Saturday, 10 May 2008

The Theological Problem With Noth's Approach

In my last post I summarized Martin Noth's thesis concerning the nature of the Israelite law and its place within the Old Testament. I had also suggested (here) that understanding Noth's approach can help us appreciate what kind of history Brevard Childs thought was “allowable” in order for his canonical approach to stand. Today I post my negative evaluation of Noth's approach. Tomorrow comes my positive evaluation.

Leaving aside the self-evident subjectivity involved in all attempts at critical reconstruction, there are theological problems with Noth's method. His construal of the development of Israelite-cum-Jewish attitudes to the Torah involves a clear value judgement. The apparent development of the idea of the Torah as absolute principle, abstracted from any sense of a covenantal relation (a questionable theory in itself), is judged by Noth to be a step in the wrong direction. According to Noth, it is understandable given general human tendencies, but lamentable given the apparently more profound and authentic significance the law had in its original amphictyonic context. In this light, Jesus' attack on the rabbinic Judaism of his day was a valid call to the true meaning of obedience as response to grace rather than requirement for favour.

Making theological judgements like this are not wrong in themselves. Within the Old Testament itself certain traditions are interpreted along certain axes in the later history of Israel. An implicit theological critique is thereby exercised, in which some dimensions of an event are emphasised, reinterpreted or subordinated. The significant theological question is “what are the criteria that are to be used” when making a theological critique? Noth's own criteria are implicit. He talks of “authoritative exegesis” as being the one that interprets the laws in their original context. But by what measure does he judge the later developments to be degenerative? Especially given the fact that this apparent later development is found editorially inserted at all stages throughout the narrative? Childs' contention is that this editing itself was an act of theological critique, shaping the tradition in a particular way so that it may be heard in a new light. The intention of this editorial shaping was to create authoritative Scripture for later generations of the faithful, so that if our theology is to be faithful to the text, it must take into consideration the hermeneutical manoeuvres of these editors, rather than importing criteria from elsewhere and operating with a “canon within the canon.”

Noth couldn't have taken this option, as the canon of rationalism required him separate out what had been put together for the sake of conceptual consistency. But if the editing process is seen to be a hermeneutical manoeuvre with theological intentionality, then a different “theology of the Torah” emerges, one in which law and covenant belong intrinsically together, in which law defines the holiness of the covenant and in which full commitment is demanded in response.

These are some of the conclusions Childs comes to in his canonical reading of Ex. 19 as a whole. The point is that setting the text within its canonical context yields a different reading to the reconstructions of historical criticism. The theological integrity of the final form allows Childs a certain freedom concerning the precise process of the development of the text. Even if Noth's elaborate theory is historically accurate, it doesn't matter. What matters is what it says now.

Except, as I have said, it does matter to some degree what happened in the process of the development of the text. And this something is what Noth preserves, as opposed to the more cynical approaches of recent historical critics. More on that next time.

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