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 ;)]


Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

here is a little thought experiment:

Frei argued that biblical narrative was "eclipsed" when the verbal meaning of the text was replaced with ostensive reference or ideal reference. The quote by Gabler nicely illustrates this: investigating the "meaning of the passage" is no longer enough for "our day"; exegesis must also be concerned with an "explanation of the matter itself" (which, given Gabler's convictions, would take certain predictable forms).

When I teach Hebrew Bible, I try my best to put a methodological firewall between interpretation (i.e., text-processing) and our other scholarly disciplines--archaeology, historiography, sociology, etc. This (I think) promotes clarity and methodological rigor; it teaches students that we use different tools for different tasks.

But my goal is also to prevent the eclipse which Frei has spoken of, since I don't want interpretation to be confused with e.g. apologetics on the one hand or critical reconstruction of events on the other. I think this is important for both interpretation and the other academic disciplines. An example: we have all seen "biblical archaeology" being promoted as that which "sheds light on the Bible." This is not only something else masquerading as exegesis, it is also bad archaeology. As you can see, I use a minimalist definition of "exegesis"; for me, it is not "saying everything that can possibly be said about things related to the text."

NOW: if there is a difference between verbal meaning and reference, between message and subject matter, between the argument of the text and the realia to which the text refers . . . must Childs necessarily be guilty of allowing what he perceived as the referent to eclipse the verbal meaning? I don't think so, if the relation of the two is properly conceived. How might your language of "witness" or "vehicle" be useful here?

Also: where on earth did you find the painting of Christ before Pilate? That is a splendid bit of art!


Anonymous said...

Ah, just found it: Nikolai Gay, Quod Est Veritas?

I wonder if I can find an affordable print . . .


Phil Sumpter said...


I don't think so, if the relation of the two is properly conceived. How might your language of "witness" or "vehicle" be useful here?

This comment is right on the money. I'd love to respond but time is short. I will get back to you. I think the content of the painting is the answer to the question.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Michael,

sorry again for the delay in answering. Thanks for pushing me on this. It's hard work but necessary!

must Childs necessarily be guilty of allowing what he perceived as the referent to eclipse the verbal meaning?

This is exactly the right question and is what I have been trying to get at in my recent posts. The categories you bring to bear on exegesis shape the way you read the text (a truism). We all have a particular understanding of the Bible's subject matter before we start interpreting and this, then, shapes our reading. Bultmann rightly made this programmatic. In his History and Eschatology he describes the importance of determining the true subject matter of the material under study and thus developing the right tools to accessing this subject matter. His problem is that he had a wrong understanding of the Bible's true subject matter. He concluded that the true substance is existential and so developed his exegesis along these lines. His decision to interpret existentially was in turn influenced by his commitments to a certain type of Lutheranism – i.e they had a dogmatic background (though he never admitted this—as far as I'm aware at least ... I've only read two of his books).

So what is the Bible's subject matter and what methods are useful for accessing it? I think the picture by Gay holds the answer (thanks for getting the details—it has become my favourite painting!). For Christianity, the truth is a person, yet a person who is totally unique. He is the fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures and hope and also the one who explodes their categories and the second person of the Trinity. According to the NT (as interpreted by H. Diem), Jesus preached, and he preached himself. He was both the subject and the object of his proclamation. But this didn't finish with his death. The resurrected Christ continued to preach through his apostles. Christians also believe that Christ was pre-incarnate and that the Old Testament also testifies to him. In sum, one can make a dogmatic argument that the entirety of Scripture is the preaching of the Son of God, with himself as subject and subject matter. It is a collection of the preaching of Christ through his prophets and apostles in varying circumstances and times. Diem, then draws an exegetical conclusion:

“If the Gospels are interpreted as a tradition of preaching, then the differences between them are not surprising ... it becomes clear from this point of view what immense positive significance critical research can have for the clarification of the history of Gospel transmission in that it makes us acquainted with the individual witnesses in their particular historical concrete circumstances. Hence the task of such criticism would be, not to penetrate behind the text to the historical facts which it is purporting to record, but rather to enquire into the history of texts themselves. The history of the proclamation is mirrored in the formation of the text, for the history of the text is the one historically apprehensible piece of this history of preaching” (Dogmatics, 144).

You can see this influence being worked out in von Rad. Tradio-historical critism gets its theological justification. This is also the logic undergirding the idea of the text as “witness,” which I've been trying to understand. Childs' canonical approach, then, connects right here and develops hit further. The tradition process—the process of Christ's preaching—was of such a nature that the previous stages were consciously covered over so that only in the final form can we see the full testimony to God's history with his people. This insight was right under von Rad's nose, but he didn't make the last step.

This is the dogmatic underpinning, as far as I can see, of Childs' canonical approach. Christ himself is part of something bigger, the history of God with Israel and the cosmos. But then ... the NT talks of one day Christ being all in all. I don't know about the relation ... but doesn't it make sense that dogmatics should provide the underpinning of exegesis rather than something tacked on at the end? This applies to your comments about separating interpretation from apologetics/archaeology etc. Though the relationship between them needs to be carefully and critically analysed, the relationship is still there and can't be denied—either historically or theologically. I think in this sense Childs has more in common with Sternberg and his functional approach to interpretation than the “New Literary Critics,” who get rid of intentionality all together and treat the text as an enclosed hermeneutical space.

I'd appreciate if you could point out where my thinking is weak here. At some point I will work through it more systematically, but it's where I am going and provides a lot of the logic of my posts. I especially appreciate this understanding as it combines the theological and the historical into one, rather than separating them into two independent departments.

Oh, and to clarify on you last question:

I don't think so, if the relation of the two is properly conceived. How might your language of "witness" or "vehicle" be useful here?

The relationship is one where Christ preached and preaches through the text (cf. Barth's “three times of the Word”). The text as “witnes”/ “vehicle” references this kerygmatic function: Christ preaches through the text, both diachronically and synchronically (important!). The text witnesses Christ/the regula fidei (I still need to think about the relation) and functions as a vehicle of this reality, which is dynamic as it touches us in our lives in each context. That is the substance of scripture and the object of interpretation.