Wednesday, 31 October 2007

"Ecclesial Context": Brueggemann vs Childs

As Stephen makes his second post on the Childs/Brueggemann debate (clearly taking Brueggemann's side), I make my first. Our common text is Childs' review article of Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament, in which Childs castigates Brueggemann and Brueggemann responds eloquently. My point of entry for evaluating this short dialogue is their common use of the phrase "ecclesial context". Though they both insist that they are taking this context seriously, they understand the phrase very differently. As such, the two talk past each other, and Brueggemann fails to register the full force of Childs' critique.

I should point out that I'm reading this dialogue in light of my broader understanding of Childs' work. He has another shot at Brueggemann in ch. 17 of his The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, as well as pp. 313 - 317, which you can, amazingly, read for free here! Thanks again to Daniel for this.

Both Childs and Brueggemann are concerned about the theological function of the Bible within the church. They agree that the text is confessional, in that it is a testimony to God, and that it is the duty of the church to submit itself to this testimony. As such, the context of their reading is in some sense "ecclesial": interpretation by the church and for the church. But how do they understand the relationship of the Church to its Scriptures?

For Brueggemann, the church represents the contemporary context within which interpreters are situated. It is the reality out of which we do our interpretation. For Brueggemann, this reality becomes the framework that determines how the text should be read theologically. The reality of the church is a broken one, marked by competing interpretations as different elements make their bids for power. Theological interpretation, then, should highlight the 'little', marginalised texts and give them a voice, such that they subvert the dominating texts of the Bible.

Childs, on the other hand, emphasises the church as the addressee of the text. God is the source of the Bible's word, and He wants to communicate with us. The direction of movement is different for Childs. Instead of moving from church to text, he emphasises the move from text to church. Theological interpretation is a response to a prior word which comes from the outside and which constrains our interpretations, pointing us in a certain direction.

In reality, the two scholars recognise both realms: Childs talks of interpretation as a dialectic between tradition and text, Brueggemann talks of the ability of the text to broaden our horizons and help us imagine new possibilities. But I think that ultimately Brueggemann's approach doesn't do justice to the confessional nature of the text before us nor the demands of Christian theology. I think that their differences, and ultimately Brueggemann's weakness, has to do with their starting points.

Let me explain.

Brueggemann's starting point is anthropocentric. He looks at the church, diagnoses its condition, and prescribes a hermeneutic that he believes will enable the Bible to speak to the church. A broken church needs a broken text, one which reflects the reality of our daily experience. His hermeneutic takes this context as its starting point. He constantly refers to this context as "church practice", "the reading among serious believing communities", "the drama of liturgy" and "the pastoral reality of the church". Just as we experience both God's presence and absence, Brueggemann seeks to do justice to these conflicting testimonies in the text. This conflict is his central organising metaphor, as he allocates each position to an unresolvable dialectic between 'core' and 'counter testimony'. Just as our daily experience is contradictory, so the texts are contradictory, and necessarily so, because for Brueggemann it is dangerous to be certain about anything. The irresolvable tension between texts would seem to be God's way of ensuring that we never come to a standstill. Instead, the Bible functions in the church as the place to which we constantly come to be deconstructed and reminded of our particularity.

How does one evaluate Brueggemann? Instead of asking whether the 'lived reality' of the church is really all that bad (I think it is), we should ask whether his proposal theologically lives up to the kerygmatic nature of the texts he is interpreting and the the core beliefs that constitute Christianity.

Childs has provided a challenge to Brueggemann on these points, and offers an alternative which would aim to be 'theocentric' in focus. Rather than the Bible being an inert object, subject to the will of interpreters seeking texts they deems relevant, the Bible has traditionally been understood to be a vehicle of God's communication to the Church from the outside. There is a 'theocentric' force which exerts coercion on its readers, who are quickened by the Holy Spirit. Faithful interpretation involves a response to this theocentric force. The challenge of “wrestling with Scripture” lies in the struggle to acquire the capacity to receive its message. Yet this requires that there is a "semantic" given, something within the text which the reader discovers and submits to. This in fact constitutes the Bible's nature as 'scripture' and is safeguarded by its canonical shape.

Childs backs up his traditional understanding with claims about the nature of the text itself. The texts were formed with the intention "of serving communities of Israel as an authoritative guide of faith and practice". This 'canonical intentionality' involved a shaping of the traditions and texts in a profoundly hermeneutic way. The new literary contexts served to guide future generations into a deeper understanding of their God and his will. Thus, certain traditions were forced into the background and others highlighted; some were placed in contrast, others blended together. However one reconstructs the stages of development, the shaping activity was confessional, such that the structure of the final form of the text provides the boundaries in which the kerygma may be heard. The final form should be submitted to not because it is 'better' or more original or even more profound per se, but because it was designed to function as a critical norm for the community of faith on how the tradition functions authoritatively for future generations of the faithful.

Brueggemann's response to this is revealing for how much he sticks to his anthropocentric starting point. Rather than arguing that these canonical constraints do not exist, he reiterates the fact that 'in the lived reality' of the church mistakes can be made, limitations reached, and suppression practiced. As such, he believes that Childs proposal is, by definition, only one more subjective construal of the facts. By claiming that this is the way the Bible functions, Childs is apparently assuming at the outset that he is right, reinforcing his 'imaginative construal' with the rhetoric of 'canonicity'.

But this response simply serves to reify Brueggemann's own position to a point beyond reproach. It is to take an anthropological description of human fallibility and elevate it into a norm for critiquing theological claims about the way God communicates, despite our infallibility. Childs does not deny the fallible human reality that Brueggmann describes, but he nevertheless claims that there is a voice graciously speaking through that weakness and he proffers his response. The validity of his response should be tested in light of its coherency with the text of the Bible and the kerygma of the early church, before it is rejected as just another 'imaginative construal' among others and not a faithful response to the God of creation. In short, it seems as if Brueggemann makes theology out of social observation rather than out of a first order commitment to scripture.

If Childs' suggestions concerning the nature of the biblical testimony are correct, then it would seem that Brueggemann has done that for which he has accused his historical critical predecessors. That is, he deconstructs the biblical presentation in order to realign it it along another, foreign axis, in this case the axis of core vs counter testimony. This is, of course, to change the message that the Bible communicates. In addition to that, it would seem that the identity of the God of Brueggemann's Bible takes on a very different form. In his system, there can be no move beyond the surface of the text to its true subject matter, which is God in Christ. The God of the Bible is forever unknowable as he is unstable and capricious, something before which the only appropriate response is confusion. It is here, in the identity of the God to which the Bible witnesses, that we see how high are the theological stakes in this discussion.

I'm painfully aware that this summary is overly simplistic. I invite all and sundry to be open to me and tell me I'm missing the point, or that I'm being illogical, or even that I'm on the right track. I'm still learning and appreciate a bit of feedback.
Update: Stephen Cook of Biblische Ausbildung has posted a brilliant review of Brueggemann's Old Testament Theology by Ellen Davis.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

A Post on Childs on Brueggemann on the OT

I'm delighted to see that Stephen from Emerging from Babel has posted a detailed, clear and well thought out response to Childs' critique of Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament. Stephen quotes some very significant sections of Childs' essay and then attempts to illustrate how Childs' approach fails to come to terms with the genuine theological diversity present in the Old Testament, with its consequent failure to meet the pastoral needs of the contemporary church. His primary accusation is that Childs 'harmonizes' what should remain an unruly text, and he does this with the Book of Ecclesiastes as his case study.

This is a great post and well worth a visit, especially as it illustrates the classic critique of Childs that is found amongst a lot of scholars today. Needless to say, as a 'Childsian' I don't feel that his critique has really got to the heart of what Childs is about, and I have responded in his comments about this (particularly what it means to speak of 'Qohelet' in the first place, and the implications of this). Despite this, if you're interested in how do exegesis 'properly', especially if you context is 'ecclesial', then give him a read (and, of course, what I consider, in my humble opinion, to be my necessary corrective in the comments section ... ).

This has inspired me to wright my own response to this little dialogue between Brueggemann and Childs (Brueggemann responded to Childs' critique in the article), which I hope to post as soon as possible. My starting point will be the confusion caused by their use of the common term 'ecclesial context', which they actually understand very differently.

This article can be found in The Scottish Journal of Theology 53 no. 2 pp. 228 - 33 (2000), "Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament. Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy." followed by "A Response to Professor Childs".

  • On a slightly different note, I'd just like to link to inabitatio dei's absolutely fascinating post on the ontological implications of the resurrection. I'm still trying to find time to read through it, but he says mouthwatering stuff like:

" The resurrection invites and requires theological-ontological discourse, but this discourse must constantly be referred back to the event which birthed it. The resurrection always sends us back to the ontological drawing board, demanding that we constantly revise our notions of being in its light."

Why do I dig stuff like that (I ask myself, wishing I could uncover the weird clock that makes me tick)?

Monday, 29 October 2007

On Thinking for Oneself

Schopenhauer was known for his succinct aphorisms. As I go about trying to write a viable thesis proposal, the following quote serves me as a humble reminder of what true learning is about. I think I may have committed the sin against the 'Holy Ghost' more than once ...

"Just as the largest library, badly arranged, is not so useful as a very moderate one that is well arranged, so the greatest amount of knowledge, if not elaborated by our own thoughts, is worth much less than a far smaller volume that has been abundantly and repeatedly thought over. For only by universally combining what we know, by comparing every truth with every other, do we fully assimilate our own knowledge and get it into our power. We can think over only what we know, and so we should learn something; but we know only what we have thought out.
... [knowledge] is ...a hundred times more valuable if we have arrived at it through our own original thinking [rather than having read it in a book]. Only then does it enter into the whole system of our ideas as an integral part and living member. Only then is it completely and firmly connected therewith, is understood in all its grounds and consequents, bears the colour, tone, and stamp of our whole mode of thought, has come at the very time when the need for it was keen, is therefore firmly established and cannot pass away. Accordingly, Goethe's verse here finds its most perfect application and even explanation:

"What from your fathers' heritage is lent,
Earn it anew, really to posses it!" "
Isn't that beautiful and challenging at the same time?

As for comments, I'm sorry for the late reply. I've replied to "In Accordance with the Scriptures", the rest will have to wait till tomorrow I'm afraid.

I should also add that the "In Accordance" series is not finished, there's one more coming on the implications for 'quests for the historical Jesus'.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Augustine on "the quest for the historical Jesus"

"So let us listen to the Gospel as though Lord himself were present. And do not let us say: "How unfortunate were those who could see him!" For many of those who saw him also killed him, while many of us who have not seen him have also believed in him. The precious things that came from the mouth of the Lord were written down for us and kept for us and read aloud for us, and will be read by our children too, until the end of the world. The Lord is above, but the Lord of truth is here! The Lord's body in which he rose from the dead can be in one place only; but his truth is everywhere."

Friday, 26 October 2007

Into Action

I have been flooded with comment (I mean that positively, of course!). Because I love switching on my computer and seeing an email with “New Comment” in the header, and because these conversations are important (both for my studies and because they're about God), I really want to take time to respond to them. Here's a quick overview of what's happening:

1.)On my latest “in accordance with the scriptures” post, comments have been made on the nature of Jesus' resurrection and how we know that. John has repeated his accusation of docetism on my part, I've repeated my accusation of anti-trinitarianism on his part. I think we're making progress. It's tough work, but the subject matter deserves our attention and it is only through patient and thoughtful dialogue that genuine theological progress can be made (an explicitly ecumenical statement).

2) My verbal revelation post has provoked interesting questions and angles on the nature of the Psalms, the status my quotes of Barr (seeing that he himself doesn't agree with them!), and the relationship between narrative and historical event. My response will come!

3) My post on the particularity of g/God has started a little conversation on our own particularity. Again, my response will come. All in good time ...

So, in the meantime, I thought I'd post this music video I randomely came across in YouTube. I typed the name of a man who is growing on my heart (Tim Armstrong, I hope to say more on him later) and came up with this musical gem. He's the bloke in the hat, singing with the funny black-haired girl. It's probably not everyone's taste, but it got my bum wiggling.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

J. Barr on Verbal and Historical Revelation

A major point I've been trying to make in my posts is the centrality of verbal revelation as a component of Christian theology. This does not mean that God dictated the Bible and the prophets wrote what he said (i.e. verbal inspiration). Rather, it means that whatever we say of God and our world has to be filtered through the lens of that document we call the Bible. Words, texts, seem to be a central part of the way God has made himself known and continues to do so, and it does not seem to be the case that we we can separate 'the divine reality' from the words He uses to reveal himself. J. Barr has shown how this is an intrinsic part of the Bible's own self presentation:

"In so far as it is good to use the term "revelation" at all, it is entirely as true to say that in the Old Testament revelation is by verbal communication as to say that it is by acts in history. We have verbal communication both in that God speaks directly with men and in that men learn from other and earlier men through the verbal form of tradition. When we speak of the highly "personal" nature of the Old Testament God, it is very largely upon this verbal character of his communication with man that we are relying. The acts of God are meaningful because they are set within this frame of verbal communication. God tells what he is doing, or tells what he is going to do. He does nothing, unless he tells his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7). A God who acted in history would be a mysterious and supra-personal fate if the action was not linked with this verbal conversation ... ." (1966: 77, 8; italics my own)

"If you treat [the biblical] record as revelation through history, you commonly speak as if the basis were the doing of certain divine acts (what, exactly, they were is often difficult to determine), while the present form of tradition in its detail and circumstantiality is "interpretation" of these acts, or "meditation" upon them, or theological reflection prompted by them. Thus one may hear the great revelatory passage of Exodus 3 described as "interpretation"of this divine act of salvation, or as an inference from the fact that God had led Israel out of Egypt.

But I cannot make this scheme fit the texts, for this is not how the texts represent the Exodus events. Far from representing the divine acts as the basis of all knowledge of God and all communication with him, they represent God as communicating freely with men, and particularly with Moses, before, during, and after these events. Far from the incident at the burning bush being an "interpretation" of the divine acts, it is a direct communication from God to Moses of his purposes and intentions. This conversation, instead of being represented as an interpretation of the divine act, is a precondition of it. If God had not told Moses what he did, the Israelites would not have demanded their escape from Egypt, and the deliverance at the Sea of Reeds would not have taken place.

... this is how the biblical narrative represents these events. ... " (1963: 197; italics mine)

"... If we persist in saying that this direct, specific communication must be subsumed under revelation through events in history and taken as subsidiary interpretation of the latter, I shall say that we are abandoning the Bible's own representation of the matter for another which is apologetically more comfortable."(Ibid. 201; Pannenberg seems to comment on it here).

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Gold dust for Childs-junkies!

I don't like to post more than once a day, but Daniel Driver over at Occasional Publications has just posted something that, for Childs-junkies like myself, is gold dust! He's dug up a very rare transcript of Karl Barth and the Future of Theology: A Memorial Colloquium Held at Yale Divinity School January 28, 1969—held barely a month after Barth passed away. Brevard Childs and Hans Frei were among the panelists. At the back of the book is a transcript of a question and answer session that followed the paper session. Daniel helpfully summarizes the main points and then types out the bits relevant to Childs and Frei.

My favorite is this bit:

Childs lines up with Frei (indeed, partly learns from Frei) on "the heart of the problem: that for Calvin, the sensus literalis IS Jesus Christ. And it was only when you have the eighteenth century identification of the literal sense with the historical sense that you’re just hopelessly lost."

When they say this (Frei: "That's right.") nobody knows what they're talking about.

I love it! Read the whole dialogue here!

Borg and Augustine on the Particularity of God

I'm a bit slow on responding to comments at the mo. Stephen asked some good questions on how to read the final form of the text given contradictions at that level. Read his comments and my response here. I'll get back to the others tomorrow!

Some thoughts for today:

Seitz cites from a report of a national conference called "God at 2000", held at Trinity Church Wall Street.

One of the most celebrated speakers was [Markus] Borg, who advocates a brand of pantheism that rejects notions of a personal God in favor of a broader universal spirit. "I grew up in a time and place where it was taken for granted that Christianity was the only true religion and Jesus the only way to salvation," Borg recalled with distaste. "That's why we had missionaries. ... I find it literally incredible to think that that God of the whole universe has chosen to be known in only one religious tradition".*

Seitz then compares the remarks of St. Augustine.

What are you then, my God - what, but the Lord God? For who is Lord but the Lord? Or who is God save our God? Most high, most excellent, most powerful, most almighty, most merciful, and most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, and most strong; stable, yet mysterious; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new and bringing age upon the proud, though they know it not; ever working, yet ever at rest; still gathering, yet lacking nothing; sustaining, filling and protecting; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet possessing all things. You love without passion; you are jealous without anxiety; you repent, yet have no sorrow; you are angry, yet serene; change your ways, yet your plans are unchanged; recover what you find, having never lost it; never in need, yet rejoicing in the gain; never covetous, yet requiring interest. You receive over and above, that you may owe - yet who has anything that is not yours? You pay debts, owing nothing; remit debts, losing nothing. And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy - what is this I have said?**

At least one Trinity Conference speaker got it right when she said, "Surely there is no one participating in this conference who really believes that this conference is about God at 2000. This conference is about us at 2000."
*"Apostasy at 2000: Episcopal Institute Promotes Pantheism, Syncretism," by Mark Tooley, Touchstone (January 2001)

**Book 1, 4; The Confessions of St Augustine, Hal M. Helms, trans. (Brewster, Mass.:Paraclete, 1986), 3.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

A Chat with my Wife on the Meaning of a Story

While I contemplate the great comments to my Genesis 22 and my "according to scripture" posts (deeply appreciated), something more lighthearted to tie us over till tomorrow:

Recently my wife told me the following story:

An American slave owner who is cruel to his slaves marries a girl of unknown parentage. They have a baby. The baby turns out to be of black ancestry, due to the girl's mother. He kicks her out. While burning everything she owned he discovers that his mother too was of black ancestry.

What is the meaning of this story? My wife automatically replied that it's about female oppression. I immediately thought it was about the absurdity of considering race an important factor in evaluating a human being. I also thought that from a Christian view point it's a brilliant illustration of the shock all humans should go through when realizing that they too are responsible for Jesus' crucifixion (imagine someone versed in the liturgical use of the Psalms being told that Paul's catena of quotations in Romans 3 applies to him/her?!).

The interesting question is how do we determine which interpretation is right? My wife confessed that her interpretation was biased as she had read a biography of the author, so she knew what was intended. But is that the meaning of the text?

James McGrath links to a more interesting debate on J. K. Rowling's intervention concerning the details of the latest Harry Potter film. Can she tell us what her texts' mean if she didn't make that clear in the book in the first place?

Monday, 22 October 2007

"In Accordance with the Scriptures" #4: Jewish Scripture and the Meaning of the Messiah's Resurrection

In my last post in this series, I quoted Seitz as saying that Paul's understanding of the resurrection was part of a "broader skein of convictions". I now hope to demonstrate this.
Within in the larger context of 1 Corinthians 15 we see that Christ's resurrection is precisely not significant because it is a singular event. Others had already been raised from the dead (Lazarus), or were believed to be resurrected (Elijah, John the Baptist). The phrase "in accordance with the Scriptures" stipulates how we are to understand this specific raising.

In vv. 12 - 28 Paul focuses on the fact of Jesus' resurrection - not as a fact unto itself - but as a fact inextricably related to the general resurrection of those united to his death and rising in baptism. This is of supreme relevance to his Corinthian addressees, who believed in his resurrection but felt it was of no relevance to them. Paul turns to the scriptures as the place where the answers can be found about what God is presently doing in Jesus and in those baptized into his death. If, "according to the scriptures" all died in Adam, then the reverse would equally be true and in accord with scripture: that Jesus Christ was the new Adam in whom all would be made alive. Christ's rising was not an isolated harvest, but the firstfruits of a much broader harvest, to which those in him would belong. Furthermore, Jesus' death and resurrection "in accordance with the scriptures" means that those in Christ are presently living between two times: the time of Christ as firstfruits, and the final time, when those who belong to Christ will be united with him at his coming again.
So what happens during this meantime? In order to understand what Jesus' resurrection entails, Paul searches scripture for clues. He discovers a 'meantime scenario': The meantime is a time when God puts all things in subjection to Christ. Then at the end Christ will hand the kingdom over to God the Father. For Paul, "in accordance with the scriptures" means that Christ's death and resurrection have implications whose lineaments can be seen in scripture. This is most clear in the motif of God's subjecting all things to Christ, with the exception of God himself. Here Paul explicitly takes his bearings from scripture (v.27):

But when it says [citing Ps. 8.6] "All things are put in subjection," it is plain that this does not include the one one who put all things in subjection under him"
Then, in v. 28, Paul explains the final significance of Christ's rising:
"When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

To say that Christ rose again in "accordance with the scriptures" is at its heart a statement about God's long-range plans, with Christ, on our behalf, as this has been set forth in scripture. To quote Seitz:

"It is not that a straight line moves from the Old Testament to Christ in some mechanical fashion. Rather, we comprehend what God is doing in Christ right now and to eternity by returning to the Old Testament and seeking to find within its manifold testamony accordance with what we are coming to know about God in Christ. Once again we are brought up against the reality that the Old Testament, as Christian scripture, is not just before Jesus, but after him as well. It is both B.C and A.D., because Jesus lives in relationship to the Father, to Israel, and to the world; and the Father has set forth his broader plans for the world in his word to Israel, plans at whose center stands Christ. For an understanding of Christ's present rule and relationship to God, from the moment of God's raising him from the dead to that final point when God is all in all, it was necessary to search a first testament to learn about last things." (Seitz, 1998: 57)

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Religion as Opiate

I accidently came accross this photo in Google Image, and I love it. Without any context, I interpreted the bandage to refer to the spot where a heroin needle had been inserted, the vein forced to protude by the straps of the phylactery.

What does that say to you? I thought of it as a critique of religion, opium for the masses, a crutch which we rely on to sooth our insecurities and anxieties about the meaning of our lives. I'm 'religious' (in a way, I'm not too fond of the word), but I catch myself doing this kind of thing all the time: innoculating myself from harsh reality of my world, resting on my religion to keep me secure. The danger that religion replaces genuine faith in a God who explodes our categories and promises the impossible is something that has threatened his own people throughout their history.

In this light, I find the following quote (taken from B. Meyers' blog) from Karl Barth pertinent:

“Faith is not a ground on which we can place ourselves, not a system which we can obey, not an atmosphere in which we can breathe. Viewed from a human perspective, what was once called religion, conviction and law becomes rather the abyss, anarchy, void. But ‘the law of the faithfulness of God’ [Rom. 3:27] – which is to say, ‘the law of faith’ – is the place where only God can hold us, the place where there is nothing else but God himself, God alone.”

—Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief 1922 (Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1940), pp. 84-85 (English edition, p. 110).

Just some Sunday thoughts.

By the way, I later looked up the background for this photo and discovered my interpretation completely missed the mark. The photographer is a homosexual Jew struggling with HIV. Come to think about it, heroin addicts don't put bandages on after they've injected, do they?

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Ancient Typology in Genesis 22?

As is known (in certain quarters at least), B. S. Childs wanted to develop a 'biblical theology' of the entire Bible grounded in a close exegesis of the texts themselves. In other words, he wanted our broader dogmatic claims about God and the world to be justifiable in terms of the Bible texts. Here he is faced with the problem of the particularity and foreignness of the text. How can one move beyond the horizon of the Old Testament to our own day?

In his writings in general one can see that his response to this problem is heavily influenced by Hans Frei's work on figurative reading, i.e. pre-Enlightenment Christianity saw the biblical text as describing the real world, which experience tells us is "single world of one temporal sequence" (Frei, 1974: 2). Therefore, Christianity was driven to assume that there must in principle be one cumulative story in the Bible to depict it. The unity within the diversity was assured by means of typology, "a way of turning the variety of biblical books into a single, unitary canon"by weaving the various biblical stories together into a common narrative "referring to a single history and its patterns of meaning" (2).

My question is whether Childs is arguing that this process was already taking place at the redactional level of the text, such that contemporary figurative reading is in essential continuity with the way the text came to us in the first place. In his OT example of "exegesis in the context of biblical theology" (Genesis 22.1-19) in his 1992 Biblical Theology, he makes what I consider to be a key statement to his whole understanding of the 'canonical process':

It is my contention that this multifaceted text has been shaped through its lengthy development in such a way as to provide important hermeneutical guidelines for its theological use by a community which treasured it as scripture. By carefully observing how the editors dealt with elements which they deemed unrepeatable (einmalig) but which they reckoned to be representative or universal in application, a basic hermeneutical direction is provided by which to broaden theological reflection beyond the Old Testament" (1992: 326; italics mine).
He illustrates this by reference to 'canonical clues' in the text which point to the dual dimension of the final form of the text as incorporating both particularity and universality within itself. The story of Abraham is unique, yet its editorial connection to the repeated trope concerning the promise of seed connects the story to a broader framework which can be seen to encompass us; the editorial addition of the superscription "God tested Abraham" likewise connects a unique occurrence to a more generalisable principle, one that echoes throughout scripture and again can be seen to encompass us; the word play on "the LORD sees" and "the LORD is seen" could refer to a kind of expansion of the unique story to Israel's broader experience of God in that place; finally, resonances with Levitical sacrificial rites, somehow, 'typologically' connect Abraham's experience to Israel's later cultic system.

My question is: is Childs trying to find evidence of Frei's work within the text itself? Is the redaction history of the text an example of typology in process? For me, the key phrase in the quote above is that this move within the text provides a basic hermeneutical direction, which we should imitate in the context of the final form.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Quote of the day ...

“These are the fountains of salvation, that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.”

(This quote was found on an interesting website dedicated to 'the canon of Scripture', on which, amongst other things, you can get ancient canon lists quoted in full)

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

"In Accordance with the Scriptures" #3: Jesus and the Plan of God

Though you can read this post independently, it's part three of a sub-thread starting here and then here.
So what does it mean when Paul asserts that what he received of first importance was that Christ had died and been raised in accordance with the scriptures 1 Corinthians 15? Seitz claims that we need to get the sense of direction right:

"It was not so much that a straight line pushed forward from the Old Testament to Jesus' death and resurrection and could compel faith on those terms - which it failed to do in the instance of Judaism. ... Rather, in the light of Jesus' death and resurrection, the inherited scriptures were seen from a different angle. They did not predict his death and resurrection in some straightforward manner - the creed does not say that. Rather, his death and resurrection accord with, are congruent with, scripture. This accordance is not about scattered proof texts, but about a much broader skein of convictions. In a word, these involve God: the agency of God, the relationship of God to Jesus, and the present life of Jesus in relationship to the Father until the Second Coming. ... To speak of God raising Jesus is to ask how such raising fits into a larger scriptural depiction of God's plans with the world" (pp. 52, 55).

This becomes clear when one follows Paul's larger argument in 1 Corinthians 15. But more on that next time ...
(sorry, time's short: I've just discovered that I'm to be the tutorial assistant for Hebrew, which means more work [aaagh] and more money [mmmmm]!).

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Derrida at SBL

Semester has begun again at uni. Although I'm technically not a student at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhems-Universität Bonn, I still visit their seminars to:

  1. improve my German;

  2. get to know an entirely different theological culture which has deeply influenced biblical academia since the 19th century (I mean, of course, the culture of 'higher criticism'). Last year I hung out with the Protestants (the faculties are denominationally ordered here, unlike in England, where we're all thrown into the same class room), this year I'm going to hang out with Catholics, who look far more interesting (L. Hossfeld runs the OT department. He's worked closely with Zenger on the Psalms and is interested in synchronic approaches to the Bible).

The two seminars I've decided to visit are "Die Psalmen im Neuen Testament" ("The Psalms in the New Testament") and "Das Alte Testament und seine Transparenz auf Christus hin" ("The Old Testament and its Transparency to Christ"). The second looks especially interesting, given the intellectual climate found in Bonn and the nature of my doctorate, which has something to do with reading the Old Testament as the Word of God.

So much for personal details. Iyov has started a thread on Bible translation and has posted an interesting link to a tribute to Derrida, found on the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) website. It's worth a read if you think postmodernism is about believing what you want to believe. Here's an interesting quote from the article:

"Derrida, who never once associated himself with the much-abused term "postmodern," tended to regard newness with suspicion. Newness is too prone to make a straw man of "old"-ness, and to demolish old world orders to make new ones (often with catastrophic results). Commenting on Jesus's saying about new wineskins and new cloth (Matt. 9.14-17; Mk 2.18-22; Lk 5.33-39), he recommended a more humble, less apocalyptic form of "newness." Newness should be aware that it is always repatching and reweaving old cloth. "

Attached at the end of the article is a fascinating audio recording (mp3) of a public dialogue with Derrida at 2002 SBL Annual Meeting: "On Religion: An Interview With Jacques Derrida". He's asked questions by Yvonne Sherwood, John D. Caputo, and Kevin Hart, on topics to do with prayer, the relationship of deconstruction to Christianity and, my favorite, his interpretation of two midrashim found in Genesis Rabba.

Tomorrow I'll continue the "in accordance with scripture" sub-thread.

Monday, 15 October 2007

"In Accordance with the Scriptures" #2: One possible understanding

What does the Nicene Creed mean when it says, “and the third day he rose again according to the scriptures”? The phrase means: consistent with the plain-sense claims of the Old Testament. So why doesn't the Creed simply say “and he rose again in accordance with the Old Testament”, seeing that the Creed is late enough to presuppose a two-testament canon of scripture? Seitz points out that it is here, more then anywhere else, that we see the exegetical character of the Creed. The phrase is derived from 1 Corinthians 15:4 - 3, where Paul says:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures

Although other lines from the Creed are based on the claims of scripture, both New Testament and Old, this line is a direct quotation. In this sense the line is unique in the Creed, as it quotes from New Testament scripture a confession grounded through Old Testament accordance.

But what does the phrase "and he rose again in accordance with the scriptures" actually mean?

One usual explanation is that the episodes conjoined with the phrase (i.e. Jesus' death, burial, resurrection) were the ones most demanding careful defense in the face of criticism from faithful Jews who claimed that their scriptures spoke otherwise. In the face of a scriptural legacy everywhere seen to be God's very word, the Church was faced with the challenge of what to do with Jesus. In this sort of climate, the Creed asserts that the stickiest moments in the life and ministry of Jesus were fully congruent with the Old Testament and its presentation of the Christ to come. Isaiah 53:5 - 12 had spoken of an expiatory death; Hosea 6:2 and Psalm 16:10 are likewise pressed into service as proof texts from the Old Testament, demonstrations that Jesus' death and raising were "in accordance with the scriptures".

Seitz doesn't dispute this way of understanding the character of scriptural accordance, but he does believe that it is exegetically too narrow and theologically too functional a view of the matter. The problem with the idea that the congruence between Jesus' resurrection and the plain sense of scripture is a matter of collecting scattered proof texts is that it fails to understand what is at stake in Paul's larger argument in 1 Corinthians 15, where the phrases appear.

Stay tuned to find out why!

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Rape and Murder in Königswinter

Hannah was 14 years old. She lived in Königswinter, a picturesque village on the Rhine, neighbouring my home town of Bonn. On the evening of the 29th of August this year, on the way home from her boyfriend and few hundred yards from her parents' house, a 25 year old Czech bus-cleaner threatened her with a knife, gagged and bound her, and dragged her onto the premises of the company he worked for. In a bus, he raped her. Afterwards he dragged her in front of the bus, where he cut and stabbed her repeatedly until she bled to death.

How do you respond to this? How should you respond to this? I find myself choked, overwhelmed, as if my normal categories can't contain the world anymore. I feel enraged and ask myself what it is I can do in a world like this. And then I feel the fear of knowing that it won't be long until my filters come back into place, and the beauty of the light and the Autumn trees will give me a peace that I know, deep inside, I can never claim to truly own in this world.

There's a groaning in this creation so deep as to unsettle the ground of the earth upon which we stand. I want to weep like Lamentations, and ask myself where is the 'good' that God saw in this creation that he made? I feel the tension between life and death in my own bones, and I want so much to live the way living was meant to be. But I can't, because with every step I know there's death around the corner. Where does the Gospel fit into all this?

Just some Sunday thoughts.

Unconnected to my intention to write this, I listened to the best sermon I've ever heard this afternoon on my i-pod. You can download it here.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

"In accordance with the scriptures" #1: Three Aspects of the Phrase

[For the entire series, read in the following order: 2, 3, 4]

In his essay ""In Accordance with the Scriptures": Creed, Scripture, and "Historical Jesus"" (1998: 51 - 60), Christopher Seitz discusses three aspects of the phrase "in accordance with the scriptures", found in the Nicene Creed:
  1. It's biblical character. "In accordance with the scriptures" is a phrase lifted bodily from 1 Corinthians 15. Therefore, any sharp separation between creed and scripture, between Bible and tradition, between exegesis and theology, misrepresents the situation.
  2. It's exegetical scope. While the death and resurrection of Jesus are said by the creed to be in accordance with the scriptures, close reading of 1 Corinthians 15 demonstrates that much more is implied by the phrase than that something singular happened to Jesus, according to scripture. "In accordance with the scriptures" says as much about the present life of the risen Lord, and its relationship to us, as it does about dramatic Easter events once upon a time.

  3. It's theological significance. To say that Jesus Christ died and rose again in accordance with scripture means that his identity is tied up with Old Testament statements on the front end, and post-Easter convictions on the other. These accordances, preceding and following his earthly life, cannot now be, nor have they ever been, impediments to understanding Jesus as a figure of time and space. "In accordance with the scriptures" is a shorthand for "in accordance with the reality for which God requires our conformity and our obedience". As Jesus was in accordance with scripture, so the church lives in accordance with the Jesus canonically presented and shared with believers through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, 12 October 2007

The Last Word After the Last but One

Due to my long response to comments below, a quote:

From prison, in Advent 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following lines, in which he expresses the growing relevance of the Old Testament to his faith in this moment of crisis:

"My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like those of the Old Testament, and in recent months I have been reading the Old Testament much more than the New. It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ; it is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection and a new world; it is only when one submits to God's law that one may speak of grace; it is only when God's wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one's enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts. In my opinion it is not Christian to want to take our thoughts and feelings too quickly and too directly from the New Testament. [...] One cannot and must not speak the last word before the last but one. We live in the last but one and believe the last, don't we?" (Letters and Papers from Prison, NY 1972: 156f.)

I should add that this post constitutes a continuation of my Authority of Scripture thread which has its roots here. In the course of discussions questions have arisen on the nature of Christian truth and the implications of this for how one reads the Bible. I believe that central to the answer to this question is the question of the authoritative role of the Old Testament as an adequate witness to Jesus Christ on its own terms. The witness is certainly recalibrated in the light of the 'Christ event', but that does not change the substance of what was there all along nor its ability to illuminate for the church today the nature and mission of its Lord. As such, my next few posts will outline the essay by Christopher Seitz: ""In Accordance with the Scriptures": Creed, Scripture, and "Historical Jesus"" (1998: 51 - 50).

A Ramadan Soap Opera

The Guardian has an interesting article here on the latest media craze in the Middle East: "Bab el-Hara" or "The Neighborhood Gate".

" With its tales of brave men and dutiful women in a simpler, long-vanished Middle East, a Syrian soap opera has become the latest rage in the Arab world during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan."
Particularly interesting is what reactions to the soap tell us about the longings of many Arabs in the contemporary Middle East. I also happened to come across an interesting looking blog which responds to the series from a 'progressive, Palestinian feminist perspective': Improvisations. Give it a read!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Baby Got Book

For some reason I've lost the YouTube link to this video, so check it out here.

This dude knows where it's at!

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Hermeneia's Hermeneutics

Hermeneia - A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress) utilizes a common preface for all its volumes, written by Frank Moore Cross and Helmut Koester, in which it is said:

"The editors of Hermeneia impose no systematic-theological perspective upon the series (directly, or indirectly by selection of authors). It is expected that the authors will struggle to lay bare the ancient meaning of a biblical work or pericope. In this way the text's human relevance should become transparent, as is always the case in competent historical discourse" (emphasis added).
Could someone explain to me the logic behind the words in italics?

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

A Trinitarian Approach to the Bible

Christopher Seitz (2001) cites the following words of wisdom, spoken at a point in American history when attempts to utilize historical-criticism theologically were in full swing (1964). Can you guess who said them?

"All Christian use of the Old Testament seems to depend on the belief that the One God who is the God of Israel is also the God and Father of Jesus Christ."
"All our use of the Old Testament goes back to this belief. What is said there that relates to "God" relates to our God. Consequently, that which can be known of our God is known only when we consider the Old Testament as a place in which he is known."

"It is an illusory position to think of ourselves as in a position where the New Testament is clear, is known, and is accepted, and where therefore from this secure position we start out to explore the much more doubtful and dangerous territory of the Old Testament ... [This] is not possible, for quite theological reasons. ... Insofar as a position is Christian, it is related to the Old Testament from the beginning."

"In this sense, if one wishes to express the argument in terms of classic theology, our approach to the Old Testament is Trinitarian rather than Christological. The direction of thought is from God to Christ, from Father to Son, and not from Christ to God."

"It should also be noted that, where we have a Trinitarian structure, we can proceed to a Christological one".

Monday, 8 October 2007

Netanyahu on the Status of Zion

In an interview with Ynet, Benjamin Netenyahu, chairman of Israel's conservative Likud party, made the following criticism of Prime Minister Olmert's stance on Jerusalem and his willingness to make concessions:

"Jerusalem isn't just any city. The Western Wall isn't real estate and the Temple Mount isn't any piece of land. These concepts are at the root of our identity and national existence. The unbearable lightness with which a government – that has no mandate or support from the Jewish people – surrenders Zion shows the deterioration of the values of Israeli society".

What do people make of that?

Saturday, 6 October 2007

The Theological crisis of Biblical Criticism

Stefan recently linked to Michael Bird's review of J. Barton's book The Nature of Biblical Criticism. Michael's concern is the role historical-criticism should play in the Church's appropriation of Scripture. He believes that traditional historical-critical theory does not take into account the post-modern critique and suggests that other methodolgies are needed, especially if one is to read the ancient texts in an ecclesial context. To quote:

What is really needed is a realistic epistemology of how we know things from texts, a literary theory explaining how texts do things to readers, a hermeneutical explanation for how authors communicate through the signs/symbols of language, and a definition of history and historiography.
Anthony Thiselton, N.T. Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Scot McKnight are recommended reading for each of these areas.

I'm all for a reappraisal of the way humans know, the nature of texts, the nature of reading and definitions of history (the last being a central concern of Childs'). However, as far as theological reading is concerned, I'm not sure whether the proposed areas of research really get to the heart of the crisis which the church is currently facing, and has been facing for quite some time now. The following thoughts on this issue are taken from C. Seitz's book, Figured Out.

Vanhoozer and Wolterstorff talk of the contemporary crisis as a hermeneutical one. In their works they attempt to address topics such as divine speech, inspiration, and authorship. This is done from the perspective of general hermeneutics (the philosophy of language; speech-act theory). Seitz wonders to what degree they focus on the long-standing problem of the relationship between the two testaments of Christian Scripture. To quote:

"Hermeneutics as a science of reading and interpretation could simply speak about matters of authorship, reader, text, inspiration, divine speech, and so forth, in the manner of Vanhoozer and Wolterstorff, and never once address the difference between Old and New Testaments on historical, theological, canonical, literary/genre, or specified audience/ecclesial grounds. The Bible would be one big book, whatever its differences, and the problems of talking about author or reader or text could go on in general terms without much regard for the divide separating two distinct literatures (Old Testament, or Tanak, and New Testament). And we could still plausibly argue that a hermeneutical crisis existed and buffeted the field and not be wrong.” (pp. 13, 14).
Seitz goes on to point out how a series of crises already existed in biblical studies before the advent of post-modernism and post-critical theology. They focused not on general hermeneutics (text, reader, author, world) but on quite specific matters: the historicality of individual writings, literary methods and their compatibility, dating texts properly, social-historical reconstruction, the history of religion and so forth. Always sitting close to these questions were serious subisidiary or even more up-front concerns. Is there unity to Christian scripture? How is the Old Testament Christian scripture? In what way does the New Testament function as scripture, especially given its fourfold gospel record and what would come to be known as "quests for the historical Jesus" behind this fourfold account?

These questions persisted and were never completely banished from the field. Seitz believes it is proper to call these theological, and not just hermeneutical questions:

"They have to do with the way in which the testaments, each in its own specific historical and canonical way, bear witness to God. In the middle of the last century and for many decades into our own, these questions did not just hover near the fray but were first-order questions demanding first-order answers if the discipline was to have any integrity as a historically oriented one still tuned to the life of the church and an earlier history of interpretation." (14)
Seitz concludes:

"The turn to hermeneutics as a general discipline, then, has not so much offered a resolution of older theological questions, historically considered, as it has changed the subject. We may wish to judge that a good thing, but in so doing there would have to be an admission that what has counted in the history of biblical studies for the past century and a half as central was misguided from the start. The field posed the wrong questions, it would have to be concluded, and therefore got wrong answers and ended up in its present desuetude - call it a "hermeneutical crisis" - as a consequence. A cursory comparison with Westermann's Essay on Old Testament Hermeneutics, produced at a period of general critical (methodological) consensus, shows an array of concerns untouched in recent hermeneutical discussions, and any accounting of our present crisis is obliged to say why this is so." (14, 15)
I should just add that John's post on this topic has started an interesting conversation with Dave from Tolle Lege.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Quote of the day

The conversation goes on on Politics and the Religious Role of 'Canon' below, so a small quote today:

"Church history bears eloquent testimony to a few glorious periods when suddenly unexpected interest in the Bible exploded within the life of the church, and biblical scholars and theologians found themselves engaged in a common enterprise"

B.S. Childs, (1992) From the Preface

Thursday, 4 October 2007


I have a number of choices: either post extensively everyday, write extensive responses, and thus never get any of my real work done (i.e. doctorate), or post sporadically, and thus lose the regularity that I feel people may need when deciding when to check out my blog (and thus lose the thread of posts which are often interconnected). I've decided to take the 3rd way, which is to posts extensive posts followed by extensive answers as much as I can. The 'in between periods', where writing responses takes up more time then I should allow myself, will be filled with smaller posts such as an interesting quote or video link or whatever catches my fancy. Sounds fair enough I think ...

So, here's my random link for the day. Ever seen a Kabbalistic cartoon? Over on you can educate yourself with ease concerning the deep mysteries of the universe. Check out episode one on Filling the Hole.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Politics and the Religious Role of 'Canon'

I have claimed here that the Bible developed out of a relationship between God and his people, a relationship in which this people were elected and formed in order to witness to God's single plan of salvation. Central to this relationship is, in some sense, an authoritative Scripture become canon. As Childs says: "The heart of the canonical process lay in transmitting and ordering the authoritative tradition in a form which was compatible to function as Scripture for a generation which had not participated in the original events of revelation" (1979: 60).

The question has been raised as to whether other factors predominated in the texts' formation, such as political, economic, or even morally corrupt ones. These would undermine the nature of the text as religious literature (a kind of form-critical category) for a community of faith.

This is a significant question for Childs, as his approach depends on this theological dimension being actually present in the text. He is aware that the development of the Bible was a complex process in which political, sociological and economic factors played a role. Nevertheless, it is his claim that in these factors were subordinated to a more overarching religious end. The significance of this dimension can be seen in this quote:

"... whenever modern critical theories are proposed which would call into question the integrity of Scripture's faith claims, it is certainly appropriate to mount a reasoned defense for its support. Thus, a historical critical theory of Deuteronomy which would construe the book as a pious fraud created for propaganda reasons to support the political aspirations of the Jerusalem priesthood would, if true, raise serious questions about a canonical interpretation which claimed that the book was shaped by primarily religious concerns. Similarly, if the development of a sense of canon was only a late peripheral phenomenon of the Hellenistic period, my approach to the O.T. would be seriously damaged. For this reason, I have felt constrained to mount a reasoned case why such a politicized interpretation of Deuteronomy does less than justice to the biblical text, and why the forces associated with the canonical process lie at the heart of the entire O.T." (in his "Response to Reviewers" of his Introduction; JSOT (16) 1980: 56).
Here we see that for the canonical approach history matters and that the text should constrain our interpretation. Canonical readers have an vested interest in the results of historical analysis and as such cannot escape into a safe 'narrative' world untouched by real-life concerns. Judgment depends on the results of exegesis done in tandem with a good theoretical awareness of the nature of the project actually being embarked on.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

The Complexity of "Canon"

I'm finally back home in Germany after a brief visit home in England! Blogging should resume with a tad more regularity. Thank you for your patience!
So onwards with the discussion ...

I last spoke of the biblical text as the product of a relationship between the LORD and his people (here). Within this relationship God spoke, Israel heard, responded and then passed on this word to a later generation. The purpose was that the ancient traditions should function authoritatively for those who were not present by critically "rendering the material into a form suitable for future accommodation" (1977: 93). This was a complex, multifaceted process in which different manoeuvres were made under varying conditions. Underpinning this diversity, however, is the continuity of Israel's religious use of its tradition. Childs tries to capture this unity in diversity with the term 'canonical process'.

Childs thus has a broad understanding of canon. He clarifies potential confusion as follows:

"When analyzed narrowly, there seems to an inconsistency that the canonical process includes the setting of boundaries for the literature, the combining of rival traditions and the actualization of earlier traditions to function authoritatively for later generations. However, when one focuses on attempting to understand how Israel struggled throughout its history in understanding its traditions religiously the variety of solutions and complexity of responses should not be surprising. Of course, the setting of canonical boundaries in exclusion of rival claims is different from the transformation of an ancient tradition to serve authoritatively in a new situation. No one doubts that that the juxtaposing of disparate material functions differently from closely intertwined sources. But the point to be emphasized is that there are important elements of continuity extending throughout the entire history of the literature's formation which are connected - at times loosely - with a religious concern. A careful analysis of the evidence allows one to delineate with some precsision the nature of this religious use of tradition. Clearly the process was affected by Israel's changing historical situation, but the final fixing of the Hebrew canon was only the final stage in a long process" (JSOT 16 [1980]: 53).