Wednesday, February 25, 2015

On Anachronism and the Literal Sense of Scripture

For years now I've had a running conversation with a friend over the divide between biblical scholarship and theology, and in particular the disjunction between historical criticism and theological interpretation of Scripture. One of the dividing lines between us concerns what "the literal sense" means. My consistent stance is that "the literal sense," as used in the Christian theological tradition, does not mean what historical critics mean when they use the term. This is because "the literal sense" is understood theologically rather than merely hermeneutically or historically.

The reason why this is such a big issue is that Christian biblical scholars who use historical criticism often make the argument that what they are doing is reading for what the tradition has always prioritized: the literal sense. This is often attached to or undergirded by an appeal to the so-called "humanity and divinity" of the text, historical criticism giving us "the humanity," apart from which we have a docetic Scripture, as bad a result as a docetic Christ.

So the disagreement consists in the question, whether or not historical criticism interprets for the literal sense; or, put differently, whether what the historical critic is doing when she offers her reading is giving us the literal sense of the text. My answer, as I said above, is no. Historical criticism reads for what should be called the historical-critical sense: namely, what this text (might have) meant in its original context, either to its author or to its immediate audience. But that is not synonymous with the literal sense—although, given a certain text, it could be, just as it could overlap with a given text's literal sense though not be entirely synonymous with it.

What I discovered in articulating this to my friend was that the simplest way to clarify the disagreement regarding what "the literal sense" means is the issue of anachronism. Traditionally speaking, the literal sense may be, though it need not be, anachronistic. But historical criticism's raison d'être is the elimination of anachronism; the historical-critical sense is therefore by definition anti-anachronistic. For the literal sense to be anachronistic, on historical-critical grounds, is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. But the literal sense, theologically understood, in continuity with the tradition, is not tested at the bar of whether or not it could have been meant by the text's human author at the time he wrote it. The literal sense of the text is not disconfirmed by the accusation (or the demonstration) of anachronism.

In the divide, then, between historical-critical biblical scholarship and Christian theological interpretation of Scripture, anachronism is the rub.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Anselm's Prayer for Understanding at the Start of the Proslogion

"And you, O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, will you be unmindful of us? . . . When will you give yourself again to us? Look upon us, Lord; hear us, enlighten us, show yourself to us. . . . Let me discern your light whether it be from afar or from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me as I seek, because I can neither seek you if you do not teach me how, nor find you unless you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in desiring you; let me desire you in seeking you; let me find you in loving you; let me love you in finding you.

"I acknowledge, Lord, and I give thanks that you have created your image in me, so that I may remember you, think of you, love you. But this image is so effaced and worn away by vice, so darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do what it was made to do unless you renew it and reform it. I do not try, Lord, to attain your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that 'unless I believe, I shall not understand' (Isaiah 7:9)."

—Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 86-87 (ch. 1)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 4: On Qualifying a Scholar or Scholarship as "Serious"

One of N. T. Wright's least winsome rhetorical tics is his constant use of "serious" (or "genuine") as a modifier of "scholar(ship)" or "history/historical." In a span of a couple dozen pages in Jesus and the Victory of God, he does it at least eight times:
". . . for half a century serious scholarship had great difficulty in working its way back to history when dealing with Jesus." (21)

". . . little was done to advance genuine historical work on Jesus in the years between the wars." (22)

". . . the sense of academic disenfranchisement that serious historians of Jesus have felt for decades . . ." (25n.53)

". . . the detailed historical work has not really been taken with full seriousness." (26)

". . . reflecting viewpoints now abandoned by most serious students of the subject-matter concerned . . ." (32-33)

". . . those very serious scholars who believe that Q is a modern fiction from start to finish . . ." (41)

"One of the most recent serious scholarly works on Q . . ." (42)

"Those who want to continue with serious research on Jesus . . ." (44)
This is a common trope in academic writing generally and historical scholarship particularly. But apart from being repetitious for readers, it does no argumentative or conceptual work, and it is self-undermining for at least three reasons.

First, "serious" is more or less always used to disqualify certain ideas, works, or scholars so as to suggest a (total or near total) unanimity in scholarly judgment. But "serious" in this usage is merely code for: "except for those who disagree—who, as quacks, do not count—everyone agrees." Which, it should not need to be pointed out, is a false unanimity. In this way "serious" is merely synonymous for "good," which often as not is synonymous with "in agreement with me." But then why not be clearer in one's evaluative judgment rather than adverting to the pseudo-neutral "serious"?

Second, where "serious" isn't meant to signify agreement or unanimity, it suggests those who "matter" or "count." But this implies an elitism that scholars, or at least Christian scholars, should repudiate. So what if scholar X or Y isn't at an Oxbridge or Ivy League school? So what if s/he isn't well published or renowned? That fact alone doesn't bear any relation to the quality of his/her work.

Third, the alternative to elitism is the elevation of consensus over contention. That is, "serious" functions rhetorically to say that "most/all real/good scholars agree on X or Y," which in turn suggests that consensus implies the truth of a position. But this is almost always said in the context of an argument for a position that is itself not accepted by most scholars. So which is it? Either: if (most) everybody agrees, we should agree too; or: in spite of (most) everybody agreeing, we should swim against the tide. One can't have it both ways.

In short, "serious" as a qualifier hides judgments that require arguments to support them. It's an argumentative dodge and a rhetorical shortcut that functions to dismiss a position that one hasn't put in the work to reject. It's a bad habit that truly serious scholars should kick.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Paul Griffiths's Micro-Manifesto on Figural Reading of the Song and Theological Interpretation of Scripture

I'm coming to think that, within current debates in bibliology and theological interpretation of Scripture, a line in the sand may be drawn by reactions—thumbs up or down—to Paul Griffiths's 2011 Brazos Commentary on the Song of Songs. (My response: two thumbs, way up.) Here's a taste:

"The Lord is not explicitly mentioned at all in the Song, but if the Song is read as a scriptural rather than a closed book, then he is everywhere in it. The tropes and figures used in these first words of the Song impel a scripturally versed listener to see, palimpsestlike and in chiaroscuro, desire for and love of the lover. It is not that desire for the human lover and memory of his lovemaking simply stand, allegorically, for desire for the Lord's love and kisses, to be left aside once we have understood what they represent. Neither is it that the human authors, compilers, and editors of the Song had the Lord's lovemaking in mind when they wrote the words we now read—we know nothing about what they had in mind; what we have is their words, and instead of seeking the chimera of authorial intention we should pay close attention to these words. It is, rather, that the Song's words resonate within the verbal manifold of scripture's corpus, and when you pay attention to those resonances you see, beyond reasonable dispute, that the depiction of human memory, desire, and sexual love in the Song figures both the Lord's love for you and yours for him, and does so in a way that helps us to see that our human loves for one another are what they are because of their participation in his for us and ours, reciprocally, for him."

—Paul Griffiths, Song of Songs, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 10-11 (my emphasis)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Brevard Childs as the John Rawls of Biblical Scholarship: A Cursory and Probably Indefensibly Simplistic Comparison

Reading the work of Brevard Childs, in tandem with its critical reception, it strikes me that he is the John Rawls of late 20th century biblical scholarship. Enormously talented, undeniably brilliant, hugely influential, an intellectual pillar at an elite Ivy League institution—and yet, the "big idea" that animated his thought throughout his career never stopped evolving, never quite reached clarity in presentation, and by the time retirement came it had, as it were, reached the point of exhaustion, becoming a disciplinary touchstone that basically nobody was persuaded by anymore. Reviews and summaries tend to treat both men's thought similarly: we "must" talk about them; they "changed" the field; and, today, we are "beyond" them. One's feeling in reading the magnum opus of each is at once a solemn respect for their achievement and an overriding sense that, alas, it just doesn't work.

A possible exception to this overall picture is the good will Childs had and continues to have in the theological academy, presumably due, at least in part, to the many significant scholars who studied under him at Yale. (I can't speak for Rawls.) But apart from Christopher Seitz, who has taken up the mantle of Childs's "canonical" proposal and continues undeterred, the field seems empty of (implicitly or explicitly) "Childsian" bibliology and theological hermeneutics. Which makes me wonder how, decades from now, this period in theological proposals about Scripture will be recounted. Will Childs be a transitional figure? Will he be a footnote? Will he stage a comeback? As with Rawls in political theory, it will be interesting to see.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Johann Gerhard on the Purpose and Definition of Theology

I think it's fair to say this isn't the most common position in modern academic theology:

"The purpose of theology is either principal and most important or intermediate. The principal and most important purpose is the glorification of God. You see, it is for this reason that God revealed himself in his Word. He communicates theological wisdom to people for this purpose: that they may know him rightly and honor, worship, and invoke him in this life and in that life to come. . . .

"The intermediate and approximate goal is either internal (information for man for his eternal salvation) or external (the actual attainment of blessedness or eternal life) . . . . Therefore whatever does not lead or draw one to this goal either directly or at least indirectly, either immediately or mediately, that does not pertain to theological knowledge. . . .

"Theology considered systematically and abstractly is the teaching drawn from the Word of God that instructs man in true faith and pious living for eternal life. Theology considered conditionally and concretely is the God-given condition conferred on man by the Holy Spirit through the Word. This condition not only instructs man in an understanding of the divine mysteries through the illumination of his mind in such a way as to draw salutarily that which he understands into a good condition of his heart and accomplishment of his work, but it also makes him fit and ready for those divine mysteries. It makes him a path for informing others of salvation, a path for setting heavenly truth free from the corrupting influences of gainsayers so people glow with faith and good works and are drawn to the kingdom of heaven."

—Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces: On the Nature of Theology and Scripture, trans. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 26.7, 31.12 (pp. 40, 42)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

In Praise of Sundance Channel's Rectify

Rectify, currently in between its second and third seasons on the Sundance Channel, is like nothing else on television right now. It's about a man in his late 30s released from death row after being on it for 19 years. It's officially taken the torch from Friday Night Lights as TV's #1 show that treats religion/Christianity—which is to say, flesh and blood human beings who are "religious" or "Christian"—seriously. Case in point: The pure, earnest Southern evangelical blonde woman—just a cavalcade of stereotypes waiting to be exploited—is not depicted as stupid or superficial, but rather as the one person whom the main character can connect to, because she genuinely cares about him. In this case, to use her language, she cares about his soul. And he appreciates it.

The show is set in rural Georgia, and I can bear witness: The people on this show look, talk, think, relate, and live how actual southerners do. They aren't cardboard satellites of LA or NYC; they aren't stupid (though they do talk slower); they aren't dupes in collective thrall to superstition and conspiracy theories. Matt Zoller Seitz calls Rectify "truly Christian art." Maybe, and the aspiration is commendable; but the sheer accomplishment of depicting ordinary life outside of Hollywood and Manhattan, beyond boardrooms and crime scenes, populated by women and men who believe things and live in ways that are alien to cultural elites: now that's something.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Noah Hawley's Fargo: In the Shadow of Das Nichtige

A few episodes into Noah Hawley's Fargo, last year's TV reimagining of the Coen brothers' film, my worry was that the show's thematic upshot would be that either there is no grain of the universe (that there is, is a therapeutic fiction we use to get by) or that the grain of the universe is arbitrary predation (as personified by Billy Bob Thornton's character). Happily, that turned out not to be the case. Rather, in a world beset by mysterious chance and arbitrary predation, the grain of the universe is neighborly decency: violence and murder are the elemental chaos against which civilization—families, police departments, diners—prevail in the harsh north simply in virtue of their continuing to exist, of still standing in the morning after the blizzard. He is a fool who, like Lester Nygaard, mistakes the appeal of chaos's temporary success for the long-term stability of common goodness.

To be sure, to live in Fargo, North Dakota, is to live on the outskirts of civilization, and so to court the abyss—to live in the shadow of Das Nichtige. But so long as ordinary people resist its appeal, it won't win the day; ever looming, it won't, because it can't, finally swallow them up. Their neighborliness is unconquerable.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Barth on the Need for Grace in Reading Scripture

"We do not truly appreciate either the light which the Church receives from the Bible, or the darkness which enshrouds it from the same source, until we recognize in both, beyond all the human effort and human refusal which is also present, the over-ruling power of the Word of God itself, either to exalt or to abase. Only then do we realize that we cannot read and understand Holy Scripture without prayer, that is, without invoking the grace of God. And it is only on the presupposition of prayer that all human effort in this matter, and penitence for human failure in this effort, will become serious and effective."

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, p. 684

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Zechariah as the Sixth Evangelist

Isaiah was famously heralded by the church fathers (originally Jerome?) as "the fifth Evangelist." If there's room for another at the table, I propose we give the honor to Zechariah. Having never read the book start-to-finish before, in doing so the last couple of weeks I was repeatedly struck by how deeply interwoven it is into the canonical Gospels; along with Second Isaiah and the Psalms, it is an ineliminable feature of the Evangelists' depiction of Jesus's person, teachings, ministry, actions, and passion. Tug on that thread, and the texts unravel. Given its importance, I wonder—because I don't know—whether and to what extent the fathers and medievals read and commented on Zechariah, or whether, for whatever reason, it slipped by the wayside. Given its non-linear and non-systematic character, its apocalyptic and sometimes violent imagery, and its simultaneous emphasis on contemporaneous political events as well as the coming eschatological future, perhaps it was less immediately conducive to the sort of readings they would have been interested in undertaking.

But, wow, it is a powerhouse of figural christological exegesis. It's basically necessary pretext, historically, literarily, and theologically, for understanding the Gospels' presentation of Jesus. It's all there: Jerusalem (1:14-17; 8:3), exile (passim), YHWH's return (1:16; 8:3; 9:14), Israel's renewed election (2:12), the divine presence at the temple (2:5; 8:3; 9:8), a second exodus (14:16-19), the forgiveness of sins (3:9; 13:1), the Lord's rebuke of Satan (3:2), the eschatological gathering of all nations (passim), a priest-king named Joshua (6:11-13), the capstone (4:10), the anointed (4:14), the blood of the covenant (9:11), the Spirit's power and outpouring (4:6; 7:12; 12:10), grabbing a Jew by the hem of his robe (8:23), Israel's salvation (9:16), Israel's king at once human (9:9) and divine (14:9), 30 pieces of silver (11:12), the house of David (12:8), a cleansing fountain in Jerusalem (13:1), Jerusalem looking on him whom they have pierced (12:10), the shepherd struck and the sheep scattering (13:7), YHWH's feet standing on the Mount of Olives (14:4), the coming of YHWH with his saints (14:5), the day of darkness that is the first evening of the new creation (14:6-7), the singular sovereignty of the name of YHWH (14:9), the nations coming to worship this self-same king (14:16)—and so on.

I realize I'm not the first one to note this. (I'm vaguely aware that Wright, whose corpus I am making my way through as we speak, has made Zechariah central to his proposal about the historical Jesus's self-understanding.) But it's incredible nonetheless, both at a literary-historical level and, especially, in its implications for Christian theological interpretation of the Evangelists proper and of this unique proto-Evangelist.

Monday, January 26, 2015

On Learning to Recognize Those Who "Get It": Example, Daniel Treier

My dissertation deals with theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS), and at this point in reading through the vast literature in the last two decades on the topic, I've come to realize how quickly I can spot a scholar/theologian who "gets it" (or, alternatively, one who does not). The realization occurred to me as I began Daniel Treier's 2008 book Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Because TIS overlaps so heavily with biblical theology and biblical scholarship, both of which remain (in large part) decidedly modernist in hermeneutics, methodology, and overall theological outlook, the bogeymen of postmodernity, relativism, and antipathy to historical criticism are regularly trotted out and summarily dispatched as threats to the task of proper exegesis. Such moves are trending downward, but remain prominent nonetheless.

So works like Treier's, who went to TEDS and teaches at Wheaton, are a breath of fresh air, because they simply don't traffic in that kind of anxious enemy-identification. Treier models the fitting posture of all Christian theology: equal parts ambivalence and confidence. Ambivalence, because intellectual trends and changes are rarely wholly inimical to the gospel, but can be useful through careful and undefensive discernment; and confidence, because theology's matter, God and the gospel, doesn't depend on theologians' abilities to defend or describe it, but will take care of itself, thereby freeing the theologian to go about her work without the burden of everything depending on its success or failure. Theologians in general and those who write about TIS in particular can sometimes come across as so scared, and that fear inhibits them from seeing the productive possibilities in proposals that otherwise seem new, strange, or threatening.

Happily, there are folks like Treier who get it—theologians whose minds are catholic enough to realize that ostensible threats to the way things are, are often as not opportunities for greater fidelity to an older, deeper tradition or for appropriate change in the Spirit's wake. May their tribe increase.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Augustine on multiple interpretations of Scripture

"There are doubtless other ways of understanding our Lord's words, Why ask me about the good? No one is good but the one God (Matt 19:17). Provided however they do not favor belief that the Son's substance, by which he is the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:3), is of a lesser goodness than the Father's, and are not otherwise at odds with sound doctrine, we may cheerfully use not merely one interpretation but as many as can be found. For the more ways we open up of avoiding the traps of heretics, the more effectively can they be convinced of their errors."
—Augustine, De Trinitate I.31

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 3: Appreciating Wright's Massive Methodological Prolegomena

As I have worked my way through Part II of The New Testament and the People of God, I have been frustrated at nearly every turn by Wright's argumentation, hermeneutics, and material methodological proposal. However, as I step back from it, I can't help but both admire and applaud Wright for taking the time to do this. The whole book, in one sense, is a book-length prolegomenon to the subsequent volumes in the series (taking more than two decades to write the next three books that give us his take on Jesus and Paul). But before discussing first-century Judaism or Christianity in Parts III and IV, Wright takes 116 pages, across four chapters, to lay out his epistemology, interpretation of culture, historical methodology, and understanding of theology. How many times, in reading works of history or literature or whatever, do we bang our heads against the wall because the author has offered no warrant whatsoever for her claims? because he has not substantiated his methodological approach? because she assumes ten thousand things to be true that we, her readers, reject one and all?

When reading the rest of NTPG, and indeed the rest of the volumes of Christian Origins and the Question of God, the reader may disagree with Wright's claims and conclusions, but the one thing he—the one thing I—will not do is complain about unstated premises, missing warrants, unjustified methods. Because Wright has done all the painstaking, necessary work to ensure that I can't.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 2: On the Shadow Cast by Bultmann in Wright's Early Work

At first the ubiquity of Bultmann's presence in Part I of New Testament and the People of God surprised and confused me. My reflexive response was something like, 'Aren't we past all that? Why the feeling that Bultmann is the authority to which NT scholarship must be accountable and/or that he still has ongoing relevance for interpreting the NT?' But a couple things dawned on me.

First, I've read and heard Wright say a number of times that, in his formative school years, Bultmann was the thing that was taught; Bultmannianism was the definitive respectable position on offer, and it was omnipresent in the biblical academy.

Second, when Wright began work on NTPG in the mid- to late-1980s, Bultmann had been dead for barely a decade. By comparison to today, NTPG was published twice as long ago. It only goes to show how larger-than-life figures like Barth, Bultmann, Pannenberg, and Moltmann (still alive!), though their influence has been vast and wide, even to the point of (in some cases) being eclipsed by others' work, are nevertheless thinkers who flourished within living memory. (A guest instructor at Emory, who taught a Reformed Theology short course I took, was one of Barth's last doctoral students in Basel!)

Realizing all this is helpful in reading Wright, in at least two ways. First, it puts into context the trajectories and authorities in NT scholarship with which he was dealing at the time, however alien they might seem in the present context. Second, it reveals just how epochal a shift has taken place in the last two decades, not only in the sidelining of anything like Bultmann's project, but also in the character of NT scholarship, the assumptions one is free to make, the theological projects deemed viable (or passé), and so on. It's a different world for up-and-coming NT scholars today than it was for Wright in the 70s and 80s.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

John Webster on the perennial nature of the intellect's depravity

"[W]e would be unwise to think of the depravity of the intellect as a peculiarly modern occurrence, a collateral effect of the naturalization of our view of ourselves. It assumes peculiar modern forms, such as the association of the intellect with pure human spontaneity and resistance to the idea that the movement of the mind is moved by God. But these are instances of perennial treachery; if our intellects are depraved, it is not because we are children of Scotus or Descartes or Kant, but because we are children of Adam."

—John Webster, "On the Theology of the Intellectual Life," in Christ Across the Disciplines: Past, Present, Future, ed. Roger Lundin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), p. 107

Monday, January 12, 2015

Notes on N. T. Wright, 1: On the Theological Utility of Historical Inquiry

This spring and summer I'm reading through N. T. Wright's major works. As thoughts, reactions, and micro-critiques occur to me, I'll share them here (or, if I can't find the time, consider this the first and last installment of the series). Wright is undeniably a major and influential figure, but his work rankles as often as it illuminates. There are some crucial problems worth exploring, and hopefully I can do that here in a preliminary way.

Wright writes, "without historical enquiry there is no check on Christianity's propensity to remake Jesus, never mind the Christian god, in its own image" (NTPG, p. 10). This is a patently false claim, but it is important to see why. The historical inquiry Wright has in mind was created relatively recently; with antecedents in the Renaissance and Reformation, it gained momentum in the 17th and 18th centuries and came to maturity in the 19th. So—from a Christian, theological, point of view—was Christianity truly lacking any check on its tendency to idolatry, to projecting onto Christ and God whatever it wanted them to be, prior to the creation of this intellectual discipline?

Partly this is a rhetorical overreach: Wright could simply rephrase to say, "historical inquiry is a valuable check on . . . ." But it's a rhetorical habit that is recurrent throughout his work, which reflects a habit of mind: it isn't merely ornamental. I think Wright really means what he says here. If so, what are the implications, for biblical exegesis, ecclesiology, doctrine of Scripture, doctrine of providence, and historical inquiry itself? What, moreover, might it suggest about Wright's project as a whole?

Here's one global thesis: That it is an irremediably Protestant one.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Difference of Methdological Posture Between Jenson and Pannenberg

Michael Root writes of Pannenberg (my emphasis):
A curse of recent theology has been the cult of the virtuoso theologian, the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow. Much academic work in modern theology seems less the study of God or of the Christian message about God, and more the study of the creativity of great theologians.

When Pannenberg broke onto the scene in the 1960s, he was treated as the new candidate for these laurels, the latest thing from Germany, the land of giants. His program of a thoroughgoing interpretation of the Christian message under the rubrics of history and eschatology looked like another interpretive tour de force, another exercise in killing the Oedipal father (or fathers, in the form of Barth and Bultmann) so that the children are free to pursue their own projects. The actual shape of Pannenberg’s achievement has been somewhat different. The quasi-scholastic tone points at least to a different intent, a more humble subjection to the subject matter.

Nevertheless, the manner of the virtuoso has never quite disappeared, no more than it disappeared from the work of Barth. The unique interpretive vision rooted in eschatology continues to color all that is said. As a friend has noted, what Pannenberg will not do is outline the tradition on a theological topic and then simply conclude that the tradition got it right and move on. The subject needs to be reshaped by the unique perspective of the system, like the pianist who insists that somehow, somewhere, her own unique interpretation must shine through.
Compare a footnote to an essay in a recent collection by Jenson. Regarding "such . . . theologoumena as Luther's christological founding of sacrament," Jenson's "Systematic Theology does not attempt to rehabilitate but simply receives with rejoicing" (Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), p. 69n.2).

"Receives with rejoicing": this is an apt characterization for an intellectual habit on recurrent display in Jenson's work, most of all in his systematics. He simply quotes or adverts to some great theologian—Origen, Irenaeus, Basil, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Edwards, Barth—regarding a theological question, affirms his agreement, and assumes its truth in what he goes on to say. This accounts for the economy of some of his argumentation, but more important, it models a posture to the tradition that resists the virtuosic-systematic impulse to revise and reshape everything received, no matter how laudable or exemplary. As such it is a habit for contemporary theologians to consider imitating.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

John Webster on Barth's engagement with philosophy

"Barth's insistence on speaking [with philosophy/non-Christian disciplines] on his own terms is not to be interpreted as obstinate reluctance to come out of his lair and talk to the rest of the world; quite the contrary: in writing, as in life, Barth showed remarkable openness to all manner of ideas, provided he is allowed to exercise Christian nonconformity."

—John Webster, Barth, 2nd ed. (New York: T&T Clark, 2000, 2004), p. 174

Thursday, April 3, 2014

On Reading Scripture in Translation: A Brief Critique of Vanhoozer

In their book Reading Scripture with the Church: Toward a Hermeneutic for Theological Interpretation, coauthors A. K. M. Adam, Stephen Fowl, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Francis Watson each contribute a constructive essay and then offer a response to the others' essays. In Vanhoozer's response to Fowl, he takes up Fowl's approving treatment of Thomas Aquinas's reading of the prologue to the Gospel of John, where Thomas affirms a number of legitimate interpretations of the literal sense. Vanhoozer writes:
Fowl is in favor of many (but not too many!) legitimate interpretations Yet throughout his essay, he makes a special point of saying that Thomas has no problem ruling out some interpretations to be inadequate or mistaken. How can we delimit what God intends to be understood by the words that are written? The general idea is that, instead of delimiting, we should rather accept as many true meanings as possible. There is, however, an important caveat: "Do not violate the context."

Fowl examines Thomas's suggestion that "in the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1) has (at least) three literal meanings and asks whether Thomas was"right." Specifying criteria for interpreters "getting it right" is, in my book, what hermeneutical theory is all about. So, does Fowl succeed both in establishing many literal senses and in providing a criterion that halts their endless proliferation? Readers will have to judge for themselves. Let me call attention to one interesting fact. Thomas derives his three interpretations of John 1:1 on the basis of the various ways of using the term principium. But this is a Latin term, and the author of the Fourth Gospel wrote in Greek.

"Determinate" means limited in time and space. Is it not a violation of the context of John 1:1 to lift the text from its original time and place, not to mention its original language? There is a christological point here that should not be missed. God makes himself known and communicates to humans not by transcending space and time but by entering into the human condition. To divorce Scripture from its historical context is to suggest that it has the mere appearance of human discourse. This way lies hermeneutic Docetism. In order not to violate the text, must we not eventually say that the eagle has landed in some determinate time and place?

Fowl is right to insist that the divine intention ultimately transcends that of the human author. I argue in my own essay that theological hermeneutics is a matter of "discerning the divine discourse in the work." Where we still differ, perhaps, is in the way that we respond to the injunction not to violate the context. For me, context refers to the historical, literary, and canonical settings of biblical discourse. It is not entirely clear to me how Fowl would appeal to context—which contexts?—in order to delimit the plurality of possible divine intentions.
I want to leave aside Vanhoozer's larger point about delimited meanings and criteria for right interpretation. Instead, I want to focus on his critical comment about language and the proposed christological warrant for it, because I think Vanhoozer is wrong in important and revealing ways here.

The upshot of Vanhoozer's comment seems to be that strong interpretive judgments about scriptural texts should not or even cannot be based on a translation, because to do so is to violate one of the principal contexts within which the text makes sense, namely the language in which it was originally written. This latter justification is given warrant by reference to the incarnation: God neither remains distant in heaven nor comes near in appearance only, but becomes in actual fact a particular flesh-and-blood human being in a particular time and place. Hermeneutic docetism follows christological docetism when it abstracts from the particularities of historical being—time, place, language, finitude, community, culture, social convention—as so much husk masking a transcendent kernel; the reader supposes the text's features are accidental to the substance of what it says, rather than part and parcel of its meaning. On the contrary, what a biblical text says is inseparable from how its said, which includes how the original human author said it in the language in which he wrote.

The positive import for contemporary biblical interpretation is clear enough: basically, a qualified endorsement of the tools and methods of historical criticism as crucial for properly Christian reading of Scripture—though without, of course, endorsing the whole program, especially some of the theological and philosophical presuppositions that tend to underwrite it. The negative implication is twofold. More broadly, the original historical context of a scriptural text's composition (and initial reception?) is one delimiting factor for its right interpretation. More specifically, readings like Thomas's that make exegetical judgments based on a translation of a scriptural text are called into question, perhaps not wholesale, but at least to the extent that the onus is on them to justify their translation-exegesis—particularly if it is controverted or arguable in some important way—at the bar of original-language-exegesis. Principium bows to archē.

This line of reasoning is very surprising, given Vanhoozer's work elsewhere (I'm thinking of The Drama of Doctrine in particular), and it isn't clear to me that he has traced the consequences to their logical conclusion. In short, if Christians can't make strong exegetical judgments when reading Scripture in translation, then one might as well throw out nearly the whole pre-Reformation theological tradition as well as almost every sermon, class, popular book, or personal devotion in the church's history. Most of the East for most of the last two millennia has read the Old Testament in Greek, and most of the West for much of the same time read the whole Bible in Latin. What of their theologies, their ecumenical creeds, their dogmas, their pastoral and ethical decisions? Almost every ordinary church member, in every church on every continent since the church's founding, has heard Scripture read aloud in translation. What of their faith, their edification, their sanctification, their knowledge of Christ and his gospel? When literate Christians read the Bible—say, the prologue to the Gospel of John translated into English, where it says "In the beginning" and not En archē—should they qualify their time spent prayerfully with God's word with the proviso, "So long as the Greek bears it out"?

Doubtless Vanhoozer would have much to say on this; and I know that he values the work of missiologists like Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls, who emphasize the inherent translatability of the gospel and its Scripture. But the theological point is crucial, and at least in the quote above, he seems not only to miss it but to presume against it. One way of putting the point is this: When the Bible is read in the gathered assembly, and the lector concludes the passage by saying, "The word of the Lord," to which the congregation responds, "Thanks be to God," there isn't any sleight of hand. There isn't an asterisk with fine print that reads, "A translation of the word of the Lord." When Christians hear (and read) Scripture in translation, what they hear (and read) is the word of the Lord—full stop. Holy Scripture in translation is Holy Scripture, pure and simple. That this is so not only helps to make sense of nearly all Christian experience, devotion, worship, and theological reflection, but is integral to the missionary character of the faith. When the gospel is proclaimed to the nations and women and men believe the good news, they do not get second-rate gospel if they happen not to speak (ancient!) Greek or Hebrew. The gospel is essentially translatable, and so is the book set apart to bear its message to the world.

What are the implications for biblical exegesis and for theological judgments made on the basis of reading Scripture in translation? That's a good question, and one well worth attending to; but it is secondary, insofar as it follows the prior, more determinate and catholic affirmation about Scripture's inherent ability to be translated without material loss.

Are Protestants able to make that affirmation? Do they have sufficient grounds—bibliological and ecclesiological not least—to do so? Is there something genetic in evangelicalism, especially of the Reformed variety, that would keep it from doing so? I wonder.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On Whether Victims Need Conversion

Richard Beck has a post up today called "The Victim Needs No Conversion." Per usual, it is thoughtful and robust food for theological thought. I agree with a great deal of it, in particular the move of prioritizing God's act of identifying himself with victims, and locating himself with and among them. However, I think the post reflects a problem that is prevalent in a lot of discussion of victims and the oppressed, namely, a too formal generalization that leaves undifferentiated the complexity of actual human beings who at once experience some form of victimization and themselves make victims of others. There are any number of obvious examples: the abused son who becomes a father who abuses his children; the male slave who oppresses his wife; the emotionally abused wife/mother who emotionally abuses her friends or children; the alcoholic whose genes and social context lead him to drinking yet whose own drinking inflicts evil on others; the sub-manager lorded over by his boss who in turn lords over the workers he manages; and so on.

I don't have time right now to try to articulate fully how I think the gist of the post might be combined with this more differentiated perspective, but I think the move is necessary. Perhaps something like this: all people, even victims, need conversion, because conversion is (by God's grace) a radical turning into a new form of life, and all people, even victims, are in bondage to forms of life that inevitably result in hurting others and/or themselves.

In this way "conversion" isn't code for "believe in this set of propositions" and/or "change your religious affiliation." It means the total revolution of one's life. And, to be sure, victims are in a uniquely privileged place to hear the call to conversion as good news; and in many ways the gospel comes simply as sheer blessing on their life as such. But it nevertheless enables and demands a change of the heart and of one's way of life—and that, too, both is good news for victims and applies to them like all others.