Monday, 31 March 2008

Kerygma and "what really happened"

My dialogue with John Poirier on the nature of Hans Frei's proposal goes on unabated here. In my opinion, the issue turns on the nature of the gospel, i.e. the ultimate referent or subject of the Bible. I took an hour to write a response so I'll just post an interesting quote by Hermann Diem on the relevance of history as "what actually happened" to the authors of the Gospels (I intend to start posting on "the literal sense of scripture" soon).
There can be no question that in their preaching the New Testament authors thought that they were also reporting historical facts. The question can only be whether they had any interest in the historical fact as such, and apart from its proclamation as an element of the Gospel story. (122)
There should further be agreement about that fact that the NT authors, in spite of their lack of interest in the historical issue as we have formulated it, are in the highest degree concerned about the actual happening of the history of Jesus which they proclaim. [This may seem contradictory to us, but not for the NT authors and this for an intrinsic reason:] What they preach is a history which by its very essence does not permit a mere scientific apprehension. Of course it is a history which runs its course in this world and therefore at every stage includes facts which essentially are more or less capable of being historically established also. But such mere historical-scientific appreciation would in any case fail to do justice to the essential import of this history. For this history requires from the hearer of its evangelical presentation, instead of the mere apprehension of facts, not only, as we like to say since Kiergegaard, a personal decision between scandalisation and faith (for this would not get to grips with the essential point), but rather it requires from the hearer faith that in this history a decision has been made affecting himself personally and his whole personal destiny. To believe in the message it announces means to become a disciple of Christ, which means that we live by the faith that we too are crucified and risen again with Christ. To miss the import of the history of JC, means therefore to miss also one's whole personal significance and destiny.We may fail to appreciate this history by not believing in the evangelical message it affords, for the history cannot make its impact on us except through the preaching of this Jesus who discloses and authenticates Himself in the gospel He declares. (125, 6)
Hermann Diem, Dogmatics (London: Oliver & Boyd, 1959)

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Shin Bet Have a blog

According to this BBC article, the Israeli secret service agency has set up its own blog.

The agents discuss how they were recruited, and what sort of work they perform; they also answer questions sent in by members of the public.

A Shin Bet official told the BBC that the idea was to inform the public that the agency offers work beyond just stopping Palestinian paramilitary attacks.
The official said that the agency had been cheered by the feedback from members of the Israeli public - keen to find out more about the jobs within Shin Bet, the pay and even the food.

I'll have to work on my modern Hebrew a bit to figure out what they're talking about!

Saturday, 29 March 2008

A Slideshow History of Zionism

I came across this on Kumah: The Neo-Zionist Überblog. Despite the fact that I do not know what an Überblog is (something like the Übermensch?) I'd like to say, for the sake of posterity, that I am not a "Christian Zionist" (neither is this blog).That aside, I find Israel, Zionsim, and contemporary Judaism to be exceedingly fascinating and so am delighted that some software company has developed "Slideshare," which in turn allows one to view funky powerpoint presentations of such fascinating topics as the one I've posted above.

Friday, 28 March 2008

A Conversation on Hans Frei, meaning and truth

I've spent a bit of time responding to John and Michael's comments on my post Hans Frei and Textual Referentiality, so nothing new today. Give it a peek if you're interested.

I should point out that Chris Tilling has started a small and beautiful series on Hauerwas' newly published Prayers Plainly Spoken. My favourite is this one. Ouch. It's so true.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

A New Scripture and Theology Blog

Daniel Driver links to an exciting new Scripture and Theology blog. The rate of posting averages at about one a week but it looks as if it should become a valuable resource to all those wanting to enter into and keep up to date with the area of theological exegesis.

Here's a little of what they have to say about themselves:

Scripture & Theology is a new e-magazine dedicated to the relationship between biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine. It exists by and for teachers of the church, which is to say, theologian-exegetes and exegetical theologians whether in academics, ministry, or the laity. The editors welcome all readers, and what is more, we invite your active participation.
You can contribute you own posts if you wish, thought it will have to be checked by the editors first. Here are some of the genres they are looking for:

- Book reviews
- Journal reviews (”What’s worth reading in …”)
- Theological exegesis
- Theological meditation on scripture (for an example of this, see R.R. Reno’s meditation on Genesis 23:2 and death)
- Noticing and analyzing trends in this area
- Engagements with historical and contemporary doctors (teachers) of the church
- Announcements of conferences or calls for papers on this topic

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Oh, the endless crucifixion ...

I'm finally back from my Easter holidays, though I have to admit that they weren't very "Eastery." Given that the categories "tradition" and "liturgy" play a significant role in my attempt to work out a theological hermeneutic, they play a surprisingly small role in my day to day spiritual life. Which I'm not necessarily content with - it's just the way fate has shaped my current context.

Having said that, I think I can say that one part of the actual Easter Sunday liturgy of my parents' Anglican church spoke to me in a personal way. In the midst of my otherwise distracted thoughts, the repeated response to the intercession remained echoing in my head long after the service:

Living Lord Jesus,

Bring life out of death.

That evening I had a heated discussion with my wife about a particular negative characteristic of mine which I've at best only registered intuitively. I've known that something is wrong, that it's damaging me and the people I know, but it's become so natural to me that I do it as a matter of habit. This destructive attitude has become part of my identity, part of the way I conceive myself, my history and my world. Recognising it, admitting to it hurts. It took a while, yet after persistent discussion and the patience of both partners I had to sink on my bed and recognize that a part of me was wrong and had to die. I've had to do this dying thing quite a lot (or at least it feels like it) and it sucks. It's akin to having the ground ripped from under your feet to be left dangling in a cold void.

And as I lay there struggling to come to terms with this the words in bold above reverberated through my head. At first it was my own petition. As so often in the past this petition can feel like crying out into space. But I then learnt, as on other occasions, that God really is a God of life, and that all the dying we need to go through is just part of the process of getting somewhere else. He's good and faithful like he says he is and somehow - I don't know how he manages it - he turns up at the right time to gently heal us and push us on. He's the great Gardner who's yearning to pour water into the wilderness in order for it to bloom. I guess we just have to learn what the wildnerness is before anything can grow there.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
I've just read a brilliant post by Halden of inhabitio dei on a Christological reading of the Psalms. He used Psalm 30 as an example. I wonder if it's true that just as we are "in" Christ, so we can become "in" David, making his Psalms our own.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Toolbar for Bibles, Bibliographies, Articles, Dictionaries, Blogs, News etc. etc.

First of all, apologies for the lack of posting lately. I'm in England with the family and have rather a lot of visiting and travelling to do. Thanks for the comments here. I will get back to you! Luckily I pre-made some posts to tide me over, so here's my small contribution for today:

Thanks to Jim West for pointing out a very useful "techno-geekish" innovation from Tyndale House. David Instone-Brewer has put together a toolbar which is great for those who spend their days looking up bits of Bible, comparing translations, reading the original, reading obscure dead languages, and searching for articles and bibliographies. Go here to read about it. Click on the top image to download it. This new gadget has certainly made my life easier!

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

I'm on the Road

so I will start posting more regularly from Monday. I'm currently in London visiting a friend (and the reconstructed Globe theatre, which is fantastic!) and on Friday I'm off to the parents in Taunton, Somerset, to celebrate Easter. My dad tends to hog the computer but in between I should be able to make the odd post of deep theological profundity!

In the meantime, I'm delighted to see that the goodly John Poirier has posted a critical response to my post on Hans Frei and Textual Referentality. I haven't had time to read it yet but look forward the ensuing conversation (I should add that the second post in the series is here).

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

I'm Being Published!

Which is great news - for me at least! It's my first publication and is an article summarizing Childs' canonical approach. It will appear in the Princeton Theological Review this Spring. Many thanks to Timothy Goering for putting me on to this, and of course to David Congdon and his editorial team for working through the mountain of stylistic errors! I've since read the SBL handbook of style (the student supplement is here) and can promise all future publishers that as of now I will stick to the rules in order to make their lives infinitely easier!

Monday, 17 March 2008

What are the Gospels About and How?

In my last post I wrote of the subtlety of Hans Frei's position on the question of narrative referentiality. It's not as if “realistic narratives” do nothing more than create their own aesthetic worlds, with no intention to point beyond themselves to the “real” world outside the text. It is possible for a narrator to refer to reality by means of a story. The question is how we are to understand the nature of this referencing and the nature of the referent. This is an issue that touches the heart of traditional Christian theology, which claims that a historical resurrection in time and space is the corner-stone of its faith.

One cannot talk of the nature of a referent without a concrete text in mind, so let's look at Frei's handling of the gospels. According to Frei, these texts are ultimately “witnesses” to the Word of God. But what is the Word of God? Is it identifiable with the concrete history of Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish carpenter cum rabbi who was crucified in Jerusalem? Frei sees this Word as being more than (but not less than!) the “historical Jesus.” It is God incarnate, the inauguration of the kingdom, transcendence on earth, resurrection, and as such, is a reality that explodes any human categories for understanding it. How is it that any text can adequately communicate the reality of God in Christ, given the limitations of human thought and language? As Frei says,

we ... are able to think, only by way of the language in which we think. Our referencing, especially in cases where empirical objects are not involved, like God ... is language-bound. God is perhaps like us, but we also know that He is very much unlike us. Our referencing then and there is simply not ordinary referencing. (1993: 209)
So if the referent of the Gospels is one which cannot be adequately expressed by any human language, yet it is important, indeed vital, that we understand this referent, what is to be done?

Here we come to two things: the grace of God and “textuality.”

The grace of God is that the stories of the gospels are “sufficient” for our knowledge of their referent. They don't exhaust it, but they are enough for what we need, which is more than a satisfied curiosity (discipleship comes to mind). The “textuality” of the gospels, however, is the means by which that profundity is sufficiently mediated to us. Narrative is that mode of communication in which character and circumstance are intimately connected, so that if they are separated the meaning of the story is lost. The character of Jesus in the gospels is part and parcel of the narrative world of which he is a part and which contributes to the construction of his identity. Jesus, not as historical datum but as incarnate Word, is witnessed to by the narrative shape of the gospels, so that when the text references Him, it references him not just historically (e.g. using ostensive reference) but also textually (e.g. using self-reference).

This is how Frei puts it:

There is often a historical reference and often there is a textual reference; that is, the text is witness to the Word of God, whether it is historical or not. And when I say witness to the Word of God, I'm not at all sure that I can make the distinction between “witness” to the Word of God, and Word of God written. That is to say, the text is sufficient for our reference, both when it refers historically and when it refers to its divine original only by itself, textually. (ibid.)
Referencing in the gospels (and in the Bible as a whole) is no simple thing. But given the nature of the referent this should not be surprising. However we speak of God, he has chosen that we must start from the text:

that is the language pattern, the meaning-and-reference pattern to which we are bound, and which is sufficient for us.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Hans Frei on Textual Referentiality

It's been said that Frei rejects the idea of textual referentiality, that the meaning of a story is the story itself and that questions of any reality outside of the text are irrelevant to interpretation.

In reality his understanding of the issue was far more subtle. In his essay "Conflicts in Interpretation," he points out the necessity of textual referentiality for Christian faith. His chief concern, however, is an over-easy rush to the referent which overlooks the nature of the text doing the referencing, as well as a proper understanding of the relationship between text and referent. Here's what he has to say:

Christians do have to speak of the referent of the text. They have to speak historically and ontologically, but in each case, it must be the notion of truth, or reference, that is re-shaped extravagantly, not the reading of the literal text. Any notion of truth that disallows the condescension of truth to the depiction in the text, to its own self-identification, with, let us say, the four-fold story of Jesus of Nazareth taken as an ordinary story, has itself to be viewed with profound skepticism by a Christian interpreter. The textual world, as witness, is not identical to the Word of God and, yet, by the Spirit's grace, it is "sufficient" for the witnessing. Perhaps I hammer this theme too vigorously. If I do so, the reason is that in much modern theology the primacy of the subject-matter, the referent or the truth, over the text has usually meant that the text is adequate to the task by virtue of pointing to the subject-matter, that is to say, what is hidden within or implied by the text, and not by virtue of the literal sense. My own understanding of the matter, then, is that those who want to preserve Luther's fine, tense balance between Scripture as witness and as literal sense today may well be giving up one side of it. In modernity or, as they like to say in Chicago, "post-modernity," the temporary condition of the balance is to stress the sufficiency of the literal sense, without, of course, the "fundamentalist" correspondence between the literal and its ostensive reference. (1992: 355).
I plead, then, for the primacy of the literal sense and its puzzling but firm relationship to a truth towards which we cannot thrust. The modus significandi will never allow us to say what the res significata is. Nonetheless, we can affirm that, in the Christian confession of divine grace, the truth is such that the text is sufficient. There is a fit due to the mystery of grace between truth and text. But that, of course, is a very delicate and very constant operation to find that fit between textuality and truth. (356)
Tomorrow I'll post Frei's thoughts on this in relation to the "historicity" of the gospels.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Unity of the Faith of the Church Throughout the Whole World

This is the title of chapter ten in Irenaeus' Adversus Heareses. He opens by defining this faith in what he, and the church after him, called the "rule of truth." How universal is this rule today within the global church?

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:
[She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.
Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.I : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. The apostolic fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Against Heresies, I.x (330). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

Although you can read the whole book for free on the Internet, the version here is citable for an essay.

Is the Murdered Chaldean Bishop a Hero?

I'm not sure how to define one, but the New York Times' account of the recent murder of Paulos Faraj Rahho, Archbishop in Mosul, Iraq, has a detail that I find deeply moving.

Gunmen sprayed his car with bullets, killed two bodyguards and shoved the archbishop into the trunk of a car, the church officials said. In the darkness, he managed to pull out his cellphone and call the church, telling officials not to pay a ransom for his release, they said.
“He believed that this money would not be paid for good works and would be used for killing and more evil actions,” the officials said.
Apparently, the bishop had been shot in the leg. That he could still think of ransom money and the use to which it would be put, is a testimony to his character.

The article details the plight of Christians in Iraq:

In the last few years, Mosul has been a difficult place for Christians. The archbishop’s kidnapping followed a series of attacks in January on Christian churches. Last June, a priest and three companions were shot and killed in the archbishop’s church. In January 2005, Archbishop George Yasilious, of another church in Mosul, was kidnapped and later released. In October 2006, an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was beheaded after he was kidnapped and attempts to ransom him failed.
The number of Chaldeans in Iraq has dropped by at least a million since the end of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, though the Chaldeans are still the largest Christian group in the country. Priests have estimated that fewer than 500,000 remain in Iraq.
Read the whole article here.

For a website dedicated to the plight of Iraqi Christians, go here.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Barth on Word and Witness: A Three Sentence Summary

I have a confession to make: I've only read one book by Barth and I read it in German, which means that not only have I pulled out a single thread from what looks to be a complex tapestry, I've read it in a language which even Germans find hard to understand.

This circumstance notwithstanding, I offer my attempt at a summary of Barth's understanding of the role of Gospel and Witness in theological study. Please, do tell me how shallow and wrong this is and tell me where to look for a better summary of these issues.

So, here it is:
The goal of theological inquiry is the Gospel of God, a reality distinguishable from yet mediated through the canonical scriptures, understood to be the deposit of the historical witnesses of the prophets and the apostles to this reality in their own time. This reality is one, yet the witnesses are many. As such, the theologian, who can only stand in humble obedience to the superior testimony of the prophets and apostles, must constantly analyse and compare these manifold testimonies in relationship to their common referent, the object of theological science, the Gospel.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Canonical Process and the Text as "Witness"

In my posts on Brevard Childs' so-called "canonical approach" I have often used the category of "witness" (see here for a first definition). This category was used by Childs before his development of the canonical idea and remained determinative for him throughout his career (see, e.g., my summary of an article from 1967 here). It is significant to grasp this as his commitment to the concept and value of “canonical process” is derivative of his understanding of these texts as a historical witness for a concrete people to concrete reality in time. The concept of “witness” in its first instance is not tied to the final form of the text, but rather emphasises the particularity of the text in all its dimensions. More primary then “final form” is a commitment to the particular form in which the prophets and apostles bore witness to God. Israel's concern to pass on its witness in a new form so that God's revelation would be accessible to a new generation is everywhere evident in his earlier historical-critical works.

Failure to grasp this point has characterised critique of Childs' position throughout his career, so that in his final pre-mortem book in 2004 he once again had to set the record straight. In response to accusations of a-historicism or an arbitrary privileging of the final form Childs says:

“The truth is that I agree with von Rad's position that no stage in the Old Testament's long history of growth is obsolete, and that something of each phase has been conserved until its final form. The confusion arises from a disagreement on the nature of the exegetical task being undertaken. It is one thing to attempt to understand the Old Testament as the sacred scriptures of the church. It is quite another to understand the study of the Bible in history-of-religions categories. Both tasks are legitimate, but they are different in goal and procedure. The hermeneutical issue at stake does not lie in an alleged contrast between historical process and scripture's final form. To understand the Bible as scripture means to reflect on the witnesses of the text transmitted through the testimony of the prophets and apostles. It involves an understanding of biblical history as the activity of God testified to in scripture. In contrast, a history-of-religions approach attempts to reconstruct a history according to the widely accepted categories of the Enlightenment, as a scientifically objective analysis according to the rules of critical research prescribed by common human experience. ... [T]he two approaches are different in goals, assumptions and results. Yet the complexity is manifest in that the two are to be neither fused nor separated from each other. There is a subtle interrelationship that must be maintained. ... The confusion respecting the final form of the canonical text arises because of the failure to recognize that two different approaches to exegesis are involved that do not share a common understanding of history. To speak of the privileged state of the canonical form is not to disregard Israel's past history. However, it refuses to fuse the canonical process of the shaping of the witness of the prophets and apostles with an allegedly objective scientific reconstruction that uses a critical filter to eliminate those very features that constitute its witness, namely, the presence of God in the history of Israel and the church” (2004: 321)[*]
[*] Childs attributes such misconstrual first to J. Barr (1983), which was then picked up by J. Barton (1984) and continued by Nicholson (1998) and a host of others. In his review of the canon in recent Biblical Studies Childs praises recent German work for not making the mistake of their Anglo-Saxon colleagues , namely that of posing the hermeneutical problem of the growth of the canon in terms of canonical process or final form interpretation. Instead, the focus has been on the nature of the process and the nature of the final form (2006: 52). Though see his warnings on p. 52!

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Normativity and Canon

“The problem of developing theological norms with which to evaluate the diversity within the Old Testament finally forces the interpreter outside the context of the Old Testament and raises the broader question of scripture and canon”
B.S. Childs, Isaiah and the Assyrian Crisis (London: SCM Press, 1967), 127

A Great Conversation

For those interested in talking about the nature of and relation between the literal and spiritual senses of Christian Scripture, I recommend a peek at a great conversation that has developed on my Literal and Spiritual Sense of Scripture post. Well, I think it's great anyway. I am truly blessed to have a certain Michael push, critique, and challenge me on this issue. It was precisely for conversations such as these that I set up this blog, and am always grateful when the odd passing soul stops by to say, "Oi, that doesn't make sense!"

So join the fray and feel free to tear me apart. I love it!

Monday, 10 March 2008

The Spiritual Sense and Exegetical Integrity

Continuing my "spiritual/literal sense" thread, I want to counter the criticism that "pushing through" the text to its spiritual meaning (as argued here) necessarily entails subordinating the text to dogma.

The "outward thrust" to the text's spiritual meaning does not obviate the need for a second move, in which the particular text is re-heard in light of the full reality of God in Jesus Christ. Childs claims that biblical language has the ability

“to resonate in a new and creative fashion when read from the vantage point of a fuller understanding of Christian truth. Such a reading is not intended to threaten the sensus literalis of the text, but to extend through figuration a reality which has only been partially heard. It is for this reason that allegory or typology, when properly understood and practised, remains an essential part of Christian interpretation and reflects a different understanding of how biblical reality is rendered than, say, midrash does within Judaism.” (1992: 87, 88).
The central role of the literal or plain sense as witness to the spiritual obliges the Christian exegete to preserve the integrity of the literal sense, which means that there must be the descriptive task associated with traditional academic exegesis. Indeed, Childs claims, this function of the literal sense as “witness” to an external truth creates the very possibility of genuine exegesis, in which the text can be confronted in all its dimensions (1964: 438)!

Here are some examples taken from Childs before he developed his canonical approach (1964):

If biblical authority functions at the level of the interpretive framework within which the literal sense takes shape, then the need for a theory of sacred language and text is obviated. This creates space for precise textual description.

The confession that the unity of scripture is theological and exists at the level of its spiritual and not literal sense abrogates the need for arbitrary harmonization of literary sources as well as the need to privilege a particular historical layer.

A functional understanding of the Bible as witness for a concrete, historically situated people allows for form critical analysis which highlights the particular forms of this witness, all of which point to a single truth.

The fact that this truth does not lie immediately at the level of the literal sense of the witness frees the interpreter from the need to read dogmatic laws into the literal sense, such as theories of universal development or of existential self-understanding.

Finally, the nature of the historically particular text as “witness” necessitates attention to the text's historical minutiae. On the other hand, this witness opposes the assumptions of historicism that “these tools open the true avenue to 'what really happened' and provide a means of bypassing the biblical witness to God's redemptive purpose with Israel." [*]

[*] Examples taken from Childs, “Interpretation in Faith: The Theological Responsibility of an Old Testament Commentary” Interpretation 18 no 40 pp. 432 – 449.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

On Understanding Terrorism

For a fitting commentary on this photo, read this.
Hat tip for article John Hobbins.

Hat tip for images Kumah

Contemporary Islam and the Modern Middle East: An Interview with Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis is an internationally acclaimed expert on Isalm and the Middle East. You can read a fascinating interview with him by the Jerusalem Post here. He discusses the role of women in the Middle East, attitudes to Israel and America, contemporary trends and future developments. He talks of the need to distinguish between Isalm as religion and Islam as civilization, and the perversion of true Isalm by fundamentalists. Here's his conclusion, a summary of the challenge that lies ahead.

People of my generation have not forgotten Neville Chamberlain's Munich Agreement with Hitler. That was a perfect example of "preemptive cringe" diplomacy. It was the sort of thing which gave the previously innocent word "appeasement" a bad name.
What we are facing now is the third major threat to the world. The first was Nazism, the second Bolshevism and now this. There are parallels. Germany is a great nation, and German patriotism is a perfectly legitimate expression of the pride and loyalty Germans have for their country. But Nazism was a monstrous perversion of that and a curse to the Germans, as well as a threat to the rest of the world.
The aspiration for social betterment and social justice is very noble. But Bolshevism was a monstrous perversion of that, as well as a curse to Russia and a threat to the rest of the world.
Now we have a third similar situation. Islam is one of the great religions that sponsored one of the greatest civilizations in human history. But it has fallen into the hands of a group of people who are the equivalent of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. They are a curse to their own people, as well as a threat to the rest of the world.

In all three cases, defeat means liberation.

Hat tip Kevin Edgewood, via The Biblicalist.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Antiochenes and Alexandrians

"During much of the church's history, enormous energy, reflection, and debate has gone into the effort to understand exactly the relation between the literal and the spiritual dimensions of the biblical text. Usually the extravagant development of the allegorical method within Christianity has been assigned to Origen, whose influence of course has been enormous. Nevertheless, ... the interpretation of Origen has undergone serious revision during the last decades, and the earlier attempts to describe allegory as a Gnostic innovation, basically alien to Christianity, have not been sustained. A more balanced way of understanding the hermeneutical issues involved emerged from an analysis of the historic tensions between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools. The earlier misconstrual of the relationship, as if the Alexandrians were fanciful allegorists while the Antiochenes adumbrated modern historical criticism in stressing the historical context, has been replaced by careful study of both the similarities and differences regarding the issue of multiple textual meanings. Both schools fully agreed in recognizing both a literal and spiritual dimension, and both sought to develop subtle strategies by which to guide and control the interrelationship of the two. The great variation in the hermeneutical terminology - theoria, allegoria, skopus, nous - reflects the continuing struggle for exegetical precision. the Alexandrians were passionate in believing that the literal sense apart from the spiritual killed is meaning. However, the Antiochenes feared the biblical historical sequence could be lost in timeless symbolism. It is important to note that by the fifth century elements of the best from each exegetical tradition had been appropriated by Christian expositors (Jerome, Theodoret, Cyril)."

(B.S. Childs, The Struggle to Read Isaiah as Christian Scripture, 303).

Friday, 7 March 2008

The Relation Between the "Spiritual" and "Literal" Senses

I argued here that Christian exegesis requires a distinction between the text's literal and spiritual sense. As Childs argues, the question of the existence of a “spiritual” dimension to the text goes back to the New Testament (cf. John 3:14; Matt. 16:4; 1 Cor. 9:9; Romans 3:31ff; etc.[2004: 302]). The issue for the Church has not been the existence of a spiritual sense, but rather the nature of the relationship between the literal and spiritual dimensions.

Childs' own proposal draws on the logic of “faith seeking knowledge.” In other words, the desire to understand the divine reality requires a starting point from within a position of faith: Christians confess “Christ [while] struggling to understand the nature and will of the One who has already been revealed as Lord”(1992: 86). This entails what in general hermeneutics is called the “hermeneutical circle.” Childs also draws on Dilthey's distinction between erklären (explanation) and verstehen (understanding) in order to help him explain the dialectical move from the particular (the literal sense) to the general (the spiritual sense) and back again. In other words, one

“comes to exegesis already with certain theological [i.e. 'spiritual'] assumptions and the task of good exegesis is to penetrate so deeply into the biblical text [i.e. in its literal sense] that even these assumptions are called into question, are tested and revised by the subject matter itself” (1997: 60).
In more theological terms, the basic thrust of Christian exegesis can be described as a move from

“the partial grasp of fragmentary reality found in both testaments to the full reality which the Christian church confesses to have found in Jesus Christ, in the combined witness of the two testaments.”(1992: 85)

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Buber in a Graveyard in Worms

For reasons too complex and personal to discuss here, I have developed over the years a deep emotional connection with all things "Jewish." I'm a Christian, but when I visit churches I often get the feeling of being out of place, that this is not my home and that there is so much more going on then that to which the Church witnesses to. The tension, if that's what it is, was highlighted for me on a recent visit to Worms, one of the Ashkenazi holy cities here in Germany. It has the oldest Jewish graveyard in Europe. As I stood amongst the broken stones I looked up at the cathedral I felt the painful tension: where do I belong? Who is our God and what is he doing? I was reminded of a Buber quote, which has become for me one of all my all time favorites (alongside another, related quote by Bonhoeffer).

I live a short distance from the city of Worms, to which I am also tied by ancestral tradition; and from time to time I visit there. When I do so, I always go first to the cathedral. It is a visible harmony of members, a whole in which no part deviates from the norm of perfection. I walk around the cathedral, gazing at it in perfect joy. Then I go to the Jewish cemetery. It is consists of cracked and crooked stones without shape or direction. I enter the cemetery and look up from this disorder to the marvelous harmony of the cathedral, and it seems to me as if I were looking from Israel up to the Church. Here below there is no suggestion of form, only the stones and the ashes beneath the stones. The ashes are there, no matter how they have been scattered. The corporeality of human beings who have become ashes is there. It is there. It is there for me. It is there for me, not as corporeality within the space of this planet, but as corporeality deep in my own memories, back into the depths of history, back as far as Sinai.
I have stood there; I have been united with the ashes and through them with the patriarchs. That is a remembrance of the divine-human encounter which is granted to all Jews. The perfection of the Christian God-space cannot divert me from this; nothing can divert me from the God-time of Israel.
I have stood there and I have experienced everything myself. I have experienced all the death that was before me; all the ashes, all the desolation, all the noiseless wailings become mine. But the covenant has not been withdrawn for me. I lie on the ground, prostrate like these stones. But it has not been withdrawn for me.
The cathedral is as it is. The cemetery is as it is. But nothing has been withdrawn for us." [*]
[*] Martin Buber, "Church, State, Nation, Jewry," Christianity: Some None-Christian Appraisals, ed. David W. McKain (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) 186-87.

A Blog Discussion on MT vs LXX

Unfortunately I find it hard to keep up with the great posting that goes on in the blogosphere. Way back in November, Stephen from Emerging from Babel had a great discussion on Childs and the question of which text tradition ought to be authoritative for the church. Excellent contributions from John Hobbins and Daniel Driver are to be found in the comments.

The first post is here: Which Text?

The second here: Which Text? part 2

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

A New Biblical Studies List

As if on cue, a new and interesting looking biblical studies list, The Biblicalist, has been set up, one which recognises that the Bible is about theology as well as ancient Near Eastern history. The choice of moderators is impressive and I look forward to watching the list develop. I highly recommend people to join groups such as these. The discussion is often highly competent and they provide a great forum for making contacts, testing out ideas, and simply being kept up to date on contemporary developments. I let them introduce themselves:

The moderators would like to announce the release of their new biblical studies email list, The Biblicalist:

The Biblicalist is a biblical studies list of academic emphasis open to all who wish to approach the Bible in its wider context, past and present. All viewpoints and perspectives which draw on the work of scholars in biblical studies and cognate disciplines are welcome. Topics of discussion include the interpretation of particular texts of the Bible and related literature, the background of ancient Near Eastern and Classical cultures, theological and philosophical reflections on relevant issues, and the Bible in art and literature, including the reception of the Bible from ancient times to the present. Other topics in a similar vein are not only welcome, but encouraged.The moderators (listed below) are all well-known biblicabloggers and participants on other lists. We would like to invite all interested people to join our new list.

Stephen Carlson (Hypotyposeis)
Kevin Edgecomb (Biblicalia)
Chris Heard (Higgaion)
John Hobbins (Ancient Hebrew Poetry)
Jerry Shepherd (Taylor Seminary)
Rikk Watts (Regent College)
Chris Weimer (Thoughts on Antiquity)
Tyler Williams (Codex)

We would like to invite all interested people to join our new list.

I'd like that too!