Thursday, 30 October 2008

Why am I "very conservative"?

N.T. Wrong has graced the world with an extensive list of biblioblogs (104 in all). In a fit of taxonomic fervor, as he puts it, he has categorized them according to the degree of their conservativeness of liberality.

I'd love to know what that means.

The dictionary definition of conservative is as follows: disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc. Liberal, on the other hand, means favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.

In biblical studies the former tends to be associated with those who stick to a traditional understanding of their faith and hold that the Bible is largely historically accurate. The latter refers to those who wish to "update" the faith and who do not hold that the biblical narratives happened as presented. In other words, the categories reference both theological and historical assumptions.

What are N.T. Wrong's criteria? Theological or historical? What if you're agnostic but believe the Bible is largely literal anyway? Or what if you're a committed believer but have a low view of biblical historical accuracy? Why does Jim West get labelled as "fairly conservative"? Is it because of his historical views or his theological ones? And the same would apply to me: why am I "very conservative"? Not that I care about being labelled so - I have deep respect for many "very conservatives." But in most of my exegetical posts I follow Childs in taking a fairly standard critical line. In my theology, however, I'm progressively becoming more ancient. Does that make me liberal? I am progressing, though just not in the direction that those committed to the world view of Enlightenment thought would like.

But then, given the dictionary definition above, doesn't that make N.T. Wrong conservative?

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Redaction and the "rule of faith"

In response to my recent post prophetic redaction as a rule of faith, a certain Michael asked some interesting questions concerning the nature and adequacy of using the category in relation to the Bible.

What precisely is the "rule of faith" that is in operation in these examples?

Childs' use of this important category stems from his interaction with patristic hermeneutics. I've outlined its interpretation by an important scholar here. Kathryn Greene-McCreight is another important name here. In “He Spoke Through the Prophets” she defines it as “the pre-creedal, creedlike material outlining the basic points or narrative moments of the Christian faith” (172). Again, “The rule of faith functions as an outer limit that places constraints on what can be argued as a legitimate reading ... The rule of faith is 'the real content of revelation, the fundamental tenor of the one message of Scripture'” (173). In short, the rule of faith is the substance of the whole of Scripture, God's ordo salutis, which provides the norm for correctly interpreting it in a kind of hermeneutical circle. If one reads Scripture according to this rule, one is letting Scripture interpret itself (scriptura sui interpres est).

Applied to the editorial history of the Bible, it implies both the source of the editors' inspiration and the function of the result. The final form of the book of Amos, for example, wants to retain the particularity of its various oracles within the broader theological horizon of God's ways with Israel. The editor is committed to a theological vision, a “rule of faith,” and this informs his editing activity. As such, to quote Childs, “The imperative to "remember the law of my servant Moses" ... sets a check against any misuse of the prophet's words which would call into question national solidarity.” The phrase “rule of faith” also describes the function of that which the editor has created: the new literary work provides the material “with an interpretative guidline.” Only in following the final form's shape can we access the theological substance to which the editor is witnessing (in continuity with, though expanding upon, the historical Amos, of course).

And are they the same in each example? (i.e. Amos and Ecclesiastes)

Given the description above, I don't see why not. “Rule of faith” describes the form and function of the text, not its substance. For theological reasons we are committed to believing that on some level the substances create a theological unity (Childs calls it “ontological”).

How is this "rule of faith" created?

Through divine revelation, comprehended in an ongoing dialectic between history/experience and tradition.

Is the label "rule of faith" appropriate for what you see going on?

Yes. “Rule” references the establishing of an authoritative guideline, a κανών, eschatologically orientated to future generations of the faithful. “Faith” describes the nature of the substance witnessed to by the rule: it is a faith reality.

Is what is going on (whatever label you use for it) occurring consistently in other texts as well, with the same function?

Childs has consistently argued in numerous publications on both testaments that this is the case. In my opinion, as long as “rule of faith” is primarily understood in terms of form and function, this shouldn't be too problematic. The “content,” the “object of the witness,” is the complex bit. Can you think of examples to the contrary?

Canonical shaping of the prophets

This represents all my posts on the subject to date, taken from Childs' "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).

Monday, 27 October 2008

The true context of Scripture

This is one of my favourite quotes:

... classical scriptural interpretation proceeded from a rich and complex sense of Scripture's place and role within the economy of salvation; Scripture functions as a quasi-sacramental instrument of the Holy Spirit, through which the Spirit makes known the mystery of Christ in order to form the church as a sign of his messianic dominion. The church's knowledge of Scripture as inspired has therefore interpretive consequences; it calls for a specific art, or perhaps a concatenation of arts, of faithful reading, exposition, and application by which Christ is glorified and the church built up in its distinctive life and mission. [*]

This links up to my previous call for ontological categories in biblical exegesis.

[*] D.G. Yeago, “The Spirit, the Church, and the Scriptures: Biblical Interpretation and Interpretation Revisited,” in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (ed. J.J. Buckley and D.S. Yeago; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmanns, 2001) 49-93; here, 51; cited in Stephen Chapman, “Reclaiming Inspiration for the Bible,” 193

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The greatness of von Rad

Jim West has noted the recent birthday of the illustrious von Rad (21 October, 1901). Interestingly enough, despite Jim's early passion for von Rad and his ongoing indetebness to his influence, he goes on to say:

I also find myself oddly estranged from him, and, strange as it will sound, that pains me a bit.
This has reminded me of one of my favourite Childs quotes. I'm not entirely sure if Jim and Brevard are talking about the same thing, but there sounds like a hint of commonality ... Perhaps it depends on what it is about von Rad that they feel "estranged" from?

As a young student who had fallen under the spell of von Rad, I shared with many others the conviction that his brilliant method held the key to a proper understanding of the OT… Yet [in the next generation] much of the excitement which his early post-war lectures evoked had died… Slowly I began to realize that what made von Rad’s work so illuminating was not his method as such, but the theological profundity of von Rad himself. The same observation holds true for Wolff and Zimmerli. I am convinced that no amount of methodological refinement will produce a quality of interpretation which that generation achieved whose faith in the God of Israel was hammered out in the challenge to meet the Nazi threat against the life of the church. [*]

By the way, Jim installed a voting box posing three options: Gerhard von Rad ... 1) Was a fine OT scholar; 2) Was the finest OT scholar of his day; 3) Was not a very good scholar, but then, I'm an idiot so what do I know? I went for the second option, but that only makes up 29% of the votes! Who else could have competed?

[*] “A Response [to James Mays Et Al.].” Horizons in Biblical Theology 2 (1980): 199–221.

Friday, 24 October 2008

A Nazi prayer

Is this not evidence for the depth of the sickness and insanity that gripped Germany in WWII?

Führer, mein Führer, von Gott mir gegeben,
beschütze und erhalte noch lange mein Leben.
Du hast Deutschland gerettet aus tiefster Not,
dir danke ich für mein täglich Brot.
Bleib lange noch bei mir, verlass mich nicht,
Führer, mein Führer, mein Glaube, mein Licht.
Heil, mein Führer.

Tischgebet in einem NS-Waisenhaus

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Prophetic redaction as a "rule of faith"

Today I return to my interrupted thread on the various ways in which the prophetic material in the Bible was rendered to function as canonical Scripture for future generations of the community of faith. My last post was on the subordination of chronology to typology.

6) The original prophetic message was placed within a rule-of-faith which provided the material with an interpretative guideline. It is generally recognized by critical scholarship that two appendices have been fixed to the conclusion of the Book of Malachi. To dismiss these verses as a "legalistic corrective" stemming from some disgruntled priestly editor is to misunderstand the canonical process utterly. Rather, the first appendix reminds the whole nation that it still stands under the tradition of Moses. The imperative to "remember the law of my servant Moses" does not weaken Malachi's attack on the nation's sins, but it sets a check against any misuse of the prophet's words which would call into question national solidarity in the name of additional requirements for the pious. The canonical effect of the first appendix to Malachi testifies that the law and the prophets are not to be heard as rivals but as an essential unity within the one divine purpose. The effect of the second appendix (Mal 4:5-6) is to balance the memory of the past with the anticipation of the future.

In a similar way, the ending on the Book of Ecclesiastes is another example of a rule-of-faith which would also order a wisdom book from a perspective informed by God's commandments (Eccl 12:13) and the coming judgment (v. 14).

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The task of Jewish/Christian dialogue

The real task of theological dialogue between Jews and Christians does not lie in exploring the religous boundaries of a lowest common denominator within a secular society, nor does it consist merely in engaging in common ethical causes - good as the latter may be. For serious Jews and Christians such endeavors are theologically uninteresting and do not touch the heart or either community. Rather, true dialogue must engage itself with the elements of uniqueness of each group and focus on its highest denominator. Perhaps one place to begin is for Jews and Christians to agree in confessing faith in the one eternal God of Israel who also wills salvation for the Gentiles. Each community will make its own formulation in response to the Bible's pressure to retain Israel's particularity commensurate with the universal rule of God. For the Christian church the continuing paradox of faith lies in its encounter through the Jewish Scriptures with the selfsame divine presence which it confesses to have found in the face of Jesus Christ.
Childs, "Does the Old Testament Witness to Jesus Christ?" 64.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Who are Abraham's heirs?

As usual, Halden of inhabitatio dei tackles this question with eloquence and insight. As he states in the comments, his position is essentially a "Johannine" one. In conclusion he writes:

Thus, from the perspective of inter-religious dialogue, one key element that distinguishes Christianity from the other two Abrahamic faiths is Christianity’s explicit denial of what the other two vehemently claim, namely that “legitimate” descent from Abraham substantiates the claims of their faith. Christians make no claim to be legitimate children of Abraham, rather they claim that their status as God’s people is derived from nothing inherent within themselves either ethnically or politically. We are the people of God solely and only because of the radical miracle brought about in Jesus Christ which shatters and scandalizes any “natural” claim to be God’s people through historical natural succession.
In the recent words of Brian Welch: "It's all spiritual now" (OK, Halden's more nuanced than that).
Read the whole thing, including various insightful comments. Here's my response:

I'm uncomfortable with this. Though my knowledge of the New Testament is woefully inadequate to give a proper response, I'll do what I can because the issue is important to me. Some thoughts:

You say: Christians make no claim to be legitimate children of Abraham . Doesn't Paul speak of adoption? It's one thing to talk about the new spiritual nature of the community (agreed), it's another to talk about the nature of the transition from “flesh” to “spirit” and what that means for the flesh itself. I think this is a key issue. There's an eschatological dimension to this which is just awkward and can't be easily resolved with reference to the “spirit.” Biblical theology seems to be constantly caught up in a dialectic between different poles which can't be resolved with this fallen world. Thus, we have dichotomies between letter and spirit, flesh and spirit, heaven and earth, this world and the next, divine and human, normal time and eschatological intervention, the Old and the New etc. I don't think it's doing enough justice to the Bible's understanding of salvation history to evaporate the earthly in favour of the spiritual, as if biological descent can simply be rejected now that something “spiritual” has happened. There is genuine newness in the New, but it's always testified to in terms of the Old, which isn't simply discarded now that the New has arrived. It is transformed, perhaps, but the crux is the relation between Old and New and not just whatever the New has brought. Again, what is the nature of the transition and is there not some form of tension that needs to be maintained?

This is undergirded by what I take to be an important hermeneutical principle: the Old testament is as much a witness to the Truth as the New. It is not the case the the New has figured everything out, nor that the New is the fullfillment of the Old. Rather, both point to one reality and their relation to each other is dialectical. As a result, it is not enough to quote New Testament verses as a foundation for our understanding of the people of God. It needs to be balanced out with the Old Testament, and perhaps even be “corrected” by the OT, in light of the one subject matter. Thus, according to some OT theologians, the heart of the Old Testament consists in a concrete relationship between Jhwh and his elected nation Israel. Psalm 147:20 states: “He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his ordinances. Praise Jhwh!” In a real sense, a non-Jew reading the OT is reading “someone else's mail.” The question is, what constitutes our right to be considered the addressees of these texts? Language of “ingrafting” and “adoption” in Christ seems to be the rule. The fact that the Jews haven't believed seems to be an anomaly for Paul which he can't understand, rather than an irrelevancy due to the insignificance of biology.

Again, isn't quoting New Testament verses in order to reject the election according to the flesh like reading John instead of the Synoptics, or Chronicles instead of Kings? There are different genres of witness which need to balanced with each other (as you know, of course).

In sum, I don't know enough of the details, but I think the tension between fleshly and spiritual election needs to be maintained. As a result, according to at least one construal, Christianity and Judaism belong on one side of the divide as the true heirs of Abraham—though in different, paradoxical senses—and Islam on the other, as a forgery. The divide you offer above is not wrong per se. It just needs to be maintained as part of a larger, eschatologically awkward whole.
P.S. I belatedly note Halden's latest post in the thread: Church and Israel - Christianity and Judaism. I am in full agreement.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Singing for peace amid strife

This video by the New York Times touched me. It took place on a YMCA ... Why is that?

Is the Pope Barthian?

In response to my post on Barth and inerrancy, L.T. of The Epicatholic Fold provided a link to a recent meditation by Pope Benedict XVI on the Word of God. Check out the following excerpts and tell me he's not Barthian:

[T]he Word of God is the foundation of everything, it is the true reality. And to be realistic, we must rely upon this reality. ... Therefore, we must change our concept of realism.


All is created from the Word and all is called to serve the Word. This means that all of creation, in the end, is thought to create the meeting place between God and His creature, a place where the history of love between God and His creature can develop. ... In this sense, the history of salvation, Covenant, precedes creation. ... One can say that, while material creation is the condition for the history of salvation, the history of the Covenant is the true cause of the cosmos. We reach the roots of being by reaching the mystery of Christ, His living word that is the aim of all creation.


We are always searching for the Word of God. It is not merely present in us. Just reading it does not mean necessarily that we have truly understood the Word of God. The danger is that we only see the human words and do not find the true actor within, the Holy Spirit. We cannot find the Word in the words. ... This is a great danger as well in our reading of the Scriptures: we stop at the human words, words form the past, history of the past, and we do not discover the present in the past, the Holy Spirit who speaks to us today with the words from the past.
Therefore, exegesis, the true reading of the Holy Scripture, is not only a literary phenomenon, not only reading a text. It is the movement of my existence. It is moving towards the Word of God in the human words. Only by conforming to the Mystery of God, to the Lord who is the Word, can we enter within the Word, can we truly find the Word of God in human words. Let us pray to the Lord that He may help us to look for the word, not only with our intellect but also with our entire existence.

The Word of God is like a stairway that we can go up and, with Christ, even descend into the depths of His love. It is a stairway to reach the Word in the words.

I'm no expert, but this all sounds very Barthian to me. What interests me most, however, beyond its intellectual genealogy, is how it works in practice. How does one do this kind of exegesis? What are the conditions for "climbing the stairway to God"? Is there a method? Or is it all a matter of mystical experience? What is the right context? Does one reconstruct the Sitz im Leben of Ps 18 and then find analogies, does one read it in its latest literary context, does one read it alone or as part of the liturgy of the hours? How do you get to its "substance" and when do you know you have arrived?

These will be questions that will continue to bug me for a while, no doubt.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

On my lack of responses

Dear all, I seem to have gotten myself involved in several conversations at once - which is great! - only that it's come at a time of stress. I'm writing this in a hurry as I have a Hebrew tutorial to organize and a Bible study to lead. I will endeavor to give the responses you deserve ... tomorrow ...

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Barth on Biblical inerrancy

I'm still trying to fully grasp what this means:
To the bold postulate, that if [the word of the prophets and apostles] is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the Scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same Scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word. It is the fact that in the Bible we can take part in this real miracle, the miracle of the grace of God to sinners, and not in the idle miracle of human words which were not really human worlds at all, which is the foundation of the dignity and authority of the Bible.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, 529-530; cited in Stephen Chapman, “Reclaiming Interpretation for the Bible,” 199.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The Judge of church and synagogue

It's often assumed that theological exegesis is fideistic and inherently inclined to read its own assumptions into the Bible. This danger clearly exists, but part of the solution turns on the nature of the theological assumptions in operation. Christianity seems to have consciously situated itself in the "gap" between dialectical poles: between heaven and earth, the Old and the New, letter and spirit. It's called to negotiate both, and this should serve to keep its triumphant proclamation chastened by the need to "discern the mystery" (A. Louth) in a veiled text. In this challenge, the Jewish people serve as a constant challenge to Christian proclamation. It is what Childs calls the function of "the mystery of Israel" (thanks to D. Driver's dissertation for this insight). Here is a profound Childs quote on the issue:

A major point to emphasize is that Christianity can make no proper theological claim to be superior to Judaism, nor that the New Testament is of a higher moral quality than the Old Testament. Human blindness envelops the one as much as the other. Rather, the claim being made is that the divine reality made know in Jesus Christ stands as judge of both religions. This assertion means that Judaism through God’s hesed has indeed grasped divine truth from the Torah, even when failing to recognize therein the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ. Conversely, Christianity, which seeks to lay claim on divine truth in the name of Christ, repeatedly fails to grasp the very reality which it confesses to name. In a word, two millennia of history have demonstrated that Jews have often been seized by the divine reality testified to by their Scriptures, but without recognizing its true name, while Christians have evoked the name, but failed to understand the reality itself. [*]
P.S. The image above is a typical motif on cathedrals in Europe of triumphant "church" over defeated "Synagogue." The tragedy is particular evident when you walk from the Jewish cemetery in Worms, Germany, to the cathedral, where the statues still stand. Should they be taken down? Or are they affirming a difficult truth which, when out of control, leads to bloodshed? I think Childs' thoughts provide a way forward.
[Hat Tip for the image from this interesting website]
[*] Childs, Witness to Christ?, 63–64.

Monday, 13 October 2008

How could Augustine do that?

I've often wondered at the validity of Augustine's hermeneutical axiom that if a passage can be variously interpreted, the interpretation which encourages love of God and neighbour should be preferred.

Is that good exegesis? Can one just take an ethic of love as the norm for interpretation of these ancient texts? It sounds like a nice idea, but surely true interpretation involves hearing the text in and of itself, regardless of our ethical presuppositions?

I recently saw Augustines' move within the context of moves made by other church fathers and something went "click" in my head (as the Germans say). Irenaeus, for example, in his battle with the varying scriptural interpretations of the Gnostics, appealed to God's one redemptive purpose uniting both testaments as a context for interpretation. Origen spoke of multiple levels of meaning in Scripture in which the reader is led from external form to internal, spiritual sense, all as part of the divine pedagogy.

What unites these approaches is the conviction that the Scriptures are a witness to a unified theological reality. Though diverse in form, they are united by a single function, the kerygmatic, deictic one of "witnessing," pointing, or referring to this reality, the divine referent. Given ecclesial interpretation is an existential matter of profound importance, rather than an exercise in "dispassionate" curiosity about a dead religion, it makes sense that interpretation start from the position of the reality testified to. The movement is then circular, as we move from referent to text and back again, each pole enriching the other. That this is not necessarily a form of fideism (though in practice it often is) is testified to by the fact that it is only through the literal sense that spiritual was achieved. Just as the church confesses the risen Christ in the text of Jewish Scripture, the New is always testified to in terms of the old.

So coming back to Augustine, the validity of his hermeneutic should not be judged according to a theory of historical referentiality whereby a text only means what it's author intended, or what the literary framework constrains it to mean. This would arguably impose an alien category onto the text itself. Rather, Augustine should be judged by his ability to do justice to both the nature of the text and its true referent. If the texts really are prophetic, and if God really is a God of love, then I may have to rethink my views.
P.S. Check out Brant Pitre for a great quote from Origen on interpretation.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Hasidic hip hop

Not much time to post (it's Sunday after all), so I'll steal these two interesting videos from The Reform Shuckle on Orthodox Jewish hip-hop artist Shmoolik (what does that mean, anyway?). I have this fascination for Orthodox Judaism; it's strikes a chord ... somewhere ... If I ever figure out what that chord is I'll post on it. In the meantime, check out these groovey hasidic beats:

The interview

The music:

Update: This post has reminded me of an interesting Arab-Israeli rap group called Dam. They rap in Arabic and Hebrew and integrate traditional Palestinian music. I think Arabic is probably one of the best languages to rap in. Check out their website:

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Jesus in the Old Testament?

I've been posting recently on Christian appropriation of the Old Testament and the question of whether it is possible for Christians, given their Christological instincts, to respect it in its own integrity. In my post on Christological interpretation, I turned the question around: perhaps its the Christians who need to have their image of Christ revised so that we can learn to understand the nature of the fit between Old and New. Here are some typically profound thoughts from Brevard Childs:

[T]he New Testament in relating the message of the Gospel to the Jewish Scripture goes far beyond asserting its relationship in terms of a historical sequence. Although the various writers make very clear that Jesus appeared at a given historical moment in the life of Israel—Gal 4.4 speaks of the “fullness of time”—this temporal orientation does not rule out at the same time moving the discourse to an ontological plane. According to John 1.1 Jesus Christ was the eternal Word who was with God in the beginning. Col. 1.15f. Speaks of his being “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created.” Rev. 13.8 makes mentions of “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (“Does the OT Witness to Jesus Christ?” 60)
The question then, is how to relate the two. Childs talks of different contexts in which Scripture functions.

In the first instance, one seeks to hear the historic voice of Israel in its literal/plain sense. ... These witnesses are often fragmentary, at times contradictory, and always veiled in obscurity. Nevertheless, a literal and historical interpretation of the OT is exegetically crucial, especially in reveialing how fragmentary, mysterious, and obscure was the nature of God's messianic promise to Israel which, even following the exile, continued to expand in a host of diverse directions.
In the second instance, one is using Scripture as an authoritative collection of sared writings which has assumed a unique shape and been given a special role within the Christian community of faith as the continuing vehicle of divine manifestation. In this role the text of Scripture, when infused by the Spirit with the full ontic reality of God, resonates with a fresh voice, and evokes from its readers the response of praise and wonder. This voice which transcends its original historical origins calls forth the hymns, liturgy, and art of the church in ever-changing forms of grateful response. This is the genre of prise. The same words of Scripture now perform a different role in instructing the church toward an obedient and joyful life. To project this depth of meaning and experience back into the past as if this interpretation must be coexstensive with an original textual intention is not only a basic confusion of genre, but it falsely dehistoricizes the canonical witness of the two discrete portions of the Christian Bible. However, to speak o f Christuszeugnis in the sense being proposed is to describe a text oriented hearing of Scripture by a Christian community of faith which allows biblical texts to resonate from the force of divine reality gained through an encounter with the entire Christian Bible. This approach is far removed from Vischer's in that its genre is confession not apologetics, its function is worship not disputation, its content is eschatology not time-conditioned history, and its truth is self-affirming not analytical demonstration.(63)
What do people think? Does that make sense? Does it work?

Friday, 10 October 2008

A delightful new blog

Not only so because of the eloquence of its language, but also because of the task it sets itself: to read through Barth's Church Dogmatics, five pages a day, in five years. Here's what the author of Zoommatics has to say about himself:

Karl Barth was a bit of a legend. As far as theology goes, he was a savage. But I love him all the more because outside of his printed theology he served in the role of theologian; he had a sense of humour about himself and his job, he had the integrity and courage to stand up to the German government when it was the responsibility of all Christians to do it (a responsibility that sadly too few took up), he had healthy interests outside of the field (most charmingly in his passionate love of Mozart’s music) and to top it all off, he was friends with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What more could you ask for? Eh?
Still, he wrote 12000 words a day. So catching up on all the thoughts he had to share is quite a project and dealing with his titannic and masterful Church Dogmatics was something I always wanted to do. Over the next five years I hope to do it and use this here little blog as a kind of sketchpad to keep track of the odd note or excellent tidbit that must be saved and stored and promulgated for the betterment of all humanity!
So that is what this is, Zoomtard’s reading of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Zoommatics, if you will.
I, too, hope one day to read through what looks like an utter masterpiece (the CD, I mean, not the blog), but seeing as I read like a snail I may well have to make do with Zoomtard's witty and amusing summaries of whatever has caught his attention this week.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Is Christological interpretation OK?

Josh McManaway of A New Testament Student has asked the question that, I think, most Christians do and should ask themselves at some point:

Can one have a Christological interpretation that also pays due respect to the particular OT text in its particular context, or is this having one's theological cake and eating it too?
Yesterday, I gave a brief example of how I think a dialectial understanding of the relation of the two testaments helps preserve both the integrity of what Seitz calls the per se witness of both testaments, when read in relation to the one divine reality that evoked them both. This can be extended to the question of Christology, as it is Christ who Christians confess to be the one subject confessing Himself in both testaments.

The issue turns on what we mean by "Christological." In other words, which Christ are we looking to find in the Old Testament? The narratively portrayed Christ in one of the Gospels? The divine Christ? John's apocalyptic Christ? The Christ who is the eternal Logos? In other words, Jesus' identity is not a simple concept.

I think a lot of people struggle with the concept of Christological interpretation because they think it means reading the OT through the lens of the NT, subordinating it to the NT's own agenda. But that simply assumes that the NT on its own has somehow grasped the full reality of who Christ is. OT scholars such as Childs and Seitz, however, argue that both OT and NT are equal witnesses to the one Christ who transcends both testaments. This was the assumption of the NT writers, who read the Jewish Scriptures in order to understand Christ (see my thread on this), not in order to speciously back up their claims. The early church, too, read the OT to understand Jesus, and not just to apologetically back up the NT's own particular construal (though that did happen too).

In short, I think that before we can talk about the legitimacy of "Christological" interpretation, we need to figure out the meaning of the term.

P.S. One blog thread I really would like to read on this issue, whenever I find time, is Glen's Christ in the OT, influenced, I believe, by the illustrious Karl Barth.
P.P.S. For an example of what I'm talking about, see Nick Norelli's Gordon Fee quote. It is significant that the context of Nick's quote is a discussion of the Trinity.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Can a Christian respect the Old Testament?

Can a Christian respect the Old Testament? How should a Christian read the Old Testament in relationship to the New? These questions were raised in response to my post on the need for dogmatics in exegesis. By way of answer I post a case study of Christopher Seitz's interpretation of Isaiah 5:1-7 (the song of the Vineyard) in relation to its New Testament appropriation in Matthew 21:33-43 (the parable of the vineyard):

Seitz sees the relationship between the two Testaments as dialectical, not one way. Both testaments make a unique witness to God in their own idiom, and yet both need to be read together, the Old in the New and the New in the Old. The book of Isaiah, for example, is read in the NT in a certain way, but this reading is not exhaustive. The NT reading needs to be balanced by the OT, in order for the fullness of the reality of God to come to light. As a case study, Seitz takes the pairing in the Lectionary of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (5:1-7) with Matthew’s parable of the Vineyard (21:33-43).

A reading of the NT passage on its own, apart from the OT, could lead to the belief that that vineyard has been taken from Israel and given to the church (v. 43). The quote in v. 44 of Isa 8:14 would reinforce the view that it is the Jewish opponents that are crushed. Even when read in conjunction with the OT passage, a hermeneutic which privileges the NT would lead to the conclusion that just as Israel failed in Isaiah’s day, so it failed in Jesus’ day.

However, a reading which refuses to privilege either Testament, but instead tries to hear them both dialectically as Scripture, is forced to ask the question of whether the vineyard’s new tenants, the church, will produce fruit and be worthy to be stewards of Christ. To quote:

Isaiah’s song of the vineyard is now not just addressed to Israel as past historical referent, but as a word of Christian scripture, heard in the light of the New, it becomes a word of prophetic address to another “Israel” (Gal.6:6), the new tenants, the church (Word Without End, 225).
Matthew’s concluding reference to Isa 8:14 becomes a warning to anyone, ruling out a supercessionist reading.

This small example illustrates what Seitz means when he says “hearing the Old in light of the New means also hearing the New in light of the Old”. This dialectical approach understands the relationship between Old and New to be reciprocal rather than developmental.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Why exegesis needs dogmatics

Jim Getz has briefly responded to my claim that the issue of diversity in the OT requires the work of dogmatic theology, and not just Biblical theology. This is what I percieve to be a shortcoming in Chris Tilling's list of three scholars who have dealt with the issue. In short, Jim believes that dogmatic theologians don't take the text seriously; they don't listen to what the text is saying "in and of itself." How then, can they help us deal with diversity in the Bible?

Here's the response I posted on his blog:

I can understand why bringing dogmatics into this can be confusing. For most OT scholars, dogmaticians are perceived as intruders whose broader construals of theological reality compromise the objectivity of their analysis of the parts. And in one sense this can be true. I wasn't suggesting that we only have dogmaticians in the list, only that the answer to the question of how to handle the diversity requires interaction with their craft. OT scholars help sketch out the diversity and explain it. But the issue is how the relate the parts. Can an OT scholar, working in a secular paradigm, really explain to me the relation between Wisdom literature, prophecy and law, other than in purely chronological terms? He can talk of cultural influences, relate the parts diachronically etc., but when it comes to wrestling with the theological substance of the message, I think we run into difficulties. Especially if you are a confessing Christian. The Christian claim is that the OT is a direct witness to Christ, not historical background information for the NT or a primitive stage in an unfolding religious evolution. This means that for the Christian questions of the nature of referentiality and the nature of the “substance” of the text cannot be ignored. This is made even more complicated by the fact that we're caught in a dialectial tension between the dogmatic claims of the NT and church tradition concerning Christ and the fact that these claims are made in terms of an OT witness that has remained untouched by the church. It has been accepted in all its Jewishness, without being redacted or changed to fit a more Christological agenda (by redactionally inserting “Jesus” into Isaiah 53, for example).

In short, given this larger construal of reality, reading the letter only and not getting to the spirit is not an option for Christian exegesis, and arguably not an option for any interpretation of a text. Dilthey argued long ago, and I think it still stands in one form or another, that erklären (explanation) only deals with the surface of a text, whereas verstehen digs deeper.

As my response shows, I've already moved out of the bounds of the OT in order to try and explain the nature of the issue. Childs' approach, as opposed to Sanders or Brueggemann, is that the Christian confession of the OT witness to Christ is not only true, it cannot be for ever bracketed out for the sake of an illusiory objectivity. This bracketing is important at one stage, but only temporarily, and then only as part of a dialectic, the goal of which is not to point at various parts, but to wrestle with the true substance of the parts.

Another dimension of this complex issue is “the economy of God.” What is the true context of Scripture? What are the hermeneutical implications? If a later tradent reconfigures an earlier layer according to a “different” referent (a more profound understanding of its substance) than is it right to follow Brueggemann et al and just leave the “contradition” standing, or do we following the kerygmatic intentionality of the editor and see how his work functions as a guide to the texts' substance (á la Childs, Seitz, Sheppard, Karl Barth, etc.)? Surely a concept of “progressive revelation” helps here.

Dogmatics is the construal of the whole, and so it is necessary for fitting the parts together. When Brueggemann says

[T]he biblical material itself ... refuses to be reduced or domesticated into a settled coherence. This refusal may not be simply a literary one but a theological one, pertaining to its central Subject (quoted here),
he's making a dogmatic statement and not just a historical, literary, analytical one. But if he had a different dogmatic presupposition, perhaps he would handle the differences differently (see the debate between him and Childs in SJT, which I commented on in the first three posts here).

Finally, to return to the three options Chris gives us:

the first fails because it go against the kerygmatic thrust of the text by focussing, not on that which the text is talking about, but on the epistemological conditions of the receiving community. It's like reading a news report, not so that you can find out what happened (i.e. the purpose of the thing) but so that you can understand the rhetorical strategy of the news reader and the ways that message is refracted through cultural context of those watching the show. Of course these things are important to understand, but an exclusive focus on this means that God-- the subject of the “news report”--gets lost in the background. Brueggemann reads a theocentric text anthropocentrically.

Second, Goldingay is facing in the right direction. He just needs a bit more theoretical ballast to explain why this is the direction to be going in. This quote taken on its own makes the whole project look rather lame, like someone embarrassedly piecing together bits of someone else's broken pottery and trying to make the best of it.

Third, Tomlin is doing I what suggested above: reading the parts in light of the whole. As long as by “Jesus Christ” he doesn't mean the New Testament construal over against the Old, but rather both equally and dialectically in relation to the one Christ who transcends them both. A trinitarian hermeneutic may be more appropriate here (see J. Barr's comments).

I've argued for this recently in my post on the need for ontological categories in biblical exegesis.

I also think my post on the theological crisis of biblical criticism is relevant here.

Update: Calvin, of the newly established The Floppy Hat, has had a few thoughts on N.T. Wright's call for the necessity of the relation between theology and biblical studies. Wright's approach is diffrerent to that of Childs. Given the significance of Wright, if I find time I may follow Calvin's lead and see where it takes me.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Handling diversity in the Old Testament: Tilling's post

It's a bit hard not to respond when the sacred image of B.S. Childs has been profaned, but I'll restrict myself to a counter question, embedded in a few important considerations.

Chris asks us to choose between three options for handling the varied depictions of God in the Old Testament, represented by Brueggemann, Goldingay, and Tomlin. The fact that Dogmatic theologians such as Barth, Diem, or Webster have been left out baffles me somewhat and compromises the selection from the outset. Why should we assume that Old Testament theologians are the ones best equipped for handling diversity in the OT? One of the strengths of Childs - perhaps the strength - is that he was constantly in dialogue with those from the other theological disciplines (this sets him apart from Brueggemann, whose dialogue partners are Derrida, Freud, and Marx, rather than Origen, Augustine, Luther, and Barth). I would have thought that a dogmatician, whose job is to work with the reality itself to which Scripture points, would be far better suited than an OT or NT scholar, whose job is just to work with the fragmentary bits and pieces (and before people say that at least Brueggemann just sticks with the text, check out this quote: Brueggemann's approach is undergirded by a dogmatic presupposition. The question is, what dogma?).

So here's my actual question:

What are the criteria for deciding? What considerations need to be taken into account for negotiating the diversity of the OT? Is staying within the bounds of the OT itself enough, or must we raise our gaze somewhat and place the OT itself within a broader horizon?
We should perhaps bear this statement by Childs in mind:

much of the confusion in the history of Old Testament theology derives from the reluctance to recognize that it is a Christian enterprise (Old Testament Theology, 8).

Sunday, 5 October 2008

My favourite blog post of late

is by Halden of inhabitatio dei. The title alone is enough to stick it in the top ten: Against Ambiguity–In Praise of Binary Oppositions. It's part of a fascinating series looking at the apocalyptic theology of the Johannine corpus (read from the perspective of contemporary discipleship, rather than as an archaeological curiosity from a different religion).

Here are my favourite two lines:

We crave ironic, tragic, and ambiguous ways of reading our world because it allows us to moderate any sort of ethical rigor that we might detect the gospel imposing on us. All too often our declarations about the ambiguities of being a disciple in a “complex” world are ways of simply making disobedience palatable and normal!
But do read the whole thing!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Subordination of chronology to typology in prophetic literature

The fifth of eight typical means identified by B.S. Childs by which ancient prophetic literature was rendered as Sacred Scripture for Israel:

By means of a radical theocentric focus in the ordering of a book, the original historical sequence of a prophet's message was subordinated to a new theological function. The Book of Nahum is introduced by a hymn; the Book of Habakkuk concludes with one. But the effect on the material is similar. This shaping process did not require a de-historicizing of the original oracles. Rather, the material was left virtually untouched, yet a new role was assigned the oracles : They now function as a dramatic illustration of the eschatological triumph of God—whose divine nature is celebrated in a hymn—over his adversaries. In Nahum the destruction of the enemy is explicitly derived from the nature of God—a "jealous God," "avenging and wrathful," "keeping wrath for the enemy"—who claims dominion over the entire world. The threat against Ninevah does not stem from the personal hatred of a Hebrew prophet against Assyria, nor is it evoked by some particular historical event of the seventh century. Rather, the biblical tradents use the initial psalm, even shattering its earlier acrostic form, to establish the true theological context for understanding the prophecy. Ninevah has become a type of a larger recurring phenomenon in history against which God exercises his eternal power and judgment.

The prophecy of Ezekiel has continued to baffle its readers. The book appears to lack the sharp contours of a definite geographical locality with a concrete group of hearers. The prophet oscillates back and forth between Babylon and Jerusalem. The traditional forms of prophetic oral speech are largely missing; but the book abounds in allegory, sign acts, and visions. Surely the canonical key to understanding this unusual book lies in the radical theocentric perspective of the prophet which has deeply affected its final literary shape. Thus even when his oracles are fixed within a chronological framework, these temporal moorings are immediately transcended when the prophet testifies to the plan of God in terms freed from any such human limitations. Similarly the spatial distinction between Babylon and Jerusalem is completely relativized whenever the people of God are viewed from the divine perspective as one entity.

Whence a rule for meaning?

Where there is no critical interpretation of Scripture, there will be a mystical or rhetorical one. If words have more than one meaning, they may have any meaning. Instead of being a rule of life or faith, Scripture becomes the expression of the everchanging aspect of religious opinions.

—Benjamin Jowett

Without a form of allegory that at least allows for analogy, the biblical text can only be an object of archaeological interest.

—Frances Young

[Source: Daniel Driver's forthcoming and excellent dissertation. Congratulations Daniel, for passing your viva yesterday!]

Friday, 3 October 2008

A new Biblio-/Archeo-blog

Jim West calls it "the gathering of the great." The authors stem from or are associated with what has come to be known as the Copenhagen school, as can be seen from the title of the blog: The Guild of Biblical Minimalists. Some are well enough known enough to have their own Wikipedia entry. Check them out. If they are as energetic on this blog as on the Biblical-Studies List then they should be spirited dialogue partners.

This would seem to be their mission statement:

Our purpose is to offer the best of Biblical and Historical scholarship to interested persons.
I guess that leaves a crack open for the non-minimalists to make a contribution ...

[Hat Tip: Biblia Hebraica]

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Canonical scripture as redactional context: Jeremiah

The fourth example of a canonical approach to the prophets:

A body of prophetic tradition has been edited in the light of a larger body of canonical literature. From the perspective of literary criticism, the message of Jeremiah has been cloaked in the later prosaic language of the Deuteronomic school. But from a canonical perspective, Jeremiah's words have been preserved in conjunction with a commentary which sought to understand his ministry as part of a chain of divine messengers who were loyal to the law of Moses and who warned of Jerusalem's coming destruction. Thus, the ordering of Jeremiah's message within the tradition of the preachers of the law provides the later community with a prophetic interpretation of how the law properly functions within the divine economy.

Closely allied with this move is the dovetailing of traditions from the oracles of Isaiah and Micah (Cf. Isa. 2:1-4 and Micah 4:1-4). From an historical perspective one could argue for a common circle of tradents who transmitted both sets of tradition. But from a canonical perspective the effect of the process is to provide each prophetic book with a commentary in the light of which a mutual enrichment is to be drawn.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Reading the letter or the spirit? A case study.

I've often argued on this blog that genuine exegesis needs to wrestle with more than the linguistic, historical, and authorial-intentional dimensions of text. It needs to get to grips with its subject matter, the reality it is talking about. In traditional Christian exegesis this is referred to as going through the literal sense to get to the spiritual (see my thread on the subject here).

This isn't as odd as it sounds. Getting to the "spirit" of a law, for example, rather than simply fulfilling its "letter," is a foundation for the implementation of justice in society - though extremely difficult to implement in practice. Here's an example from the Bible:

The third commandment forbids using the LORD's name in vain, as it would dishonour him:

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain (Exod 20:4).
What would it look like to keep the letter of this law but not the spirit, and thus bring disrepute on God's name in a far more subtle manner?

In his last days, King David confirmed a series of oaths by evoking the name of God (1 Kings 1:17; 2:8, 23, 42). It is characteristic of these stories that they are extremely ambiguous. For example, David swore by the LORD that he would not put his enemy Shimei to death by the sword. At his death, however, he commanded his son Solomon to carry out the deed.

Did David break the Third Commandment by bringing disrepute on God? Strictly speaking the oath is not broken. Nevertheless, David resorts to a form of deception in order to execute his vengeance.

I believe that the legal issue represented here represents the crux of genuine theological exegesis. It is not enough to remain at the descriptive level. We need wrestle with the true subject matter of the text, which cannot always be so easily read off the surface. The result of not doing so can have dire consequences.

[These thoughts are taken from Childs' Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 69.]

Free online access to all SAGE journals until October 31, 2008

You can now register for free online access to over 500 SAGE journals with content available from 1999–current, until October 31, 2008!

Earlier this year, SAGE celebrated the launch of the 500th journal site on the SAGE Journals Online platform. SAGE Journals Online provides users access to one of the largest collections of social science, humanities, and scientific, technical, and medical content in the world.

Off the top of my head, three of the titles of interest to those in Biblical Studies are JSOT, JSNT, ET, etc. There are far more and you can search them all according to content and author and simply download the pdf for free. It really is a geat offer.

To access the articles you have to register.
Update: I forgot to mention, this time you can only download articles from 1999 onwards. Bummer.
[Thanks again to Old Testament Passion for making me aware of this programme a year ago]