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.