Monday, 5 October 2009

The "horizontal" and "vertical" nature of the Old Testament witness

Old Testament scholars, especially those influenced by Karl Barth (which seems to include most of the German post-war generation, such as von Rad, W.H. Schmidt, Zimmerli, perhaps Otto Kaiser; see this post), often talk of the "witness" of the Old Testament. In other words, they understood a central function of the Bible as being to point beyond itself to some kind of reality. How did the New Testament understand this reality?

On the one hand, this reality was obviously understood to be "the message of the Gospel." Yet how this witness was understood to be rendered is more complex. In the New Testament, this message is related to the Jewish scriptures both in terms of a historical sequence (i.e. Jesus appeared in the “fullness of time”, Gal. 4:4), as well as on an ontological plane. Brevard Childs cites John 1:1, Col. 1:15f, and Rev. 13: 8 as examples of “a mode of speech in relation to a subject matter which disregards or transcends temporal sequence.”[*] As Childs said in one of his first publications: the Old Testament is not just a preparation for Jesus Christ but a manifestation of him. [**] (See his discussion of Wilhelm Vischer's more "vertical" approach in contrast to von Rad's more "horizontal" Heilsgeschichte).

We thus have different ways of understanding the way in which Jesus is related to the Old Testament. On the one hand, we can take the now well-know heilsgeschichtliche approach, and talk about him fulfilling Israel's narrative. On the other hand, one can take a more "vertical" (rather than "horizontal") approach, and talk about Jesus as the ontological reality which the Scriptures point to at each stage of the way (see my post The need for ontological categories in Biblical exegesis). This kind of move leads to that type of move from "text to subject-matter" known as "allegory" (see my post, What is Christian allegory?).

Allegory is, of course, incredibly unfashionable at the moment in Biblical studies (though I sense the tide is changing). One criticism of this type of exegetical move is that when exegesis is loosed from the controls of historical critical exegesis it opens the path to uncontrolled flights of fancy. Another criticism (raised by Rolf Rendtorff, I believe, in response to Childs' Biblical Theology), is that such a hermeneutical approach undermines the canonical function of the Old Testament, which was to preserve Israel's Scripture according to its own integrity. I've responded to this issue already in terms of the hermeneutical circle and the literal sense in a previous thread dealing with Literal and Spiritual Senses of Scripture. In my following posts, I will focus on how a modern Christian interpreter can conscientiously practice a multiple level reading of Scripture.

[*] 1997: 60; i.e. Jesus was the eternal Word who was with God in the beginning, “the image of the invisible God, first-born of all creation”, “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world”.
[**] 1962: 103, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (SCM Press: London). Here the relationship between Old Testament and church is expressed in terms of the “New Israel” as witness to divine reality.

P.S. Considerations such as these inspired the name of my blog: Narrative and Ontology.


Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

"Jesus as the ontological reality which the Scriptures point to at each stage of the way"


"how a modern Christian interpreter can conscientiously practice a multiple level reading of Scripture"

There is the issue right there: is "allegory" (which you never really defined, btw) something that Scripture does, or something that readers do?

And what do you mean by "each stage of the way"--are you talking about text segments, or something else?

And even granting that Scripture witnesses to something beyond itself, why would this necessarily suggest allegorization as a warranted--or even appropriate--reading strategy? I still don't see a necessary connection here.

And while you are at it, define "allegory." Your quotes from Louth said things like "it is a way..." and "it is an attempt" and "it is not a technique. . ." Fine; but these aren't definitions. What on earth IS allegorical reading?

Keep up the great observations/questions!


Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Michael,

you do me a real service by pushing me on things like this, so thanks. I'm going to have to post my answer in several installments, as Blogger has recently set a character limit on responses.

First, a definition of “allegory.” I'm using the term in a broad sense, and so should perhaps use the term “figurative interpretation” (Seitz's preferred term; I'm not trying to distinguish between “typology” and “allegory”). Figurative interpretation is about getting at the ultimate reality behind a text. It is based on the presupposition that God acts “consistently in directing history to accomplish a redemptive purpose” (Treier, Theological Interpretation, 47). Thus, within the diversity that we find in Scripture, there are particular patterns or figures which keep cropping up. Our task to is follow these connections in order to uncover a deeper coherence. Treier cites F. Young, who talks of a “narrative coherence between type and antitype or between sign and thing” (p. 49). We thus try and “extend the literal sense to new reference points.”

This isn't really a method, though there are “rules,” namely the “Rule of Truth.” This Rule is a summary of the story of the Bible, and given its truthfulness, provides a helpful means by which to correlate the parts. Again, Treier cites O'Keefe and Reno, who say, “Allegory and typology are part of the same family of reading strategies … that seek to interpret the scriptures in terms of the divine economy.”

Phil Sumpter said...

The challenge is to get to this “deeper narrative connection” (if narrative is the right word) while mainting the integrity of the literal sense. Louth draws on de Lubac, who makes a distinction between allegoria verbi and allegoria facti, the latter being the more legitimate form, the former just being mere word play. I think that Young makes a similar distinction when she talks of “iconic” verses “symbolic” mimesis.

I'm not sure this is the definition you are looking for … It's not really a formal definition nor does it outline a concrete methodology. But then I don't think it is a method, it is rather an “art,” a way of seeing that is acquired through experience and being steeped in the tradition, constrained by a good grasp of the plain sense of the text.

I find it interesting to note the parallels between allegory and historical criticism, which I outlined here. Both operate with a referential understanding of meaning, the differences that the nature of the referent: one conceives of the referent in purely “historical” terms, the other sees it as theological. Ironically, much that is said by those interested in “theological interpretation” seems to miliate against a “referential” understanding of meaning, but I don't see them a being consistent. At some point they will have to talk about going “through” the text (see, for example, Treier's discussion of O'Keefe and Reno on p. 44. On the one hand, they claim that “a referential theory of meaning” is a product of modernity, on the other hand they talk of spiritual interpretation as being a “journey through the literality of scripture … .” Ultimately, they state, rightly to my mind, that “figuration is a constant feature of daily life in general: we use analogies all the time. Thus, it is not really the figural methodology to which modern people object but rather the divine economy with which the church fathers spiritually connect us.” Oh yes, and I should also add that I think Hans Frei was doing something similar. See my posts Hans Frei on textual referentiality and “Historicity” at the core of the Gospel?. He also has a great quote on Figurative interpretation and Temporal succession..)

Phil Sumpter said...

Now to your questions:

is "allegory" … something that Scripture does, or something that readers do?

Both. A significant element of Childs' canonical theory is that the process of “canonisation” (in his broad sense of the term) consisted of a dialectic between Divine reality and tradition. Louth picked up on this, as I quoted here. Childs' thoughts here are particularly worked out in his essay “Retrospective Reading of Old Testament Prophets,” which I summarised in a thread here. Of particular relevance is the post Temporal sequence and prophetic dialectic.

Thus, figurative reader on our part just continues the tradition, though under new constraints, of course.

This also answers your next question:

And what do you mean by "each stage of the way"--are you talking about text segments, or something else?

I meant diachronically, in the sense that the tradition always did witness to “divine reality”, through out its development. Though it can also mean synchronically, as the final form of the text presents this divine reality in terms of a narrative development.

And even granting that Scripture witnesses to something beyond itself, why would this necessarily suggest allegorization as a warranted--or even appropriate--reading strategy? I still don't see a necessary connection here

The answer to this is connected to what I wrote in brackets in response to your first question above. In one sense, if you believe the text is about something and if you're interested in understanding what the text is about (i.e. meaning is, in some sense, referential) you will automatically engage in some kind of “figural reading,” Christian or not, because you will integrate the text within a conception of the broader scheme of things. For a secular critic, the story of the Exodus will signify something cultural, psychological, historical, and he will interpret the story in terms of these correlates. The Exodus isn't really “about” people leaving Egypt, it's about identity construction in a confusing world, for example. For the Christian, the Exodus may well signify some of those things, but it also signifies God's ways in the world, and these ways repeat themselves, so that one can compare the various manifestations of Gods ways in the world and see how one event connects with another, even to the point of “signifying it” (as Frei said in the quote I linked to above). So, the Exodus is also not really “about” people leaving Egypt, it's about God's basic movement of redemption from slavery (to put it lamely, I'm sure a theologian can put it better than I). Both the secular critic and the Christian critic, however, are bound to the plain sense as a vehicle for their interpretations.

In sum, “allegory,” in the sense in which I have been using it, is a confessional category and not a critical method. It presupposes a knowledge of and belief in the Christian narrative of salvation.

Let me try and recap once more: holding that the text points to a reality outside of itself doesn't automatically mean that the Christian rule of faith is the context in which the texts should be read. It could also mean that the reconstructed conditions within which each text was composed, understood as authorial intent, could be the best form of “referential reading.” It is our broader faith commitments which determines how we move from “witness to subject matter.” Of course, those who believe that their doctrinal positions are true will also claim that the text itself actually does witness to them, that it is more than a matter of creative interpretation.

Please do continue to push me on this.