Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Robert Jenson on "original" versus "christological-ecclesial" readings of the Old Testament

"There is a growing consensus among biblical scholars who have some concern for the churchly relevance of their studies: indeed the church and her exegetes must somehow read the Old Testament as prophecy of the events the New Testament narrates and comments, as anticipation of the gospel. For an obvious fact becomes ever more irksome: if the Old Testament is first and foremost a record of ancient Israel's faith, it unsurprisingly turns out to be indeed just that, the artifact of a religious community that is other than the church, and moreover is not now extant. We will read the Old Testament from the New or we will not be able to read these texts as Scripture at all. This new agreement goes, however, little further. Somehow -- it is now often agreed -- we have to read the Old Testament christologically and pneumatologically. But even this repentant scholarship has left that 'somehow' undetermined.

"Scholarship's modern inability to resolve that 'somehow' results, I propose, from a certain distinction that we all tend to make, that indeed is so ingrained in our habits as to seem inevitable. When it is proposed that Old Testament texts have a christological or ecclesial sense, many biblical scholars will now agree, but this sense will then be anxiously and promptly contrasted with another sense which the texts are supposed to have 'in themselves' or 'originally' or 'for their own time.' The official exegetes will now not often simply brush off proposal of christological and ecclesial readings of the Old Testament. But they will still quickly say, 'On the other hand, we must not override their original sense' or something to that effect, and those of us who are not certified exegetes will more or less automatically concede the point. The trouble is: when reading Old Testament texts christologically or ecclesially is contrasted with another reading which is said to take them 'in themselves,' or in their 'original' sense, the churchly reading inevitably appears as an imposition on the texts, even if an allowable one. Christological or ecclesial readings will be tolerated for homiletical purposes, or for such faintly suspect enterprises as systematic theology, but are not quite the real thing.

"We need to question this all too automatic distinction. The place to start is by observing some obvious but generally overlooked hermeneutical facts: an author's intention or a community of first readers' reading is plainly not identical with the texts 'themselves' or with an 'original' import. Any author constantly interprets her own writing -- before, during, and after formulating text. We later readers are not the only ones with a particular hermeneutic and with resultant interpretations of the texts an author produces; the author has his own, and these are no more identical with the texts themselves than are ours. Moreover, first readers are just that and no more: they are not pure receivers of meaning but first readers, which is to say, the first readers to have a chance to impose their hermeneutical prejudices. Therefore, what is really on the table is not the church's christological-ecclesial reading and a reading of the texts in some original entity but the church's christological-ecclesial reading and the author's and first readers' equally problematic readings.

"So soon as we see that these are the readings to be considered, we are liberated to ask: Which of them grasps the texts 'in themselves' or as they are 'originally'? And the answer to that question is not necessarily that the author's or first readers' reading is original, not if there is someone in the pictures besides the author, the first readers and us. Not when the text is supposed to be Scripture, so that God the Spirit is in the picture. It was -- I now have come to see -- a function of the old doctrine of inspiration to trump the created author with prior agents, the Spirit and the Word, and to trump the alleged first readers with prior readers, with indeed the whole diachronic people of God, preserved as one people through time by that same Spirit. And then we may very well take the christological-ecclesial sense of an Old Testament text as precisely the 'original' sense, the sense which it has 'in itself,' if in the particular case we have grounds to suppose that the christological-ecclesiological sense responds to the intention and reception of this primary agent and these primary readers."

--Robert W. Jenson, On the Inspiration of Scripture (Delhi, NY: ALPB Books, 2012), 30-32


  1. great stuff! this explains why historical critical readings [that presuppose original meaning = author's intent/intendedaudience's reception] are so subtly persuasive. Jenson seems to buy into an understanding of agency where the author's agency is trumped by prior agents (Spirit and Word) - can there be other understandings of agency where Spirit and Word don't negate the agency of the author? So that the original meaning (the one intended by Spirit and Word) might predate the author, but won't necessarily conflict w/ the author?

  2. That's a helpful question. I think Jenson would be open to that, although for the sort of meanings he wants to find in OT texts, you'd have to have a radical sense of what is possible for prophets (et al) to "know" in their historical context -- or better, transcendent of it. I think Jenson would go there, esp. with his metaphysical and theological boldness, but not a lot of scholars today would be happy saying that the man in the vision of Ezekiel 1 is Jesus of Nazareth, or that Abraham saw Christ's day and was glad, etc. I do think what you're pressing is important to work out.

  3. I definitely think Jenson would be open to what Madison suggests—in fact, I think it's what he assumes, even if he doesn't satisfactorily articulate it. I'm reading Matthew Levering's Participatory Exegesis right now, and he, working with et. al. de Lubac and Jenson, argues that we have to rethink the nature of history in ways that can allow human agency and historical causation to retain a kind of deeper significance that can and should be discerned retrospectively as God's work and word. Or that's what I'm taking him to mean.

    In his little book on the Psalms, Bonhoeffer makes what I take to be a compelling case for Jesus as the one who prays the Psalms. He does so by assuming that Jesus, as the cosmic kyrios and via the communication idiomatum, is able to take up, so to speak, all human experiences into his own. That seems to me at least a move in the right direction.