Friday, 24 April 2009

The dynamic of Holy Scripture: verbum and res.

Jason Goroncy of the beautiful blog Per Crucem ad Lucem has posted a quote by Walsh and Keesmaat On the Dynamic of Holy Scripture. If I'm reading the quote correctly, I see them as essentially saying that the Scriptures were constituted by a dialectic between received, authoritative tradition and the creative imagination of later Biblical tradents, employed to related these traditions to their contemporary situations. They say

As we read through the biblical story, it is clear that the Israelites themselves retold their stories with such fidelity and innovation. As the ancient Israelites encountered new situations, they remembered and interpreted their traditions in such a way that they engaged contemporary problems and concerns.
This patter of "stability and flexibility, fidelity and creativity, consistency and innovation" ought then to be repeated in our age. The fact that the Bible is an "an unfinished drama" frees us to interpret it with a similar amount of creative freedom.

Having soaked my self in the thought of Brevard Childs over the last couple of years, I find myself coming to a different conclusion. On the one hand, these thoughts are reminiscent of the classical Christian categories of "typology" or "figural interpretation." The difference, however, is that typological or figurative (or allegorical) extension - both in the Bible and in Church tradition is not so much a matter of creative freedom but of discerning the common substance that bridges the temporal gap. In Isaiah, for example, Assyria and Babylon are constantly juxtaposed as reflecting the same ontological reality, despite their (canonically preserved!) historical distinctiveness. In the same token, the second Exodus from Babylon is not just a creative re-construal of a received tradition for a new historical situation, the language of Isaiah witnesses to the occurrence of an event that participates in the same kind of redemption as the first Exodus, as well as every other act of God since (the Resurrection is an Exodus, and not just an event which can be imaginatively seen as such). It is the “substance,” the ontological reality which binds together the diverse formulations and reformulations found in the Bible and it is the quest for the substance - the attempt to “pierce” the text to what lies behind it (Childs spoke of the Bible becoming a theological "transparency" for such gifted interpreters as Karl Barth) - that ought to characterize theological (and indeed any sachgemäß) exegesis.

This links up their phrase: “the Bible [is] an unfinished drama … .”

Is the Bible an unfinished drama? As far as I can see, it contains everything from Creation to New Creation (in both Testaments respectively). What is left open is the way in which we are to perceive this drama at work in our own lives, but again, achieving this has less to do with imaginative reconstruals of inherited tradition and more to do with learning to see the unity within the diversity. And the guideline for doing so is the canonical shape given to Israelite tradition by faithful tradents engaged in exactly this kind of process.

For those who may be interested, I've summarized (or rather am in the process) Christopher Seitz's excellent book Prophecy and Hermeneutics here, which says similar kinds of things.
A New Testament scholar whose profound thoughts move in this direction is Paul Minear. I've collected my quotes and thoughts on his book The Bible and the Historian here (in particular Christian eschatology and historical methodology: the case of John).


Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

how does the biblical composer signal to the reader that what he is up to [insert biblical author and argument of choice] is this:

"the language of [Isaiah] witnesses to the occurrence of an event that participates in the same kind of [redemption] as the [first Exodus], as well as every other act of God since"

and not this:

"a creative re-construal of a received tradition for a new historical situation"?

Or in other words, how do you as a reader detect the difference between a sameness in the ontological identity of the events to which the text points vs. a sameness in textual representations?


Brad East said...

This is incredibly helpful. I hadn't given enough thought to the differences between imaginative construal (or creative freedom) and the recognition of the presence of the same ontological reality "here and now" as was "there and then."

Regarding the "unfinished drama" of Scripture, it seems to me the idea is that the Bible does not close the conversation or the range of possibilities for the drama it narrates to be found and named, lived and enacted in new and profound ways before the end of which it does speak. In that sense, Scripture may be spoken of as an "unfinished drama."

Anonymous said...


Just to clarify: the whole post is actually a quote from Walsh and Keesmaat.

To defend (at least) one of their claims, however - the Bible as unfinished drama. I understand this not in the strict sense that Walsh and Keesmaat perhaps see it as (I'm much more comfortable with Brad's reading here than with the grammar of 'historical innovation'), but they are certainly right to draw attention to the freedom and imaginative flexibility that properly attends faithful Christian exegesis.

Phil Sumpter said...


as always I appreciate the questions you pose me.

Here's a basic, gut response, done off the top of my head without trawling through the commentaries (I may get to that if you push me hard enough :) ). This kind of thing is pretty much what I've been reading in Childs and Seitz and I think Minear says similar stuff for the New Testament (see the links in the post), and I like. It fits in with broader concerns I have about truth and the function of scripture and how Christians should respond to post-modernism etc. I was a Brueggemannian for a while and soon ran aground. That may be due to my misinterpretation of Brueggemann, but these kinds of statements always send off alarm bells. It's not that they are wrong (creative imagination and adapting old tradition to new contexts is in fact a very important element of the process), but rather that there is so much more and the most important bit, das >Mehr< im Texte (as Jüngel puts it, though I suspect meaning something far more existential), is left out of the equation. Every where I look, I see the gospel as being about a concrete, external reality that breaks into our world and demands that we conform ourselves to it. This seems to be the "flavour" of the Biblical witness: it points to another dimension of reality, God's dimension, as it interpenetrates with ours. This seems to be what is going on in the canonical shaping. As Childs puts it, events are juxtaposed because they share the same "quality of time," and not just (note: just) because of the creative intertextual possibilities inherent in certain linguistic affinities or similar narrative structures (Childs says that Biblical intertextuality is "deictic," i.e. it points to what in the title of this post I have called the res (and which in the photo is the loaf of bread, contra the winding pathway in Jason's post). Of course, when discerning similarities in "qualities of time" (ontology), similar narrative structure and linguistic markers are important signals, but the issue is the intentionality and purpose of the linkages made.

Which doesn't really get me closer to your actual question, which is about "signals" in the text. This is a brilliant question and I will think about in the course of time. Perhaps it will be the subject of a future post ... But do keep pushing me if you're not satisfied and think I'm fudging something!


I'm glad to be of help. As I said to Michael above, this concern for "ontological reality" arose from my own experience of having gone through a "postmodern" phase (whatever that word means), in which I was all about narrative construals of reality which reshape our vision of the real and construct community. There is so much that is good about that, but without a concrete referent, without "substance," it remains a breath of intellectually sophisticated wind. I have issues with Brueggemann on this.

Thanks for your views on the phrase "unfinished drama" (which Jason endorses below). Your definition certainly changes the meaning of the phrase as I understood it, but it looks as if I misunderstood it anyway! Concerning your definition: I would still say that the canon does "close the conversation or the range of possibilities for the drama it narrates," to a degree at least. As Childs has put it (who informs just about everything I think ... embarrassing perhaps, but there we are), the canon has both a negative and a positive function. It prescribes a circle (or "arena") within which creative freedom may occur, but outside of which lurks heresy. I understand this arena to apply not just to the outer boundaries of the canon (which books can we draw upon) but to the internal structure of the canon itself (the shape of the books), as well as the intentionality that gave them that shape. Perhaps that is the sticking point ... I've rediscovered the value of a concept of intentionality which ought to constrain our interpretations. In my book, that intentionality is ultimately kerygmatic, i.e. "pointing," "deictic," like John the Bapists finger in that painting which so captivated Barth. A focus on narrative structure alone which treats the Bible as a hermeneutically sealed vacuum can be open to all kinds of abuse. (By the way, this is why I prefer Sternberg's approach to literary issues, rather than, say, Alter).


thank you for getting back to me. I realize that this post may come across as a full denial of what you have posted. I hope that my comments above to Michael and Brad have clarified a bit what my concern is. I'm not reject imaginative construal per se, just applications of this concept to the task of theological interpretation which stay at that level and don't get to what I consider to be the heart of the issue. So I do agree with what you say, I just think that this innately human gift needs to be constrained by something, and that something is ... I guess I would say ... not so much the literary structure of the narrative as the reality that this narrative wishes to broker. It is the "substance of the gospel" which constrains our interpretative freedom, and that is in fact the crux of all theological (or any decent) interpretation.

Feel free to tell me I missing something :)

Phil Sumpter said...

Oh, and Jason, I've updated my post. Thanks.

Phil Sumpter said...

What I've said above, especially to Michael, links up to my post today: The goal of God's revelation. I'll post soon on why I think interpreation needs boundaries.

Anonymous said...

Phil. I like your last sentence, particularly if we take the word 'constrains' in both senses of the word.

Phil Sumpter said...

I'm only aware of one sense of the word: to force us to do something.