Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Photo of day: the superficiality of colour?

I found the following comment on the Léon Gimpel, the creator of this photograph, fascinating:

In 1904 Gimpel went to work for the French periodical L'Illustration, where he baceme the first reporter to make colour pictures on a regular basis. In 1907 it was Gimpel who organized the public seminar in Paris at which Louis Lumière presented the details of his newly developed autochrome colour process. Lumière's process turned out to be at least thirty years ahead of its time, since in 1907 it was thought that colour gave an unacceptable bias to reportage. Black and white dramatized events and made them susceptible to analysis, while colour made objects look opulent and encouraged people to focus on appearance rather than reality. Autochrome's suggestion was that we were luxurient materialists, and not the sort of people who could easily be mobilized on behalf of the national interest, or for any other abstract cause.
[HT to The Blue Lantern for the image]

Here's another gorgeous photo, portraying the absurdity of war:

Monday, 29 September 2008

Quote of the day: Revelation in law and history

[I]n the Old Testament God reveals himself neither in history nor in law in some general sense, but in his special covenantal history with Israel. In the act of creating a people for himself history and law are not antagonistic, but different sides of the one act of divine self-manifestation.
Childs, Exodus, 402.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

The decontextualisation of prophecy: "Second Isaiah"

Having looked at how Amos and Hosea were actualized in order to function as Scripture, we turn to Isaiah 40-55:

3) A collection of prophetic material has been detached from its original historical moorings and subordinated to a new theological context. The classic example of this canonical move is so-called "Second-Isaiah." Critical scholarship has made out a convincing case for dating chapters 40—55 (some scholars include the remaining chapters of the book as well ) to the period of the Babylonian exile. Yet in their present canonical position these chapters have been consciously loosened from their original setting and placed within the context of the eighth century prophet, Isaiah of Jerusalem. Moreover, the original historical background of the exilic prophet has been drained of its historical particularity— Cyrus has become a theological construct almost indistinguishable from Abraham (cf. Rissane)—and the prophetic message has been rendered suitable for use by later generations by transmitting it as a purely eschatological word.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Interpretation of the Decalogue

At the end of a review of this history of interpretation of the Decalogue, from Jewish midrash through Christian allegory and finally including the historical-critical debate that flourished in Europe, Childs has the following to say:

Certainly it remains a haunting question for anyone who has followed this history of exegesis whether one can really describe it as a history of steadily increasing insight. Perhaps a chart of rising and falling lines would be more appropriate. Certainly, the modern critical period has brought a new dimension of philological and historical precision to bear. Yet to the extent to which the scholar now finds himself increasingly estranged from the very substance which he studies, one wonders how far the lack of content which he discovers stems from a condition in the text or in himself.

Childs, Exodus, 437.

Update: I just read this post again after a few months break. Again, the question arises: why is Childs so cool?

Friday, 26 September 2008

Hosea: the "metaphorisation" of prophecy

In addition to extending the prophetic message, how else were the prophetic traditions rendered as Holy Scripture?

2) The shaping process changed the level on which the original prophecy functioned in order to afford the witness a new metaphorical role. The original message of Hosea was directed to the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom in the mid-eighth century. The prophet's word constituted a sustained attack on Israel's syncretistic religious worship which had changed the worship of Yahweh into a fertility cult. Hosea appropriated the language of his opponents to claim all the areas of fertility, land, and kinship for Yahweh, Israel's faithful lover. The sign acts of chapter 1 functioned as a history-creating act of divine judgment which actualized the threat in the giving of names of judgment. But in its collected form the original material has been arranged to reflect an important hermeneutical shift in the function of Hosea's witness. The prophet's realistic language is now understood metaphorically. Regardless of the prehistory behind the sign acts in chapters 1 and 3, the present shape of these chapters has given the material a symbolic interpretation. It is quite impossible to reconstruct a history of Hosea's marriage from these two chapters. Rather, the intent that the sign acts be understood metaphorically is made explicit in both chapters 1 and 3 (cf. 1:2, 4f., 6f., 9; 3:1, 4, 5). Moreover, the placing of chapter 2 as an extended metaphor in between these two chapters provides the editor's symbolic key for interpreting them.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Amos: the extension of a prophetic message

The effect of the canonical shaping of the prophetic literature reveals an enormous variety in the manner by which the traditions were rendered as Sacred Scripture. The purpose of this thread is to post eight examples taken from Childs excellent article on the subject, "The Canonical Shape of the Prophetic Literature," pp. 513-522 in "The Place is Too Small for Us": The Israelite Prophets in Recent Scholarship. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995 (available for free on ATLA).

1 ) An original prophetic message was expanded by being placed in a larger theological context. The Book of Amos provides a classic example of this frequent canonical move. An important problem within the Book of Amos turns on how to interpret the sudden shift from a message of total judgment of Israel to one of promise for Israel in chapter 9. Often the shift in tone has been understood as an attempt to soften Amos' harsh message by a later generation who was either offended at the severity or who tried to make room for the later restoration of Judah. However, the editors of chapter 9 did not soften Amos' message of total judgment against sinful Israel by allowing a remnant to escape. The destruction is fully confirmed (9:9-11). Rather, the tradents effected a canonical shaping by placing Amos' words in a broader, eschatological framework which transcended the historical perspective of the prophet. From God's perspective there is a hope beyond the destruction seen by Amos. The effect of chapter 9 is both to confirm the truth of Amos' original prophecy and to encompass it within the larger theological perspective of divine will which includes hope and final redemption. To distinguish between genuine and non-genuine oracles is to run in the face of the canon's intent (p. 49).

Sünde als Vergessenheit und Unkenntnis

For a related post in English go to Grace and Law in Exodus.

Höre, du Himmel, und horch auf, du Erde! Denn der HERR hat geredet:
Ich habe Kinder großgezogen und auferzogen,
sie aber haben mit mir gebrochen.
Ein Rind kennt seinen Besitzer
und ein Esel die Krippe seines Herrn.
Israel aber hat keine Erkenntnis,
mein Volk hat keine Einsicht
(Jes 1,2-3).

Hört, ihr Tauben! Und ihr Blinden, schaut her, um zu sehen!
Wer ist blind, wenn nicht mein Knecht [Israel],
und taub, wenn nicht mein Bote, den ich sende?
Er hat vieles gesehen, aber es nicht beachtet,
hat offene Ohren, aber hört nicht
(Jes 42, 10-20)

Sie vertauschten ihre Herrlichkeit
mit dem Bild eines Stieres, der Gras frisst.
Sie vergaßen Gott, der sie rettete,
der große Dinge getan in Ägypten
(Ps 106, 20-21)

Und die Folgen von Unglauben:

Hört das Wort des HERRN, ihr Söhne Israel!
Denn der HERR hat einen Rechtsstreit mit den Bewohnern des Landes;
denn keine Treue und keine Gnade
und keine Erkenntnis Gottes ist im Land.
Verfluchen und Lügen, Morden, Stehlen und Ehebrechen haben sich ausgebreitet, und Bluttat reiht sich an Bluttat.
Darum vertrocknet das Land und welkt jeder, der darin wohnt,
(Hos 4, 1-3).

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A theological justification for Form Criticism

Confessional biblical scholars often give fascinating arguments to justify the use of historical criticism in the reading of the Bible. They come in various forms. Richard of יהוה מלך has posted the following interesting quote from Klaus Koch on the theological justification for the Form Critical method. It is clearly indebted to the dogmaticians Karl Barth and Hermann Diem and shares its outlook with that of von Rad:

The Old and New Testament claim to be the revelation of a god whose word and deed are fundamental to true human existence. For two milenia Christian theology has repeatedly reinterpreted this claim, checked it, and found it to be right. Form criticism provides the means for a more accurate interpretation and examination thatn has been possible before. If the thesis is right that form criticism culminates in a language history (literary history, transmission history) involving all manifestations of life then that claim cannot be justified by appealing merely to isolated texts, but to a complete history of all the biblical writings, to which each Old and New Testament book would contribute, and in which each would gain the recognition due to them, and this history would be carried further by church history. Within an overall historical framework of this kind it is possible to see why the early Christians (and Christians even now) recognise in Jesus the Christ. I do not believe that such a large historical enquiry will lead to our being less convinced than our fathers in the church were that Scripture is of God’s making and prompting. On the contrary, we have clearer grounds for sharing their conviction, for careful historical analysis enables us to see each stage of the biblical compilation as a living response to God (from The Growth of Biblical Tradition).
I think Brevard Childs would share a lot of these assumptions. God has established a kerygmatic witness to Himself in his prophets and apostles and so listening to this proclamation in all its details can surely be only helpful. This explains Childs' penchent for "tradition-historical trajectories," both inner-biblical and in post-biblical tradition.

But there is another dimension to this issue which I think Koch et al have left out, namely, the ontological. As I argued in my post The need for ontological categories for Biblical exegesis, there is a sense in which a grasp of the fuller reality of God reconfigures older testimony to Him. The Old really is "transformed" by the New (if that's the right word). And if it is the case that Christ "opens up" the Old in such a way as to show us its true heart, then shouldn't we allow the later hermeneutical shape of the canon to reconfigure whatever existed before, at an older tradition-historical level? To give some examples from the prophetic literature: a prophet's message is often expanded in scope by its placement in a new literary context, or it is metaphorically extended, or oracles are detached from their original historical moorings and given a new theological context, or traditions are edited in the light of the larger canon. All these manoeuvers have hermeneutical implications and a theological reading of Scripture that wants to grasp the fullness of its divine Subject must not only take the final form seriously as part of a trajectory, it must allow the final form to exercise a critical function in "re-calibrating" everything that went before.

This quote has inspired me to start a new thread looking at the various ways in which the prophetic literature in the OT was canonically shaped, as opposed to just tradition-historically extended. Stay tuned!

It is this conext, by the way, that Chris Tilling's recently posted Brueggemann quote should be evaluated

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Allegory and the problem of "history"

Tim of The Moving Image has posted the final part of his paper on the challenge of the modern concept of "history" to theological exegesis. His point is that modernity's understanding of the otherness of the past has disconnected us from it. The past is gone and can never be relived in the way it once was. The result is alienation from our Scripture, which is locked into another world, forever separated from the present. The "ontological immediacy," so to speak, once experienced by our forefathers, has been deconstructed by the recognition of temporal distance.

How can one "bridge the gap" in the modern era? Tim senses that the solution is "figural exegesis," and I agree. I think that the key lies in understanding the nature and function of figural exegesis within the "economy of God." Here are my comments on his post:

My understanding of the nature of figural exegesis is informed by my interaction with Childs. In short, Scripture has its true being within the eschatological economy of God. It is defined by its function within this economy, namely, to be a witness to "divine reality" (the text's res) and as such to draw God's people more into faithful, obedient relationship with him. The hermeneutical assumption of allegory, as opposed to midrash, as that the referent of the text is outside of the text. In short, the text is a "witness" to the divine reality and so it is the function of faithful (true) exegesis to "push through" the text, to "penetrate" it, so that one gets to the theological referent. The referent is greater than any of the parts and constitutes the unity of the whole (cf. Childs' "ontological unity of scripture"). Each witness, whether in the OT or the NT, is fragmentary, yet in faith we believe that the reality to which all the parts point is one. As such, we need to read the parts in the light of the whole: the trinity is referenced in the OT, for example, but from our latter day perspective we can see its reality in the OT (I tried to argue this in my post on The need for ontological categories in biblical exegesis). Childs calls this "moving from the subject matter back to the witness."

The key for bridging the past and present, then, is dogmatic. We see that all the parts of scripture ultimately point to a "different world" and so by inhabiting this world we sensitize ourselves to the "fit" between it and the parts, we can't help but hear the constant echoes. I would have thought that the key for bridging past and present would have something to do with the Trinity, the ordo salutis, and the rule of faith. This is not to ask us to jump into an alternative reality which ignores historical causality etc., it is to open us to a different dimension of this reality which intersects with it in complex ways (Childs calls it dialectical). The "glue" which joins the past and the present is apocalyptic and theological and we can't see it because, perhaps, in our quest for external, objective parameters for validating the results of interpretation we've lost the apocalyptic glasses to see what every believer at least intuitively knows has always been there. For Luther, allegorical exegesis was a reflex and he did it even when claiming to be reading "historically."

I have a feeling this all relates to Barth's theory of "the three times of the Word." A relevant essay on this is one by Seitz, which I referenced in my post on The theological crisis of biblical criticism.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Seitz on "biblicism"

To say that we are not apostles means that we cannot approach the Old Testament as did Jesus and the apostles, as though their reading can be naively our own . . . Childs calls this sort of move ‘biblicist’ because it likewise ignores the intruding witness of the New Testament and an accurate assessment of its role as canon: which is to serve as a testimony to Jesus Christ and not a guidesheet for Christian exegesis of the Old Testament.
Word Without End, 107.

Friday, 19 September 2008

The awesomeness of Andrew Louth ...

... consists, for me, in his ability to elucidate the canonical approach of Brevard Childs, and perhaps that of Karl Barth, as evidenced in my post on Barth's biblical exegesis. Interpretation of the Bible is all about the subject matter, and that has huge hermeneutical implications (see my The Bible and the Historian). I still have only access to Louth via my reading of Childs and the wonderful posts of Sister Macrina. Here is her latest goody which has just sent me reeling in ecstasy:

At [the heart of the patristic understanding of "mysticism" is] the understanding of Christ as the divine mysterion: an idea central to the epistles of the Apostle Paul. This secret is a secret that has been told; but despite that it remains a secret, because what has been declared cannot be simply grasped , since it is God’s secret, and God is beyond any human comprehension. The secret of the Gospel is the hidden meaning of the Scriptures: for Christians the whole of what they call the ‘Old Testament’ finds its true meaning in Christ. God’s plan for humankind to which the Scriptures bear witness is made plain in the Incarnation. And this is the most common context, as we have seen, for the use of the word mystikos: it refers therefore to the hidden meaning of the Scriptures, the true meaning that is revealed in Christ, a meaning that remains mysterious, for it is no simple message, but the life in Christ that is endless in its implications. Christians, however, share in the life of Christ pre-eminently through the sacraments - mysteria in Greek - and the word mystikos is used therefore in relation to the sacraments as a way of designating the hidden reality, encountered and shared through the sacraments. The final use of the word mystikos refers to the hidden reality of the life of baptized Christians: a reality which is, as St Paul put it, ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Col. 3: 3). (205)

Grace and Law in Exodus

This is part of what we have been doing in our Bible study group. We're looking at the identity of the God of the Old Testament. As Deut 4:32-39 makes clear, God saved Israel and revealed himself to them in word and deed in order that they might know who he is. God's identity is constituted through his salvific action:

Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into rthe land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’ ” (Exod 6:5-8)
This salvation provides the context for obedience to the law:

You yourselves have seenwhat I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession(Exod 19:4-5)
This is seen in the Decalogue itself. God doesn't start with "You shall have no other gods before me" but rather

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me" (Exod 20:2-3)
This is seen even more clearly in Deuteronomy, where the whole historical prologue, chapters 1-4, precedes the Decalogue in chapter 5.

Fulfilling God's will then, is not a matter of striving to comply to an abstract moral system. It is a response to the redemptive work of God in your life, who calls you into service as a result. Fulfilling God's will is a matter of thankfulness for what God has done.

This echoes the New Testament:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you (John 15:12)

We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19; see also Rom 12:1).

Sin, then, is not a matter of "missing the mark" in any abstract sense. It is a matter of forgetfulness of what God has done and who he is:

Sons I have reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the ass its master's crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people does not understand. (Isa 1:2-3)


they exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass,
they forgot God, their Saviour,
who had done great things in Egypt (Ps 16:20-21).


there is no faithfulness or kindness,
and no knowledge of God in the land;
there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and adulery ...
and the land mourns (Hos 4:1-3)

These thoughts are taken from Christ Wright's Old Testment Ethics (reviewed here) and Childs' Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

A most fascinating thread - and it's just beginning!

I have just read one of the most exciting things I've read for a while (second now to this), and it's a blog post. O.K., it's the first instalment of a paper held my Tim F. of the blog The Moving Image in which he begins to unravel the ontological and philosophical assumptions undergirding the modern concept of history. He grounds this in a comparison with the Venerable Bede, who seems to have viewed history a lot more along the lines of the New Testament authors, as I've pointed out in this thread. Perhaps I'm just weird, but this kind of thing really gets my heart racing. I'm loath to select quotes to post here as you really should read the whole thing and spend the next couple of days in bated breath waiting for the remainder of the paper (despite Tim's warnings in paragraph 1!). But as I fear those who read this will lack the enthusiasm I have for such things, though it really would do them good, I'll post two excerpts in order to try and wet your appetite:

As Constantin Fasolt notes, however, this fundamental separation of the past and present is a human making.[7] In his words, “We place that distinction [between past and present] into the uninterrupted flow of time. We assert ourselves and thereby we transform the world. We claim a place for ourselves in the here-and-now and hold it in opposition to the there-and-then. We draw a fence around a part of reality, call that the past, and mine it for the knowledge in which historians specialize. That is the founding act of history.”[8] Fasolt is describing our inability to distinguish a break between the past and present in our ordinary experience. To be sure, we can name my previous sentence as “past,” but the point is that we never experience an interruption in our experience of time. Everything occurs to us in a kind of simultaneous flowing present. It’s also important to note that sources are so important for historians, because they give evidence of what is gone and passed away, the mystery of what was, the past. In sum, by drawing a line in our experience of time and using sources to mark and reinforce this distinction, historians get their needed object of study, the past; and this past is separated from the present and should not be polluted by the present or the future; if it is, then we can accuse the practitioner of the history’s sin of sins. And most of us know that much of early Church exegesis and writing succumbs to this putative sin. If figural exegesis is ever going to be revived, even in a renewed or different way, we must reckon with the development and historical ban on anachronism.
Bede did things differently:

As I’ve been alluding to historians who preceded modernity studied the past and made historical claims as well. But, it was conceived of quite differently. A reading of the Venerable Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time and his Ecclesiastical History, for example, displays his theological understanding of time and history. For example, the six ages of the world that Bede borrows from the preceding tradition “follows in all respects” the actual creation of the world according to Genesis.[9] In fact, the six world ages take place within the week of creation.[10]
The age we inhabit now is the sixth age, the age of the Lord and his Incarnation, which began with Christ’s incarnation and lasts through the persecution of the anti-Christ.[11] Chronicling the historical content of the sixth age, Bede narrates in detail generations and leaders of the West from Christ up to the 8th century English people.[12] This is significant because Bede does care about historical detail, as any cursory reading of his Ecclesiastical History reveals which is why many historians today respect him, while simultaneously and theologically placing the events in the larger arena of God’s providence in history understood in relation to Christ. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (and all his historical writings) must read in this way for it to be properly understood.
I wonder if this provides a clue to what Barth was doing, which his colleagues found so perplexing? I do think Barth provides the bridge back to the lost world of allegory which we so desparately need.

I'll link to Tim's subsequent posts as they appear.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The need for ontological categories in Biblical exegesis

In response to my post on the exegesis of Karl Barth, the question has been raised concerning the most adequate controls on interpretation. What is the right context to save our exegesis from turning into dogmatic eisegesis? Or is dogmatic eisegesis so bad after all? The classic answer of the academy has been that the only control is the historical context of the text. Recent literary approaches emphasise the literary - often "narrative" - context as a restraint on interpretative possibilities. The recent influence of N.T. Wright has led to many to emphasise the broader "salvation narrative" that first century Judaism formulated in response to its Scripture. As such, we have a new theological context which privileges the temporal categories of development and direction, climax and resolution, for undestanding the message of individual texts.

I'm not against any of these, and in particular I think the Heilsgeschichtle dimension that Wright has emphasised is a great bonus for the academy (I think the church has always been saying it). But is that enough when reading the Bible? Does "narrative theology" provide us with the ultimate key for unlocking God's word?

I think it would, if the Gospel really did only consist of a narrative with a plot. But it doesn't. As my blog name indicates, that Gospel has not only a narrative, temporal dimension, but also an ontological one. The Trinity, for example, structures the creed and is held by systematic theologians such as Jenson to be the foundation for thought about God. Not only the Trinity, but the eternal nature of Christ as pre-existent Son and the vehicle for creation is a reality that cannot be best described in “narrative categories” lie at the heart of the New Testament's kerygma. This was the problem with narrative which I was trying to get at in my post on the NT being seen as a chapter in a story. At best, Heilsgeschichte is a theological construct which gives us one way for understanding the Gospel, but not the only way.

Applying this larger dogmatic reality now to the text means that we must do more than fit its particularity within an unfolding narrative which enfolds us. It also means that we must think hard about the nature of the reality that the text is talking about, understood from our perspective now in the “latter days.” It means that we can understand the Psalmists' Christology better than he could, or the significance of the creative power of σοφία (Wisdom) better than the sages. Theological exegesis—exegesis which aims to get to the reality to which the Biblical witnesses (μάρτυρες ) are trying to point us at in all their fragmentary form—means thinking about the content of their particular message in the context of the content of all the messages contained in the Bible. Childs tries to put this across with the following example:

The Old Testament witness to creation does not ever sound the name of Jesus. At the same time, it is equally true that the Old Testament does not conceive of the creator God as a monad or monolithic block. In Genesis, in the prophets, and especially in the wisdom books, there is a dynamic activity within the Godhead and an eschatological relation between the old and the new, between creation once-for-all and creatio continua, between divine transcendence and immanent entrance into the world. It is crucial for any serious Christian theology to reflect on how this variety of witness to the God of Israel is to be understood in the light of the New Testament's witness (John, Colossians, Hebrews) to the creative role of Jesus Christ in relation to the Father.” (Biblical Theology, 83)
Childs concludes: “It is my thesis that such reflection demands a continuing wrestling with the central issue of the reality constitutive of these biblical witnesses.” (Ibid.)

I hope to give an example of this in a post on Ps 8 in the context of the canon.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Viola is sound: check him out.

There's been a dialogue going on between a certain Frank Viola and Ben Witherington which I haven't been following. Bill of Bible/History Blog, however, has kindly pointed out that Childs has come up in the conversation, so I popped over to see what was going on. I was delighted to see that Viola gets Childs right, a fairly rare occurrence in the world these days, and so will share his paragraph:

Brevard Childs, like myself, accepted historical criticism. Childs’ position was that historical criticism is a good beginning, but not a good stopping place. We don’t stop with the historical information of the text. We rather go on to see the fullness of the canon. Thus Childs didn’t deny historical criticism. The problem is that some are setting canonical criticism and historical criticism up as an either/or choice. But that’s a false choice. One can advocate the historical study of Scripture and yet say that historical study needs to be inserted into a larger and richer context, i.e., the existing canon of Scripture which contains a revelation of Jesus Christ.
This being indeed true, a truth much needed to be heard by Evangelicals in the New Testament guild, I followed a link to an article he wrote and was again thrilled by the opening two paragraphs:

In my personal judgment, many segments of the Christian world today—including much of the emerging church conversation and the house church movement—have lost the centrality of Jesus Christ.
In addition, for many Christians, the Old Testament has fallen out of functional use. Scores of present-day believers do not find anything of spiritual value in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy.
This kind of thing makes my heart thump with joy, so thanks Frank for brightening up my afternoon! This is where it's at; this is where the problematic lies for the Church as it grapples with its muddled past and confusing present! If only we can plunge ourselves into the mystery of the Christ of the Old Testament, and not just the New Testament construal ... This is where my heart is and where I want to be pouring my intellectual activity.

NOFX get moral

NOFX are one of my favourite groups. I'm glad their turning their music to more constructive ends, I just hope they're willing to put in the head work to explain and justify their positions and enter into dialogue with others. Saying "you're wrong" is cute, but it doesn't do much to bring about meaningful change.

Having said that, Fat Mike is getting involved in politics, as the following interview makes clear:

Hat Tip: Lubab no More.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Quote of the day: A strange irony

It is a strange irony that those examples of biblical interpretation in the past which have truly immersed themselves in a specific concrete historical context, such as Luther in Saxony, retain the greatest value as models for the future actualization of the biblical text in a completely different world. Conversely those biblical commentators who laid claim to an objective, scientific explanation of what the text really meant, often appear as uninteresting museum pieces to the next generation.
Childs, Biblical Theology, 88.

Something's wrong with Site Meter

Up until recently, Site Meter had been providing a valuable service for this blog. Due to a widgity type thing inserted into my blog I could track who had visited my blog: when, where from, and most importantly of all, for how long. The duration element was important to me as it helped me distinguish between those who accidentally came across my blog and then left in the blink of an eye, and those who actually take time to read what I post. Well, my ability to sift through "hits" in terms of their duration has been removed, due to their snazzy new upgrade which makes the service no longer serviceable.

Worse - and being a technological numpty I have no idea why - shortly after I had installed their new JavaScript code, my webpage kept "disappearing." I'd get a glimpse for a few minutes and then I'd be redirected to a Dell site and be told my page was inaccessible. Luckily, I managed to get into my layout page before being redirected again and have now throroughly expunged my blog of any link to Site Meter. Perhaps Statcounter will do a better job, though to be honest I preferred the old Site Meter.

And while I'm complaining about such things (what is the generic term?), what's up with technorati? I've been linked to numerous times, yet the site has hardly registered anything. This isn't a issue of me wanting to boost my rating, it's a matter of wanting to stay up to date on who's reading and publicising me (or demonizing, but I have to say that hasn't happened yet. Unfortunately. I do like a good debate).

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Barth's exegesis

This is just beautiful. The following are Childs' comments on Barth, made at a colloquium on the subject at Yale in 1969:

"Now there are many criticisms of Barth's use of Scriptures ... . Usually the criticism is made ... that Barth does not take historical criticism seriously. ...

... it seems to me that that does not at all get at the heart of the problem. It's not that Barth does not know it, but somehow Barth judges it inadequate to the type of work that he's doing. He's called it prolegomena. Barth allows you to read the text from different contexts. It seems to me that he is always interested in different ways of studying it. But he continues to insist that ultimately the context from which theology has to be done is the context of Scripture—Old and New Testament—in the Canonical context.

And for this reason he is always opposed to the easy combinations of first starting with neutrality and then moving over into some kind of confessional position. ...

... Stendahl feels that in a sense Barth doesn't do close exegetical work. His commentary on Romans could just as well have been written on Galatians. You never would have known the difference. And there is a certain sense in which this is true.

And yet it seems to me it's the fact that Barth wants to go through the text, to the reality, that the text becomes a transparency, that the walls that separate the Apostle from the reader are dissolved, and one then begins to confront the reality itself—and for Barth there can be no antiquarian interest. And that means Barth has the tendency always to move down, to move through, and talk about the transparency. Very soon one is wrestling with the realities of Grace, and Judgement, and Nature and Grace—all the rest of these things—and that remains a problem. It seems to me this may be somewhat of an overstatement, but it is true that the kind of work he does is of such a different genre that for one who has been trained in the traditional critical way, it does seem that wherever Barth starts, he ends up in these massive theological statements and most of us have trouble following him.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Barr gets Childs right!

James Barr (for an obituary go here) was a bright chap whose work needs to be carefully studied, and I consider it a deficiency on my part that I haven't read enough of him. However, this doesn't excuse the often over emotional ad hominem which characterises his attacks on those who subscribe to a view of the universe other than the one his mild modernism allows. It can often lead to a misconstruing of their actual proposals, as is the case for Childs. However, in his incredibly negative response to Childs' remarkable Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture he does get one thing right, and that is his perception of Childs' indebtedness to historical criticism. The only bit he gets wrong is that he seems to think Childs would be ashamed of the fact! Bizarre. Here's the quote:

Childs's actual operation, however, is far more dependent on historical criticism than his account of the latter would suggest. The operation is bipolar: if one pole is the new canonical reading, the other is the situation reached by traditional criticism. He displays, not what a canonical reading, untouched by historical criticism, would be, but the path by which, starting from current critical positions, one can find one's way to the new canonical reading. The canonical reading here presented makes no sense unless one already has a latish Deuteronomy, a Deutero-Isaiah, and so on. Moreover, many of the paths that lead from one pole to the other are simple historical-critical paths and defensible, if at all, on those grounds; conversely, most of them are liable to the same uncertainties which he has so convincingly delineated for previous critical views. In this respect the author remains entirely a child of the critical movement.[*]
Childs would heartily agree to all this, which should provide those who follow Barr in thinking that Childs wouldn't with pause for thought ... and perhaps pause to actually make the effort to read Childs' work for themselves.

By the way, why isn't there a Wikipedia entry for Childs?

[*] J. Barr, "Childs' Introduction," in JSOT 16 (1980), 15.

A useful free Bible referencing web tool

It's called RefTagger and is provided by Logos, though you don't need to own the software to install it on your blog. Here's the description:

RefTagger is a free web tool that automatically turns all of your Bible references into hyperlinks to the passages at BibleGateway.com.
Simple and effective. It saves me from having to look up each Bible verse and hyperlink to it. For example, all I have to do is type in Gen 12:1-3, and voilà, you can read it for yourself. Go to the website for more details and the necessary JavaScript.

[Hat Tip: :-)Blog(-:]

Friday, 12 September 2008

It's my blog's first birthday!

O.K., I'm three days overdue, but it's O.K. I forgive myself.

One year of prolific blogging! This is probably the time to do some kind of progress report, but to be honest I'm stuck in the middle of writing an essay that is taxing my braincells beyond their normal capacity and I'm behind my deadline, so I will have make do with congratulating myself and wishing myself all the best for the coming year.

O.K., briefly:

What have I achieved?:

I've had a bunch of great dialogues, where intelligent and informed critics have challenged me and forced me to either rethink the nature of "theological exegesis" or at least to better formulate my position (O.K., Childs' position). I've made useful contacts, have received practical help, and will be soon receiving a couple of my very own free review books! And most importantly of all, this blog has helped me maintain my sanity. Honestly, writing a doctorate on a subject you know little about can be very taxing when you have no dialogue partners. Even when I get no responses to posts I would most surely like critiqued, the mere fact that I get them "out there" is enough to give me the feeling that I'm not the only one obsessing about my subject.

What would I like from the next year?:

More self-discipline concerning the time I spend on this thing. The returns on my time investment don't always justify the expenditure. But then, every now and then, a conversation materialises which makes the whole thing worth while. I guess what I'd like most is more intelligent, informed dialogue - energetic debate from those who care more about the truth than polite chit-chat. So, if you're interested in any of the issues highlighted in the banner of this blog, feel free to dig in. I can't promise I'll enlighten you, but you will get a response.

[Hat Tip: John Poirier, probably my most prodigious interlocutor].

[P.S. This is also the date I asked my wife to start dating me - six years ago! I thought women were supposed to get less attractive with age? That's one investment that has payed off!]

Thread Summary: The divine/human authorship of Scripture

a) The relation between the two

1. The divine and human authorship of Scripture
2. The Spirit and inspiration in theological exegesis
3. Inner-Referentiality in the New Testament and the Scriptures as "divine vehicle"
4. How to understand the ways of God: Some pointers

b) The unity of Scripture in its diverse transmission

5. The unity of scripture in its diverse transmission
6. The text-critical challenge to theological exegesis

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Canon and the "history of religion"

I've posted a number of times on the limits of historical criticism on its own terms. The division between "historical" and "theological" exegesis is ultimately useless because the category "historical" is ideologically loaded from the outset (as I have argued in a series of posts here)As such, the question posed by Childs at the end of the following citation is not only spot on, it should be registered by all involved in the humanities who see it as their task to uncover the depths of what it means to be human:

(Taken from Childs, "The Canon in Recent Biblical Studies," in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, 33-57; here, 37-38):

Another characteristic feature of the modern approach to canon within the English-speaking has been the shift from its primarily theological perspective to the dominance of the history-of-religion categories. From this point of view there are no privileged canonical texts, but all texts are treated equally as potential sources regardless of later canonical or non-canonical status.
... Since it was thought by some that the Jewish sources including Qumran had been mishandled and that many of the earlier debates revealed Christian theological biases, much attention was given in describing the historical development of the canonical process in a neutral, scientific terminology of religious phenomenology. ...

In 1986, J.J. Collins seemed to speak for a larger group in declaring: 'the decline (of Biblical Theology) is evident in the fact that an increasing number of scholars no longer regard theology as the ultimate focus of biblical studies or even as a necessary dimension of those studies at all.' Similarly, Philip Davies spoke of canon formation as a 'cultural phenomenon' ... ' a natural process' in any literate society. The formation of a canon is an exercise of power by a privileged class, defining class values by controlling the politics of reading. Finally, J. Blenkinsopp described canon as the resolution of ideological conflicts, the imposition of an ideology or orthodoxy by force or compromise.

One can only wonder whether such history-of-religions categories will prove more objective and unbiased than the theological ones being replaced. Can such an approach generate enough empathy for interpreting religious texts where the perspective is often radically alien to the entire Western mentality?

(emphasis mine)

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Christian eschatology and historical methodology: the case of John

I have been posting a lot recently on the challenge that the content of Christian faith poses to traditional historiographical methodology, inspired mostly by Paul Minear's magisterial work, The Bible and the Historian (click for SBL review). I have now summarized these posts here. It is time that I padded out the theory with some concrete examples. The following is a series of quotes in which Minear looks at the ontology of John.

“This is an area where responsible historical study of New Testament eschatology is producing the greatest strain on methodology. It has made us aware that an eschatology radically at odds with the pristine Chrsitian faith is implicit in our modern historiography. This is not an issue that affects merely the location of the outermost boundary of the historical process. It affects both the perception of each event in history and the interpretation of that event. This is perhaps most obvious in the realm of conceptions of time. We have noted how a scientific hermeneutical method operates with a clear set of attitudes toward time. Any change in these attitudes will condition the application of the method everywhere. What happens, then, when we discover in the Bible attitudes toward time which not only claim to be true, but which also commend themselves to us with increasing power? The entire hermeneutical system is placed in question.” (54)

“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).

"The New Testament not only confesses the manifestation of eschatological realtiy within history in the form of an event, it also proclaims this event in terms of a person. ... Implicit in this eschatological confession is the demand to adopt a throughly Christocentric exegesis." (55)

"The substance of history itself becomes eschatological, existential, and personal." (56)

“How should we speak of an ultimate reality that conjoins the divine and the human? [John used a literary device, that is] by telling one story in such a way as 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 action that “filled it." He discerned behind this action a transhistorical model that linked each story to the others." (61)

"This is a comprehensive rather than a disjunctive mode of seeing and thinking. It 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 that we usually do.” (63)

“I have been seeking to execute an historian's task of describing the pattern of thought charactersitic of the Apocalypse. As a theologian I believe this pattern to be relevant, though not necessarily normative, for current discussion of hermeneutics, ethics, ecclesiology, and ontology. As a ,oe of communication, the Apocalypse is an example of the radical interdependence of these four apsects of biblical thought, an interdependence too often absent from current thinking. I believe that as biblical shcoalrs we have a responsibility for making this interdependence as clear as we can. This sort of investigation of the ontological viewpoint of the Apocalypse should be extended to the other genres of literauture in order to obtain a more complete idea of the ontological perspective that is in some degree paradigmatic for the entire NT.” (68-69)

"Early Christian apocalyptic has been rightly called “the mother of Christian theology” (E. Kasemann). I should 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)

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Thread Summary: The Bible and the historian

The following is a collection of posts dealing with the challenge of the content of Christian faith to historiographical methodology, inspired mostly by Paul Minear's astounding work: The Bible and the Historian.

1. Heaven and historiography
2. Ethnography and exegesis
3. Incarnation and B.S. Childs' subtle dialectic
4. The transcendence of God and human historicity
5. Is this proper source criticism?
6. Christian eschatology and historical methodology: the case of John
7. Barth's exegesis

Is this proper source criticism?

Paul Minear is rapibly reaching the heights of Childs and Seitz in my personal estimation, which anyone acquainted with this blog will know is extremely high. Here's a quote taken from his magesterial work, The Bible and the Historian:

Weigh again, historian, the presence of the Spirit in unspectacular but powerful ways, though unseen. Weigh again the following evidence, historian: being crucified with Christ produced new ways of viewing all people, eliminating distinctions between sexes, classes, and religions. Listen again to the prayers of gratitude at all times for everything, even to the hymns of joy resounding from Roman prisons. Such things do not emerge ex nihilo. With all other readers, historians must also answer, and not simply ask, questions about the source of such gifts.
Paul Minear, The Bible and the Historian, (Eisenbrauns, 2002), 201

Monday, 8 September 2008

Kähler on the "real" Jesus

As an illustration of how a theological reading of the Old Testament, guided by the Spirit, can be more profound than a purely historical-critical one, I contrasted Gunkel and Bonhoeffer on Genesis in my post The Spirit, Gunkel, and Bonhoeffer. In light of a recent interesting dialogue on the theological role of "canon" in relation to historical-criticism for the New Testament (in the comments of my last two posts here and then here), I offer another example of someone who B.S. Childs (the true author of this blog, for whom I am only a "vehicle";) ) considered to be a scholar able to "penetrate" scripture to "another dimension of reality," Martin Kähler (who has made his way into an ecumenical Heiligenlexicon!):

The reason we commune with the Jesus of our Gospels is because it is through them that we learn to know that same Jesus whom, with the eyes of faith and in our prayers, we meet at the right hand of God, ... because he is God's revelation to us. ... The risen Lord is not the historical Jesus behind the Gospels, but the Christ of the apostolic preaching, of the whole New Testament. ... The real Christ ... is the Christ who is preached. The Christ who is preached, however, is precisely the Christ of faith. He is the Jesus whom the eyes of faith behold at every step he takes and through every syllable he utters - ... our risen, living Lord. [*]
In case the phrase "Christ of faith" gets your Bultmann-alarm ringing, read the last three words closely and the title of the book. The key issue for a canonical approach is not a distaste for history or the need for the security of a self-referential textual universe, but rather the nature of history itself, the nature of biblical referentiality, and the function of the church within the economy of God.

For New Testament types with an interest in all this, read Paul Minear.

[*] M. Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 60-61, 65-66. Cited in Childs, "Interpreting the Bible Amid Cultural Change," Theology Today 54 (1997), 200-211; here, 205-206.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Quote of the day: The exegetical challenge

Just as Jesus Christ was truly and fully human, so the apostolic witness was not rendered by means of a special divine language. Rather, its metaphors were drawn from common experience, and its proclamation shared all the features of an ancient Palestinian milieu. The exegetical challenge for the interpreter lies in receiving the ability to hear the kerygmatc testimony to God's good news offered in, under, and through a human form. [*]
I wonder if I'll ever get tired of citing Childs?

[*] Childs, "The One of Gospel in Four Witnesses," in The Rule of Faith, 54.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Is the NT the last chapter in a story?

This is the kind of statement I hear made by those of an N.T. Wrightian mould. Which is not a bad thing in itself, but I think care needs to be taken concerning the "status" of these kinds of statements. I think it would be more accurate to say that according to the theology of certain (all?) authors in the New Testament, God's history of redemption was conceived in such a way that they were now standing in the penultimate chapter. That was perhaps the theological message then of the apostles.

But this is a statement of a different order from that which claims that the New Testament itself is, traditio-historically, the final stage of an evolving Heilsgeschichte, in which what the Old Testament started is now brought to conclusion (the position, I believe of theologians such as Gese and Stuhlmacher, who I posted on here). This is to misconstrue the theological function of a canon of scripture within the community of faith. Here are Childs' thoughts on the issue:

The New Testament has its own distinctive tradition-historical development with its own peculiar dynamic and its wide range of diversity. It is not simply a continuation of traditional trajectories from the Old Testament. Indeed a serious confusion of categories results when the canonical unity of the two testaments represented by the Christian Bible is translated into merely historical categories as if the Old Testament flowed by inexorable laws into the New Testament. Rather the New Testament has its discrete historical context, its traditions were treasured by different tradents, and its central force stems from another direction than that of the Old Testament. Thus the New Testament is not a midrash on the Old, nor is it simply the last chapter of a story. Even the term 'Heilsgeschichte' calls for careful nuancing since it represents a theological judgement respecting continuity and is not simply a claim for empirical historical judgement (Biblical Theology, 212).
Though I'm sure N.T. Wright would make this kind of distinction (I don't remeber him doing so, but then I've only read his historical-critical work, which - I hasten to add - doesn't automatically translate into biblical theology), a get the feeling that a lot of his fans don't, especially emergent types for whom "story" has become the central theological category, at the expense of other biblical forms such as psalmody, law, and wisdom (e.g. listen to Brian McClaren's sermon: "Which story do you live in?")

It is considerations like this that led me to call my blog "Narrative and Ontology." (See the most fascinating chapter of Childs' Biblical Theology, "From Witness to Subject Matter.")
The blog Theological Ramblings of an Anglican Ordinand provides us with some useful N.T. Wright quotes showing us the nuance in Wright's approach:
Worldviews may be studied in terms of four features: characteristic stories, fundamental symbols; habitual praxis; and a set of questions and answers.
In other words, narrative is one element in a more complex whole.
And while we're on the topic of Tom Wright, Richard links to a sermon of his on Ps 98 (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Woody Allen interviews Billy Graham

This is cute. I've never had too much contact with Billy Graham (apart from a tract I read when I was 18, which rocked my world, as I wrote here). What impresses me most in the few Youtube clips I have seen is his mixture of firmness and conviction with gentleness and obvious love.Thanks to Steve Thorngate for the link:

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Go to Halden's blog

I've found myself linking to inhabitatio dei so much recently that I think I might as well tell people straight out to subscribe to him in a reader and keep up to date yourselves. I'm not a systematic theologian at all - though I yearn to be - so a lot of what Halden writes just goes over my head. But when I do grasp where he's coming from I see flickerings of light that not only point the way I want to be going but also warm up the dark recesses of a soul hungering for a bit of quality in its walk with God. Sounds pretentious, I know, but we're holistic, integrated beings so I don't think one can look down too much on the cerebral athletics that these systematic types spend their time practising.

If there's one thing I'd like to see more of on his blog it would be exegesis. Isn't it the case that whatever one holds concerning the "divine reality," the "substance" of faith, it is mediated through Scripture as a vehicle? Sometimes I wish that the intricate contours of Scripture could play a more substantive role in his theorizing about protology and eschatology, Hebraic and Greek ontology, the function of gender in the ministry, or the correct stance of the church vis-á-vis the world. Perhaps this is the place to cite a criticism Brevard Childs made of T.F. Torrance concerning his work on the relation between faith and science:

Although I have tried reading several of his learned books on this subject, I do not feel that I understand him well enough to offer a critical assessment and I shall leave this tasks to others. My disappointment in his writings in this area is that whatever I do understand of his approach does not cause me to return to scripture with a fresh illumination of the biblical text, which in my judgement, is a crucial task of dogmatics.
Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 406.

And while I'm on the topic of polemics, here's Halden's latest goody:

I’ve written quite a few polemical sort of pieces on this blog, some of which, in retrospect, end up being quite bitting [sic]at points. More often than not I think this is warranted and appropriate. Christian love should never come to be equated with rhetorical nicety or saccharine friendliness. Too often, I think, our attempts at caution, precision, and measuredness reflect a sort of false humility that refuses to allow theological subject matter to obviously matter to us in our disagreements with one another. If I and someone else can utterly disagree about certain fundamental implications of the gospel and carry on as if our disagreement is no big deal, what does that say about how seriously we take the gospel? How often does our politeness really just indicate the degree to which we view theology as a role-playing game rather than a life and death endeavor. There’s far too little fear and anger in theology. And far too much etiquette.

Mossad almost got Dr. Mengele

For those who don't know, Dr. Mengele was the personifaction of evil.

Here's the brief NYT report, Agent Says Israelis Let a Nazi Escape:

Israeli agents who kidnapped the Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 found the notorious death camp doctor Josef Mengele but let him get away, one of the operatives said Tuesday.

The operative, Rafi Eitan, now an 81-year-old Israeli cabinet minister, said that he and other Mossad agents located Mengele in a Buenos Aires apartment with his wife at the time of Eichmann’s capture in 1960. But the operatives decided that trying to seize him would risk sabotaging the capture of Eichmann, who was being held in a safe house before being whisked out of the country.

Mr. Eitan’s comments indicated that the Israelis were closer to Mengele than had been previously thought and shed light on why they decided to abandon an attempt to catch him.
“When you have one operation, you’re taking a certain level of risk,” he said. “If you’re doing a second operation at the same time, you double the risk not only for the second operation but for the first one, as well.”

A free commentary on Matthew/Mark!

Honestly, I couldn't believe this when I read it. I figured there's got to be snag. But no, Logos are in the process of preparing a new commentary series, the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (9 vols). In order to get publicity they are simply offering the commentary of Matthew/Mark for free. Go here for the details. I've downloaded it and it looks like it'll be a useful supplement to my growing digital library. One of the authors is the blogosphere's very own Darell Bock (who also edits the whole). I'm not much a New Testament person, but I've been told by Chris Tilling that he's a highly respected scholar. I look forward to reading what he has to say about prophecy and fulfilment in Matthew!

By the way, I really am trying not to sound like a salesman here. It just goes to show that the difference between form and content is not something that can be identified by genre alone.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Israel's worldview?

Chris Wright, in his fascinating book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (about which I have written a book review), outlines Israel's "worldview" in his opening chapter.

He defines a worldview thus:
A worldview is a comprehensive set of assumptions that a person or culture makes in answer to several fundamental questions that face humans everywhere. (17)
The questions include the following:
  1. Where are we? (What is the nature of the universe and this planet on which we live? How does it come to be here and has it a future?)
  2. Who are we? (What does it mean to be human and how, if at all, are we distinct from the rest of the living creatures we live among?)
  3. What's gone wrong? (What is the cause of the way things are, which we instinctively feel is not the way they should be? Why are we in such a mess?)
  4. What's the solution? (What, if anything, can be done to put things right? Is there a hope for the future, and if so, hope in what or whom and by when?)
Wright goes on to outline the "worldview of Israel in Old Testament times" (a phrase I find problematic):

  1. This world is part of the good creation of one single living God, whom we know as the LORD. It wholly belongs to this God (no part belongs to other gods), and the LORD is sovereign over all that exists "in heaven above, on the earth below and under the earth."

  2. "We" in the wider sense are human beings made in the image of the creator God, made for relationship with God and one another.

  3. What has gone wrong is that we human beings have rebelled against the creator God, in moral and spiritual disobedience, and this has brought evil consequences into every aspect of human life, including the individual personality, our relationships with one another, with our physical environment and with God.

  4. The solution lies with the same creator God who has addressed the problems of the nations of humanity by a historical project of redemption, beginning with the choice of Abraham, the father or our nation Israel. This will eventually extend to include the blessing of all nations and a new creation.
Does that hold water? What do people think?

This may work as a distillate of the canonical scriptures in their final form, but I doubt many historical Israelites would have answered all these questions in the same way. Having said that, I'd like to think that their partial viewpoints at particular times in their history would have adumbrated something like this. This worldview (if that's the right word ...) is the product of the prophetic shaping of Israel's traditions, and as such is primarily a canonical/theological rather than a historical/sociological phenomenon. In this, Christ Wright differs from Tom Wright's use of the term. Hence my problem with the phrase "worldview of Israel in Old Testament times" (though Wright does qualify this in footnote 3).

P.S. This will be the subject of our Bible study this coming Thursday. Ich bin gespannt zu sehen was daraus wird!

P.P.S By some extraordinary coincident, Jon of The Theological Ramblings of an Ordinand has posted on the same issue today, seen from the angle of N.T. Wright (who really is a legend). He also links to an mp3 lecture by Chris Wright.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Book Review: Old Testament Ethics for the People of God

The following review was originally posted at Chrisendom.

Christopher J. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004)

The title alone is enough to make you baulk at the scope this volume attempts to achieve. This isn't just a description of the ethics of ancient Israel, nor is it a description of the ethics found in the literary deposit of this community: “the Old Testament.” It is an attempt to locate the ethics of both within their true Sitz im Leben, the lived contemporary reality of the true Israel, the Church. Before we even enter its pages, then, one can expect at the outset an attempt to integrate historical critical, literary, philosophical, and theological concerns in a synthesis of the like rarely encountered in the guild of biblical studies. If Wright has succeeded will remain to be tested by those with an adequate knowledge in all these areas. Critique by specialists in only one area will run the risk of confusing the particular with Wright's broader vision.

A three-dimensional approach to OT ethics such as this, which strives both for descriptive accuracy and theological normativity, cannot be content to tell us “what the OT said.” A model is needed in order both to integrate the parts and span the horizons, and this is the task Wright's first section: A Structure for Old Testament Ethics. He takes the now well-known route of “world-view” analysis (á la N.T. Wright) in order to provide a context in which to make sense of and correlate the mass of OT ethical material. Though he often talks of “what an ancient Israelite thought,” it is clear that the world view he has in mind is the one presupposing the entire OT canon – an entity with its own hermeneutical and theological integrity (see footnote 3). If one poses this totality the four “world-view questions” (Where are we? Who are we? What's gone wrong? What's the solution?), we come up with an “Israelite” answer along the following lines: we are in God's creation, created for relationship in the image of God, the created order is in a state of fallenness due to our rebellion and so God's solution has been to initiate a historical project of redemption. The “we” in the narrow sense is Israel, elected to be the means of God's redemption in the world. As Wright goes on to explain, this “we” can be expanded in different directions: either paradigmatically to stand for humanity as a whole, eschatologically to stand for the redeemed community of the eschaton, or typologically to refer to the church.

Wright identifies three primary “actors” in this world-view who stand in triangular relationship to each other: God, Israel and the Land. This so-called “ethical triangle” provides Wright with a framework for sifting through the diverse OT material as well as a foundation for expanding the OT material beyond its original horizon.

These three “pillars of Israel's faith” are padded out in the following three chapters. Accordingly, the “theological angle” provides us with the “fundamental axiom” of OT ethics: “ethical issues are at every point related to God—to his character, his will, his actions and his purpose” (23). Wright takes us through the OT's presentation of God's identity, particularly as it is manifested in the narrative accounts of his actions. This activity, salvific in nature, provides a foundation for ethics. God takes the initiative (e.g. the exodus), his people respond, and obedience flows out of thankfulness for this action. These actions are combined with God's speaking (e.g. at Sinai) in order to bring about his purposes for creation through Israel. Wright sums up the heilsgeschichtliche context: “Old Testament ethics, based on history and bound for a renewed creation, is thus slung like a hammock between grace and glory” (35). In the meantime, our actions should be grounded in a knowledge of this God as we emulate him by “walking in his ways.”

The “social angle” references Israel on the triangular grid. Wright points out that within the aforementioned meta-narrative, redemption has a social dimension. In Gen. 12:1-3 God responds to the fall by choosing a nation, which was to pattern, model and be a vehicle of this redemption. In terms of the application of OT ethics, then, our hermeneutical procedure must take very seriously the communal nature of the people of Israel. We must not jump from isolated principles to the present, but rather first locate that principle within its original social context. Only then can we draw an analogy with present “Israel,” before going on to see the implications for the world at large. Yet the distinctive nature of this nation as opposed to the other nations mustn't be lost. This nation has a unique experience of God, which gives its history a didactic quality. Through it we learn about God (the “theological angle”) and we learn how to live (the “social angle”). In short, Israel is God's paradigm, an important concept for Wright as he attempts to make Israel's ethics ours. According to Wright, a paradigm is

a model or pattern that enables you to explain or critique many different and varying situations by means of some single concept or set of governing principles” (63).

Israel as paradigm helps the Church today implement what was true then to a new situation now.

The final essential element in Israel's world view is the Land, providing us with an “economic angle.” When understood within Israel's story, we see that the promised land is a theological entity, part of the pattern of redemption. The understanding of the land as both divine gift and divine tenement, for example, has what Wright calls “enormous paradigmatic power” for the appropriation of Israel's economic ethics. Within the divine economy, we see that the welfare of the land and its inhabitants functioned as a “covenantal measuring gauge,” signally the quality of the relationship between God and his people.

Following the belief that “God's relation to Israel in their land was a deliberate reflection of God's relation to human kind on the earth” (183), Wright moves on in the following two chapters to work out the implications of this “redemptive triangle” for the ethics of ecology and economics in general. In the case of ecology, for example, he discovers parallels to the affirmations made at the narrower level concerning Israel in the land of Canaan: “divine ownership (the earth belongs to God, Ps. 24:1) and divine gift (the earth he has gifted to humanity, Ps. 115.16)” (103)—the so-called “creation triangle.” This double claim becomes the foundation for Wright's ethical reflection in the following two chapters. The fact that a concern for ecology is largely foreign to the authors of the Bible demonstrates how we can paradigmatically appropriate the Bible's principles for issues beyond the Bible's original horizon.

The most intriguing chapter is the sixth, in which Wright, having now illustrated ways in which the Bible can be paradigmatically appropriated, rises once again to theory in order to discuss two others ways of appropriating the OT: the eschatological and the typological. By means of fascinating triangular diagrams, he shows how these different methods are distinct yet complementary. Paradigmatically interpreted, for example, the land becomes the earth as it is now: cursed. Eschatologically, the past becomes a template for the new, and so we have a foretaste of the new creation. Typologically, for the apocalyptic community caught at this point in the “in-between-time,” the land is now fulfilled by the koinonia, the fellowship of believers. This complex interrelationship is then demonstrated exegetically in relation to the jubilee (Lev. 25).

The rest of this main part of the book is dedicated to further ethical issues: politics and the nations, justice and righteousness, law and the legal system, culture and family and finally the way of the individual. The volume is rounded off in Part 3 with a historical overview of the church's wrestling with this question, a bibliographic overview of the contemporary attempts to deal with the question of OT ethics from a confessional standpoint and a detailed discussion of hermeneutics and authority in the OT. A final appendix presents us with some broad perspectives which Wright finds helpful for setting the “Canaanite question” within it the context of broader biblical considerations. Though Wright doesn't feel he has solved the issue, he feels these considerations help “contain” them.

In response, I can only echo a critic's comments on the blurb at the back of the book: this book is “truly a magnum opus and should be at the top of the reading list for any student, teacher, minister or layperson interested in the relevance of the first part of the Bible to modern ethical issues.” Issues that have dogged the church since its inception are taken up once again and re-articulated in a clear, logical and thorough manner, taking into account the latest developments in rhetorical, literary, and, to a degree, canonical criticism. Whether Wright's conclusions become the consensus opinion of the next generation obviously remains to be seen, but I can't imagine future discussion of the issue ignoring the well-thought out arguments laid out in this book.
Update: As if by coincidence, David Congdon of The Fire and the Rose has this same day posted a detailed look at "missional hermeneutics," the subject of Chris Wright's other magnum opus: The Mission of God. Check it out!

Monday, 1 September 2008

The text-critical challenge to theological exegesis

In my post The unity of Scripture in its diverse transmission, I raised the theological challenge of the textual diversity of Scripture. The early church depended largely on the Greek translation of the Hebrew, and, as becamse increasingly clear, the two diverged quite a lot. How does Childs' "canonical approach" deal with this?

From Childs’ perspective, the issue of textual tradition is derivative of the concept of canon, as it was only when the

“formation of the literature had reached a final stage of development within the canonical process [that] concern for the text of the literature emerge[d]." (Introduction to the Old Testament, 94).
As such there is an analogy to the considerations in my thread on the two testamental nature of Christian scripture, where I claimed that the integrity of the individual testaments should be held in critical tension with the one divine reality to which they testify. The same analogy is found in my thread on the literal and spiritual sense of scripture, where I claimed that the fundamental focus of Christian interpretation is on the spiritual sense, while still tied to and held in critical tension with the literal sense in its integrity.

And so it is in this case: Biblical theology does not attempt to remain at the textual level, as this would be to miss the key which unites dissident voices into a harmonious whole. Instead, the attempt should be made to hear the different voices in relation to the divine reality to which they point in diverse ways. To fail to grapple with this underlying substance of the two witnesses, and thus to collapse the spiritual and literal senses into one meaning, is to commit the sin which Childs calls “Biblicism.” Biblicism is the attempt to remain at the time conditioned level of the text while attempting to read the Bible theologically. This move can be seen in attempts to simply adopt the particular interpretive methods of various New Testament authors as normative for today, as well as in the attempt to elect one text tradition as more authentic or somehow spiritually deeper. Such a move is to misunderstand the theological relation of the text’s authority to its function as kerygmatic witness (see Childs' Biblical Theology, 85).

It should be added that if one text tradition is to be preferred, then Childs has argued for the MT. His argument, however, is not so much based on inherent properties of the translation, as the theological need to maintain the "ontological unity of the people of God" (Israel/church).

This is the final post in my thread on the divine and human authorship of Scripture. My next thread will look at the Christological content of the Bible.

Thoughts on the nature of "midrash" and "aggada"

Over at the newly established blog Sefer ha-Bloggadah, a rabbi makes the following succinct denfinition of the nature of midrash and its relation to halakha:

Midrash is the life blood of the halakhic system. I don't think that midrash was made by the sages in order to re-enliven Judaism, I think it was part of the great body of work and was never a separate thing. Today we think of midrash as good post-modernists do, busily locating ourselves here and there in relation to our matrices of self, but the rabbis had no such self-consciousness about that. For the sages, midrash was all of a piece with Torah (in the larger sense of the word). It was true in the finest sense of truth, which is why modern midrash is often so bad - it's written as if it were a novel or a story, when it's really more like a fairy tale, written through archetypes and the power of a lack of details that comes with stories told and retold for generations with plenty of room left for us to fill in ourselves - and to fill ourselves in. Midrash is meant to tell us about values, as opposed to rules. Rules are secondary in the sense that they come afterwards. The rules express the stories told in midrash. The midrash tells us about our relationship with God, Halakha only tells us the recipe - it's as different as remembering the smell of my mother's wheatbread baking, and baking the bread from the recipe she gave me. One is my bones remembering love, and the other is how to make that love live for my son.
I found that very helpful, in particular this bit:
"it's really more like a fairy tale, written through archetypes and the power of a lack of details."
It reminds me of a comment made by Brueggemann in his book The Bible and Postmodern Imagination. I forget the exact words, but he compared midrash to Freud's psycho-analyism, claiming that Freud was more influenced by his Jewish roots then he cared to admit. And for Brueggemann, the comparison was not meant to be derogatory, as he always revels in the "Jewishness" of the "great deconstructors" (Freud, Marx, and Derrida).

A certain Sarah shares the following thoughts on the significance of aggadah:

As a literary sort, I have my own answer as to why Aggadah is valuable: the narrative structure of a parable can compel analysis and inquiry in a way entirely different from a straight-up midrash halakhah or talmudic discussion. Humans express deep truths through narrative art, and whether or not a story really happened has very little bearing on whether it is affective or honest. The traditional project of aggadah is a way to engage in the most deeply human of projects, to insert rabbinic meaning into the canonical text and thus re-enliven it. And by our rereading of these aggadot, inventing and reenvisioning our own interpretations, may we come to engage in all these facets of the aggadic process.
I particularly found the following interesting:

"The traditional project of aggadah is ... to insert rabbinic meaning into the canonical text and thus re-enliven it."
I'd love to understand the logic that binds the the two together - text and tradition - into a meaningful whole. Not that I think the logic is lacking ... but I'd love to see it developed. I'm attempting to think through such issues in relation to the Christian use of a rule of faith, allegory, and a hermeneutic of love. I'll soon be reviewing a book on Biblical authority, a collection of essays on the subject from Jewish and Christian perspectives. I look forward to discovering areas of convergence and divergence.