Sunday, 18 May 2008

My Research Proposal

I thought it's about time I shared what it is I will be doing for the next few years. The following is the thesis proposal I have submitted to the academic board. If there are any major problems, it'll be good to discover them now, so please feel free to criticize!

In Christian Theology it was traditionally held that God is the ultimate author of the Scriptures of Old and New Testament, and that these contain the Word of truth calling for the “obedience of faith” (Childs, 2004: 300). How that has been interpreted and expressed has varied greatly. Nevertheless, as a confession of faith it has consistently hovered on the horizon of those particular scholars who feel drawn to relate their exegetical work to the ongoing life of the Church.

The greatest challenge to this theocentric focus on scripture came from the Enlightenment. Philosophical rationalism and newer critical analyses of the Bible called into question the divine authorship of the Bible and succeeded in alienating the text from contemporary experience. Nevertheless, commitment to the authority of the Bible continued, with the newer historical-critical methods being put to use by confessional scholars determined to hear the Word of God for their generation. Childs documents, for example, how confessional German scholarship in the period 1920-1940 strove to build a biblical theology on the foundations of historical critical methodology (1994). However, the conclusion of his analysis is that approaches which base theological exegesis on such a critically reconstructed foundation lead to a compromise with the ideological assumptions of modernity and thus compromise the capacity of the Bible to testify to God.

Childs has responded to the challenges of both the Enlightenment and the Church with his own approach to biblical exegesis, termed the 'canonical approach'. He attempts to bridge the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the text by looking at the history of Israel's “religious use” of its traditions. This usage involved a variety of moves on the part of the tradents of the traditions, such as the intertwining of sources, the juxtaposing of disparate material, and the setting of boundaries. This long process was completed with the fixing of the final form.

Throughout this diverse process, Childs detects the continuity of a kerygmatic intentionality, the desire to witness to the one reality of God. This kerygmatic intentionality is understood by Childs to mean that what was of significance to the tradents, and thus for us, is the reality to which these traditions point and not the traditions themselves as products of their times. As such, interpretation which seeks to be theocentric should focus on the “effect” which the aforementioned process has had on the reworked text. The reworked text, as an objective given, has an integrity in which meaning at the synchronic level is different to the meaning of the parts when diachronically reconstructed. It is primarily here that the faithful interpreter can perceive most fully the true theological subject matter that undergirds the entirety of the Bible.

Childs insists that the 'canonical approach' is not a research method. Rather it sets up a telos (knowledge of God) and describes the nature and function of the Bible as a means to attaining that. Nevertheless, a canonical approach sets specific boundaries within which the theological dimension of the text should become visible. C. Seitz has adopted to a large extent Childs' approach, developing its theological and theoretical basis and working out its exegetical implications. In particular, he works out the hermeneutical implications of the election of Israel and adoption of the Gentiles, the nature of Old Testament “accordance” with the life of Christ, and the significance of figurative interpretation.

Childs' and Seitz's canonical interpretation may be illustrated by considering their understanding of the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:1-25. A canonical approach to this text begins with the recognition of its diachronic depth dimension. Nevertheless, the hermeneutical question turns on how this dimension relates synchronically to the text's final form. This entails not only identifying the various redactional layers, but looking at the quality of the relationship between them. The canonical tradents faithfully interpreted earlier traditions and then shaped these traditions in such a way that they would broker that message within a broader historical and theological perspective (Seitz, 1993: 4). The original identity of Immanuel, for example, has frustrated historical critics: is he a son of Isaiah, a son of Ahaz, children in Jerusalem, a future messianic king? Despite the obscurity of this figure, even at the level of the final form read as a unity, later tradents, who themselves submitted to the 'coercion' of these traditions, have embedded clues to guide our interpretation of the figure's 'canonical identity'. This identity includes both a historical and an eschatological referent. Thus within the broader literary context, both within this sub-unit (chs. 7-9) as well as across broader swathes (chs. 7-9 contrasted with 36-39), it would seem that Immanuel is initially identified with Hezekiah, the ideal king whose deeds enable the Lord to demonstrate what 'Immanu-el' (God-is-with-us) means. Yet the primary identity of the figure has not been fully eradicated in the final form. Interest in Hezekiah is theological, not nostalgic, in that he is made a type for later kings to follow (a connection made through the addition of ch. 11:1-9). The king has been reinterpreted – but not so severely that the original historical referent is lost. “What kingship shall become in Israel, and for the nations, it becomes with reference to the Immanuel child and the historical rule of Hezekiah” (Seitz 1993: 75).

My project will consist of two phases. First, I will critically evaluate the canonical approach as developed by Childs and Seitz. This will require a thorough knowledge of their theoretical and exegetical work, analysed in conjunction with both the relevant background literature (von Campenhausen, Frei, Barth, von Rad), as well as responses by contemporary scholars (Barton, Barr, Sheppard, Steins). Given the ambitiousness of Childs' approach, it is not surprising that he has been attacked from both the left and the right ends of the theological spectrum. Criticisms include an apparent double referentiality in his work, one for theology and one for history, the denigration of the findings of historical criticism, contrived harmonization, prejudicial 'dogmatic' predisposition, unjustified focus on the final form, and so forth. It would seem that many problems stem from an inadequate understanding of Childs' approach, particularly his understanding of the text as primarily a witness to a reality outside of itself. Both Childs and Seitz have responded to these criticisms. My task will be to evaluate the soundness of such criticisms as well as the soundness of the response, with particular sensitivity to the possibility that the dialogue partners may be talking past each other.

I will then apply these theoretical insights to Psalms 15 and 24 in order to understand their theological significance. While a certain kinship has often been recognised between these Psalms due to their common inquiry into the identity of 'the righteous' (H.-J. Kraus, Craigie), Hossfeld and Zenger have done much to highlight the canonical context of the Psalms within Book One of the Psalter. Within the the literary framework of the edited Psalter, these Psalms now function as the corner pieces of a 'Davidic' sub-collection, itself one of four sub-collections making up the first book of the Psalter. Intertextual connections between the Psalms in this sub-collection function to alter the semantic content of Psalm 15 and 24.

Hossfeld and Zenger's exegesis, though extremely useful for canonical exegesis, is not identifiable with Childs' canonical approach. For Hossfeld and Zenger, the meaning of the text is tied to its possible function among groups of post-exilic redactors. As such, it is arguable that that their exegesis does not live up to the 'theocentric' demands of a canonical approach. P. Miller has attempted to go beyond this historicising approach and reflect on the implications of this arrangement for theological interpretation. Working in terms of the intertextual 'framework' uncovered by Hossfeld and Zenger, he notes the centrality of Torah, kingship, prayer and the rule of Yahweh. In another article, Zenger discusses the significance of the Davidic superscriptions and the hermeneutical implications of reading these Psalms in the context of the narratives found in the book of Samuel.

Both structural groundwork and theological reflection have been provided in the work of these scholars. My intention is to critically analyse and develop this work, following the intertextual threads present in the canonical shape of these Psalms and interpreting their theological significance.


The 'canonical approach' can be seen as a stance vis-à-vis the Bible with hermeneutical implications. Though not in itself a method, its assumptions and goals are more readily displayed and achieved by some methodologies than by others. This being so, the methodologies to be used will vary according to the results of the theoretical section of the thesis. However, it is clear from the research carried out so far that, among the methodologies current in biblical studies, redaction criticism, form criticism, and contemporary literary approaches are likely to be of most relevance. The hermeneutical issues involved in typological, allegorical and Christological readings of texts will also be addressed.


EnnisP said...

Wow, it seems like you have a very ambitious undertaking. I would be interested in seeing your comments on Psalm 15 and 24 when you are done.

Question: I am not a textual critic nor am I educated along those lines. I have only a vague understanding of what is involved. My question is, has the text been so altered through transmission that these methods are absolutely necessary? Are we being naive to just accept the text we have as valid?

I'm not suggesting we be slack in interpreting the Bible but it seems like all these methods are making an effort to first prove it is the Bible.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Ennis,

thanks for the questions. I have to say, I'm not sure I mentioned "text criticism." That is concerned to establish the original text that lies behind the copies of the Masoretic documents that we have today. Perhaps you meant "redaction criticism," which looks at the ways the traditions grew and were supplemented until they reached their final literary form. My focus of interpretation is the final form itself, as a phenomenon with its own integrity, though with the benefit of having taking the historical development into account.

Have I understood you correctly?

EnnisP said...

Hey Phil,
You made it clear in your remarks that Canonical exegesis is not the same as textual criticism. But, being uninformed in both areas I was lumping them together. I have noticed some other readings listed on your site which gives examples of the cannonical approach. I will take some time and look throught those.

Phil Sumpter said...

Well, I'm always up for a chat, so feel free to contact me on the issue!

Frances Walsh said...

Taking criticism from other people can really be a good idea. That way, you would know early on whether there are mistake on your paper. And it would help with thesis presentation to lessen the mistake and avoid problems that make or break the paper.