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.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Paul Griffiths on the Figural Reading of Scripture: "possible, interesting, and, for theologians, unavoidable"

"I assume that figural reading of scripture is possible, interesting, and, for theologians, unavoidable. There are many reasons for this, among the more important of which are these: that scripture itself self-referentially performs and depicts such reading; that the practice and teaching of the church requires it; and that it is axiomatic for Christian theological interpretation that scripture as a whole and in each of its parts is first and last about more than what the surface of its text says. That more is always and necessarily the triune Lord and, necessarily, that Lord’s incarnation as Jesus Christ.

"But what, in more detail, is figural reading? One event or utterance figures another when, while remaining unalterably what it is, it announces or communicates something other than itself. Eve’s assent to the tempter and her consequent taking of the forbidden fruit from the tree figures, in this sense, Mary’s fiat mihi in response to the annunciation and the consequent incarnation of the Lord in her womb. The second event—the figured—encompasses and includes the first, without removing its reality. The first—the figuring—has its reality, however, by way of participation in the second. This is in the order of being.

"Ontological figuration may, however, be replicated at the level of the text, and in scripture it inevitably is. Here, a depiction of a person or utterance or event—say, the lover’s praises of the beloved or the details of the construction and ornamentation of Solomon’s bed—may figure a textual depiction of some other person, utterance, or event. Christian theological commentators on the Song, as on any other scriptural text, must, in seeking their text’s scriptural reverberations, be attentive not only to the sheerly verbal, but also to the figural. Allegory—which may or may not be present in scripture, unlike figure, which necessarily is—differs from figure in that it dissolves the allegorical text into what it allegorizes. Following allegorical method strictly means that an allegorical text’s literal sense must be ignored except in so far as it permits understanding of what it allegorizes. The figural text’s literal sense—like its ontological reality—does not dissolve in this way: Eve remains Eve, the lovers of the Song remain the lovers of the Song (as will be apparent, I do not read them as if they were figures in a parable), and the text of the Song remains what it is: a constant demand for interpretation whose results are not determined and which may, for Christians, often be uncomfortable."*

*"Commentators on the Song with historicist or literary interests often dismiss figural reading along with allegorical reading on the dual ground that both (if any distinction is made between them) obscure the particulars of the Song because they treat it as piecemeal support for a general theory arrived at independently and because they advocate reading the text for itself, free from assumptions imported from elsewhere. Jill M. Munro, Spikenard and Saffron: The Imagery of the Song of Songs (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 10–16, is representative (if a little extreme) in making these criticisms. But neither is defensible: figural reading, as defined, requires rather than calls into question attention to textual and literary particularity; and it is not possible to read a text for itself."

—Paul J. Griffiths, Song of Songs (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), pp. lvii–lviii (with a portion of footnote 36 on p. lviii)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Karl Barth in Conversation Officially Published

A few years back I contributed in a small way to the Karl Barth Blog Conference: I responded to Jon Coutts's lovely imagined dialogue between Barth and the Coen Brothers, centered on the latter's 2007 adaptation of No Country for Old Men. Now the proceedings, since revised and expanded, have been published by Wipf & Stock in a volume edited by W. Travis McMaken and David Congdon, titled Karl Barth in Conversation. It's officially on sale now, with a peak at the table of contents here.

Jon's essay and my response are the very last in the volume, concluding the third and final portion of the book ("Expanding Conversations"). His essay, "No Country for Old Man: Barth Calls the Coen Brothers," is found on pages 234–246, and my response follows on pages 247–254. Some others who contributed to the volume (and I list only those I know from meeting in person!) include Andy Rowell, Ben Myers, Derek Woodard-Lehman, Peter Kline, Halden Doerge, Ry Siggelkow, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

It looks to be an exciting and creative entry in Barth studies, and I'm honored to have played a small part. My thanks to Travis and David for the invitation to participate.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Instrumentality: Drawing an Analogy Between Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Language and Thomas's Christology

It occurred to me, while reading the Philosophical Investigations, that a potentially helpful analogy for understanding Wittgenstein's notion of language as "instrument" is Thomas Aquinas's defense of speaking of the Word using Jesus's human nature "instrumentally." (I suppose the helpfulness could extend in the other direction as well.) For Wittgenstein, language isn't an instrument because it's an item in our world external to us, ready for use in executing goals unrelated to language, that is, as a tool that could otherwise be accomplished equally well without language. (Not: this hammer will do, although that screwdriver would work, too.) Rather, language is an instrument because it performs work: we should keep ourselves from asking about something other than language that is the "real" thing happening or being communicated above or behind or within the language. When talking about meaning and communication, we should simply ask what the language itself is doing—what the words are up to in shared discourse. Language as a feature of human life is pragmatic; it fulfills tasks. If you want to know what the words mean, look to see what particular people are doing with them; observe what they're using them for.

Which isn't to say, as one might take it to mean, that language is not constitutive of human life and being. It unquestionably is. But its centrality to human sociality and existence is not to the exclusion of the practical, even mundane role it plays. Language, in other words, isn't a hammer next to the screwdriver. It's the toolset we're born with and into, which we receive and are trained in the exercise of, and which we develop and refine over a lifetime.

It seems to me that Thomas's understanding of the relationship between the divine Word and Jesus's human nature is quite similar to this account. Thomas argues that the divine incarnate Son's human nature is indeed constitutive of Jesus—who is a divine person enfleshed as a human being—precisely because he would not be human apart from it. But the human nature is nevertheless "instrumental" to the Word insofar as it is a medium of the Word's action and presence in the corporeal world. In this way it is neither accidental (because he wouldn't be human) nor essential (because he either wouldn't be or would cease to be divine), but rather—following the Word's assumption of human nature, resulting in a union in the hypostasis of the Word (not in the divine nature)—subsists as constitutive of the man Jesus of Nazareth, who just is the eternal Son in the flesh. Just so, because the human nature, which includes the soul and body of the man, is the Word's own, it is the instrument of the Word's agency in human, physical, material life. When Jesus acts, it is the Word acting, that is, acting in and through the instrument of its own (assumed) human nature.

In short, language is to human life (for Wittgenstein) as human nature is to the incarnate Word's agency (for Thomas): a not-quite-essential, but nonetheless-not-accidental, instrument.

(Actual scholars and experts in these figures, commence your corrections.)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

2014 Annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary

I'm late with this—finishing comps and the birth of a child will do that—but better late than never. This June 15–18, the 2014 Annual Karl Barth Conference will be held at Princeton Theological Seminary. The theme will be "Karl Barth, the Jews, and Judaism." Speakers include Victoria Barnett, Eberhard Busch, Ellen Charry, George Hunsinger, David Novak, and Peter Ochs.

The date to note is March 1: the early bird special for registration ends then, and it's also the deadline for the first-ever call for papers. If you plan on going and have something to contribute, submit a proposal!

I will, unfortunately, be on a trip of my own at the time and so won't be able to attend. But I have no doubt it will be a fantastic and edifying gathering, not least due to the quality of the speakers. I look forward to the early reports and to whatever publications come of it. The subject couldn't be of greater relevance and the conversations are sure to be substantial and challenging.