Tuesday, 20 May 2008

What is the Sensus Literalis of Scripture?

Well, here's B.S. Childs' take on the issue:

The literal sense of the text is the plain sense witnessed to by the community of faith. It makes no claim of being the original sense, or even of being the best. Rather, the literal sense of the canonical Scriptures offers a critical theological norm for the community of faith on how the tradition functions authoritatively for future generations of the faithful. [*]
As such, the hermeneutical move which tries to bridge the gap between past and present must take place in terms of the literal sense of the final form of the text. This literal sense is not in tension with the spiritual (or figurative) sense, but rather serves different functions within the community of faith. Indeed,

the literal sense of the text is the indispensable key for the hermeneutical task of actualizing the tradition because in its shaping of the tradition it has critically rendered the material into a form suitable for future accommodation. [**]
See also my posts here and here.

[*] Childs, “The Sensus Literalis of Scripture,” 92

[**] Ibid., 93


Anonymous said...


Never mind the question of whether this is right or wrong, as far as a proper use of “literal” goes: there is a more immediate problem. This definition seems really circular to me. In fact, the circle in it seems to be a tight circle: if the “literal sense of the text is the plain sense witnessed to by the community of faith”, then how can it also function as “a critical theological norm for the community of faith”? As soon as you make the community a principal (or automatic indicator [as in a guaranteed faithful “witness”]) in the determination (or reconstruction) of meaning, you undercut the authority of Scripture. I understand, of course, where this whole way of viewing things comes from: it’s straight out of Reformed dogmatics, for which it is one of the Spirit’s functions to open the community’s mind(s) to Scripture. (There are good discussions of this in the books on Reformed hermeneutics by Muller and by van den Belt.) But I wish that Reformed types (esp. Childs) would speak more openly of the pneumatic component of their hermeneutic, not to mention the way in which pneumatology thereby becomes so closely associated with ecclesiology.

I’ve always been amazed at how closely Childs’s understanding of all things bibliological and hermeneutical follows the Reformed stance to a tee, especially in light of his claims *not* to be working from a strictly Reformed point of view. (Cf. his claim in the introduction to *Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture*, where he says that the understandings that he puts forward in that book are not, as far as he knows, the product of a particular stream of theology!)

Phil Sumpter said...

As soon as you make the community a principal ... in the determination (or reconstruction) of meaning, you undercut the authority of Scripture

Scripture does not contain intrinsic authority. It's authority comes from God who happens to work through people. Later generations of the community are bound by the form given to the text to it by their predecessors, who themselves are submitting to a prior theological imperative (however that is mediated: through prophets, traditions, cult, or texts). I don't get how this is circular.

The Holy Spirit is an integral part of the process, both in the writing and the reading of the text, as far as Childs is concerned. I'm not sure how that competes with what I have written.

The statement you quote from Childs does sound rather naive and from what I know of his broader work I find it hard to believe. But I don't have the book on me. However, Childs has been criticised by Protestant colleagues for placing the authority of the Bible in its source, God, rather than in the text itself. Cf. his "Response to Reviewers" in JSOT 1980: 55:

"There is another recurrent criticism, usually expressed by my Protestant colleagues, that the emphasis on tradition and canon threatens the ultimate authority of God whose will is known through his Word. Did not the recipients if the divine revelation often misunderstand and even obscure the message? I do not doubt for a moment that they did. The can can make no claim to infallibility. However, a crucial hermeneutical issue is at stake when it is assumed that the time-conditionality of the canonical witness can be theologically "corrected" by means of historical critical reconstructions. Rather, the position being defended is that the canon functions truthfully and authoritatively in all its frailty. A different theological dynamic is at work to guide the community of faith in reflecting critically on God and the wolrd through the canonical tradition. The interaction of the various parts of Scripture often serves to balance, check, and subordinate individual elements. Then again, the language of faith constantly adjusted the semantic level on which texts were read and heard. But ultimately, the appeal to the role of the Holy Spirit both confirms the centrality of the tradition as the vehicle of continuing instruction, and also subordinates the written word to God himself as the source of all truth."

Hmm. I think I'll post that tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

This is a good quotation, although its argument will only convince those who (unlike myself) already think in terms of a theology of the Word. I look forward to your discussing it further.

I also happen to think that Scripture's "authority comes from God who happens to work through people", but *only* if "people" refers (in the case of bibliology) to *certain* people. The New Testament's authority extends from its preservation of the apostolic witness, and *not* from the Church. (In the logic of this arrangement [set out in Ephesians 2], the apostles are separate from the Church. They are over and above it.)

Phil Sumpter said...

John, could you clarify what you mean by a "theology of the word." You use this category a lot but I'm afraid I don't know what it means.

I also don't get how the texts of the Bible could have been written other than by "certain people." I can't imagine how a community or a church could write a text. It doesn't work physically. I'm probably missing an obvious point here ... A relevant Barth quote can be found here: http://narrativeandontology.blogspot.com/2008/01/were-later-redactors-also-inspired.html.

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure I can define "theology of the Word" in a way that would satisfy all of its proponents, but here's an attempt. "Theology of the Word" refers to any theology in which the central theological commodity--whether it be truth, salvation, presence, etc.--is construed as an operation of a divine "Word". This "Word" constitutes the fundamental means by which heaven bridges the gulf between God and humanity. It is by and large continuous with the idea of *logos* found in Platonic tradition, although its linguistic aspect (if there at all in the Platonic tradition) tends to be invoked more explicitly in the modern Christian theological context. This drawing of *all* of heaven's earthward activity into the notional apparatus of linguisticality is shown in the way that the word "revelation" has come to refer to virtually any divine "gracement", whether it is revelational (epistemological) in the strict sense or more ontological in its aspect and effect. In some theologies (e.g., Barth's), the confusion of categories is so heavy-handed that revelation itself is *soteriologized*. (In my view, this confusion of categories already possesses the seeds of the docetism that besets Barth's theology as a whole.) The beginning of modern varieties of a theology of the Word lies in the Reformation, but there this scheme was set up with the more definitionally responsible, noetic understanding of "revelation" in mind. The biggest problems attending the modern scheme were introduced when the term "revelation" was stretched to include *all* gracements. This was Barth's doing, although the table was set for him by a much older evangelical habit (begun in Reformed Orthodoxy) of linking the terms "revelation" and "redemption" in a formula.

When I say Scripture was written by "certain people", what I'm saying is that, in the logical scheme governing the authority relationship between Scripture and Church, we are not dealing with a contest between just those two principals as such. Rather, the New Testament's authority derives from the *apostles*, who stand over and above Scripture (!) and the Church, by virtue of their testimony. The relationship is apostles (*viz.* the kerygma) >> Scripture >> the Church.

Anonymous said...

Immediately after posting the above, I came upon a terrific example of the theological conceit I'm talking about: check out the title of the forthcoming *Festschrift* for Richard Hays: http://nijaygupta.wordpress.com/2008/05/22/forthcoming-fs-for-richard-hays-entitled-the-word-leaps-the-gap/#comment-2298 .

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi John, thanks for this well thought out definition. I have to admit that I stil find it hard to imagine what it means to draw "*all* of heaven's earthward activity into the notional apparatus of linguisticality." I just haven't read anyone who thinks this. Barth and Frei certainly don't fit the picture (see my post here). You disagree of course, but you'd have to provide evidence to convince me. In Barth's Introduction "word" is understood to include historical events which are able to communicate a message.

As for the book, I have no doubt what so ever that the title is short hand for something for more sophisticated than the idea that "word" is platonic and soteriaologica. Can you seriously imagine N.T. Wright, one of the contributors, going along with that?

I find it hard to imagine how a person can be separated from what he writes, as if the apostles can be separated from the texts they wrote and used as a more authentic source of theological data.

Phil Sumpter said...

I'm currently reading an essay by Hägglund on the "regula fidei," and as far as I can see, Barth and Childs stand in direct continuity with Irenaus. According to Hägglund, for Irenaus "Die 'Wahrheit' bezieht sich nämlich eben als Wahrheit auf die Offenbarung selbst, die hinter der heiligen Schrift, hinter der Verkündigung der Kirche liegt."

I haven't time to translate right now, but if you can't speak German I will do so later.

Anonymous said...


The "notional apparatus of linguisticality" that I refer to is simply the use of the terms "the Word" or "revelation" in a way inclusive of *both* linguistical commodities (like revelation proper) and ontological commodities (like redemption). Barth does this--in fact, it's just about *all* that he's about--and it's a conceptual conundrum of the first order. It doesn't help his case any that he can think to defend this proceeding simply by saying that we should bracket "philosophy" from our theology. You write that "[i]n Barth's Introduction 'word' is understood to include historical events which are able to communicate a message", but Barth doesn't speak of "Word" as communicating a message so much as he speaks of it as a directly ontological moment--a *soteriological* moment! Gary Dorrien expresses it well in his *The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology*: "[Barth] argued that the *diastasis* between God and humanity that his Romans commentary had featured was actually *itself* God's Word, properly understood" (*The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology*, p. 89).

As for the book, I was referring only to the idea pent up in the title. I wasn't implying that the contributors are all guilty of this way of thinking.

You write, "I find it hard to imagine how a person can be separated from what he writes, as if the apostles can be separated from the texts they wrote and used as a more authentic source of theological data.", but *I'm* the one saying that the writings are connected to their authors. It is only as a preserve of the apostolic testimony that the New Testament is authoritative for the Church. That excludes a conception of *canon* as a formal principle.

I've reread Irenaeus several times since you first posted about him (about a year or so ago), and I just don't see how you can think that his scheme is at all compatible with what Barth and Childs are doing. Lee Martin McDonald makes the point well: "[I]n the writings that have survived the second and third centuries, the church fathers did not answer these challenges (*viz.* Marcionism, Gnosticism, Montanism] with a canon of Scriptures so much as with a canon of truth that was defended by an appeal to those apostolic writings. This is especially true in regard to Irenaeus and Tertullian. See, for instance, in Irenaeus, *Against Heresies* 1.8.1; 1.9.1-4 and in Tertullian, *Prescription Against Heretics* 8-9 where logic, the Church's canon of truth, and an appeal to various Christian writings are used to speak to these challenges" ("The Integrity of the Biblical Canon in Light of Its Historical Development," *BBR* 6 [1996] 95-132, esp. 118).

Phil Sumpter said...

It is only as a preserve of the apostolic testimony that the New Testament is authoritative for the Church. That excludes a conception of *canon* as a formal principle.

If canon is a norm, a rule of faith for faith, then how can the apostolic testimony as authoritative exclude the concept of canon?

Concerning the MacDonald quote, I certainly agree with him, I know for a fact that Childs does and I'm pretty convinced that Barth does to. I have just finisehd translating an article by Bengt Hägglund on the regual fidei which, once I've finished my current thread on the two testmaents of scripture, I will post on. I think you will like a lot of what he has to say (Childs recommended it to Daniel Driver in an interview). However, you will also see that the regula fidei as testimony to actual reality independent of the text (i.e. as witness) entails coming to terms with what it means to talk of the text as witness. Here's an extract:

"The task of dogmatics is indeed “only” a passing on (Überliefern), a “tradioning” (“tradieren”), of that which was once given. Like the other sciences, it stands before a reality that must be regarded as the final authority for every statement. Its object is something which is believed, yet at the same time is something “which our ears have heard,” which “our fathers have recounted to us” (Ps 44:2).

Giving a regula fidei precedence over our dogmatic statements means that both find their unity and their coherency in the actual order of salvation history (in der tatsächlichen Ordnung des Heilsgeschehens), in the οικονομια. In the final analysis every truthful statement about this order must be grounded in the actual events themselves, as we have already seen concerning the Fathers of the ancient church, who refer the regula fidei to the facts of the revelation itself.
This reality of the divine order of salvation, however, does not encounter us as a reality which we can directly apprehend, see, hear or touch. Rather it is a linguistically mediated revelation (durch das Wort vermittelte Offenbarung), one which is mediated through the original witness of the prophets and apostles. This bondage to the revealed and revealing word gives dogmatics, in comparison to all other disciplines and sciences, its particular characteristic (Gepräge). The word “revelation” means, in other words, that we are concerned with matters which on our own terms we are not able to perceive or generate. We are dependent on the witness of others, on that which “we have heard,” what others have related to us. And for this reason “the traditioning process” (“das Tradieren”) is accorded such significance."

Hägglund is writing as a historian from the perspective of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria.

Anonymous said...

Finally, something that Childs and I agree on! I see nothing in this quotation that I cannot agree with, provided that "salvation history" isn't too overly freighted. I’ll have to hunt down the article.

Childs's approval of this use of "Heilsgeschehen" brings up an something I noticed last night, as I was reading through Cullmann's *Salvation in History*. In the part of that book where Cullmann sets out to define what he means by "salvation history", he describes a sort of ongoing recalibration (not his term), so to speak, of the meaning of the "kerygma" (which for him is not *the* kerygma, but a changing [because constantly updating] narrative). At every point in this recalibration, the actual historical happenings correspond with the revelation given about and through these events. This reminded me in many ways of Childs's scheme, except that Childs, I think, would take this activity of recalibration to a point beyond the writing of the biblical books (where Cullmann probably would not). If I'm not mistaken, this is an aspect of Childs's work that Seitz has especially emphasized. (Doesn't Seitz himself use the word "calibration" or "recalibration" somewhere? Perhaps I heard it in the online video of his lectures at Acadia.)

I was struck by the similarity between Cullmann and Childs, but, as far as I know, Childs does not warmly embrace Cullmann. Is that right? (For what it's worth, I find Cullmann helpful in his constantly pointing out the docetic nature of much of twentieth-century NT [esp. Bultmannian] theology, but even *he* carries with him the seeds of that docetism with an undue stress on revelation. I like Cullmann better than Barr [and everybody else] likes him, but I find him much better in his polemics than in his positive theorizing.)

Phil Sumpter said...

Sorry about his late response!

The article is called "Die Bedeutung der "regula fidei" für theologische Aussagen" (or something like that). I'm going to start a thread on it at some point.

I'm afraid I can't speak for Cullman. I've come across the name somewhere but don't remember what he said. It's central for Childs that the Bible points beyond itself to a theological reality outside it (as in this quote).

Recalibration is a term Seitz uses. I used it when covering his article "in accordance with the Scriptures.".

There is a video of Seitz's lectures?! Could you send me the link.

You may be interested in a series of articles by Childs in a volume called "The Rule of Faith" which can be read online here.

Anonymous said...

Go to http://adc.acadiau.ca/continuing_education/hayward_lectures/ and bring up Seitz's Hayward lectures.

Phil Sumpter said...

John, what an amazing collection of videos! Thank you!