarnate.

Each of these successive revelations has ultimately been reduced to a text. God is known to us only through Israel's testimony, which is available to us only (or at least primarily) via the biblical texts. If this perspective reduces to "storytime", then we might as well believe in the Easter bunny, or Thomas the Tank.

stc said...

Oops, I goofed in typing the following paragraph:

The problem arises precisely because Jesus is not immediately present to us, but always mediated via the New Testament (and apocryphal?) texts.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thank you very much for your comments, both of you. I sincerely look forward to hearing from you in the future. Stephen, I found your emphasis on the 'texual' nature of Scripture very important, as well the your comments on interpretation and referentiality. Brueggemann will come up soon in my discussions as he and Childs clashed a number of times. I think he's great, though I think one must learn how to handle him as he can be 'dangerous' (which would be a compliment for him, of course!). As for the black background, I turned it to white for a day but I found it hurt my aesthetic! I don't know why, but the black is really important to me. I've scanned through the other colours but they just won't do ... Could you forgive my weakness and perhaps read in small doses or copy and paste? It'd be a shame to not have your Brueggemannian insights.

John, please keep up your comments. I didn't get the impression that “storytime” was a pejorative term. I think reading it next to “spacetime” guards against that. I have to say, I find it hard to imagine how you would implement you approach to Scripture (I assume it is Scripture for you, and not just a dead document from the past). Perhaps as we get into the nitty-gritty of the discussion the details can come out.

Finally, I recommend you both read Scott Robert's comments above in my 'alethiology' post. I found them very helpful.
Oh, one more thing, a great quote I've pinched from Bob's blog Sufficiency:

“The first work of the flesh is the desire to be right. When this work fails, in our impatience, we can easily succumb to the use of power to achieve it. May it not be that the will to power motivates our serious love of words.”

He has some interesting thoughts on God and knowing.

Phil Sumpter said...

I forgot to add that Stephen's point is nicely expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures".

I think the words in italics have fascinating implications for John's statement above:

"As I see it, the Church is based upon the apostolic kerygma--Scripture, whose primary function is simply to preserve the apostles' testimony, is second to that."

Anonymous said...

Hello again Phil. To the other converstation partners, too, I have been pleased to find and follow this thread. I realize it is late, but I can't resist weighing in on the point of Childs vs Barr.

John, you are absolutely right that Barr's criticisms of Childs need to be weighed despite the fact that he "vitiates his own potentially formidable case against Childs" (to quote from Jon Levenson's insightful review of Concept, available at On my reading there's a really basic disagreement at the root of that debate.

In an article in the early 1980s Barr wrote of "Bibelkritik als theologische Aufklärung." (I find it interesting that Barton cites this piece above all in his newest book, which is dedicated to Barr's memory.) Childs on the other hand is persuaded by Hans Frei's Eclipse on the nature of criticism's rupture with pre-critical exegesis. Hence the series of article-length exchanges between Barr and Childs has to do with the place of figural reading—the literal and the allegorical senses.

They are often talking past one another. That's a basic point. Barr's paradigm, and he is far from alone, begins with the Enlightenment as, in some basic sense, the true heritage of the Reformation. Childs in contrast looks to find a "family resemblance" in the entire tradition. A great deal of what Barr says against Childs can be explained as a refusal to accept Childs' bid to investigate the unity of scripture's effects. (A book like The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture is much more than just Wirkungsgeschichte. It's an effort to perceive the unity of the Church in its exegesis.)

I have a chapter in my dissertation arguing why Barr's claim that Childs is "stuck with two theories" should not be accepted. The claim is based on an erroneous reading of Childs' work, to start with. And it's won an amazing amount of support—first by Barton, and then in different degrees by Mark Brett, Paul Noble, William Lyons, and to a lesser extent even Georg Steins. I think the "bipolar" Childs thesis—Barr acutally uses that word in 1980, and then argues that case at length from 1983—is the single biggest obstacle to a balanced assessment of Childs' work.

The follow-up point, which I have tried to sketch here, is that the motivation for Barr's criticism stems from a different understanding of the Enlightenment. Unlike Childs, he does not see that much of significance was lost in its advent.

Anonymous said...


I'm glad to learn of your work on Childs.

I would be grateful if you could explain the sense in which you believe Barr misreads Childs, and why the charge of Childs being "stuck with two theories" doesn't stick. (Actually, I'd be interested in reading your whole dissertation at some point.) How does Childs get out of that charge if in fact (1) Childs accepts the historicality of the Christ event as a *sine qua non* for the validity of the Christian religion, and (2) he also accepts that the meaning of the text can change according to how it is interpreted by the Christian community? I don't see how one can have it both ways. If the meaning of the text is held to be *true* (and in the case of a religious text I assume that that is always the case), and if *truth* is defined as obtaining spacetime actuality (as with the events numbered in the kerygma), then how can the meaning of a text change?

Anonymous said...


The answer has something to do with Childs' views on biblical referentiality. (Mark Brett isn't bad on this, as it happens.) Childs is compelled to give an answer to the historical problem of the Bible's formation, which has proved to be a durable problem since the rise of the critical method, and at the same time to understand how God (indeed, even Christ) can be the true referent of the Christian Bible. From very eary on, in the 60s if not the 50s, Childs uses the term res to try to talk about the content of the scriptural witness.

It's important to bear in mind who Childs is writing for. He levels a critique of critical biblical scholarship, but as an insider, trained in that very method and fully convinced of some of its results. I suspect that from his persepctive a text's changing meaning in Christian interpretation is an historic reality, a problem to use that word again, which a "theory" of inspiration's truth doesn't solve by itself. (He sometimes talks this way.) I think it's important for him to have an answer that arises out of a good historical understanding of Scripture, one that is informed by a rule of faith, but one that also does justice to the intentionality of the text. (Enter his argument for the shaping of the canon. Phil, see C. Dohmen's work on this if you don't know it already. He offers the clearest example in the literature of someone who buys this argument, and tries to comes to terms with its implications. And it's in German!)

That is, the other side of the changing of interpretation is the Bible's interpretation of itself. Aware of the kind of paralax view we get of the decalogue, for instance, or of creation, or what have you, Childs has to reckon with a measure of plurality in the witnesses. God in Christ can be affirmed as the true referent, but not to the exclusion of the discreet witnesses. At the most fundamental level a biblical understanding of truth has to account for a double witness, Old and New.

Childs is not as clear as one might like on the question of inspiration, I'll grant you that. Stephen Chapman has an excellent discussion of this very thing in the Canon and Biblical Interpretation volume edited by Bartholomew et al. My point is simply that there are historical problems which call for an explanation, and which complicate ideas like "truth" or "intentionality" to a certain degree.

All this takes us some distance from Barr. Resuming that point, I'd want to add that the "bipolar" Childs he finds is different from the one you're describing. Barr sees a Childs who speaks in historical terms, sometimes, but starts from a fundamentally dogmatic position, and thus falsifies a proper historical understanding. Or something like that.

My argument with Barr's reading is that it is not consistent on its own terms, and thus does not amount to a coherent critique of Childs. In 1999 Barr disallows "pan-biblical theology" (gesamtbiblische Theologie, taken from Oeming), and gets after Childs for attempting it in 1992. He even calls the book “a fundamentally biblicistic illusion" (Crisis, 252). Barr seems—though it is not always clear he's consistent, see Levenson again—to want biblical theology only in the sense of theology contained in the Bible. Thus there can be no congruity between the Old and New. I don't think Barr is right, though, that Childs has fled the historical problem and retreated into a Barthian dogmatism. I find no evidence that Barr understands the way in which Childs has argued for a ruled understanding in historical terms.

This is way too much to summarize here, sorry. See forthcoming in 2009, pending viva in early 2008 and subsequent book contract.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your response.

I see an overarching problem that threatens to have us talking past one another: you seem to speak of Christ being "present" to us as an epistemic activity. But being present isn't epistemic at all. The New Testament speaks quite clearly about Christ being present to the Church through the Spirit. (This doctrine is called "spirit christology", and it has been discussed quite a bit in the past 10-20 years. See esp. Mehrdad Fatehi's monograph on the subject.) The New Testament never (as far as I know) speaks of the text as mediating Christ's presence. This is an idea that arose much later.

The frequency with which this confusion exists today, of course, is due to the popularity (esp. within Anglo-American theology) of a revelational theological paradigm. Again, I take Barr's side on this issue. The revelational theology paradigm, which springs mostly from Barth, is (from a biblical standpoint) a mistake: biblical theology is does *not* use revelation as an organizng principle in the way Barth does.

We really need to guard against the undue epistemizing of non-epistemic categories, and the notion of Christ's presence is another one of those. In fact, the idea that the text mediates presence, if grasped from the reader's end, is potentially docetic, as it allows someone or something to be "present" without even existing in spacetime. (Is Christ made "present" to me by the biblical text in the same way that Captain Ahab is made present to me by *Moby Dick*?)

Also, I don’t think the fact that Bible interprets events, rather than presents them objectively, is really a problem at all. The historicality of the events that the gospel is grounded in is what validates Christianity, and the biblical interpretation of those events is the one that I am called to accept as a Christian. Whether I am constrained to go with this or that interpretation of non-kerygmatic events, of course, varies with respect to what is at issue.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Daniel, for your response, but I'm afraid it doesn't answer the problems I have with Childs. If "intentionality of the text" means something different from the intention of the writers (and from the way in which it facilitates the idea of evolving meaning, it obviously does), the problem is still there.

When you write that Childs tries to understand how God or Christ "can be the true referent of the Christian Bible", does the implicit claim that there is something problematic about this mean that we are dealing with the Western philosophical idea that God is so totally other that God cannot be the object of reference? That is certainly a pseudo-problem at best: there's nothing problematic about naming God (or Christ) as the referent of the Bible, or indeed of any statement.

Also, when you write "I suspect that from his perspective a text's changing meaning in Christian interpretation is an historic reality", I have to wonder why you put it that way. Certainly the fact that the community reads the text differently from how it used to does not imply in any way that the real meaning of the text has changed--unless, of course, one assumes at the outset that meaning is a readerly or communal-readerly commodity. And if that's what Childs assumes, then quite clearly we have, in stark outline, the very problem of "being stuck with two theories" that I've been talking about. That brings up the further question: Is Childs motivated here by a misplaced faith in the doctrine of ecclesial indefectibility, so that what the community believes must always be right?

Your paragraph that begins "That is, the other side . . ." harbors what I think are a number of mistaken starting points, which I have long realized to belong to Childs. Why must the plurality of biblical understandings of this or that lead to the notion that Christianity must embrace an alethiology that can account for them all in an affirming (rather than merely annalistic) fashion? Why not begin from that which the apostles affirmed as the center of the Christian faith--the kerygmatic narrative that Christ died, was buried, rose again, ascended to heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit? That must be the starting point for any Christian theology, and the rest of our theology must crystallize around that, both as to its content and as to its ground of truth. Barr addressed this, as you know, when he notes that the Christian religion is not a scriptural religion in the same way that Judaism is. I thus think that Barr's difficulty with a "panbiblical theology" actually follows from a properly (i.e. emically) constructed Christian theology of the Bible.

I don't have my Barr books in front of me, so I don't know precisely how Barr means "biblicistic", but if he means "biblicistic" as over against "primitivistic", I certainly agree with his sentiment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John, for your engagement. I apprecaite the clarification. I doubt very seriously whether we will persuade one another in this forum, each of us being invested in somewhat different ways of approaching these issues. It would be interesting to know more of your background and training. I will be enough if our positions are better understood, I think. To that end, I pick up your latest remarks.

Is this the idea that God is so totally other? No. Calling Christ the referent of the Bible gets tricky when we start talking about the Old Testament. Jews deny this as a rule, as do strict historicists. Barr (since we have been speaking of him) falls in the latter camp. I imagine you do as well. We could call this the standard position.

What Childs noticed, helped in part by Frei, is that the standard position before the enlightenment held Christ to be the referent of the OT—hence the entire Christian Bible. This is largely so from Paul down to Calvin. Calvin is a particularly interesting case because of his resistance to allegorical readings. Nevertheless, for him, Christ remained the literal sense of the OT.

(There's a great dialogue, little noticed in the lit, involving Childs and Frei at a Yale colloquium in 1969, occasioned by K. Barth's death in late 1968. Frei says basically that—for Calvin the literal sense of the OT was Christ, but soon the Bible's literal sense was eclipsed by its historical sense. Childs says "That's exactly right." Then the student, who asked the question, says "What?" This is non-standard stuff we're talking about. As I have heard Chris Seitz say on occasion—there are two types of scholars, those who have read Frei's Eclipse, and those who have not.)

Childs takes the view that the historical sense of scripture does not equal the literal sense of scripture. This puts him at odds most biblical scholars today, and quite a few theologians. You used the word "annalistic," and I can't tell whether this is in the reconstructive sense or not. I suspect not. There is also, as you are aware, a picture of the Bible's historical referent which is radically at odds with its own ostensive presentation. This is much more the context which gives rise to Childs' work, and to which he is responding.

Your question 2: Why not start with start with the kerygmatic narrative that Christ died, rose, ascended, sent? Ironically, Childs comes to take this view after wrestling with the significance of "midrash"—and the question of whether the NT is a midrash of the OT. Early he considered that terminology, but for a variety of reasons he later adopts the emphatic view that the NT is not a midrash of the OT, but that its defining impetus is the Christ event—kerygma for lack of a better word.

There is, however, a fundamental fact which is not considered in this context as often as it might be, namely, that the authors of the NT had no other scripture that the OT, the Scriptures of Israel. (Rolf Rendtorff makes this point nicely, but the credit for making the case in detail goes to Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible/Die Entstehung…—like Frei's, another before and after book.) Hence when Paul says Christ died according to the scriptures, and was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, what we call the Old Testament is in view. How on earth can Paul say this if a merely annalistic account of the OT, a la Barr, is the order of the day?

Thus even if, with the apostles, you take the kerygma as the center of the faith, you still have the difficult problem of how the Christ event accords with the Hebrew Bible, and then the secondary problem of how for us the Bible functions as a two testament canon, Old and New.

The several issues have a long and complicated history, and unfortunately for those of us in the Anglo-Saxon world most of the best discussion of late is still in German.

I do wish you would drop the "two theories" line. For one thing, as I said before, Barr means something different by it than you do. For another, it is incredibly easy to saddle Childs with the charge of incoherence. It takes a bit more patience to recognize the plausibility in (or if not that the need for) his proposal for biblical scholarship, even if in the end one finds that he was perhaps too ambitious, that he could paint with too large a brush.

I do not deny that there are difficulties. Anymore these almost inhere in the discipline, inasmuch as it is possible to speak of such a thing.

Anonymous said...

PS. John, I need to emphasize how much I enjoy discussing this here. Not many know Childs and Barr as well as you seem to. We should have prizes just for making it to the end of Concept.

Mostly I just wanted to say that before you read the above. I also looked back over this enormous thread. Way up at the top you said:

For the original canonizers (and as an implication of the New Testament's own understanding of apostolic authority), the authority of Christian Scripture is a function of Scripture's inscribing the apostolic witness. It is functionally prior to the community's reception of Scripture.

My basic point in the last comment is that, chronologically speaking, a body of scripture (if not quite yet our OT) is prior even to the apostolic witness. It functioned along side of the apostles then, and it continues to function so now that their witness has been inscribed in the NT. The scripture / kerygma option is a false one.


Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks again for your fascinating contributions. I really have to hold myself back from responding, as I think the proper place to discuss the important issues that John Poirier (without the 't' – sorry!) raises is in the requisite posts (i.e. authorial intentionality, God as referent, ecclesial indefectibility). I'm pretty much going to take us through Childs' entire approach via the structure of the six family resemblances in the main post. It's a tad ambitious, but hey, if you don't aim high you won't get as far as you could.

John, perhaps you could raise the criticism again in time (unless you are already convinced by Daniel's response ...).

Daniel, I've set myself the task of reading The Eclipse for my up and coming Herbstferien. You're right about the ambitiousness of Childs – I think that's what makes him so fascinating and so worth reading, i.e. the utter comprehensiveness of his proposal. How do I get to read this exchange with Frei at the 1969 colloquium, by the way?

Oh, and John, if you have the time and inclination, I would recommend Seitz's article “In Accordance with the Scriptures”: Creed, Scripture, and “Historical Jesus”, pp. 51 – 60 in his 1998 book Word Without End. The issues you raise are discussed there to a degree, especially you insistence on the kerygma as a Christian's theological starting point. This gets tied to his “Hermeneutic of Estrangement Overcome” and a fascinating journey starts which takes us to the significance of the final form.

I think I need to find a synonym for 'fascinating'.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your continued engagement of these issues. Phil wants this to continue in the comments section of newer posts, but I'll briefly answer a couple of your concerns. I'm glad to hear that you (or rather Childs) is not making hay from the idea of God being beyond reference (as if metaphysics could affect linguistic functions). You put the difficulty of reference in the idea of the Old Testament not referring to Christ, at least at the level at which historians (like myself) read it. As you say, this is the overarching problem for Childs. My response is that, yes, it's a tough pill to swallow, but swallow we must if we are to embrace the kerygma as our starting point. I, for one, am quite willing to say that the New Testament writers misread the Old Testament if in fact that is that is the view that my starting point drives me to embrace. I think that Christian scholars are far more scandalized by this than they should be--as scholars, we are quick to grant that the NT writers had deficient views of this or that (e.g., how many Christians would embrace the ritual purity laws that Paul imposes upon the Corinthians in 1 Cor 7:5?), and since it is transparent that the NT writers (as Jews) would have been trained to use the Old Testament in a prooftexting (if not midrashic) way (and certainly would have perceived the rhetorical mileage they would gain from that), then why should we have a difficulty imagining that they used it in ways that don't necessarily conform to the alethiology of the Christian faith itself (and should thus be consigned to the dustbin)? I'm of the view that a mature faith should be ready to say things like that.

You ask about my "background and training". In light of the foregoing, it might interest you that I was "trained" at Duke. (My doctorate, however, is from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.) While at Duke, I encountered for the first time this bizarre thing called narrative theology. My eyes have been rolling ever since. The fact that intelligent people were taking that stuff seriously so much affected me that I dropped out of school for a year, just to take it in. That was fifteen years ago, and I've been trying ever since to see if there's any possible way for the alethiology of narrative theology to be compossible with the alethiology of the apostolic kerygma, and I've concluded, over and over, that there isn't. Naturally, I have the same problem with Childs's canonical approach.

So I guess I was really self-trained, since I certainly didn't take over the views of my teachers. (I didn't get my views from Barr's books, either. I came to them before I ever read Barr.)

That said, I have to say that I still don't see how anything you've said so far presents an "out" from the alethiological conundrum that I have traced. If indeed you have tried to relate that to me, and I'm just too thick-headed to see it, I hope that in the future you would try again, as I'm still of the view that the problem is irreducible.

And regarding what Seitz says about those who have read Frei, and those who have not: Is he of the view that everyone who has read Frei agrees with him?

As for your wish that I would drop the "two theories" line: I'll happily do that if it should turn out, as you say, that Barr means it differently. (I'm in the middle of moving, so I won't be able to check the reference for a little while.) In it's place, I'll use the term that Hal Childs throws at Dom Crossan: he charges him with having a "split ontology".

If indeed I do find it too "easy to saddle Childs with the charge of incoherence", I would seek illumination only on the one issue of his alethiology. Does it short circuit or not? I can't see how it possibly could not.

Please keep up the banter, either here or in another post! If I’m wrong about these things, I desperately need to know.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, John. I'm for moving up to a new thread soon. I'm also going to have to think about your alethiology point a bit more—like Phil, its a new concept to me. Is the Alehiology post above the best place to track this in the present context? Exactly how does it apply to BSC, in your view?

Quick responses:

*With Seitz and Childs, I don't think the NT's use of the Old gets at the heart of the problem. There's a more basic question about the status of the OT as Christian Scripture. Something much more sophisticated than biblicism is called for, yet one has to account for the prophets with the apostles. I gave this point my best shot above—it's an effort to turn the usual approach (well represented at Duke and indeed in the NT guild in general) upside down. For another day.

*As Phil said above, Childs distances himself from the narrative theology crowd, and for good reason. Despite som affinities he shouldn't be equated with that school.

*Seitz: Yeah, probably. Childs differs from Frei as from other narrative theologians, but not on the point of something big being lost in "pre-critical" exegesis.

*You're right that I haven't responded to the aletheology question as such yet, in part because I don't see the force of it yet. I'd appreciate some further direction (see top).

Also, my wife and I moved this weekend too, and I'm putting of some important deadlines to blog here. I'll try to keep it up, but it may call for some delays.

Phil Sumpter said...

Why is everyone moving house? Your comments are like gold dust to me!

I personally think John's focus on alethiology is an attmept to find unity in the bible at the level of a particular philosophical definition of truth, culled from the New Testament, or rather certiain dominant New Testament voices, which then function as a canon within the canon (so that that which falls outside becomes 'annal' rather then 'witness'). This, I believe, would contrast with Childs who locates this unity within the 'divine reality' itself, vague and irreducible and best summarised in that mix of narrative and ontology which is the creed or rule of faith. The kind of move I think John is attempting (along with most in the NT guild) is best described in Childs' chapters on the move "from witness to subject matter" in his Biblical Theology. Seitz does a brilliant job on this in his 2006 article, which should be compulsory reading in all insitutions where the Bible is opened. But all this will come up once we get onto point 2: "Scripture's spiritual and literal sense".

Anonymous said...

" And, whatever you do, *don't* read Barr through the eyes of Childs, as he completely misunderstood Barr's point (as did Paul Noble and Christopher Seitz)"

I'm assuming you would add Brueggeman to this list too since he refutes Barr's critque of Childs?