Monday, 12 May 2008

What is Good about Noth's Proposal?

Given the methodological problems with Martin Noth's approach to the laws in the Old Testament (see from the perspective of theology), what is good for theology, or at least for Childs' canonical approach?

I can think of two things:

The theological nature of the traditions. One could construe their nature in a number of ways: they primarily reflect economic, social or political forces, with religion used as a convenient veneer. But for Noth, while fully alive to these dimensions of Israel's life, the primary force at work was a theological understanding of God as the gracious elector of a people, and thus their covenant partner. Regardless of a certain historical minimalism concerning the events at Sinai, the traditions of these events serve to delineate the identity of God and his will for his people. This theological construal grounded the sacral confederacy and in the end could only be broken by the prophetic pronouncement that this relationship was over. Admittedly, Noth thinks that the later development in the post-exilic tradition was a retrograde step, but as I pointed out yesterday, theologically critiquing the elements within the Bible is not intrinsically wrong. The problem is the criteria to be used, and here a recognition of the hermeneutical shape of the canon as theological critique makes up for Noth's more historicist approach.

The theological nature of the canonical process is a foundation stone of the canonical approach. If the traditions-cum-texts were not theological, then the ground for the unity of the canon is lost. Noth's approach needs to be supplemented with an appreciation of the theological nature of the editorial process along with it hermeneutical significance.

The power of the traditions in the life of Israel. Childs' canonical approach is predicated on the idea of an ongoing dialectic between Israel's understanding of God and its traditions. In effect, God works through Israel's traditions in order to guide and shape the nation, while bringing them forward according to his eschatological plans. Noth illustrates not only the theological nature of the covenant/law tradition, but also its ability to constrain history, subordinating even kings to its logic. The struggles of the post-exilic community were done in terms of the ancient institution, though admittedly on Noth's estimate the older situation provides the ground for theologically critiquing what came later. Within a canonical framework, there is not distinction between “authentic” and “inauthentic” periods of Israel's history. Rather, the whole process is considered to be a genuine theological witness, so that critical judgement of the elements within the tradition must be done in terms of the structure give to the whole of the tradition.


JR said...
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JR said...

Phil wrote - “The theological nature of the canonical process is a foundation stone of the canonical approach. If the traditions-cum-texts were not theological, then the ground for the unity of the canon is lost.”

This is assumptive.

It assumes theology unifies canon. It assumes that theology (as theology) is intrinsically unified enough to produce a unified canon. Two assumptions for the price of one.

Not yet getting to an open canon (forgetting that for now). What’s open is the question whether “canon” presents an overall theological proposition demanding unity instead of “canon” reflecting monomers of theological judgments expressed in discrete laws as responsive to chance contingencies presented to any people by non-unified random events in their real and local ecology (since your original post concerned laws).

For example, the fact that God would speak to a local incident of an ox goring a human (a legal monomer), or that God would speak against Balaam cursing Israel (a narrative trope), so that God’s judgments in history become memorialized inside a written “canon” does not necessarily require any unity, no less any theological unity, to the finished canon as a whole. The apparent unity of “canon” beyond serving as a mere archive of God’s response to random discrete and local judgments - with God’s judgments responsive to random events in an environment - is wholly Childs’ imposition. And his wish. Fine for an exploratory thesis. The point here is that “canon” as a written text is arguably as genetic and as susceptible to randomness and chance etiologies in its own composition (canon as composition) as the random and chance events in the natural world that the canon describes. See next.

Phil wrote - “Noth illustrates not only the theological nature of the covenant/law tradition, but also its ability to constrain history, subordinating even kings to its logic.”

No. I don’t think Noth goes that far. I don’t think Noth sees the “theological” nature of covenant/law as a real operating constraint on real history. He’s a realist. Not a dreamer. The “theological” effect and power of law is a mythic contrivance in the text of canon; but, the “theological” power of a single written law (or a whole canon) is not necessarily operative in real history. Not for Noth. Even if law and a bunch of laws are contained inside a written canonical text (and even if this canon is taken as authoritative for some community - like Childs in his community), and even if the law is judicially applied by some local judge telling a king what to do (Samuel judging Saul), then still – no law qua law has any power to subordinate “kings.” That’s just nonsense. In the raw.

Kings are free to disregard all laws. And kings are free to disregard all canons. And kings are free to disregard even those specific judges especially anointed to apply laws and canons of them to real cases in real environments.

Ever hear of Saul?

That’s the weakness of the law. And text. And canon. Point blank.

For example, that a certain archer shot a “random” arrow that closed the “canon” of one evil king (guess who? – see 1 Kin 22:34) could be taken to archive the end in real history of this one king’s theological legacy. And an end in history of this king’s discrete local influence of evil to a threatened emerging alternative “canon” (Childs’ good canon: opposed by an alternative canon of an evil king). It wasn’t the canon nor the laws that constrained and killed the evil king. It was an arrow that killed the king. A random arrow at that.

Subordination to law happens by sheer force. Not otherwise. And “random” forces at that.

The randomness of the arrow that killed the king was a randomness that defied all legal logic and all legal coherency. No legal nor canonical ratiocinative technique nor fancy theological hermeneutic accomplished what alone a random arrow did.

It’s funny. And sad.

God declaring that one king’s anti-nomianism can have an end in an even more “random” arrow.

Consider: a “random” arrow launched furtively from a nameless ecology (the archer is not named).

The wind blows where it listeth - even against the canonical teachers of Israel. If we don’t believe Jesus when he teaches us about natural things (the randomness of “wind” against Nicodemus’ theological order), then how can we believe Jesus when he teaches us of canonical ones? – the Wind? Put that in a box. And unify it.

Sheer force - not law - subordinated the king. The canon memorializes the "randomness" of sheer force.

See the perturbations of the Wind that conveyed a “random” arrow into the chinks in the armor of a king. The king did not bow to some bible study. The king was not made subservient by reading Childs. Nor law. That’s nonsense.

This randomness of random arrows launched at us from our local environments is closer to von Rad’s take on “Ecclesiastes” as skepticism. And fear. Fear of God. But, this fear of God is far from any theological unification. It’s not some grand unifying theology. It’s just no non-sense skepticism. Childs imposes a hopeful theological order of unity on a mere text against a real world of ubiquitous randomness. No text – and no law - can impose such an order. Only random arrows can.

The kingdom of kings is subordinated by force -- including "random" force -- even chance. Not by text.

And God knows, not by law.

The law is your last chance to cooperate. At a rational level. Then, Aslan roars.

Paul, the lawyer - what the law was "weak" to do ... Jesus as a "random" arrow (random to our theological expectations) does by force. Don’t get in the way. The canon is no more powerful than a code of law. Weak at best. And perhaps not unified after all. Certainly not unified by “theology.”

The kingdom of kings is taken by force. Noth was enough of a realist to realize this.

To this, the canon testifies. Sorta. That the kingdom of kings is subordinated by force means “random” forces: as needed.

That this one king’s evil reign over his perverse attempt to author his own alternative evil “canon” ended by a “random” arrow – does not mean that the other (good) “canon” (Childs’ canon) that survived this king’s death is either finished as a product, or even unified by some unified “theology.” That’s for starters.

Nor is the precious finished canon any less subject internally (as a canon) to random forces and chance events and random arrows in its own formative history or as a final product. To argue a theological unity can unify any “canon” against random and chance internal forces to produce a single, homogenized unifying theology is so assumptive as to miss the point of the ecological randomness to which the same canon testifies. Anyone who thinks a theologically unified canon can save them from random arrows – look again. Or, run real fast.

Me thinks.

And it’s even more assumptive to say that because we have any final form for any canon – so that what we have as a final product is really so fixed and theologically unified as to defy the very random elements contained inside its own recitals – this is an assumption of both theology and unity - and it’s totally fair to explore (kudos to Childs); but, unity of theology and canon as a conclusion may be as fatal to us as was the random arrow to the evil king. Childs presents no persuasive reasons why canon in its so-called final form is any more or any less a product of the same random arrows and chancy ecological events that the canon itself recites.

Canon is a heads-up!

Look over your own shoulder. See the random arrows coming ...

Again, just an alternative view.

One for which I suspect Rendtorff would criticize Childs in favoring unity (especially theological unity) and omitting “randomness” as a part of the final product of canon.

Whether our own theology is big enough to have its unity shattered by randomness is the question and not the answer of ‘canon.’ See Job.

Back to Noth on law and laws: does the canon include reference to laws about oxen goring just because the canon needed the unification device of dumb oxen as hermeneutical features to convince us today (future generations of readers) of just how theologically wise and “unified” the final canon is because it includes goring oxen? – or, does the so-called finished canon include legal reference to goring oxen because goring oxen simply presented as random features of a real landscape and a chancy ecology? – are oxen any more “subordinated” by canon qua canon (and law) than living kings?

Why must goring oxen and kings be put to death rather than re-educated by reading Childs?

Is the story-land of theology really the unifying device? – then why does the canon testify to “random” arrows beyond the text and the law/theology's unifying power?

The struggle toward unification and relative theological homogeneity in a “canon” is at best a struggle. Depending on your own theology, and mine, we could say that “canon” has done its job for no other reason than to memorialize that struggle; but, whether canon attains a theological unity (because of theology -rather than accident) is a real whopper. Any contemporary reader who has made his reading list out of the middle ages will have the question ready at hand – whose theology? – which theology? – a single theology? – the divine right to reign, of which king’s theology?

To the extent that Jesus is a realized eschatology (your previous post), He realized a command to us to go out and make disciples of all nations – a process not finished – nor accomplished by any canon. If you need a written source to look up a few laws to advise your client, then publication has its virtues – but you better check every single recent court decision to make sure the law as written hasn’t changed. Keep in touch with real-life judges issuing current applications. For Jesus commanding us to make disciples, he did not command us to write finished canons ... because .... Whose written letters (epistles), we (not texts) are ...



Phil Sumpter said...

I appreciate your critical interaction with my post, Jim. I will respond tomorrow. I should just clarify that I am not so interested in what was actually the case, only in what Noth himself thought and thus what it was that made him amenable to Childs. But more on that tomorrow ...

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for critically interacting with my post. I think there are two separate issues here, but first a clarification:

It assumes that theology (as theology) is intrinsically unified enough to produce a unified canon.

Throughout your response you assume that by “theology” I mean “systematic” or “dogmatic theology.” I don't, I simply meant that if the texts are theological then they are about God, that God is a significant factor in their message. Theology is a quality of the text and not a closed system. The unity of the canon consists not in a unified dogmatic treatise but its its source and ultimate referent: God—whoever he may be. Thus, when Noth emphasises that the laws were “theological” he is creating historical (because Noth is not talking about “canon,” he's talking about ancient Israelite history) space for the idea that God played a role in Israelite history. Some quotes to back this up:

“Just as in the treatment of clean and unclean beasts, so in other points too it could be shown that what is unique and peculiar in the content of the Old Testament law-codes is directed towards the exclusiveness of the connection between God and people, which is the foundation of the “covenant,” and consequently of the arrangements built up thereon within the framework of the sacral confederacy of the twelve tribes of Israel” (59). Noth goes on to talk of how inappropriate these laws were for either “state law” or for the larger “Canaanite” population. The biblical laws, at least the ones most characteristically “Israelite,” were “quite definitely center[ed] on a cultic or “theological” standpoint” (60). See my summary for a description of how the breakdown of this confederacy was also theological (i.e. prophetically pronounced) in nature.

Concerning the two issues we need to separate:

(1)When talking of Noth's proposal, I am not talking of “canon,” I am talking of ancient Israelite history and religion, which is not 100% that which the Bible presents us. Noth claims in his article that not only were the laws understood theologically, but that they had force in the history of the nation. You reject that Noth claimed that (and it is Noth that I am interested in, not the latest most plausible theory), but haven't provided counter evidence. See my quote concerning Josiah's covenant renewal ceremony. He wouldn't have had the authority to just make up a book to suit his own agenda. Concerning the davidic kings, Noth writes: “Only in so far as the Davidic king ... belonged as a Judaean to the sacral twelve-tribe confederacy, would he understand these laws to apply to himself, but even then it would mean apply to him as a Judaean, not as a king” (36).
(2)This is separate to Childs' thesis of a theological intentionality behind the development of the canon. It simply serves to undergird historically Childs' claim that the traditions of Israel were primarily theological in nature (i.e. about God) and his faith claim that they actually have their source in God. From that, he can argue that the theological tradition extended to the redacting of the text, so that the final form is more than “a mere archive” (as you put it). The editing process itself was theologically motivated. This insight is now so widespread amongst OT scholars that it cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. I find it hard to believe that one can reject that idea that the editorial process was theologically motivated (though obviously the claim that it was a theology in response to an actual God will not find widespread acceptance in the secular academy). Childs spent his career backing these claims up exegetically and he has found support from many quarters.

I should add to this that Childs' thesis of a “canonical process” does not exclude the possibility of “randomness.” He is open to it, for example, in the appendix to Samuel. Conscious theological editing does not need to be universally present, it just has to be there enough to justify focussing on the final form. Even where randomness is present, Childs still talks of the significance of the “effect” of the arrangement, but that's a different kettle of fish.