Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Final version of my doctoral thesis

This blog has been sleeping for quite some time now (eight months, to be precise). As I wrote in my last post, I needed to prioritize in order to get my thesis in on time. I did in fact get it done by August, just in time to become a full-time stay-at-home dad. In the meantime I've done all the editing and I finally handed in the final product on October 21st. The viva voce is set for December 20th, which will hopefully mean that I'll get a doctorate for Christmas! My two external examiners are Walter Moberly and Neil B. MacDonald, i.e. an Old Testament guy and a systematic theologian. It is the interface between these two disciplines that excites me most so I'm really looking forward to the conversation we'll have!

Here is the abstract I handed in with the final form:
This thesis seeks to contribute to the theory and practice of theological interpretation by explicating the inner coherence of B.S. Childs’ “canonical approach” and by exemplifying that approach in an interpretation of Psalm 24.
Part 1 concerns the theory. In this section I argue that Childs’ approach rests upon a particular understanding of the nature of the Biblical text. In short, it has a twofold function, that of witnessing to the reality of God and that of shaping the community of faith in light of that reality. The God to whom it witnesses is himself involved in this witnessing activity in that he both evokes and infuses the tradition with his Spirit so that he may be known. The hermeneutical implication is that interpretation must attempt to grasp the reality “behind” the text while respecting the particular form in which that reality has been rendered. The result is a multi-level approach to interpretation involving a continuous dialectic between the witness (verbum) and its content (res). The affirmation of the nature of Scripture as an ongoing vehicle of revelation also implies the significance of the history of faithful Christian interpretation.
Part 2 seeks to exemplify this approach by showing how such a multi-level interpretation of Psalm 24 is both possible and fruitful for our understanding of the reality to which it witnesses. I achieve this by moving through several stages. After reviewing contemporary methodology, I first provide a poetic analysis of the Psalm and conclude that it witnesses to the economy of God in a bid to call Israel to realize its true identity. I then provide a hypothesis of how the final form of the psalm is a result of a tradition historical process with its roots in the pre-exilic temple liturgy. This historical perspective not only clarifies the poetic shape of the psalm, it provides a bridge to discussing the question of the nature of the reality experienced within Israel’s cult. I conclude that there is a parallel between the structure of this reality and the shape of Ps 24. I then both confirm and attempt to deepen our understanding of this reality by following canonical pointers internal to the psalm to three other bodies of text: Samuel, the Psalter, and Isaiah. Key to this broader context is the agency of the David found in Ps 24’s superscription. I conclude my analysis by suggesting how a better grasp of the divine economy in the light of Christ may help us better understand the inner unity of Ps 24 itself.
As always, I'd be delighted to hear any feedback and criticisms.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

This blog isn't dead, it's just hibernating

It's been two months since my last post, which is the longest break this blog has experienced since I set it up in Sept 2007. I've already indicated in the past that my posting will be slowing down. There are a number of practical reasons: our daughter Jasmine, who arrived seven months ago, is still capturing a lot of my attention (she's doing amazingly, for those who are interested: nothing could have prepared me for the new and beautiful dimensions of life that her presence is opening up for Ingrid and I); I have a number of projects that I want to dedicate more time to (Hebrew tutor, translation work [currently Berges' intro to Isaiah]); I'm working to get this rather large thesis done by August; and I'm looking for future employers.

I could no doubt still work out time to keep on posting, but there are two further issues that are causing me to hold back. The first is a matter of my research interests. Most of this blog has been dedicated to Brevard Childs. When I started posting I had already worked out my ideas on his approach and used this blog as a platform to discuss and share them with others. For quite some time now, however, I've been dedicating my attention to Psalm 24 in an attempt to implement what I've sketched out as the content of Childs' canonical thesis. The scope of inquiry that Childs challenges us to engage in has kept me from remaining in one spot long enough to turn my thoughts into a series of posts. I'm attempting an integrative interpretation that takes into account diachrony and synchrony, cultic liturgy and canonical poetics, dogma and history, a new interpretation that connects with very ancient ones. The challenge that this poses for me has caused me to step back with the sharing my ideas and focus instead on hammering out my thesis. This leads to the second reason for my silence:

Entering the new waters of actually reading the Bible rather than talking about how one should read the Bible has obviously opened up a new box of challenges for me. It's exciting, and I would love to share my thoughts in one-to-one dialogue, but I don't feel that it is right to talk about them online just yet. There's a time for speaking (Ecclesiastes 3:7), and the prudent need to learn when to do so (Prov 10:19; 21:23; Sirach 20:6-7). I want to work my synthesis to its end and get my feet firmly established in Biblical soil before I return to cyberspace to share my thoughts and engage in the welcome critique that comes with that. Hence the fact that this blog isn't dead, just hibernating, storing up resources until the arrival of the right "season."

Friday, 28 January 2011

Abstract for my SBL (London) paper

I just received the good news that the abstract for one of my papers has been accepted for SBL London. It'll be in the 'Writings' section. Here it is:
Psalm 24 as Prophecy: A New Poetic Reading
Psalm 24 is often seen to be a “baffling” psalm due to the juxtaposition of what seems to be thematically disparate material (creation, vv. 1-2; torah and sanctuary vv. 3-6; divine warrior and sanctuary, vv. 7-10). Most unusual, however, is the juxtaposition of the final two stanzas, for they seem to cancel each other out. In vv. 3-6, human beings desire access to God within the sanctuary, whereas in vv. 7-10 God himself is presented as standing outside the same location and desiring access. Multiple clues indicate that these two entrance scenes have been intentionally brought into parallelism with each other, yet no satisfactory answer has been presented as to the meaning of this poetic manoeuvre. In this paper, a poetic analysis is proposed that goes beyond those proffered thus far by looking at the way it represents time and space. The conclusion is that the Psalm belongs in the genre of prophecy.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A response to M. Welker on the relation between Scripture and theology

In an essay published in a Festschrift for Patrick Miller, Michael Welker, professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg, has shared his thoughts on the relationship between Biblical exegesis and theology. The title of the essay is “Sola Scripture? The Authority of the Bible in Pluralistic Environments.” Here is my response, shaped as it is by Childs’ “canonical approach.”

Welker shares a basic starting point with Brevard Childs. In a very pregnant paragraph on p. 383 he claims that behind the diversity within the canon (if “behind” is the right metaphor for his approach) there is a single subject matter: God, and not just any god but a particular God. This God is a living reality and not just a theological postulate and as such he has left his imprint, in some undefined sense, on the traditions contained within the Bible (they “reflect his weight”). There is thus at work within the tradition-history behind the text a divine agency, something secular scholarship, by virtue of its own “confessional” stance, has no access to. Not only is there a “divine reality” at work in the actual composition of the textual witnesses, he also confesses that it is the same reality that is revealed in Jesus Christ. This seems to me to be an ontological statement, one that makes a very significant statement about the actual nature of the now textualized religious traditions of ancient Israel. In this he is still on common ground with Childs.

He adds one further claim, however, to this construal of the nature of the texts which both marks his common ground with Childs and yet also the point of divergence: the texts are to be understood as “witnesses.” As I have often stated on this blog, this category is central to Childs' own approach, yet he interprets in a different manner to Welker (his citation of Brueggemann at this point, fn. 21, confirms this, as this is the biggest sticking point in their two approaches). I hope that I am not misinterpreting Welker, but his claim about the texts' status as “witnesses” seems to be materially distinct from his claim about the texts' nature as a “reflection” of God. Although God exerts his a certain force upon the traditions (“weight”), even leaving an impact upon their formation (“mirror”), Welker understands their character as witnesses to be primarily a matter of a individual/communal “search for truth” (p. 392). It is a human “contribution.” In this he stands with the majority of contemporary Old Testament scholarship.

For Childs, however, the very force of the divine referent upon the witness is part of the definition of “witness” in the first place. The function of the Biblical witness, according to Childs, is not to search for truth but to point to a truth that has already impacted the witnesses. In other words, his affirmation of the divine impact on tradition has hermeneutical implications, as what the text is trying to do—even in its very historical particularity—is not wrestle with the theological question of God but to point to a divine reality that has broken into the witnesses' reality and perhaps even left him rather confused as a result. Von Rad spoke of a “lebendigen Wort Jahwes, das an Israel ergangen ist.” For Childs, of course, this “divine impact” was part of the literary shaping process of the traditions themselves, such that the final form sets the agenda for relating the parts. In relation to the issue of diversity within the canon, the canonical-shape functions either to guide our own interpretation of the meaning of the tradition, either by subordinating one view to another or allowing them to relate dialectically. The significant point here, however, is that the canon as witness calls us to resolve this dialectic at the level of the divine referent. The diversity in the canon is a consequence of the nature of the referent and not an accident of history or a function of human particularity.

This leads Childs (as I understand him) to a different answer to the question of how to relate the “canonical traditions” to “contemporary life” (p. 391). Rather than correlating canonical diversity with contemporary diversity, the canon compels us to seek unity within that diversity—a unity at the level of the divine reality itself—and then to reinterpret our current situation in light of that divine reality. As part of the hermeneutical spiral however, we not only interpret the unity of the present in light of the unity of the canonical referent, we also seek to comprehend the unity of the canon in light of the unity of its divine referent. Hence Childs’ dialectical approach. Whereas Welker seems to argue for a relatively unilinear mode of theological exegesis—the task of systematic theology in Biblical exegesis is to test the “Tragbarkeit” of exegetical, theological claims in the present (p. 388)— Childs argues that dogmatics ought, at a certain point in the hermeneutical circle, to contribute to exegetical claims about the actual meaning of the text itself. In my own work, this leads me to the strong (and unusual, given the current climate) claim that Robert Jenson's interpretation the “metaphysics of Heaven” (which is a Trinitarian concept) not only seems to supply Psalm 24 with its ultimate referent (when read historically, cult-critically, poetically and canonically), but it also helps us to understand the actual logic of the Psalm itself better.