Thursday, 10 July 2008

Diachrony and synchrony in a "canonical approach"

Halden recently posted a question that has been on my own mind for quite a while now, "what is the theological role of historical criticism?" As usual, Halden's posts generate learned and insightful discussion. I posted the fascinating response of one particular commentator yesterday. I've since written a fairly long piece myself, so I'll include it in its entirety today:

I’ve spent the past year and a half reading almost nothing but Brevard Childs in a desperate attempt to get my head round this issue. Seeing as I am a relative new comer to theology, I’ll take a deep breath and hope my thoughts past muster with those who are more trained than I.
My first thought is that “historical criticism” isn’t a self-contained concept in itself, it takes on all sorts of forms depending on the broader ideological/theological context in which it is used. So asking whether we need historical criticism begs the question what kind of historical criticism. As Tim F. pointed out, historical criticism played a role in the exegesis of the Church Fathers (Jerome is usually the parade example, but it played a role for Origen too). But for them, it was only one element in a longer process which lead somewhere else, it was the vehicle, so to speak, that enabled access to what the text was really about. For those immersed in the Enlightenment tradition, that can be no “something else”: the meaning of the text is one, and it is that of the intention of the author.

The example of the Fathers brings us to the crucial question, which I think Tim F. and Geoff point out well, namely that the validity of historical reading is dependent on our views of the nature of reality as a whole and thus its role within that reality. As I have been slowly pointing out in an ongoing thread of mine, for the Fathers the truth of God involved a history of progressive divine revelation, one which breaks into our history and is witnessed to within that history by concrete, particular prophets and then apostles. The testimony of these individuals, then, has a particular function (can one call it an illocutionary stance?), namely to point beyond themselves to this profound reality of redemption from within their particular positions. For Christianity, the truth is not only “objective,” in the sense of being external to us and therefore in need of being revealed, it is also “prophetic and apostolic,” i.e. it is revealed through particular channels. As Geoff says, “Do we even really need it at all? Uh, only if the texts in question are historical (having history in them, or having been written in history) in nature will I answer yes.”
Yet, as Steven says, “there is also a need for theology which surpasses time and space.” Ebeling may have pointed out the significance of the historicity of the Bible (within a particularly existential framework, as I remember it), but I don’t think that simply finding analogies between then and now is a viable option (i.e. it’s not possible). In addition to that, if it’s true that the function of the diverse texts of Scripture is to point to their single referent, the reality of God, a reality which alone constitutes the unity within this diversity, ecclesial interpretation cannot be satisfied with uncovering the discreet witness of just one of these texts (the theology of Paul for example, check out this quote and this one). It must find a way to relate them in order to arrive at a faithful construal of the whole. One of Childs’s contributions to this debate (I’m surprised his name has not been mentioned above) has been to show how the texts of Scripture are not just historical, they are also kerygmatic in a particularly “canonical” way. In other words, the reality of God’s ongoing relation with his people in history in which he has progressively revealed himself is registered within the development of the texts themselves. Editorial shaping and juxtapositioning of various traditions was done not only to point (“witness”) to this single divine reality—as if the editors were prophets of the same calibre as Isaiah—but was done within the context of a broader understanding of the reality of God himself, gained through history, experience and refracted through the lens of prior prophetic tradition. If exegesis is to facilitate a meeting with God (as the Childs quote above implies), then it is the quest for this reality which should drive our interpretation. And if the texts really are “canonical” in the particular way that Childs meant (and if they really are undergirded by the self-revealing God testified to by the rule of faith), then it means that the final form of the text as a literary, relatively self-referential product, is the only arena within which this God can make himself known. Hence the relevance of the apparently “anti” historical-critical approaches of the New Criticism and certain forms of intertextuality.

This “canonical” construal (or whatever term is most appropriate) encompasses both the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the text, leading to the complexity and subtleness of Childs actual (usually misunderstood) position. Throughout his commentaries is the call for the requisite skill in keeping these two dimensions in necessery tension. A focus on the diachronic runs the risk of historicizing something which is ultimately incarnational (see Tim F.’s great comments on ontology and time above!), an overemphasis on the synchronic runs the risk missing the thrust of the text. The truth of scripture is in its referent (Christ, see Halden’s point on Christology as a check against bibliolatry), yet this referent is such that it is “mediated” (the text is a “vehicle”) through the concrete historical witness of Israel and the Church. The interpretative move, then (for the Church, at least) is always through or along the diachronic to the synchronic and on to the referent. That’s how I see it anyway. This is just made more complicated by the fact that the final form has a tendency to consciously “sweep over” what has gone before it an attempt to focus our gaze on a more ultimate horizon.

This, by the way, is why “allegory” and patristic exegesis became more interesting to Childs later on in his career.

To summarize, a Childsian canonical approach challenges the nature of historical criticism in the same way that Barth’s category of the text as “witness” did. It asks us to reconceive what history really is in the first place and how the text would funciton within that history is this history were true.

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