Wednesday, 7 May 2008

[1] Historicity and the Bible: What Kinds of Proposals are Theologically Valid?

In a recent post, I illustrated what Brevard Childs means when he talks about the “integrity” of the final form of the text. The final form of the Bible has a certain kind of unity, but this unity does not lie in the narrative portrayed nor in the perspective it embodies. It lies, rather, in the God who called the texts into being and who is their ultimate referent. Diverse texts are united, not by attempting to reduce them to one perspective, but by seeing them as various witnesses to one God. The unity of the Bible is in its referent and not in the text itself.

What implications does this have for the historicity of the narratives in the Bible? On the one hand, the ideological function of the Bible as “Scripture” for a particular “community” means that various creative devices are used in order to instil a particular world view. Just as ideology/theology cannot be simply read off “raw” historical events, so the Bible-as-Scripture requires plenty of creativity in order to get its point across. On the other hand, the very logic of biblical faith is one in which God intervenes in history and does things in our dimension of reality.

Childs was reserved in pronouncing judgement on this issue (cf. his quote here). Yet it is clear that his particular approach places constraints on the range of possibilities of what actually happened. Certain factors need to have been present in history in order for a reading of the final form to be legitimate. For example, he stated in 1980:
a historical critical theory of Deuteronomy which would construe the book as a pious fraud created for propaganda reasons to support the political aspirations of the Jerusalem priesthood would, if true, raise serious questions about a canonical interpretation which claimed that the book was shaped by primarily religious concerns. Similarly, if the development of a sense of canon was only a late peripheral phenomenon of the Hellenistic period, my approach to the O.T. would be seriously damaged.
(go here for full quote and discussion).

This predilection for a particular construal of Israel's history manifests itself in the kinds of historical critics Childs likes. Tomorrow I will illustrate by looking at Martin Noth.

For the remaining posts in this thread, read the following in order:

M. Noth on the Laws of the Pentateuch
The Theological Problem with Noth's Approach
What is Good about Noth's Proposal?


Anonymous said...


How does Childs know that "God . . . called the texts into being"? What is his justification for saying that?

In the context of what the Bible actually claims or implies about itself, isn't that an extremely artificial claim?

Phil Sumpter said...

I only have time for a brief answer as a friend arrives from England today. Childs justifies it by reference to the texts themselves and the logic of the community of faith. The Bible as collection is obviously beyond the purview of individual texts, but the Bible as scripture of a community of faith belongs to their logic. This is why the Psalms - talk to God - become in the process of time Scripture - i.e. from God to us. This en-scripturating maneouvre is embedded in the shape of the psalter itself, which is not just a haphazard anthology. The same goes for the rest of the bible.

I will deal with this when I come to the section of this thread on the divine authorship of scripture. I'm not sure how this relates to the question of the nature of history in the Bible