Thursday, 19 June 2008

Heaven and Historiography

I've just finished one of the most fascinating books I've read in a long time. Paul Minear traces the divergences in perspective between the modern historian and New Testament authors. He isn't so much concerned to argue for the superiority of the New Testament's views on eschatology, ontology, and cosmology (how could one do that anyway?) as to show the methodological implications for the historian if he or she were to actually hold this worldview. Faith and the academy are not as easy to separate as some would like to think.

I've read the book far too quickly to give an adequate introduction so I'll just post his overview of one of my favouriate chapters: "Biblical Ontology and Ecclesiology" (doesn't that title just send a shiver down your spine?).

These apostolic and prophetic attitudes toward time become the central concern in the fourth chapter, where I analyze the challenges presented to the historian by specific texts in the book of Revelation. The category of history does not appear in these texts and it becomes quite misleading when the texts are forced into conformity to the modern category. By contrast the category of the heavens, so absent from modern historical discussion, is assumed to be the ultimate reality. Historians are primarily concerned with placing all events within earthly time and the temporal process; biblical writers are essentially concerned with the eternal purposes and time-transcending activity of the creator of the heavens and the earth. Moreover, in sharp contrast to modern thought, which tends to reduce the heavens and the earth to spatial measurement, biblical writers assume the basic and continual interpenetration of the two realms, with the heavens providing the creative source, the daily sustenance, and the final goal of everything earthly. Because the categories of space and time are no longer of use in measuring heavenly realities, biblical thought makes dubious the modern scholar's reliance on those categories (23).


Bob MacDonald said...

l - what a great summary! You're a gem posting this stuff. Enjoy your studies!

N T Wrong said...

Minear sounds confused.

Phil Sumpter said...

Bob, I don't think I've ever been called a "gem" before. Very touching, thank you!

N.T. Wrong,

please feel free to expand on that.

N T Wrong said...

I don't know of any serious academic interpreter of Revelation who tries to interpret it in terms of 'modern' categories of history. It is a banal and long-recognized fact that Revelation has its own ethereal view on reality.

So as Minear's argument is certainly a straw man, and as the goal of setting up straw men is always to flatter your own point of view, it must be concluded that Minear is engaging in apologetic twaddle.

Phil Sumpter said...

N.T. Wrong,

Minear's point, perhaps not so evident here, is that a historical anaylsis of the book according to current conventions can only take us so far. It can describe what the ontological, histiographical assumptions of Revelation are, and this is what Minear does,fully recognising that other scholars within the secular academy can do the same. But he then asks the question, what happens when we decide to actually believe in Revelation's particular view of ontology/time. Does that not cause us to re-evaluate the meaning of the text and the way it can speak to us today? Revelation, for example, saw each invididual event in history as fully historical and yet fully eschatological at the same time. The author views each event in terms of its "content," and behind these events discerns a transhistorical model that links disparate stories to each other. Minear says that any historian can uncover this, but if it is actually true then it has implications for hermeneutics (among other things, e.g. ethics, ecclosiology, and ontology). Unfortunately, he only touches at the possiblities and I've read the book to fast to see how he suggests concrete change. But the direction in which he points is important and I think butresses the kind of hermeneutic found in Childs' canonical approach.

I also think it is relevant to discussions on the Biblical Studies list concerning the use of cultural anthropology (though my comments there, which I posted here, went unremarked).

Is this still "apologetic twaddle"? Or is he making a valid suggestion?

N T Wrong said...

Thanks for your further information about the book.

Does Minear acknowledge that a historian can also uncover its 'transhistorical' meaning? Is the only difference that one believes what Revelation says is true and applies it to one's life and understanding of the world? If so, I don't see, in respect of interpreting Revelation, how a 'believing' approach could be better than the other. In what way could it be better?

Phil Sumpter said...

Dear N.T. Wrong,

sorry about the late reply. I hope you get notification when I do reply ...

As I said, I've only read the book superficially, so my comments will be limited (I've also returned it to the library. I intend to read it in more depth at some point in the future).

You asked: Does Minear acknowledge that a historian can also uncover its 'transhistorical' meaning?

One of the points of Minear's book is to challenge the very concept of "history" that dominates in biblical studies, which has implications for how we understand something to be "trans-historical." This is subject of his second chapter, "The Transcendence of God and Human Historicity." He quotes Altizer, “We inherit the historical revolution of the nineteenth centruy, a revolution which stripped all historical events of a transcendent ground” (Thomas J.J., The New Apocalypse, xiv). He wants to see this category challenged by the NT claim that transcedence has entered history. I'm not totally clear on how this works in practice - I've read the book far too superficially - but I think its a necessary direction with implications for exegesis (see my comments a while back here:

On "transhistorical" meaning, I think the most relevant quote is the following:

“The task of contemporary exegetes is to allow Scripture itself to criticize both the assumptions and the methods that are used in its study. They must listen also, of course, to secular historians and to theologians. Success in their task will be possible only through a conviction that the temporal distance between this and earlier centruies is itself bridged by the eternal purpose of God and by the participation of the church in that purpose. But it will also be possible only if there is more effective collaboration between historians and theologians. Even the ideal cooperation among scholars, however, will never lead to reducing God's transcendence to the size of our various conceptual boxes. (49)

There's an ontological dimension here which needs to be taken into account.

You asked: Is the only difference that one believes what Revelation says is true and applies it to one's life and understanding of the world?

Minear isn't asking us to take Revelation (for example) at face value. I think he stands with many confessional exegetes in seeing the diversity of the NT documents as witnesses to a single reality outside of themeselves, each using its own idiom. The task of uniting theology and exegesis does not involve literalism (or "biblicism," as Barth put it). Rather, the parts need to be read within the context of the "theological reality" within which they exist and to which they point. This involves something of a circular movment, going from the concrete particularity of the text to its referent and back again. A kind of hermeneutical circle. Minear doesn't say this but I think that's hovering in the background. The question is, what is the reality to which Revelation pushes and how can that shape our hermeneutical system as we re-read Revelation in light of this. Another quote, to try and keep things less abstract:

"The conception of endless, unilinear, one-way time must be modified if we are to accept the apostolic testimony. If the end has actually been inaugurated, then historical time is capable of embracing simultaneously both the old age and the new. No methodology whose presuppositions on time are limited to the old age will be adequate to cope with the historcicity of the new age or with the temporal collision between the two times" (55)

Or again (an relevant to your interesting yet difficult question on Revelaiton and transhistorical knowledge):

John used a literary device, that is, “by telling one story in such a way s to embrace many stories. But this is more than a literary device. It is a way of perceiving reality. He saw each story as fully historical, and yet as fully eschatological. ... He perceived each separate place and time in terms of its content, that corporate historical historical action that “filled it.”[cf. Childs, Retrospective”] He discerned behind this action a transhistorical model that linked each story to the others. This is a comprehensive rather than a disjunctive mode of seeing and thinking. Itr apprehends events in terms of their inner structure as responses to God's action. ... Behind this mode of viewing was a distinctive ontological stance, to which we should give more attention thatn we usually do.” (63)

And finally,

"Early Christian apocalyptic has been rightly called “the mother of Christian theology” (E. Kasemann). I shold also be call the mother of Christian ontology, because it viewed historical decisions and events in the light of an ultimate concern for their ultimate context in the purpose and action of God.” (70)

These are just quotes taken out of context. Tell me if they still don't make sense. I think it is clear that Minear is pushing us in a direction rather than providing a comprehensive solution. Others are at work on that, in particular Childs, Seitz, F. Young, etc.

Hope this helps ...

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