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.


JR said...

Phil - a helpful distinction between subjective belief and the domain of community criteria for meaning and truth. I really heartened to your humble uncertainty in deciding “different interpretations” (“I'm not sure how to relate these two radically different interpretations ... What makes the difference”?). I’d strongly encourage you to keep extending your query into understanding Bonhoeffer as less an example of “exegetical skill” and more as an example of “interpretative context.”

Bonhoeffer is an extremely peculiar example because he has been considered an “exegete” of experience (subjective belief in your distinction above) rather than an exegete of text, while later serving as prime-exhibit “A” and poster-boy for “community (UCC)” attempts to unify horribly floundering smaller “communities” that needed a rallying hero to motivate mergers by covenant into the UCC! I’m not saying Bonhoeffer was some sort of radical subjectivist. But if you take your own exploratory criteria seriously (and I think you do), then Bonhoeffer’s “community” was not only the “Confessing Church,” but also, the Abwehr!

So which “community” grounded his criteria for meaning and truth? -- and, how did he translate his criteria between these different communities of church and Abwehr? -- was he able to translate his criteria for meaning and truth between these two communities by smooth or by discontinuous criteria? – do we take him as such a novel genius that his prodigy never felt any tensions of translation between these two different comminutes? –- do we just cut him a break and give him a free hall pass because he was such a good guy that any tensions he felt translating his criteria for meaning and truth between church and Abwehr couldn’t be any big deal? - a no-brainer? -- was he just a Machiavellian opportunist? -- or, a martyr whose fuller answers to these unanswered questions was cut short by another community (Nazis) in raw and brutal Darwinian competition with his community? -- can we really ever know?

His martyrdom plus his novel powers of interpretation lent him to reception by horribly floundering smaller communities (some Lutheran, Congregational, etc) who later merged in the larger “community” (UCC), whose overall product of “regula fidei” is exceptionally far from canonical, and whose confessional statement of faith is more aspirational, but not regulative. Is there a reflexive quality in a community’s attraction to the gravitational pull of such a figure? – who is regularizing whom? – is joining one community rather than another community in the first place little more than a subjective Bayesian choice which we justify with subsequent rationalized criteria? – are communities of a “regula fidei” attracted to novel interpretations because of some Machiavellian or counter-Machiavellian (Jeremiah Wright) praxis that takes advantage of novelty like Bonhoeffer’s to find just the right ambiguities in it to form alliances?



Phil Sumpter said...


thanks for your ... difficult .. thoughts.

I’d strongly encourage you to keep extending your query into understanding Bonhoeffer as less an example of “exegetical skill” and more as an example of “interpretative context.”

I'd say that “exegetical skill” involves taking into account the right interpretive context. Bonhoeffer would have perhaps not qualified as being “exegetically skillful” in his day and age, as compared to people like Gunkel. But I feel that, despite the natural value of the exegetical skill of people such as Gunkel, Bonhoeffer had a significant element that Gunkel didn't, namely a consciousness of the true meaning of the Gospel and how that relates to every aspect of reality, thus opening him to a dimension of the text's reality hidden to those who don't know the gospel. So Bonhoeffer's ecclesial context is a necessary ingredient for exegesis (given the “real” nature of the text's referent – in my and the church's opinion, of course).

I am really pushing things to my limits when I post here, because I actually know little about Bonhoeffer (something I intend to change!). As such, I'm don't know in which ways his membership of the “Abwehr” affected his interpretation or not (no doubt it did). Interpretation is an ongoing dialectic done with the aid of the Spirit, so whatever his relationship to the German resistance movement, he would have had to be critical. The question is which is the most adequate context for him the interpret the text, not only to get at its meaning but in able to allow it to fulfil it's function as an ongoing vehicle of God's revelation.

I'm afraid I know nothing about the UCC, by which I suppose you mean the United Church of Christ (it was the first thing that came up when I googled it)?

JR said...

Phil - yes, UCC = United Church of Christ.

You say you know little about Bonhoeffer. Yet, you turn around and show remarkable fidelity in hailing to part of the uniqueness and purity of his signal. Whether your “community” can tune you to Bonhoeffer’s frequencies that faithfully, I’ll leave to you. Your own radar and rendering of Bonhoeffer without knowing his disparate "communities" raises all the questions (and more) that I asked in my first post – about the values of “communities” (plural!) in indexing and understanding the “real” hermeneutics of an author. His cooperation with the German secret police (Abwehr) as another “community” besides / outside the Confessing church) targeting a specific objective (bombing Hitler) raises all the key questions of how to translate different hermeneutics between different “communities” - and still keep one's mind.

For just one example from the scripture, take a close look at the “narrative” of Ehud (Judg 3:15ff). It’s a short story.

Ask yourself just how much of Ehud’s “hermeneutics” of praxis (killing the king) were published in the Jerusalem Post, and televised on CNN for the whole world to see - before Ehud’s coup? Peer review? – who? – honestly, just what “community” could Ehud trust with disclosures of his “hermeneutics”? What “community” could Bonhoeffer trust with the "hermeneutics" of his participation in a bomb plot against Hitler? Why didn’t Bonhoeffer write the "hermeneutics" of his bomb plot into the public confessions of the Confessing Church for all his peers to review?

Think about that. Really, Phil. Because these kinds of questions re-mold your previous take on “subjectivity” back to a community of “inter-subjectivity.”

There’s nothing complicated in my questions above. Not really.

Because any time – ANY time – we move from purely subjective introspection (I stipulate there is such a thing) into interaction with others, then we're inter-subjective. Whenever we exit the private, subjective, secret world of our “secret” prayer closets -- (Matt 6:6 "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you”) –- when we move outside our secret subjective closets and we move into a single shred of cooperative praxis – then, then we’re simply “inter-subjective.”

And this applies in mathematics, science, hermeneutics, and church - across the board. It's not complicated - in theory.

These kinds of questions (all the Bonhoeffer questions) quit treating “community” as a reified ontological concept into which we can pour all kinds of hermeneutical speculations without grounding them in real-life praxis (praxis = bombing Hitler). What is “community”? – Really? -- who were Bonhoeffer’s praxis-partners and peer reviewers inside the "community" of the German secret police? – what were their hermeneutics? – inter-subjective agreements? -- peer review?



Phil Sumpter said...


you turn around and show remarkable fidelity in hailing to part of the uniqueness and purity of his signal

I wasn't hailing "the purity of his signal." His interpretation of Genesis 1 could be wrong. I'm just pointing out the fact that he is working from a particular context and that this context provides him with categories of interpretation. I'm claiming ... though I'm not sure I can prove it ... that the Christian community - i.e. the orthodox one, the one that works with the creeds, which all do, whether Southern Baptist or Catholic - provides the most adequate categories for interpretation. This is a tricky claim, but I'm making it anyway.

I'm not sure what a "hermeneutics of praxis" is, nor how that relates to "peer review" and the point I'm making in my post. Sorry ...

You're right that we shouldn't treat "community" as "as a reified ontological concept ". Nevertheless, I believe that there are lines of continuity undergirding the diverstiy of what constitutes "Christian community" and I would ground them in the guidance of the Spirit and in a common tradition. I'm not a systamatic theologian, but perhaps talk of the church as "the body of Christ" and the constituing work of the Spirit does allow a sort of ontologising of the Church after all. The fact that the boundaries are blurred and that mainting that unity,whether visible or not, is difficult, doesn't mean that it isn't there.