Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Critique of G. Steins' canonical proposal (or why philosophy isn't enough)

In a recently published volume dedicated to the question of “canonical exegesis,” G. Steins develops his own understanding of the nature of the activity as anamnesis, as a form actualizing the past in the present (=Vergegenwärtigung). The logic goes as follows:

Texts in general must be interpreted according to their nature. The nature of the biblical texts is that they are “witnesses” to the a special “history” between God and his chosen people. Steins interprets this kerygmatic nature in functional terms: the texts not only point to a history of relationship between God and his people, they function to actualize this history afresh for each new generation. This “actualizing” function is part of the text itself (textimmanent), and so interpretation of these texts is best done when the goal is to “meet God” (Gottesbegegnung), to have the theological reality to which the text points actualized in the present (anamnesis). Indeed, the moment of actualization in which past becomes contemporaneous and the Bible's history becomes our history, is, for Steins, the moment when the text is functions as witness and not as historical source. Reading the Bible as anamnesis is thus not a purely descriptive discipline, it is Biblische Theologie im Vollzug, the practice of biblical theology itself. Freed from their historical moorings and read in their literary contexts, new possibilities are created as texts are read in relation to each each other as part of the one biblical meta-narrative. Examples are furnished from the Last Supper and the Pentateuch. The conclusion is that, according to the Bible, the relationship between past and present in God's time is not only temporal but ontological. The proper context for interpretation, then, is not historical research but ritual (Steins is Catholic after all!).

Having steeped myself in Childs over the past year, this essay raises some questions for me.

1)The role of reader-response theory. Unlike Childs, Steins makes much of reader-response theory, while having no space whatsoever for the history of interpretation (a characteristic of the volume as a whole, according to Daniel Driver's review). The result is that Stein's justification of his approach takes on a decidedly philosophical flavour in contrast to Childs' theological approach. But do these categories serve him well? Steins argues that the insight that the reader is actively involved in the construction of meaning raises the question of “power” over the text. This is good and well, but does it follow that the reader should therefore only focus on the final form? Reader-response theory emphases that all texts are constructed by the reader, so that there is no such thing as a pure space in which ideology free interpretation can take place. Reader response theory alone cannot justify reader the final form. Childs remedies this by appealing to the Holy Spirit in the economy of God: the canon is the prescribed arena in which the church continuously attempts to hear the Word of God. This arena is the context in which the “history of God” is most fully appreciated, not because any attempt to dig behind it subordinates the canon to ideological control (though that danger is of course always present) but because that is the way God has providentially guided things. Focus on final form exegesis has, for Childs, a theological rather than ideological grounding.

2)The significance of the “post-modern” turn. Again, Steins grounds what should be theological statements in philosophical ones. He states: “The post-modern moment consists in the recognition that the history which is witnessed to [in the Bible] cannot be “had” either outside of or behind the text” (120). I'm not sure how post-modernism helps us see that, other than it's insistence that “there is no reality outside of the text.” But as far as I am aware, “text” here applies to all communication and not just written forms. This doesn't get us much closer to final form exegesis in any substantial sense, especially as a lot of post-modern exegesis emphasis the communal construction of not only the text but also the history witnessed to. Childs makes a similar statement, but he grounds it not in our epistemological capabilities but in a confession that the text is God's elected means of self-revelation, a vehicle for a divine force which breaks through our categories and creates something new. And indeed, because it is a vehicle, the theological reality to which the Bible witnesses is outside of the text! The unity of Scripture is not the unity of an intertextually cross-linked web (cf. Childs' critique of Steins' Die “Bindung Isaaks” im Kanon), but the unity of its source: God. This in turn has exegetical implications, as the particular profile of each witness within the Bible determines the nature of the intertextual links that can be made.

3)The definition of the text “as witness.”Though both Childs and Steins emphasise the witnessing “quality” of the text, they have different understandings of its nature. For Steins, it seems as if the text becomes a witness in the moment it is actualized. It ceases to be a witness when it is historically critically analysed. Childs, on the other hand, has emphasised that exactly because the text is a witness it is historically grounded, namely in the testimony of the historical prophets and apostles. They witnessed then, in their own concrete time and manner. The “canonical process” was an expansion of this message, but always in continuity with its historical roots. It's truth stands or falls according to the nature of the process. We need to focus on the final form, not because it is here that the text can become a witness in any cultic sense, but because the object to which all the witnesses in their diachronic depth point makes himself fully known in the chorus of their voices.

These critical points could be seen as hair-splitting, but they are important none-the-less, as theological exegesis is ultimately not about finding ways to make the text interesting or meaningful, but about hearing the Word of God in it. I certainly don't want to detract from the importance of this article, especially in the German context for which it was written. It's a breath of fresh air to read a German scholar that has a very good grasp of what Childs is on about, and Steins' own twist on the canonical approach is an important contribution to the ongoing discussion.

NB The term "anamnesis" is also a liturgical term, referring to the rememberance of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus just before the Eucharist, hence the image above.

Update: I've since discussed this post with Steins himself. He claims I misunderstand him. I think it may be the other way round. The best thing is to read the article yourself! Steins is a brilliant and exciting scholar and I hope Germany will produce more like him.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Call for Papers: "What is Theological Interpretation?"

Scripture and Theology note an exciting call for papers. In memory of Colin Gunton, SST/IJST are looking for contributions dealing with the question, "What is Theological Interpretation?" There's even money in it: £200 for the best essay! I just happen to be working on the dogmatic presuppositions of Childs' canonical exegesis, so if I get it done by the October deadline I'll send it off.

For more details go to the Scripture and Theology blog. In particular, check out comment no. # 3, as L. Tallion has kindly posted out the entry requirements.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Historicity and Canonical Witness

In his discussion of the miracles of the wilderness traditions in Exodus, Childs deals briefly with the question of the relationship of the witness within the canon to extra biblical evidence. His answer is frustratingly ambiguous, so I post it here to hear what others have to say on the matter:

There are two traditional approaches to this ... problem, both of which, in my judgement, are inadequate. The first is the 'supernaturalistic' viewpoint. According to this position the biblical witness is the normative, and therefore historically accurate, record of the event in accordance with which the extra-biblical evidence must be corrected and controlled. This position suffers in that it seeks to employ categories taken from outside the Bible, such as historicity, objectivity, and the like, and yet to retain without criticism the content of the canonical witness. It seeks to guarantee a reality testified to in the canon by means of dogmatic controls employed outside the area of faith. The second position, which is that of rationalism, represents the opposite extreme. It seeks to determine the truth of the biblical testimony on the basis of critical evaluation according to rational criteria, based on past human experience. It suffers from assuming that its criteria are adequate to test all reality, and it eliminates the basic theological issue by definition. In terms of the manna story, the supernaturalists claim that the exodus story is a historically accurate report of a unique miracle which is unrelated to any natural food of the desert. The rationalists conversely claim that the exodus story is an imaginary (or poetic) projection into the supernatural sphere of a natural phenomenon of the desert which can be fully described scientifically. [*]
So what's the solution?

[*] Childs, The Book of Exodus 1974: 299, 300.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Gabler wasn't all bad

In a recent post I raised the question concerning the nature of the unity of the final form of the biblical text. Contrary to popular misconception, Childs does not locate the Bible's unity in a unitary literary structure. Rather, the unity is outside of the Bible, in its referent, which is theological. The diversity of witnesses present are unified by their source and not by their perspective.

The corollary of this insight is that exegesis which wishes to really get to the “substance” of what the Bible is about needs to go beyond describing the contours of each individual witness and “push through” the text to theological reality that called them into being. This activity of “pushing through” is consonant with the intentionality of the text itself, as it is ultimately kerygmatic, i.e. it functions to proclaim something.

As I noted in the previous post, this brings Childs closer to the exegetical approach of Gabler, rather than Frei, with whom he is more usually associated. Here's the key quote from Gabler:

"If exegesis is to be nothing more than giving an account of the meaning of a writer--of what he himself meant by what he said--then no doubt the conventional explanation of the story of Jesus' temptation as an objective appearance and activity of Satan is the only true one, for in their account Matthew and Luke appear to have nothing more in mind. Once this fact has been established, the task of the grammatical exegete is indeed at an end, since he has only the concern himself with the true meaning of his author. If we know only the meaning of a biblical passage, we in our day are very little further ahead. It is now the turn of historical and philosophical criticism, which subjects such a biblical passage to its closest examination. This critical analysis functions in the area of explanation of content, just as the discovery of the grammatical meaning functions in the area of the explanation of words. The task of the Biblical exegete involves both. In fact, then, we can draw a valid distinction between interpretation and explanation: to the former belongs only the attempt to recover the meaning of the passage; to the latter, on the other hand, the explanation of the matter itself. . . . In our day is anyone satisfied, for example, with the merely grammatical interpretation of the Mosaic cosmogony and of the earliest story of mankind?" [*]
Gabler, along with most of his generation, noted a certain dissatisfaction with pure exposition of the “meaning” of the text. Surely the question of truth must arise too, and that is dealt with by looking at the “content” of the Bible. The fascinating question is what is the content (or the Sachverhalt, or res as Childs called it) of the Bible? That is where Childs parts company with Gabler, with direct hermeneutical implications.

[*] J. Ph. Gabler, "Über den Unterschied zwischen Auslegung und Erklärung erläutert durch die verschiedene Behandlungsart der Versuchungeschichte Jesu," Neuestes theologisches Journal 6 (1880):224ff, repr. in Kleinere theologische Scriften, vol 1, p. 201ff; quoted in Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems, p. 102-103.

[HT Michael for the quote ;)]

Thursday, 24 April 2008

An Exciting Colloquim on the Psalms!

An exciting colloquim on the Psalms is scheduled to take place in Leuven, Belgium, from August 5 - 7. Considering that it is presided over by Erich Zenger, it is not surprising that the focus is on The Composition of the Book of Psalms. This is an area that of special interest to me so if I can get accommodation sorted out I will be there. Enrolment costs 13€ for students. Lectures will be held in English, German, French, and Dutch. For a full programme go here.

I wanted to list the papers I'll definitely be visiting, but having glanced through them once again there are none that are not relevant. By far the most relevant for me will be William Brown's The metaphorical theology of the Composition of Psalms 15-24. (mmmm ... >salivate<)

Need I mention that this shift in interpretation has its roots in Childs' canonical approach, in particular his seminal essay "Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis," Journal of Semitic Studies 16 (1971), 137-150? (Pdf on ATLA). Hossfeld and Zenger have mentioned their indebtedness to "anglo-saxon" approaches, though in practice their attachment to redactional intentionality holds them back from making the full "canonical jump."

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The Bible as "Vehicle"

I've made much of the fact that for Childs the text is a witness to a divine reality. This has hermeneutical implications, especially concerning how we should read the final form of the text (see here, especially, but also here and here).

As I read through Childs' Exodus commentary, I notice that he also uses the word vehicle. As such, the Bible is a vehicle of truth, so that particular stories can be used to illustrate certain truths or drive a point home. The Rabbis, for example, used the story of the manna in the wilderness as a vehicle for expressing God's care for his people; the early church Fathers used the same story as a homiletical vehicle for a variety of themes, ranging from preparation for martyrdom (Ignatius) to polemics against the Jews (Cyril of Alexandria).

The question I'm asking myself, is whether there is a difference between the "Bible as witness" and the "Bible as vehicle"? The following article on the Biblical Theology movement uses the terms interchangeably: the Bible is a vehicle or witness of the divine Word.

I intend to keep an eye out as I keep on reading. In the meanwhile, I did a quick google and came up with the following interesting phrases on "the Bible as vehicle":

For a secular use of the term, this article talks about the Bible being used as a vehicle for cultural, historical education.

Steve Harris's blog speaks of the Bible as "a vehicle of God's authority through which he acts in the lives of people and in the world"

A critic of Christianity scorns the idea of the Bible being "a vehicle of magic communication from God to me."

A would be Gnostic helps a teenager struggling with Christianity with the following advice: she needs to remember "that the bible is a vehicle to God - a tool to use on your journey."

The Christian Right apparently uses the Bible as a vehicle for defending their position on many subjects.

The following site offers readers help on how to use the Bible as a vehicle for retelling their own life stories.

Someone claims that they are not using the Bible as a vehicle for saying what they want to say.

An article on the Doctrine of Scripture reminds us that "that the Bible is a vehicle to Christ, not an end in itself."

An article on Philo talks of the Bible as a vehicle of salvation.

Someone talks of the Bible as "a vehicle for trying to control people."

German neo-Orthodoxy spoke of the Bible as a vehicle for God's ongoing experiential revelation to humans.

Concerning social change, the Bible can be seen as a vehicle for development in South Africa today.

Colonial interpretation used the Bible as a vehicle for inculcating European manners.

Certain Jewish rituals allow parents to use the Bible as a vehicle for explaining the significance of the name they have chosen.

Some apparently consider the English Bible to be a vehicle for teaching true religion.

Some Jehovah's Witnesses have a habit of using the Bible as a vehicle to critique the Roman Catholic Church.

Some insidious groups use the Bible as a vehicle for the promotion of mind control.

Interestingly, the Bible was also used as a vehicle to advance literacy among Māori.

So, which of these uses of the Bible as a vehicle are appropriate to the Bible itself?

A Dream Offer ... which I just can't accept :(

I've been agonizing about a purchasing decision all night, and I have to make a decision this afternoon! The Catholic and Protestant theological faculties at the University of Bonn are combining their libraries, which means that a whole bunch of books are being sold at ridiculously low prices. The greatest deal of all is practically the entire Word Biblical Commentary. According to Logs, the retail price for the CD ROM is $1,199.99, Logos is selling it for $699.95, but I can buy it here in print form for roughly $ 280 (1 € per cm book thickness)!! Aaaagh, what do I do!

I actually wanted the CD ROM version as it

  • saves space

  • is searchable

But it is double the price of the print collection.

I've thought about this back and forth and am slowly coming to the painful realization that space and searchability are just too important to miss out on. But what do I do with a deal like this? The Germans have no idea what they are selling because they never use this commentary series (they have enough in German and Word is too conservative anyway).

Some possibilities:

  • Buy the lot and sell it for a profit on E-bay. But I've never been the businessman and if it didn't work my wife would kill me.
  • Buy it and donate it to my church. But even though most members of my church can read English, nobody ever reads commentaries. We already have a (lame) library and none of the commentaries ever get borrowed.

So, I'm currently attempting to call the pastor to see if the church would want the series anyway. But if not, does anyone out there have any recommendations?

Monday, 21 April 2008

How Big is Your Gospel?

I have been posting less is recent days due to a decision to prioritize the progress of my doctorate over this blog. I'll probably be posting once every two days rather then every day, as I have been doing for the past year. If I don't respond immediately, forgive me. I will endeavour to get back as soon as possible - this blog was set up for the kinds of stimulating dialogue I have been privileged to have.

So today, with kind permission from Herr Tilling, I post a book review I initially wrote for his blog.

Neil Livingstone Picturing the Gospel: Tapping the Power of the Bible's Imagery (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2007)

I was already a Christian when I first came across a Billy Graham pamphlet at the age of 18. It didn't convert me—I was already a believer—but this version of the Gospel revolutionised the way I thought and did Christianity. The idea that it was for my sin that Jesus had died, that he was a bridge over a chasm separating me from God, that only through faith alone could I be saved—this new paradigm gave a coherency to my otherwise more intuitive spiritual life and integrated a host of theological themes that had otherwise baffled me. Before the pamphlet I had been a committed Christian, open about my faith and trying to let it shape my life. After the pamphlet, I had a new vision and focus, which transformed the way I did this.

Things haven't stayed still, and I'm learning that the Gospel is much more than Jesus paying for my sin. I've always known intuitively that God is about life, about transformation, about joy. I saw it in the Brethren community which gave me the pamphlet, but I didn't have the vocabulary to articulate it. In my yearning to take stock and figure out what is going on, I feel Neil Livingstone's book was written just for me!

Picturing the Gospel—the title says it all. Livingstone's aim is to open up the true nature of the Gospel to us so that it can change the way we do Christianity. Yet his vision of the Gospel is 3-dimensional and only an aesthetic journey into the intersection of heaven and earth can help us begin to grasp its contours. How could it be otherwise if, as he says, the Gospel "is a story of life and how life ought to be" (118)? "The Gospel is not a subject to be studied or debated; it is a call to be given, a new life to offer" (161).

Life, then, is the context within which our journey with Livingstone into the Gospel takes place. The journey consists of three stages, each focussing on different aspect of the Gospel message. These stages are then illustrated using images from the Bible and everyday life. Stage 1 concerns New Life, which is the goal of the Gospel. Livingstone intimates what true life really is, what it is that we are all truly yearning for. This is good news for those who feel the claws of death suffocating their ability to live. He illustrates the relational nature of this new life using the metaphor of adoption. This is good news for the unloved. Finally, he closes with kingdom imagery, communicating God's good news to those sick of the way the world is run.

These images have a "demanding beauty" in that, by implication, they point out what is wrong with us. Having been shown what we are saved for, stage 2, Images of Mercy and Restoration, focuses on what we are saved from. Feeling guilty? Read about justification. Or do you rather feel that you owe something? Then read about forgiveness. Or if you've managed to work up a sense of shame in our shame-less culture, read about atonement. There's good news for everyone!

The good news of the Gospel doesn't stop at our personal lives. It is also good news for the world, and for those who care about it. The final stage, Images of Deliverance, expands the horizon to include the broader forces of evil in the world which God's good news repudiates. The chapter on salvation deals with evil in general, whether we are its cause or its victim. Images of ransom and redemption show us the price that we are worth and that God paid to save us. And finally, to form an inclusio with the opening chapter on "life," Livingstone talks of the joy of the "freedom" to live God's life, which is our true life.

Picturing the Gospel does just that, but it barely scratches the surface. Livingstone hints at further visual possibilities: new creation, reconciliation, healing and sanctification, to name a few. For me at least, he has provided enough material to work on for a lifetime. Though the book is clearly and eloquently, even poetically, written, I often had the feeling of standing on the edge of something too big to grasp, something that will require study, meditation and application to fully grasp. It is helpful, therefore, that Livingstone provides us with a series of exercises at the end in order to help us let these images "sink in" and ultimately transform us. It is here that it becomes clear that the Gospel is not only something for those outside the fold, it is an ongoing call and challenge to those who have already responded to truly appropriate what has been offered to us. This is a book for both believers and unbelievers alike.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Source Criticism and the Final Form

Brevard Childs has often been accused of "flattening the text," i.e seeking literary unity where there is none for the sake of sticking with the text's final form. However, it is clear as one reads his 1975 Exodus commentary that nothing could be farther than the truth. Not only does he devote extensive space to source, form and tradition critical questions, he also consistently rejects more conservative attempts to find literary unity, even questioning the usefulness of such unity if actually present (such as U. Cassuto's suggestion of a structure behind the 10 plagues of Egypt).

In what, then, does the "integrity" of the final form consist, if not in its literary structure, and why is this so important to Childs?

A clue can be seen in Childs' endorsement of M. Greenberg's alternative to Cassuto's suggestion of a literary unity to the plague tradition. Greenberg simply delineates the major themes of the entire passage in its final form, which does not depend on identifying one final literary pattern. He sees the major theme of the plague story to revolve around the revelation by God of his nature to Pharaoh, to the Egyptians, and to all men. Within the movement of the book as a whole, the plagues function as a demonstration of God's power which shatter the human reisistance to this revelation.

Why does a thematic approach to the final form serve Childs better than literary analysis (the "canonical approach" has not been fully developed yet)? The answer lies with Childs' theological convictions. The text for Childs is not the product of human ingenuity alone, but has been ultimately called into being by God. The text's function within God's plan is to "witness" to the divine reality. As such, it is the divine reality which constitutes the unity of the text, and not the literal sense of the text itself. The literal sense serves as a "vehicle" to enable the interpreter to understand the broader reality behind it, but the vehicle is not to be confused with the reality itself. As such, contradictions at the level of the narrative point to the existence of various witnesses, each speaking of God from a different angle. It is in the unity of their perspectives that the unity of scripture consists and not in the existence of one perspective alone. It just so happens that the redactional shaping of the text belongs to the witness of text. This shaping functioned as a critical norm in order to guide way in which the multiple perspectives are correlated, so that it is at the level of the last redaction that the divine reality can be fully appreciated.

The theological exegete, then, is obliged both to look at the individual witnesses (e.g. JEPD) in all their particularity as well as the way in which they have been correlated by the final redactor. Ultimately, then, the theological exegete will need to draw on commentators of both a critical as well as conservative persuasion.

Ironically, this brings Childs closer to the approach of J. Gabler than H. Frei, something I will touch on in a follow up post.

NB Scripture and Theology have kindly posted this here, with a comment from internationally celebrated, world-renowned Childs expert, Daniel Driver (who, in his editing of the title, points out that this is about the early Childs).

Thursday, 17 April 2008

What Was the Deuteronomist Doing with the Law?

I've recently started jogging, something I actually hate doing. But since discovering Christine Haye's brilliant audio Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), which I've downloaded to my iPod, I've come to enjoy the mix of bracing winter air, sunrise over the Rhine, and fascinating Jewish introduction to the Tanakh in a cute American accent.

She said something today which reminded me of a thread I finished a while back, in which I looked at the nature of the relationship between the different redactional layers that constitute the Bible.

But the question is: what is the relationship between the differnet versions of the legal material? Some of these laws will parallel each other quite closely and others do not. So are Deuternomy's legal traditions a direct response to, or modification of, the laws in Exodus and Numbers, or are they best understood as just different, independent formulations of a common legal tradition? Weinfeld has argued that Deuteronomy is dependent on the previous traditions of the Pentateuch; Deuteronomy revises and reforms them according to new ideas, its new notion of a centralised cultic worship, and secondly its humanitarian spirit. ... Deuteronomy would have been seen as an updated replacement of the old Book of the Covenant, rather than its complement. They exists side by side in our texts now, but I think in his view those who promulgated it were understanding it as a replacement of the laws of the Book of the Covenant.
In a previous post I quoted Childs as saying the following concerning the extension of tradition:
Prophetic authority is related to the function of the biblical text. The text is the tradent of authority in establishing a link with specific prophetic figures. The literature has no life apart from Israel's life, institutions, and offices. The prophet serves as the living voice of God now preserved in a living text of Scripture. The text can certainly be extended beyond the scope of the original prophecy, but the theological link with its origin must be maintained in order to sustain its authority.
(For the full thread go here)
Given Childs' views on the significance of the nature of the relationship between layers of the text, I wonder how he would have responded to Weinfeld here.

NB. Awilum reflects on Hayes' iPod lecture series here.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

"Believing" and "unbelieving Exegesis": an example

In a previous post (and here) I asked whether it is possible for a “non-believer” to ever truly understand the Bible. The responses indicate that people assume I'm working with a subjective definition of faith, i.e. the fact of believing itself somehow enables the believer privileged access to the Bible's meaning, hidden from those with other or no faith. I'd like to point out that is not what I mean! When I talk of “believers,” I'm referring to the dominant categories of the faith community to which they belong, rather than any individual cognitive state. In other words, I'm thinking in terms of a community's formal criteria for meaning and truth, it's regula fidei. The important question for interpretation is which categories are most adequate to its subject matter, the Bible. In my opinion, where contemporary criticism errs is that it claims its categories are somehow not those of a particular faith community, but rather objective and theology-free.

I'd like to illustrate with two examples of exegesis of Genesis 1 [*]. The first is taken from H. Gunkel, a critic standing in the classic Enlightenment tradition, the second from Bonhoeffer, a confessional critic with both feet in the tradition of the church.

Gunkel's commentary on Genesis was held to be a commentary of unmatched brilliance, in which he brought to bear on his interpretation the full range of ancient Near Eastern parallels. For Gunkel, chapter 1 of Genesis was a reworking from a Hebrew perspective of the Babylonian creation myth, a reworking that retained much of the mythology in a broken, vestigal form. Gunkel emphasized Israel's unique tradition, and he sought, in the spirit of German romanticism, to instill an aesthetic appreciation for the creative genius of this ancient, primitive document.

This can be contrasted with the interpretation of a young Privatdozent, not particularly well trained in Old Testament, who begins his lecture on Gensis 1-3, not with JEPD but with Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God ...” Bonhoeffer wrote:

The Bible begins with God's free affirmation, ... free revelation of himself. ... In the beginning, out of freedom, out of nothing, God created the heavens and the earth. This is the comfort with which the Bible addresses us ... who are anxious before the false void, the beginning without a beginning and the end without and end. It is the gospel, it is the resurrected Christ of whom one is speaking here. God is in the beginning and he will be in the end. ... The fact that he lets us know this is mercy, grace, forgiveness and comfort. (Creation and Fall, 11, 16)
I'm not sure how to relate these two radically different interpretations ... What makes the difference? Is one more adequate than the other or are they both independent ways of doing two different things? Which one grapples better with the “subject matter” of Genesis 1? As Childs asks, “what caused Bonhoeffer to plunge into a new dimension of reality?”

It seems to me that the difference is one of interpretative context, rather than refined exegetical skill. One is the ancient Near East, the other is the canonical context of the church. But which context helps us grasp the Bible's substance, res, Sachverhalt best?

[*] Taken from Childs, “Interpreting the Bible Amid Cultural Change,” Theology Today 54 (1994), 200-211.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

News Update: Asylum for Iraqi Christians, traumatized Israeli soldiers and two Gazan surfers

I have already mentioned the plight of Iraqi Christians here.

An interesting piece of news has been posted to the German news website concerning the recent suggestion of the German Minister of the Interior, Wolfgang Schäuble, to offer special asylum to Iraqi Christians. He plans to discuss this with his European colleagues.

Then we will give advice on how we, as Germans and as Europeans, in the alarming situation facing Iraqi refugees—especially those amongst them of Christian faith— can responsibly provide help through admittance to Europe
Full report in German here.

A separate article reports about former Israeli soldier Yehuda Shaul, who has joined a group called “Schovrim Shtika”—“Breaking the Silence”. This group encourages traumatised soldiers to come into the open about their experiences during their three-year military service, experiences which they cannot reconcile with their consciousness. Some examples:

Young soldiers, who shoot wildly around themselves, and thereby hit an 18 year old Palestinian. Soldiers of the Kfir-Brigade who stick a fan heater into the face of an arrested Palestinian and film this with a mobile phone. A Palestinian, who had to get undressed at a check point and be beaten.
Yehuda is a religious Jew and now takes Israelis and tourists on trips to Hebron, a Palestinian village with Jewish settlement, in order to show the consequences of the violence.

The full report is here. The video report is here. Everything's in German, I'm afraid!

Finally, an interesting and touching report about the plight and dreams of two surfers from the Gaza strip. Video report here , here.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Conversations: the theological ground of interpretation and Hans Frei's heremeneutic

I currently have two conversations on the go, so no new post today. The first concerns Hans Frei's heremeneutic and can be found here, the second concerns whether being a "Christian" is a requisite for being able to interpret the Bible to the full. A provocative, and for many off-putting question to be sure. It's also far more complex than I am presenting it, but I think talking it through is a healthy exercise. Decide for yourself here.

For those worried about "politeness" and causing offense, don't be worried on my account. I like a good tussle, so go ahead and say what you want! Have a look at the "introduction" to my blog on the top right had corner:

Please feel free to criticise me, deconstruct me, tear me apart. In fact, I want you to do it! Don't worry about politeness, but do it with love. Which is, of course, harder than being polite.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

How can a knowledge of the Bible's referent help you understand the Bible?

Well, if the whole Bible has it's source in a single divine reality then it makes sense that the proper context for understanding individual biblical texts is the larger biblical tradition to which they belong. Given this assumption, Isaiah, Song of Songs, Matthew and Revelation would be just as important contexts for interpreting Genesis as the Enuma Elish.

If, on the other hand, the various texts are not understood to have has single divine source, and were instead written to subtly reference political, economic and sociological realities under the veil of theology, it makes sense that each perspective be isolated from the other and placed in those various contexts.

Does that follow? Are there other options?

I personally think that the truth is a mixture of both. The single divine source of scripture is of such a nature that "it" ("he") interacts with history, politics, economics and sociology. That's just my particularly incarnational way of construing the divine referent. The hermeneutical result is that both sides of the coin need to be taken into account. Each text was written in a particular context and this context is important to catching an important element of the text's meaning. However, the divine source that evoked the historical witness ensures that the proclamation of once upon a time is caught up within an unfolding drama, such that later generations would respond to the original witness from the perspective of a broader understanding of the divine source, incorporating this understanding into the literary shape of the text itself. Whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or JEPD, the various voices have been combined into a literary whole, the shape of which guarantees a proper glimpsing of what the various stages only glimpsed at before (a what these stages were ultimately truly interested in).

In short, making the hermeneutical decision to read the final form of the text only makes sense if one subscribes to this particular understanding of the divine referent. Knowledge of referent determines hermeneutic.

NB: This post continues what I started yesterday, on whether non-believers can really understand the Bible.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Can a Non-Believer Understand the Bible?

Note the italics in the title.

I recently stated that the answer was "no" on the Biblicalist. This obviously drew a couple of negative responses, so I wrote a hearty reply, which I will post here. It's a long reply, but I feel fairly satisfied that it contains what I want to say (which, as always, is terribly informed by Prof. Childs. It's almost embarrassing, but I still haven't met anyone who remotely competes).

Dear X and Y,

Thank you for your responses. I can see how my comment can be provocative. I think it is and should be, though I need to clarify where I’m coming from so it isn’t misunderstood.

When I question whether a non-believer can “truly understand” the Bible, I meant in the sense Z used when he talks of “grasping the text for all its worth.” There are different levels of “understanding,” and if I were to be rejecting all of them then X has every right to feel insulted (and I would be submitting to an odd view of reality, where faith is the foundation for everything, including the ability to correctly analyse a poem or identify literary allusions!). Perhaps the best categories for when I’m trying to get at is Wilhem Dilthey’s distinction between erklären (explanation) and verstehen (understanding). The level of “explanation” is the level most biblical scholars of the critical age content themselves with (at least explicitly). This involves exegetical description, which involves hearing the text in its own integrity. This, anyone with the training can do. Yet, surely, if the task of “biblical studies” is to grasp the text in all its dimensions, in all its depth, there must be a further step if the discipline is to be true to itself. We need to address the content testified to by the witness, and grasping the Bible’s content (or “substance,” “res,” “Sachverhalt”) takes us to the level of “understanding.” These two levels are undoubtedly dialectically related to each other (hermeneutical circle), but the point is that if we really care about the Bible then we ought to be thinking about exegesis in all its dimensions and not just the descriptive.

Here we hit against a problem: how on earth do we begin to wrestle with “the content testified to by the witness”? Well, that involves taking into account the nature of the text, and it is here that I believe most methodology hits its limitations, driven as it is by certain ideological assumptions. Critical methodology is informed by a particular view of reality, one in which the primary forces at work in the world are sociological, economic, psychological etc. As a result, according to this approach, genuine engagement with the Bible entails recovering the sociological, historical, and psychological forces that have shaped the message of the biblical authors. Focus shifts from the traditional biblical theology (for how can this disparate mass of texts have any unity beyond being lumped together by ecclesial forces?) to the phenomenology of comparative religion, where (to quote Childs), “it is thought, a better and more accurate understanding of the religious dimension of human life can be assessed.” (1997: 202).

Childs has spent his career pushing for an alternative, one that reckons with a different understanding of the Bible’s nature. He doesn’t reject the aforementioned insights of the critical period, but simply their reductionism. He (and others, e.g. von Rad) believe that the texts are deeply confessional and have grown out of a response to an ultimately divine source. They are kerygmatic in that they wish to constantly point beyond themselves to the reality that called them into being. This “pointing” (“witnessing”) activity is diverse (multiple authors, genres, concerns, perspectives etc.), yet is united by its source. In other words, Childs (and others) proposed an ontological (theological) unity to the texts of the Bible, which are now united by the fact that they join together to point to their one, ultimate, divine referent. This multiplicity of voices has been shaped and structured in such a way that the final redactional stages have had a decisive effect on the way in which this divine referent is now presented. This picture presents, according to the logic of this redactional (kerygmatic, canonical) process, an authentic image of the God who has always been there, guiding his one people to their final destination. That would mean (if Childs et al are right) that to truly grasp the substance of the Bible, one would have to let one’s horizons and interpretative categories be informed and shaped by the totality of the canonical witness, rather than, as historical criticism would have it, exclusively by the reconstructed historical matrix that was the context of each individual witness.

Childs “canonical proposal”can be defended according to the canons of critical logic up to a degree, and that is the context in which he work was mostly written. But to take that step and actually believe that there is a God who is behind all this diversity, that each witness points to Him and has its source in him, that therefore the final form is not only an interesting interpretive context among others but rather the only possible context for grasping the text’s real substance, I don’t see how a non-believer can do that. He or she will be forced to wisk the various texts up into an alternative construal of what constitutes reality or truth and allow that to shape it. That’s why there are various academic schools, parallel to the various denominations. But this is unavoidable.

Which brings me to the charge of “tribalism.” Tribalism is wrong if the boundary markers separating the various tribes are wrong (e.g. if ethnicity is held to be the definitive marker of identity, rather than a common descent from Adam, or creation in God’s image). There should always be a striving for the recognition of a common denominator. But we need to be clear what it is that does and does not unite us if we are not to dissolve into superficialism. The common denominator between church, synagogue and academy is this collection of texts (though why the academy doesn’t just dissolve the “Bible” and treat it as part of a more general near Eastern phenomenon is beyond me. Old habits die hard, I guess). And we can all recognise that and learn from each other. Hence Childs’ attempt to defend his canonical proposal in as “secular” terms as possible. But he was also clear about where the real boundaries lie. The Church cannot be identified without remainder with either synagogue or academy, as it is utterly committed to a particular construal of the nature of the bible’s theological referent which is unacceptable to both(God in Christ). The real way forward is to understand who we are and why, and from that standpoint to wrestle with the text and with each other as we seek the truth.

I would post a great example of the concrete exegetical difference this all makes, but this comment is already to long so I’ll leave it for another time if you’re interested (it’s in Childs’ essay, “Interpreting the Bible Amid Cultural Change,” Theology Today 54 (1997), 200-211).

I hope that makes sense! Feel free to contradict!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

A New Blog on Bible Translation

I'm delighted to see that a former fellow student from the University of Gloucestershire, David Gray, has set up his own blog, entitled FamilleLaGrise (not sure why). David is based in the East and works as a translator for Wycliffe Bible Translators. His first post is on the complexity of doing Bible translation. Give him a peek.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Israel and the Divided Church

In 1998 Ephraim Radner published The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Eerdmans). I haven't read the book, but Bruce Marshall wrote a detailed review, which you can read here.

Radner's main thesis is provocative:

The divided church ... cannot disclose the gospel, but instead veils it—not only from the world, but above all from the church itself. As a community of those to whom the gospel is veiled (cf. II Cor.4:3), the divided church is ineluctably perishing, all the while ignorant of its fate. (378)
He grounds the church's division at the Reformation not in doctrinal differences but in a “contradiction of ecclesial love,” which led to the development of a “separative logic” amongst the divided church's theologians. The result of this negation of the gospel is the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit and thus inevitable death. In order to find guidance in this dire situation, he looks to the church's type, namely Israel, and what happened as it too was divided after the reign of Solomon.

For Scriptural Israel the cost of the chosen people's wilfully divided life is divine abandonment, exile and destruction for all. In this the faithful remnant share as much as the rest. God's purpose of election is not thereby void, but the form his electing love will eventually take is in invisible to those slated for death in Assyria and Babylon. Since the church's disunity makes sundered and exiled Israel contingently, but irrevocably, its type, our divided denominations must even now reckon with the Spirit's absence, and look forward to their coming death. (381, 2)
This is a brilliant and fascinating essay. There is much food for thought and I'm delighted to see typological interpretation being put to good use. However, there is one thing that bugs me: according to 1 Ki 11, 12, Israel's division is due to the direct intervention of God in response to the apostasy of the monarch and his people. Division is punishment for this sin and is part of a larger process of renewing this people to be faithful, rather than the sin itself which leads to exile and death. It would seem to me that the contemporary lesson this chapter in Israel's history teaches us is that unity is good, but unity without righteousness is meaningless, so that sometimes division and dissolution are necessary in order to bring about a renewal of the people of God. The Reformation was a necessary evil, even though it cannot remain the status quo.

Any thoughts?
NB: for a quote from the time of the undivided church, see here.

Historical Criticism and Medieval Allegory: Some Parallels

In a fascinating article from 1977 [*], Childs claimed that post-Enlightenment biblical study's exclusive focus on the historical referentiality of the text (i.e. on a particular understanding of the text’s subject matter; see here) finds its parallel in traditional allegorical attempts to push through the text to attain the text’s spiritual subject matter. The dangers of allegorical practice in drowning out the text’s plain sense find their correlate in historical criticism in the following four ways:

First, the medieval application of the various senses often threatened to destroy the significance of the literal sense. In the same way, historical criticism threatens to destroy the integrity of the literal sense, which now functions as a window to a historical reality behind the text.

Second, just as within (bad) medieval allegory all control of exegesis was lost through the abuse of the multiple senses, critical Biblical interpretation has became a speculative enterprise as the fixed literary parameters of the plain sense dissolve before hypothetical reconstructions.

Third, the canonical process which shaped the text to function as Scripture for a community of faith is denigrated, as it is now assumed that there are other avenues to truth beside the tradition. The medieval parallel is seen in the tension between text and tradition.

Finally, an insurmountable gap arises between the historical sense, now fully anchored in the past, and the search for its present relevance for the modern age. The medieval parallel is seen in that attempt by some Christian theologians to abandon all concern with the literal sense of the text in order to construct a relevant theology.

[*] B. S. Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture: An Ancient and Modern Problem,” in Beiträge zur Alttestamentlichen Theologie: Festschrift für Walther Zimmerli zum 70 Geburtstag (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1977)

Friday, 4 April 2008

Photos of Assyrian Wall Reliefs in the British Museum

I recently visited the wonderful British Museum, while back visiting family this Easter. My wife graciously allowed me three full hours, which I spent looking at only one thing: the amazing collection of Assyrian wall reliefs. You can look at a selection of these wall reliefs along with commentary on their website. They are divided according to the following subsections: Assyrian Culture and the Balawat Gates, Nimrud, Nineveh, Lion Hunts (probably the most exquisite in terms of artistic accomplishment), The Siege of Lachish (reported in the Bible), Khorsabad and Assyrian Life (which was closed for refurbishment. Grrr!).

In case these images don't satisfy you, I took a fair number myself. Thanks to Google's Picasa Web Albums I can make these publicly available. So have a peek here. Feel free to leave any knowledgeable commentary, as I can no longer remember what came from where.

Other related sources:

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Literal Sense and Historical Reference

In my last post on the sensus literalis, I pointed out how the text of the Bible itself functions as an essential part of the "theological data" of the church/synagogue, rather than the referent alone independent of the text. Confusion concerning the relationship between the two - text and referent - arose in the 18th century, whereby the term "literal sense" underwent a subtle shift in meaning. With the rise of historical criticism in this period, the identity of the explicative sense of the text with its historical reference was attacked. The plain sense was separated from the historical sense, so that a number of interpretive options were opened up. Increasingly both conservative and liberal scholars grew to assume that the meaning of the Biblical text lay in its historical reference rather than in its own literary presentation, so that the issue of historical factuality came to dominate the discussion. According to Childs,

“The task of exegesis lay in working out the true historical reference since revelation no longer consisted in the words, but exclusively in the subject matter to which the words referred" ("The Sensus Literalis of Scripture," 89; italics my own)
As a result,the aim of the interpreter was to reconstruct the original occasion of the historical reference on the basis of which the truth of the biblical text could be determined. In sum, the sensus literalis had become sensus originalis (ibid.).

NB: In the quote I highlight the word exclusively as I am conscious of my previous thread on the text's "spiritual sense," which I identified with the text's ultimate referent (regardless of its nature, i.e. historical, theological, or whatever). The crux for theological interpretation lies not in focussing either exclusively on the text (literal sense) or on its referent (spiritual sense, historical sense), but on the interelation of the two. To identify the plain sense with the historical sense (i.e. to collapse textual meaning with a certain understanding of its referent), as classic historical criticism does, is to prejudice interpretation from the outset, as it already assumes what the nature of the text's referent is.

Next I will post on the fascinating parallels between historical criticism and medieval allegory!

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Childs on the Sensus Literalis of Scripture

Childs' view on this issue changed with time. In an early article from 1964 ("Interpretation in Faith") he believed that the sensus literalis referred to the biblical text in all its diachronic and synchronic dimensions. This meant that in order to understand the literal sense, one had to sort out the various stages of literary development, indentify the genre and functions of the texts as well as their possible cultural contexts, both originally and more importantly within the developing tradition of Israel.

This approach to the sensus literalis was consonant with his view that “the reality with which the Old Testament is concerned is anchored to the totality of Israel,” whereby the task of historical criticism was to reconstruct “the total life of historical Israel.” (Myth and Reality in the Old Testament, 103). However, Childs' later focus on the phenomenon of canon led him to see that the “reception of the text by the community now constitutes an integral part of the theological 'data' of Scripture and cannot be separated from the text" (“A Response,” 190). He came to see that

“the concept of canon involves many basic hermeneutical implications which make clear why the church’s task of interpreting the Scriptures cannot be simply identified with, or be an elaboration of, the historical-critical method" (“The Old Testament as Scripture of the Church,” 714).
This process of reception involved a Sachkritik (criticism according to content) in which judgements were made concerning who the faithful tradents of divine revelation were (Moses not Korah, Jeremiah not Hananiah), in which various voices were subordinated, omitted or highlighted. In short,

“Israel shaped its literature confessionally to bear testimony to what it received as containing an established range of witness" (“Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament," 230)
It is the text as shaped by the community of faith which serves the church as the sensus literalis.

My next post will look at how the meaning of the term "literal sense" developed in the post-Enlightenment period. There are some interesting parallels between critical methodology and medieval allegorical interpretation!