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).


Anonymous said...

If you haven't read Jesus and the Victory of God I would encourage you to do so. :-)

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for the tip but I've read it alreay. I've read all of them actually. Works of genius, in my opinion. How does it impinge on my post?

Anonymous said...

How does it impinge on my post?

Just the way he fits Jesus into the story of the Old Testament, i.e. OT II. Jesus reshapes the OT story around himself and then it is the task of the Church to live out that new story. The future and final conclusion is brought forward into the present as we live in the last chapter of God's unfolding plan.

Phil Sumpter said...

Sure, but that's what I mean when I talk about the "status" of the claim. Claiming that the historical thought and did that is one thing, claiming that this is the message and function of the entire New Testament as a theological/literarily shaped whole is another. The kerygma of the historical Jesus is of a different order to the kerygma of the New Testament documents (which, theologically, are the continued kerygma of the same Jesus, now risen). It is combined message of the four Gospels, for example, that witnesses to the full reality of the one gospel, and not the extracted message of a hypothetical historical Jesus (regardless of how accurate that reconstruction might be, and I find Wright's reconstruction very attractive).

slaveofone said...

It is interesting that you bring this up because I am a “Wrightian” myself and I have never thought nor heard anyone else who was Wrightian say that the final chapter was the NT itself. As Wright says, history is story. And all story is created through our own particular lens of perspective, belief, symbol, praxis, and world-view (therefore there is no objective history, there is no mere fact, there is no unbiased telling). Wright would say (and so would a “Wrightian”) that Yeshua was bringing a new act into the story (his kingdom-praxis, his kingdom-announcement, and his kingdom-understanding) not that the New Testament texts were a final chapter on the “canon” of Jewish scripture. Where the later idea came from I do not know...but it was not from Wright or those who follow his way of thinking.

I also believe the quote from Childs is out of context. Childs is not meaning (as it would seem he is made to mean the way this quote is used) to be speaking out against those who make the form of the canon into a “holy history” such that the New Testament story is a canonical conclusion to the Old Testament story. Quite the opposite. Childs is reacting to those Modern historical-critical methods (what he terms “empirical historical judgment” and “merely historical categories” in the quote) which he thought had no relevance to the church. Childs believed historical critical methods that sought to ask what a text “meant” were entirely inaccurate for theology and therefore created his method (the canonical approach) to figure out what a text “means.” All the talk about development of the New Testament texts and Old Testament texts in the quote were a reaction to some in the so-called “biblical theology movement” who wanted to equate both the OT and NT with similar Hebraic “trajectories” using the historical-critical methods that Childs' believed were irrelevant because he thought what a text meant had nothing to do with what it means.

Just as a quote from Childs can be out of context if it is made to say something other than what it originally meant to say by the way it is used within a larger whole (as I think you've done in the post), so also, the original message of Yeshua, critically examined using Modern methods, can be out of context if it is made to say something other than what the historical figure actually would have meant by the way it is used within a canon or a theology or a church tradition or--well, pick your poison.

Phil Sumpter said...


I'd like to say thankyou for your sustained engagement with my posts of late. I appreciate your clear thought and critical responses. I hope mine will reflect that too and that we can both learn something along the way.

First of all, I agree that Wright himself was far more nuanced, as I said both in the main body of my post as well as in my update.

As for Wrightians, there are Wrightians are different varieties and I didn't really intend to be dismissive of such people. I love Wright and have aweful lot of respect for such Wrightians as Chris Tilling. I was thinking more of a strand of emerging church which talks only in terms of narrative and eschews categories such as dogmatics, systmetic theology, or ontology (again, Wright himself is more nuaned. He does indeed call himself a "deeply dogmatic Christian.").

I also made clear in my post that seeing Jesus as initiating the last (or penultimate) chapter of a story is indeed the actual view of the individual authors of the NT as well as Jesus himself, i.e. on a historical critical level, so we are in agreement there too.

What I'm interested in is the theological function of a "canon" of scripture, my chosed poison as you put. If one decides that the historical Jesus who walked Palestine is also the resurrected son of God who is present with his spirit amongst his apostles and who continues to proclaim himself and his kingdome through them into the history of the early church then you are going to be inclined to want to interpret the "historical Jesus" within the larger horizon of the message of the apostles as a whole. Thus, simply believing that Jesus continued to active amongst his church gives warrent for taking the essentially literary manoeuvers of the early church seriously. Canon as literary context becomes suddenly more significant that a distortion of the words of a historical figure now accessible to critical scholarship alone. My point (and Childs', which has nothing to do with your theory, I'm afraid) is that this collection of New Testament documents have a certain shape and function which needs to be respected if one wants to know not just abou the historical Jesus but also about the resurrected Jesus, the Son of God, the Messaiah of Israel and the eschatological king of the universe. The issue is referentiality and hermeneutics. The canonical fact, for example, of four distinct gospels, each with its own theological emphases and agenda and in parts contradictory, is not, in Childs' scheme, an embarrassment to be elimanated by critical scholarship. It is a testimony to the complexity of the true subject matter of the text, which is more than the historical Jesus. I belive Kähler made this point, I'll post his quote. If one takes the apostlic canon seriously then one is forced to engage is a broader diversity of schemes by which to visualise the significance of Jesus and the content of the Gospel. It is true, for example, that the Old Testament also preaches the Gospel. The two-testamental shape of the canon, again in faith believed to be a discision guided by the resurrected Christ, has implications for theological exegesis which go beyond figuring out how Jesus and Paul et al. read the OT. Their reading becomes one witness (the New) alongside another (the Old) which still speaks its own message. A Christian reading of the Bible must, therefore, involve some kind of dialectic between the two. All this "canonical exegesis" and is undergirded by a particular understanding the function of the text within the context of the community and God's economy of salvtion.

It therefore has nothing to do with a perceived issue with the Biblical Theology Movement, which bairly surfaces as an issue for Childs after the late '70s. The best solution to identify the true context of my quote is to read it in context, i.e. in his Biblical Theology. It's not an easy book, but I hope that in doing so you will see that your understanding of Childs is a figment of his critics imagination, via whom I assume you have primarily read him (Barton, Barr, Brueggemann being the main culprits). If you just read these guys, I'm not surprised that you think of Childs the way you do. But if you got to know the real Childs I think you'd actually quite like him. His Biblical Theology is the best place to start, not only because it's his magnum opus but because it is universally ignored by his critics, who seem to think that his Introduction represented the sum total of what he had to say. If you want to read others on Childs, as a Wrightian you will like A. Thistleton, who has made an effort to dispel the kind of "anti-historical critical" interpretation of Childs you have made in his introductory article to the excellent Canon and Biblical Interpretation. Seitz's article in that volume, by that way, is a masterpiece and should be required reading for anyone interested in this subject.

I do appreciate your input. Please keep it up!

Phil Sumpter said...

Sorry, I should add that in the quote one of the people Childs is reacting to is Stuhlmacher, who does seem to believe that the NT itself represents a stage in the unfolding story, though a critical reconstruction tradition-historical one. Not the BTM!

Phil Sumpter said...

A quote from Hermann Diem on this:

"The post-Resurrection preaching of the Church not only has the story of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as its theme, but Jesus Christ is Himself the subject of its own preaching (Rom 10.17; II Cor. 1.19). When this is the case, it is no longer possible to distinguish between the earthly and risen Lord."

slaveofone said...

Well, I stand corrected on the use of the quote! Thank you for clarifying that. Yes, I have primarily read him in those critics you mention and have not read his Biblical Theology. I might indeed like him to one extent or another... I must say you have done a good job of clearing up some of my hesitations. Perhaps the more I read here and the more I interact, the more I may decide Childs has something that is valuable for me. I guess I should, at the get-go, admit that I do not believe in the canon in the way you have outlined. So it is naturally hard for me to see the relevance of applying a method to something that I have so many issues with. And certainly you can appreciate that one must first believe in this canon before one can make use the method.

If a certain form of the NT is important, then a certain form of the OT is important as well. If canon is so vital then what cannon and what texts and what text forms are we talking about? And how do we know that canon (and not another canon) or those texts (and not other texts) and those forms of the texts (instead of other forms) are what one should use?

If we are to say the early church and their literature...correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Childs say that the Hebrew and the Masoretic text is the canon in terms of the OT? And yet the Masoretic text is a very late manuscript form which was not used by any church at large until recent historical times and the Hebrew texts themselves were not the canon of the early church and are still not the texts used by significant forms of Christianity today. If we are taking "the literary manoeuvers of the early church" seriously, wouldn't we describe canon as the early church described it? As the Seputagint? As the Greek texts and text-forms--which would include the deuterocanonicals?

Phil Sumpter said...

Glad to be of assistance! The questions you raise have often been raised against Childs. I've spent a fair bit of time posting on these issues and though I'd love to have another bash at reformulating Childs' stance (as best I can), I'm struggling for time right now. Perhaps you could read the relevant posts and pose your questions in that context? I'm sure I have not done a good job in adequately dealing with all the issues so your learned criticism would be appreciated (I also wrote a lot of this about a year ago, so I may have developed my position somewhat since then).

Concerning “what canon,” see my thread on Scripture's two testaments.The same arguments apply to MT/LXX. Childs never argues for the exclusive use of either, but he wants to privilege the MT out of a theological commitment to the Jewish people as the people of God. As such, it is irrelevant that the MT was finalised after the NT documents are written. The Bible is to function as a theological witness to God, and not an archive for reconstructions from the past. What the apostles said then needs to be weighed in the light of the whole.

The answer to the question “how do we know?” is that we don't know. It is an act of faith. The Gospel is grounded not just in the historical words and deeds of Jesus which have to be reconstructed as carefully as possible but in the total reality of what God is doing in the world, of which the historical Jesus is a part and the risen Jesus, Son of God, is the sum (that's my formulation, by the way). For whatever reason, God has elected that this reality should become known through the testimony of the entirety of scripture, where the parts dialectically relate to each other in brokering the whole. This is partly a theological statement grounded in an understanding of the function and message of the whole Bible within the community of faith to which we, as believers belong. It is also partly a historical statement, based on traditio-critical analysis of the nature of the development of the text and its function within the community. In short, we believe the canonical presentation because in it we meet the risen Lord who reveals Himself through it to us. Very subjective, but I think that's what Jesus was getting at when he told the Pharisees that he testifies to himself. Knowledge of Christ is not based on the provision of external criteria of truth and checking that he fulfils them. I think you'd agree that the Jesus of the Gnostics just isn't the Jesus of the early church.

Feel free to push me if you think I'm avoiding anything. I'm up for extended dialogue on these issues.